(This piece was originally published in PONDER REVIEW, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2017 Click here for more on this wonderful journal or to subscribe)
This piece is copyrighted to Joe Costal, 2017. Any reproduction of this piece must credit the author and PONDER REVIEW as original publisher.
THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
By Joe Costal
You call him Uncle Bobby.
The whole family calls him Uncle Bobby, but he‘s a second-cousin. On your father’s side.
Uncle Bobby has Dracula hair, 70s Dracula, high and poofy in the middle, but peaked and gray-streaked up front. He loves old country music and older rock ‘n’ roll. He is a United States veteran. Vietnam. If people, forget that, he reminds them. Or his bumper stickers do.
“Freedom isn’t Free.”
“If You Haven’t Been There, Shut Your Mouth.”
“He was just a cook,” Aunt Jean, who’s not really your aunt, told you once after too much Anisette. In fact, she’s less your aunt than Bobby’s your uncle because she’s his third wife and not really related to anyone. But you call her Aunt Jean, anyway.
“He made casseroles in a Da Nang cafeteria,” she says. “Only action he saw was in the mess hall closet, if you know what I mean?”
You don’t know what she means.
Today is Thanksgiving. Your first Thanksgiving without me. Uncle Bobby and his wife are coming to dinner. This pisses you off.
“They’re family,” your mom reminds you. “What do you want me to do, leave them alone on Thanksgiving?”
If you’re being honest, yes, they should be left alone. But you’re never honest with your mother.
Their coming is a bigger deal than your mom lets on. It means good plates and dish washing. Trading pajama pants and inter-family mockery for polite laughter and small talk. They’re “family,” but not family enough. They’re still guests. Now Thanksgiving dinner will be an “affair,” instead of you licking pie filling from your fist, bra-less, in a high school t-shirt.
You wake so psyched to see the Macy’s parade. You even tear up and clap when Al Roker and that top-hat lady cut the ribbon. You told your parents you wanted to stay over last night to see the parade. Truth is, you hate sleeping alone, especially on holidays.
It’s a week now, since you left. You ignore my calls, my texts. Before you left, you said to me, “I know you love me, but I’m not sure you like me.”
I said, “What’s wrong with that?”
They’re reviving Bye Bye Birdie. A Geico float has a lip-syncing boy band, and you remember how hard the Macy’s Parade sucks. You go back to bed. When you wake, again, after noon, your mom is already yelling about “unrinsed wine glasses.”
You rinse wine glasses. You dress, and then the baby arrives, so you sit criss-cross applesauce on the couch. It snuggles into the crook of your legs and stares up at you. You finger its fist while your sister moans about how much your brother-in-law works, and how he’s lost all his patience. Her eyes get dusty as she describes the baby’s cries, and how her husband wants it to cope “on his own,” and how two nights ago he held the baby upside down, by its feet, but just for a second, a “half a second” really, because he wanted it to “effing stop.”
You gasp and demand she leave her husband. She and the baby can live in your apartment in the city. You’ll walk the baby in a carriage down to the park, and you’ll eat lunch someplace new everyday. You call it “perfect.”
She calls you “stupid,” besides, her husband’s the family’s only lawyer. She wipes mascara from her face as she goes off to help your mother who is calling your father a “barbarian” for putting a “whole bottle of Coke right on the table.”
“Jesus Christ…it’s THANKSGIVING,” she says.
No one responds.
The baby cries when Uncle Bobby presses the doorbell no fewer than thirteen times. He ambles in looking much older than you remember. He hands your dad a brown overcoat and fur-trimmed hat. It’s 67 degrees outside. He is wearing a full suit. Hanky-in-pocket, tie-clip and all.
Aunt Jean wears stretchy pants and a Lane Bryant floral top. You use the baby as a shield when you say hello. This way, no one can hug you or kiss you. Instead their closeness translates to cooing and fingering the baby.
Operation Baby Shield works like gang-busters. You want a baby so bad. You can feel a sensation where you think your ovaries are.
Uncle Bobby reaches, with intense flourishes, for the arm rest of a soft beige recliner in your living room. He lowers himself with the careful calculations of a life boat descending the side of a steam liner. Once settled, he sighs deep declaration of his intent to stay in the chair for the day. Then he smiles and stares straight ahead, his eyes the half-moons of a bored pharaoh. Bags hang from his cheeks, and his mouth never fully closes. He calls out to your mother. “Maria, where’s the bread?”
