…But sometimes, home means silence. Home means hiding. Home means constantly being on edge. And so we’re careful.
It is nearly dark by the time we arrive. Through the fading winter light I can see the white, New England style house silhouetted against the trees. There are two SUVs parked on the lawn which doubles as a driveway – necessary vehicles to make it up the crumbling dirt road to the house. Claire stops her car next to them, and as the engine dies we simultaneously exhale. “Anything else I should know before we go in?” I ask. Claire has been prefacing each new round of introductions with brief sketches of the people I am about to meet – longtime friends-turned-family; fixtures in her life. Sometimes these sketches come off more as disclaimers.
She smiles. “Hmmmm… No. No, they’re great, you’ll be fine.” She kisses me on the cheek.
As we clunk up the wooden steps, a dog starts to bark, and I can see a blur of white and black fur as he paces in front of the glass door. “Just do the signal when you’re ready to leave,” she adds, scratching behind her right ear to demonstrate before opening the door without knocking. It leads into a small kitchen, where the family sits around a table playing cards. Their eyes, first falling on Claire, soon rest on me. Some of them stand up. I give a nervous smile and wait for the introduction.
“Everyone, this is my partner, Mical.” I nod, giving a meek wave of my hand. Claire goes around the table, stating everyone’s name, but I have shaken too many hands over the past few days to remember many of them. The parents are called Glenn and Karen. Their son, daughter, and her boyfriend are there too. Hugs are exchanged, and soon two extra chairs are produced and we all sit back around the table.
Glenn is the first person I notice, and perhaps it’s because he makes a point of noticing me. He’s a tall man with chubby cheeks and gray hair receding above an almost reflective forehead. A faint pink button-down is tucked neatly into his jeans over a perfectly round gut. When he sits, his posture is as crisp as the shirt, and something in his mannerisms remind me of a pastor. His deep-set blue eyes have barely left my face since we arrived. His son, in contrast, seems completely uninterested in me. He sits with his hood up, staring at his cards and saying little.
Karen leans forward over the table. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Water?” She has a genial face – round, and gently lined, her white cheeks glazed with a slight pink. I politely decline as she and Claire rise to get drinks, choosing instead to take in the house. The tiny kitchen opens directly into the living room, and even the décor is consistent between them. Everything in here seems too cute; ceramic dolls, model cars, windmills and other items my mother unceremoniously refers to as “chotchskies” line the windowsills and tops of bookcases; A hand sewn tea cozy covers the baby blue kettle, a knitted pastoral picture presides over the living room. Crucifixes and rosaries dangle from a hook on the far wall. The room is small, full – without seeming crowded, and brimming with softness. An overstuffed couch and a velvety-looking recliner calmly face each other, a thick, dark blue wall-to-wall carpet running beneath them. The whole space is bathed in a warm yellow light emanating from little lamps in the corners. It all looks so unbearably comfortable.
Before I can stare for too long, Claire and Karen return to the table. The family invites us to play a round of their game, which turns out not to be cards but some sort of word association party game. Conversation drifts in and out of Claire’s recent activities; for the most part I am content to listen. Karen and Glenn’s violently blonde daughter (Ashley? Elizabeth?) is winning. She smiles, causing dimples to appear below pointed cheekbones. When her hand isn’t moving her hot pink piece forward on the board, it rests on the knee of her boyfriend, a tall, dense-looking man with an immaculately groomed beard coating his square jaw. I soon learn that he is a the captain of a yacht somewhere in Florida, an occupation which later causes Claire and I to abuse him as “Captain Bro.”
“Uh – – Uh – – ‘Girls!’” the Captain shouts. The overturned subject card reads, ‘Things People Collect.’ He grins around at the table.
“No, I don’t think so,” Claire responds, cautiously smiling. Words with questionable application are left up to the other players to determine their legitimacy. The family remains quiet, some making thoughtful noises. I wait, and soon realize that more protests are not forthcoming.
“I agree, that doesn’t work,” I say finally, frowning at the Captain.
“What? What? You can totally collect girls!”
Silence. Claire and I murmur our dissent again, and eventually the Captain gives up. Another card is pulled, this one reading “musical instruments.” When Glenn says “Banjo” as the winning last word for the category, Karen gestures at the board.
“Well, you won, so go ahead and pick up those points!” She keeps a steady stream of puns going throughout the game which no one but Claire and I seem to appreciate.
The game goes on, and before long I have tuned it out. Glenn continues to stare at me intermittently, his daughter continues to win, and the Captain continues to be generally obnoxious. Sitting there, I feel like I’ve stepped into some fantasy stereotype – some stock photo I don’t belong in. Perhaps it’s that one of the smiling, attractive, well dressed white family enjoying some wholesome fun together – you know, the one that appears on board games boxes like the discarded lid laying next to me now.
When the game ends, the family disperses. The Son, who has yet to make eye contact with me, is the first to go, followed shortly by the Captain. The Daughter leaves, but soon returns with three bottles of nail polish. Glenn is rummaging in the fridge. “You guys hungry? We have some leftover lamb, and turkey and pumpkin pie from Thursday.”
I watch as the Daughter deftly puts a bottom coat onto her nails while we eat. She says it will take all three bottles to make one color, a faint shade of pink. The Captain returns, sits back down at the table and examines one of the bottles. “You want me to do your nails, too?” The Daughter simpers, and for a second I am hopeful.
He snorts and shakes his head, dropping the polish, “Noooo.” He steals a quick glance at my own chipping green tips. “How ‘bout you though – need a re-do?” He is laughing.
“Yeah, actually, I do. They’re looking a bit worn.” I reply, smiling. No one catches the acid in my tone.
Glenn asks Claire and I what we are studying at school. We both use the word “identity” in our responses but are deliberately vague as to its meaning. He doesn’t ask.
Karen turns to the Captain. “And how about you, still getting your exercise in that spinning class?”
“Yeah, how’s fag-class?” The daughter adds. The fork stops midway to my mouth, and for a moment I am perfectly motionless, staring out of focus at the wall behind Glenn’s head. My heart rate quickens, and I remain still. The Captain’s response is lost as my ears strain for a cry of protest, a word of rapprochement, anything.
But nothing comes.
My eyes sweep the table and find the rest of the family exactly as they had been ten seconds earlier; not a shred of disagreement on any of their faces, nothing to even indicate that anything unusual was said. The lamb I was swallowing rises in my throat, but I force it down. It helps keep my silence. The yellow glow from the living room lamps is gradually overpowered by the angry glare of the kitchen’s fluorescent. Claire is staring at the table, similarly transfixed. My straight-backed wooden chair presses against my spine.
I reach up and scratch behind my ear.