“Alright, so that concludes our meeting. The company will restrict its finances on marketing to 300 million dollars for the time being. We haven’t addressed the amount of money that should be allocated to research and development though, and although we can all agree that it has to be substantial enough to get us out of this crisis, we will need to set up another meeting to discuss this. Perfumes don’t make themselves, people, and perfume bottles even less so! So I suggest we all come together this Friday evening, starting at three. I think that pretty much settles it. Now –
- Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I’m afraid that just won’t be a convenient date.
- Pardon me, Dr. Rogers?
The whole room goes silent as we each gawk at Dr. Rogers. I’ve been in this company as long as he has – nearly 20 years – and still, never has he (or anyone, for that matter) objected to a meeting set by Mr. Smith. Or anything that Mr. Smith says. That’s just – not something anyone’s in the position to do.
- I have a family dinner this Friday at seven; I suspect our meeting will take more than just a couple of hours, as we will be discussing one of the most critical aspects that budget analysts have to consider. As such, I demand that we change the meeting’s date to a time more convenient – I am sure there are others present in this room who find a Friday evening a particularly poor choice for an important meeting – wouldn’t you agree?
As Dr. Rogers looks around the room expectantly, a few peoples’ heads start to nod. I hold a gasp. Will this really work…? I sit, paralyzed, as I feel my head starting to nod in unison with others.
- Well, then… I supposed we could convene on a more appropriate time, yes. After all, this company is already sinking – what is waiting for one more wave to pass, in the midst of an ongoing shipwreck? Yes, I suppose we shall discuss this matter on Monday, at 3. Sharp.
My throat goes dry at the last word, addressed directly to Dr. Rogers. I think I haven’t ever been so impressed with a person in my life – and yet Rogers has always been the average employee, unremarkable until today. He must really value his family.
- And so, I must leave you to your lunch breaks. I look forward to seeing all of you this coming Monday.
And with that begins the ordinary hushed conversations and the shuffle of polished shoes. Mr. Smith rushes for the door, probably to another meeting, to check on another one of the company’s teams. Busy as he is, he barely registers the people he passes. As soon as he’s out of the room, a crowd of employees rush to thank Dr. Rogers, praising him for his bravery, and thanking him for his words. I, on the other hand, feel unsettled by something I have just remembered: Dr. Rogers is an orphan, and he has neither wife nor children. Dr. Rogers has no family to meet with.
My curiosity sparks.
But of course, I can’t simply call out a hero when I stand at the foot of his pedestal – not when the hands that raise him up grip him as tightly as ever – and so I wait until the room is nearly empty, all having left but Dr. Rogers and me. Then, I cautiously approach the said gentlemen, as if I were suddenly nervous about talking to the coworker I feel closest to in the company.
As if I didn’t know him.
Nonetheless, I take a step, and then another, and I find my mouth opening, finally releasing the gasp I was holding.
“Dr. Rogers – that was quite a valiant act you accomplished over there.
- That’s very nice of you, Ezequiel, but no need for formalities. I believe we’ve passed that cap a long time ago.
- Of course, Tobias, I’m sorry. I have to say, I was quite surprised of the turn of that meeting though – it was like a completely new part of you emerged in the space of a second. Even I was rather bewildered, even after our bidecennial friendship,” I muse.
- Well, that’s just wonderful. I find it lovely, to learn more about others. You learn a little more everyday – I think that’s what makes life so very special. Wouldn’t you agree?
- I… Yes, I would.
I pause, fighting the instinctive furrowing of my brows at Dr. Rogers’ sentimental tone.
- Well, anyways, I suppose I should go,” I continue. “Again, thank you for protecting Friday – I look forward to, myself, having dinner with my family.
- Actually, I was hoping that you’d come to have dinner with me, and my family.
- I – pardon me?
- It’d be a shame for you to miss it – there’ll be food for this whole town, I’m afraid we’ve overestimated the extent of how much to cook for dinner.
I feel particles of confusion accumulating inside me, the humid feeling making me queasy. And yet, the precipitation is not enough to extinguish my spark of curiosity, now raging into flames. And anyways, this is Tobias, so why should I decline?
