I left home for college in 2001, some eight years ago, and have been living away from the nest ever since. This summer I bit the bullet -- as so many Americans are doing during the recession -- and moved back in with the parents, full time. It turns out that a graduate degree has earned me -- along with a diploma -- inevitably close encounters with a family I had grown accustomed to seeing from a distance, at infrequent intervals. Bar none, regular family dinners have emerged as our most awkward and tiresome form of interaction. This is a story of one such dinner for one such sad fictional family.
The sounds of wet smacking lips and guttural groans of pleasure mingled with the clinking of shiny silverware as it scraped hard against porcelain plates. Not one of the four family members seated around the egg-shaped wooden table lifted an eye off of their food; they remained transfixed on their chubby little hands, slicing away. Not one spoke a word to another; the simple mechanistic process of feeding oneself was exhausting enough. The undimmed dome lights, snuggly fastened within a centrally placed multi-colored plexiglass chandelier depicting a biblical scene of carnage, emitted a hospital-like glare, harshly revealing the ruddy complexions and puffy undereyes of those unfortunate souls seated beneath for their nightly dinner. It was Thursday: red meat night.
"So how was your day?" the young girl asked, breaking the silence.
She was wearing a thick layer of too-pale foundation that clumped up in dry flakes along both sides of her nose. Her question was addressed to no one in particular and so naturally, no one answered. They went on chewing and slicing and stabbing as if the words just spoken didn't hang in a gamy fog over their table.
The father was obviously having trouble handling the two-inch thick porterhouse steak that sat steaming and sweating blood on a large portion of his plate. The pink greasy juice spread beneath it in an uneven pool and began to seep into the mound of potatoes he had carefully placed to the side, previously well wide of the steak's reach. His face was reddening, and he began to wear the expression of a man seated for far too long at the office toilet in desperate need of returning to an important meeting underway.
"I'll be damned if these steak knives couldn't even slice a stick of butter." He blurted out, unable to contain himself.
The mother pretended not to hear. She wore the patient, inwardly pained expression of an early twentieth century suffragette who has just heard an ignorant comment spoken by an anachronistic grandmother rarely seen but always flattered. The mother wore a wide, floral gown, which was not as cloud-like as a mu-mu but definitely not a flattering dress. Nevertheless this was her domain and she glared at her husband's clumsy fumbling with a rising fury, thinking of all the damning things she would say to him later, after the children had gone to their respective rooms to do God knows what for hours on end.
"Mine's working just fine," said the young boy of about 15, after practically a minute had gone by. He raised a dripping cube of meat stuck with a fork to demonstrate his prowess.
There was a brief pause in movement from the other three. They'd already completely forgotten what had been said to prompt that smug greasy kid to open his mouth. The girl starred at him with a quizzical glance laced with the pernicious malice that she normally reserved for the boys in school whom she pretended not to understand after they made fun of her frumpy clothes. He had just received a buzz cut from a friend, and in the light she quietly observed its frayed unevenness and thought with pleasure of all of the laughter that would be had at his expense.
Eventually they all resumed chomping away, or at least pretended to, since each began to grow full but did not yet want to be the first one to leave the table. That first departee - typically one of the children - was bombarded with a parental volley of questions about their failure to appreciate the obvious quality of food and company. Such interrogations had once been infrequent, but since the informal conversation around the table began to fade with the abrupt onset of adolescence, these parents had found that forced, trying questions were the only means available to them of getting a sense of the strange, opaque landscape existing inside the growing heads' of their children.
But the dad was unafraid, or at least aloof. He rose with the strain and grunt of a newly injured athlete and brought his plate through swinging saloon doors to the kitchen. Almost immediately after the receding sound of his heavy footsteps indicated he had made his way to the bedroom, for his evening review of the paper, the two children rose and carried their dishes into the tiled kitchen. Though they left at the same time and did essentially the same thing: wiped the excess food off into the garbage, rinsed their dishes in the sink, and placed them into the dishwasher; they did not make eye contact or speak with one another. Each stared at the ground as though on a long distance hike through the woods, and shuffled around with the gait of shackled inmates, careful to avoid brushing up against one another and the fierce conflict that that would provoke.
So the mother remained alone at the now entirely quiet table, shifting back and forth under the folds of her gargantuan outerwear to relieve an itch that had been bothering her for hours. Her sullen thoughts took her back to years ago--airbrushed memories, when the kids were little, before she impotently watched them face the evils of the world alone.