"Burgers and steaks are done!"
Which started the flurry of movement and action as everyone crowded to the table, her mother pointing out where everyone would sit, making sure she ran in and got some silverware after having dropped the handful before. Kristina brought out a highchair for Drew and offered Amber some phonebooks to sit on to make sure she could reach the table from the chair, but Amber said she wasn't a baby and could sit by herself on a chair just fine – and then mocked Haddie because she sat in a booster seat.
All the while Sarah stood and watched, thinking about the implications of what her dad had said. "It's good to have you home, Sarah." Did he think she was staying? That she was moving back home? Thinking Drew would soon be accustomed to the family by being around them? Maybe he didn't realize just how long it took for Drew to get used to people. Or maybe it was just a slip of the lip.
She didn't have much time to think about it before another battle started. This time with one of her own children.
"Drew, honey, it's ok, Mommy's going to be right here by…"
"No!" He shook his head and cried. "No! With Mama. Mama!" She was trying to put him into the highchair, but his little legs kicking back and forth made it nigh impossible to get him into the chair.
Her dad, sitting right beside Sarah at the head of the table, was putting his two cents in. "You've got to make him do it…" Already the parenting advice? Already? Sounded like something her dad would do. "Although he's sure got a good set of lungs. Might make a swimmer out of him…"
Her arms around Drew's waist, trying to get his feet into the chair, Sarah just said, "Thanks, Dad. I'll take that into consideration." And then to her child, she firmly said, "Drew. That's enough. Sit down…"
And then his cries turned to screams. But scared screams. "NO! Want MAMA! NO!" Tears streaming down his face while he violently shook his head. His arms flailing to hold onto her.
With that cry, Sarah knew he was scared, not just being defiant. Which made sense. A whole new place, with so many people that wanted to talk to him and hold him and touch him – enough of a sensory overload. Not to mention his head probably hurt, based on the goose-egg that sat smack-dab in the middle of his forehead. Add to that the concept of sitting in a highchair – something he had never done before.
And Sarah stopped fighting him, pulling him into her lap as she sat down in her chair.
He just buried his face in her chest, again his thumb in his mouth. She could feel his scared heart beating as he grabbed onto her shirt for dear life. She whispered, "Shh…" Which he did, except for the loud breaths and sniffles as he calmed down from his scared cry.
And then Sarah looked around the table to find everyone just staring at her instead of talking amongst themselves, as was normal at family dinner. An uneasy smile on her face, she just said, "He's really attached to me." Which should have explained it.
To normal people, that would have explained it.
Not to her family.
To which, of course, her dad was the first to speak. "Please don't tell me you're raising a sissy, Sarah." He poured some wine into his cup then handed the bottle down to Adam who was sitting next to him. "You can't let my first grandson be a mama's boy."
If he only knew how angry that made Sarah. God. She wanted to throw some very wonderful choice words at her dad.
But, thankfully, someone else walked in just at that moment. "Sorry I'm late, guys. Apparently the newbies at the office get stuck with all the extra work that keeps them there super late at night."
Sarah watched her sister lean down and kiss the one guy that she had not been able to place in her mind. But, after seeing that exchange, Sarah realized he must be her sister's significant other – how significant to be cleared up at a later time.
After the initial shock on her sister's face faded.
"Oh my god, Sarah? Is that you?"
Of all the people who changed – Julia, her baby sister, definitely changed the most. No longer was she the fourteen-year-old nerd with braces and blond braids who got perfect grades and liked to throw that in Sarah's face. Now she looked to be the complete opposite of Sarah in a whole new way. Shiny blond hair hung in soft curls around her flawless face, her red lipstick contrasting her dark grey business suit, perfectly tailored around her curves. Even, as Sarah looked closely, her nails were perfectly manicured and not a chip was found on her red nail polish as she set her leather briefcase down beside the chair that she sat down in. Her baby sister was all grown up.
"Surprise. It's me!" Sarah said, trying to put some kind of feeling into her statement. Then she looked down at the child in her arms and the wiggle worm beside her and said, "And my two kids." That was one way Sarah won, right?
Sure, Julia changed the most on the outside, but she was the same antagonistic sister she knew. Sarah could see it in Julia's eyes as her sister looked from one child to the other and then back at Sarah. Calm. Cool. Her voice. Perfectly steady with a smile on her face. But an edge in her eyes. "Wow. Two kids? You've been busy in the last…" Julia pretended to look unsure… "what's it been, nine years?"
