I tried to pretend they weren’t there
That the land they inhabited was still perfect
When I was there
The lights on
The music swaying with a moody grin
It was like they disappeared
And I with them
Only the real me left
Only the real me dancing
To a sorrowless tune
Maybe that was my goal
Maybe this was to define me
To prove I was more
To prove I was not, in fact, lost
I stood nervously on the porch, meticulously dressed to perfection in a cute but modest sundress, flats, and a headband. I clutched my bowl of potato salad, scraping my fingernails on the hard plastic to distract my mind from my nerves. Footsteps approached the door. I took a deep breath.
“Just hang in there, relax, and don’t cuss,” I reminded myself.
The door flew open.
“Auntie Ellie!!” A small blonde girl with braces and a really cute dress (seriously, where did she get it, I want one!) threw her arms around me in an enthusiastic embrace. I laughed, returning her hug as best I could while balancing my dinner contribution.
“Ellie, hi!” Another smiling face appeared behind the girl.
“Hi mom,” I said, barely masking my anxiety. I grabbed my niece’s small hand and stepped inside to hug my mother. I caught a glimpse of my dad in the backyard, taking advantage of one last opportunity to use his new grill. Another little toddler boy was wandering around the backyard near my sister-in-law, wobbling like a drunken sailor. My brother was likely not far away. My mom invited me in, wiping her hands on her apron and requesting my help with the salad.
God my family is so fucking traditional.
Ok, this might be a good time for some background. In case you didn’t guess, this was my family. My parents, still married (I have to mention that because, let’s face it, it’s just not very common anymore), and me and my baby brother. My brother got married young to a crazy psycho-bitch born-again Christian – my parents adore her, of course – and they have an 8-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. Both kids are adorable and SO much fun to be around…when I get to be around them, that is. You’ll understand what I mean here in a minute.
I walked through the finely decorated and spotless living area into the kitchen. You’d hardly know there was any cooking going on. Every dish was perfectly spaced, the counters clean, and bowls of sides and toppings were laid out on the clothed kitchen table with the organization of a game of Tetris. I poked my head out the back door and nodded hello to my lovely sister-in-law, Jenny. She gave me a genuine smile followed by frantic eye movement towards the house to determine where her kids were.
No, I did not set up a stripper pole in the living room for your kids to play on…
“Tommy’s over by the garden,” she explained, knowing as well as I did that we’d both rather pass the time swimming in mud-encrusted elephant dung than spend more than two minutes together. I snuck around to the side of the house, tip-toeing (as if it mattered in the grass). Tommy was facing away from me, examining the garden. Oh I had him good! I snuck up behind him and threw myself on his back, almost sending him barreling into the tomatoes.
“Ellie! It’s about fucking time!” He cried, laughing and wrestling me to the ground. God it was nice to have at least one person here I could be myself with.
“Watch your mouth, young man!” I scolded. “Or no potato salad for you!”
He laughed again. “In that case: fuck, fuck, the fucking fuckers.”
I cringed at the thought of his wife overhearing him, but at the same time, I kind of hoped she did. It was about time she let my baby brother just be who he is. He dragged me to my feet and pulled me in for a big hug.
“Goddamnit, how long has it been since you visited? Those guys at the club must really like you for some reason.”
I gave him a sturdy punch in the shoulder. “At least someone likes me,” I teased. “Where’s Dad? He was by the grill when I came in…”
“He probably stepped into ‘the lieu’,” he smirked. Oh dear. Mom and dad had taken a trip to Paris for their anniversary and, ever since, Dad had taken to calling everything by its French name. His way of bringing home a souvenir, I suppose? We headed back around the house to the grill. My dad stepped out of the house looking very pleased with his smoking pile of meat. I gave him a hug and let him give me a tour of the various types of juicy flesh we had waiting for us for dinner.
I sat on one side of the table next to my niece, Kendra. Opposite me were Tommy and Jenny with Mom and Dad bringing up the ends of the table and my nephew, Scott, making a mighty beautiful mess on the tray of his high chair off to Jenny’s left. In front of me lay the juiciest most succulent burger I’d ever seen.
“You truly are an artist, Dad.” I complimented. A proud grin overtook his face.
“Allons-y” he said. Several pairs of eyes rolled, I won’t admit whether or not my mother’s was one of them…
I didn’t get home-cooked meals too often. I made good enough money that I could eat out most meals and I typically only kept snacks and sandwich fixings around the house. A nice juicy non-fast food burger was a welcome entrant to my vacant belly. I savored every bite as Tommy went on about his work at the engineering firm and dad drawled on about the trip to Paris.
I didn’t finish my burger. I couldn’t. Not that I didn’t want to, but I could only imagine the discomfort the following day of trying to pull myself up and down a pole with a huge burger digesting in the pits of my bowels… No. Just half. The pitfalls of being a stripper.
“I’m looking forward to voting for Anderson,” my dad continued as my attention veered back to the dinner conversation. “We need someone like him in office to clean things up.” Jenny and mom both nodded in agreement.
“He’s such a nice looking man, too.” My mom giggled.
I huffed, “Oh come on, mom, really? You’re going to choose your political candidates based on looks?” I teased.
She returned a laugh. “Well, can you even imagine having to look at Boswell’s face every day? We’d lose political interest on that fact alone!”
We all laughed and Jenny launched into a speech about her support of Anderson’s social politics. Tommy nodded in agreement even though I knew he didn’t agree – actually he didn’t really care much for politics in general. Which was probably a good thing for the sake of their relationship.
