There’s an American flag trapped in the gutters at my parents’ house. The pole that supports it doesn’t extend far enough from the porch pillars to allow it to fly completely free. It was poorly positioned from the start. It’s been soiled by the collecting debris, soaked by the rain, frozen by the snow; still they’re proud of it, despite its faded colors and threadbare edges threatening to fray at any moment. I free it from the gutter, knowing that it won’t be long until it flutters just a bit too emphatically and becomes trapped again.
Through the porch walls I can hear the clamor of dinner preparation and largely uninformed sports conjecture. The savory scents of the holiday permeate the northern midwest’s late fall air and become hopelessly lost among the young evening’s bright new stars. Unlike the confines of the house, the sky above me is simply too vast for the smells of home and family to fill. Out here we are alone, and the space between us dictates everything.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not long before my cousin emerges through the door. His head is hidden deep within the hood of his pullover sweatshirt, just as it was in the impossible heat of the kitchen. He hasn’t put on a coat, though. Despite the certain sixty-degree difference in ambient temperatures, he maintains the exact same number of layers whether inside or out. I’m not wearing a coat right now either. I made a willing decision to feel the bite of the cold.
He offers me a puff of his generic cigarette even though he knows I don’t smoke. I appreciate his gesture even though I don’t want to encourage it. And, for a moment, we stand in silence. After indulging in a monster drag and exhaling the excess smoke with unnecessary force, though, he asks what I’m doing out here. I’m just thinking, I tell him. “Yeah, you always did like to be alone, huh?”
As I attempt to return into the warm glow of the house, even getting through the doorway is a hassle. There are far too many people inside, and far too few are making an effort to remain out of the way. They want to run into each other, to embrace, to share ongoing inside jokes, to compare sale prices on turkeys, to repeat recent news. It’s the crux of the gathering; it’s inescapable.
My porch haven lost, I’m left without an immediate and acceptable retreat. The bedroom upstairs, in which I’m spending the week while in town, doubles as the playroom for visiting grandchildren and has been overrun. The demand for the bathrooms is far too great for me to rely on them for solace. The moment I left my apartment in the city, I committed to subjecting myself to the festive familial crush.
An aunt grabs an arm and spins me to face her. “So,… how are you?” she asks enthusiastically. The tone of her voice seems to carry an expectation that I know no response of mine, authentic or otherwise, can satisfy. I smile apologetically and tell her that I’m “good”. She asks again where I live now, mistakenly guessing a number of other metropolitan areas before giving me the opportunity to answer. Finally, I remind her, but I can tell the information never stands a chance of making it to her long-term memory stores. Almost the moment it’s out of my mouth, it fades into oblivion like I never said it at all.
“So, what do you do there?”
I can feel my eyes narrowing and my head cocking slightly to the side. The answers I don’t offer are numberless, raw, and disjointed. I drink myself into a near stupor most nights so I can get some sleep. I watch vehicle and foot traffic from my balcony. I fantasize about the attractive people I see while waiting on my coffee order. I miss free concerts in the park that I mean to attend. I enjoy decent sushi. I retrieve my mail from the lobby. I wake up to sirens. I check the marquees. I set up electronic payments for service subscriptions I won’t use.
“What do you mean?” I ask instead.
“For a job — what do you do?”
“Oh, I’m a freelance brand and image consultant.” Her face instantly registers a look of confusion mixed with a dash of disappointment that the answer wasn’t something easier to envision, like “I’m a doctor” or “I manage a grocery store”. Without forcing her to ask, I offer her the explanation we somehow both feel she’s owed. “Companies hire me to make suggestions about what steps they can take to improve how the public and their customers or clients view them.”
“And they pay you to do that?”
“Why?” she chuckles incredulously.
I feel like I already answered that. I feel resentful about simultaneously being made to think “Because I’m good at it” and to feel too ashamed of my own pride and arrogance to voice it. I feel irritated and exhausted and panicked.
“I don’t know,” I say with a smile that is fighting a losing battle to a snarl.
“So who do you work for?”
“I have dozens of clients, but some examples would be, like,… I work with a number of real estate development groups,… with one food processing compan — ”
“So, you don’t have, like, a job-job,” she says conclusively. Her most substantial “job-jobs” over the years have consisted of such part-time assignments as being the administrative secretary at her church and covering shifts at her childhood friend’s country consignment craft shop. I reprimand myself for being judgemental.
“Not in a ‘9-to-5, cubicle, parking space’-kind of way, no.”
“Your mom says you just work from home?”
“Right,” I say, pretending not to hear the “just”.
“It must be nice not to have to go to work everyday.” I have a canned response to this that acknowledges the freedoms my work situation affords as well as the late night efforts and 24-hour availability it includes, but there seems little point in even invoking that response now. Instead, I offer an ambiguous combination of shrug and nod, and I fade awkwardly backward into the small gaggle of relatives passing behind me.
It’s not long after I’ve separated myself from the crowd into a corner (which is still too near the bustle to be comfortable) that I hear my mother assuring a different aunt that nothing unusual is wrong with me at the moment. That’s just how I am, she explains apologetically.
At dinner, the general conversation flirts with the line between quaintly innocent and embarrassingly narrow-minded. I consider interjecting during the most egregous periods, and in a very limited number of instances I do, but I end up regretting it in every such case. I’m either unheard or misunderstood; most often it’s both. Ultimately, I retreat inward and marvel at how different some of our thought processes clearly must be.
Out of the blue, I’m hit by the emotional lightning strike. One of my least close cousins, seizing a lull in conversation, asks across the table’s extended length why my former partner isn’t present. The flood of emotion renders me unable to speak. The level of pity in my mother’s voice as she semi-whispers across the silent table that my former partner will no longer be joining us drills into me like an augur. I lay my forkful of sweet potatoes back down onto my plate, and I raise my glass of wine to my lips, preparing to offer my verbal forgiveness and repeated assurances that “it’s okay.”
After a few well-intentioned but half-hearted efforts to help clear the dirty dishes from the table, I make my way quickly and directly back to the front door. I feel slightly guilty, but there just isn’t any way I can continue with the crowded cleanup effort. Stepping out onto the porch feels like diving into a pool of cold water. At the opposite corner of the porch, the flag is stuck in the gutter again.