Kelly’s love-hate relationship with the coffee shop down the street from her office was tending towards hate today. The uber-trendy décor, with reclaimed wood shelves laboring under dozens of LPs from artists the store owners had probably never actually listened to, was maddeningly cliché. The hipster clientele looked especially uppity beneath the ironic hats they balanced with physical and metaphorical difficulty. Those on-trend succulent plants scattered down the vertical garden on the wall? Like a goldfish won at the fair, they would be dead once the novelty wore off. DEAD.
Kelly’s hatred probably had something to do with her inner turmoil. She was used to suffering a string of sad failures in her personal life (the Kool-Aid Prom Dress Drama? The Kiss Clusterfuck of 2013? Ah, memories), but not at work, due to an effort to keep the two largely separate. She had long benefited from an ability to please authority figures. Half of her Facebook friends were old teachers (though she had blocked Mrs. Brown from her feed after her retirement to a coastal community resulted in a flood of bikini photos that were, to the say the least, ill-considered). So the talking-to she had gotten at work was impossible to wipe from her mind. Kelly was competing against several of AHI’s other engineers for her project to receive funding, and today’s events had undoubtedly dealt her chances a severe blow. Anita’s words, her sharp look, her annoyingly well-pulled-off haircut pounded around in Kelly’s brain.
When it was Kelly’s turn to order her tea, the barista smiled at her. He was cute in a lip ring kind of way. “Hot or iced?” he asked. “Let me guess – hot.”
Why did ordering her stupid tea have to turn into an ordeal? This was her closest coffee shop, and now she wouldn’t even be able to go here because the barista had no boundaries. This asshole.
“Iced,” Kelly said, in a tone that was, you guessed it, icy. His lip-ringed smile melted as he took her card.
Kelly’s phone rang while she waited for her overpriced tea. The ringtone was the theme from Psycho. It could only be her darling mother.
“Hi, Mom,” Kelly said with a sigh. She had barely gotten the words out before Diane’s frenzied voice poured through the phone.
“Kelly, Kelly, did you get my voicemail?”
“Which one?” At any given time, Kelly’s phone usually contained five to six messages from her mother. Sometimes she wished she lived in a time before cell phones. She would drive a horse, churn some margarine, forget her mother existed when they weren’t in the same room. It would be nice.
“I need to know if you’re coming to our family dinner tonight!”
“I was planning on going back into the office and working late –” Kelly was planning no such thing, she wanted to be as far away from the office as possible tonight. But, you know, Netflix.
“I’m making the chicken you like,” Diane cut in. Kelly had no idea which chicken that was. “Be here at seven. And will you be bringing a young man?”
“Why would I bring a date to a family dinner?”
“Your sister’s bringing Jonathan.”
“Mom, that’s her fiancé, they’re getting married.”
“I know!” Diane exploded. “It’s so exciting!”
“Raspberry tea,” the barista called out, and Kelly moved forward to take it, but another patron went for it at the same time.
“That’s not yours,” the barista said sternly. “Yours is cold.”
Kelly dropped her hand, embarrassed. Now all of greater Los Angeles would know her as a tea thief.
“Well, I’ll make an extra serving, just in case you decide to bring somebody,” her mother was saying.
“I’m not bringing anyone –”
“If there’s any extra, I know I can count on you to gobble it up! We’ll see you at seven.”
Diane hung up. Of course Kelly would be there at seven. With an evening of remarks like that to look forward to, how could she say no?
Kelly’s house, or her parents’ house, which she always called her house since she grew up there, was a middle class Craftsman in the Valley. The sage green-painted exterior was nice enough – solid bushes, a white bench tucked beneath a shady oak tree – but it gave way to an interior that had, in the decades-long war of attrition that was her parents’ marriage, become almost entirely her mother’s territory. Pillows with an unsupportable number of tassels, framed flower prints jockeying for wall space, a menagerie of china and glass figurines – Diane had difficulty saying no to anything beautiful, or at least cute, or at least, well, whatever was appealing about the life-sized sculpture of an evil and vaguely malnourished-looking cat that glowered from the mantel.