Not wanting to start any fights, Sarah just nodded and said, "Yep. Nine years." Swallowing her pride that bubbled up at the dig Julia sent her, Sarah said, "Adam told me you graduated from law school and that you're working in a…"
Julia interrupted her, and Sarah tried not to think that it was because Julia wanted to talk all about herself. But Sarah sure was getting that impression. "I did! I just graduated and was immediately hired by a very prestigious law firm downtown." She flipped her curls behind her and then slid her hand over the shoulder of the man sitting beside her. "And I also have the most gorgeous fiancé…" Sarah watched as Julia leaned over and kissed the man again, this time on the lips before she said, "…have you met Joel, Sarah?"
"I have not." Sarah said.
She heard Crosby, who was sitting on the other side of Amber, whisper, "Cat fight…"
But Julia must not have heard him or decided to ignore him. "Oh, well, Sarah, this is Joel, my fiancé for two months now. He's a contractor. Works with top of the line customers, experimenting with new innovations all the time."
Again Crosby. "Didn't know this was an infomercial for Joel Graham. Can we eat?"
This time, Julia shot him a dirty look before she looked at Sarah straight on in the face and said, "And Joel, this is Sarah. She, well..." What Sarah interpreted to be a sadistic smile crept to her sister's face, "…struck out on her own nine years ago with some guy…" Pretending to think again. God, this law school really brought out the bitch in her sister, "…can't remember what his name…"
Sarah interrupted her, "Seth."
Julia snapped her fingers and said, "Oh, right, Seth." Turning to Joel, she said, "Ran off with Seth and we haven't heard from her in nine years."
Now more people were beginning to see the conniving sister Sarah always knew she had.
Her mom said, "Zeke, do you want to start passing out the food?"
Crosby, "Too bad I forgot to bring my boxing gloves to…"
Adam warned… "Crosby…"
But Julia wasn't done making Sarah feel like even less of a person. "Oh, speaking of Seth, where is he?" Her hair flipped around as she pretended to look around, "Are you two even still together?"
Now her big brother had a say, "Julia, really?"
Sarah's heart was pounding, and she could feel her face reddening – not from embarrassment – but from the anger that made her hands shake. "Still together." She clipped. "We're married."
The look at Sarah's hand that was wrapped around Drew – it was so obvious, and Sarah's finger had never felt so naked and battered as it had right at that moment. "Oh, my bad. I just… do you have a wedding ring?" Then the lowest dig of all. "Or did you lose it in the fight with whatever beat you up like that?"
God. That hurt. She just closed her eyes, not able to look at anything around her. Leave it to Julia to mention the one other elephant in the room. Of course the bruises on her face and the gash on her forehead obviously stuck out like a sore thumb. And her hands, still scratched and bruised – an obvious sign that something went wrong. Yet another part of her life that had gone wrong. Unlike her sister's life – where everything – absolutely every part of her life – looked to be what Julia had always dreamed for. So yes, it hurt, the digs and blatant attacks.
Her eyes still closed, Sarah concentrated on taking a few deep breaths before responding to the absolutely silent table. She didn't want to start a fight. And what did she even have to throw back at Julia? What part of Julia's flawless life could Sarah pick apart? The wonderful job? Nope. The absent fiancé? Nope, not that either. The raggedy clothes? Definitely not.
So she said the only thing she could think. Through the embarrassment of having her younger sister call her on the carpet, spilling her life all over the table for everyone to see. Quietly. Politely. In a tone that no one could think was at all antagonistic. Sarah looked up at her sister and said, "My daughter acts like less of a child than you did just now."
Diffusing the tension was just what that did. Crosby laughed and clapped his hands, "Bravo, Sarah. Perfect zinger."
And her dad muttered, "That's my girl, Sarah. Always one with the perfect comebacks."
Adam just smiled at her and said, "Nice one."
Sarah didn't dare look at Julia, for fear that seeing her sister's face would evoke angry words that Sarah really didn't want to say.
On that light note, everyone started passing the food, and Sarah got enough food for her and Drew on her plate, the smell of food loosening his grip on her shirt and he turned around, eyes wide as Sarah scooped potato salad onto his plate right next to the piece of steak she was about to cut up. But she went to cut Amber's steak up, and saw her daughter had piled her plate with two pieces of steak, three bread rolls, a pile of potato salad that looked to be about the same size as the steaks. When Sarah started to say something to Amber, she looked at the girl who had almost an entire roll shoved into her mouth, while her hands reached for the butter and slathered that on what would be the fifth roll that was in her hand.
"Amber…" Sarah said, "You need to just take a little…"
Crosby looked over at Amber's plate and exclaimed, "What?" He was joking, well, Sarah hoped he was joking, "There's no way a tiny kid like you…" he tickled her belly, "…can eat that much food!"
"She's a Braverman, Cros." Her dad said through a full mouth. "She'll put it away good." Then he winked at Amber, who tried to smile through her own bread-filled mouth.
Sarah reached to put one of the pieces of steak from Amber's plate back when she saw, from the corner of her eye, that Drew had his hands submerged into the potato salad.
