Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Strange Plots 15


I’d meant to try out my new supporting role, get into the spirit of being loyal and all, but when Vin opened the door to me I ended up smiling just from the sheer pleasure of him being there.

“I’m glad to see you again,” I said.

I stepped toward him, and for a moment I thought he was going to be very glad indeed to see me. But he pulled back, though reluctantly, and ushered me inside.

“Some of my aunts and uncles are here, and my cousins, and Grandma Kay.” He started to help me out of my coat, but held on to it. “I wish it wasn’t so cold out. We could take a walk down the driveway.”

“I’m for it,” I said, waiting for him to slide my coat back onto my shoulders. But he shook himself and hung it up instead.

“I’m just being a coward,” he apologized. “Anyway, it’s almost dinner time. Let’s go on in.”

The living room was still a pristine temple to holiday cheer, but the kitchen felt merry. Heather and two women who must have been her sisters were bustling between the stove and the island, transferring food from pots into serving dishes. Kay was setting the serving dishes on the sideboard in the dining room, but she took a moment to kiss me on the cheek.

“Get our boy to smile,” she whispered to me.

In the den and around the kitchen table were several teenagers, old enough to have been useful, who were all slumped over their phones. One or two looked up with mild interest when Vin brought me in. 

“This is Erin Ramirez, a friend of mine.”

Probably he didn’t call me his cousin because he had literal cousins right there, but I approved the change.

Vin’s aunts had to come over and check me out — good-naturedly, of course, but you know how aunts are. I declared my willingness to work, which put me one up on the teenagers. Vin’s dad, stepping away from the den where the uncles were worshipping at the altar of football, was thrilled, just really jazzed, to see me and offered me any drink in the house, including his own.

“Erin, I’m so glad to see you again!” squealed Heather, performing happiness. I immediately hoped (and was immediately ashamed of hoping) that those same words had sounded more authentic when I’d said them to Vin.

“Nice apron,” I said, as heartily as I could. “Someone cool must have given it to you.”

She smoothed the blue tartan over her hips with the flair of a 50’s housewife, but managed to refrain from patting her hair and lighting up a Virginia Slim. “Erin gave me this,” she announced to the room. “Did I tell you how she just knew exactly what I liked? And look, it has…”

“Pockets,” murmured one of the phone-wielding teens, not loud enough to carry to Heather. “Yeah, we heard.”

“Come help me set the table,” said Vin, steering me toward the dining room. “Everything is nearly ready, but we can put the finishing touches on.”

“What’s left to be done?” I asked, as I circled the table choked with china and glass already gleaming on the immaculate table cloth.

“Place settings, candles, centerpieces,” said Vin. “Finger bowls, fish knives, doilies, chalices, nutcrackers. Just the usual.”

“The usual? Maybe if you’re Queen Elizabeth…” and I halted as Vin, with a handful of place cards, burst out laughing.

“Fine, you got me,” I said. “Your grandma told me to make you smile, and I did better than that, so I win this round.”

“I’ll allow it,” he said. “Set those flowers on the table.”

Heather wandered in to inspect the proceedings. “Oh, Vin, you can’t sit Erin on that side of the table. She’s the guest of honor, so she has to sit here on my right. That’s the etiquette.”

“I thought she should sit down on this end of the table with Dad and Grandma and me, since she’s our guest,” said Vin.

“But I’ve already charted it all out,” said Heather, moving my place card to her end of the table. “See, that’s proper.”

Once she was out of the room, I picked up the card with my name. “Should I move it back, or it it going to make make your life harder if I mess with it?”

“It would make my life better if you sat by me,” he said. “It would make my life easier if Mom didn’t get het up about this sort of thing.”

“Why don’t we just eat in the kitchen?” I asked.

“I wish.”

Heather came back in. “You see, it’s a matter of etiquette,” she said, taking my place card and putting it back by the proper plate. “The guest of honor always sits by the hostess. Is that not how you do it at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner?”

I thought of the Ramirez fiestas, paper plates and plastic tablecloths that we wrapped over all the dinner mess and pitched at the end of dinner. “We don’t tend to stand on ceremony.”

“It’s just our tradition,” she said earnestly. “Some people would get really upset if we didn’t get the protocol right.”

I glanced at Vin. “It’s no problem.”

The teens were eating in the kitchen, but everyone had to gather in the dining room for grace.

“Teens first at the buffet!” said Heather. “While we’re all in the room, let’s go around and say what we’re thankful for. Dad, you start.”

Dan, at the opposite side of the table, beamed. “For friends and family and football!”

“This drink,” said Kay, raising her glass.

“For Madi’s successful surgery,” said Aunt Karen. People around table murmured agreement.

