The cold wind of December stung my face with random blows. I waited outside, hoping that someone would hear the doorbell amid the celebrations.
"Oh... It's you!" Mom's words came out in wavering chunks. She then opened the door wide enough for me to squeeze in. I took out my coat and put my backpack down. I looked up. Mom looked at me with her eyes wide, her lips pursed in a tentative smile. I leaned in to kiss her cheek, but she opened her arms to welcome me.
"It's good to see you. Really," she murmured while I was in her arms.
After what I guess was the "welcome back" embrace, I followed Mom to the dining room. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! My heart went crazy as we walked past the living room. I could not tell if it was nervousness or excitement. Either one could be birthed by two years of absence after all.
My heartbeats slowed down when a mixed perfume of hot dishes filled the air bringing the great flood into my mouth. In the amalgam of smell, I could already distinguish the roasted turkey.
All seats were taken at the dinner table. Before meeting the eyes fixing me, I looked at the table. With its different shades of pink, the potato salad was adjacent to a plate of brown rice. I smiled at the sight of the fried plantain placed next to a bowl of pikliz, a cabbage slaw seasoned with garlic and onion, which was my grandma's legacy. The lasagna, with its golden and tender skin, was shining under the light bulb. Finally, my eyes set on the masterpiece: the vast roasted turkey surrounded by rondelles of fried potatoes and vegetables.
" Ollie!" The shrill voice of my younger sister dragged me back to reality. Maddie ran to me, and I raised her high in the air before settling her in my arms.
"Now, that's a surprise," Kale said, coming forward.
" What's up, lil' bro?" He asked while giving me a one-arm hug.
"Same old," I replied with a small smile.
I breathed hard before my eyes met the last person sitting at the table. His face could not bury his surprise, but he
stayed glued to his chair. Time seemed to stop as everyone around me froze before I summon enough courage to say, "Good evening, Father."
" Oliver. We didn't expect you."
I gulped, " I decided to come at the last minute."
" Very practical of you," he answered, then took a bite of lasagna, his eyes away.
I put Maddie down and sat on the chair that Mom offered. For a moment, only the sounds of mouths chewing were to be heard. As the heavy silence reigned, I wondered if it was a wise choice to come without telling anybody.
Finally, mom asked me, " How is college?"
"Good. I learn a lot, and the campus is huge," I answered, trying to sound less enthusiastic than I was.
" It's better be huge because it costs a fortune even to step in there," Kale said.
" It's a trap to get money from poor folks like us, and some are naive enough to fall in it. Just think about these ridiculous lifelong loans. So not worth it!" my father added.
I was perceptive enough to see the pleading looks Mom was giving Father. They had some effects because my father asked, "What are you going to school for?"
" I am planning to major in Biology and minor in English."
He raised his eyebrow, " English?"
" Yes. I am currently working on a book. It will be my side occupation."
My father coughed loudly and pushed Mom's hand away as she was handing him a tissue.
"Side occupation? You have enough time for side occupation, and you want to spend it writing nonsense instead of working at the bistro?"
He finally dropped it. The source of our disagreement. The cause of the tension thickening the air: me refusing to be a part of the family's business.
Fearing for a bigger explosion, I turned to mom, " Mmm, these plantains are just as crunchy as I like. Thanks, mom."
She smiled, "I would like to take the credit, but I only made the salad. Kale took care of everything else."
"You outdid yourself," I complimented my brother.
He gave me a thumbs-up.
"He always does," Father said, looking directly at me.
He did not use any figurative language. I knew exactly what he meant. For as long as everyone could remember, cooking was my father's passion. His raison d’etre even. His three children's names are one of the thousands of proofs. Oliver, Kale, and Madeleine.
Kale was everything he could hope for. Down-to-earth, loyal, and what my father called a cordon bleu. At ten, he could already prepare breakfast for all of us.
At ten, I could write flash fiction and tell the Latin names of the bones of the middle ear. On the other hand, Kale was never a scholar; he graduated with the help of dedicated tutors. It didn't matter for Father since his son could make the perfect Bechamel sauce. Not too fluid, not too creamy.
My mom had to coach me for months with remarkable patience until I could make an okay omelet, and still, it didn't tickle my father's tastebuds hard enough. Aware of my pluses and minuses, I always knew that I wouldn’t work at the family bistro. However, my father stormed in rage when I got the academic scholarship from Goldbridge University. Me leaving means that the bistro would lack a helping hand. Fierce at the time, I ignored the commands, the threats, and what came at the last minute: the supplications.
