Becca didn’t know “Catholic” meant her boyfriend’s parents’ house would be covered with religious paintings and full of Jesus and Mary figurines. She stood in the living room, Patrick’s hand on her shoulder, and tried to suppress her reaction. The sunflower wallpaper that the family had not replaced since the 1980s stood out against the blue and red of the Catholic Virgin Mary, and peeled at the corner of the wall and the ceiling. It was like the room was trying to escape its skin, and she sympathized, regretting her decision to visit Connecticut for Thanksgiving.
She had chosen to attend college eight hours from her home in Maryland, and it was the first time she’d ever experienced New England. There were a lot more Catholics in New Hampshire than in Maryland—everyone she’d met at Keene State College had grown up Catholic. Her first college boyfriend had been Catholic. After they would have sex, he’d grab his rosary and recite several Hail Marys and Lord’s Prayers under his breath while she laid her head on his chest. They weren’t allowed to have sex on Sundays, a strange rule that Becca never understood. In the end, they’d broken up because he couldn’t stand feeling guilty every time he slept with her. She didn’t love him so she knew it’d be best to let him go. Besides, his guilt was beginning to make her feel guilty for making him feel guilty, and she wasn’t even religious.
Then she met Patrick, who described himself as a “lapsed Catholic and atheist.” He didn’t believe in what the church taught, but he attended during the holidays. She’d liked Patrick immediately. They met in line at the Bean & Bagel, a coffee counter in the Student Center at Keene and she’d given him her phone number.
Mr. Grady, Patrick’s father, lounged on the denim couch with the remote control resting on his chest and his slippered feet hanging over the edge of the armrest. The lamp directed its light on his bald head like a spotlight illuminating a theater’s stage. Becca had the distinct impression that the room was both too bright and too dark—the corners of the room were draped in shadow and the lack of overhead light deepened the outline cast against the walls from the shelving units that surrounded the room.
Mrs. Grady pushed open the door at the other end of the room, shaking the walls and rattling the shelves. She looked exactly like Patrick, or rather, Patrick had taken after her. Tall and thin with white hair, an apron wrapped around her waist, she stood in the doorway, carrying a wooden spoon, and looked the couple up and down.
“Becca! You’re stunning,” she said as she walked across the room. Mrs. Grady grabbed Becca’s shoulder with her free hand and brought her close to her in some kind of approximation of a hug. Becca did not break eye contact with Patrick, and after Mrs. Grady broke off the hug, she wheeled her around as though she wanted to dance.
“Yes, Patrick, she’s beautiful. I think you ought to marry her,” said Mrs. Grady.
Becca felt her muscles tense. She and Patrick had only been dating for eight weeks, and Mrs. Grady had the nerve to bring up marriage not even five minutes after meeting her?
Patrick nodded. “I would definitely like that,” he said, making quick eye contact with Becca before shifting his gaze back to his mother.
It was not the answer Becca had been expecting. Something like, “Well, Mom, we haven’t been dating that long,” or “There’s still a lot we have to learn about each other,” would let Becca relax, but Patrick didn’t dismiss his mother’s desires and seemed to feed into them. She would rather have been eating Ramen alone in her dorm room.
Patrick and his mother had moved on to discuss the more mundane aspects of his life: how was his last year of college going? (“It’s going well.”) Was it challenging him academically? (“The film program isn’t academic per se–but I am learning a lot.”) When would he know more details about graduation? (“Not yet.”)
“I’ve got to go check on the gravy,” Mrs. Grady said after she’d asked Patrick her most pressing questions.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Becca asked. Her voice was high-pitched and shaky.
Mrs. Grady patted her on the head as she walked by. “No, but thank you for offering, dear,” she said.
She wanted to yell “I am NOT a dog!” and storm out the front door. She looked over at Patrick, who wore a smile, and knew she could not bring herself to ruin Patrick’s night. His mother might have been ridiculous, but Patrick certainly was not, and Becca knew she had to pretend she was happy to be there.
Patrick had always been something different, original. On their first date, he’d taken her to the Toadstool Bookstore, and then they went for coffee. It was the first time she really noticed how cute he looked with his bright green eyes and tall, skinny frame.
After ordering, they sat at a table in the back corner and he took her hand. “You know, I really like you,” he said.
