There are about ten days each year that the Tripp family spends all together. This, generally agreed upon by the Tripp family, is enough to last us the other 355. We three sisters moved out at 14 to go to boarding school, and we never quite came home. The eldest, Rory, moved to New York where she reads Proust on the roof of her Brooklyn apartment under a touch lamp that goes out every ten minutes. I am in California, lying on the flat cool grass of music festivals in the 110° heat of the desert. The youngest sister, Mona is still at school, and during Daily Inspections she is already dreaming of the day where she can move to the South and listen to her precious country music that the rest of us so abhor. Our mother flies back and forth to Washington D.C., sipping miniature bottles of White Zinfandel wine on the plane between neuroscience conventions reading what she calls “atrocious murder mysteries” on an iPad she has only recently learned to master.
And you, Papa, you spend your weeks commuting back and forth from the hospital where you work in Michigan to our home in Indiana with Mother. Some weeknights when you are home, you and Mother eat holding hands in a restaurant filled with aquariums of blue jellyfish. Some weekends you fly to Manhattan to take Rory to plays she read about in The New Yorker. Some holidays you fly to California to take me to museums and fancy Los Angeles restaurants. But it’s not enough for you: you are always waiting for the time when we are all home together.
Each member of my family is like a small twirling ballerina in the center of an ornate twinkling music box with one leg straight out and pointed at the toes. Each of us rotating alone is a beautiful and unique spectacle, but if you put us together mechanically twisting in a small space we would quickly kick each other to pieces. So we spread out. We move to New York, California, Indiana, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. If there were a thumbtack in each of our locations, the Tripp family could hold up a map.
But this year, for Christmas, we are all together again. We have driven from Indiana to a hotel in downtown Chicago. We are in the hotel lobby fancy in black dresses posing in front of three-story red and gold Christmas tree. I am in the middle with my arms wrapped around my sisters’ waists. You snap a picture or us. Your camera costs over two thousand dollars, yet you only use the automatic setting. You are an idea man, full of projects that you attack with gusto for three or four weeks. Our basement is a testament to your abandoned projects. There is a deserted saxophone reclining next to a battered snowboard from your tryst with the bunny hill. You’ve written half a novel; you are half a Buddhist. But in Chicago we are a whole family of smiles, and we are going to dinner and a play.
We dine at a restaurant so exclusive that they have hidden the door. After ten minutes of investigation, we call the hostess who meets us outside and guides us through winding maze of backdoor rooms to the restaurant. The waitress hands me a leather and bronze-plated menu as big as my torso. When the menu is too classy for dollar signs, I know I am in trouble. My main food groups include bread, freeze pops, bologna, root beer, and strawberries. I don’t doubt that even the warm cleansing hand towel I am offered has at least nine ingredients and is overseen by the master chef. I decide that I will order plain noodles.
But you are hell-bent on finding me something to eat. You are likely picturing a Tripp rendition of Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want; a family’s eager heads bent towards their platters piled high with escargot, steak tartar, and—unfortunately for me—truffle macaroni.
You scan the menu, “Oh, Clare, what about macaroni? You LOVE macaroni!”
This is true. However, the macaroni I enjoy is EasyMac with its sickening neon cheesy dust and tiny rubbery noodles. My EasyMac is banned in the European Union due to harmful additives that are illegal everywhere but the USA; God bless America! The macaroni in question is fifty-five dollars and includes truffles flown in from France; I’d rather eat live escargot.
But you will not let this go. “Just try it!” you insist.
I refuse repeatedly, but you order it for me anyway. You need to win. When the steaming brown-flecked bowl of cheesy misery reaches the table, I stand my ground. For picky eaters, trying new things is a slippery slope. One smack of truffley mac n’ cheese and the next thing I know Mother will parade through our dining room with smoothies made of tofu and rotting banana or, when she goes through her annual “nature” phase, soup made of dandelions. No; this truffle-filled macaroni is Clancy’s Last Stand.
Throughout dinner I resist, saying my buttered pasta filled me to the brim. You make a show of getting everyone else in the family to try it. “Now, Mona tell your sister how delicious it is!”
I steadfastly refuse. Your annoyance is palpable; I know the signs too well. I have pushed you to the edge by refusing to let you win, and you are like a momentarily still tiger, poised and ready to dart out and pounce at a moment’s notice.
Twenty minutes later, your eyes open wide as if you have discovered the single almighty activity that will unite three headstrong independent teenage daughters.
“Let’s go bowling!” you say, clearly thrilled with your idea. “Midnight bowling, after the play? Wouldn’t that be fun?” You shift forward, excited at the image in your mind of your four girls laughing and having wholesome fun; you place your elbows on the table and lean in.
When we are away for so long, I think you picture us as one of those families on the back of a Candyland box; our 2-D faces contorted with glee as we make loving eye contact and grin at each other across the rainbow-colored game board, endlessly happy in this mindless pursuit. You barely saw us grow up and sometimes like to think that we are still children.
And, because we have been away for so long smoking long thin cigarettes in Brooklyn, reclining by the pool in December in California, or shuffling through the snow in thin ballet flats and a short plaid kilt, we forget that you hate more than anything to have this dream shattered.
“Bowling?” Rory says, “bowling is never as fun as the idea of bowling.”
“I don’t even have socks on,” Mona protests.
