It is almost Thanksgiving, and so my wife and I are making plans. We are making calls. Unfortunately, we discover, the Xs, with whom we often share the holiday dinner, are going to be out of town this year.
“Family?” I ask.
“No, no,” says Mr. X. “Just away. Can’t deal with it this year.”
They’re taking the kids to Los Angeles. Visit Universal Studios, Disney.
“Fuck it,” says Mr. X.
And so we begin phoning around, seeing who will be home. We phone the neighbors, we phone the friends down the road, we phone the people from the office. There are people we don’t call, of course: the people with families. The people who keep in touch with their parents and siblings. The functioning and semi-functioning adult children of non-total-assholes. Those people.
We are not those people. My wife and I are estranged from our families and have been for some time. I dislike the word “estrange”; we have not (as the Dictionary of Etymology explains of the word) been made strange, or foreign. We checked out. We ran. Furthermore, I don’t mind strangers, or foreigners; I could share a meal with either and not feel like I want to kill them. Or myself.
We did not, from the Latin extraneus, become external.
We bailed. We jumped. We split.
“You guys around this year?” we ask the Ys.
The Ys are not as divorced from their families as we are (I prefer the term “divorced”—it’s more active, more deliberate, more violent), though they would certainly like to be. Geography helps where emotional strength fails them; his parents, down South, don’t like coming to New York, while her family, in the West, are too old to travel.
“We’re going out West,” says Mr. Y with a shake of his head.
Some years we go over to the Ys’ after the Thanksgiving meal, some years they come over to us. Rules are simple: Guest brings the dessert; homeowner supplies the booze.
“They want to see the kids,” he explains, of his wife’s parents.
“Sounds like fun,” I say.
“It’s going to suck,” he replies. “You guys sticking around here?”
“Cool,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
It’s not that any of us care much for the holiday from an historical point of view; this year, more than others, is less about giving thanks for what America has given us than it is wondering about where America, for so many, went so terribly off the rails. But there would be, we knew, a sense of defeat were we to spend the holiday alone—the familialy divorced all feel this way. A sense that we are alone, and punished, and should have stayed in contact with our families; that if we hadn’t left, we would, come Thanksgiving dinner, be surrounded with loved ones and family. To have a dinner without them—davka, as they say in the hood—a loud dinner, with clanking silverware and shuffling chairs and “Pass the potatoes” and “Is this my wine?”—that is victory. That is not just crossing the Red Sea, it is dancing on the far shore.
So, we call the Zs.
The Zs are away. We leave a message, but who knows when they’ll be back. Mrs. Z travels a lot for work, often overseas. Perhaps they’re staying there straight through the holiday.
“Call us back,” I say, “if you’re around.”
It begins to look like it might just be us this year, just us and the boys. Well, we say, that’s OK. A quiet year. My oldest son will help carve the turkey; my youngest will help set the table. After dinner, we’ll watch a movie. Cars 2, The Avengers.
And then, later that evening, the Qs phone. The Qs live in Los Angeles but are coming to New York for the holiday. They are not divorced from their families, and they will be spending Thanksgiving Day with Mr. Qs parents, but we arrange for them to come up a few days early—a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, with the people we truly want to see. The Ts phone also, and though they will be spending the holiday with Mrs. T’s family, they are not looking forward to it and want to come up the weekend before.
“We’ll do turkey dinner,” says Mrs. T. “Friday night.”
Sort of a ThanksShabbos.
A day later, G and C phone, too—together now for 30 or 40 years, this gay couple can always be counted on for a non-family Thanksgiving meal. And so they’ll be over the day after Thanksgiving, for some wine and cheese (they’ll bring the cheese, we’ll take care of the wine) and to sit around in front of a fire and give thanks, we the cast-off, not for what we have but for what we don’t: the old wounds, the old battles, the baggage, the judgments, the resentments, the ghosts. And my older son will show everyone his new karate form, and my younger son will show everyone his one-legged headstand, and perhaps one of them, come Thanksgiving, will ask why we don’t have Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day like all their friends, and I’ll say that’s true, we don’t, and we don’t have relatives around us, but we get to have three Thanksgiving meals, each one with people we genuinely love and care for. And then, fuck it: We’ll watch The Avengers.
Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.