“Even though we don’t really know each other?”
“Well, I want to know you.”
“Okay, so let’s get to know each other. What’s the most important thing I should know about Patrick Grady?”
He stirred his latte and gathered his thoughts. “You already know the basics, but the most important thing about me is that I’m never afraid to be myself.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t let other people tell me how to act,” he said.
Becca nodded. “Me either.”
“So what about you? What’s the most important thing I should know about you?”
She’d wanted him to be impressed and intrigued by her answer, but her mind felt like a wall to be scaled. It took a while to think, so she blurted out her first complete thought. “I wish I could be a film major, like you.”
He laughed. Not the reaction she’d anticipated.
“Why is that funny?”
“I’m a film major because I don’t want to do anything else. Math? No, fuck math. English? God, I’m so bad at analyzing literature. But film. It’s so easy. You just watch movies and talk about them.”
“But talking about movies is just like talking about literature.”
“Yeah, but you have to sit and read books.”
“And you don’t also sit to watch movies? I’m more likely to sit and read a book than to sit and watch a movie,” she said.
“That’s weird. I can’t sit and read. I don’t know why that is,” he said.
“Well, I know why I can’t sit still, but I don’t know about you.” She realized she should not have said that. She drank from her latte.
“What, like ADHD or something?” he said.
She felt her grip tighten on the mug. “I… um…”
Patrick reached across the table and slid a hand over hers. “It’s fine. I completely understand.”
She relaxed all of her fingers. “I was diagnosed a few years ago.”
He grinned. “I won’t hold it against you,” he said. “As long as you pay attention to me.”
She laughed. “Oh, trust me. I have been.” She returned the mug to the table, thinking how lucky she was to have met him.
Becca sat across from Patrick and between his parents at the square table. It shouldn’t have surprised her when Mrs. Grady grabbed her son’s hand and said, “Let’s say Grace,” but her leg jerked in protest.
Mrs. Grady reached for Becca’s hand. Becca made eye contact with Patrick, who held his mom’s hand up and reached for his father’s, encouraging her to do the same. She almost shook her head. Patrick had called himself an atheist. She wanted to ask him just what the hell he was thinking, not standing up for his values, but she kept her mouth closed. If she spoke up and broke the peace between Patrick and his family, he’d be angry with her. She grasped Mr. and Mrs. Grady’s hands.
Mrs. Grady closed her eyes and began the prayer. “Father, on this day of all days, we are thankful for you and for the blessings you bring us.”
Distracted, Becca looked around the kitchen. Like the living room, it appeared to be falling apart. The cabinets didn’t close all the way, and one clung to its hinges. None of the appliances had been updated and the refrigerator behind them hummed.
“We’re thankful for the opportunity to gather together with family and get to know a new family member,” Mrs. Grady said.
She was relieved the Jesus theme had not spilled over into their eating space, but it had been replaced by a cow display. The salt and pepper shakers resting on the table were little black and white cows. A cow topped the paper towel holder next to the sink. The towels hanging from the ancient oven’s door were embroidered with cows.
“Bless this food we are about to eat,” Mrs. Grady said, “and grant us peace. Amen.” She opened her eyes and unfolded her hands.
Becca assumed it was time to eat and grabbed the bowl of green beans sitting in front of her. Mrs. Grady held up a finger, so she retracted her arms.
“How about we go around and say what we’re thankful for,” she said. “You start dear.” Mrs. Grady nodded at her son.
After a short pause, Patrick began. “I, well, most of all I’m really thankful to have Becca and that she’s with us now.” He smiled at her.
Now everyone in the room stared at her. She fidgeted, shifting her position and uncrossing her legs.
“I’m also thankful to have such a great family and glad we can be together,” Patrick said.
Mrs. Grady beamed. She turned to look at her husband. “And what are you thankful for, hon?”
“I’m thankful for my family, the food, and the fellowship,” he said. He picked up his fork.
Then Mrs. Grady batted her eyes at Becca, expecting her to say something next.
“Um, well, I am also grateful for the chance to meet you guys, so thanks for inviting me,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to eating.”
Mrs. Grady dramatically put a hand to her heart. “Oh, you are such a sweetheart. Patrick,” she turned to her son, “You should give this one a ring as soon as you can. Actually, I have your Grandmother’s upstairs if you’d like to use it.”
