Nov 22, 2020

American Fiction Holiday

I paced inside the hotel room. We’d flown to Haley’s hometown to meet her family for the holidays. It would be our first Thanksgiving spent together as an official couple, and I hadn’t met her family yet.

        Until two months ago, I hadn’t even realized she’d been so purposefully squirrelly about her family. When Bryce mentioned she had a younger brother, the information sent cold electricity through my veins. Brother? She’d never mentioned a brother. And then it dawned on me that she had never mentioned her parents for that matter.

        And now, here we were, in some tiny Midwest town, staying at one of only two hotels in the area.

        “Sawyer, are you listening?”

        “What? No! Sorry.”

        She nervously tapped her foot, sitting on the edge of the bed, her eyes fixed on me. “I said they’re going to ask a million questions, including if they can have money. Don’t give them any. Tell them your manager handles your finances, and you only have enough cash for gas.”

        “Can I offer them that cash?”

        “No.” She bit her thumb. “No. Don’t. Whatever you do, just.” She didn’t continue her sentence, instead her chest puffed up with a deep breath. She exhaled aggressively and let out a small scream.

Tilting my head, I watched as she became the pacer, and I became the still one. I knew why I was nervous. I thought I understood why she was nervous, but maybe I didn’t.

“Why would they ask for money?” I wanted to ask why I shouldn’t give it to them more than I wanted to know why they would ask.

She kept pacing, not even a slight acknowledgement of my question. I watched, fidgeting with my belt buckle. I sifted through the information she’d given me already.

I knew her brother had been in jail for the last two years. I knew her mom kept strange hours; her dad was a mystery. She’d been especially tight-lipped when it came to him, but I was afraid to pry too much.

She stopped suddenly; her shoulders slumped forward. She ran her hands through her hair, and when her fingers twisted around the ends of a chunk of honey-colored strands, she looked from the spot on the carpet to me.

“This is going to be an incredibly weird experience for both of us.” She looked extremely somber. “There’s a reason I moved to Chicago as soon as I could, okay? Just remember that today while we’re there.”

We stood, barely breathing, tension building in our bodies for different reasons. I nodded and looked to the door, escaping her intense eye contact.

“I assume they’ll know who you are, but they may not.” It sounded like a statement and a question, so I stayed quiet on our way down to the rental car. “Either way, just know I really don’t like being around them. I love them; they’re my family. That means something. I don’t know what exactly, but they’re who knew me first but also didn’t know me, because I wasn’t falling in line with what they were.”

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to understand or not, but I listened without contributing, afraid she’d turn the car around and I'd never meet her family.

I licked my lips; maybe there was a harmless question I could interrupt with after all. “Is Bryce from your hometown or something? How did he know about your brother?”

She groaned. “Yeah, we went to high school together. And then we got out of here together. He always felt responsible for Ernie, but I wish he wouldn’t have. It cost him more than Ernie was worth if you ask me. But don’t tell either of them I said that.”

Slightly taken aback, I said, “Oh, I didn’t realize. That’s cool you both got out of here.”

“I guess.” She maneuvered through the streets like a pro. I wondered if I went back to my hometown in Texas if the streets that I’d grown up driving on would be burned into my memory well enough to do the same as she was doing now.

I looked out the window, letting her sit with her thoughts, while I did the same. I’d never heard her say such a mean thing about someone and ask me to not say anything to anyone about it. Not that I went around spilling her secrets to people, but I was surprised to hear her talking shit about anyone. It was out of character for her.

We rolled up on a street with cars parked along both sides. The vehicle we were in, while it was tiny, I was still unsure we’d fit down the narrow street left visible from all the cars parked along it. Yet, she glided through with ease. She slipped into the driveway of a house that looked decent from the outside.

“Leave your big coat in here but keep your hoodie and shoes on inside, don’t take anything off or set anything down. We’re leaving right after we eat. We have a flight to catch.” She slipped her heavier coat off, tossing it into the backseat.

Our flight wasn't until tomorrow afternoon, but mentioning that seemed like a bad idea. I tossed my jacket into the back with hers and stayed quiet.

The front gutter hung off the roof a little, and the bushes on the side of the house were overgrown, but it didn’t look unkept. She turned the car off and looked at me one last time. She caught my hand over the seatbelt’s buckle.

“Hey, uh, if it smells like nail polish remover, don’t mention it, okay?” She sounded sick. “If you start to get, like, um, dizzy, or like a buzzy feeling, or light-headed just pull on your left earlobe, and I’ll get us out of there. Don't make a big deal out of it, not while we’re inside, okay?”

