Marzia woke with her face pressed against the glass of the train’s window. She hadn’t planned on falling asleep during the journey home for Thanksgiving, but the slight sway from side-to-side and the clack-clack-clack of the wheels numbed her brain to the point that sleep was a foregone conclusion. Where her cheek had been a greasy mark was left behind and there was even a clear line of spit trickling down to the bottom of the pane. She looked over at the man who sat in the seat beside her, who glanced first at her and then at what she’d done to their window before looking away. The expression he wore told her he was embarrassed enough for the both of them, and that he was trying to pretend as though there was nothing to be embarrassed about.
Ten excruciating minutes later, the train eased into the next station and Marzia pushed her way past her traveling companion, pulling her suitcase down from the overhead rack. She was in such a rush to get away from him that she nearly clipped the tip of his nose and he grumbled at her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, and quick-walked to the nearest exit.
She was unsteady in the high-heels she wore, her heavy suitcase throwing off her balance, and her shoulder banged against the edge of the doorway as she stepped off the train. It would leave a mark and she mentally crossed out her ability to wear any of the sleeveless dresses she’d brought along. She paused a moment to don a pair of cat-eye sunglasses and imagined herself as Audrey Hepburn framed against the metallic backdrop of the train, surveying the scene in front of her.
Unfortunately, the only thing to survey was the slightly askew features of her older brother, John.
“Marz!” he exclaimed as he came forward to give her bear hug. “Long time no see, little sis! How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she said. There’d been no smoking on the train and she bit the inside of her cheek while desperately wishing for moment free to get her nicotine fix. “No one else came?”
He shrugged. “You know how it is. Mom’s busy cooking and Dad’s building Legos with Joey. Becca’s helping out Mom and Evelyn’s keeping herself locked in her room until it’s time to eat. Grandma and Grandpa are sat in the living room, just happy to have everyone together again. You know how it is.”
Marzia sighed. “Yeah, I know. Nothing really changes does it?”
“Looks like you’ve changed! I’ve never seen you so grown up!”
“How’s the theater life treating you?
She had to think about it before she could answer. “Good.” Then, “Can we get out of here? Train stations are always so depressing, especially arriving at one.”
“Of course! Right this way to your humble carriage.”
She snorted as soon as she saw the “humble carriage”.
“This is what you drive?” she sneered. “How are you able to sell anyone a car when you drive such a hunk of junk?”
“It’s reliable!” he countered. “Besides, all I need to do to point at any car on the lot and say that’s what I drive, and no one knows any different.”
“Becca should’ve never married you, if this is kind of life you’re providing for her.”
“Ouch! It nice to know you haven’t changed a bit, Marz. Just as mean as ever!” He laughed, though she could tell she’d gotten under his skin.
He drove them back to their parents’ house.
“Marzie!” Grandma Lisette cried as soon as they came through the door. “Come over here and give your grandma a hug! It’s been way too long!”
Marzia leaned forward slightly so that her grandmother’s arms could encircle her shoulders, then she straightened as Grandpa Joe stood and engulfed her with his body. “How’s city life treating you?” her grandfather asked her.
“And you’re still doing your plays?”
“Me and your grandma will have to come up and see one of your shows sometime.”
“Mmm. Yeah, maybe.”
She extracted herself from her grandfather’s embrace and fled into the kitchen where her mom and Becca, John’s wife, were. The air felt cloistering and warm from a whole day of cooking and the smell of turkey and potatoes and green beans vied with one another to see who would win out in the end. Her mom and Becca were too busy getting Thanksgiving dinner ready to see her enter.
Marzia cleared her throat, then spoke, “Hi, mom.”
Her mother turned at the sound of her middle-child’s voice and her eyes lit up. “Marz! You made it! How was your trip?”
“Well, that’s what you get for taking the train. You should’ve rented a car instead.”
“Costs too much,” Marzia said, then she turned to John’s wife and attempted to be polite. “Hello, Becca, how are you?”
“I’d be better if your mom wasn’t working me to the bone right now!” She laughed.
“How’re you, Marz? They give you any starring roles yet?”
“Nope, not yet. But soon, maybe.” She kept her tone light and bit her tongue before she said anything more. “Where’s Joseph? I have a present for him.”
