Maternal Heritage Unleashed (30sec)

READ SHORT STORY (about 2400 words)

Joan poked her head in his condo office. “Is it possible…”

“No.” He didn’t even turn away from the computer.

Joan leaned against the doorway. Was this a humor moment? Or one of those days? “Listen, if you don’t behave I won’t pick up any ice cream this evening.” She grabbed a pillow from the extra chair and playfully tossed it at him.

“Can we chat later?” Dan didn’t miss a beat on his keyboard as the pillow softly bounced off his left shoulder. “I really want to listen to what you’re saying, but I’ve got a deadline to meet, and it sounds like you’ve got something to say that requires more attention than I can provide, right now.”

The problem with a husband who works at home – especially one who works a lot – is that even though he’s so often physically at home, he’s mostly not really there at all.

Nevertheless, she considered their recent conversations may be having some effect – at least on a surface level. She certainly had emphasized that she wished he would practice better listening. “OK. I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Oh.” He stopped typing and looked her way. “What would you think about inviting Roberto and Brenda over for dinner this Saturday?” He picked the pillow off the floor and repositioned it on the chair.

Joan looked away and rolled her eyes. “Um…let’s talk tonight.” She grabbed the keys from her purse. “See ya.” She was down the stairs and out the door faster than usual.

Joan turned on the air conditioning as she pulled out of the garage. Why would he invite Roberto? Especially after the last time? It’s like those three days of arguments were a waste. Let alone the earlier ones. It doesn’t matter what we agree. They’re going to drink too much, turn into jerks, say stupid things and maybe break something.

Dan had his drinking under control for a year before they married. And even though there’d been several times he re-visited the “grey” area between social- and over-drinking, he didn’t get stupid. And after the fact, a conversation would remedy the matter. Except when Roberto was involved. In fact, except almost every time with Roberto.

And to make it worse, Brenda didn’t seem to mind. She considered they’re just boys letting off steam. But Joan observed that Brenda’s drinking had increased and wondered if they’ve both become a bad influence, especially since Dan and she were finally talking seriously about having children. Would they really want kids to grow up around friends with drinking issues?

Saturday came too fast and Joan still hadn’t thought about what to make. Which was fine since Dan was happy to grill burgers. She did get some fresh bread and salad and there were plenty of snacks. Although she wished she could get into the spirit of entertaining.

When the doorbell rang, Dan responded and Joan could hear their jovial greetings from across the condo.

The crew quickly appeared in the kitchen. Roberto was upbeat. “Joan, you look beautiful!”

Brenda smiled and put down a grocery bag. “I got those shoes you recommended.” She lifted her right foot for easy viewing. “They’re cozy.”

“They look good on you.” Joan was feeling more welcoming. But apprehension loomed around the grocery bag, which was sure to contain an ample supply of wine and whiskey.

Dan and Roberto were proclaiming about the day’s baseball game and took some snacks out to the grill.

Brenda pulled sodas and juice from the bag. “I didn’t bring alcohol.”

Joan paused briefly while snacking on a cracker, “Um, that’s fine.”

Brenda gestured with a bottle, “Ginger ale?”

Joan nodded while grabbing some glasses.

“You were right the last time. The drinking had gotten out of hand.” Brenda folded up the bag and exchanged it for Joan’s outreaching glasses. “We had a fight afterward.” She added some ice from the frig door and poured the sodas. “One of our neighbors knocked on the door.” Brenda eyed Joan. “You know how loud Roberto can get.” She handed the filled glass back to Joan. “Anyway, I’m glad he didn’t call the police.”

“Was it that bad?”

“Roberto threw the skillet through the window.” She paused. “Later, he said he thought it was still open.” Brenda expressed a crashing sound with wide eyes and extended fingers. “The funny thing is, as soon as he broke the window, the fight was over. He went outside to retrieve the skillet and then went for a long walk. That’s when the neighbor came over.” Brenda smirked. “I told him we had a culinary disagreement, but things were OK now.” She took a sip. “He asked if he could call someone. I thanked him and said that wasn’t necessary. Then it took three days to get that window replaced!”

Joan put her drink down and opted to lighten the conversation. “Wow. All because of my lasagna? Although it wasn’t up to family standards, I didn’t think it was that bad.”

Gail laughed. “That was wonderful lasagna! It was the highlight of the evening. We both loved it and Roberto has mentioned it on and off several times since then. In fact, he was hoping you might invite us to have it again.”

The guys were also laughing outside. Dan yelled towards the kitchen “Honey, can you bring another plate? The burgers are ready.”

They grabbed dishes, extra snacks and headed towards the patio. On the way, Gail confided, “He just didn’t think he was drinking too much.”

Dan offered BBQ-toasted buns followed by burgers on a spatula. “Two medium-rare for our princesses.”

Roberto accepted a soda from Brenda. “Dan just taught me the secret to BBQ.” He flashed a playful smile. “Don’t burn the food!”

Dan pulled two more burgers off the grill. “I can assure you, I learned the hard way.”

For an hour or so they chatted on the patio before heading out to walk a few blocks for some ice cream.

At breakfast, Joan poured them both coffee. “That was fun last night. I’m sorry I was so resistant last week.”

“These potatoes and onions are great.” He picked up the coffee. “No worries. Glad you had fun.” He took a sip and paused. “Did Brenda mention anything about divorce?”

“WHAT!?”

“I’m not even sure he spoke to her yet. He just mentioned it in passing and then wouldn’t elaborate. That’s why I’m asking.”

“No. She didn’t say anything.”

“Who knows? Roberto can fly in a lot of directions at once.”

“She did say they had an argument and he got mad and broke a window.”

“Oh really.” Dan drank some coffee. “He didn’t mention that.”

Without thinking, she blurted out, “Do you ever think about divorce?”