My brow, scrunched together; my mouth in a small ‘o’ shape, I nodded, quickly swallowing any questions or comments. I rushed out a whisper before pushing the buckle’s release button. “Okay.”

Stepping out of the car, a lazy waft of marijuana caught my nose. I wondered if I could bring in a joint; it was legal in California and Illinois now, so her family shouldn’t freak out. I shook my head, resisting the idea, and followed her.

We stood on the porch, her hand gripping mine. Turkey and a faint, rancid burning flavored the air when the front door opened to reveal a woman I was surprised to see so put together. She wore an apron over a dress pulled straight from the 1950s. She wore bright red lipstick, and dark mascara made her startlingly black eyes pop. Her hair was clearly a wig; real strands of hair peeked out at her hairline in places.

“Honey! We didn’t know if you were joking when you’d said you were coming home with your girlfriend or not! This is so great.” She spoke quickly, pulling us both in for a group hug before I could register what she’d even said.

We stepped inside and followed her through the living room into the kitchen. She chattered a mile a minute; I couldn’t keep up. I caught words I recognized, and then a question I was expecting. “This is so great. What’s your name again, dear?”

“Sawyer, nice to meet you!” I plastered on my media-smile.

Haley’s grip on my fingers stayed consistent. Her mom gestured to the island and the counters in the kitchen, bringing my attention from her quick speech to the vast amount of food laid out around the room.

“It’s so great to meet you. Please let me know what you wind up liking. I couldn’t sleep, so I stayed up making all this stuff overnight. Some of it will have to be warmed up, but just help yourself. It’s so nice to meet you. Hal, I can’t believe you found a girlfriend.” She laughed and turned back to the oven and checked the turkey through the oven door’s window.

Before I could speak again, a man entered from the direction we hadn’t been yet. He had a pouch he was zipping back up. Haley cleared her throat and he looked up, fumbling with the zipper, a small glass pipe head poked out before he pushed it back into the case.

“Oh, shit, Hal! You’re home.” He stuffed the pouch into a cargo pocket on his shorts and walked over to us. “Who’s this with you?”

We were again both wrapped up in a hug before I could acclimate to whatever he was saying. A strong chemical smell lingered between us when he pulled away; I employed all my acting skills to keep the smile on my poker face.

“Dad. This is my girlfriend, Sawyer. The one from California.” Haley’s voice was level, but I could hear the edge she was containing.

“Oh! Right!” He launched into a mile a minute pitch about a TV show he wanted somebody to make. “You’re from Hollywood, right?”

Before I could answer, he continued. “I want a show like ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ but with zombies. It would be killer.” He laughed and winked. “Get it? Killer!”

Howling at his own joke, he went on, clarifying a plot to this show idea while I only caught half of what he said. My smile stayed in place; Haley’s hand felt clammy in mine.

I glanced at her mother, who was checking the turkey once again through the little window. She wiped her nose, blood smearing across her fingers. She hurried to the sink and washed them for several minutes as if she was stuck in the motion.

“All right, you’ll tell that to those Hollywood hot shots, right?” His voice pulled my eyes back to him.

“Right, of course! It sounds great.” I nodded.

His eyes were blue rings with giant black pupils, too. I felt Haley’s fingers tapping against mine. I looked at her, and she looked to the hallway behind her dad, giving me a signal; she wanted to go that direction.

“Hey, Haley, can you show me to the bathroom?” I said, keeping my polite actor voice in place. “I want to wash up before we have lunch.”

Her dad instantly moved out of the way. He was now talking about how good all the food smelled. He spewed a dozen questions at his wife within seconds. She had answers for him, coming out just as quickly as he could ask. I didn’t know if I felt impressed or terrified, but I kept holding Haley’s hand and smiling, letting her lead me away.

Once we stepped around her dad, we were standing in their dining room, but Haley kept walking. After a few moments, a short set of stairs unfolded before us.

Descending, we were in what I assumed was an entertainment room. It had a bathroom off to the side, a TV and couch in one corner, and there was a glass sliding door that led outside to a patio.

We stepped out on to the patio; a backyard expanded before us. A decently sized above ground pool with a wooden deck built around it was off to one side of the yard and a shed was on the other side of it.

She pulled out a marijuana cigarette and held up a lighter. “Do you mind? I can’t be here sober. I thought I could. But nope. They still make me want to take the edge off.”

I shook my head. “Go for it.”