Then, “Maria, where’s the antipass–?”
And, “Maria, you got Sprite? I don’t drink the Cola.” He’s the only person in the house who calls your mom by her first name. Even your Dad calls her “mom.”
“Maria, howsabout more shrimp for me?” Uncle Bobby beckons. Your mom shuttles him small plates from the kitchen. At one point, Uncle Bobby exclaims, “The shrimp. They’re good, right?”
“Oh yeah, Bob, that’s good shrimp,” no one’s Aunt Jean yells back at him.
“Very good, right? You know where I got that shrimp? Dorian’s. You know, on 15th?”
“Oh sure. They got fresh shrimp, heh?”
“Sure. The freshest in the city.”
“You drove through the tunnel for that shrimp, huh?”
“Sure. Cause it’s the best. So fresh. You can see the boat they come off! If those shrimps was people, Trump would send them back, heh?”
Uncle Bobby and no one’s Aunt Jean bought the shrimp. They have no need to discuss the particulars. Still, they persist in recounting the glory of the shrimp purchase right here in your living room. You’re disgusted, so you must whisper the annoying truths of this exchange to your sister.
“They’re old. Give them a break.”
You wonder why your sister’s being such a bitch and return to the kitchen to find no one’s Aunt Jean at the refrigerator, staring at the magnets through caked purple eye shadow. Her silver, icicle earrings dance at her neck, even when her head sits completely still. She picks off one of the South of the Border Pedros your family collected on countless summer vacations to and from Florida. She studies him. She turns him over in her hand, squinting where his butt would be were he a real man and not a one-dimensional kitchen magnet. She puts him back and pries off another. When she sees you watching, she asks, “what’s with all the Mexicans?”
You stammer and say something about “silly souvenirs” and “oh, you know Dad,” and when Aunt Jean says nothing back, you add a comment about keeping Pedro behind a Donald Trump wall. No one’s Aunt Jean smiles and walks off, and you can’t believe yourself. You pandered. One comment from a walking heap of Revitol and Dr. Scholl’s, and you lose your entire fucking identity? You become some raging racist? You voted for Hillary. You were Vice-President of Amnesty International in high school.
You drown your sorrows in stuffing, you scoop right out of a pan in the kitchen.
Uncle Bobby keeps his suit jacket on through dinner. It creases caverns under his arms when he pushes himself up to eat. He puts the food on his fork with his index finger. You can’t stop watching him. He has missed a spot shaving. A patch of long hairs extend from the right corner of his mouth, past his jawline. Your older brother points this out, seconds after your niece finishes saying grace. “Whatya shave in the dark, Uncle Bobby?”
Uncle Bobby responds with, “Heh?”
Your brother’s an asshole. Uncle Bobby asks someone to repeat what your brother said. Then your father calls your brother an asshole. No one’s Aunt Jean repeats the shaving crack to Uncle Bobby. Your mom says, “ignore him.” Your nieces ask you three questions at the same time. Your brother holds his arms to his sides like someone’s pointing a gun at him. Uncle Bobby laughs this wheezy, gagging laugh and repeats your father’s name as if your father, not Uncle Bobby, were the butt of a joke.
“He’s got you there, heh?” Uncle Bobby repeats this as he taps your father’s forearm repeatedly with his fork hand. Your niece asks “what’s asshole?” Your mother rises from the table muttering about wine. Your other niece laps champagne from your flute like a dog. Her father swipes at her arm too hard. The flute falls. She cries. And that’s when you escape.
And now’s my chance.
I calculate all of this will come to full fruition at exactly 4:52 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.
You‘ll leave the table and check your phone, first. See if I called. I didn’t, but you’ll wish I had called. You‘ll switch to your camera roll and stare at a picture of us. The one from last summer. The one by the lighthouse.
You‘ll write me a text: “Hi.”
Now. Maybe 4:53 p.m. I rise from my own hell-hole Thanksgiving dinner and stare at my phone.
You didn’t press “send.” But when you sit back down, you keep your phone in your hand. The holiday is young.
