My father has been going on about the mystery bottle of wine on the kitchen counter for five minutes now. He stands cooking, surrounded by the aqua colored walls of the house I grew up in. Traveler’s Palm fronds brush the windows outside. It’s windy and cold for Thanksgiving in the Florida Keys.
“Who brought it?” Dad yells. His voice is slightly rounded, like he’s having an allergic reaction. He’s been deaf since childhood and even though he sometimes wears hearing aids to help him, usually he chooses not to.
He signs response? to me.
I shake my head. I sit at the kitchen bar, nibbling ruffled potato chips and sipping from a bottle of Prosecco a one night stand left with me a couple of weeks ago.
You ask? he signs.
I wipe my hands on my pants and turn to my brother, Jerry, who sits at the dining room table where we will soon eat Thanksgiving dinner. “You didn’t bring it?”
Jerry tilts back a beer. “Nope.”
I lean in my chair. The room smells like stuffing and turkey and something clinically clean, like hand sanitizer. The dining room table is set for seven this Thanksgiving; my father and me, Jerry, his wife and daughter, my oldest brother Paul, plus his girlfriend, Rita. “Paul?” I holler.
The house is quiet. Then, “What, Tiffany?”
“Did you bring a bottle of red?”
More silence. From the sound of his first response, I think he’s in the guest bedroom down the hall unpacking for the night. Rita is probably with him. My chest floods with warmth. “Fuck off,” Paul yells. “I didn’t bring anything because you told me not to.”
I look back at my father. He stands at the stove, red apron covering a rumpled button-up shirt. His face is tan and clean, ears poking out from his bald head. This is how I remember him in my early childhood, after Mom died. He’d stand in the kitchen with a spatula in hand, eyes crinkled in worry as he worked to perfect the dishes she once fed us.
I catch my father’s eye. “It’s a mystery,” I say.
He gives me a look.
Poison wine, I sign. Death.
Dad waves me away and turns back to the stove. Steam rises from the pan where he prepares sautéed asparagus and mushrooms. The smell of garlic wafts in my direction.
At thirty, I’m the youngest child. I’m also the only girl, which means I will carry the burden of serving the turkey. I’m not sure how the tradition started—maybe it was after I graduated college. Jerry had my niece who was an infant, and his wife, Ana. Paul had a girlfriend, too, someone more suited to him, someone forgettable.
I, as usual, had no one.
Cut, my father had signed to me.
He acted like it was some honor, but I really just wanted a girlfriend of my own.
* * * * *
I’m basically an only child. Paul is fifteen years older than me and Jerry is ten. Because of the age difference, I don’t know them as siblings like they know each other. Paul moved to Tampa after high school when I was just four. Jerry went to university in Miami, but he came home more often, telling me stories about the Cuban woman he had fallen for, and how the city streets in Miami were always lit, always moving, so unlike the quiet, sleepy roads of upper Sugarloaf Key.
Here, most of the lighting comes from the moon. It filters through the kitchen windows, shaded by a giant Gumbo Limbo tree on side of the house. I play on my iPad, working on a mix for a ritzy party I’m scheduled to DJ in Miami next week.
Dad stomps on the floor. When I look up, he signs, Music?
I’m signing back that it’s a playlist for work when Rita enters the kitchen. I stop. It’s the first time I’ve seen her today—I snuck out the back when they arrived so I wouldn’t have to greet her in front of everyone.
My hands fall. She wears jeans and a pastel purple t-shirt that contrasts perfectly with her blonde hair. She’s lost a little weight since the last time I saw her but her jeans are still tight around her hips and ass. She sidles up to my dad and touches his shoulder so he can see her mouth as she speaks. “Still need me to finish the pie?”
He nods, smiles. “Please,” he says, in his rounded voice. It’s strange for me to hear him like this. For ten years, my father and I communicated only by sign language. My brothers had left. It was just the two of us—the house was silent save for the clucking of the kingfishers in the mangroves and the slow hiss of the central air conditioner.
I look up to find Rita is addressing me from across the table, pie in front of her. We haven’t spoken to each other in over a month, not since I kissed her after a few too many margaritas at family game night. She looks perfect in the hazy light of the kitchen—her hair curling in large waves, curves pressing on the pair of tight jeans hugging her frame. She’s short and thick, almost to the point of being stocky. I’ve wanted her since the moment we met. “It’s fine,” I say. The sautéing vegetables sizzle. “How’s it with you?”
“Busy as always,” she says, her voice taking on that slightly nasally quality it does when she’s flirting. Rita works in the most popular real estate agency in town, and she’s the most successful agent there. “I had the Zonta sailing tournament to coordinate last week, too.” She opens a bag of brown sugar and the smell disperses throughout the room.
“How was that?”
“It was good,” she says. When she looks up, there’s something soft in her eyes. “I wish you could’ve been there.”
