Last year, as usual, I was waiting to be invited to Benson’s Thanksgiving dinner. Dinner in the south means lunch at noon, and supper means dinner in the evening. Usually, Bobby would send me an email a few days before. During the past five years since I moved into Alabama from Ohio, my neighbor Bensons invited me to their family gatherings, Fourth of July BBQ, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Bobby and Suzie’s birthday parties, etc. Their sons Jake and David would drive from Nashville and Atlanta to join. Jake would bring his girlfriend, an occasional television actress, with elevated giant super-unnatural boobs. Tina, Jake’s daughter from his first marriage, came with different boyfriends. Jake’s second marriage did not produce any children. David did not bring anyone, instead, he always brought some beautiful stuff, like those very colorful collage paintings that he made as a hobby. And once I saw Bobby’s step-sister, who was younger than his sons and had a weathered face, as sad as an old Christmas tree in someone’s living room in the mid-summer.
Suzie is a great cook, she is truly the “Martha Stewart of Alabama”, she is one of the best cooks I have known. She does everything from scratch, sources, dressing, bread. And they live in this beautiful gorgeous mansion on the top of Monte Sano. A two-story spectacular colonial house, very spacious for an old couple. They would say, “it is only 8,000 square feet.” And it has sixteen acres of woods with several private hiking trails Bobby created by himself over the last twenty years, behind the public hiking trail that people can access from Stone Gate Street on the other side of Monte Sano. These private hiking trails have become our dog park, where every day I walked my dog, Aspen, a Border Collie-Siberian Husky mix, without a lease on her.
When I woke up on the Thanksgiving morning, I still did not see an email or text from Bobby. They might have finally decided not to have an annoying liberal Asian single woman at their ultra-conservative family dinner table. I felt a kind of relief. I stayed in bed later, reading, and at noon with my pajama on me, I went to walk Aspen in Benson’s trail. When I passed by their kitchen window, Suzie saw me, and she came out hurriedly and asked me if I read Bobby’s email. It turns out Bobby sent me the email at the very last minute, and as I left the house without my cell phone, I did not notice it. Suzie said, “Anna, Come in and join us for the dinner.” “Thanks, Suzie. But I am not dressed, look, I even didn’t take a shower yet. Maybe I will stop by around the later afternoon and have a bite of the pie?” I urged her to start the dinner without waiting for me.
When I arrived at their house, it was already four a clock and the sun started to set. Bobby was drying the dishes and Suzie was reading the Southern Living Magazine on her gigantic brown sofa. Their kitchen was vast and it had a large eating area with a breakfast table and had another large sitting area with two fireplaces. A man was sitting at the breakfast table near the window, through which I saw their meticulous garden and a marble statue of the Virgin Mary standing inside their Japanese-style gazebo.
He was a middle-aged Asian man, medium built but quite athletic looking with clean-cut short dark hair. I have never seen an Asian person in their house all these years. “Oh, they are trying to fix me up with someone.” My neighbors were always trying to find a husband for me. I was introduced to all sorts of men these last years, and the last man they mentioned to me was an alcoholic hoarder who lived in a small rural town called Brent near Tuscaloosa.
While I stood between the brown sofa where Suzie sat and the fireplace with the faked fire near the breakfast table, Bobby and Suzie did not introduce me to this Asian man. The TVs were on two screens between fireplaces, the upper one showing a rerun of an old tennis tournament, and the lower one with the Fox channel on. “Hi, I am Anna. Nice to meet you,” I decided to approach the Asian man by myself.
“Ah-Hi, I am Alex Wong. Nice to meet you too,” he replied with an uneasy smile on his face that did not look at me directly.
“So how are you related to these guys?” I asked.
“Oh, I am Dave’s friend.”
“I see, so you are working with David?” David used to be a computer programmer many years ago, but he was now working on some construction contracts, buying old houses and flipping them, and so he finally joined his family business.
“Oh No, I am a CEO of a company that sells natural supplements.”
