Drama Holiday

He’s wearing a sweater vest, red and green knit argyle hugging the slight curve of his belly. I try not to stare. Mom never bought anything like this for Dad, which means that Rick must have bought this for himself. I picture him browsing a rack of sweater vests at Macy’s, muzak wafting lightly as he runs his soft, manicured fingers over the acrylic (this one’s too heavy, this one’s too itchy…) and evaluates the merits of different patterns (too loud, trapezoids aren’t really me…). This, to me, is the essence of Rick.

Not that I know much about him. I know he's a dentist—my mom’s dentist, but I don’t know for how long before. Before they got married, all of the sudden over Labor Day weekend, calling the kids home from a semester just started. 

I try not to think about how it happened, their first encounter: He bends over her open mouth. “You have lovely molars, Mrs. Caldwell. Really, they show the wear of a much younger woman.”

“Fank you,” my mom says around the cold metal of his scaler. “Gut ihf’s Miv Cawdwehw gnow.” And their eyes lock and they see each other anew. Maybe they took laughing gas together—something he’s never done, not even in dental school, and he’s not sure what possessed him to do it, except to impress this irresistible patient. 

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. I just think there must have been some grand gesture. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Mom about it. “It’s not a story for the phone,” she said, politely shutting me down in the way she often would. 

How do you even have that conversation with someone who’s so obviously infatuated she can’t see straight. Mom is just not herself anymore. I watch her now—the way she says Riiick, all sing-songy, treasuring the vowel on her tongue like some sweet raspberry as a little smile tugs—no, caresses!—the corners of her mouth. “Riiick reupholstered the chairs for today.”

Sure enough, the worn brown seats of our old dining set have been transformed with the aid of burgundy damask.

I just know he’s not her type, which is to say he’s nothing like Dad, who I thought was her type, which means I know nothing, apparently.

“Come for Thanksgiving,” she’d said. “Riiick is making his famous roasted squash casserole. You can see Candace and Larry. She’s about your age, you know? I want us to get to know each other better. To be a family.”

I hadn’t told her what I really thought. No thanks. I already had a family and you and Dad broke it. These were not the kinds of things we said in that broken family. Those words smoldered in my throat, but somehow they just came out as smoke. I could smell it hanging bitter in the air. “Okay. Whatever.”

Now I look around the house where I grew up. It’s eerily similar to the way it always was. The same setting, but a different story. That’s the part I can’t get over. Dad’s concert posters have been cleared out, of course, and then the new burgundy on the dining set, and a few new smiling glass angels in the china cabinet. Does Rick really collect angels? I want to believe he does, that it’s not just a treasured hand-me-down from his grandma or something. I want to picture him combing through antique shops on weekend getaways to small towns, looking for the figurine with the most angelic teeth. I throw the image into the ridiculous Rick Salad for which I’m concocting a recipe in my mind.

I wish I had a brother to roll my eyes with. I sense Candace and Larry evaluating me with the secret nonverbal language of siblings. They share the same smile as Candace says, “It’s nice to see you again, Matilda.” 

Their matching gray eyes travel in unison to my hair, taking in its forest green ombre. As if it’s my fault they’re boring. I had two kittens once whose eyes moved together in that same way when I’d drag a toy across the carpet. They’re looking at me like I’m something to pounce on. 

And yet Mom and Rick are trying to Brady Bunch us together, a perfect blond Marsha and a bitter, green-haired Jan. She probably imagines us renting cabins in the snow together, waking up for lazy mornings with fleece blankets and hot chocolate (give mine a splash of rum). Maybe a friendly game of Monopoly if Rick has anything to do with it. I look at Larry with his sparkling, straight teeth and neat brown hair. He probably takes Monoploy seriously, probably has his favorite properties—those yellow ones or the green ones. He probably insists on a certain game piece like the shoe or the cowboy or something. 

“You’re going to love our Thanksgiving,” Candace says in a voice that reminds me of candied yams. “Dad’s a great cook.”

“Yeah, my mom, too,” I say and, though it’s true she has her signature fruit salad, I acknowledge that she had been mostly happy to outsource Thanksgiving to relatives or grocery stores. Canned cranberries while she curled up in the corner with a book or papers to grade. 

“Your mom is not really the domestic type,” Dad would say with a wink. “That’s why I married her.”

But I wasn’t about to concede that to the new wicked step-siblings. Not when they were seated on my sofa, smiling at my hair with fraternal irony. 

Our three sets of eyes, two gray, one brown, drift to the kitchen, where Mom and Rick bustle, oblivious to our stand-off. I watch them chop and stir, watch the way their elbows brush together as they move through the little U-shaped kitchen, watch their foreheads almost touch as they lean over the same pot on the stove and inhale, watch him feed her a taste of gravy, sliding the spoon into her lips as gently as if it were wedding cake. 

Had she ever been this way with Dad? I tried to remember. I see her in the kitchen alone, transferring a grocery carton of chopped vegetables into grandma’s wedding china while my dad and uncles are absorbed in a football game. She was happy, though. At least, I never thought of her smile as anything like an apron, keeping the precious thing underneath unsullied and hidden. 