Pain squeezes my chest. I look down at the iPad.
I want to say something back but I don’t know what—I’ve always been bad at speaking. It seemed unnatural to me to speak during elementary and middle school. For years after Mom died, teachers would ask me questions and I wouldn’t respond. I didn’t have anything to say.
Paul enters the kitchen. He looks at me, then reaches in the fridge for a beer. A strip of fat around his waist pushes at his shirt. “Ana brought the wine,” he says.
My jaw tightens. “Oh. Thanks.”
“Just letting you know.”
“You could’ve said earlier.”
“Don’t be a bitch, Tiff.”
He ignores me, sidling up to Rita and smacking her ass. Hard. The spoonful of brown sugar she was holding flies across the table and onto my iPad. She exhales. “Paul.”
Rita lifts her gaze for a moment and her eyes meet mine. The ceiling fan brushes a lock of hair out of her face. Rita has beautiful eyes. They’re ice blue with flecks of amber in the center. She holds my gaze for a moment before looking back down at the pie. “Go wait in the living room,” she says.
My brother hesitates. Then something in him softens. He loses the tension in his mouth, steps forward and places a kiss on Rita’s cheek. She smiles.
I look away and my chest burns.
* * * * *
Kissing Rita was both the worst and best thing I’ve ever done. Her mouth tasted like salt and margarita tang. We held there for a while, but then she pulled back and her eyes welled.
“Tiffany,” she said.
Paul was playing Scrabble with Dad just down the hall in the living room. Rita and I had snuck into my old bedroom earlier to find a sweater for her to wear, something more comfortable. I was drunk, sweating. Panic flooded my chest. “It was a joke,” I said. “Chill out.”
The sound of the blender roaring to life crept into the room. Heat crawled up my neck, my cheeks. Rita hesitated, then pulled the thin cashmere sweater over her head. As she did, a strip of skin peeked out above her waist line. Smooth and alabaster white.
I tensed as the strip disappeared, covered now by the sweater. It stretched tight over her chest, threads flexing in a meshed grid. I reached out and picked a piece of lint off the shoulder, flicked it to the floor.
Rita stared at me. I wanted to tell her something slick and poetic, something smooth like Paul would, but I could never muster the right words. “You’re my friend,” she said. “You just drank too much.”
The sound of her breathing filled the space. I wanted to tell her that I’d kiss her sober. That I loved her hair and her voice and the way she shoved her huge, perfect ass into a pair of too-tight Levi’s before coming over.
“Okay?” she asked.
She caught my gaze and held it. Her eyes glittered from the alcohol. I reached out and took her wrist in my hand.
At first, she didn’t move. Then her eyes went to the floor, her thumb smoothing over my forearm before twisting out of my grip. She turned away and headed towards the door. “Come on. Forget it. Let’s go.”
The next family game night, she and Paul didn’t show up.
* * * * *
Every year at Thanksgiving, I’m at the head of the table, opposite my father. A rough pink napkin rests in my lap. Rita is on my right. To keep from staring at her cleavage, I make clouds out of the pats of mashed potatoes in front of me, decorating them with bits of stuffing and raisins. The table is covered in dinner food but all I can smell is the brown sugar and pecans from the slice of maple pie on my dessert plate. It’s too loud in the room. Too hot.
“I want more turkey,” my niece says.
I turn to look at her. Alma is six, same age as I was when Mom died. She’s got mashed potato on her nose. I reach out and wipe it away and something that feels like snot smears on my fingers. Alma makes a face and pulls away from me.
“You stuck your finger up my nose,” she says.
“No, I didn’t.”
“I want more turkey.”
“Yeah, I’m not deaf.” I wipe my hand vigorously on my napkin before placing my own slice of turkey on her plate and dicing it into small cubes. I try to focus on the task to keep calm but everyone is talking at once. Rita is too close. Her body heat bleeds into mine and I feel like my nerves are on fire. Like ants pushing outward from my bones.
I think of Rita laughing and tugging on a lock of my short hair one Christmas Eve. Lying at the beach at Bahia Honda and her dusting sand off my calf. Rides down Route 1 in my old Jeep, her long locks tied back in a sweatband.
Next to me, Alma drops her knife. I pick it up quickly, wipe it on my napkin, and hand it back to her. Then I remember her snot is also on the napkin. “Do you still pick your nose and eat it?” I ask.
Alma shrugs. “Not really.”
I hesitate, then place the knife back next to her plate. When I glance up, my father is looking at me. He’s got a red stain on his shirt from the cranberry sauce—he mixes it with the stuffing. Happy? he signs.
I pull away and force a smile in my father’s direction. Good food. I sign back.
His mouth spreads into a close-lipped grin and he looks down at his plate. The tips of his ears are tinged pink, a sign he’s been drinking.
