“Oh he hated you,” he said smugly, and once again she suspected that her brother might have something wrong with him.
Perhaps she was too firmly planted behind her own lens (and that thought was pretty terrifying in and of itself), but something told her that wasn’t the case. She felt that she’d always been able to understand social situations with a compass buried deep in her gut—determining how a joke would land, whether she needed to scale her wording back or dole out a compliment merely by reading someone’s face or hearing the tone in their voice.
Her brother, on the other hand, always came away from these interactions with an entirely different read (usually that people were more upset or offended than they actually were) and was so sure he was correct. She’d argued with him about this time and again, but the conversations were always exasperatingly circuitous — and she was pretty sure she’d never convince him otherwise. So instead of responding, she shoved a big twirl of spaghetti in her mouth, congratulating herself on her restraint.
“Oh, he hated you,” her son said to her daughter and she tensed for a moment, hoping it wouldn’t erupt into a fight. She’d always felt that Sam took out his frustrations from the day at the dinner table, which both made her want to slap and hold him.
An image of him in 6th grade, right after she’d dropped him off at his new school, flashed across her mind. He’d looked so lonely standing there on the edge of the playground, making no move to approach the other children. It took everything in her to drive away as he stood scuffing his feet in the dirt. It wasn’t until midway through 8th grade, when he’d brought a few friends home to play video games for the first time, that she stopped worrying about him so much.
Moments like these, though, when she heard the pain in his voice, saw him flinch at his own words as if someone were saying them to him, the feeling came back. He was almost 27 years old, an unruly beard curling out of his chin, and yet his face still held the image of the child he’d been on his first day of middle school. His eyes were still young and searching, something melancholy in them.
She glanced at Talulah, trying to read her reaction to the comment, and she was smirking knowingly. She felt surge of pride for her daughter, whom she’d always thought reminded her of herself at that age—though Talulah was always adamant that she was so different from the rest of the family. Deep down, she hoped that one day she’d admit she’d gotten something from her mother.
“Oh, he hated you,” he said, wincing at how harshly it had come out. He’d meant it more lightly than it sounded — genuinely trying to make a sort-of joke — but the inflection was all wrong. He sounded cruel.
He took a sip of water trying to will himself to apologize, but as usual, a cloud of frustration overtook his brain and he couldn’t do it. Sometimes waves of anger — pure hatred, actually, if he was being honest with himself — overtook him, and it was almost always in situations like these, with his family at the dinner table. It was like another self slid over him, and no matter how hard he tried to do the “right thing” — to admit he was wrong or even apologize, as he knew he’d wish he’d done later — he could not.
Instead, he tried to keep his face as still as possible, not wanting to betray to his mom and two sisters that he knew he’d said anything wrong. Talulah’s smirk and his mom’s pitying gaze only made him angrier. He felt like a toddler throwing a tantrum, which made him feel increasingly pathetic. It grated on him that no matter how much he’d accomplished that day, no matter how many times the higher-ups at work called him a “genius” or leaned in intently while he led meetings (he worked at fucking Google!) he still reverted back to this bumbling, emotional idiot when back with his family. It was like his skills stopped translating when he walked in the door here. He was a child.
He willed Talulah to say something.
Maya pushed the spaghetti around on her plate, hoping her mother wasn’t noticing that she hadn’t taken a bite. On one hand, she was irritated at herself for not being able to eat the meal and enjoy it like a normal person — but on the other, was it so hard to make something healthy? She’d told them she didn’t eat pasta a million times.
As she leaned forward to pick up her water glass (it was easier to go unnoticed as long as she was doing something) she felt the awful push of her stomach against the top of her jeans. Over the top of her jeans. She tried not to fixate on it too much, but the feeling was so disgusting to her she could barely take it. She slipped her other hand under the table and unbuttoned them.
When she looked up, she could tell an unpleasant interaction had just taken place, but she had been too distracted to hear it. Her brother’s brow was creased, his face flushing red, Talulah was smirking and her mother was folding her napkin over and over — the way she did when she was uncomfortable. This was how dinner usually went these days. In the past, her dad would lighten the mood with a quick joke or a firm clap on Sam’s back and a “C’mon buddy,” but without him here, Sam and Talulah just swiped at each other until one of them fell silent or stormed off. She, Maya, usually just kept quiet.
“Well-p, that was a fun dinner,” she said, getting up. She figured enough time had passed that her mother wouldn’t be too upset to conclude the meal. “I’ll clear.” She grabbed Sam’s plate and stacked it on top of her full one before anyone noticed. Her mother closed her eyes as if she wanted to say something, but decided against it. She grabbed Talulah’s plate, too, and headed for the kitchen.
At the sink, she turned the water on scalding hot, like her dad always had, and began to scrub the plates clean. The dishwasher doesn’t get all the crap off, she could hear him saying, and scrubbed harder.
Behind her, Talulah came in the room with her plate and the water glasses, and opened the dishwasher to help her load them in. Sam shuffled in, too, stood aimlessly for a minute and then gathered the trash to take out. Mom grabbed a sponge and wiped invisible crumbs off the kitchen counter. They all worked quietly in tandem, and there was something about the mindlessness of it all that inspired a warm rush of endearment in Maya’s chest. She continued to hold the plate under the stream of water, surprised at how easily it rinsed clean.