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Emmett stared at a wall, listening. The voices from the floor above carried through the sunlit kitchen, around the grey-blue granite countertops, over the too-clean wood-paneled flooring, down the recently re-carpeted staircase, across the vomit stains on the recently re-carpeted basement floor, over the back of the cold, tan leather couch, and into Emmett’s ears.
He listened for certain key words—primarily “Emmett” or “Em,” but also “the college man” and “the big guy.” He could decipher the voices of his mother, two aunts, one uncle, and a grandmother, as well as the boyish stomps of his younger cousins—all of whom gathered that evening for a meal somewhat arbitrarily deemed Emmett’s “farewell dinner.” The same meal would likely have occurred had Emmett not been soon returning to college, but giving the night a title lent purpose to an otherwise aimless exercise in pleasantry.
The more time one spent in Emmett’s parents’ house, the more evident it became that at no point in its design, construction, or eventual inhabitation had anyone actually loved it. Emmett’s mother seemed to have made each decision with regard to its appearance in a misguided pursuit of Taste: the brick and siding exterior adorned with functionless shutters, the off-white interior walls, the light wood flooring, the white-paned windows, and the vaguely modern furnishings. These and other cosmetic elements appeared locked in a fierce competition to not be noticed. Since returning home, Emmett regularly took solace in the basement, in which a rather jumbled compilation of furniture sat free of his mother’s design sensibilities. Each mismatched chair, couch, and table had failed the upstairs test at some point—guests were not to set sight on them. Having discovered that summer the many adjustments made to the house in his absence, Emmett felt confident the basement’s charm would not survive another year.
“I’m not sure where he is… Brian? Where’s Em?” Emmett’s mother’s muffled voice reached Emmett’s ears, the last word a jab to his gut.
From that moment, he had no more than two minutes of solitude left—one, if his relatives were particularly eager. Emmett did wonder why staring at an empty white wall was so much better than greeting his loving extended family. He liked to think there was something honorable about it—a reasonable rejection of bullshit rather than a cowardly escape. A part of Emmett could feel the childhood excitement at having company and receiving an onslaught of undue praise, but that part of him had shrunk considerably around middle school and all but disappeared over the course of his freshman year. He estimated that, if allowed, he could spend at least another hour partaking in this inactivity without feeling restless.
“EM?” his mother—or a wounded wild animal—yelled as loudly as possible.
The distance across which his mother’s voice carried signaled to Emmett that she thought he was upstairs, probably in his bedroom—a sign of his mother’s incompetence that both pleased and annoyed him. In his first passive aggressive gesture of the evening, Emmett resolved not to return the yell. Rather, he stood up, flashed a practice closed-mouth smile that evaporated almost instantly, and walked deliberately up the stairs, thankful that the light of the door frame above glowed unimpeded by the human form.
“There’s the big guy,” said a voice of nauseating manly warmth as Emmett reached the top step, now in full view of the guests gathered near his mother in the kitchen. “How’s our college man doing?”
Emmett could not decide which moniker he liked least between “the college man” and “the big guy.” The latter seemed laced with condescending irony as Emmett was fairly lanky in stature. “The college man” was just silly. An outsider might infer that Emmett was a first-generation college student; a nineteen-year-old beacon of hope for his family’s future. In reality, the majority of his adult family members, all comfortably situated in the upper middle class, had attended college.
“Doing well. And you?” Emmett replied in a too-high voice. Emmett’s masculinity seemed to rise and fall inversely to that of his present company.
Emmett’s uncle didn’t answer, rather he chuckled and punched Emmett sternly on the back with his great ham of a fist—a hug for men too heterosexual to embrace.
Emmett was then passed to his aunts, one lumpy and grey-haired, the other boney and once-pretty. Both offered maternal squeezes and marveled at Emmett’s height, which, in truth, had not increased for two years. Emmett’s grandmother, next in the greeting line, was a woman so old and so small that Emmett softened for a moment as he looked into her eyes, full of delight but also duller in color than Emmett remembered. He spread his arms for a hug, delayed briefly as a cousin ran across the floor between them. Upon their eventual embrace, Emmett felt the reptilian ridges of his grandmother’s hunched back and wondered how much shorter she would be next year.
“How are you?” The old woman asked in a smiling voice, still clutching Emmett.
“I’m fine, Grandma. How have you been?”
