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…