Once again, inevitably, Thanksgiving is upon us. Now, I know
common wisdom has it that Thanksgiving is a day to bond with family, and
express thankfulness for the past year’s bounty. But to be fair, Thanksgiving
isn’t without its pitfalls. Relatives for one (c’mon now, I know you’ve at least once looked at your
family members and asked yourself, “How can I possibly be related to these
people?”); politics for another. And let’s not forget football, which doesn’t
even promise the relief of a half-time show!
We don’t do a full family thanksgiving anymore—the reasons
for which are a whole other blog post; another time maybe. So, it’ll just be
us, the dogs, my brother and his wife and their son, our good friends who used
to live across the driveway from us, and my old, old, old friend Daniel. It’ll
be nice. It always is. And for that, I am grateful.
Let’s face it Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday—especially
if you’re LGBT. So, to honor the day and the difficulty of family, I am sharing
an excerpt from my semi-autobiographical novel, Unbroken. Naturally, it is the first Thanksgiving Lincoln takes
Jose home for the holiday.
Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s was a ritual, an inescapable obligation. And a torment. My mother made it clear Jose wasn’t welcome, so we used to drive up from Washington together and he’d go to his mother and I’d go to mine. My mother didn’t want him there, mostly, I assumed, because she always invited the hapless daughters of her friends and various cousins’ friends to dinner. These poor girls were clearly invited for my benefit. Often the brighter ones looked unhappy, as if being brought together with me—this slightly effeminate, and wholly uninterested man, clearly an impossible match—was the best anyone thought they could do.
This particular Thanksgiving, Jose insisted on accompanying me. Given what had happened at his mother’s, and that we hadn’t been to Sunday dinner since, I wasn’t surprised when he invited himself along. Fed up with my mother’s treatment of him, and determined that if there was no place for him, then I would make a place for him, or give up mine, I agreed. I did not tell my mother I would be bringing Jose to dinner.
My father answered the door. He looked surprised to see Jose but simply said hello.
“Is that Lincoln?” my mother called from the kitchen. “Come in here. I have a special guest I want you to meet.”
“Oh good,” I called heading for the kitchen, Jose in tow. “I have a special guest, too.”
I walked into the kitchen. My mother’s expression immediately darkened when she saw Jose.
“I brought Jose along,” I said, and kissed her cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
I glanced at the young woman beside her, who was bent over a bowl, her hands working furiously at some task. Spindly and hesitant, she looked like an exotic, upended bird in purple feathers and pleats, her upswept hair like a great bird’s nest atop her head. Silver bracelets striking, she perched on the edge of a stool. I realized she was shelling peas. My mother introduced us—she was aptly named Alouetta Byrd—then, grudgingly went into the dining room to set a place for Jose.
Alouetta looked at me carefully, through beady, mascaraed eyes, as if I were a plump worm washed up from the earth during the first heavy rain of spring after a long dry winter. Jose put his arm around me, his left hand clasping my right shoulder lightly, in a casual gesture that carried with it the possessiveness of long intimacy.
“Alouetta,” he said. “Is that French?”
She looked at him for the first time. Her eyes strayed back to where his hand lay on my shoulder. “Yes. I’m from Louisiana originally,” she said, shelling peas.
Later, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed my mother had produced place cards from…somewhere; her arrangement seated Jose as far away from me as possible. When I returned to the living room I whispered to Jose, “You will not be happy with the seating arrangements.” He immediately excused himself.
When he came back, he sat on the sofa beside me and smiled.
Alouetta, unnerved by Jose’s barely concealed hostility, and my own indifference, self-consciously wandered around the living room, examining the spines of the books on the shelves and picking up the family photos that dotted every surface like punctuation in a story of a family. She picked up a picture of me at age five.
“Oh! Lincoln is that you?”
“It is,” I said.
“Oh my,” she chirped. “Look at all those curls! You look like a girl!”
My mother tensed. My father and brothers, pretending to be engrossed in the football game on TV, acted as if they hadn’t heard her comment. Alouetta, realizing her mistake, put down the picture as if it had burned or bitten her. Turning to my mother she said brightly, “My, Mrs. de Chabert, there are certainly a lot of pictures of you!”
“What do you mean?” my mother asked darkly. “There are pictures of other people.”
“Yes, but you’re in those as well.”