“Oh just fine,” his grandmother replied, her tone classifying her wellness as a trivial matter. “And your summer’s going well?”
“Yep,” Emmett began pulling away. The hug was lasting too long and his sympathy waned. “Great to see you,” he added once the embrace had broken completely.
Free from any immediate physical grasp, Emmett approached his mother. Younger in looks than years, with brown hair cropped at the chin and a stature void of anything dainty, Emmett’s mother looked the part of a “handsome woman.” Her current efforts appeared divided between preparing dinner and ensuring that people could tell how frantic she was. Emmett regularly wondered whether his family’s exhibition of off-putting tendencies such as this had increased in frequency over the past year or if his tolerance for them had lowered.
“What time’s dinner?” Emmett asked, dreading the abrupt tone with which his mother would inevitably reply, yet longing for the evening’s timeline.
“I don’t know. Sooner if you set the table for me. Thirteen places,” his mother answered, not making eye contact as she placed a bag of frozen corn in the stainless steel microwave above the stainless steel oven.
“Who else is coming?”
“Grandpa, Eric, Taylor.”
“And you really have no idea what time dinner will be?” Emmett’s voice dripped with enough derision for his mother to detect, but not so much as to enlighten their guests to his contempt.
“Soon, Em. Fifteen, twenty minutes. Set the table,” she replied, a sigh in word form.
Emmett opened the white kitchen drawer containing silverware deemed appropriate for guests, of which the principle distinction from everyday silverware was its increased weight. Having grabbed as many oversized forks and knives as could fit in his hands, Emmett closed the drawer with his thigh and entered the dining room. The long table sat adorned with a baby blue tablecloth, thirteen evenly spaced cups filled with ice water, and a centerpiece that resembled a giant’s drinking glass, within which sat a fat, never-lit red candle. As he calmly placed each knife and fork in its rightful place, Emmett tuned in to the conversation occurring in the adjacent kitchen.
“Does Emmett have a job?” the lumpy aunt asked.
“He’s been mowing lawns here and there, but it’s just been so hot this summer,” his mother replied.
It had, in fact, been Emmett’s intention to work near school over the summer, a plan his parents vetoed at the last minute. (“Your mother and I want to see our son,” his father had said upon hearing that Emmett was offered a job in Los Angeles.)
“It’s been a scorcher all right,” his uncle declared loudly, but Emmett doubted the man spent much time outside; the armpits of his enormous shirts contained sweat stains in even the most heavily air conditioned environments.
“Oh it’s awful. The other day I told Eric I just feel so bad for the men mowing our lawn,” the boney aunt chimed in.
“Well have you seen our yard? Completely dead,” Emmett’s mother said. “We’re thinking of giving in and buying those automatic sprinklers.”
Emmett’s parents had discussed sprinklers fairly regularly for the past three months. Both seemed to think buying them was a good idea, yet the conversations persisted without action. Last night’s mention of the topic amounted to little more than an exchange of reasons why automatic sprinklers were such a great idea (ending with “The Millers have them and just look at their yard!”).
“Surprised you haven’t yet. Beth and I have had ‘em for years,” his uncle said authoritatively.
Emmett returned to the kitchen to find the aunts, uncle, and grandmother seated around the kitchen table while his mother continued to busy herself with the evening’s meal. In the next room he could see his sister and father watching television from the couch while his cousins sat on the carpet. In previous years, Emmett’s sister would join him in the basement as they awaited family dinners. Avoiding any eye contact so as not to be engaged in conversation, Emmett placed an extra knife back in the drawer before opening a large white cabinet door that hung above the counter. As he reached for a stack of plates, his uncle looked at him.
“What are you studying over there in California?” he inquired, his inflection implying a slight distaste for the state in which Emmett attended college.
“I’m an English major.”
“Allison, weren’t you an English major?” the lumpy aunt asked Emmett’s mother.
“What? Oh, no, art history.” Emmett’s mother replied, pulling a large metal pan covered in aluminum foil out of the oven.
Plates in hand, Emmett returned to the dining room as the doorbell rang. He listened to his sister greet their remaining guests; she had recently adopted their mother’s exaggerated vocal inflections. As Emmett circled the dining room table, placing a plate in front of each tucked-in chair, his mother entered carrying a bowl of salad, untossed, with dressing glistening atop the leaves.