“Really, honey?” her mom asked. “That’s sweet of you!”
Becca informed her, “He’s in the basement, making your dad build Lego with him.”
“Thanks,” Marzia said.
The stairs leading down to the basement where steep and uncarpeted and there was an overhang at the very bottom that she had to duck her head down to go under. The basement’s floor was bare cement, but large area rugs had been thrown over most of it to keep it from looking too barren and cold. Her dad and her nephew sat on a rug in the very middle of the basement, amidst a colorful deluge of tiny plastic pieces.
“Hey, dad,” she said.
“Hey, Marzie. You make it in alright?”
“Hey, Joey,” she greeted her nephew.
Joseph kept connecting pieces together and didn’t acknowledge her. Occasionally, he would display his progress to her dad.
“Aren’t you going to say hi to your aunt?” her dad asked his grandson. “She came all the way from the city to see you!”
Her nephew grunted and have a half-hearted shrug. Then he glanced at her briefly and mumbled, “Hello.”
Marzia knelt down beside her nephew and said, “I got something for you.”
She presented him with a little Hot Wheels bulldozer, still in the packaging. He took it from her and looked at it for several seconds before mumbling, “Thanks”, and then set it aside, to be forgotten. Marzia watched as he nephew combed through the plastic pieces and gradually buried the bulldozer in Lego.
“How’s the theater life, Marz?” he asked.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she answered. “It’s good. I’ll be right back.”
She hurried back up the stairs into the commotion of the kitchen where Grandma Lisette had begun trying to take over operations from Marz’s mom just to have something to occupy herself with. Marzia made a hard left and ascended the stairs to the second floor, where things were much quieter. She locked herself in the upstairs bathroom and flung open the window before pulling out a pack cigarettes, sticking one in her mouth, and lighting it up.
Relief washed through her from the first puff and she exhaled a smoky sigh through the open window. The bathroom hadn’t changed much since she had last been home, when she still lived here. There was a soap dish on one corner of the sink and hand towels folded on a rack attached to the wall, lacy curtains over the window, a toilet brush and plunger beside the toilet, a box of tissues on the tank, and a fuzzy bath rug on the floor. The only thing thing that was different was that the shower curtain now had cartoon owls on it, which was obviously her little sister, Evelyn’s, doing.
Marzia took her time with the cigarette, only drawing on it when seemed in danger of extinguishing itself, She didn’t bother to keep track of time, but even so it was no surprise when she heard a knock on the door followed by her mother’s voice.
“Marz, are you in there? We’re missing you downstairs. Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, mom, I’m fine,” Marzia called back. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
“Okay then. Dinner’s almost ready, so you know.”
“Yeah, I’ll be right down. Don’t worry.”
She heard her mother’s footsteps pad away and then stop. There was a distant knock and then a muffled exchange of words, then an exasperated, “Yeah, I’ll be down,” before the sound of her mom’s footsteps grew fainter as they traveled away and descended the stairs.
Marzia took a last, long draw on her cigarette and then stubbed it out on the brickwork outside the window.
There was another knock on the bathroom door.
“Yeah, I’m coming out right now. Just give me a second.”
“Mom told me to tell you not to smoke in there. You’re going to stink up the bathroom.”
“Who’re you? John?”
When she was a teenager it had always been her older brother passing on messages from their mother. Marzia guessed that the job had fallen to her little sister now. She unlocked the door and flung it open, wrapping her arms quickly around Evelyn before she had time to jump away.
“How are you, little sis? How’s the world treating you? How’s high school? You got a boyfriend yet?”
Evelyn attempted to extract herself from the death grip of her big sister’s hug while answering all her questions, “I could be better, the world’s a terrible place, high school’s even worse, and not yet.”
Marzia loosened her grip on her sister so that she could see her face, look into her eyes, which stared back at her through big, round glasses. “Why not?”
“High school boys are so unsophisticated and immature. I’ve decided not to date until I’m in college.”
“College boys are even worse,” Marzia informed her and let her go completely. “Best to learn how to deal with them now before they become arrogant and cocky.” She paused and thought a moment. “Pun maybe intended.”