- That would be an honor. I suppose a home-cooked meal would be a welcome change to my routine.
- See you, then. I will send you the address.
I hold back a giggle.
- Tobias, I would hope I knew your address, by now. I should be able to find my way.
- Yes, well, this dinner is special, and so it will be held in a special place. Simply trust my word, my friend.
- I… suppose I can do that. I suppose I’ll see you around, Tobias.
- I would hope so.
As he opens the door, walking out swiftly as if without a care in the world, I exhale slowly.
What the hell did I just get myself into?
I ring the doorbell once. Twice. Thrice. I’m about to call Dr. Rogers when the front door finally opens, revealing a blond, slender woman in a black blazer. Under it, she wears a yellow long-sleeved shirt. On this cold, winter night, I would think her cold – were it not for the warm air escaping from inside. I can’t help but notice the lack of resemblance between her and Dr. Rogers – but I keep it to myself.
“Come in! You must be Ezequiel! I’m Gabrielle.”
And that’s how I enter the most luxurious mansion I have ever seen – a tall fountain in the main hall, black curtains trimmed with gold on either side of massive windows overlooking the Charles River. In the next room, I see rugs of all shapes and sizes, each in the fur of a different animal. A collection of moose and deer stare at me from the wall, as if judging me for even being here. And yet the way the light streams in from the bay windows, the way the ceiling could make way for a particularly tall truck if it were to do so… It all seems so open, so welcoming. In many ways, so unlike Dr. Rogers.
“As you can imagine, we haven’t heard a lot about you – Tobias is just not the most talkative person as you know. So you’ll have to catch us up over dinner!”
We finally enter what seems to be the living room, cozy chairs in various hues of green and grey spread out in between sofas. On the largest sofa in the room, closest to the fire, are pillows filled with cutesy-looking quotes. From where I am, I can just make out one of the quotes - “Aimer, c’est agir” – signed by Victor Hugo. Next to the said pillow is Dr. Rogers, already standing up to greet me. “Well! If it isn’t Ezequiel, here at last! I’m glad you could make it, really. Here, let me introduce you to everyone – this young lady is Margaret, and this is Kendall, her father. Next we have Tianna, a successful entrepreneur and CEO of a shoe-company. This is Dane – he works at MGH, and gave me surgery five years ago, when I had a tumor. Ah, fun times, weren’t they? Anyways – this is Anabella, and Miriam, And Gina – they’re triplets. And, well, this is Ezequiel.”
I randomly shake hands with people, not registering any of the names I’m being told just yet. As each person greets me warmly, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here; obviously, most of these people are not related – that much is inferable my the fact that the triplets are black where Dane is sun-kissed, while Tianna is pale as moonlight. So, why are they all here tonight, at a “family meeting”? And how do I fit in the picture?
Still, I play the game. I answer each and every question about myself, recounting how Tobias and I met at a coffee hour when the coffee machine was broken, explaining that I have two daughters who are still in middle school, and a dog named Brownie due to the caramel spots on his black fur. I even start telling stories about the mischief he’s done – like the time when he stole all of my left socks and buried them in a pile in our garden, and I had to wear only right-footed socks for a month, blaming my wife for losing the socks in the laundry, and going so far as to start doing my own laundry – and everyone just laughs. And they don’t laugh in a polite way; no, these people are whole-heartedly enjoying the tales I recall, thirsting for more. Tianna brings everyone crackers and cheese, and we all have champagne, and it all feels like the most natural thing in the world, and yet I still have no idea why I’m here. Finally, we all set to eat at a long wooden table, filled with dishes of all sorts and colors. The turkey and potatoes call to my attention, as if this were Thanksgiving.
And of course, it all tastes amazing. The gravy on the turkey makes it taste just so, and the potatoes have been baked long enough that the salt they were baked in has fully been absorbed by their charred skin. I eat happily, indulging as I haven’t in a long time, relieved to see that all are eating as carelessly as I. All the while, Gina and Miriam tease Dane about a girlfriend he apparently always alludes to but never invites anywhere, while Kendall helps Margaret cut turkey off the bone. As the night goes on, I start to suspect that if all of this seems very natural, it’s because it is – these people have clearly known each other for most, if not all, of their lives.