Looking at her there in the kitchen with Rick, I want to know. I want to take her aside and ask her, were you ever happy before? Was it all a lie? Was I a part of that lie? It all came unraveled so quickly in the end, after I left for college. And now, a whole new sweater vest…

“Okay, troops, gather ‘round,” Rick calls in a rich tenor as he carries a steaming casserole dish to the dining room table. He sets it on a waiting trivet. I didn’t even think we owned trivets. 

I add the fact that he just called us troops to my Rick Salad as Candace and Larry join him around the table, taking hold of one another’s hands. Mom sets down her fruit salad and laces her fingers through Rick's on his free hand. She gestures to me, a small wave.

In the old days, with Dad and his family, this would be our cue to sit down and start serving ourselves. But I take my place next to Mom and place my hand inside her wiggling fingers.

Rick clears his throat, more ceremoniously it seems that to dislodge any phlegm. I add this to the salad.

“This has been an amazing year,” he began. “I’ve reconnected with the love of my life…”

I don’t know where to look. I try to take it all in—the little warning flash that consumes my mom’s blue eyes as they dart quickly to Rick, the crestfallen frowns of Candace and Larry, the dark abyss brewing inside of me. It’s that word reconnected that implies their whirlwind romance may just have been the eye of the storm. That means there are things Mom hasn’t mentioned.

Rick continues, oblivious, “...and I’m so thankful that we can all be here today, a fresh start, the beginning of a new family. I am thrilled to welcome Alex and Matilda into my family.”

He drops Mom’s and Candace’s hands to reach for a pile of what I thought were cloth napkins in the middle of the ivory tablecloth. “Every year in my family we wear our Thanksgiving bibs…”

Larry and Candace exchange sibling smiles as they accept the fabric from their father. I watch them unfold the brown cloth and clasp it around their necks. Each bib has the owner’s name embroidered across the top, over a silkscreened wild turkey, foraging in a misty forest, its feathers spread in a proud display. Oh. My. God.

“...and this year I'm so thrilled to present Alex and Matilda with their own bibs, as part of the family for many years to come.”

He clasps a bib around my mom’s neck like he’s bestowing a jewel, and I see my mom flush. I can only hope it’s out of embarrassment. Did Candace and Larry’s mom have her own bib, I wonder? How recently had she worn it?

“Matilda.” Rick extends his hand toward me. “I would be honored if you’d wear our bib. Welcome to the Miller Family.” He fumbles, pressing his lips under his closely trimmed goatee. “The Miller-Caldwell-Medina Family.”

I feel the heavy brown fabric in my hand. Does he think we’re having Thanksgiving in the dentist’s chair?

“Now let’s chow down!” Rick takes his seat at the head of the table—my table. I look at mom as she sinks into the soft burgundy cushion to his right. I will her to look up, to meet my eyes.

I’m the only one still standing, still holding the stupid bib. It’s a mantle that feels too heavy to don. 

Mom looks up. Her voice is soft when she says, “Til…?” It’s a wet, sodden softness that holds a thousand words of subtext like a sponge. Til, please do this for me now. Til, we’ll talk later. Til, are you okay? Til, this is weird. Til, please.

I look down at my hands, at the insipid turkey. I can’t. 

The bib drifts to the floor as my feet travel over the beige tiles down the hall. I flop onto my old bed, throwing my body over the flowered blue bedspread. Everything looks just the same, but it smells like a different kind of laundry detergent. It feels like a glitch in my memory.

I don’t hear Mom’s soft-soled flats moving down the hall. I only hear the soft tap on the door. Long, short-short, short-long-short-short. It could only be Mom.

“Go away!” I wonder if she still has her bib on. If she’d float back to the table and Rick’s squash casserole, which is sending smells of butter and gruyere and onions through the house, or if she would work for me. I think the mom I knew—the Mom I think I know—would pick gruyere. 

There’s silence outside. I start to think she's chosen gruyere when I hear her. “Til, please…”

“Answer one question,” I say.

The door cracks open. Mom slides in wordlessly and sits on the foot of the bed. She’s taken off her bib.

“Why Rick?” The words escape me, hissing like steam from an engine. Compressed.

“Because I love him,” she says with a simple shrug, as if it were that simple. “Now will you come back with me?”

“No,” I say. “I really want to understand. How can you love Rick? He’s…” I search for the words and find myself grabbing at my chest, where a bib would have rested. I settle on different. “He’s so different. From me and Dad and you. At least, who I thought you were. It’s like I don’t even recognize you anymore.”

“Honey, haven’t you ever heard of opposites attract?” Her voice is light, but I see her touch a hand to her silver-streaked hair.

I don’t dignify her quip with a response. I won’t let her get away with lightness. Not today. I want the truth. I’ve always realized my mom was a deep pond, but I never suspected that what I could glimpse on the surface was just a shimmering illusion. I wonder what kinds of monsters swim beneath, and if they will consume me once I find them, negating everything I thought I remembered or knew to be true. “How long?” I ask. “How long have you loved him?”

