Slurs (related to sexuality), bigotry, general unpleasantness.
I stepped out of the bus, and stretched; my back felt terrible. It was the morning of Thanksgiving Day, and I’d spent the past twenty hours travelling: first on a bus to Syracuse, then I’d taken the Lake Shore Limited to Toledo, Ohio, and from there the Greyhound to Nashville. It was way cheaper than taking a plane, sure, but it was a horrible way of travelling, it felt like every bone in my body ached.
I looked around: my mother had said she would be there to pick me up, and sure enough, there she was, waving at me with a big smile on her face. She rushed towards me as I walked up to her, and clamped me in a hug.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you, Theo,” she said. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you too, mother,” I replied, reciprocating the hug.
She broke the embrace and took a step back. “Let me take a look at you. You’ve grown so much.”
“Mother, please,” I said, looking around to see if anyone was gawking at the scene we were making. “It’s been what, two months?”
“Two and a half,” she answered. “And you do look different. Did you cut your hair?”
I shrugged, and brushed a lock of hair from my forehead. “Yes, I did. I had a friend recommend me a… Barber.”
“Well, it looks great.” She tilted her head to the side and frowned mildly. “And… Are you wearing nail polish?”
I paused; I hadn’t even considered taking my nail polish off: I’d been removing and replacing it every weekend, to keep my nails looking good, and I’d become so used to having painted nails that I never even paid any attention to it any more. But I guess that down in Tennessee it was unusual for a man, wasn’t it?
“I am,” I said, showing her my hands. “It’s the school colours, a way to show my school spirit, especially since I made it on the triathlon team.”
Mother still had a frown on her face, but she nodded. “I… See. Well, you’ll have to tell me everything about it, and about college. You’ll have to tell us, rather, we’re having dinner with the family tonight.”
“Sure,” I said, picking up my suitcase and following her to her car. “Who’s coming?”
“Your grandparents, of course,” she replied; I knew she meant her parents – my father’s parents had died in the same car accident he had, five years prior. “And uncle Adam and aunt Eve.”
It was my turn to frown. Adam was my late father’s brother; like my father (and other relatives), he had pointed opinions regarding morality and what is good and proper in life, only… Much more so. I’d often butted heads with him, since I believed you shouldn’t judge people by who they are, while he insisted on doing so. Unlike with my parents, though, I’d never backed down from a discussion with him: I knew he disliked me, for being “a cheeky little kid” – his exact words, said once to my mother when he thought I was out of earshot; and the feeling was mutual.
Mother noticed my expression. “Theo, I know you and uncle Adam don’t see eye to eye…”
I hmpf-ed. “You could say that.”
“…But family, and especially close family, is extremely important,” she continued, putting the car into gear and merging into traffic. “In this world, no one will ever help you: your family, your own flesh and blood, are the only ones you can really count on.”
“Are they? Really?” I rebutted. “Has uncle Adam ever helped us since father passed? With money, or otherwise?”
She hesitated. “That’s… Not the point.”
“Then what is the point, mother?” I asked. “I know he believes that prosperity is the will of God, and if someone is poor they must have done something to deserve it, but that’s simply not true. You know father was a devout man, and yet that didn’t stop him from dying.”
Mother was silent for a while, just driving, while staring straight ahead. “I want to have a peaceful Thanksgiving,” she finally said. “So I expect you to not mention any of this during dinner.”
I grudgingly nodded, but bristled inwardly. I shouldn’t have to be silent about injustice to “avoid rocking the boat,” as my parents had so often put it to me when I was young: “I know you’re upset, Theo,” they would say, “But this isn’t worth fighting about, let’s focus on the bigger stuff.”
What even was the bigger stuff anyway?
We were silent for the rest of the drive home, and until mother unlocked the front door to our house and ushered me in. “Peter! Leah! We’re home! Come say hi to your brother!” she called.
I heard running footsteps from the floor above me, and then my siblings rushed down the stairs.
“Hi, Theo!” they exclaimed in unison, as they tackled me with a hug that almost threw me to the ground.
“Oof,” I replied, mussing their hair. “Do be careful, kids, you’re getting big, you don’t want to break some of my bones, do you?”
“Well, maybe if we did, you wouldn’t have to leave for college again!” Peter said with a cheeky smile.
I smiled back. “Don’t count on it,” I replied. “And besides, college is important to build your future. You’ll understand when you get there.”
I walked to the couch and sat down, my siblings still clinging to me. God, I loved them; they’d been barely ten when our father died, and I’d had to step up as a big brother and play the father figure role for them. It did sting a bit, though, that there hadn’t been any other male relatives who’d been willing to help my mother and I out with that: I’d been thirteen, way too young to have to learn how to function as a surrogate parent.
“So how long are you going to be here?” Leah asked.
“Just today and tomorrow,” I answered. “I’m taking the night bus from Nashville back home tomorrow evening.”
“Aw, do you have to?” she said, pouting.
