A short story written for the 'Quotation Inspiration' contest, September 2020.
"The dying process begins the minute we are born,
but it accelerates during dinner parties."
-- Carol Matthau
A Family Dinner
We made the journey in silence. What more was there left to say for I had put forward every argument that I could think of as to why I should not come?
"You've got to, Cath. You're my wife, for goodness sake. Think what it would look like if you weren't by my side." Dan had smiled. "Besides, I'm nervous too!"
"But they're your family! You know them all, even if you haven't seen them for years."
"I know... I know..." Dan had gripped my shoulders a little bit too hard while he stared into my eyes. "I've not met up with them all together for years."
I had bitten back the angry retort, the words I wanted to fire off at him. About how I hadn't even known he had a family, for not once had he ever mentioned them. It hurt; the fact that he had kept secrets from me, and here was a chance to hurt him back.
I wanted to, I really did, but in the end I couldn't do it. The past week had been strained; I didn't recall a time when there had ever been such tension between us, but it was nothing compared to the atmosphere inside the car.
All these questions flowed through my mind. How come he had not seen them when they did not live so far away? Or had he? Perhaps he had been visiting them all along, without my knowing, hiding me away like some dirty little secret. Even though we had been married for seven years he had never once mentioned any family and I had presumed that Dan was an orphan like me. Now it seemed possible that he was embarrassed by me.
That feeling only increased when he pulled off the road onto a long driveway, at the top of which stood a very large house. Dan's family had money then. No wonder he had kept me hidden, for I was neither rich, nor pretty, and I certainly wasn't talented.
I grabbed at his hand. "Please, Dan, let's just go home."
"We can't, Cath. I've already said that we'd be here. And besides..." He looked towards the house where the door was already beginning to open.
Did he think I wouldn't notice the nervous gulp that he made before opening the driver's door and stepping out? To make me even more nervous, he then walked around the car and held open the passenger door for me. I wasn't used to that, was used to doing things for myself. How was I ever going to make it through the next couple of hours?
A woman stood framed in the doorway. She looked too old to be one of his sisters so I presumed her to be his mother. With his hand on my elbow, Dan guided me forward, only letting go when we were directly in front of her.
"Daniel," she said, in a voice that dripped with class and culture. She gave him a distinctly cool hug and turned her cheek towards him. An air-kiss, for his lips did not touch her skin. "And you must be... Catherine, is it?" She turns her eyes towards me, looks me up and down and dismisses me as unimportant..
"Cath," I say and nervously hold out my hand. She's already turned away from me and is leading Dan down the hallway.
"You've cut it very fine, I must say," she tells him. "I was beginning to think you'd changed your mind."
'Or had it changed for you,' I think, feeling both deserted and mutinous. What is my husband doing? Surely he should be a bit more aware of the difficult position that he's put me in.
We are ushered into a dining room that was full of chatter until we enter. I am extremely conscious that every single pair of eyes are now studying first Dan, then me. At least we are to be permitted to sit together.
"Daniel, nice of you to make it," says the man seated at the head of the table. There is no mistaking the family resemblance between the two men. "And your wife too, I take it." He stands and offers me his hand, barely making contact with my own before he sits back down.
On the opposite side of the table sits a couple with a girl I presume to be their teenage daughter. The girl openly stares at me, while the adults at least have the manners to look away. Next to Dan is his younger sister.
Introductions don't seem to be forthcoming so I try to remember what Dan had told me a few nights ago. Victoria and Rose; I'm sure that's their names but I can't remember which is which until my husband turns towards the woman beside him and says, "Well, Vicky, it's been a long time."
"It certainly has. And how has life been treating you, Dan?"
What is he going to say? I strain my ears to catch his words for our life is clearly very different to that of the rest of his family. We make the bills every month and have a bit left over, but our house in total area is not much bigger than this dining room. "Oh, you know. Plenty of work for a small return, but we manage, don't we, Cathy?"
I feel a ridiculous amount of gratitude towards Dan, simply because he included me. "Yes, we do." I wonder if my voice sounds as small to the others as it does to me.
She leans forward to get a better look at me. "It's nice to meet you at last, Catherine, is it?"
"Cathy," I correct, with a smile.
