Act natural when your aunt asks you if you’re dating anyone. Smile and nod, side to side and up and down. Avoid all straight answers. “Is that a yes or a no?” your aunt wants to know. When she reaches to drag a carrot sick through the bowl of dip on the coffee table between you, look across your parents’ living room to your mother. Let your eyes express your surprise and your disappointment that your mother never told her that you had been dating, for almost two years now. Read your mother’s face: it’s there in the set mouth, the tight brow. She’s warning you. Take a moment to consider the lie. Save your shame for yourself, for not telling your aunt you’d met someone. You could have, just seconds ago.
Later, when you ask your mother why she hadn’t said anything to your aunt about Renee, she’ll tell you the subject never came up. “And I don’t feel the need to go around blabbing about it.”
Your sister sits on the sofa, bouncing her three-year old daughter, Katie, on her lap. When the two of you were kids, you used to play at your grandmother’s house, chasing each other around the goldfish pond in the backyard. Someone snapped a picture of you once, sitting side by side on the patio wall. You were wearing matching pink dresses and eating peppermint ice cream out of gold-rimmed saucers.
Smile again when your aunt asks you when you plan to have a child of your own. She says, “The clock ticks even louder after forty, Laura.” This is a good moment to feign a chill and move across the living room to sit on the brick hearth, even though the fire burns your back. Don’t tell her you’ve never heard the ticking. The clock ticking discussion is one you’ll never win. Maybe you weren’t listening close enough.
Your sister changes the subject to talk of bargains in the kid’s department at Target. Her hands gently twist your niece’s stick straight hair into a thin braid. When you were Katie’s age, your mother would stand behind you, brushing your long, wavy hair back into a ponytail so tight and high your eyebrows stayed arched in perpetual surprise.
Today, when you walked through the front door, your mother’s first words when she saw you were, “You cut your hair again.” As though one day you might let it grow out, just to please her.
A loud pounding on the living room ceiling sends you upstairs to investigate. You’ve locked your two dogs in your old blue bedroom, now painted a glossy white. It’s the guest room now, for you, the guest. By opening the door quietly, you catch them in the act. They’re playing on the bed, tossing the pillows and rolling on the down comforter. Black hair spoils the fine white cotton. Your mother buys three hundred and twenty thread count, nothing less.
Downstairs, you hear your father complain that you’re always picking up stray dogs. You pull over to coax them into the back seat of your car, ignorant of the traffic speeding by or the possibility of getting bitten.
She needs to get her priorities straight,” your father says a little louder. “Those dogs know a sucker when they see one.”
Your mother is keeping score of each time you pitch in and help. You’ve heard her whisper the results to your father in their bedroom after other dinners. She says you always have to be asked to get up and clear the table. Then after dessert, when it’s time to do the dishes, you’re nowhere to be found.
Tonight you decide to earn some points.
Turn the roasting pan to make sure the turkey browns evenly and baste the breast every ten minutes. Lift it out of the oven and let it rest the right amount of time before your mother, the only one capable, does the carving. After the first cut, reassure her it’s not dry. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to convince her. For as long as you can remember, she’s never been satisfied.
Sprinkle flour into the drippings at the bottom of the shallow roasting pan. Stir fast so it doesn’t clump. You feel her watching you over her shoulder as she tosses the salad. She’s taught you the secret to making gravy. The most important step, before calling everyone to the table, is to keep stirring. Never stop. No matter how much you delight in seeing the sweet bits of onion bubble in the brown magic.
Take your seat at the far side of the dining table, opposite where you sat as a child. Your mother used to want you beside her. She made sure you sat up straight, used your salad fork, and cleaned your plate. Now Katie sits in your place. She calls your mother “Mom,” a habit she’s picked up mimicking you and your sister. Keep quiet when your sister insists she doesn’t mind. Don’t correct your niece or secretly teach her to say “Grandma.” Even though you know everything is out of balance.
Another rumble sends you upstairs again to referee. Ignore your mother’s glance down the table at your father when you get up from the table. Your chair makes a loud scraping sound and your linen napkin falls to the floor in your hurry. This time the two ruffians have pulled the cushions off the wicker loveseat in the corner. It came from the bedroom downstairs; the room that used to be for guests when you were growing up. Now it’s Katie’s playroom when she comes to visit, emptied of most of its furniture to make room for a train set, a dollhouse, and castle-shaped tent from Ikea.