I stifled a laugh. My father and brothers, refusing to get involved, without taking their eyes off the TV screen, talked loudly to each other about whatever had just happened on the football field. Jose looked at a picture of my parents on the end table beside him.
“Hey,” he whispered to me, “your parents look alike. Do you think we’ll begin to look alike?”
“No,” I whispered back. “They’ve always looked alike. They’re actually related somehow—though no one is quite sure how.”
“I can’t imagine marrying someone who looked like me,” Jose said. “What would be the point of that?”
Given my mother’s narcissism, I didn’t find it surprising she had fallen in love with a man who looked like her.
“I used to wish I looked like you,” I said.
“Because I used to think you were the handsomest boy in the world.”
“Now I think you’re the handsomest man in the world.” I glanced around then leaned in and kissed him quickly. My mother caught the movement and turned her attention on us.
“Hey,” she said loudly, “What are you two plotting over there?”
Everyone turned to look at us.
“Jose, move over so Alouetta can sit down,” my mother commanded, then excused herself to return to the kitchen. Jose scooted closer to me, forcing Alouetta to sit next to him rather than me as my mother had intended. She perched on the edge of the sofa and leaned around him to speak to me. Jose sat back stiffly and, ignoring us both, stared at the TV. Suddenly he turned to her.
“Alouetta—such a pretty name,” he said. “It’s from that children’s song isn’t it?” He started to sing: “Alouette, gentille alouette, je te plumerai…”
Alouetta stiffened. “That song,” she said, “is horrible. It’s about a lark that has her feathers, eyes and beak plucked because she woke someone with her singing!”
Jose, leaned toward me. “Oops,” he whispered cheerfully in my ear.
“Dinner’s ready,” my mother trilled.
“It’s show time,” Jose said, rising and tugging me to my feet.
I was startled when he sat next to me. I looked at him questioningly and he turned the place card so I could see his name. Seated directly opposite me, Alouetta looked distinctly displeased.
My mother came in with the turkey and stopped short when she saw Jose sitting next to me.
“Oh dear,” she exclaimed. “My place cards must have gotten mixed up. Jose, you’re supposed to be at the other end of the table.”
“Oh, Mrs. De Chabert, everyone is already seated and comfortable. Let’s not make everyone move.”
Their mutual dislike was palpable. My mother, who does not like to be challenged, conceded victory and sat at her usual place opposite my father. My father glared at us as he carved the turkey.
“We should say grace,” Jose said suddenly as everyone started to pass food. He took my hand, and then grasped the hand of my brother who sat on his left, forcing everyone to stop passing and receiving food so they could take the hand of the person next to them. His mumbled prayer went on and on; went on so long, in fact, that I kicked him under the table. He mumbled, “Amen” and everyone unclasped hands and picked up their forks. He continued to hold my hand though, until I tugged it away as discreetly as I could.
Across the table from me, Alouetta continued to stare at the spot where our hands had been. Looking at Jose, she asked, “How do you two know each other?”
“They were roommates in college,” my mother quickly answered.
Jose cut a piece of turkey with slow deliberation, and brought it to his mouth.
“Yes, he said. “Also we’re lovers.” He began to chew savagely.
My father dropped his fork and my brother started to laugh, but caught sight of my mother’s face and quickly stifled his mirth.
We left before dessert. On the way home in the car, I said, “Well that could have gone better!”
“I don’t think your brother likes me.”
“Which one?” I asked
“I don’t know. I can’t tell them apart. Rosencrantz, I think.”
I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart either, except one was vaguely hostile, while the other—the younger one—vacillated between indifference and aggressive neutrality. I thought of him as Little Mister Switzerland. Jose, however, always referred to them interchangeably as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“I think you mean Guildenstern,” I said, “but, it doesn’t matter. I like you.”
He flashed me a smile in the dark and reached for my hand, then brought it to his lips. “I love you, Spaceman.”
“I can’t believe your mother had the balls to try and set you up with that pathetic bitch right in front of me!”
“Hey look!” I pointed, hoping to distract him, “The Dairy Queen is open. Come on, I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
We parked and I got him a cone, refusing one for myself.
“I’ll just have a taste of yours,” I said on the way back to the car.
When he brought it to his mouth, I leaned in and licked it from the other side. His eyes danced in the dashboard light and we each licked the ice cream until our tongues met in a cold sticky kiss.
“Hah! I’d like to send your mother a picture of this,” he said.