"I'm Daniel's younger sister, Vic..."
"Victoria, would you mind going to the kitchen and telling Mildred that we are ready." So mother does not want her daughter to get too friendly. I'd like to glare at her, for that was the first genuinely friendly moment since we arrived, spoiled now. Instead I look down at the table at the array of cutlery in front of me. I've never seen so many knives and forks before. How am I going to know which to use when?
Victoria arrives back from the kitchen followed by an older woman. I had had visions of her being dressed up in a black and white maid's uniform; thank goodness I was wrong. She makes her way around the table, placing bowls of soup in front of each of us. There is a plate of freshly baked rolls at the center of the table, the hot bread scent making me feel nauseous.
I hang back, trying not to make it obvious that I am waiting to follow Dan's lead. He does not hesitate, but why would he? He must have been used to all this before he met me. My hand shakes slightly as I lift the spoon towards my mouth.
The girl is enjoying my discomfort. I can hardly miss her self-satisfied smirk as she watches me. Oh, god, I feel so sick. How come they can all lift the spoons full of soup to their mouths without either spilling it or leaning forwards. Even Dan!
Maybe it is considered rude not to eat the food, but I can't help it. After a couple of half-spoonfuls I put my spoon down, whisper to Dan that I need the restroom. He begins to stand but his mother stops him. "Emily, show Catherine where to go, please."
The girl seems to unfold herself from her chair, revealing that she is both tall and thin. I feel frumpy and clumsy as I follow her from the room, and trail after her in silence. She nods towards a door, turns to leave me then pauses.
"Hi," I say, trying to be friendly.
I might as well have spoken to the wall for all the response I receive.
"You will be able to find your way back, I take it."
What does she think I am? "Yes. Yes of course. Emily," I add as an afterthought.
She even manages to shrug her shoulders with grace. I dive into the restroom and place my hands on the coolness of the basin. "Breathe," I say to my reflection. My face looks pale and pinched, giving away how tense I am feeling.
Could I stay shut up in here until it is time to leave? I've got to admit the idea is very tempting, and honestly I doubt anyone would notice that I was not there. Apart from Dan. He would know and he had so wanted us to make a good impression. I splash some cold water on my face, then dab it dry. This is ridiculous! I am behaving like a silly schoolgirl summoned to the Principals office or something.
Taking a deep breath I pull back my shoulders and force myself to walk down the hallway. It's excruciating, making my way back to my seat at the table, but I do so without tripping or without meeting anyone's eyes. So, they want to lock me out of the family; well, I can play at that game too.
Somehow I make it through the main course and dessert without showing myself, and Dan by association, up.
"Would you care to join me for a drink?" The invitation is made to Dan, not me. Please, please don't tell me have to withdraw for tea and leave the men to chat.
"I'd love to, Dad, but sorry. I'm driving."
"Surely Catherine could drive you home...?"
I want the floor to open up and swallow me. It's not as if I don't always feel embarrassed by the fact that driving a vehicle is a skill that I have never been able to acquire. 'Don't say it... Don't say it,' I'm thinking and maybe Dan senses it because he doesn't.
"No, really," he stands up and reaches for my hand. "Well, I can't say it's been exactly a pleasure, for you have treated Cathy, my wife and your daughter-in-law, deplorably. At least I remember now why it is that I haven't returned home earlier."
I'm mildly embarrassed again, but, I remind myself, Dan is standing up for me. Clearly, going by the shocked expressions, the family had not been anticipating this. I risk a glance towards Emily, catch a slight nod of her head. Maybe, over time, she'd become an ally, but if I'm honest I really don't want to wait to find out.
"Don't bother showing us out," Dan says, opening the dining room door and closing it swiftly behind us. He rushes me out to the car and for a moment I think he is regretting being quite so forthright with his parents and siblings.
He turns the car around and I notice his shoulders are shaking. Is he really that upset? It is not until we are back on the highway that I realize my husband is not crying but laughing. "Boy, that was some dinner! Are you okay, Cath?"
"I feel like I've aged about ten years," I reply, then add: "But I'm fine." And then I join in with his laughter. For the first time in a week I really am fine, for I know then that it was never me Dan was embarrassed by, but the others.