I take another sip from my rum and coke and turn slightly so I’m looking out the kitchen window, away from the family. The house is on stilts, skinny wooden beams that elevate the structure in case of flooding. From here, the second story, I can see all the family cars lined up in the dirt driveway. Paul’s Mercedes. Jerry’s van. I still have the jeep. Every time I look at it, I think of the wind on my face, the sound of Rita’s laughter as we drove down Route 1.
* * * * *
Night settles outside the kitchen windows as I stand at the sink. The hum of the dishwasher is barely enough to drown out the noise from the living room where the entire family sits assembled around the television. An electric glow outlines the doorway, reflected in the window in front of me as I finish the last of the dirty pots.
“Hey,” Rita says.
The back of my neck tenses. I keep cleaning. “What’s up? You need something?”
“No,” she says. I can feel her breathing, like she’s right there at my back, even though she’s not. I always can tell where Rita is in a room based on her breathing and the sound of her movements. I wonder if this is the difference between me and my father. If he’s happy because he doesn’t have to hear Mom in the sway of the trees, or the whistle of the tea kettle in the mornings.
She shifts. I turn to face her and light from the living room outlines her body. “Can we talk outside?”
I place the wooden spatula on the drying rack. The ladle next to it still has a fleck of spinach on it. I throw it back into the sink. It clatters, the sound barely audible over the hum of the dishwasher. I turn and wipe my hands on a rag, then grab the no-longer-mystery wine. “You wanna split this?”
Her eyes flicker. “I’ll have a glass.”
She licks her lips. In the dim lighting, shadows take over her face, illuminating the wrinkles around her eyes. “You know I can’t drink very much anymore.”
The last time Rita drank with me was at a Zonta party in September, just before the kiss. I agreed to take her because Paul was out of town. She had four vodka tonics and passed out on the car ride home. I kept her close, brought her to my apartment so she wouldn’t be alone. I wanted to take her dress off and put her in something comfortable, but it felt like trespassing. Instead I removed her heels, leaned down and brushed my lips over her cheek as she slept.
* * * * *
I dreamt in silence that night, like most nights. I dreamed about Rita, the way the wrinkles around her eyes deepen as she laughs, her hair curling thick over the pillow as my mouth moved down her chest. I dreamed of white skin and freckles. The heat and sweat of her and the smell of her clothes lingering on her body—laundry sheets and salon shampoo.
In my dream, Rita wanted something more from me. She talked but I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t understand. I wanted to give her what she needed, but I couldn’t speak to ask her what it was.
* * * * *
Outside, palm fronds brush the wood slats as we step onto the porch looking out into a vast expanse of tangled mangroves that sweat marsh water and ocean salt. The sun is long gone but the tendrils of it still linger over the water, like jet trails of red and orange.
I take my sweater off and hand it to her. When she first started dating Paul, I thought there was a good chance she would leave him. I gave them two months. Then six, then nine. “This won’t cover even half of me,” she says.
She makes a face, then slips the sweater over her head. We settle on the swinging chair and the wood creaks under our weight. The bugs are gone, chased away from the coolness of the breeze. When she smiles, she looks goofy, her eyes crinkling like she’s unsure, afraid almost. “You’re pushy,” she says.
“Then how come I never get what I want?”
Her eyes meet mine and then she looks away again. I busy myself opening the bottle of wine. I never drink the stuff, so I struggle with the opener, trying to spiral the metal into the soft cork. Finally, Rita leans forward and takes it from me. She opens the bottle with ease and pours us both full glasses. “What’s going on with you?” she asks.
My heart thuds. “Nothing.”
“I feel like you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad, Rita.”
She exhales and takes a sip of the wine. It’s suddenly impossible for me to imagine showing up to every family holiday and having to look her in the eye. Having to see the freckles on her neck, the way her pulse jumps when she’s upset.
The wind blows. There’s a canal on the other side of the mangroves where the water taps patiently at our neighbor’s dock. Rita sighs again, so deeply I can hear the years of smoking in her chest, the faint wheeze of her lungs constricting even though she’s been smoke-free for almost a year now. “You’re mad.”
“Because Paul doesn’t treat you right.”
She hesitates. “Tiffany, I love Paul.”
I take the wine bottle by the neck and bring it to my lips, drinking deep. The wine tastes like the air smells—like wood and deep earth. Something tart. My mouth puckers as I swallow. I’ve never heard Rita talk about Paul like this, I’ve never heard her say this about him. It feels wrong.
I know now why Dad refuses to wear the hearing aids. Why he prefers the quiet.
“Do you, really?” I ask.
“He’s not perfect, but I do.”
The wine idles in my grasp. Heavy and smooth. I bring it to my mouth and pull straight from the bottle, wiping my lips with the back of my hand when I’m finished. “Okay,” I say. “I guess we’re done talking.”
Rita touches my arm. “Hey, come on.”
