A crush of pressure tightens in my head. “It’s going to be okay, Melanie,” Jeff’s voice is patient. He looks at me like I’m his whole world, but I just want him to leave.
I reach for the radio volume. Mom may not have noticed us in the bedroom with the door closed but within minutes she’ll blame my music for her headache.
“We’re in this together,” Jeff goes on, before a clamor of pans from the kitchen distracts him. I look away from the pain in his eyes and reach for the doorknob.
“Is everything okay?”
“It’s under control,” Mom says.
She’s trying to pull off Thanksgiving dinner. What a joke.
“Jeff, will you be joining us tomorrow?”
“Jeff has his own family,” I say before he can answer.
“My mother’s making a big fuss,” he says, eyes still on me. “I can’t get out of it.”
“Well, we get you for dessert. I won’t take no for an answer.”
After Jeff leaves I help Mom in the kitchen. She’s freaking out about getting everything right, reading her recipe book like the Holy Scriptures. I grab the bag of apples, stand at the counter and start peeling.
“Jeff is nice,” she says.
“Yeah.” The last thing I want to do is talk. Jeff and I agreed we’d tell her together, after the holiday.
“How long have you two been together? Must be six months now?”
I shrug, reach for another apple, and we stand quietly peeling the skins off in long spirals.
Before Mom fills the pie, she fixes a plate of perfect slices with a dipping well of cinnamon and sugar. It’s like I’m five again, and I’m Mom’s little princess. She pours me a glass of milk and I fight back tears. I can hardly believe life has brought me to this place — fifteen and pregnant.
“What’s wrong?” She lays her hand on my back.
The taste of cinnamon is sweet on my lips. “Nothing.” I’d rather die than tell her this truth.
I’ve heard people describe a broken heart as an eternal emptiness. I’d say it’s more like a weight: a chest full of jagged shards I carry around every day. No matter how I try to dull them, their edges remain sharp and cut me raw inside.
On Thanksgiving morning, my chest feels even heavier than usual. I pull myself out of bed wishing I could silence this secret inside me. Wishing today could just be about holiday pies.
In the kitchen, Mom and I spin in small orbits around each other. I set out fewer place settings than we’ve ever had on a holiday table. She chops pecans to top the sweet potatoes that neither of us eats. I guess we both have things we want to put back the way they were.
“A little more help would be nice, Melanie,” Mom says. “I’ve never had to pull off Thanksgiving without your father.”
Neither have I, I think, but I keep my eyes on the gravy and my mouth shut.
As soon as I can, I phone Jeff. “You have to come over.”
“That’s not how you felt last night.”
“Until last night, I hadn’t spent time alone with my mom in months. I’m not going to survive dinner without you.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
By noon the turkey is buttery gold, the potatoes whipped to perfection.
“It wasn’t definite. He said he’d try to come.” I’m starving but we keep the bird covered in foil, the onions on simmer, the potatoes still in the pot. She insists.
By the time his Volkswagen pulls up we’ve been staring at Mom’s wedding china for forty minutes. Jeff enters with a loaf of warm bread. “Happy Thanksgiving,” he says and the room comes alive. I feel Mom’s eyes on us as he reaches for my hand and kisses my cheek. “How’s it going?” he whispers in my ear.
“Okay,” I say and wonder if he feels it; the way our grief has sucked the air from the room. Then Mom smiles and I realize it’ll be easier for both of us to pretend everything’s okay if the third place at the table isn’t empty.
Mom spreads butter across the bread like a thick healing balm, smoothing it the same way she’s tried to smooth over everything since Dad died. “We’re glad you came, Jeff.” He smiles and the rest of the meal passes in silence. Mom stares at the casserole dish of untouched sweet potatoes and all I see are the seams that hold her together. I wonder when that thin fraying thread will let go. Then she looks toward the window and I’m sure she’ll suggest a walk to burn off the meal, but her fingers play over the rim of her glass and she keeps her lips pressed together. This’ll be another ritual we skip in order to dam the cracks in our hearts.
When Mom finally goes to the kitchen, Jeff turns to me. His fingers rest on my hands. “Let’s get it over with,” he says.
“It’s not like it’ll spoil her holiday. That’s already done.” He has a point.
Mom returns with dessert. I sit across from her and slice through the pie with the edge of my fork. The muscle under her eye is twitching. For a minute I think maybe I could tell her and she would still love me. And everything would be okay. That another devastating blow in our lives won’t completely destroy her. But I can’t hold onto that feeling for more than a split second.
“So, what’s new with you kids?” she breaks out of herself for a moment to ask.
“Well, Mrs. Newell,” Jeff begins.
Then one of those jagged shards in my heart shifts. It finds its way through my windpipe. It must have. Because I can hardly breathe. I squeeze Jeff’s hand to silence him.
Tonight will be about holiday pie. By tomorrow there won’t be anything to tell.
Ruth Schiffmann puts pen to paper always hoping for that magical moment when the words take on a life of their own. More than a hundred of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. To read more of her work, visit www.RuthSchiffmann.com.