Dan was startled. “Look, I know I work a lot. And maybe we’ve gotten into a rut. But if anything, I think about making more money so I can improve our situation, especially if we’re going to have kids.” He frowned and continued with his eggs. “Anyway, I hope this blows over.”

She wasn’t reassured.

He added, “They’ve been through a lot.”

But from what she could tell, Roberta and Brenda hadn’t been through any more than she and Dan. If things seem merely OK, or simply tolerable without any real bad, is that a good thing? Or should she expect more? After three years of marriage, she periodically wondered about the future. Would things get better with kids? Or worse? “Do you want to watch a movie tonight?”

“Sure.” He took another contemplative sip.

The movie never happened.


Instead, after lunch, Joan felt like she had been punched in the stomach and felt sick.

Dan sighed. That did not go well. “Do you want to sit?” He had not expected such an impact from his words. “I didn’t know you’d be so upset.” He walked over to comfort her.

“Get away!” She sat down and curled into the end of the sofa, surprised at the sharpness of her growl.

“I’ll get you something to drink.”

Joan cried on the couch for a while before going back to bed for the rest of the afternoon. If there was any saving grace, she was glad he left so readily when she asked that he leave. In retrospect, she wasn’t certain that adding the “And don’t come back!” was absolutely necessary.

Even after several hours, her mouth and throat were still dry and a dull knot of heaviness lingered in her stomach. She just wanted to sleep.

At work, she tried to concentrate. She wanted to put the weekend behind her. Easier said than done.

Mollie came by at lunch. “Joan, you haven’t completed one contract yet. Are you OK?”

Joan began sobbing softly.

Mollie put down an arm full of folders and sat next to Joan. “What happened?”

In some alternative reality, things go as planned. Spouses are always understanding and help each other through strife until old age. But in the real world, things don’t always make sense. And they don’t always work out. Joan vacillated between anger and resignation. Between wondering if she should try to make things work or if she should start a new life.

It had been a week since the conversation. Dan had been sleeping on the couch and trying to initiate a conversation every day. But she ate out, came home and retired to the bedroom without talking. A few of the days he wasn’t there when she arrived home. It made no sense how seven days seemed like an eternity and seemed like no time at all. Certainly, they had never gone this long without speaking since the day they met.

On the one hand, she wanted to yell and scream at him until she passed out from exhaustion. On the other hand, she never wanted to see him again.

Until today.

She texted from work on Saturday morning that they should meet at noon for coffee at The Bean Bubble and he agreed. Even though she was a few minutes early, he was already seated with two coffees and muffins. He looked as haggard as she felt. Before she even finished seating herself he blurted out: “Look, I’m sorry. Forget what I said. It wasn’t that important. Let’s move forward like it never happened. How can I make things right?”

Up to that instant, she had felt relatively composed. The anger and bitterness of the past week had subsided into a numbness. But she couldn’t believe he thought, it wasn’t that important. Once again her stomach began to ache. The only saving grace was that on the weekends when she needed to go into the office, it was usually just for the morning.

Back at home, she went to bed, even though it was early in the afternoon. She slept on and off and finally got up mid-morning the next day. This was not a happy Sunday.

She finally made the call. No one was more old-fashioned than her mom — except her grandmother when she was still alive. There were some traditions that no woman in the family had ever broken and Joan already felt she couldn’t live up to it. “Mom, I’m having some issues. It’s about Dan….”

In younger days, mom could be excitable. But she had “been there, done that” for so many years before dad died that now, nothing seemed to ruffle her. It was not a short phone call and mom mostly listened. If it wasn’t for asking a few questions, you could say that’s all mom did. When Joan said all she needed, mom asked one more question. “When can you come over?”

Joan already felt better and knew that dinner would be good.

Mom’s lasagna was always better than her own. No doubt because she used old-fashioned methods.

It was a 90-minute drive each way, which is why she didn’t visit as often as she would like.

Mom only gave advice when asked. And unless Joan volunteered info about troubles, it was rarely brought up. Joan considered herself an independent thinker and although she hadn’t really thought about it before, she was now recognizing that her mom had always been so, as well. And Joan was starting to realize that just maybe it wasn’t her mom who learned it from her daughter.

Present philosophical meanderings aside while eyeing traffic on her way home, it was a productive dinner chat. Her mom had an uncanny knack for guiding the conversation in such a way that Joan could outline a plan herself. She now realized it was likely similar to a plan her mom might have envisioned.

Nevertheless, Joan was feeling better than she had in over a week and was starting to feel like she was getting back to her regular self again. She said aloud “Tomorrow will be the day.” Then she turned on the radio and started humming.

Once again, The Bean Bubble was the place to explore peace. It was light and airy, noisy enough to offer some relative conversational privacy and it was public, imposing a certain level of social civility. She drove from work and he walked from the condo.

“Look.” Joan was composed. “This is how I see things.” Dan was attentive.

“I’m not going to give you or Roberto or Brenda the lasagna recipe.”

There.

It was said.

“It was an insult to myself and my family. I’ve told you many times: it’s a family secret.”

Dan didn’t move an inch.

“It’s been handed down the maternal side of our family for five generations.” She was quite calm. “It has never, ever, ever, ever left the family. And I’m not going to break that tradition.”

Dan swallowed. This was the most assertive he had ever seen her.

“It’s been particularly upsetting because I have not been as respectful of the recipe as I should and I’ve been somewhat lazy with preparing it correctly. But I’m now going to begin making it the way it’s supposed to. I’m not a little girl anymore and I have to consider my part in our family’s heritage.”

Dan remained motionless.

“I’ll either hand it down to a daughter or die with it.” She looked at him right in the eyes. “Don’t you ever ask for that recipe again!”

She paused and added, “Which reminds me, we need a daughter.”

by George Alger