I stare at her. She is not a traditional beauty by any means, but there is something in the way she looks at me that’s always felt different. At least, that’s what I thought.
I pull my arm away.
She hesitates. Shifts forward. “You’re my friend,” she says. “Please, Tiffany.”
Behind me, crickets chirp. Sweat prickles along the back of my neck, even with the coolness of the breeze. I want to say something back but my tongue is dead weight in my mouth.
* * * * *
Paul took Mom’s death the hardest. He was the oldest and had spent the most time with her, so in a way it made sense. He was protective of his grief. He called me stupid when I got upset at Mom’s funeral—I barely knew her, he said. I was only six. Why was I crying so goddamn much? The service was in late August so it was sunny outside, and humid. The air smelled of salt and ocean. Dad stood near the casket, up in front of everyone, to lay the first mound of dirt after they lowered it.
My grandparents had come down from Homestead and were seated in front of Paul, Jerry, and me on the crappy wooden fold up chairs the church had provided. I sat between my brothers in a dress my grandmother had forced on me, crying.
I hated the dress and I hated the service. It was too hot. I wanted to be wearing shorts and tie my hair up. I wanted to go up to the coffin and hold Mom’s hand one more time. “I want to see her,” I said to Paul.
He glared down at me. “You can’t.”
“I want to go look at her.”
“It’s already sealed up. You can’t.”
I cried harder.
“Stop it,” Paul said. He took my wrist in his hand. “You can cry at home.”
I squirmed but he held my wrist tighter. I tried to yank my arm free, but he held tight. Dad was looking at the coffin, too far away to see what was happening. I kicked my grandmother’s chair but she didn’t turn around. I pulled harder. “Let go,” I said.
Paul held tight. He sat straight forward in his chair, facing a picture of Mom in the front of the cemetery, acting like I wasn’t even there at all. Panic rose in my chest. I wanted Mom. She would make things better. She would take me to the car and change me into shorts and pin my hair up. Tears blurred my vision. I started pulling harder and when he yanked on me, I reached up and slapped him. For a second, he just sat there looking at me with a dazed look. Then his face got all red and he reached for me, but I’d already lost it.
I started kicking at Paul, slapping at him with my free hand. Jerry moved in to subdue me but I slapped at him, too. I raged and screamed and kicked. Paul scooped me up and suffocated me into his chest before standing and walking away from the service. Mom grew further and further away. I tried to get free twice more before I stopped shouting and went limp.
* * * * *
When I head back inside, several minutes after Rita, the dishes are clean and dry. The smell of them fills the house now. I finish the no-longer-mystery wine and sit on the floor in the kitchen. The tiles are cool beneath my legs and the dishwasher purrs, warm, against my back.
I close my eyes but am disturbed by a light stomping to my right. I open my eyes again to see my father standing over me. In the dim light, his face is wrinkled infinitely, his tanned skin like leather. What are you doing? he signs.
I blink. The tiles feel so good on my skin. I’m sweating. Beads gather on the back of my neck. “I’m drunk,” I say.
Dad hesitates. Then he exhales a sigh and squats, moves so he’s sitting next to me. He nudges my leg with his knee. Not happy? he signs.
The room feels fuzzy. I imagine this is how it must be with Dad—sensing things but not being able to form a clear picture, like being on the outside of a dirty glass window looking in. That’s how I felt for so much of my childhood. I didn’t know how to braid hair or do makeup. I pretended to have crushes on boys, all while secretly admiring the older girls in school, the way their chests curved under their shirts.
I like Rita, I sign.
Dad doesn’t even hesitate before signing back that everyone likes Rita, everyone except the people she works with. Then he hisses a laugh and looks back at me to confirm the success of his joke.
“No,” I say. I sign broken over my heart.
Dad goes still. I can feel his eyes searching my face. He smells like cranberry sauce—tart, with the lingering sweetness of his last rum and coke. He makes a sound that I can’t stand. Rita? he signs. She isn’t right for you.
No, I sign. She is.
Dad exhales before patting my leg with a hand. Pain wracks my body. I lean my head on his shoulder. He is bony and skinny, like me. Paul and Jerry are thicker, like Mom was. I think that maybe if I had been more like her, sturdier, that somehow I wouldn’t have ended up like this.
Pain, I sign.
Dad doesn’t move.
Fix, I sign over my chest. Fix, fix, fix.
Dad takes my hand and squeezes it in his own, so tight I can’t sign. I can barely move. Not broken, he signs with his other hand. I love you.
In the living room, my brothers’ voices rise and fall. I can hear Alma, too, the chirrupy sound of her six-year-old voice. I want to be in there with them all but I can’t. I want to speak well and be smooth and have the right words. To be loved. I want too many things that I can’t have.
The smell of soap hangs in the air. Behind us, the whir of the dishwasher wipes everything clean.