They walked together toward the stairs.
“How’s the acting going?” Evelyn asked. “My teachers keep asking me how you’re doing and if you’ve made it big yet.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, you’re the one who told everyone you were going off to the big city to become a famous theater actress.”
Marzia sighed. “Some things you just can’t live down. I’ll get there eventually. These things just take time.”
“But you are getting there, right?”
Marzia gave her little sister a tight-lipped smile. “Yeah, I’m getting there. Sure.”
Everyone had filed into the kitchen when the sisters got downstairs and they took their places at the tail-end of the line. A stack of paper plates and a box of plastic silverware was on the counter closest to them and they made their way around the kitchen filling up their plates before filing back out again. Since the dining room table wasn’t big enough to accommodate them all, everyone decided to eat in the living room instead.
“Joey, be careful not to spill, okay?” Becca forewarned her son.
“Everyone eat your fill and take home whatever you want. I don’t like leftovers,” Marzia’s mom said.
“Then why did you make so much?” her dad responded.
“I didn’t know how hungry everybody’d be. And I didn’t know if someone might bring a guest with her.” She eyed Marzia.
“You got yourself a man yet, Marzie?” Grandma Lisette asked.
“No, not yet, Grandma.”
“Well, how come? Beautiful woman like you should have gentlemen lining up around the block.”
“Doing what? Oh, I guess you need to learn to your lines, and get fitted for costumes, huh?”
“Yep,” Marzia said staring into her plate of food, “very time consuming.”
Grandpa Joe said, “Me and your grandma want tickets to your first big show, you hear?”
“Okay, Grandpa, I’ll do that.”
“Joey! I told you not to spill!”
Marzia’s nephew jumped up from where he sat on the floor and tried to flee as his mom paddled his bottom. He retreated back into the kitchen and something yellow flashed in his hand. It was the little bulldozer Marzia had given him, now outside of its packaging.
“I wanna go play,” Joseph announced.
“It’s too cold, and you’ll get your clothes dirty.”
“I’m gonna go play!” There was the rattle of the knob on the back door and then the sound of the door opening. The screen door snapped closed behind him.
“I’m going to whup that kid,” Becca said as she began to stand up.
But Marzia stopped her. “I’ll go get him. He hasn’t properly thanked me for his gift yet.”
Marzia walked through the kitchen with her plate of food still in her hand and managed to get out into the backyard without spilling any of it. Joey had immediately gone to the mulch pile at the back of the yard and knelt down into it staining the nice pants his mom had dressed him in. He pushed the toy bulldozer around and ignored her completely as she came up to him.
“Your mom wants you back inside,” she told him.
He ignored her.
“She isn’t going to be happy that you got your pants dirty.”
He ignored her.
“You like that toy? Isn’t Marzie your favorite auntie for getting that for you?”
He ignored her.
She sighed, and sat down in grass at the edge of mulch pile. “Now my clothes are dirty too. Think my mom will yell at me?”
He nodded, then went back to ignoring her again.
She pushed the food around on her paper plate for a bit, and then set it to the side. She pulled out the pack of cigarettes and lit one. The gray smoke drifted through the air above their heads.
“You know, I think you’re my favorite family member. You’re the only one so far who hasn’t asked about acting or life in the city or anything like that.”
Joey continued to push the bulldozer around.
“Yeah, you’re my favorite.” She blew a stream of smoke out directly at the toy. He laughed to see miniature heavy-duty tractor engulfed in a haze and asked for her to do it again.
Instead, she offered him the cigarette. “How about this? You let cool Auntie Marz have a go with your toy and she’ll let you smoke the rest of this?”
He grew sick after two puffs and by then his mom had come to the back door to find out what was taking the two of them so long to get back inside.
“Joey, get out of the dirt! Marz! You have him a cigarette?”
Marzia grinned sheepishly at her, then groaned. “I guess we should go back inside. Your mom’s pretty pissed at the both of us. Here, give me that.”
She took one last drag on the cigarette before throwing it into the mulch pile. Then she and her nephew walked hand-in-hand back toward the house.
“Your dress is dirty,” Joey told her.
“Yeah? So what?” she said.