From time to time, I would like to share a story I wrote.
Tonight there will be no funny business unless bad choices in music are made, which is how a good night at Nina’s house usually starts. If she is in the mood, she will play eighties songs on the house stereo at a raucous level, and by the second song we will all be swaying and screaming the lyrics like drunk people at karaoke. But it is too early to tell if it is going to be that kind of night, so all I can do is sit and wait at the round table near the sliding doors in Nina’s massive kitchen while over at the eighteen-foot long granite island, upon which you could play a mean game of shuffleboard, Susan fusses over a bowl of roughage and Nina stands over a boiling pot that says dinner will be ready in about five minutes. On either side of me sit our mother and father. They could be strangers at a poker table in a seedy casino if one did not comment on the crystal vase of lilies in the centre of the round table, and the other on the heavenly smell of the chicken or how well kept the backyard is looking these days. I hear all their voices as one would if she were crouching in a dark upstairs closet hiding from the most menacing sister, straining every ear follicle for the pound of her impending footsteps, leery of her inevitable discovery, the nasty smack to the arm, and the smug, triumphant call of, “Ha! You’re it!”
As a distraction, I look at the series of plaques that line one window ledge because that is what I do every time I am at Nina’s house whether it is Thanksgiving or Christmas or not. Each plaque is dedicated to a word like “Life” or “Friendship” or “Believe” because Nina says These are the words that matter. But as hard as I try, I never understand what difference these calligraphic declarations make at a family dinner at Nina’s house where forks and knives and bottles of wine chatter without discrimination, and as far as I can remember no one in our house ever believed in anything anyway.
And as I consider where Nina purchased these saccharine decorations and whose job it was to judge what word got the special commercialized plaque treatment, Nina tells everyone to pick up their plate and come and get it while it is hot, so we all crowd around one end of the bombastic granite island where steam rises off a greasy casserole dish full of too many pieces of heavily breaded chicken and a chipped bowl of wild grain rice and another chipped bowl of steroidal white asparagus. Everyone says how good everything looks.
Back at the round table, I concentrate on cutting my slab of chicken into smaller, more easily digestible pieces, my eye on the lookout for grizzle, all to avoid the predictable natter about recent cemetery visits and ungrateful children and unsolicited opinions about what other family members should do with their lives. They need to get a life is the familiar, critical refrain. And when I need a break from all of the various and contradictory definitions of what sort of life each family member needs to get, I abandon my cut-up breaded chicken for the temporary solitude of the bathroom, always forgetting about the cherubic plaque with the word “Love” hanging on the beige wall, always resenting its authoritative glare and flowery self-indulgence as I sit on the toilet, always wondering how love gets defined in Nina’s house. Maybe its design lies in the marble swirls of that grossly expensive granite. Or is it in the breaded topping of the chicken that Nina always bakes for our parents? Perhaps it is hidden somewhere only Nina’s always absent husband knows, and her search for it is an unwinnable game they play. I stare hard at the word. Shift the letters around and all you’ve got is a word for rat, I think, smiling, knowing relief will only come when the bathroom door opens and the scent of that word, tawdry as only canned “cool linen and white lilac” air freshener can be, finally dissipates.
And back at the table, I am sad that my unfinished plate has been cleared, my small, grizzle-less chicken pieces hostage now to the overflowing garbage, and that there are too thick brownies resting lazily on an oversized white plate that Nina lords over. Our mother had brought these brownies. Our mother always brought brownies to family dinners at Nina’s house. And at every family dinner at Nina’s house, as a ritual, someone tortures these brownies for being too good, too chocolaty, too fattening. Tonight, it is Nina who cuts into the first victim with a toothpick, then licks the icing off its sharp point, a sweet stab to the tongue. Meanwhile, Susan, driven by boredom or brownie guilt, makes coffee, and a swarm of busyness pervades the room for the next ten minutes, what, with the organization of cream and milk and sugar and cups and spoons for everybody. And, after watching Nina destroy the guts of one brownie, and make a mess of her oversized white plate, our mother suggests, as she always does, that the torturer simply take one and put it on her plate like a grown-up, but Nina ignores her, drops the toothpick and instead sticks her finger into the thick, untouched icing of a fresh, fat brownie as though she were poking me or Susan for no other reason than to irritate an already recognized bruise. Our mother sighs along with the “Hope” plaque as the ongoing talk of those same ungrateful children and all the money they cost everyone turns vitriolic, and the smell of coffee is like a small miracle. As a gesture of provocation, Nina pushes the plate of brownies at the now seated Susan, then leans back in her chair and pats her flat stomach. But Susan pushes it back as she always does and says with some satisfaction that she never eats brownies. Nina rolls her eyes in that way that she always does when she has goaded someone into purposefully showing her up so she can then say something she should not say. And as our father’s arthritic knuckles tense, and his eyes cast their gaze over all our heads to stare out at the lights of the pool, and the sugarless tea with lemon in front of him is already so cold it is forming a sheet of ice on its surface, I know that it is not going to be an eighties kind of night tonight. All I can do to not look at Nina or Susan or our mother or father is stare at the wall where the “Strength” plaque hangs so precariously it is destined to fall onto the “Family” one beneath it and send both crashing to the hardwood floor.
But before that can happen, the first to give up, admit exhaustion, and end the dinner party is Nina as she clears dishes and doles out cleaning instructions to Susan. Our father reaches for a toothpick before he struggles to stand. Our mother reaches for her purse, her coat already on. There will be half-hearted hugs and air kisses and the inevitable distribution of the night’s consolation prize: the Tupperware containers full of over-breaded chicken and white asparagus no one will eat tomorrow.