Throwing her purse onto the table by the front door, Stevie wants nothing more than the rid her body of the smell of popcorn. Her father’s head pops over the railing at the top of the stairs.
“Hey honey. How was work?”
“It was work-like. What did you do today?” She glances at the paint tins at her feet and the still moss green living room walls.
“Yeah, I was going to do that, but we got an unexpected visitor.” Another head appears over the railing.
“Uncle Max!!!!” Stevie runs up the stairs towards her father’s brother. Her favourite relative. “When did you get here? Why are you here? Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?” She throws herself into his waiting embrace.
“Hey Sugarbear.” His strong arms squeeze her ribs. “I was in the area and thought I’d drop in.”
“In the area? You live in freaking Ottawa! It’s the other side of the country.”
“Like I could leave my niece alone with this guy for Thanksgiving.” He gestures at his brother.
“Standing right here.” Mr. Frances whines playfully.
“Exactly the point.” Max laughs.
“Whatever. I don’t’ care. I’m just happy to see you.” Pulling back, she follows them into the kitchen. A wok sits on the counter, piles of fresh vegetables rainbow across the counter. “Ah, the traditional Thanksgiving stir fry. We are purist in this house.”
“Turkey’s for losers.” Max pulls a plate of chicken from the fridge. “And also for people who have time to cook the bird long enough not to kill us.”
“A new tradition begins.” Stevie proclaims, washing her hands before picking up a knife and stepping towards the counter.
“Go get changed.” Her father gently removes the knife from her hand. “Your uncle’s not going anywhere tonight. You have lots of time to visit. And he’s cooking.” He turns Stevie towards the stairs, kicking her gently on the butt. “Besides, Dorko, you smell like popcorn.”
“Dad!” She giggles and skips down the stairs. Her uncle’s visit could not have come at a more opportune time. Stripping off her uniform, she kicks it into a pile in the corner. Her phone flashes a message from Chelsea.
‘If you know what’s good for you, you’ll be over here with an apology drink at 8:00.’
“Whatever.” Stevie deletes the message, not letting it ruin her good mood. She quickly dials Quinn’s number, cradling the phone as she walks into her bathroom to flip on the shower.
“Yo-yo.” Quinn’s voice travels to her ear.
“Did you really just use the phrase yo-yo? After mocking me for saying dork? Really?” She chuckles testing the water, adjusts the hot water tap a little higher.
“Sure did. Yo-yo is far superior on the ironic slang spectrum.” Quinn responds haughtily.
“You just keep believing that.” Stevie giggles. “Good thing you’re pretty, sweet cheeks.”
“Correct.” Quinn chuckles. “What’s up? I thought you had apologizing to do.”
“My uncle’s showed up for a surprise visit.”
“Your uncle Max?”
“Yeah! I’m super excited to see him, but that means I’m in for the night.”
“You’re not worried about Chelsea?”
“Fuck her.” Stevie shrugs. Quinn snorts in response. “No. Really, Quinn. I’m so over her drama for the day. I’ll use the it’s Thanksgiving excuse if I have to. Or I’ll do nothing.”
“I love it when you get all brave and outraged.”
“The only thing that actually upsets me is that I was hoping to figure out a way to see you later tonight.”
“Boo-urns!” Quinn exhales a big fake sigh “Who needs family time? Be a rebel.”
“Whatever dude. Aren’t you supposed to be the big rebel? Isn’t sneaking out one of the skills in your wheelhouse?”
“Is that a challenge?”
“I expect to see your cute butt sliding through my window at midnight.” Stevie dares and ends the call. Not giving Quinn a chance to respond, half expecting her girlfriend to show, half not. Stepping under the hot spray of water, she smiles and feels a lightness she hasn’t felt since school started.
Hair still wet, Stevie bounces up the stairs in a t-shirt and shorts. No make-up. Staying in has its benefits. Her father hands her a glass of ice tea when she enters the kitchen, as Max throws the bean sprouts on top of the stir-fry. Moments later, they’re filling their plates and settling down to eat.
“So, how’s school?” Max asks as they sit down.
“I haven’t seen you in months, and all you want to know about is school?” Stevie smiles, popping a perfectly cooked water chestnut in her mouth.
“Yes. School is important. How are you ever going to become a doctor without school?” Max smiles. They start every visit with this conversation. Her father and uncle are both doctors. Stevie admires these two men more than anyone in her life, but she doesn’t want their career. She wants to be an architect. She knows how important her grades are.
“Honour roll. Naturally.” She says in an affected, haughty tone, puffing her hair playfully. “Cheerleader. Early acceptance to McGill, Waterloo, Ryerson, and UBC. And Dalhousie and U of A in case I decide to go the doctor route. Everything I should be doing, right?” She hears the tone and hopes it goes unnoticed. No such luck. Max starts to respond when a loud buzzing shakes the table, quickly followed by incessant beeping.
Her father grabs his pager, looks at the display and makes a quick phone call. “Damn it. I have to go back to work. That dumbass kid from your class, Pete, fell off a roof. Broke his god damn femur. Why? Why do you hang out with these morons?” He rants for a moment, upset to be taken away from what is sure to be a short visit from his brother. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Honey, wrap this up for me, please?” Jamming a huge bite of stir-fry into his mouth, he grabs his coat and disappears out the backdoor.
