The past two Thanksgivings they had spent together, Josephine Ribeiro and her father had Thanksgiving dinner at one of the many local diners.
Thanksgiving 2015 was no different. To them, eating at the diner had become tradition.
It started in 2013, when Jo was thirteen. For the first time, they both knew that they would not have any family over. Jo’s mother had usually handled Thanksgiving- it was usually her friends and family that came in the past, and she usually organized dinner with all of them.
Jo’s father was much more introverted. He didn’t have the large network of friends that Jo’s mother had. His family was spread out all over the country: his parents lived in Minneapolis, his brother in Colorado Springs and his sister in Atlanta. His college buddies all had families of their own, or lived too far away to come visit.
In 2013, Jo’s father attempted to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the two of them. They had recently moved several towns away from their large house- one that could fit a family- to a small apartment that could only comfortably fit the two of them. Jo, once a friendly, outgoing tomboy, had become a somber, reclusive girl in the span of a few short months- a result of their suddenly fractured family and of transferring to a school where she knew no one. Jo’s father wanted to give her a sense of normalcy, something which they hadn’t had for nearly six months- and what better way to do so than cooking Thanksgiving dinner and eating it together, like a normal family.
The plan was a failure. Mr. Ribeiro didn’t have a speck of his ex-wife’s cooking skill, or any general knowledge about cooking a large-scale dinner. He didn’t realize that the turkey had to be thawed before being cooked. He burnt the mashed potatoes. The stuffing was so dry that it sucked all the moisture out of their mouths and was still waterless. It was all a disaster.
Around five o’clock, he and Jo sat down at their small round kitchen table, with the bowls of burnt mashed potatoes and the inedible stuffing. The turkey was still thawing in the oven.
He watched as his daughter stared wide-eyed at the two dishes- either in horror or amazement. He couldn’t tell.
Then she had laughed. It started as a small smile, that grew rapidly. Then it turned into a muffled giggle. Then, a genuine, light-hearted laugh.
It had been the first time he had seen her smile since the accident, six months before. She had such a nice smile. He was grateful to see it again.
Jo’s father had joined her. They laughed for a good ten minutes before they began to calm down.
“It’s so sad,” Jo had said between bursts of laughter. “But, it’s so funny too!”
Jo’s father couldn’t help but agree. His sheer lack of cooking skill was comical, like something out of a cartoon.
That Thanksgiving dinner, despite how disastrous and disgusting it turned out to be, managed to do some good; it wasn’t a waste after all.
That year, they had thrown all the food in the compost and ate their Thanksgiving meal at the local diner. They stayed there for three hours, just talking- something they hadn’t done in such a long, long time.
The next year, 2014, Jo’s father suggested trying to cook again. Jo shot down the idea.
“Don’t waste food again,” she had said.
They decided to go to the diner again. They both agreed that the food there was much better than anything Jo’s father or Jo herself could cook.
For Thanksgiving 2015, there was no question of where they would go for dinner. They agreed the night before that they would go to the diner around six o’clock, as they did the two years before.
For Jo, Thanksgiving Day was a quiet one. She spent most of it alone. Her dad left for work at 8 o’clock-he was the manager of the Macy’s in the mall, and had to check that everything was set for Black Friday, or “Hell”, as her father called it.
Jo woke up at 8:30 to watch the parade. She spent the afternoon watching Charlie Brown, reading, and listening to the neighbors’ guests file in to the homes with arms full with to-be-eaten side dishes.
Jo found these small parades of people to be entertaining. She did not miss her mother’s large Thanksgiving parties; they were always full of people she didn’t know, exotic side dishes, countless brands of red wine and types of pies.
Jo half-missed her mother’s Thanksgivings. She missed the delicious food (especially the desserts). She missed being in a crowded kitchen with at least four other people: the organized chaos, the turkey’s aroma wafting from the oven, and the anticipation of a large, delicious meal. She didn’t miss, however, all the loud, chatty strangers and the embarrassing drama that typically ensued after a couple glasses of wine.
Jo tried to imagine the drama that would occur in her neighbors’ houses and chuckled to herself. She didn’t understand the appeal of drama and gossip as her mother and her friends did. She didn’t understand why anyone would focus so much time and energy to dig up grudges from the past and showcase them in broad daylight, like a stolen diamond. She hated the arguing, she hated listening to her mother’s friends making comments behind someone else’s back and the bad aftertaste everyone had in their mouths after bringing up a mistake or an embarrassing incident from years ago.
Not that Jo was much better. She didn’t gossip like her mother had. But, like her mother and her gossipy clique, she can’t seem to let go of the past either.
Her dad came home around four, when most families would begin sitting down for thier Thanksgiving dinners. He looked weary as usual.
“It’s crazy. Macy’s is already packed and people are already beginning to line up for Black Friday deals,” he said as he peeled off his winter coat.
“Thank commercialism for that,” Jo joked.
“It’s sad, really. So many people neglecting their families for sales. And the deals really aren’t all that good.”
