By the fourth day, I was so hungry for alone time I snuck into the smoky basement and pulled open the pressboard panel door of the furnace room. Cobwebs caught my forehead as I reached for the light chain. I pawed my face clean and cleared a path to the old weight bench that hadn’t been moved in 30 years. Balanced on each end of the bar were old rubber Halloween masks: Death and the Wolfman, hidden from us as children because of how frighteningly realistic they were. “Happy Thanksgiving,” I whispered to them before reminding myself that I’d come downstairs to be alone. I sat down and laid out a week’s worth of yawns.
I’d spent the past week clapping for every song my nieces performed, filling myself with apple desserts and rehashing the plot points of past Thanksgivings with my sisters and parents.
I held my head in my hands and wondered if a hundred years in this filthy closet could be enough to undo the past four days. I felt my inner eye zeroing in on an escape, but there were rides to be given to the airport in the morning, babies to be cuddled, dishes to be washed. The polite thing to do was stay.
I remembered that final holiday before anyone went away to college, or moved out of state, or spent Thanksgiving with a boyfriend’s family. 1996 was a distinguished year if only for the fact of our obliviousness of how easy everything would never be again. We dedicated the abundance of food and quarrels to the notion of family, and we did it with gusto. We daughters clinked our etched wineglasses filled with sparkling grape juice and made sure we looked everyone in the eye with our mischievous smirks.
This was the last holiday I could remember without the nausea. After that, I started to feel ill from the pressure, from the feeling that everyone was supposed to live more on holidays, pack a year’s worth of a relationship into several days, feel all that love and hate in such quick succession, your emotions started to experience whiplash, until it was all I could do to find the darkest spot in the house, the room where one of my sisters had grown penicillin on oranges back in junior high, and where Halloween masks too scary for little girls were hidden out of sight, where I could sit and let my mind loosen and feel nothing.
I had tried to turn the weekend into a science, tried to make it into a game I could learn the rules for, tried to escape the cliché of it being difficult to be home for the holidays. If you asked me who I loved most in the world, the people I would list were under that roof, but spending four days with their adult selves, with the spouses they’d chosen and the children they’d wrought and the opinions they’d formed where curiosity had once lived, was more than I could manage.
Alone in the furnace room, I thought of a person trying to remember a phone number, while someone else shouted random numbers in their ear. I thought of trying to sync three clocks perfectly with only two hands. I thought of impossible pulses.
There are times when you know you’re a part of something, even when you’re not actively adding to that thing. Like the dim spot on a fluorescent sign, you can feel the other sections buzzing around you, and you know people can make sense of the words, because the light of the working parts is enough. They can fill in that dark gap, and they know what should be there. And sometimes the hardest thing is to be recognized as a part of something that you know you had nothing to do with, no matter how much you wish you did.
Jac Jemc lives in Chicago. Her chapbook, This Stranger She’d Invited In, is due out from Greying Ghost Press early 2011, and her first novel, My Only Wife, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books in 2012. She blogs regularly at jacjemc.wordpress.com.