I raised my finger in warning. “Don’t you make that face at me, you know I can’t resist it. But yeah, I have to,” I said. “The end-of-trimester exams are just around the corner, and I have to go back to study as much as I can. Besides,” I added with a grin, “I didn’t bring any schoolwork with me, on purpose, so I could spend all my time here with you instead of studying. And next time, when I come home for Christmas, I’ll be here a whole week.”
“Now, you get comfortable,” mother said, “I’ll get the turkey and the sides started.”
“Do you need some help?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, don’t worry, I’m fine. You spend time with your siblings.”
“Yaaaay!” Peter and Leah exclaimed.
I retrieved some blankets from a drawer under the TV, and my siblings and I got settled on the couch and started chatting. I regaled them with stories of college, and sports, and what I did with my friends, while they updated me on how high school was going; we kept talking for a couple hours, until it was time for lunch, and kept the conversation going while we were eating – mother had cooked up a light meal, so we would have place for the sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner she was preparing.
“Listen, Theo, can you do me a favour?” she asked, as we were washing dishes after lunch.
“Yeah, sure,” I replied. “What is it?”
“I realised I’ve forgotten to buy cranberry sauce,” she said, sounding almost apologetic. “Could you swing by the grocery store and get some?”
I smiled and nodded. “Of course,” I said.
After we were finished washing and drying the dishes I got in the car and headed to the grocery store; it was only about a ten minutes’ drive, and soon I found myself searching the aisles for cranberry sauce. But then I had an idea: why not make it from scratch? I really liked cooking, after all, and I wasn’t going to eat something processed if I could help it.
I tried to recall a recipe I’d read a while back: I would need cranberries, of course, and then sugar, and lemon juice. I headed to the produce section, searched for a box of cranberries, and examined it critically; yes, that would do. They looked like they were a bit unripe, but enough sugar would make the tartness go away.
I was about to go looking for lemons when I spotted someone I knew.
“Hey, Redfield!” I called.
Miles turned towards me, looking up from a shelf he’d been inspecting; I waved to him.
“Oh, hello Parker!” he exclaimed. “Fancy meeting you here. But then again, we’re both from this town, right? So it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“Right,” I nodded. “I’m back in town for a couple days, for Thanksgiving. How about you?”
“Same,” he said. “I guess you’re in college now, right? Where are you studying?”
“Bradford McKinley,” I replied.
His eyes lit up. “Oh, that’s great! I’ve heard good things about their triathlon team, are they as good as they say?”
“They are,” I nodded. “Or I should say we are, I’m part of the team too.”
“Even though you’re a freshie?”
“Yeah, it’s all based on merit over there. But I have to train hard, or I risk being booted out. And you?”
He smiled. “UPenn.”
My eyes widened. “Ivy League? No kidding?”
“Yep,” he nodded. “I’m in the Nursing School.”
“That’s great, I’m so happy for you!”
Miles suddenly looked up past my shoulder, and he bit his lip, as his face took on a conflicted expression; I turned around and saw a boy about our age, looking at us. “You know him?” I asked, turning back to Miles.
He held my gaze for a few seconds, almost as if he was evaluating me; then he sighed, and waved the boy over.
“Hey, babe, is everything alright?” he said to Miles, approaching us.
Redfield nodded. “Yeah, everything is fine,” he replied. “Parker, this is Aaron…”
I extended a hand towards the newcomer. “Nice to meet you, I’m--”
I froze. I looked from Miles to Aaron, and back again, my brain spinning into overdrive: what should someone do in a situation like that? Miles had basically just come out to me, out of the blue.
After a couple seconds, however, I realised the correct course of action.
“I’m Theo Parker, nice to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.
“You too, Theo,” Aaron replied, shaking it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Miles’ shoulders visibly relax. “Thank you,” he said. “I was afraid you’d… Never mind, sorry, I’m just a bit nervous. I’m still not used to being… Out.”
I nodded in understanding.
“I’m taking advantage of the holiday to introduce Aaron to my family. They’ve been… Understanding,” he continued. “There’s been a bit of friction, but it’s been mostly fine.” Aaron nodded in agreement.
I looked between them, and asked the first thing that came to mind. “Since when have you known?”
The question was a bit vague, but Miles understood. “Since forever,” he shrugged. “Since junior high, at the very least. But you know how this place is, there was no way I could say anything before now. But I’m tired of hiding who I am.”
I nodded again. “I understand.”
Redfield smiled. “I’m so glad you do. Even though we only met during races, I consider you a friend, and would’ve hated it if you hated me for… This.”
I shook my head. “Who you like doesn’t change who you are. I’m happy you’re able to be yourself.”
There was a moment of silence, then I said, “Well, I better go. My family is waiting for me at home.”
Miles and Aaron nodded, and I was off.
My mind kept spinning and turning over what had just happened during the brief drive home. Redfield’s words, especially, kept sticking into my brain, for whatever reason: I’m tired of hiding who I am.
I’d made it all the way back home when I realised I’d forgotten to buy sugar and lemons; luckily, there were some in the pantry, and I managed to cook up a mean cranberry sauce.
