After grad school ended for the quarter, I decided to use the weirdly long break that DePaul University offers (five weeks, bitches!) to go back home to Ohio and try to take some downtime — to unwind and zen — and save some goddamn money by letting my family feed me for awhile. I expected my hometown to be the calm in the eye of the storm, as we often joke that Cincinnati is the “City That Goes to Bed Early.” We’re known for our great daycares, neighborhoods and schools, the kind of place you go to settle down and make absolutely no noise whatsoever. Sometimes, when I step out on the porch of the house I grew up in, it’s so quiet I swear I can hear the Man in the Moon blinking at me.
But this time instead of the eye, I got the storm instead. A month or so before I came home to enjoy the comfort of my grandparents’ house, my father decided to move his family back in with his parents — and neglected to tell me. This family includes my two younger brothers, who are 13 and 14 and hyperactive as fuck, and the secret Philippine wife that he thinks I don’t know about. They met on the internet. He insists that they aren’t married yet and that she just happened to have our last name already — which he says is great in case they ever get married. (Yes, and I’m Barbra Streisand.) With these four additions to the family, we counted seven people in a two-bedroom house with an attic. What could possibly go wrong?
The first moment I entered the house, with my three suitcases, I was greeted by two giant mahogany chests of drawers, which my grandparents had moved into the house and deposited right in the foyer — not that you wanted to actually go inside. Their placement was meant to mask the fact that interior of my grandparents’ house looked like the remains of Hurricane Sandy, as the migration of all of my family members into the same house reawakened my grandparents’ hoarder tendencies. The living room was filled with unopened mail, my old room piled up with boxes and the kitchen table covered in bottles of pills, cereal boxes and more mail — all while my father was gingerly passed out on the couch.
As the holidays and Gilmore Girls prove, there’s nothing like a family to ruin a family. If you didn’t love them so much, you might just quit altogether.
After sufficiently cleaning the house — to where I could walk through it without tripping over boxes or the family cat — I decided to celebrate by taking my little brothers to a movie. I mentioned that I wanted to see Life of Pi, and the words “boy,” “tiger,” and “adventure” were enough to get my brothers to sign on. (I neglected to bring up the fact that the entire film was a religious parable. We’d cross that bridge when we came to it.) When I told my prissily masculine father that we were going to see a kids’ art house movie directed by the guy who did Brokeback Mountain (but not in those exact words), he immediately turned up his nose. He asked, “Why can’t you go see a guy movie? Like Red Dawn. Now THAT’S a good flick.”
This was one of those moments where we were about to argue about something without actually arguing about the thing we were arguing about. I collected myself, forcing myself not to ask what comprises a “girl movie” or how Life of Pi fails at being sufficiently masculine, and I tried logic instead. I calmly explained that Red Dawn was a notorious misfire for the studio, who let the movie sit on the shelf for years before they finally dumped it. The only reason it ever saw the light of day was because Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth are big stars now. Besides, the movie digitally altered the original Chinese villains in the film to be North Koreans, which is racist. Do we really want to teach the kids jingoistic, America-first nonsense? Do we want to turn them into tiny Pat Robertsons? Instead of hearing my argument and realizing that I made the best choice for my siblings’ burgeoning intellects, by trusting them to try something a little different, he rebuffed the entire point: “Life of Pi is for sissies.” Because he couldn’t just come out and say “f*gs.”
And this is what I come from.
Because I’m nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try to spend some quality time with him the next week, to let homophobic bygones be bygones and try to bond over something. My dad has weirdly good taste in TV (Two and a Half Men notwithstanding), and I really wanted to get caught up on Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights or Mad Men (all of which I’m still making my way through). However, none of those passed the test of being sufficiently masculine — even though one of them is about a womanizer and another is about football. What’s more masculine than watching Tim Tebow dance around in tights, I ask you? Nothing. But because I didn’t want to press my luck, I suggested Homeland, which I know he’s into.
Like the rest of America, I quickly got obsessed with Homeland, which is simultaneously the most compelling and most ridiculous show on TV. I know that there’s no universe in which a) pacemakers can be detonated remotely b) the world’s most famous terrorist can just stroll into a gas station and not be recognized or c) someone as wantonly irresponsible as Carrie would be able to keep her job or d) God would allow Dana to live, but I was hooked on its outlandishness. And at a friend’s suggestion, if Dana got too annoying, I just pretended they were talking about her instead of Abu Nezir. So, whenever they mentioned taking out Nezir, they really meant Dana. What a relief!
However, my transfixion was interrupted early in the first season, when (SPOILER!) a prince’s “Professional Girlfriend” — who’s also an agent for the CIA — is shot and killed in an alleyway for her gorgeous diamond necklace. (The terrorists were using the necklace as a human wire to transport money to their operation.) After Carrie realizes she won’t be able to revive her, I remarked what a shame it was that the PG died — because I found that character and subplot interesting. I wanted to see more from her.
