Photo Illustration by Kyle Morrison/The Observer

Margaret Lamb /Writing to the right-hand Prize (Creative Non Fiction) Award Co-Winner

This sucks,” I say. My sister is sitting restlessly on the front steps of our house. There is a rustling of stranded leaves scampering down the road. It’s almost winter if it isn’t already, and it’s cold—wicked cold, or so Bostonians are meant to say. I’m not sure that it’s appropriate anyway since my parents’ mortgage is in the suburbs of the city, away from Southie slang—so I guess a simple cold will do. My cigarette is bent and frustrating. It is taking forever to finish and my hands are blushing and raw. Sneaking a puff here and there is a pain in the ass. I am constantly glancing at the windows to make sure my mom won’t see me, and I am always trying to figure out the direction of the wind so I won’t blow the stink back onto my clothes. It doesn’t matter anyways. I know I’m not fooling anyone.

“What? Are you wicked depressed about mom?” my sister asks. Monica is sitting one step above me, chewing nicotine gum. “Don’t even start. This fuckin’ gum already makes me want to shoot my brains out.” She’s always this delicate with her words, even when things are as shitty as they are now. Strangers are often shocked that such a small, five foot tall girl can be so vulgar at any occasion: weddings, baby showers, birthdays, and funerals. Zero self-consciousness whatsoever. “It’s fuckin’ Thanksgiving, Pete. Lighten up!” She spits her gum out into the hedges lining the front of the house. I ignore her.

I haven’t seen her in months, though it feels like years. She’s five years older but the age gap feels more like five friend years, rather than five sister years. When we were young, the gap was bridged with affection and envy. Now, there is no bridge. Thanksgiving is usually a time when we play up our roles as bro and sis, to please the parents, but really, the whole thing is a sham. It is a charade we play to make our lives a little simpler after the holidays—fewer “Have you spoken with your sister?” Some lies, contrary to all Hollywood clichés, can be kept forever, and if the parents are chummy and life isn’t half bad, what does it matter if lies are told and truths are unspoken?

Monica doesn’t say a word and enters back into the house. I can hear the clatter of pans as her boyfriend tries to help my dad with the gravy or the cranberry relish or whatever the hell we’re eating tonight. I don’t care. Right now, all I care about is smoking in secret. This cigarette is really getting me worked up, and I wish this wind could, for one moment, stop blowing so I can smoke in peace. I really don’t want to smell like tobacco when I go back inside. I know what my mom will say. She’ll say, “Those things will give you cancer.” And I’ll hate that she’ll say that because she is the one who has cancer, and the irony of it or the selflessness of it is totally fucked up. Zero self-consciousness whatsoever.

Fuck this bent cigarette. I toss it into the hedges and run a lap down and back up the driveway to air out my clothes. It’s only a few feet but when I skip the four steps up to the front door, I can hear myself wheezing. When I open the door, I smell everything pleasant. Turkey, stuffing, gravy, risotto. Risotto is my mom’s favorite. Every year she insists that between the six-hour, oven-cooked Turkey and the fifteen-minute risotto, she’d rather have seconds of the risotto. This is only because Monica makes the risotto, her little contribution to the family cornucopia. “I love this risotto because my lovely daughter made it for me,” my mom always says. This year though, she hurriedly keeps herself as busy as she can, stirring the gravy and watching impatiently as others try to prepare a meal she knows she can make better.

*  *  *

The kitchen is the biggest part of the house. Though it is rare that Monica and I are back at home together like this, my mom always keeps the refrigerators (there are two of them) stocked like she did when we were still both at home. She likes nothing better than to have us all together as a family, and often bribes us with food. I always stay for the holidays. School is in New York, only four hours away, but it is hard for me to find time to come back frequently, and sometimes, I don’t want to. So I try to stay in bulky partitioned sections of time. It makes my mom happy. My sister lives in Boston, twenty minutes away but she hardly comes by. She says that she is  “so busy with work.” Lies. Obvious lies, but she says them anyway because she thinks lies are all meant to be discovered and deciphered. She thinks “so busy with work” means “I can’t handle the fact that mom is sick,” but this doesn’t change the fact that our mom sits at home alone in this big fucking kitchen, and is lonely, and scared, and sick. Fuck, it’s only a twenty-minute drive.

I bus the turkey, carved by my mom, to the table. Then, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, and the risotto. I don’t want to bus the fucking risotto, but I do anyway. The tablecloth is a festive pumpkin orange and two orange candles are lit at the table. We say a hasty grace, and dive in for the food. My dad sifts through his juicy, scrumptious, cooked-with-mom’s-recipe turkey, his appetite shot from stress and anxiety. He hasn’t smoked a cigarette in thirty years—the thirty years since he married my mom—but now he is jonesing for anything to calm his nerves and maybe restore some of his appetite. Watching him makes me want to smoke, but so does looking at my mom.

The dining room is decorated with childhood photos. There are pictures of my mom and dad when they were married. They both look so much younger and healthier and happier. There are pictures of my sister from all ages. She looks a lot like my mother. She is a lot like my mother. There are pictures of me when I was younger, when I played my first piano recital, when I placed in my first boxing tournament, when I graduated from high school. My mom, behind the lens every time. It is hard for me to remember an important time in my life that doesn’t involve my mom, no matter in how small a way. The kitchen begins to feel like a museum.

Monica practically shouts as she tries to spark conversation. Her boyfriend is awkwardly trying to help. My dad sits reluctantly with his food, glancing quietly at my mother. She smiles like she always does but I can tell that she’s worried. Everyone’s worried. I talk about school, music, sports, and the weather, and it hardly occupies more than ten minutes. My life, away from home, seems so tidy and tiny. In New York, I can talk about these things for hours. I can smoke a cigarette easily. I can be me, without my mom. Ordinary.

I hastily finish my turkey and clear my dish. I say “Happy Thanksgiving” offhandedly, for no reason. I pretend to start washing the dishes but when no one walks into the kitchen, I turn off the sink and step onto the back porch. As I pan across our neighbor’s houses, I see that they are all lit with the same festive orange lighting that we have. But I know things are different. Inside, there are happy, healthy families, who can talk for hours about the Patriots game and how this weather is unexpectedly cold. The wind is blowing in all different directions up on the porch but I light a cigarette anyway.

I hear the door click. It’s Monica. “Are you okay?” she asks.

“I’m fine.” I lie because I see no reason not to.

“You know, mom is going to be okay.” She lies like she always does, but I can’t decipher the reasoning for this lie. I am thankful that she is being ambiguous.

“Thanks for saying that,” I say. I mean to say that I am thankful for her, but now I feel compelled to play the role of sister-hating brother. So I add, “Fuck it. It is Thanksgiving.” It doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. It doesn’t matter though. I know I’m not fooling anyone.