Silently, I call to Tobias’ attention. He sits near the fire, staring longingly into the hungry flames in the chimney fire, as if only half-registering the reunion around him.
- Ezequiel! I hope I’m not boring you with my small gathering – don’t hesitate to leave if you wish to, I’d understand if you wished to be with your true family.
- What? Tobias, this is lovely. I – I’m glad you decided to invite me. The food is delicious, and –
- Yes, well, Tianna is quite a brilliant cook, isn’t she?
- I – yes, I think so.
- Well that’s simply brilliant. So you’re enjoying this?
- More than I would a meeting at the office, that’s for sure.
- Well, I suppose that’s something. Only so much so, though?
I feel the room’s vibe shift as we speak, voices quieting as all bring their focus, to us, but I’m so absorbed that I hardly pay this any heed.
- No! I – I don’t regret my choice to come tonight. As much as I love my family, your… family is very much comfortable to be with.
As I say this, I notice a small smile grow on the corner of Tobias’ lip, as if he was just now realizing where and with who he was.
- Well! Then, I welcome you to my family.
- I – excuse me?
All of a sudden, cheers and giggles arise from the previously expecting silence in the room. I hear Maggie scream something about “a new member”, and Dane, sitting next to me, slaps me in the back. Confused, I hear myself continue –
- This isn’t really a family gathering, is it?
- No, it isn’t, but I believe you knew that all along,” chuckles Tobias. “No, this is a chosen family gathering – one where people are tied together by bonds stronger than blood. Once you’re in, you’re in – and contrary to being born into a family, this makes it so that everyone here consents to taking care of each other, no matter what.
- So what you’re saying is…
- Congratulations, Ezequiel, you just got a bigger family!” Gina squeals as she jumps to hug my neck.
Dumbstruck, I contemplate everyone, eating once again as if nothing had happened.
- How is this any different than just being friends?
- Because now, you can’t unfriend us – and you have to help us like we help you for the rest of your life! Isn’t it great?”
I start to think about this statement, wondering if Gabrielle actually meant to sound ironic, when my phone rings. Quickly, I realize it’s my wife. Silently waving my company away, signaling to my phone, I start to walk away from the table, already accepting the call.
- Z? Is that you? Listen – I don’t have much time to talk to you right now, but I just wanted to let you know that Lilianna is at the ER with me. She got burned when I took the fish sticks out of the oven – I guess some oil got on her arm. Anyways – she’s crying, and the doctors won’t let me in without some paperwork that I left at home, and I don’t even know how to afford this, and I’m sorry, because you don’t go out often and I didn’t want to ruin tonight for you, but –
- Josie, I’ll be right there, okay? Everything’s gonna be alright.
I’ve practically reached the front door when I hang up the phone, already grabbing my coat from the hanger I saw Gabrielle put it on in the entryway closet, and I’m turning the doorknob to go outside when –
- Ezequiel, everything alright? I saw you left in such a rush – what’s going on?
- I – Gina, really, it’s okay, I have to get –
- Did you not understand anything of what we just said?
- Yeah, we’re going to help you through this, whatever this is,” Tobias chimes in.
- That’s really nice, but my daughter’s in the hospital, and I don’t even know where I’m going to get the money to pay for the care, so –
- I’ll pay for the care!, goes Tianna.
- And I’ll give her the care!, continues Dane.
- And I’ll drive you to the hospital, says Tobias. You shouldn’t be driving.
- No, really – I have to go to my house first anyways, and –
- Then I’ll drive you to your house.
Suddenly, I realize how serious everyone is.
Looking intently into my eyes, we all go out as one chosen family.
Maybe we are.
“If one member of the family gets injured, we’re all injured”, I hear Kendall whisper to her daughter, complaining about being tired. “We gotta help your new sister out.”
“Sister!”, I hear her squeal.
“Father”, I feel myself whisper.