Domestic Pressures


 ”So will we be seeing you for Thanksgiving?”
 "I’m not sure, Mom. I just have a lot going on right now."
 ”This isn’t what we planned at all, Heather. You never told us you wanted to take a gap year, and now you hardly call us anymore, I swear you’re as bad as your father.”
 "Don’t say that." Though it was undecided if the barb in her voice stemmed from a new and fragile loyalty or the fervent desire not to be compared.

 ”We miss you. And I worry about you on your own. I don’t know why you’re putting all of us through this.”

 Heather ran her fingers through her hair, exasperated. Catherine had a steadier love affair with martyrdom than she’d ever had with her father. If there was a way she could lay herself prostrate as a victim she would, lapping up pity like sympathetic sweet cream.

 "I’m not putting you through anything. I’m figuring stuff out. This isn’t your journey, it’s mine. I just --" She trailed off, fear stealing her momentum. There was no way to tell her mother she didn’t want to go to college without inciting nuclear fallout. "I miss you too. I’ll call again soon and let you know about Thanksgiving."

 ”You’re really putting us in a tight spot, darling, leaving all this to the last minute.”

 Heather scoffed. "There’s going to be plenty of food regardless of whether or not I show up. I have to go, talk to you later."

 Her phone had done nothing to her but it was a siphon of guilt and obligation, so she threw it on the counter harder than intended. It slid, skating across their cheap formica countertop and clattering onto the linoleum floor. "Fuck!"

Heather always took her phone calls in another room, door closed, bar-the-world. But sound was as insidious as water from a burst pipe. It bled through the walls, slipped through the cracks, and found a keen ear - words, nuance of tone and all.

Parked on an itchy sofa, picking his way through the crossword, the end of his biro tapped the leading box to twelve down:

Accidentally hurt, aged family member (8).

In the next room, Heather protested. She was not putting her mother through anything. Unseen, his mouth pulled into a jaundiced smile. Oh, but you are, love, he thought to himself, bitter experience filtered to sympathy. Catherine Montgomery was a woman of prescriptions and diagnoses. She did not like being kept in the dark. Listening to half a conversation, it struck him how familiar Heather's excuses and evasion sounded.

'Language.' A lacklustre growl answered the predictable explosion. All an act; a pretence to say he hadn't known exactly to whom she was speaking. Catherine inspired swear words. His copy of the Guardian Weekly flapped against the coffee table with twelve down completed, as he went to assess the damage.


'That the ice-cream place giving you grief, or the plant shop?' With a pantomime wheeze, he tipped to retrieve her phone. His finger gently traced the web of a shattered screen before handing it back. 'Or was it bad news from the doctor?'

 "Says the man who has a fucking penis mug." She spat back, the pent up venom meant for her mother spilling out at him. He didn’t have any right to control what she said, even in jest. As was the theme, he kept talking, hardly helping himself. Heather’s eyes narrowed, unable to fathom his humor or gall. Was that supposed to be funny? The doctor? Either he was joking that she was pregnant or had some rare and fatal disease -- either option made her want to hit him.

 "It was Mom. She’s riding my case. She wants to know when I’m coming home." Knowing full well it wasn’t matter a ‘when’ but ‘if’. Heather looked at the broken screen, appalled with her own carelessness and the delayed realization that she couldn’t simply go out and get a new one. "I don’t want to go back, not permanently, anyway. But a visit might be nice. Would you want to come? I know Ali would flip if you showed up for Thanksgiving." Catherine would, too. For different reasons.

'Absolutely not.'

Said without thinking; a knee-jerk reaction to the flip and plummet of his guts. Thanksgiving dinners in the company of in-laws were like placing bets on a old pressure cooker. An annual lesson in patience and diplomacy, to go in for round two four weeks later at Christmas. Bad enough when he had Catherine on side, he could not stomach the thought of showing up now, unannounced and empty-handed, to sit at their table.