Scold the dogs softly as they sit side-by-side facing you, black tails sweeping across the white wool Berber. Get down on your knees to hug them, an arm around each neck. They still smell like rosemary from the giant bush in the backyard behind your house. They remind you that you have another home, in another city. Another life the people around the table downstairs know nothing about.
This morning, Renee lay in your bed, sipping coffee while you packed. You’d convinced her that it would be best to spend Thanksgiving apart. You suggested that she fly to San Francisco to visit her brother; you’d even drop her at the airport on your way out of town. Remind her of the Mother’s Day brunch you brought her to last May. Your mother had glared at the two of you, picking from your plates as you made your way down the buffet. Later, when you took Renee’s hand, your mother glanced around, nervous that the waiters or the family at the next table might notice.
You said you were sparing her, but you knew you were sparing yourself.
Pet the dogs one last time and close the bedroom door. If you wait a minute at the top of the stairs, your deep breathing will coach you into a calm. You pull your chair under you as if in a trance, then pick up your napkin and smooth it out on your lap. Your plate is full and waiting. Your mother chose for you, giving you mostly dark meat, with one slice of breast underneath. She’s arranged the green beans into a neat pyramid beside the mashed potatoes. Topple it with your fork and shake salt over your plate. Only you can hear her groaning.
The conversation around the table moves from pre-school applications to choosing pediatricians and when to get flu shots this year. Your niece fists turkey and stuffing into her mouth. Her glitter-handled fork and spoon lay untouched beside her plate. She shouts out “No!” when you point to them.
“Use your words, Katie,” your mother reminds her.
Watch as she leans over to kiss the top of you niece’s head, then gets up to refill the breadbasket. Try to remember a time when your mother said this same thing to you.
When the silver ware rests on the edge of the gold-rimmed plates, get up to clear the table. Carry the plates, one in each hand (no stacking!) to the kitchen. Set them carefully on the tile drain board. The china was your grandmother’s. You’re next in line for it, once you get married.
Your aunt remarks on how wonderful you look and tries to recall the last time she saw you. Your mother reminds her that you weren’t at your cousin David’s wedding last year. The invitation came to your house, addressed to Ms. Laura Klein and Guest. You hid the envelope at the bottom of your desk drawer and marked the RSVP for one. On the morning of the wedding, the sky was so blue. The phone rang early. Renee wanted to take a drive out to the beach, maybe stop for lunch. You sat on the sofa, the April sun streaming in through the windows, and called your mother. Speaking in a low graveled voice, you told her you thought you were coming down with something. This always works. Your mother believes you’re susceptible to whatever is going around. She wasn’t even surprised when you finally told her about Renee. She said she’d read somewhere it was getting popular with women your age. “Somehow you’ve always managed to stay ahead of the trends,” she said.
Set the pies and the dessert plates at the head of the table for your mother to serve. Offer coffee, decaf or regular, and fill the two silver creamers, one for each end of the table. Decide now if you want apple or pumpkin. Don’t ask for a sliver of both. Can’t you see how perfectly she’s cut them? Use the dessert fork, even though you prefer a spoon. Leave the pool of melted ice cream on your plate. Don’t try to scrape it up to your mouth; it will drip between the tines and land somewhere between the tablecloth and the front of your shirt.
Your sister wants to take a picture of you and Katie. Lift your niece onto your lap and cross your arms around her. Your aunt remarks how natural you look. “Like a natural born mother,” she says. She has a friend with a son your age, a lawyer in Newport Beach, she could set you up with. Don’t look to your sister for help this time. She’s gone to the kitchen for more coffee.
Katie wiggles on your lap and plays with the ring Renee gave you for your fortieth birthday. She twists the silver band on your finger. You whisper into her ear, Renee gave that to me. “Off!” she says and tries to pull it over your knuckle.
“Use your words,” your mother tells her again.
Listen to Katie catch your girlfriend’s name and repeat it, over and over. When your mother calls to your niece, help her down from your lap. Smile as Katie runs the other way and circles the table, singing ReneeReneeRenee and slapping the back of each chair as she passes. When your aunt asks, “Who’s Renee?” a silence hangs over the table. You’re not going to say a thing. You’re just going to wait for your mother to answer.