Friends and family were the theme, with few variations. A couple of the teens had to be funny (“I’m thankful for all memekind.”) but in general, familiarity bred content.

“I’m so grateful for another year of blessings,” Heather cooed, “and for new family in the new year.” She made meaningful eyes at me. The room buzzed, and even Kay raised an eyebrow at Vin, who sighed.

And now all eyes were on me. I tried to think past my irritation. If I said I was grateful for friends and family, I was basically confirming Heather’s insinuation that Vin and I were practically engaged. If I denied it openly, I made Heather look like a fool, and while that might give me a moment of satisfaction, she might take it out on Vin later. I raised my glass.

“I’m grateful for family too,” I said, “especially for Kay and all her ancestors.”

I didn’t know if that would settle the rumor mill, but it would gum up the works, at least. And Vin relaxed. He was brief on his turn. “For us,” he said, and tipped his glass to the whole table, which included me.

Once the teens cleared out, I got to serve myself first as the guest of honor. If it had been a free-for-all like Ramirez thanksgivings, I would have attached myself to Vin in line and just hung by his side, but we had to follow protocol and go around the table. Fortunately, Uncle Preston, on my right, was a Hokies fan, so we kept up a steady social stream of abuse of U.Va until we could get down to the serious business of eating.

“Is the cranberry sauce gone?” Heather asked, the last one at the buffet.

Everyone denied taking the last of the cranberry sauce, or any at all.

“But we did have cranberry sauce, didn’t we?” Heather insisted, looking around at everyone’s plates. “Who was supposed to bring it? It’s not Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce.”

“I was supposed to bring it,” I said, and was rewarded for my honesty with a tableful of silence, people fiddling with forks or napkins. “But there was kind of a mishap, and then I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

Conversation at the table picked up with a determined burst of energy.

Heather seated herself next to me and spread her napkin over her lap.“That’s too bad about the cranberry sauce. It’s just that it’s our family tradition to have it every Thanksgiving.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was working on it this morning. But it’s my family tradition to fight with my mom on Thanksgiving, and she dumped my sauce down the sink.”

Kay guffawed, and she wasn’t the only one.

“Oh, but you can’t make cranberry sauce the day of,” said Heather with concern. “It has to set up overnight at least, to gel.” She mused as she speared a piece of turkey. “So maybe it’s for the best. It would have been runny.”

“I know my mom will be glad she did you a favor,” I said.

“What about those impeachment hearings?” asked Uncle Hal desperately to the table at large, and the family settled down with real gratitude to a nice political squabble.

“But did you call?” Heather asked. “We could have run to the store and picked some up.”

“Stores are closed, Heather,” muttered no one in particular.

“I’m really sorry,” I said, hitting a Vin-like trio of apologies.

“Hey, it’s no problem!” said Dan expansively. “We’re just grateful for good food, right?”

“Excuse me, it is a problem,” said Heather, setting down her fork. “This was a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. Everything was perfect. But it’s now it’s ruined. It could be just any dinner, without cranberry sauce.”

“If it was just any dinner, hell if I’d be here,” Uncle Kev mumbled to Aunt Megan, who snickered.

“Babe, your turkey is amazing!” said Dan, now behind her rubbing her shoulders. “We literally only have turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s what people will remember.”

Heather got up. “Maybe I could go out now and get some."

“Heather, it doesn’t matter,” groaned Aunt Megan. “Dinner is great, we’re having a great time. Let’s keep it that way.”

Heather surveyed the room, her lips compressed. Then, with an effort, she shifted back into hostess mode and trilled her imitation laugh.

“You’re right!” she said, her tone pure Sweet ’N’ Low. “It doesn’t matter to anyone. I guess I’m just making a fuss about nothing. We don’t want to add your tradition of fighting with your mother to our Thanksgiving, do we, Vin? What do you think?”

“Maybe we have a can of sauce in the pantry,” he said. “Do you want me to go look?”

“Oh no, I’ll go, don’t bother getting up,” she purred. “But if I find a can I’m eating it all myself, haha!”

“Knock yourself out,” someone grunted at Heather’s back.

With her absence, the meal became comfortable. Some people traded seats, so I picked up my plate and shifted into Dan’s vacated chair over by Kay and Vin.

“Tell me about this fight with your mother,” Kay greeted me.

“It was really stupid.”

“Most fights are.”

“How about you tell me about your mom?” I said. “She’s much more interesting. Better yet, tell me about her mother, Lavinia.”

Kay shrugged.“ I’ll tell you what I can. I should have asked Mama more questions while she was alive. She didn’t talk much about her mother, but I don’t think it was because she was keeping secrets. I just don’t think she knew that much herself about her mother. Mama was raised by some Tituses who lived a little ways out of town. That’s one reason she ran off at 15, because she was sick of being the adopted daughter-slash-hired girl.”