It was a good thing they hadn’t started eating yet, otherwise Becca might have choked. An image of her face turning blue flashed through her mind. She looked at Patrick, who was glaring at his plate.
The room would have been totally silent but for the refrigerator whirring in the background. She stared at the green beans.
“Anyway,” Mrs. Grady said. “I’m thankful for all of you wonderful people and especially thankful that we’re all happy and healthy.”
Everyone had said a different version of the same thing. Becca was going to reach for the green beans again, but immediately thought better. What if Mrs. Grady had more to say? She didn’t want to look stupid.
Patrick had the same thought. He grabbed for the mashed potatoes but paused to look at his mother.
“Well, go on, let’s eat,” Mrs. Grady said.
The Thanksgiving Dinner was a traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and brussels sprouts. Family members picked up whichever bowl was closest, plopped food onto their plates, and passed it.
“Great dinner, Mom,” Patrick said, his voice nearly an octave higher than it had been before.
“Yes, Mrs. Grady, this is the best Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever eaten,” Becca said. She hoped the lie would make Mrs. Grady happy.
Mr. Grady nodded. “Becca’s right. This is an excellent meal.”
“Tell us about your family, dear. What do you usually do for Thanksgiving?” Mrs. Grady said.
Becca swallowed. “Well, my brother and I always get to break the wishbone before dinner at my Grandma’s. Then afterwards, we all play Rummy.”
“Does your family talk about the things you’re all thankful for?”
Instead of saying, “Well, duh,” Becca instead nodded and smiled. “Yes, we all go around the table.”
Mrs. Grady pursed her lips. “We’re certainly grateful that you chose to celebrate with us this year.”
That must have been the third or fourth time that Mrs. Grady had said that exact same thing. Becca wasn’t sure she believed her anymore. Suddenly she missed the warmth of her grandma’s Thanksgiving kitchen. “I miss them all the time, but I’m glad they give me independence,” she said.
“Independence.” Mrs. Grady sniffled. “Is that what they want to call it these days? If my Patrick went so far away, I’d call it a rebellion.”
Becca raised an eyebrow. “Oh, well I’m sorry to hear about that. I guess my parents are just more positive than you are.” Oh no. Why had she just said that? Her heart pounded in her ears, drowning out the refrigerator’s moan. Patrick snapped his head from his plate with wide eyes.
“Besides, my parents trust me,” Becca said. What was she doing with her mouth? Was it still going? “They like letting me explore the world.” Becca could not force herself to stop talking. She sent Patrick a look that she hoped said “Help me,” but at this point her body was just moving on its own.
“Becca,” Patrick said.
The sound was enough to jolt her mind and body back together. She wondered if people without ADHD felt that same kind of sensation, but she could never know for sure. She cleared her throat.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Excuse me.” She placed her napkin on her chair and rushed off to the bathroom.
After she calmed herself, she felt normal enough to return to the table. “I’m sorry Mrs. Grady,” she said as she sat down.
Mrs. Grady faked a smile. “Oh, it’s quite all right dear. I just thought you’d be different, that’s all.”
Becca tried to stop herself from saying “Different from what,” but she couldn’t and before she knew it the words had joined them at the dinner table.
“I just want Patrick to bring home a nice Catholic girl for a change. I don’t know where I went wrong,” she said.
“Mom, will you stop?” Patrick said. Finally, Patrick was standing up for her. She’d wondered how long it might take.
“I’ll stop when you realize what all these terrible women are doing to you,” Mrs. Grady said.
Patrick flicked his eyes to meet Becca’s widening ones. She could see the panic and fear in the creases at his forehead and in the corners of his mouth, and she realized he knew that if he didn’t respond, Becca would.
Becca gave him several long seconds to consider his next course of action. She wondered if he knew the consequences of taking his mother’s side.
He looked away from both women, back down at his plate.
“I’m definitely not as terrible as you think I am,” she said.
Mrs. Grady rolled her eyes. “This one is particularly disrespectful,” she said, glaring at her son.
“This one?” Becca said. Her voice had gotten louder, higher and breathier.
