Home for the Holidays

By Nicole Papantoniou

“Babe, I know we haven’t spoken about this in a while but…”

What could he be talking about? I thought to myself. I know I picked a fight recently about possibly breaking up, but I didn’t really mean it. I was just confused. Why does he have to have such a good memory? Why can’t he just let me and my craziness be?

“…we never talked about what we’re doing for the holidays,” Michael continued.

Shit. It would have been easier if he just asked me about it last week.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I would really like to see you on Thanksgiving. I know you have all of your family over, but I wouldn’t mind driving in for dessert or something.” He looked at me with his big hazel eyes.

My body became numb. My eyes shifted from my new boyfriend to the pile of chicken wings on my plate and then to the empty tables in the restaurant.

Two Years Prior

The men sit around the dining room table, their eyes fixed on the television in the next room. From the kitchen, we ladies can hear the pope reciting Christmas mass. Then the channel changes and young Greek children sing Christmas carols in one of our family’s native tongues.

Grandma twirls the pasta in the large pot on the stove. I peek into the oven to see how the lobsters and crabs are cooking. Their shells are perfectly red and spicy tomato sauce bubbles around them.

“Remember when the crabs fell out of their bucket and climbed up the kitchen walls?” my sister asks, laughing.

My mother slices the bread and brings it to the table. She then takes her usual seat between me and my father. The fact that she is near the wall and surrounded by people prevents her from getting up and helping until the end of the meal.

“Can somebody pass the salt?” my aunt yells from the far side of the table in English.

“Why is she yelling?” my grandfather asks in Greek.

My sister passes the salt and continues to banter with my cousin and I. We continue to laugh while several side conversations occur at once.

“This is the problem with the new generation,” my uncle complains in Greek. “We don’t require our children to speak Greek and therefore they don’t.”

“Actually, we’re not just Greek,” I murmur under my breath, not wanting him to hear me.

All four of us grandchildren were born in America and are a mixture of Greek and Italian ancestries. Our strong cultural influence is apparent from the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of pasta, seafood and fish spread before us and the sound of three different languages being spoken at the table.

“Merry Christmas,” my uncle says in Greek while raising his glass of red wine. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” my Jewish grandma replies in Greek also raising her glass. “Buon appetito.” She lets out a sigh of relief as she finally sits down to enjoy the meal she prepared for all of us.

In the meantime, I am careful not to make eye contact with my dad; we got into a fight before about my boyfriend not being allowed to come to Christmas Eve dinner. Instead, I focus on retrieving the meat from the lobster’s hard shell. He whispers something to my uncle – something he apparently doesn’t want anyone to hear. I call him out.

“That’s really mature of you,” I state.

“Mind your business,” he tells me.

“No,” I reply.

“Be nice to your father,” my grandma reminds me.

I continue to eat my lobster.

I think of Francisco, my boyfriend, and how much he would enjoy being a part of my family’s annual Christmas dinner. Instead, he is home, watching TV.

***

“I’m sorry, babe,” I finally told Michael. “I can’t.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” he asked, trying to maintain his composure. “I would really like to see you during the holidays. Are you telling me that I won’t be able to give you your gift on Christmas?”

“It’s just not something my family does,” I told him. “I can’t.”

He looked offended and confused.

“Did Francisco ever come over for the holidays?”

“No. He did not.” How dare he ask!

***

Dinner lasts for a couple of hours. Dessert follows and then some Bingo to kill time before midnight arrives and it’s finally Christmas so we can open our gifts.

I sneak off to the back room to make a quick phone call before my mom takes her role as dealer and starts calling out numbers.

“I wish you were here, babe,” I tell Francisco.

“Me too,” he says. “It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun.”

“What are you doing, Nicole?” my mother shouts from the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, honey, I have to go. I’ll call you later. Love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I return to my seat in the dining room.

“What, we’re not good enough for you?” my dad asks from across the table.

“There’s no reason he’s not here right now,” I tell him. My eyes swell up with tears. He glares at me. I look away before he can see me cry. Christmas is supposed to be a happy holiday.

“What’s Peter doing tonight?” I ask my cousin about her boyfriend.

“He’s home with his family. What’s Cisco up to?”

“Same,” I reply.

My mother looks up. No one says anything and we continue playing Bingo.

***

Michael drove me home after dinner. His eyes were fixed on the road; mine stared out the window.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” he finally said. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know.”

My head pulsed even after I got back to the sanctuary of my room. I reached for my phone.

“Mom, you are never going to believe what Michael brought up at dinner today.”

“What?” she asked.

“He wanted to know what we were going to do for the holidays. We haven’t even been dating for six months.”

“Oh,” she replied timidly. “What did you say?”

“I don’t think it’s fair that he should come over when I was with someone for two and a half years and he barely ever came over for dinner.”

She didn’t say anything.

“What should I tell him? I don’t want him to be able to come over just because he’s white.”

She shrugged.

“It’s up to you. Tell him you can’t blame it on us.”

I hung up the phone, baffled and unsatisfied.

***

It took me a long time to realize Francisco wasn’t Romeo and I wasn’t Juliet. We didn’t kill ourselves because our families didn’t let us be together. Instead, we broke up. We broke up after two and a half long years. Yeah, we were young and in love, but once the road got bumpy, we ended it. I had too much time on my hands; he didn’t have enough. I was too demanding; he couldn’t keep up. And in the end, distance got the best of us.

“You wouldn’t have made it anyway,” my parents told me. “Even if you did, it would be temporary and you wouldn’t be happy.” After all, I was Greek and Italian. He wasn’t white.

The holidays are always the toughest. Francisco would have really enjoyed spending time with me and my family, regardless of the situation. I still think of him and miss him, but I can’t live in the past. It’s not healthy – all my friends agree.

***

The days until Thanksgiving break counted down, quicker than I expected.

“So, what are we doing for the holidays?” I finally built up the courage and asked Michael.

“It’s up to you, baby,” he said. “I would love to see you, but understand if you just want to do your own thing.”

“Maybe we can go out for dessert after everyone has left with a couple of my cousins and my sister and her boyfriend,” I suggested.

“We can do that; I don’t mind driving in. I just want to see you.”

I looked up at him.

“Let’s do that then,” he agreed as he kissed my lips and pulled me close.

I closed my eyes and let him hold me. Everything takes time I figured. Maybe we can do this in baby steps.

Nicole Papantoniou

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