Kelly took a heavy breath as she entered the house. She always felt like the air here was dense, too thick. Maybe it was the clashing pots of potpourri set out everywhere. Maybe it was the sense that she had outgrown this place. Maybe it was the cloud of crazy that hovered forever around her mother.
As usual, Kelly was the latest arrival, so before she stepped into the kitchen, she sought a moment of refuge in the hall. They couldn’t harass her if they couldn’t see her, right? Through the doorway she saw her mother ladling an ominous, gelatinous something onto plates (Ah, the chicken I like, Kelly thought grimly) while talking a stream to Clara, Kelly’s twenty-four-year-old sister. Clara’s strawberry blonde head bobbed, listening raptly, while she pushed some par-baked rolls into the oven. Beside her, her fiancé Jonathan, an overgrown but good-natured jock getting soft in the middle since college, dutifully pretended to be doing something with the butter to look busy.
Meanwhile Kelly’s older brother, Gary, was half visible under his young daughters, who were summiting him like mountain goats. There were three of them, in theory, but Kelly always got the feeling he had picked up a few extra somewhere, like toilet paper on the bottom of his shoe. They made way too much sound for three humans and with the way they ran around, really, who could tell how many there were, or what was happening at all? It was like that game where you try to guess which cup the penny is under. The only possible solution is that there’s a secret fourth cup.
Beside Gary, Kelly’s father was engrossed in a book called I’d Rather Read Than Talk to My Family. It’s wonderful, highly recommended. Carl was one of those 56-year-old men with a beard and glasses who looks like he was born a 56-year-old man with a beard and glasses. Trying to imagine him as a young boy, a 20-year-old, even, was ludicrous. His crescent of close-cut, half-gray hair never seemed to grow, get cut, or fall out. His favorite armchair was so molded to the angles of his body that he didn’t sit in it so much as wear it. And in the same way, he wore his marriage to Diane. When they met, he was studying biochemistry, she theatre. They were married before they graduated. A boiling, opposites attract passion carried them through the first few years. By the time it cooled, Gary was there, and so was a mortgage, and a long future that seemed pretty much planned out. Diane’s silliness and flair for the dramatic didn’t age well, and Carl’s analytical intelligence became boring. They were married now more out of habit than love, and Carl would probably conclude that he didn’t love her anymore at all, if he were to think about such things. But he never did.
Diane thought constantly of such things (how could she not, when she ran a bridal shop for a living?), but was so willfully romantic that she saw only a long and happy marriage that would certainly merit an elegant yet massive vow renewal ceremony when they attained the next milestone. So she chattered on blissfully oblivious to her husband’s disregard, which was probably the secret to their “success.”
“I talked to the florist about the camellias. It’s vital that she understand. Gary, can you grab me the salad tongs?” Diane didn’t seem to notice that Gary currently had a shoe in one hand, an upside-down toddler in the other, and an Anna from Frozen doll in his mouth.
“So if we go with peach, that would mean –”
“White for the ribbons,” Diane finished Clara’s sentence. “And then –”
“Those other sashes for the bridesmaids, exactly,” said Clara.
Diane noticed Kelly lingering in the hall. Kelly immediately started bustling around, taking her shoes off, trying to look as if she’d just entered the house.
“Kelly, come in. What are you doing over there in the dark? You’re like that thing with the hair in The Ring.”
While they ate dinner, or worked the chicken around on their plates to make it look eaten, the topic of conversation was, of course, still Clara’s wedding. Several important facts were established. Gary’s wife Gina, who couldn’t be here because she was working, because she was always working, because her children were demons, hadn’t gotten a dress yet so yes, Gary had picked out something for her that was color scheme-appropriate. Yes, Jonathan had passed Diane’s hair advice (which meant instructions) on to his groomsmen, and it was duly received. And yes, Carl would take a dancing lesson for the father-daughter dance. This was news to Carl.
“A dancing lesson? It’s a wedding, not a cabaret.”