“Eugene at the diner told us Lavinia was in an institution or a home,” Vin said, leaning in.

“Eugene!” said Kay, rolling her eyes. “He’s so full of hot air it’s a wonder he don’t float off the ground.”

“But he did know Helen,” I said. “They were about the same age. So it’s not surprising he should know a bit about her mother.”

“Why was Helen brought up by someone else?” Vin asked. “Why didn’t she live with Lavinia?”

“There was something wrong with Grandma,” said Kay slowly, pulling on ancient threads of memory. “I remember Mama saying once that her mother didn’t always remember who she was. And that she talked kinda funny because there was something wrong with her face. Mama got to visit her now and then, but I think Grandma died when Mama was fairly young, pneumonia or something. I got the impression she was never very healthy.”

“So she was in a home because she was sick?” I asked.

“No, it wasn’t just ill health.” Kay screwed up her brain. “What did Mama say about her? That when she was a little girl, she would go to visit, and give Grandma a hug, and she remembered Grandma nuzzling her with her face. But there was something…” She drummed on the table, trying to thump the memory loose. Across the table from me, Vin was lost in attention. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the photograph of the vibrant young Lavinia with the strange silent woman of his great-grandmother’s memory.

“She couldn’t move.” Kay’s face cleared as smoothed as the missing piece of memory finally fell into place. “She was paralyzed. That’s why she was in a home. It was all tied in together, the hazy memory and having to be in bed all the time.”

“That’s awful,” I breathed. “Poor lady. I wonder what happened?”

“Was it that she’d been in an accident? Or no, she’d had a fall, I think.”

Our reverie, part reflection and part turkey coma, was broken by one of the teens, a girl in leggings and a ridiculously short sweatshirt, who draped herself over Aunt Karen.

“Mom, Aunt Heather’s in the kitchen having a fit about her cake decorations,” she complained. “Can we leave already?”

“Hon, we haven’t even had dessert yet.”

“I don’t want dessert. I want to go home.

Uncle Preston pushed back from the table.

“I told you if she gets started again, I’m out,” he said to Karen. “You said it would be different this year.”

“Look, for Dan’s sake,” Karen pleaded. “It’s not his fault.”

“Anyone who would marry Heather gets what he deserves.” Preston turned to Hal. “I was thinking of getting home before the Cowboys game starts anyway. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t stay late this year.”

Hal fell in with this idea, and the two went off to the den to round up the teens, carefully skirting the kitchen. Karen rubbed her forehead in frustration.

“I tried,” she said to Vin and Megan, wearily. “I promised him this year would be different. I would have hosted, only Madi just had surgery. What was I going to do?”

“Hal didn’t even want to come,” said Megan, biting off each word. “The kids hate it here, and it’s Macy’s last Thanksgiving before college. But I didn’t feel like getting into it with Heather, and she was so excited about getting everyone back to the old house. Next year we’re going to Hal’s family.”

“We’ll go to down to Florida and see Mom and Dad,” said Karen. “Heather thinks she can manufacture the good old days, but it’s empty here without them.” She crossed around the table and hugged Vin from behind. “I’m sorry, honey. I wish we could stay longer, but you know how it is. Your mom doesn’t actually like having people around.”

“I know how it is,” said Vin, getting up and returning the hug. “Don’t worry about it.”

Once the decision to clear out had been made, the afternoon’s lethargy seemed to clear up miraculously. Both aunts squeezed Vin and told him how much the kids missed seeing him, although I hadn’t seen the kids pay any attention all afternoon to anything that wasn’t a handheld screen. The uncles joshed with Dan, who never seemed to take anything personally. Even Kay started making moves toward the door.

“I promised Stanley I’d stop over and see his grandkids,” she told Dan.

“Who’s Stanley?” I whispered to Vin.

“Her boyfriend.”

Somehow, with all the sleuthing into relationships of the past, it had never occurred to me that Kay might be seeing someone now. I had to remind myself that she was still a young 69.

And Heather was there too, floating through the crowd, chatting genially as if nothing had happened. If I hadn’t been around for dinner, I would have gotten the impression that everyone had enjoyed themselves immensely and were only leaving under duress.

“Are you heading out too, Erin?” Heather asked me.

The temptation to get out was strong, but I remembered how Vin had called himself a coward when he’d been considering walking outside with me, and I understood now what he meant.

“How can I leave before pie?” I said, and was rewarded by seeing a shock of hope shoot through Vin.