Stevie takes her father’s plate to the kitchen, plastic wraps it, and puts it in the fridge. He’ll get to it later. He always does. He’s always been the reliable one.
It was a night not that different from this one. They were sitting down for dinner. Pork chops. Potatoes. Some kind of vegetable Stevie no longer remembers. She thinks she should; she made the meal. This time when the phone rings, it’s for her mother. A computer tech. There’s a problem at the high school. Some kind of server meltdown. There’s a chance that all the grading information for the year has been lost.
Her mother grabs a black duffle bag from her bedroom. This could go late into the night. They shouldn’t wait up. She’ll see them in the morning. Gone no more than ten minutes when her father’s pager goes off. Stevie doesn’t resent this; it’s the only life she’s ever known. They usually only have one meal a week they can actually finish without someone having to leave. At thirteen, Stevie is old enough to take care of her own supper.
Neither parent has returned home by the time she’s ready for bed. She crawls under the covers, turns on her television, and falls asleep to the theme song from some late night sitcom. In the morning, her father is in the kitchen looking frazzled. She’s never seen him like this before.
“Dad! What’s wrong?” She looks around for her mother.
“Your mother. She didn’t come home last night. The school said she finished there before midnight. She’s not answering her phone or her pager. I’m worried, Honey.” He pulls her into a hug. Fear bubbles inside her. She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. She can’t eat breakfast. He calls the school and says she won’t be coming in. Together, they wait.
“Do you think she was in an accident, Dad?” Her legs shake with uncertainty.
“I don’t know, honey. I’m sure the hospital would have called me if she was.” Running his fingers through his hair, he tries to calm down. “I’m sure they would have.” He reassures himself as much as his daughter. “Where is she?” He whispers to himself.
“Should we call the police?”
“We’ll wait. An hour. To see if she calls.”
“Something has to be wrong. Otherwise she would have come home.”
“It’s going to be okay honey. I’m sure it is. Can you be a sweetheart and go get the paper?” They both know he’s trying to distract her.
Stevie opens the front door to find the paper, and a small box, with an envelope sitting beneath it. Her father’s name written in precise handwriting across the front. Returning to the kitchen, she places the items on the table. After he reads the note, he hands her a piece of paper with Stephanie written across the top. It’s from her mother. She won’t be coming back. She’s left them. For someone else. For another family. Stevie doesn’t really understand. She just knows she feels a gut wrenching pain. Her ears begin to ring. A cacophony of anger, sadness, confusion. It’s the last time she ever allowed anyone to use her full name. She sees her father remove her mother’s wedding ring from the box. Her anger settles in. She has not spoken to her mother since.
“Are you alright?” A hand on her shoulder pulls Stevie back to the present, still standing in front of the open fridge door, her skin now cold to the touch. Her uncle looks down at her with concern.
“What? Sorry. Yeah. I was thinking about mom.”
“So you do need to talk.” He leads her back to the table.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m just… well I have some questions.” She pushes the vegetables around on her plate with her chopsticks, grabs a piece of broccoli and pops it in her mouth.
“About your mother? Cause Stevie, you know how I feel about her.” He raises an eyebrow, stealing a piece of red pepper from her plate to lighten the mood.
“No. Not about mom. About you, actually.” She ineffectively smacks his hand with her chopstick.
“About how you too can reach this level of superness?”
She giggles. This is why she loves Max so much. “How did grandma and grandpa react when you told them you’re gay?” The question is out of her mouth before she’s really decided if she wants to have this conversation.
He chokes a little on the stolen pepper. “Um. Not well, at first. Especially Dad.”
“He was upset?” Stevie can’t picture her grandfather angry.
“He was angry. It was a different time. He thought it meant that I was immediately going to get a disease. Or end up in the hospital. Or quit school and start clubbing. I was like, Dad, you can absolutely do school and clubbing at the same time. Come on!” Max smiles at her.
“You were in university when you told them, right? How long did it take them to come around?”
“I was.” He nodded “Dad started to get used to the idea after about a year. It took longer for Mom. She didn’t seem as upset initially, but it was harder accept it. She still doesn’t really. I think she still hopes that I might meet a nice girl and settle down. Neither of them really understands completely, but they don’t talk about it anymore.”
“How did Dad take it?”
“I came out to your father before my parents. He was the first person I told. And when I told him, he didn’t speak to me for over a month. Not a single solitary word.” He pushes his plate away. “How are things with Kevin?”
“Normal.” Stevie suddenly finds herself ravenous, shoveling food into her mouth. “So, he didn’t take it well?”
“Not at first. I resented that for a long time, a lot longer than it took him to come around, but we worked it out. Like I said, it was a different time. You didn’t talk about being gay. You didn’t know anyone who was gay. No one was even suspicious of the Village People…”
“Huh,” She shrugs. “I was just curious about what it was like for you.” More food finds its way to her mouth.
“Uh huh.” He leans back in his chair, propping an ankle on his knee, looking at her knowingly.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m dating Kevin.” She mutters around the food in her mouth. “You know that.”
“I also know you don’t talk about him anymore. You haven’t in months. The only reason I know you two are still together is because I ask.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.” Stevie shrugs, staring at her plate.
Max leans forward. Close to his niece. “What’s her name?”
“Quinn.” The name is out of her mouth before she has time to think. Before she can come up with a quick retort. Slowly, she realizes she feels relieved.