In the Time It Takes

“Do you think they know?”

Her hands are slick and shiny, covered in butter, and flecked with dark bits of thyme and black pepper. In front of her, a large, raw turkey, slathered and herbed and stuffed, rests in an heirloom roasting pan on a bed of onions and celery.

“We’ll tell them after dinner.”

His hands are clean, but he picks at a bit of dry skin around the nail of his pointer finger.

“There’s no possible way they’ll know, right? No way they could have figured it out?”

“I don’t see how.”

She steps away from the counter and he moves forward, lifts the roasting pan and places the turkey in the oven. Already, it looks perfect. Picture perfect, just like a Norman Rockwell painting.

“I’m worried,” she says. “I just want everyone to enjoy dinner. I don’t want drama.”

Bright sunlight peeks in through a window above the sink. The tiny kitchen feels alive with fragrance and clutter and heat. The oven’s been on for hours.

“I know,” he answers. “It’ll be fine.”

She sets a timer.

“Someone will complain that it’s dry,” she says. “Or that it’s too salty. Or not salty enough.”

“Someone could have volunteered to cook.”

“I volunteered, though, so it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s good.”

“You didn’t volunteer,” he points out. “You felt obligated. That’s different.”

She knits her brow. “I did not feel obligated.”

“You absolutely did.”

“No, I didn’t. This felt like something I could do. I like to cook.”

“This isn’t cooking,” he argues. He gestures around the kitchen, to the towering collection of pots and pans stacked on the countertops, and then to the stack of dishes already soaking in the sink. “This is forced labor.”

She looks over to the timer. She sighs. “I don’t want to argue with you,” she says.

“Then let’s not.”

“Okay, let’s not.” She checks a list she’s hung on the fridge. She’s worried over it for days, adding and then crossing out items. “I need to make the sweet potatoes. We have marshmallows, right? You bought them?”

“I don’t like marshmallows,” he says. “Who decided to add marshmallows?”

“I have no idea,” she answers, and adds “but I’m certainly not a better cook than they were.”

“You’re a great cook,” he says.

She smiles. “And that’s why you love me.”

“One of many reasons,” he says. He walks over and pecks her on the lips. “What can I help with?”

Together, they chop and roast sweet potatoes, and glaze them with maple syrup and Bourbon. She makes a green bean casserole while he sets the table. She’s crafted a special centerpiece, full of little orange and yellow pumpkins, gold ribbons, and cinnamon sticks. He positions it just so, with little tea candles all around to catch the light.

She comes into the dining room carrying a tray of crystal wine glasses, a wedding gift they only use once a year. She places one down at each setting.

“Thank you for setting the table,” she tells him. “It looks great.”

“Thanks,” he says.

She doesn’t reply.

“You did a really good job on the centerpiece,” he adds.

“Are we doing the right thing?”

He can hear an edge in her voice, a raised pitch, a thinness.

“We’ve talked about it for months,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I’m probably not going to get again. And you’re excited, too, remember?”

“I am,” she answers. “I really am.”

“The it’s the right thing,” he says, even and confident.

“But what if it’s not? What if we’re making the wrong decision?” She tightens her grip on the tray, now hanging lengthwise, covering her abdomen. Her knuckles turn bone white.

“Do you really feel that way? Or are you letting holiday stress get to you? Your family can be handful this time of year.” He crosses his arms, puts a hand up to his chin, shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

“How could you even say that?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.

“I’ve been agonizing over this. You know how hard it is for me.” She turns, sharp and intent, on one ankle and makes her way back to the kitchen.

From the dining room, he hears the loud clang of the tray hitting the counter. “I know,” he says, almost too quiet.

“And to bring up my family like that. How could you?”

He winces. He says nothing.

“My family’s lived here forever. No one’s ever moved away. No one. It’s just not done.”

He joins her in the kitchen, tries to catch her eye as she opens and closes drawers, pulls out one serving spoon after another.

“You know we’re close. You’ve known that from day one.” She leans over the sink, bearing her weight down on her hands, forcing herself to stay upright, focused.

“Your family will be okay. It’s a move,” he says. “It’s not a life sentence. We can always come back if we hate it.”

“You know as well as I do that you don’t want to come back.” She finally turns to face him. She sets her lips in a thin, tight line.

“That’s not fair,” he says.

“It’s true, though,” she replies, short and clipped.

“You were the one who told me to look for this job.”

“I know, but it’s not like you needed convincing.”

“You even chose the city,” he yells. He takes a breath, starts again: “You said you’ve always wanted to live in Chicago.”

“I know,” she says. “I know, you’re right.”

She checks the oven timer. The turkey’s turned golden. She starts to say how nice it’s coming along.

“I know you’re worried,” he says. “But we’ve talked about this.”

“I know. We have.” She bites a nail. “But I just feel like it’s the wrong decision.”

“You feel like that today, because it’s a holiday.”

“No, that’s not why.” She closes her eyes, opens them, knows they’ve gone hard and wide. “Don’t tell me what I think.”

“I’m not,” he says, gentle, patient. “But you were ready to go before today.”

Outside, the sun ducks behind a cloud, and against the window, they both hear the ping of tiny pinpricks of rain. The weather’s turned, but in their kitchen, things are still hot and close and heavy as a weighted blanket.

The timer sounds. He retrieves the turkey from the oven. They both watch as it steams, and she moves to cover it with foil.

“Then you haven’t been listening to me,” she whispers. There is nothing calm in that whisper.

“I have!” He raises his voice again. He doesn’t fight it this time. “I really have. I thought we were on the same page.”

“You hear what you want to hear,” she snaps.

“I hear what you tell me.”

“I tell you everything! You just don’t listen.”

“I listen.”

They move all of the sides to the table, one after another. Warm casserole dishes, overfull gravy boats, all set up in the kind of perfect order of a magazine spread, each in its place and each place just right, with the turkey at the head, surrounded by fat sprigs of rosemary.

“You listen and filter out what doesn’t fit into what you’re thinking.”

“That’s not true,” he says.

“It is,” she counters.

“You know it’s not.” Quiet, defeated, deflated. “And if you really feel that way, I don’t know why you married me in the first place.”

“Sometimes I don’t either.”

“Do you mean that?”

She pauses, and for a moment, they both wait. Silence hangs between them.

She nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yeah, I think I do.”

He nods back, makes his choice, and answers. “Then we have other things to talk about.”

“I guess we do,” she says. She turns her back to him and walks out of the room.

He follows her out, walks into the living room and starts a fire for the evening. It roars to life. Later, after dinner, everyone will gather here to drink hot chocolate and play a board game, as they do every year. He’s always enjoyed the tradition.

Outside, a car door slams. Quiet conversation drifts up the walkway to the front door. He joins her in the foyer and plasters on a smile. It matches hers, bright and vibrant and convincing.

“I don’t understand how we got here,” she says. The smile doesn’t slip.

“I don’t understand why you don’t understand.” His mouth stays curled, like hers, tight and stretched and smooth. It shines like a scar.

The doorbell rings.

3 thoughts on “In the Time It Takes

  1. Pingback: Short Story Challenge 2021! | A Virginia Writer's Diary

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