“Carl, this is your only daughter’s wedding –”
Kelly looked around the table to see if anyone else noticed. They didn’t.
“And you’re going to learn to dance,” Diane said in her “I mean business” voice. Carl’s face stiffened, even his glasses stiffened, but Clara cut in in a gentler tone, her eyes glimmering with sincerity.
“It’s just one lesson, Dad, and it’ll make things so much easier. This way you won’t get up there at the wedding and feel like you don’t know what to do. You’ll have learned everything beforehand; you won’t even have to think about it.”
“Oh, fine, that’s all right then,” Carl grumbled. How did she do that? How did Clara always get people to do what she wanted?
Diane’s smiling eyes moved to Kelly, who immediately tensed. She was a lobster trapped in a tank at an upscale restaurant, watching the chef approach, a smile upending his sinister handlebar mustache. She was next.
“So Kelly,” Diane asked brightly, “Have you met anyone recently?”
“Well, a boatswain from the Philippines just asked me to connect on Linkedin, so…”
“You know what I mean, a man!”
“No, Mom, since you asked me yesterday, I have not found a husband.”
“That’s too bad. But luckily for you, I met someone!”
“Congratulations, dear. Will I be invited to the wedding?” Carl asked, not looking up from his salad.
“I mean for Kelly, obviously.”
“Mom, I don’t –”
“Oh, is this the one you were telling me about?” Clara asked excitedly.
“Please don’t –” But Kelly failed again.
“Diane, if you like him, don’t force him on Kelly. You have terrible taste. Look who you married,” Carl said.
“Mom helped me find Gina, and look how that turned out. You should go for it, Kelly,” Gary said, while cutting food for two of the girls across his own untouched plate.
“I really don’t want –”
But Diane cut across Kelly. “Will everyone please just let me finish?” Oh, how rude of me, Kelly thought. I’m so sorry.
“His name is Martin and he’s Donna’s sister’s neighbor’s son. He’s a realtor and a tennis player and just adorable and best of all, he’s the same height as Gary, so everything will be symmetrical in the pictures!”
“What pictures?” Gary asked.
“At the wedding, obviously.”
Kelly couldn’t let this go on. “Mom, I don’t care how good this guy looks next to Gary, I’m not marrying him.”
“Not your wedding, silly. Though who knows! I mean for Clara’s wedding.”
“It’s perfect, right Kel?” Clara beamed.
“Wait, so you guys just went and found a plus one for me?”
“You’re welcome,” Diane said.
“What makes you think I don’t already have one?”
“Well you don’t, do you?”
Kelly spluttered. “That’s not the point! I don’t want to go to the wedding with some tennis-playing jerkoff I don’t even know.”
“But you will know him. I set up dinner for the two of you so you’ll be nice and comfortable by the wedding.”
“I thought you promised not to set me up with anyone else after that guy with all the parrots.”
“Please, your eye recovered, you look perfectly normal, or at least back to the way you were. Besides, Martin doesn’t have any parrots, he has a Cocker Spaniel.” Diane sat back, confident that her work was done. After all, the man had a Cocker Spaniel.
Kelly looked to her father. “Dad, you’ll pose next to me in the pictures, right, so everything looks good? I don’t need a plus one?”
“I would, but I probably wouldn’t live up to your mother’s standards. She’s never called me adorable.”
“Gary? Is anyone going to stand up for me or is my whole family happy to just pimp me out to a strange man off the streets?”
“Honestly, I’d be happy to have another guy at the wedding. My doctor said if I don’t start exposing myself to people other than Gina and the girls, I will lactate.”
“Kelly, this is ridiculous. You have to bring someone,” Diane said. “We’ve already paid for his plate and included him in the seating arrangements and if anything changes there, goodness knows, all hell will break loose –”
“Please, just give him a chance, Kel,” Clara said. “It’s one dinner. I think you’ll have more fun at the wedding if you have someone to talk to, and I won’t have to worry about whether you’re having a good time. Please? For me?”
Well, now Kelly was the asshole.