By Rachel Sarah
Ten years ago, on our daughter’s first Thanksgiving, my ex walked out the door on us. It had taken me a long time to move past this day, but I’d finally done it. I’d remarried and my daughter was thriving. I was pregnant with a little girl due on her 12th birthday, and my new husband, Chris, couldn’t wait to be a dad.
This year, as the holiday approached, I’d made myself a promise. I wouldn’t let the holiday snatch my heart and jerk it around again. I was, I decided, Officially Over It. As the sun flickered through our window, Chris and I snaked together under the blankets like the electrical cords tangled next to our queen-sized mattress on the living room floor. But that old angst twisted inside me where his fingers trailed.
We were remodeling what used to be Chris’ bachelor pad to turn it into our home. The place was covered in a thin layer of dust. I pushed down the lump in my throat and angrily told myself to keep it together. Don’t let your past ruin your life. Chris was 10 years older than me and had just turned 49. He’d been married once before, briefly, and thought he’d missed his chance at fatherhood, just like I thought I’d missed my chance at love again.
I twisted my wedding ring as Chris kissed me on the lips, got up, and went into the kitchen. I could hear him sharpening a knife, the blade grinding against the stone. He was in charge of the turkey today and I’d volunteered to make the stuffing, a family recipe with fresh chestnuts, leeks, chicken broth, and lots of butter.
I padded into the kitchen as the milk steamer shrieked. Chris smiled at me, and I forced myself to smile back. I didn’t want him to know how wound up I was. We’d been married for a year at this point, but had only been living together for six months. I opened the fridge, pulled out the butter, and shut the door hard. It was like I was ready to fight.
I should have seen the signs eleven years ago, when I’d met my daughter’s father on an airplane and he’d ordered his third beer before noon. Our relationship was passionate and impulsive. When our daughter was seven months old, he’d changed his mind about coming with me to celebrate Thanksgiving, telling me he was going to join his family instead. He’d escorted us to the train, given us each a quick peck on the cheek, and stepped away as the doors closed. Then he’d emptied my bank account and caught a flight to Europe, where, as far as I knew, he still was, living under the radar.
This morning, my daughter tramped into the kitchen and wrapped her arms around me. “You okay, Mommy?”
“Uh huh.” Her ability to read my emotions astounded me. After so many years together, just the two of us, she was incredibly perceptive of my moods. I hated to pretend, even though I knew she’d probably try to cover up her feelings in a few years, as all teens did.
I waited for my daughter and Chris to leave before pulling down the loaves of bread, which I’d stashed on top of the fridge the day before to get them out of the way. The truth was, some part of me didn’t want him to see that I’d come home yesterday with not one, not two, not three… but six loaves of bread. I knew he’d tell me I was overdoing it. A little part of me worried he was right.
I put a pot of chicken broth on the stove to simmer. The kitchen filled with the scent of sage. I liked the crunching sound the knife made as I drove it through the crust of olive bread.
Ten minutes later, Chris leaned in the small doorway of the kitchen and pointed to the chunks of bread scattered on every pan in the kitchen. “You’re not making all that.”. He rubbed the spot between his eyes, like the sight of the mess exhausted him. The kitchen, the only space untouched by the remodel, was his sanctuary. He was always asking me to keep it organized and clean.
“I just want to make sure we have enough.” I couldn’t look at him. I knew six loaves had been too much. Still, my fingers gripped the handle of the knife.
“Enough? We’re only six people. You’re making enough for 20.”
“You don’t have to be such a control freak.” I mumbled this, even though I was the one who wanted so badly to control everything.
“I’m going to find the cooler in the garage.” He stomped away.
“Yeah, hopefully, it’ll cool you off.” I was desperate to get a handle on this awful feeling, to stuff it down. I considered slipping out of the kitchen and walking up the hill to clear my head. Still, I’d have to come home at some point.
Someone had to eat all this stuffing.
A few minutes later, Chris was back. He glared at the four enormous metal trays of cut-up bread, now toasted. The sight of the filthy kitchen annoyed him the way some men get riled up at the sight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. “Who’s going to clean up all this mess?”
“I am.” Little did Chris know that the real mess was inside me. “You always say you feel like you’re all alone, getting everything ready. Well, I’m helping.” The hot water scalded my knuckles.
“This. Is. Not. Helping.”
I pressed my elbows into my sides, trying to make myself as small as possible. Because maybe I was going overboard. I bent over the huge metal pot, my little baby bump rubbing against the edge of the counter. I wouldn’t blame him splitting up with me. I can’t stand being with me. My pain clouded every thought.
I shoved the bread into the broth, pushing it below the surface of the boiling liquid. The chicken broth boiled angrily. I wanted to submerse myself in it and drown. Anything to stop my thoughts. He’s going to leave me. I’m going to be a single mom again. It was a spinning wheel inside my head.
Chris took a step forward. “You have to listen.”
“No, you have to–“
“Stop fighting you two.” My daughter stood in the doorway, barefoot. Her nightgown fell loosely around her knees. She swept a curl from her forehead, waiting for me to say something.
I was afraid that if I told her what was really going on, how this pain surged back every year at this time, I’d fall apart. If she thought it had anything to do with her, she’d blame herself. No matter how much it hurt, I had to hold it together for her.
“Mommy?” She didn’t blink.
I wrung my hands together and hoped she and Chris would walk away. Neither of them budged. The hot trays of stuffing steamed up the windows It was humiliating, standing there as they stared at me. Chris took two steps towards me and rested his hand on my shoulder. “I’m here, if you want to talk about it.”
I held my breath. I’m here. No man had ever said these words to me before. He was here.
“It’s just that–” I sucked in a breath. “Never mind. I can’t really talk about it.”
If I did, my shame would speak and blame me for my ex leaving ten years ago. I had to keep quiet. But this feeling hung onto me, persistent.
“Mommy?” My daughter’s eyes caught mine. She walked up and put her arms around me.
Our silence filled the kitchen, mixing with the vapor rising from the pot. For so long, I was sure something was wrong with me. It had to be my fault.
I am here. Chris pulled me into his chest. I could feel his breath on the top of my head. Maybe, I thought as I leaned into him, it was time to let this shame go. A tear slid down my cheek, and as my daughter pressed against my back, I surrendered to all of it.
Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking (Seal Press). She’s the proud mother of two daughters who are 12 years apart.