She cut him off. “No. I’m sorry your Mom doesn’t like me, but I will not let her treat me like shit because I’m not the kind of girl she has in mind.” Her hair fell into her face, which, at this point, was bright red.
“You see, Patrick? She’s very quick-tempered.” Mrs. Grady wiped her mouth and placed the napkin back on her lap.
“Will you guys please stop fighting?” Patrick looked from his mother to Becca.
“If this is what you think fighting is, I’d hate to see what happens if you got in an actual fight,” Becca said.
“Just stop.” Patrick said. “Stop talking.”
“You stop telling your Mom you’re something different than who you are.” She turned to Mrs. Grady. “On our first date, he told me he was an atheist.”
Mrs. Grady scoffed. “I’m afraid he lied to you, dear.”
Becca twisted her body to glower at Patrick. “Is that true? Who are you really lying to?”
He shook his head. “Can we just eat?”
Becca clamped her mouth shut and shook her head. “I can’t believe this,” she said. “Where do you—”
“Enough!” Mr. Grady’s voice hit her like a bass drum. “Becca, please don’t speak to Mrs. Grady like that. And Miranda—” He locked his eyes with his wife. “Stop baiting her. She’s just fine.”
Mrs. Grady nodded. “Yes dear,” she said.
“Let’s just eat dessert and go watch football,” he said, glancing at his empty plate. Everyone else still had food left. Mrs. Grady faked a smile, removed the napkin from her lap, and stomped to the corner of the kitchen to retrieve the pumpkin pie and cow-covered dessert plates.
Patrick collected everyone’s dinner plates and took them to the sink. Mrs. Grady sliced the pie and placed pieces onto plates. Before distributing each plate, she scooped a spoonful of whipped cream onto each slice. Members of the Grady family dug into their dessert as Becca sat staring at her pie.
“Becca, you didn’t say ‘thank you,’” Patrick said.
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you kidding? I can’t keep quiet and say thank you at the same time,” she said.
Mr. Grady cleared his throat. Becca threw down her fork and crossed her arms over her chest. Patrick turned bright red.
“Can I speak with you in the den?” Patrick said as he stood.
“I don’t know, can you?”
He narrowed his eyes. “May I?”
Patrick stood under one of the Jesus portraits with his arms crossed over his chest. “What is your problem?”
“You.” The portrait behind them made it seem like Jesus was happy they were fighting.
“You’re not who I thought you were.”
Patrick shook his head. “Who did you think I was?”
“On our first date, you said that you’d never let anyone else tell you how to act. Was that just a lie?”
“Would you rather have my parents disown me?”
“I thought you’d at least stand up for me.”
“Stand up for you? When you’re being disrespectful?”
“You knew she wasn’t going to like me.”
He shook his head. “She doesn’t like anyone. I thought you knew to keep your mouth closed.”
“You said you understood ADHD.”
He took a step away from her. “Well, it looks like I don’t.”
She grabbed one of the Jesus figurines off the shelf. It coated her fingers with dust. “Why don’t you ask Jesus what to do?”
“Okay,” he said and looked at the figure. “What do I do, Jesus?”
Becca shook her head. “This is stupid. I’m not going to date someone who doesn’t understand me.”
Patrick reached for her, but she backed away. “I may not understand you, but I know I love you.”
She laughed. “Love? We haven’t even been dating two months.” She wrinkled her nose and tried to walk away from him.
He moved closer. “Yes. I love you.” He was almost whispering.
She grabbed his hand. “Well, I don’t love you.” She ducked under his arm and tried to shimmy out of the corner.
“But Becca—” He grabbed after her, too slow to catch her.
She didn’t know what else to do or say. She stared at the Jesus in her hand. Both glass hands lay on his chest, framing a red heart and a black chain.
She twirled around on one foot. Then, like a pitcher on the mound, she wound up and threw Jesus against the nearest wall. He shattered. Glass fell to the floor and bounced back toward them. The sound echoed throughout the house.
“Oh God,” he said.
Katherine Bell is a writer and Communications and Marketing Coordinator from Frederick, Maryland. Katherine’s work has been published in: The East Coast Literary Review, Connotation Press and the Blue Lyra Review. With her boyfriend, she writes and publishes a blog called We Write Together and writes during her commute on the DC Metro.