And with that, the thin ice upon which we stood after the truffle debacle cracks underneath us. Because we have been away for so long, we have forgotten to tread lightly, but we have not been away long enough to forget your quick disappointment and the signs of your impending anger: the instantaneous turnaround between ecstatic glee and seething disappointment. We watch the smile melt off your face.
When you are furious you laugh quietly, terrifyingly. It’s a sharp intake of breath and then a harsh chuckle. “Well,” you begin quietly. “Well, fuck this whole trip then, huh?”
Your anger bubbles, you stutter as you try to express all you have done for us, how little we give back, your frustration in us. Soon, you’re nearly yelling, Mother is calling you “Doug” instead of “honey,” and the waitress backs away from our table empty-handed. Your fury builds to a crescendo, and you stand, throw your napkin at the truffle macaroni, emit one final “Fuck this!” and stalk out of the restaurant.
I am twisting my fingers around and around each other until they turn white. By this time, the rest of the crowded restaurant is very pointedly not looking at our table. We stare into the napkins in our laps as if they are crystal balls.
At 21, Rory has already become the self-proclaimed mama bear protector of our family. When the two of us were in a club in Spain and a group of men approached me like zombies seeking flaxen-haired prey calling out “rubia, rubia!”—blondie blondie—my sister yanked me close to her to keep me safe.
She put on her most hardened New-Yorker-Fuck-Off attitude and in her flawless Spanish spat, “Sueltala, ella es mia”—back off, she’s mine.
Now, Rory’s hands are turned towards the black ceiling; she is the only one speaking, but she rambles on angrily. Every third phrase is, “He’s being fucking ridiculous!” She is angry at us for not pushing you further.
My younger sister, Daddy’s favorite, is in tears. She would have bowled, would have contorted her face into a smile, thrust her feet into moldy shoes. She is angry with us for not playing along.
Mother is tearing up, upset to see us upset. She reaches across the table to my older sister to quiet her with one hand and rubs my younger sister’s back with her other hand.
I reach into my wallet, slide out the credit card from my parent’s account, and wordlessly hand it to the waitress who does not make eye contact with me. When the bill comes I sign it in my loopy childish handwriting and leave a generous tip.
The four of us go to the play, but there is an empty seat beside us, and we know that we should have just gone bowling. I look at my family, assessing injuries, looking for wounds. Bowling. What an inane fight. We should have pranced down the polished floors acting like the Brady Bunch of the Midwest saying “gosh darn!” and applauding each other’s gutter balls as if they were strikes. I feel as if the buttered noodles have turned into writhing scorpions chasing each other’s tails inside my stomach. I should have eaten the macaroni, I think, diffused the bomb of my father’s anger. I picture myself in a Hazmat suit with the cracking radios around me, “Tripp, you OK in there?” as I edge the truffle-laden fork towards my mouth.
You like framed pictures on your office desk of the five of us beaming back at the camera from exotic locations. One year you bought fifty pre-hardboiled Easter eggs so that we could hit them into the lake behind our house with tennis rackets. When we were younger, you watched us dance to “Kung-Fu Fighting” and laughed until you were crying and barely able to breath. You told us, “you girls are gonna be so popular in high school with moves like that” through your laughter. You spent over seven hours with us filming and editing a film noir murder movie we acted out with our dollhouse characters. You drove an hour, out of town, at 6 a.m. so that I could wake up to chocolate chip pancakes with strawberries on top for my birthday. You never stop talking about 2005, the last year we were all together, all the time. We come close to being the perfect family, but, like every other family in the world, we fall short.
We sit in the dark plush theater; applaud a modern-day rendition of Oedipus Rex. Meanwhile, you return to the hotel, pack up everything you brought, and drive the three hours home to our country town all alone in the dark.
A year later, we sit outside at a bar surrounded by waving golden-white cornfields and a run-down but still functioning halfway house for child molesters. Indiana can, at once, be both picturesque and a haven for the seedy. For some reason the waitress failed to ask me for identification, so I am sipping a beer. You are telling us about your trip to Africa, about the poverty you saw from the window of the safari tour you paid $989.75 to go on. You spent eight days with your father, and the two of you fought nonstop. With one hand clutched against the Land Rover’s roof over the bumpy roads, the other you pointed accusingly in your father’s face. Who remembers what you fought about, some money your father said you owed him so that he could buy a boat; something pointless. But you fought for days, shoving each other against the white muslin tent walls, raising your voices over meals of choice game.
You speak about your father; you say there are some people you cannot change. So, you have given in, you claim, and have said what he wants to hear because it’s better than fighting all the time.
I look down at my lap; the corners of my lips turn up. I cover my face with my hands and break into a full-on smile because it is clear to me how little you can see of yourself. You catch my eye and smile at me, thinking the beer has gone to my head. Yes, Papa, there are some people we cannot change. And we are playing family card games for you, on vacations we are posing on the beaches of the Oregon coast with our arms around each other for you, we are getting family crest henna tattoos for you, and ten days a year we are one family all together for you.
If you asked us to, we would go bowling.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Alex Garcia
What I love most about this essay is the way it twists neatly in the middle, from the image of that picture-perfect family (with undertones of unrest), to the bubbling cauldron of emotions at dinner. You really show the many layers, the complexities.
I am always impressed by your positive and constructive comments, Lisa.