"What is the name of your book?" Maddie asked.
"I don't know yet," I answered honestly but quickly to avoid this conversation.
"I want to be a writer when I grow up. Just like you," she said while my eyes grew wide.
What I feared the most at this moment came in a blast, "Maddie! How many times should I tell you not to talk while eating? Damn it!"
We all looked at each other in disbelief. For as long as I can remember, he has never yelled at Maddie. I could see Mom tremble hard enough to spill half of her red wine on the table. The red liquid quickly spread on the white cloth.
"But, Daddy," The stubborn child started.
" Baby, eat your food. Please," Mom simply said while fumbling to clean the mess she made. We all fell into a heavy silence that lasted till the end of dinner. Kale threw his attention on his food. From time to time, he would shoot me a sympathetic look. Maddie’s eyes were fixed on her dad while eating. She looked lost and disappointed. Mom had a plastic smile on her face. She looked like a cheap doll with an upward curve under her nose that served as a redeeming quality. And my dear father? He seemed bored.
While we were putting our plates in the sink, my father called, "Son."
Kale and I turned our heads simultaneously, but my brother was the one to go to him.
What a fool I was to even turn my head! Son. A word dripping with warmth and honor. A word that no longer described me, I guess.
A few minutes later, we were gathered in the living room. Maddie was watching The Princess Switch while the adults were discussing politics. I sat on the couch texting a college friend, my heart aching whenever he mentioned the warm welcome of his family. For a moment, my eyes wandered on the wall and focused on what we called the Shelf of fame,where we kept all the trophies and recognition. I instantly noticed a void. After putting my phone down, I went closer to the shelf to get a better look. My certificates of achievement, my gold medals, and my blue ribbons were nowhere to be found.
"Mom, where are my trophies?" I asked.
She gulped but stayed quiet.
I looked around. Everyone but Maddie was avoiding my eyes.
"I threw them away," my father said with a tone that did not leave room for discussion.
For the first time in years, I was not intimidated by his authoritarian voice.
"How could you?" I asked.
"It's not like you needed them," he replied, his face placid.
"But, they are mine!" I said louder than I expected.
"We don't have enough space in this house."
My eyes explored his face looking for a hint of shame or regret. I didn't want to hear it. I just wanted to see it creasing his features. Even a little.
There was none.
Without a word, I stormed off the room to step into the patio. The wind welcomed me once again. Somehow, it felt warm on my face compared to what has experienced inside. I tried hard to put a bridle on my tears, but some found their way out.
"It's time to tuck me in."
I turned around and saw Madeleine in her pink pajamas. I followed her to the room and quietly tucked her into the woolen blankets.
"How come your book doesn't have a name?"
" I will come up with one," I forced myself to answer. Unfortunately, I was not in the mood for a conversation.
She slid her hand under her pillow and took out a paper bag that she handed to me. I felt a squeeze inside of me when I saw the content of the bag. It was the first prize I've ever received. At seven years old, I overcame my shyness and recited "If" by Rudyard Kipling in front of my class. I delivered this masterpiece with the suave demeanor and the powerful tone it deserved. My performance was so impressive that I came home with the gold medal. By gold medal, I mean a yellowish trinket that my teacher got from the Dollar Store, but it meant so much more to me. It has witnessed the dawn of my love for writing.
"That's the only one I could save," she said sheepishly, her big eyes scanning my face.
"Thank you, Maddie… So much. You don't know how much that means to me," I said.
I kissed her forehead and stood up to leave, clutching the trinket close.
As soon as I touched the doorknob, a light bulb turned on in my brain.
"I know the name of my book," I told Maddie.
Her face lit up.
"It's Black Sheep," I announced.
"Like in Baa Baa Black sheep?"
"Exactly!" I replied.
She laughed even more.
"Everyone already knows Baa Baa Black Sheep."
"You're right. However, in my story, the sheep has four bags full for everyone."
She raised an eyebrow.
I quickly added, "However, only the little girl who lived down the lane wanted the wool."
She smiled at me. I wasn't sure why. Did her young mind grasp the comparison, or was she just supportive as always?
Nevertheless, I smiled back and kissed her a second time.