Uncle Bobby chases his mouth crease facial hairs with his tongue. His tongue is more beige than pink. It moves in circles like a snake in a fish bowl. Above the chase, you notice his nostrils teem with tufts of bristling nose hair, like hay hanging from the Dutch doors of a barn. And you feel sick.
Sick enough to pull up from your mom’s Thanksgiving dinner, even though it’s your most favorite thing in the world. Even though you talk about it all year. You curse Uncle Bobby. His tongue. His hairs. His lack of holiday options.
After dinner, you’re still hungry. You ask Siri if Burger & Barrel is open on Thanksgiving. It isn’t. You wash, dry and stack until your fingers prune. Uncle Bobby is back in his chair, watching your dad play Uno with his grand-daughters. He notices you staring, so he looks back at you. He smiles big, dark and wet. He seems older when he smiles. It scares you. You should smile back, out of politeness, but you can’t force the corners of your mouth up. Uncle Bobby breathes with both shoulders and his whole chest. Extra skin moves around his face in faint rhythms, like a canvas tent flapping in the wind. The darkness inside Uncle Bobby’s mouth pools until it seems ready to drip, like honey, from his open lips. The dark inside his mouth like a shadow that could flood the room, burrow deep dark holes into the spaces between you and him.
His stare turns to a squint. You can’t look away. You can’t tell what he’s thinking. Is he checking you out? Committing you to some sick old man spank tank? File you away with youthful memories of Vietnamese pin-up girls tacked inside a locker door? Are you today’s cover of the secret magazine squirreled into the sock draw of his mind? Maybe he’s an even bigger perv. Maybe in his mind you’re in a ball-gag humming Christmas carols.
It’s not lust on his face, you decide. Maybe compassion. Maybe even love. Could he look to you like the daughter he never had? Maybe he feels close to you. Maybe it is OK, and you’re just a miserable bitch who can’t muster enough human decency to pity an old, lonely man. Uncle Bobby leans his turkey neck against his upper chest, as if to better examine you. Like he’s reading fine print on your face. You fade right before his eyes.
Maybe Uncle Bobby pities you. Maybe he knows how jilted and shattered and angry you are under your Max Mara dress and boots. Maybe he feels bad that so much silent loneliness lives and breathes and hides in a girl so pretty and so young.
Uncle Bobby’s pharaoh eyes slip closed, and his breathing grows loud enough to hear. And all at once, you realize he has fallen asleep. And everyone in the room has noticed Uncle Bobby fell asleep. His snores ring out. Your nieces laugh. Your sisters scold. Your mom pleads to “leave him alone.” No one’s Aunt Jean “tsks” and rolls her eyes at her Prosecco, and Uncle Bobby wakes, much quicker than he fell, with a “heh” and bubbly spittle falls on his lapel.
You look around to make sure no one noticed you staring at sleeping Uncle Bobby.
“So what’s new, Spaz?” Your brother sits on the counter top beside the dishwasher and takes the Pyrex bowl from your kitchen toweled hand. “What the hell are you doing with yourself?” he asks.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Where’s your boyfriend, anyway?” he asks.
You need to bounce. You need to go. You need to get away from your family and back to the city. You need, you decide, to disappear back into the city where the faces don’t look back, and the shrimp are all still alive, still waiting at the docks, all fresher than fresh.
You start your excuse to leave. You blame the cat, which is fucked up because the cat is mine and not even at your apartment anymore. When you kiss Uncle Bobby good-bye, you have to stoop toward his chair. He sits erect and pushes a fleshy cheek to your lips. You’re awash in off-brand aftershave. Probably CVS. It’s on you. CVS and death smell stuck on your clothes now.
Is it in your hair? There’s no one to ask. You swipe at it as you bound down the driveway. The click of your heels on the pavement makes you self-aware.
You sigh aloud once you get to your car. You miss my Amazon Music subscription. You look for a song to play on your phone, but you can’t choose. You can never choose. I always choose. From literally thousands of songs, you feel sick of them all. And so you pull down the street in a panicky silence. You dread the traffic waiting between you and the tunnel and the city and its gridded, alternating street directions. You feel sick from these thoughts, and yet, also better, as home fades in your rear-view.
And that’s when you call, your face giant and smiling on my screen. I smile back for a ring or two, before I swipe my thumb over the red circled “X.”