She lit up and smoked half of the joint without sharing, which was a first, but I stayed quiet. I thought about my pack back in the rental car but again resisted the urge to go grab it. She held out the half-smoked stick; I took it.

After a few inhales, I handed it back, expecting her to say I could finish it off, but instead she gladly took it. Before she had even exhaled completely from the last hit off the first one, she was sliding another out and lighting up again.

“Full of surprises today.” I laughed softly.

She frowned. “Look, if my mom and dad are already going a thousand miles per hour, that means Ernie is going to be way worse than normal. I don’t want to snap during the meal, because it takes him an hour to hand me a damn saltshaker. Also, don’t eat anything you have to warm up. If she’s been cooking since midnight, half of that shit is no longer food safe. It’s been twelve fucking hours.”

She blew smoke out from her nose and mouth, staring at the glass door. I watched her eyes narrow, several long blinks, and then narrow again. She swallowed and handed over a mostly smoked joint. “Here, take this, please. I think I’m done now. Sorry, I haven’t smoked like this in such a long time.”

I nodded and finished off what was left of the second one and snuffed it out on the patio ground and dropped it in the overflowing ashtray. When I looked up from the ceramic ashtray, her watering eyes were on me.

Quickly, I pulled her in for a hug. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

She breathed in against the hoodie I had been instructed to leave on; my overcoat was in the car with hers. With the smell of chemicals and nail polish remover wafting off of our clothes, I now understood the strange request. I rubbed circles into the back of her sweatshirt, hoping it was reaching down into her muscles a little.

She wiped her eyes on the front of my hoodie. “Do I look like I’ve been crying?”

I shook my head vigorously. “No. But it does look like you’ve been smoking a little; your eyes are bloodshot.”

She chuckled. “So are yours. They’re not going to care, obviously. Hell, they’ll probably offer you—oh, if they offer you a hit off a joint, don’t take it. They lace theirs with speed.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s what this smell is?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Good old methamphetamines. We can unpack that later.”

She pulled out her canister of breath mints and offered me one. We walked back in, holding hands, sucking on mints. I had my shining smile in place by the time we ran into what I assumed was the final boss in this situation: her brother.

“Hey, sis!” His words were very slurred. His eyes, struggling to focus on Haley or me, settled for a place between us. “Who’s this with you?”

“Hey, Ernie.” She sounded the closest to nervous that I’d heard her while being here. “This is Sawyer, my girlfriend.”

“Oh, yeah, that girl from New York, right?” His words came so much slower than their parents’ words had. His eyelids drooped, his head rolled to the side a little, and then it popped right back up, his eyes wide open. He laughed. “Nice to meet you, Saw-year.”

He held out a limp hand, and I shook it as softly as I could.

“Oh wow, she’s got quite the grip, you picked up a butch in disguise.” His head slumped to the side again. Another pop up, another look of bewilderment. Another laugh. “I’m just kidding. You’re cool. Nice to meet you. Eat some cheesecake for me.”

“What? You think she’s from New York?” Her dad rounded the corner. “No, no! She’s from Hollywood, you piece of shit.”

He smacked Ernie across the back of the head. At normal speed, I would have assumed it was meant to be a teasing, light hit, but at the supped-up ultra-speed of meth, their dad’s hand flew across the space and hit him hard enough there was a cracking sound.

“Dad, what the fuck?” Ernie and Haley yelled at the same exact moment, Ernie finishing the question a few seconds after her, while I jerked backward, keeping hold of Haley’s hand.

Their dad was laughing but in a hateful way. My smile faltered only briefly. By the time, he looked in my direction, it was ready and waiting.

Haley grabbed my arm, pulling me toward the front door. She was shouting spicy-worded goodbyes on our way. I called out some pleasantries, trying to keep up the façade until we were in the car and out of sight of the house.

One car door slam later, she was throwing it into reverse. I looked over at Haley, bewildered by this screaming, angry version of her, the way she’d smoked more than I’d seen her smoke in the last year all at once, and the way she didn’t share very well, and now she was driving angry and super-high. Two words I had never associated with her before. Her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Pure rage rolled off her in droves. Her anger took up the entire car, and I had nowhere to go.

She flipped through radio stations until she found some heavy rock music. A song I only knew vaguely to be Rob Zombie’s blared out of the speakers; I fought the urge to cover my ears.

Everything about this situation was new. We sped down the highway while I kept stealing glances at her. She muttered under her breath, swearing multiple variations of every swear word in the book. Her knuckles stayed white against the wheel.

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