“You should be more social, Em,” she said, her voice now sunny.
Emmett offered a thumbs-up in reply, to which his mother laughed dismissively. With dinner prepared, she no longer needed to act frazzled. Instead, she had begun to ride the high she received any time guests came over; she would laugh more than necessary and exude a general air of carelessness.
“The house just looks so nice!” she said. “Lisa does a wonderful job. I love when the house looks like this.” His mother returned to the kitchen.
Emmett hadn’t noticed a change in the house’s cleanliness. It seemed as oppressively spotless as ever.
A stack of folded cloth napkins sat on a shiny wooden table, next to a porcelain lamp and a silver picture frame. Inside the frame sat Emmett and his sister, toddlers, posed in formalwear in front of a blue backdrop. He had always found the image rather wonderful—an unintentional work of art—but lately it instilled in Emmett a feeling of guilt. Grabbing the napkins, he finished his table-setting duties and walked into the kitchen where the dinner party had gathered, talking and laughing.
“The table ready, Em?” his mother asked. Leftover laughter hung in her voice.
“Okay, let’s say grace, everyone!”
The talking subsided and a circle formed. Emmett took the offered hands of his grandfather and mother, the former hardened and stiff, the latter hot and moist. As the prayer, long-rehearsed by Emmett’s family, commenced, he looked around at the twelve bowed heads, wondering if anyone would catch his eye. As far as he knew, Emmett was his family’s only atheist, a fact he kept closeted. All other heads remained bowed, however, until “Amen,” at which point Emmett pretended to have been bowing as well. The circle broke and Emmett’s mother, carrying a large glass container of lasagna, led the way to the dining room. Emmett wiped her sweat from his palm onto the leg of his pants.
Settling into their chairs and passing around dishes, Emmett’s family resumed conversation.
“Did we tell you all that we know a movie star?” Emmett’s mother asked loudly, excitedly, cutting off all side conversations. “Our friend Jack Hennessy from down the street was an extra in a Brad Pitt movie!”
It was perhaps the most unabashedly Midwestern story Emmett had ever heard and his mother had been telling it for two months. He looked out of the window across the room as she continued delightedly.
“He said he was very friendly…”
Through the window, Emmett could see his neighbor, a large black woman, watering the flowers in her front lawn. The contrast between her white teeth and dark skin made her smile unmistakable, even at this distance.
“…he didn’t even tell us. We saw him in the movie…”
She wore an orange, flowing, distinctly summery dress. Emmett wondered if she had already eaten dinner or was doing last minute gardening beforehand while the sun was still out.
“…oh it was so good…”
The woman’s daughter, maybe six years old, came running from behind the far side of their house and hugged her mother’s leg, tightening the orange fabric around her large thigh. The woman patted her daughter’s braided hair and continued watering the garden. Emmett smiled.
“Em? You have, right?”
Emmett looked at his mother. “What?”
“Grandma asked if you saw the movie… The one that Jack’s in.”
It was 7 a.m. and Emmett was naked. The bar of a futon’s metal frame dug into his back and his left arm lay numb, trapped beneath a girl’s sleeping body. Despite their occasional sexual encounters that summer, Emmett had never before slept in her room. He lay now impossibly tired with a headache and a dwindling morning erection.
Straining his neck to peer around the sunlit room without disturbing the futon’s cushion, Emmett hoped to spot each article of his clothing before attempting to wake the girl with a cough or shift in position. Her room contained a rather haphazard arrangement of paintings, photographs, oddly-shaped lamps, and antique furniture. It had all seemed novel at the beginning of the summer, but the room’s alternative appeal was quickly becoming unbearably obnoxious as Emmett struggled to find his clothes among the clutter, his head continuing to pound.
Surrendering to the chaotic décor, Emmett coughed twice, the first cough timid, the second strident. The girl stirred and, miraculously, shifted such that Emmett could extract his arm, now red and blotchy. He swung his legs over the side of the futon and stood up. A tall oval mirror faced him from the opposite wall. He walked quietly around the room gathering his clothing, which had indeed blended in strikingly well with the room’s coloring.
“You leaving?” the girl inquired sleepily as he pulled an undershirt over his head.
When his eyes cleared the shirt’s collar, he looked at her. Her face was uncharacteristically puffy with an imprint of a wrinkled sheet covering her left cheek. He was glad he had not seen her in the morning before today.