“That makes sense,” I remembered, from a previous family gathering, David was very into some special diet programs and authentic health supplements. Bobby was still tidying up the kitchen counter and Suzie started to write her journal. She had kept her journal for almost fifty years. I sat next to her on this super-comfy brown sofa and asked her, “So where is everybody?”
“Jake and Megan just left. Tina went to another Thanksgiving dinner in her mother’s place. Dave is in his room upstairs, he is resting.” Suzie asked me, “And how have you been?” I told her about my endless deadlines and how much I was looking forward to the winter break. Bobby dried his hand and sat next to us on the brown sofa and watched the TVs. Alex was still sitting on the same chair, motionlessly browsing his cell phone screen.
“You know what? The other day, when I was walking on your trails, I thought we might want to name the trails and I thought about some names. The longest one behind your vegetable garden can be called Irish since there are so many Irish flowers there in the spring. And the one from the tennis court to the water tower can be called hellebore because hellebores are blooming there almost all year round.” I picked the names of flowering trees they have in their garden, redbud, dogwood, Crape Myrtle, azalea, Camelia, magnolia, hydrangea, Buckeye, Hibiscus, Flowering Quince. Bobby and Suzie became excited, their eyes shining, upon hearing their favorite plants and trees. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, I grabbed a scribble paper sitting on the coffee table, next to a porcelain-chicken where Suzie stored her holiday candies, and on the paper I started drawing the trails and wrote their names.
We were giggling like three little kids and all this time, Alex did not move from his chair and did not turn his head to join our heated-up conversations, and did not say a word. When I could not help to look back at Alex, Suzie asked Bobby, as if she was making an important announcement, “Bob, did you put new beddings in the guest bedroom for Alex?”
“Yes, I discussed it with David over the email,” Bobby answered in his low voice, his eyes did not meet with mine.
“But did you put new bedsheets in his room?” Suzie asked again, this time louder.
“I made the arrangement with David. He knows.” Bobby’s voice contained remarkable traces of irritation. As I noticed Bobby never spoke to his wife like this before, a flash of lightning struck my cold back. I interrupted them, without knowing it, and continued talking about more flower names, Peony, Hydrangea, black-eyed Susan, but they no longer paid attention to the map I was drawing.
“Hey, see who is here? Anna! Good to see you.” I heard David came down from the upstairs, with torques blue shirts underneath a black North Face fleece jacket. He looked fatigued, his hair more salty than peppery. He kissed me on my cheeks. Behind his shoulder, Alex was standing quietly, his head down. “So, we are going out to see a movie,” declared David.
“A movie?” I was not sure whether I was asking a question or approving his statement.
“Yes. We are going to see Jennifer Lawrence’s new movie. Anna, I am sorry you missed the dinner but it is good to see you. So, later.” He and Alex swiftly left the kitchen, shortly before I heard David’s Jeep started loudly its engine.
When I walked back to my house, the sun was completely set and the dark air was crispy cold and I regret I did not bring my thick coat. I met Diane, another neighbor of mine, on the street. She was walking her ugly and sweet Chinese Crested dog, Daisy. “So, how was the dinner?” Diane asked, cheerfully. She always envied me for being invited to Benson’s dinners, as she was never invited to their house, even though she was Suzie’s tennis partner for more than ten years. Diane always said to me, “I cannot imagine what it would look like to eat the foods that Suzie prepared in that beautiful house. Must be spectacular.”
“No, I didn’t have the dinner today because I was not invited until noon. I only stopped by for the pie, but they did not offer me the pie either,” I spoke as if I was stating a fact. Then I said, “But guess what? I met David’s new friend.”
Diane stood there for a minute without a word, and searching her words carefully, she said, “I have known David for a long time since he was a kid. Oh, God. That must be very difficult for Suzie and Bobby.” She looked up at the sky and changed the subject, “It seems we are going to have a storm tonight.” Nearby someone was burning woods in their fireplace and the air tasted of smoky brown soot.