I wish I could say that being alone in the bosom of the family allowed me to get to know Heather, but it’s hard to bond with someone who’s so glossy nothing can stick to her. She played at being interested in anything I had to say. She laughed at my jokes, a nanosecond too late. Detailed anecdotes about people I’d never met, tartan apron carefully donned for a busy night of cleaning, studied little tilts of the head standing in for genuine engagement: everything seemed staged for the benefit of an audience, but I couldn’t tell if the audience was me, or her family, or the actual Heather sunk deep in the well of self-perception. Dan was delighted to play along, but each gesture and verbal tic drove Vin further into his own shell. I couldn’t blame him. Even I was exhausted waiting to see if the mask would slip, and if it did, what would be underneath.

Abruptly, Vin stood up. “Erin and I are going to take a walk now.”

Outside, bundled in our jackets, we crunched in November silence up the gravel driveway.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like if I don’t get out I’ll drown.”

“I get that.”

“You were sitting right next to me, but it was like there was a wall between us, getting thicker every second, and I had this sudden fear that if I didn’t break us out now, there would be so much distance between us that you’d be entirely out of reach for good.”

“I don’t know that I’d put it so poetically, but yeah.”

“Each time I go home, I think, ‘This time I know how to deal with it. I know how to let it wash over. I know the parameters.’ And that’s what home is: somewhere you know the parameters. They may be good, or they may be bad, but you know what you’re dealing with. But then I come back, and the parameters have shifted. I never know what my mom is going to be. Is she warm and welcoming mom? Helicopter mom? Sporty mom? Even, god forbid, sexy mom. If she was even knew who she was, at least she’d be consistent, and I’d know how to play the game. But to keep things consistent, you have to stay away from her triggers, and those seem to change from day to day and minute to minute. And I always have to be on my guard. I don’t know if I even know how to let it down anymore. I mean, am I even capable of having a good honest relationship? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lying to myself, thinking I have any business trying to start anything with anyone.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” I said, forgetting that I was supposed to be supportive. “You’re not starting just anything, and I’m not anyone. I’m me. Erin. I don’t want some random anything with you. I want to be connected to you. Entwined, tangled up, so we can’t be separated. Not as your cousin, not just as your friend, but as a woman.” I stopped in front of him. “So here I am. Connect with me. Learn my parameters.”

He wanted to, I’d swear it. He was right there within my grasp, but he just couldn’t break through that wall. Yet.

“You’re mistaken if you think you can’t put things poetically,” he said, back on his guard. “But how do you know I’m even capable of forming a connection you’d want? You’ve seen my mother.”

I wanted to pound some sense into his thick head. “You’re nothing like your mother, Vin.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re a real person.” My brain caught up with my mouth, and I sighed. “That came out wrong.”

“No it didn’t. You said exactly what you thought, and I know exactly what you mean.”

“Are you offended?”


“Can I hold your hand?”


We reached the top of the driveway and turned back in silence again, but this time the silence roiled up in a slow boil.

“When am I going to see you again?” I asked, back at my car.

“I’ll call you when I learn more about the family,” he said. “I feel like I can’t know who I am if I don’t understand how we fit together.”

“I don’t need a family tree to know who you are.” I wanted to throw myself at him, consequences or no, but another instinct told me to leave him wanting more. I opened my door. “Are you leaving now too?”

“I ought to go in and say goodbye to my parents, but I’d rather just drive away behind you.”

“Drive behind me all the way to my house,” I invited, but he just smiled.

I should have been paying attention to the the driveway as I pulled out, but instead I kept glancing in my rearview mirror to watch Vin let go the handle of his car door, straighten his shoulders and walk back to the house.

My parents had already left the Ramirez gathering by the time I pulled in, but the party was still in full swing. A few people howled, “Wassup, girl?” as I entered, and I howled right back at them. I’ve got my differences with my cousins, but they’re my people.

Grandpa Aaron was there, as always, reclining in a comfy chair by my Grandpa Ramirez, two old men letting the chaos wash over them. Grandpa Ramirez was inoculated again the noise by long years of exposure, and Grandpa Aaron enjoyed it as a sign that he wasn’t dead yet. I settled down in the old folks corner and imagined I was 85 years old, knowing that the life I heard all around me was my legacy.

Grandpa Aaron stopped pretending to sleep. “Missed you at dinner.”

“Missed you too, Grandpa.”

“How’s Kay?”


“How’s Vin?”

“I’m working on him. How’s my mom?”

“She’s an idiot as always, and she won’t say she’s sorry no matter how much she wants too.”

I thumped my head back on the couch. “Why do I have to be the adult in this relationship?”

“It’s good practice for other relationships.”

I threw him the side eye, but he was settled back in the recliner with his eyes closed, a faint smile playing over his face.


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