Mom sighs. “Always. But I didn’t realize until it was too late.”

“And Dad?”

“Yes, I loved him in the beginning. For a long time, actually. It’s not mutually exclusive.”

“It absolutely is. That’s the point!” I hiss. 

“Well, not at the same time!” She’s raised her voice, and she tries to swallow it back down. “Til, life is complicated. Feelings are complicated. Do I need to tell you that? But here is something simple in my life: I would not change one thing that brought you into it.”

If she expects me to melt into a pile of soft yarn she’s mistaken.

“You are my life. I want you to be part of this life. I’m sorry it all happened so quickly. I mean, I’m not, but I’m sorry it’s complicated things with you. We should have had this conversation before. I’m not good at this, but I’m learning. Rick has actually been really helpful. He’s so...open. I think that’s one of the things I love about him.” And there’s that smile caressing the corners of her lips.

“That and his bibs.” 

“Bibs and all.” Mom directs her smile at me, the same sort of conspiratorial smile that Candace and Larry might have exchanged. “I think they’re sweet,” she says.

“Love and reason keep little company together,” I say. “I always thought you were reasonable at least.”

“There are lots of reasons to love Rick. Starting with his cooking,” Mom says. “Will you come out and give it a chance?” She rises and walks out the door, back to her bib and her casserole. I can smell it again, bubbling fat and salt and acid, when she opens the door.

Mom turns around and smiles at me over her shoulder before she disappears down the hall. If not for that gesture, I don’t know if I would even think about following her out there. 

I’m still trying to sort out the truth of our lives, if any accurate truth exists. How well can a child know her parents? But here’s one truth that dawns on me: I like this version of Mom better.

November 28, 2020 02:04

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David G.
12:29 Dec 04, 2020

I enjoyed this, as I always enjoy your stories. The dentist/Thanksgiving bins are a nice touch. The daughter seems to change her mind very suddenly at the end. What exactly is it about the mother’s look as she leaves the daughter’s room that does it?


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Shea West
16:35 Nov 29, 2020

"Love and reason keep little company together." That's the darn truth. A Rick Salad had me chuckling. I always look forward to your stories!


A.Dot Ram
17:51 Nov 29, 2020

Thanks! I giggled a lot while i wrote the first part of this story. It's great to hear your thoughts.


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Julie Ward
16:09 Nov 28, 2020

Well, I went and got too busy...and I've missed your writing! It's always a pleasure to read your stories. Everything about this one feels so messy and so real. I can picture the whole scene - haven't we all lived it in one way or another? Everyone trying to skate around the elephant in the room while one person just sits underneath it, right there at the Thanksgiving table. You really created a great character in Rick-he's likeable and he's trying, but I kind of feel the same way that Matilda feels about him. I think it's the Rick salad....


A.Dot Ram
17:43 Nov 28, 2020

I am still chuckling aloud at the bibs. It's so ridiculous. I blame the Thanksgiving port wine. It's great to hear from you. I'm still processing my thoughts on yours, but I'll leave them with you soon.


Julie Ward
17:50 Nov 29, 2020

The bibs, thanksgiving in the dentist's chair...it's hilarious and horrifying all at the same time. I love it! Here's to that Thanksgiving port!!


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Jill Davies
05:41 Nov 28, 2020

Such a good job of portraying the awkwardness of young adult children in their parent’s second act. I love the Rick salad. It’s very in -theme, and perhaps a hint at the connection point Matilda could find with her new father in law. And excellent Easter egg 😉


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Cole Lane
01:18 Jun 24, 2021

Wow, I tend to read stories with more over-the-top events and world-threatening problems, the bomb is always ticking somewhere. :) This had more impact than any of that. Really it was in the way you show, there is no telling, there is feeling, sarcasm, uncertainty, and humor. The contrast in character types was shown in the perfect hair and disapproving glances. I wanted to not like Rick, I wasn't sure if there was really anything wrong with him, but Matilda didn't like him, so I had to be on her side. :) Larry and Candace could probably...


A.Dot Ram
02:20 Jun 24, 2021

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. This story always cracks me up. I think all the "kids" are predisposed to being suspicious of each other, suddenly thrown together as they are. Maybe there will be something to like about Larry and Candace and Rick once the ice thaws. For now, I'm glad you found the main character relatable enough to share her biases.


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Soumya Garg
10:31 Dec 27, 2020

Hi, I am in love with your work! You truly are an inspiration. I am Soumya, an aspiring author and I have written my debut novel, a crime mystery novel and now I am looking for beta readers and writers who can review my work and CRITIQUE it and tell me about it so that I can polish my work and improve to my best. If you want and if your time permits, I can send only one chapter of my book to you so that you can read it and tell me about it, maybe on your e-mail ? It would be a great help. PS : No pressure. I totally understand if you do...


A.Dot Ram
16:55 Dec 27, 2020

Soumya, thank you. I received your message and I'm interested in reading your chapter. That's awesome you've written a whole novel, and I'm actually working on building an editorial consulting service. This would be great experience. You can find my email by visiting the contract page on www.editsbyanne.com.


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