Post-pandemic family dinners have become dangerous and shaky ground.
Allison feels the anxiety coat her bowels before she even gets out of bed. Thanksgiving used to be her favorite, but now with multiple families and multiple worldviews and every bit of life a hot-button issue, she just wants to pull the covers over her head.
For one brief moment, all the past dinners dance through her head– steamed up kitchen windows, her mom’s big black slow-cooker with the broken handle, walks up the rain-slicked dirt road after dinner is over…
Allison packs her husband and her kids into their much-dented SUV, and they trundle off on their cross-country, house-skipping excursion.
“Have you heard what —- said?” someone asks amid the clatter of forks and knives at the first house.
“Oh my gosh, the job market!” another relative replies.
Allison feels her husband stiffen at her side like a cobra winding tightly before the strike. She grabs his thigh with tallon-like nails.
“If they didn’t pay everyone to stay home…”
“I think it’s great! People can finally find the jobs they WANT! Don’t be so ignorant and close-minded.”
The first house devolves from there.
The second house is much the same, except Allison’s kids act poorly because the cousins from this side of the family have a strangely bad influence on her children’s behavior. She can’t reign in her husband’s temper what with going from room to room monitoring her children.
“Can you believe what they make us sit through at work?”
“What about what they wanna teach our kids in public school?”
“What’s wrong with you people?! Why don’t you want to learn accurate history?!”
Allison rushes back to the room too late. She slumps down in the nearest chair exhausted and throws back the rest of the wine from the glass nearest her. She doesn’t even care if it isn’t hers.
By the time they bundle up for the third house, Allison’s world has become blurry around the edges and slightly warm and sad and wet. She stares at her husband’s stony profile as he drives and wonders if he’s upset that now he needs to remain sober.
The third house is full of EMT’s and healthcare workers so it isn’t long before tempers run high here as well.
“I don’t understand these ignorant anti-vaxers. Your rights are more important than people’s health?”
“I just think you should use your own brain, your own judgement- that’s all. It’s kind of authoritarian to tell someone what to do with their body.”
“It’s kind of EVIL to WANT TO KILL PEOPLE!!”
The whole table blinks a bit, and Allison wishes she can lay her head down on the tablecloth and disappear. She looks at her husband, whose face is red and whose cheek twitches, and she wonders when he started hating his own family. She wonders if they hate him or her or each other.
She looks down the table at the forgotten plates and discarded silverware, at the liquid pools of light caught in the bottoms of the wine glasses, at the turkey carcass looking picked over like carrion.
Allison wishes she could cry, but the alcohol in her system has numbed her like a local anesthetic. She hears one of her children shriek from the room behind her, and she begins to laugh.
Still startled from the outburst, everyone turns to look at her. She tosses her head back and howls with laughter. Tears stream down her face. She wipes them away and then picks up a handful of stuffing from the nearest bowl. Even her naughty children freeze as she does it, and her husband stares open-mouthed and uncomprehending.
Allison winds up like a pitcher and the stuffing lands– splat!– in Uncle Jeff’s face. The splatter of stuffing slips off his cheek and tumbles across the table.
“Well!” Allison squeaks between giggles. “If we’re gonna act like children, let’s effing act like children.”
One silent moment passes.
Then chaos descends.
© 2021 Katie Baker