“Says the manager of Macy’s,” Jo quipped back. Her dad left the room to change out of his work clothes.
Around six o’clock, they left for the diner. The streets were empty, aside from the few cars headed in the direction of the mall, racing to get on line for the next day’s sales.
Jo liked the emptiness of the streets. She liked the quiet. She liked the openness. There was no stress, no noises to rival her thoughts or her conversation with her father. It was just the two of them in a darkening, peaceful world.
Like the previous two years, the diner was practically empty. Apart from an old couple and a couple businessmen, Jo and her dad were the only customers in the place.
They selected a seat by the window, even though there was nothing to see outside: it was already dark out. However, the people on the outside, Jo knew, could see in. The random car that passed by could see the silhouettes of a father and daughter through the tinted windows, laughing and eating together, like a normal family on Thanksgiving.
Jo wished that she could see themselves from the outside. She drew the image in her mind: real, yet romantic. A poem with colors and shapes instead of words.
Like a Hopper painting, she thought.
The conversation for most of dinner was mundane. They talked about movies, books, TV shows. They made jokes, mused on memories and chit-chatted. They talked as if they were old friends who were catching up after not seeing each other in years.
That’s what they practically were. Jo and her father lived in the same house, yet they hardly saw each other most days. Jo was in school and spent most of her time at home in her bedroom. Her father worked six days a week and on most holidays, and spent his Sundays- his only day off- resting. Their conversations were typically limited to how their days were, how work and school were and other irrelevant topics.
Jo didn’t mind this too much, since she had days like Thanksgiving to make up for it. She didn’t have a Disney Channel-esque relationship with her father, but they both managed. They got along well enough. They didn’t hate each other.
And it was so much better than her relationship with her mother.
Jo and her dad stayed at the diner for a solid two hours before finally making the decision to leave.
They didn’t take desert at the diner; instead, they drove across town to Timmy’s Ice Cream Shoppe that always seemed to be open, no matter if it was a national holiday or if it was three o’clock in the morning.
This was also part of the tradition. For the past three years, after dinner at the diner, they would both treat themselves to large sundaes at Timmy’s.
The car ride there was quiet- sudden and uncomfortable after the lively conversations at the diner. It was unsettling. Jo knew what this silence meant; her dad was slowly building up the courage to introduce a serious topic.
Jo knew what it was. They had talked about it before- several times since she started high school.
She hated talking about it. Jo did not think it was that big of a deal. Her father, however, did.
Jo waited for a good ten minutes, until they finally arrived at Timmy’s. Her father cut the engine, but didn’t get out of the car.
“Josephine,” he said. He always called her by her full name. He insisted upon it. “I want to talk to you about school again. I want to make sure we’re on the same page for when you go back.”
“Okay,” Jo said. She decided to just let him talk, as she always did.
“Are you going to go see the social worker at school?” he asked.
Jo was quiet. Her father didn’t seem to understand what it meant to see a social worker- the humiliation of it. If you went to the social worker, you had a drug problem or were mentally ill- everyone knew that. Everyone, except her father that is.
Jo had tried to explain that to him multiple times. But his response had always been that that’s just a stereotype- that the social worker was there to help students with any kind of problem, no matter how small it was.
Jo didn’t have any problems, as far as she knew. Her grades were fine. Her home life was peaceful. She wasn’t suffering with depression or eating disorders. She never drank or used drugs. There was nothing to say to the social worker.
Her father didn’t see it that way. He didn’t like how she stayed home every weekend. He was worried (for no reason) because she hardly talked about school- as if there was much to talk about. To him, this was a problem worthy of taking to the social worker.
Jo did not answer her father immediately. She looked out the window at the dark sidewalk, pondering whether to be truthful again or to lie and quickly end the conversation.
She chose the truth after several minutes. “I really don’t want to go.”
“Why? It’ll make you feel better. It’ll make me feel better.”
“What would I say to her? I don’t have any burning issues to address. I’m perfectly fine.” Jo spread her arms open to exaggerate her good health. She desperately wanted this conversation to end.
“What about those girls you sit with at lunch? How they exclude you? How they don’t talk to you?” Her father pressed.
Jo shrugged. “That doesn’t bother me. It’s just lunch.”
“It shouldn’t be ‘just lunch’. You should sit with your friends at lunch. They’re not your friends.”
Jo didn’t know how to respond to that. She just sat quietly in the dark, avoiding her father’s eye contact.
Her father was referring to an incident from Jo’s freshman year. They had seen Jo’s entire lunch table together at the mall- a shock to both of them. All those girls did during lunch was study and do homework; Jo had no idea that they were so close outside of lunch. She did not tell her father who they were until they got home later that day.
“If you don’t want to go see the social worker, go join a club or a sport’s team,” her father begged. “Make friends. Get away from that group of girls. Go out and have fun while you’re in your prime. You’ll only regret not doing so later.”
Jo continued to listen in silence. There was nothing to say. There was no rebuttal, no argument. All Jo could do was submit to her father’s words.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll go see the social worker.”