It was early evening when the doorbell rang, announcing the arrival of our guests: my grandparents, and uncle Adam and aunt Eve. I welcomed them at the door – they’d come together in one car – and my grandfather immediately started chatting me up, asking me all sorts of things about college and how things were going; my uncle, on the other hand, simply gave me a cold stare, and went to talk with my mother in the kitchen.
Soon it was time for dinner, and we sat down at the table; I found myself seated across from uncle Adam, my two siblings on each side of me. The turkey was carved and distributed on the plates, and the side dishes were passed around: in short order, we began eating, and having a mild conversation at the same time.
“The turkey is cooked to perfection, Helen,” aunt Eve said to my mother. “And the cranberry sauce is delightful.”
My mother smiled. “That’s Theo’s doing,” she replied. “He made the sauce from scratch.”
“Really?” Eve replied. “You’ll have to give me the recipe, then,” she said, looking at me.
“Don’t encourage him, Eve,” my uncle said, under his breath.
She looked at him. “Why not? I think it’s great that Theo has a hobby.”
Adam glared at her. “Men shouldn’t be cooking; that’s women’s work.”
“But…” she began, but noticed the look he had in his eyes. “Yes.”
But I was unwilling to let it slide. “Since when?” I asked.
My uncle’s glare shifted to me. “Since when what?”
“Since when is cooking women’s work?” I challenged him. “Men should be allowed to cook, too, if they want. In fact, most of the world’s foremost chefs are men.”
He scoffed. “Weaklings, the lot of them. Cooking is a useless skill, a fall back for those who have failed in life.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’ve cooked dinner for my family for years, ever since father died, because mother was too busy working to bring money home to do it. Does that make me a failure too?”
“Honestly? Yes,” he replied. “If you’d really been a man, you would’ve dropped out of school and found a job to support them, without forcing a woman,” he nodded to my mother, “to work out of the house. Instead you stayed in school, and now you’re in college, and have nothing to show for it. You’ve never amounted to anything in your life.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Being a two-times state champion is nothing to you, uncle Adam? I’ve even gotten a scholarship for it, so I can pay my way through college without being a burden on my family.”
“College is useless. The only thing it’s good for is for liberals to put weird ideas into people’s minds, but it’s all a huge scam. Sooner or later, everything will come to light,” he bit out. He turned to my mother. “Why do you allow it? Can’t you see what that school is doing to your kid?”
I took a deep breath to calm myself down. “Don’t talk about me as if I’m not even here,” I hissed. “And don’t call me kid, I’m eighteen. I’m old enough to vote. I’m an adult.”
“But not old enough to drink,” my uncle replied with a grin. “What do you say about that?”
I stared directly at him, reached out, grabbed the bottle that was on the table, and poured myself half a glass of wine, which I drained in a single gulp; then I resumed glaring at Adam, without speaking.
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like your attitude, boy,” he said. “If it were for me, you’d get a spanking for that. And what’s with the nails anyway? What, you a fag or something?”
“Adam,” my aunt said, putting a hand on his arm.
I bristled at his words. “I’m not gay, I like girls,” I rebutted. “And even if I were gay, so what? People should be judged by how they act and behave, not by who they love.”
“That’s not love,” he replied. “It’s just… Playing pretend. True love is only between a man and a woman, anything else is an abomination. You should read the Bible or talk to a pastor once in a while.”
I felt blood rise to my head. This man was implying that my good friend Roger, that my eternal rival Miles, were abominations. Just because of their sexuality, which was something natural, that they couldn’t help.
“Some of my best friends are gay, and they’re much better people than you are,” I spat out. “So fuck you.”
My uncle blinked, but then smiled. “See? Typical liberal behaviour. He can’t discuss things civilly, without resorting to insults,” he said, to no one in particular.
“You know what? I’m not hungry any more,” I said, starting to get up from the table.
“Sit down, Theo,” my mother said, in a voice I’d never heard her use before. I looked at her, and saw she was shaking with barely repressed rage; I sat back down.
She pointed at my uncle. “You. Get out.”
Uncle Adam’s expression turned from amusement to bewilderment. “Excuse me?”
“You’re not welcome in this house any more,” my mother continued. “After everything you’ve done, you dare come here and insult my son like that?”
She stood up, and pointed at the door. “Get out. And don’t dare come back until you’re ready to apologise to him.”
My uncle looked around the table, but quickly saw that he had no allies there, except for his wife.
“I don’t fucking believe it,” he muttered, standing up. “We were having a nice, peaceful discussion, then the kid insults me, and I’m at fault?”
“Get out,” my mother repeated. “I won’t say it again.”
“…I’m going,” he said. “Come on, Eve, we’re leaving.”
He strode to the front door, threw it open, and left without even looking back; his wife followed him, glancing back at us, an apologetic look on her face, before closing the door behind her.
My mother sat back down, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled.
“Well, that was unpleasant,” she said. “Theo, could you pass more cranberry sauce? And after that, why don’t you tell us all about college? I bet your grandparents are anxious to hear about it.”