'Sorry, love.' Words to blunt the edge of his rejection. 'I don't think - well.' A graceless noise escaped him, as he ruffled a hand through his thinning hair. It dawned on him that perhaps Heather hadn't asked him along for the sake of her sister.

'Why not invite Ali down here?' Thanksgiving, hosted by a Brit who routinely forgot the holiday existed. But it could work. It would save them both the angst of navigating a minefield of Montgomery-led celebration. 'We could put on a decent 'do, two of us together, couldn't we?'

 She flinched at the confident and sudden dismissal, like touching the handle of a scalding pot and letting go out of shock instead of pain because the burn came later. The words that followed were like oil instead of a salve -- an attempt at healing, but a cover up and nothing more.

  "Mom wouldn’t let her. She’s too young, and after what I did…" Heather felt a gulity pang for the new bars her sister was likely behind, her mother seeing her eldest as a cautionary tale. "Yeah, I guess we could do something. What were you thinking of, anyway? Did you have anything planned? Please tell me we’re not going to spend it with that toddler you call a friend."

He frowned, but did not push, when his idea was summarily dismissed. Quite possibly, it was not the time to point out that he had managed to catch train on his own at fourteen, and it wasn't so very different from flying. Their mother coddled them, and that could only ever go one of two ways. Either she would quash any spark they had in them, or cause them to break their swaddling and fly free.

He liked to think Heather fell firmly in the latter camp.

'Hey now.' The subject of Kenzie etched his frown deeper. Newfound freedom or not, Heather's salt crept into a barely healed wound. 'There's no need for that. What's your gripe with her?'

 "Dad. Please." Her voice was flat, pressing on each word to get the poison out, the lies. It was difficult to trust the things he said when he’d built so much on hollowed out fabrication. The impossible truth of his existence only made it worse -- when fiction was actually fact Heather didn’t know what to believe.

 But she felt comfortable calling bullshit now.

 "I don’t think she’s a friend from work, since you told me you haven’t been working. So...what is she to you?"

His mouth flapped. The good, steady job he'd promised he had back when they first met had been a lie, but it had been a lie constructed on the idea he had guaranteed work at the Extra Mile. That he hadn't picked up a shift at the time was neither here nor there.

'I never said that.' Perhaps living in a van gave off too much of a vagrant vibe for her to believe he could manage gainful employment. Or maybe she had decided not to trust anything that came out of his mouth.

He moved past her, refilling his coffee mug from the pot. 'Kenzie's a pal. We've worked together. Not sure what the problem is, here?'

 "Okay. I don't want to argue." Not when she knew she didn't have the energy after the long-distance spar with her mother, and Heather didn't continue arguments unless she was going to win them. Nevertheless, an apology got stuck in the back of her throat and stayed there.

 "Do you want to watch something? Maybe there's a game on." It was a carefully proffered olive branch, the nimble branches trembling from a shaky hand. Coming to sit next to him, she reached for her laptop and started browsing through what was streamable. "How've you been feeling? With -- you know." Your animal, or whatever.

With his back to her, Fletch chewed on the inside of his cheek. In the back of his head the dog was pacing circles, round and around; a lap for every spoon of sugar he added to the mug. Heather didn't want to argue, but neither would she open up and tell him what the matter was. So then, they would continue to lock horns at every junction, until one or both of them lost their rag.

A situation, as Heidi so rightly pointed out, he could not afford.

The fridge clacked shut as he used the milk, magnets and rubber seals adding their own commentary to his silence. What measure of peace Heather intended in the offer of watching a game was undermined by the question that came thereafter. He watched the options tick past as she browsed, and struggled to know what to say.

'I don't know, love. Hard to explain.' Softer, more a mutter, he sipped the coffee before setting it aside. The subject felt like willingly leading his hand toward a hot plate. 'I try to forget it's there. I'm more worried about you, to be honest.'

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