“Yeah, flight leaves in a couple hours,” Emmett lied. His plane to Los Angeles would depart at 8 p.m., but Emmett hoped to pass the time remaining until his long-awaited return with a nap in his own bedroom.
He stepped into his shorts then sat on the edge of the futon in order to pull on his sneakers. A shift in the cushion’s weight indicated the girl was crawling toward him.
“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving?” she asked sweetly, now at his side wrapped in a sheet.
“Yep,” Emmett kissed her on the cheek unsoiled by sheet imprints and stood up to leave.
“See you later,” he added clumsily before exiting through the room’s bright purple door.
Pulling into his parents’ driveway, Emmett replayed the interaction in his mind in an effort to convince himself he had not been rude. This only served to worsen his headache, however, and Emmett laid the thought to rest. He parked his sister’s car and entered the house, silent save for the air conditioning’s faint roar.
Emmett walked across the wooden floor, shiny as ever, up the stairs and down the hallway to his bedroom, in which three black suitcases sat adjacent to his oversized bed. Sometime over the course of the spring semester of his freshman year, Emmett’s mother had transformed his room to match the design of the rest of the house. Removing his shoes, Emmett crawled into bed and stared sleepily at a photograph on the wall. Black and white with a soft focus, a baby’s hand rested atop a man’s open palm. Emmett was fairly sure the image had been meant as a placeholder, sold with the frame.
“What? What’s up?”
Emmett opened his eyes. The clock near his bed read 5:30 p.m.
“Em, hey, sorry to wake you. Just wanted to say bye before I left.”
His sister’s face came into view. She was rather pretty, in an awkward, gangly way specific to girls in their mid-teens.
“Oh, Alex, hey. Yeah, no, glad you woke me. I’ll see you in a few months,” Emmett said groggily, straining to infuse the words with warmth. Despite Emmett’s intentions otherwise, their interactions over the past three months had been limited primarily to family meals and the occasional hallway encounter.
“Yeah. Well, bye then,” she started to walk away.
“Hold on,” Emmett got out of bed, walked over to his sister, and hugged her. “Bye sis.”
“Bye Em,” she left Emmett’s room and shut the door behind her.
Emmett stood in the middle of his bedroom floor. Unsure when he was leaving for the airport or with whom he’d be driving, Emmett opened his door and walked down the hallway, an eye out for one of his parents. Popping his head into their bedroom to no avail, Emmett walked downstairs, listening for voices or movement.
He wandered the entirety of the first floor, but neither his mom nor dad appeared to be home. Emmett already felt bored by the explanation surely to accompany their dramatic, flustered arrival. He opened the basement door and galloped casually down the stairs.
“Oh, hi Em,” his mother, seated on the tan leather couch, turned around to greet Emmett.
If Emmett had ever before seen his mother in the basement, it had involved her waking him up from a nap or adding a lamp to the collection of retired furniture—never just sitting. A surge of unplaceable nostalgia caught Emmett off-guard.
“Are you looking forward to going back to school?”
“I am,” his voice faltered. “Yeah.”
“Once Dad gets home we’ll take you to the airport. Any minute now actually.”
The faint roar of the garage door traveled down the steps. Emmett’s mother stood up and walked toward the bottom of the staircase.
“Oh gosh, stains on the new carpet,” she said.
Emmett was bored. His cellphone, lately a source of entertainment as he walked across campus, lacked anything particularly attention-grabbing at the moment. Still hoping to appear engaged as he headed toward his dormitory, he scrolled through his recent text messages.
Landed. Emmett sent this single word to his mother over a week ago as his plane touched down at LAX. He had since found his eyes drawn to the message rather frequently. Before he could decide otherwise, Emmett selected his mother’s name and touched Call. It rang twice.
“Em! How are you?”
“Doing well. You?”
“Oh just great. How’s school?”
“Listen, Em. Dad’s calling me over. We’ve just bought new sprinklers! Can I call you back in a few?”
“Yep,” Emmett hung up and turned his phone on silent.
He had reached his dorm room and opened the door. Inside sat a crowded assortment of standard college furniture, all made of the same light-colored wood. Neither Emmett nor his roommate had added any decoration. Their beds lay parallel to one another with tall desks placed at the foot of each. Emmett fell casually onto his mattress and looked across the room at the wall above his roommate’s bed, his pocket glowing.