My Dad took a second to soak in this information and then shook his head slowly, just as my little brother walked in the room. He began to reply, “As a friend used to say, ‘That’s a waste of a good…’” but I interrupted before he got to the anatomical portion of that statement. There were children present, and misogyny could be genetic. I shouted, “Mind!” My father then said, “No, it begins with a P.” So I responded, “Personality!” After a moment of silence that was like a clenched fist, he yelled, “Pussy! It’s pussy.” His wife sure is a lucky lady.
A few days later, I was sitting at our kitchen table with my family, just hanging out and drinking some carrot juice I’d bought myself from the store. My grandparents tend to only have root beer or Coca-Cola in their refrigerator, so if you want anything not loaded with sugar, you have to fend for yourself. During our conversation, my youngest brother — who has developmental problems, in addition to ADD — mentioned that he once pooped his pants at school. I wasn’t quite sure what this was apropos of, but I went with it — because he’s a kid and I didn’t want to make him feel bad about it. I told him that when I was his age, I used to poop myself all the time (not true) and that if pooping yourself were cool, I would be Miles Davis (still not true, and ripped off from an Adam Sandler movie).
I then told him that when I lived in France last year, I actually shat myself a couple times. This was true. He looked happier to hear this information, so I decided to spill my proverbial butt beans.
Being overly sensitive and afraid of ever hurting anyone’s feelings, I tend to feel bad about turning down hospitality — even if I blatantly don’t want the thing that’s being offered. I’m lactose intolerant, and the family I stayed with for part of my trip were casual cheese aficionados. Their house was filled with every French cheese known to man and at least three that smelled like diapers, and they took having company as an excuse to buy even more. One night, they kept feeding me more dairy, and I couldn’t bear to say no. So, I kept eating until I got this horrible stomach ache — one I thought I could relieve if I politely farted. Just a little.
So, I ever so gently lifted myself to fart and rid myself of this burgeoning pain. Instead, I completely filled my pants with smelly French cheese. Somehow, the family didn’t notice, and I smiled and continued eating the cheese until I could get away, stewing in my shame in silence.
Although my brother seemed to like the story, my grandfather came in right after my Grand Guginol of a conclusion and asked what we were talking about. My father coldly replied, “Anything else other than shitting yourself, please.” My grandfather then asked, “Wait, who shit themselves?” Dad pointed to me and said, “He did. He crapped his pants.” And then no one said a word, as my face turned fifty shades of red. If I could have filled that silence with the sounds of my shit out of pure spite and anger, I would have. Where’s the diaper cheese when you need it?
A couple nights later at actual dinner, I brought up some exciting news to my grandmother — that I got a freelancing gig I’ve been waiting months to hear back on, one that could change my life. I had landed my dream job — or something damn close to it. For someone who rarely gives themselves credit for anything good that happens in their life (#lowselfesteem), I was genuinely proud for a moment, and I wanted to honor that. Or at least get a nice, long hug out of the deal. I love hugs. Hugs are my jam.
While ostensibly hearing what I was telling her, my grandmother replied, “That’s nice, honey,” and went back to what she was doing. I then poked her and shouted, “Hey, one second. This is exciting!” She brushed it off by responding that my accomplishments would never live up to my aunt’s, a unibrowed, asexual seeming woman who didn’t fully leave the house until she was 40 — when she married herself off to a mad German scientist who looks like Werner Herzog, has a past-life counselor and plays us Christmas songs on his acoustic guitar that he makes up on the spot. (He’s kind of awesome.) She said, “Dear, your aunt got straight As, had a full time job and still came back home every weekend.” Outraged, I yelled, “I work, like, five jobs, have a 3.8, live in Chicago and call you almost every day! What more do you want from me?”
Folding her hands, she sat in silence for a moment, letting this information wash over her. She then ended our discussion match with a Grandma Guilt uppercut: “You’re six hours away. How do I know what you do?” Maybe I’d been watching too much Telemundo recently, but I swear I almost flipped over a table.
Days after I learned my life meant nothing unless I had an invisible plane by which to fly home every weekend, my grandmother and I had another discussion during dinner — where I decided to broach the topic of the family cat. His name is Socks, and for reasons I cannot fathom, he hates me. He hates me when I pet him, when I don’t pet him and when I’m innocently standing next to him and doing absolutely nothing. The other day I woke up and looked down the stairs from my bedroom to see him sitting at the bottom of the steps, patiently waiting for me to wake up so he could snarl at me more. He’s like my personal Mayan curse.
Rather than logically breaking down my relationship with the cat, asking how much I pet him or if I try to pick him up illicitly, Nana suggested that he hates my because of “my voice.” Taking great care to think about what she said before she said it, my grandmother continued her thought: “You’re the only person in the family who sounds…like that”—which was code for “like a tra-la-la-la mincing fairy queen.” Because my mouth was full of food, I grumbled lowly, “Sounds…like what?” I wanted to press her to just say it. She then blurted, “Not like that! Your voice usually isn’t that low.” Although her assessment of the situation was probably incorrect (because cats cannot haz homophobia), it did not help my case that my response was: “OH NO SHE DID NOT.”
It’s good to be home.