“You can really tell an honest candidate by the way they carry themselves,” Dad commented, his eyes on me. He knew I was his only opposition in the room. He desperately wanted me to see things his way. “Anderson speaks openly and carries himself with class. Boswell, on the other hand, gives me the distinct impression that he’s hiding something.”
I shrugged. “Maybe. But the real mark of a good candidate, is the role of their spouse.” Jenny’s ears perked up. “Look at Boswell’s wife – she’s involved in his campaign, giving speeches, writing books, and speaking intelligently on the subject of politics. She doesn’t just stand there and daintily applaud her husband; she gets involved with his campaign and causes she cares about.”
My dad shifted uncomfortably in his chair. My mom had been a stay-at-home mom most of her life so I knew this was a point of contention. But they knew I supported her fully, and anyways this conversation wasn’t about her – it was about politics.
“Look at Anderson’s wife – actually, it’s hard to look at her because she’s never around. She’s completely uninvolved and uninterested in what happens in her own town. And he’s clearly never asked her to share her opinion on any prevailing issues. He shuts her away behind a locked door.”
“Sometimes moms have more important things to focus on,” Jenny suggested, gesturing towards her kids.
I nodded. “Perhaps. But they don’t have any kids. So where does that leave her?”
An uncomfortable silence ensued. I decided to round off my end of the discussion. “Well, anyways, I don’t think there exists an honest politician in the first place, so I’m not sure it even matters who gets elected,” I joked.
“Speaking of dirty politicians!” Tommy piped in with a political joke he’d read on Facebook and the conversation moved on to other things, namely Tommy’s recent promotion and Kendra’s first days of 2nd grade.
“Sounds like things are going very well for you, Tommy,” mom cajoled. She turned to me. “How are things going for you, Ellie? How is…um, well…”
Her eyes darted around the room nervously, desperately seeking some subject she could ask me about that wouldn’t make her look like a judgmental ass. Too late. Flustered, she finally blurted out “how are things at the house?”
Sigh. It was like this every time. But my family weren’t ones to attack a subject head-on so it was difficult to try to discuss their discomfort with my career decisions in any productive terms. The topic would typically change very quickly and very acutely.
“Things at work are fine, mom,” I finally gave in. I couldn’t do it anymore. For God’s sake, it’s just a job. “I got to give the mayor a lap dance this week,” I announced with an overly-enthusiastic smile. “Quite the squirmy guy for a married republican! Had no idea his interests were so diverse.”
Jenny choked on her burger. Mom and Dad froze. Tommy started laughing.
“I knew it!” He cried. “That rat bastard, not a word of truth comes out of his mouth.” Jenny kicked him under the table. He always enjoyed my unexpected and inappropriate dinnertime commentary. I picked up my plate and walked it to the sink, enjoying the heat from my parents’ embarrassment radiating into the back of my head.
Yeah, ok, I probably went a little far. But there’s really only so much condescension and intolerance I can handle. This is my fucking life. Deal with it or disown me.
When I sat back down, Mom and Dad had started to recover but Jenny was glowering at me.
“Kendra,” She commanded, eyeing her daughter sitting next to me, “Come sit over here by mommy.”
“But I’m not done – ” Kendra wined.
Kendra picked up her plate and moved around the table.
I scoffed. “Come on, Jenny, are you serious? Stripping isn’t contagious, you know.”
“You can’t talk about stuff like that around kids,” she seethed, her hands covering Kendra’s ears. “I won’t have her exposed to your…your filth.”
“Jenny, I can only say this so many times before I lose hope that you will ever understand: my work and my life with my family are separate things. I will never reveal the gory details of my work with your kids and I will never ask you to come for a friendly visit with me and my whores.”
“Don’t say that word!!” She cried, standing in protest, increasing her grip on Kendra’s ears so that she cried out. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “If you only knew how badly you need Jesus in your life…”
I made a big display of rolling my eyes. Jenny jumped to her feet. “Tommy, it’s time to go. Ellie, I’ve had enough disrespect – stay away from my kids, please, until you can learn to clean up that mouth.”
My face flushed red with embarrassment and horror. “Excuse me? I’m their aunt! What on earth could I do to them that would be so bad?”
“I will pray for you,” was her only response. She exchanged a knowing glance with Mom.
“You know what? No.” I protested. “I’ll leave. Clearly you’re not the only one who’s not comfortable having me here.” I glared at my parents as I collected my potato salad. They stared into their plates as I stormed out.
I got about halfway down the driveway when I heard Tommy behind me.
“Ellie! For gods sake, wait!”
“I don’t want to hear you defend her,” I moaned. “How on earth did you end up married to that bitch anyways? She has no right! I’ve been nothing but wonderful to those kids.” I choked on the last word as tears snuck their way out of my eyelids and onto my cheeks.
“Come on, Ellie, you know how she is,” Tommy sighed. “She’s just angry, she’ll get over it. I’ll talk to her later. Just please don’t be mad. She doesn’t mean it. If you guys would just try for one fucking second to try to understand…”
“I am not the problem here, Tommy. Don’t even go there right now. I love you, Tommy, and I love the kids, but…”
“I know…” He conceded.
“I can only handle so much berating and insults. I don’t know what to do anymore…” I trailed off. I just wanted to leave; to go home and curl up on my soft bed and pretend I had no family at all.
“I’ll talk to her, okay? I promise. Just don’t be mad at me.”
“I could never be mad at you.” I gave him a warm sisterly hug. “Now get back in there and clean up my mess. You’ve always been good at that.”
He smirked and ran back inside as I slumped into my car and tore off towards home.
At least I had Tommy.
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