"Drew!" She quickly said, but watched as he shoveled handful after handful into his mouth, fist by fist carrying the biggest bites he could get. Smeared all over his face.
Reaching for her napkin, Sarah started to clean Drew's hands off, but then realized that he hadn't ever needed to use a spoon… or silverware for anything. So what else was he going to eat off of? And, besides that, the minute she pulled his hand away from the food, whines flooded from his already full mouth until he swallowed, and then, "Eat. Eat. Eat…" became his chant.
Still not having eaten but giving up on making Drew stop shoveling food in, she turned to cut Amber's steak up, only to find Amber's hands wrapped around the big piece of meat, tearing off piece by piece like she was eating a sandwich.
Julia didn't take long to comment. "Joel, could you cut up my meat? Oh, nope, wait… I'll just eat it with my fingers… like my role model niece over there that my sister thinks I need to emulate."
Sarah looked up at Adam, her whole body feeling the stress of the day. She didn't want to fight anymore. She was just so done. Done with trying to make her kids look like they weren't starving and didn't know where their next meal would come from. Done trying to make her life seem like she was in control of it. She was just so done with having to defend herself. Or not defend herself in order to keep peace. She saw Adam was looking right at her, an apologetic look on his face. And then he said, "Hey, Jules…" Then he leaned over, looking past Kristina, Haddie, and Joel to look at his sister and ask, "…are you a lawyer or an attack dog? Because I'm starting to wonder."
That silenced Julia, and Sarah mouthed, "Thank-you" to her brother before cutting up the steak on her plate, to which Drew attacked it, shoving piece after piece into his mouth, so that Sarah had to cover up the meat until he swallowed what was in his mouth – afraid he was going to choke.
"Everything's so delicious." Sarah said, looking over at her mother and smiling. "Thanks, Mom."
She heard a gulp from the tiny person beside her, and then heard a mumbled, "Yeah, Grandma. I've never had food like this before! All this food!"
Afraid Amber was about to spill some secrets about their life, Sarah just set her hand on Amber's shoulder and said, "Ok, honey, eat up…" But looked to find Amber's plate completely empty. Not a crumb on the plate.
Amber looked over at her cousin, who was using a fork to put slow bites into her mouth, chewing all her food and then swallowing. And Sarah was mortified as she heard Amber ask, "Are you going to eat all your food, Haddie? Can I have some?"
Looking up at Kristina's mouth that hung open in surprise, Sarah apologized, "Sorry, we're working on our table manners…"
"We don't normally eat at a table." Amber said. "Normal we eat on the bed. Or on the floor. And not with plates either…"
Leaning down, Sarah whispered in her daughter's ear, "Amber, it's time to sit back and be quiet."
"But I'm still…"
A firm, motherly tone came out. "You have had plenty to eat. You will sit back and be quiet right now, do you hear me?"
Amber just pouted, but leaned back in her chair and was quiet just watching everyone eat.
Drew whines brought her back to her other child, who had finished everything on the plate Sarah had meant for both her and Drew. "More. Mama. More!"
"Sarah, I do believe you might be raising a linebacker…" Her dad said, easing the tension that Amber's little comment had created. "He's gonna be a strong boy once he bulks up!" And with that, her dad scooped yet another big pile of potato salad onto the plate, which Drew started inhaling the minute it was there.
"Mommy!" Amber whined, "If Drew gets more, why can't I have more?"
The longer this dinner went on, the worse it got. And Sarah still had not eaten one bite. And if Amber wasn't going to listen and be quiet, what the hell would come out of Amber's mouth next? So Sarah did the one thing she was good at – distracting her kids. "Amber, do you want to go play?"
No resistance to that, Amber was off running towards the playground, her little legs running as fast as she could as she drove her stomach into the swing, her feet flying in the air. Drew, already finished with his potato salad, inched to get down and follow his sister, which he soon did after Sarah cleaned his filthy hands and face…
"So…" Her dad said, "Where do you call home, Sarah?"
Picking her fork up for the first time, Sarah said, "Fresno." And she couldn't look at Adam as she took a bite, praying that he would reserve her some dignity and not tell her dad that they lived in a motel. When nothing was said and she swallowed, she clarified, "They say it's the raisin capital of the world…"
"Way to pick a place to live." Julia said, then added, "I've also read that Fresno has a very high crime rate."
Picking up her glass of wine, Sarah toasted it to Julia and said, "All those raisin thieves."
Crosby choked on his wine, laughing and then said, "God, I've missed you, Sarah." Then he wiped his face and added, "I don't have to be the only comedian anymore."
"We are all grateful for that." Her mom said, rolling her eyes at Crosby. "He's a great laugh, but everyone needs a break every once in a …"