I step out of the rain and through the front door of the house. My grandmother is sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a Marlboro and doing the crossword puzzle from a week-old London Sunday Times. Forget the answers to the Times crossword puzzle; I don’t even understand the clues. But here’s Grammy, doing the puzzle with a pen. I lean down and give her a hug and kiss.
“My darling,” she says, and takes my face in her hands. My grandfather is at the counter arranging cheese and crackers and pepperoni on a platter. He gives me a smile and a man’s handshake, right hand sunk deeply into mine, his left hand on my shoulder.
“You’ve arrived just in time for cocktail hour,” he says. Cocktail hour is a grand tradition, at least during my grandparents’ visits. Poppa has a crystal-blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire and another bottle of something called vermouth. I’m a college kid; I’m used to Natty Lights and Chardonnay from a box. But Poppa pours three drinks into the oddly shaped glasses, and I gladly accept. I’m not of legal age yet, so I’ve given myself a standing order to accept any offer of alcohol at any time. Grammy and Poppa taste their martinis with approval. Mine goes down like Off bug spray, with a hint of olive.
“We’re so glad you could come for dinner,” says Grammy. “Your sister has been waiting anxiously for you all day. It’s so great to see you.”
My sister comes down from her room and Grammy puts out her cigarette and we sit around the kitchen table. I talk about my classes and embellish my scholastic achievements just a bit, and they love it. My sister is less interested in the details; she’s happy just to have another one of the kids in the house, and she pulls her chair close to mine. My martini is halfway gone and already the taste has settled in and the drink has become easier to swallow. My grandmother has cut out some humorous newspaper articles and reads them while Poppa checks on the ham in the oven.
“And this article is about,” pause for effect, “Diana, Princess of Wales,” says Grammy. Her arms are moving about in dramatic gesticulations and her jewelry jangles. She gets to the conclusion and the humor is somewhat lost on me but the martini has loosened my jaw muscles and I get out a good laugh.
Grammy wants to read another article, but Poppa interrupts. Dinner is ready and it’s time to move to the dining room. I sit at the head of the table and Poppa places a wine glass in front of me and fills it with a rich red wine that swirls and bubbles in the glass. I sip tentatively. I’m not a wine drinker, but this stuff is fruit and spices and the Earth all at once. I sip more confidently.
“You should take off your baseball cap at the dinner table,” says Poppa, just as I’m picking up my fork and knife.
“Why? That makes no sense. My hair is a mess. It’s probably more offensive than the hat.”
“It’s just what you do. Men always remove their hats at the table.”
“Don’t be rude,” adds Grammy.
I want to argue but it’s easier to remove my hat, which I toss on the floor. Dinner is delicious, and even if the salad is wilting in all the oil and vinegar, it’s miles better than cafeteria food. My sister, after much prompting, tells us about her history project and her soccer game that’s coming up on Saturday. I notice she doesn’t eat much of her food, which happens a lot these days. I’m not sure how to say anything, though, so I let it go. I also notice that Poppa is keeping my wine glass full with frequent pours. We’ve moved quickly to a second bottle.
“If you’re still eating, you leave your utensils open like this,” says Grammy. Her fork lies face up on the left side of her plate, and her knife is flat on the right. Together the utensils create an upside-down V. “But, if you’re finished, move your fork to the ride side and turn it over. This lets the waiter know you’re done so he can remove your plate.” She demonstrates, flipping the fork over so it rests next to the knife. She’s right; her plate now looks “done,” in some weird way. Grammy eats every meal as though she were a guest of the Queen. I copy her etiquette and sit back and suck on my wine glass. When I’m done, I get a refill from Poppa.
“I’m stuffed,” says my sister. “Can I go watch TV?”
Grammy lets her go, but the three of us stay seated at the dining-room table.
“I’m so glad you could come up,” says Grammy again. “You know, your mother really needed this vacation. This last year has not been easy.”
“No, not for any of us,” I say.
“Your mother has been so strong,” says Poppa. “We’re happy to look after your sister while she’s away. That’s about all we can do.”
“But your father,” says Grammy. “I don’t think he knows what he’s done. Why can’t he act like a real father and husband? There is a place for people like him.”
Her tone is sharp, and she stands up suddenly and begins to clear the table. I don’t say anything; my head feels like a balloon. I’m drunk, but not the frat-party drunk with which I’m more familiar. It’s a heady drunk, an adult drunk. And now the conversation has moved to adult issues and I’m out of my depth. Grammy stays in the kitchen and begins to wash the dishes. Poppa sits with me in the dining room and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“We’re all upset,” he says, in a quieter voice. “And we all have to support your mother as best we can. We do that as much as possible. But know that I hope your father is okay, too.”
“I know. I think he is,” I say.
Poppa changes the subject to baseball and we talk freely again. After a few minutes, Grammy returns to the dining room and the tension has passed. She resumes her storytelling and we continue to drink. She reads another newspaper clipping and this time I lose the thread before she’s even begun, but I still manage to laugh at the right time. I notice a red spot on my shirt; I must have dribbled wine at some point in the evening. I contemplate the stain.
Soon the wine is gone. It’s time for me to go back to school. As I stand from the table, my legs wobble a bit. Poppa puts his hand on my shoulder one more time.
“You’re okay to drive home, right?” he says. It’s a phrased as a question but it feels like a statement. “You’re okay,” he repeats, as though saying the words will make it so.
“Of course he is,” says Grammy.
“Of course,” I parrot. And of course I’m not, but I stand up straight and still and we all seem pleased by this. My sister is lying flat on her stomach watching television. On my way out I grab her around the neck and under the knees and compress her tightly and yell “small package” just for old time’s sake. She laughs and pretends she doesn’t like it. My grandmother gets a hug and kiss and my grandfather gets another manly handshake.
Outside the rain continues to fall. I get into my car and I’m not comfortable about driving but it seems important that I persevere. I open the window and my face gets pelted but it makes me feel better. I drive carefully and deliberately, and I make it back to school without a problem. I’m not pulled over and I don’t flip my car, and this makes me feel the wrongness of my decision even more strongly. I don’t like that I drove home drunk. I chalk it up as a lesson learned, whatever that means.
There have been a lot of those recently.