From the Dinner Table

I’m going to sound like a bitch, so I won’t preface it further: Thanksgiving would’ve been a lot easier if Jeremy had died.

Instead, he sat at the table like he hadn’t ruined the last six years of our lives with his cancer. And perhaps worst of all: he’d gone and got himself a haircut and started dressing like a frat boy. The type of guy my friends hooked up with on Saturday nights and regretted by Sunday morning with their hangovers in full effect. 

“Nice khakis,” I said. 

His eyebrows rose. “Nice bull ring.” 

He was referring to my septum piercing, which I had gotten a few weeks ago because of a dare but mostly with the hope that I would stop looking like a Sarah. It was a terrible shame to be named Sarah when you weren’t one by nature. Not a nursing student, not studying for a real estate license, and certainly not content with light brown hair and cardigans. It was the newest step, the first being the blue hair I’d dyed with a shitty box dye bought from Walgreens a few months earlier. I’d heard my mother whispering to my father about it only a few hours earlier. She’s rebelling, she said, which was ridiculous because I was twenty-two. I was fairly sure you couldn’t rebel when you were a grown ass adult. 

It had crossed my mind that maybe I was rebelling as some last attempt at what I had missed out on in high school, but I don’t think I was made to rebel whether Jeremy had cancer or not. A few piercings and dyed hair didn’t seem like rebellion to me, but they were different in some ways than the path of least resistance I’d taken when I lived here. That was what you did when your brother had cancer. You tried not to cause more problems than genetics had already made. 

“Are you going to rush a frat? Or are you just trying to give off the energy that you believe women belong in the kitchen?” I asked. 

He tilted his head and smiled. “Shouldn’t you help Mom with the cooking or something?” 

I gave him the finger with a jut of my chin. His smile only grew wider in response. Our mother’s head appeared from the swinging kitchen door as if summoned, and she narrowed her eyes but didn’t comment on the palpable tension. 

“I have some potatoes that need mashing if anyone could help their decrepit mother out?” she asked. “Jeremy? Sarah? Tag team like the good ole days?”

I had little memory of these good ole days she was referring to, and I looked to Jeremy to see if the memories were visible on his own features. There had been a few years before either of us hit the double digits where we had been something like friends, but more aptly accomplices. We helped Mom together. We read books in the same room. Our mischief was always a tag team, but pre-adolescence had erased the memory like a palimpsest and rewritten our roles on top. 

Jeremy met my look, no memories tangible, and I could swear his face said watch this. “I was thinking of watching the game with dad.” I didn’t need to see his face, which was now turned toward our mother, to know the way it contorted—furrowed brow, forgiving lip.

Mom rolled her eyes. “Fine, go watch. Sarah?” The door swung shut behind her. 

“Sarah?” he asked in a perfect mimicry of our mother’s voice. He pushed his chair back, and it scraped against the wooden floor before he disappeared to the living room. 

I stood up more carefully, attempting not to disrupt the hardwood. He was supposed to be dead. 


Mom was bent over the oven, basting the turkey, as she gave me directions I already knew. Her mouth spat words without reason, non-stopping. She spoke as if she believed only a fourth of her words ever made it to anyone’s ears. As she continued, I picked up the masher and bent over the bowl of boiled potatoes already cut into fourths. Each was eerily translucent in its yellow hue. They gave under my pressure, but not as easily as I would have liked. 

“…anyone recently?” she asked. 

“What?” I looked up. 

Mom had switched gears to lining half-baked rolls on a cooking sheet. “Have you been seeing anyone recently?” 

Seeing was a loose term. The last girl I’d been “seeing” was Lilian, and we’d been casual. She was the type of girl I’d never imagined myself able to land—opposition to everything I was. She smiled like bubblegum, did her homework like an honor student, and she saw the best in everyone. I approached her at an art show because the way she sipped her complimentary glass of wine had left me reeling. It was hypnotizing, and I knew I would think about it for weeks. The purple tinged her glossed lips with a magnetism that ate me whole. 

She was nice in the simplest way of nice. In the way a Sarah was probably meant to be, but I had no use for. Which was why it hurt when two weeks ago she had turned to me half-naked, the sweat still glistening off of our skin, and told me you fuck like you’re not here. I masked my hurt as best as I could and turned toward her, reaching out to push a strand of hair behind her ear. But you came, which was not the right thing to say because she’d turned back toward the ceiling, not meeting my gaze. But. You’re. Not. Here. Each word a staccato phrase of its own. It had been a sentencing, a weed whacker to anything that had begun to bloom. When she texted me the next day, I didn’t reply.

I sighed and mashed the potatoes that were already mashed harder. “Not really.” 

My mother leaned her hip against the counter and took a deep breath. “Not really? That sounds—” 

My father entered noisily with two empty beer bottles hanging from between his fingers. “Do we have more IPAs? Our son has gotten a taste for that shit.” 

The conversation was swallowed whole. My father had a way of swallowing unfinished things, putting them to bed and turning the light off after them. They became finished and buried. There were years of dead half-things living in his gut. 

“In the drawer in the fridge,” she answered, and when she turned back I was already adding scoops of butter to the potatoes. They creamed as I smoothed the whisk through them, giving and fluffing in peaks. 

“Add more milk too, Sarah.” 

I added the milk. My father patted my head. “Still blue, huh? Maybe you should try green next.” 

“Maybe,” I answered. I couldn’t tell if he was trying or mocking, probably the latter. People didn’t like when you made yourself unpalatable. They wanted natural colors—not the ones that spoke to poison in the wild. But I would never be able to explain that when I had first raised my damp head from the tiny bathroom sink to see the blue in my hair, the droplets leaving tear marks of blue over my shitty old t-shirt, I had felt seen. You bite. Finally a warning so people would know what I left behind. 

My father took the beers in his hands to the living room, and my mother bent back over the oven. The heat radiated through the kitchen. “I hope it’s not too dry,” she muttered to herself. 


“Let’s say grace.” 

My fork was already in hand, and I looked up from the plate to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. “Grace?”

My mother was bent waiting, which left only Jeremy and my father to meet my gaze. My father nodded, and then he bowed his head too and held out his hands. 

Grace, I mouthed at Jeremy. 

He rolled his eyes and grasped their hands, leaving me to do the same. It was clear this was not out of the ordinary, but I had no idea when this became part of the routine. We’d never prayed when we still had family dinners, and my high school years were highlighted by a freezer stuffed with Lean Cuisines and Stouffer’s lasagnas. I would revel in going over to my friends’ houses to taste vegetables prepared by a loving hand, but I also preferred anything over an empty dinner table while the rest of my family was working late or at the hospital. 

It occurred to me then that Jeremy wasn’t the odd piece of the equation; I was. Once maybe I was the star child and Jeremy the problem. Perfect grades, extracurriculars, active social life while Jeremy was constantly getting into trouble. But my easiness had become easier still when the cancer presented itself, and my lack of problem was a constant. I never made my parents worry. Perhaps the ease had made me disappear completely, and the reappearance of me blue and pierced was an unwanted variable. I bent my head in prayer. Amen.

“Are we not going to say what we’re thankful for?” Jeremy asked. It seemed genuine, but I also wasn’t sure I would be able to identify genuine with him anymore. 

The first Thanksgiving after Jeremy’s diagnosis, my mother had opened with I am thankful Jeremy is doing well. It was hard to follow that with anything but the same. For five years we had said we were thankful for Jeremy’s health, no thought to what else was going on in any of our lives. There were certain things that made everything else around it insignificant, and Jeremy’s cancer had consumed each of us. Now we were through the tunnel and looking at the light on the other side. I had never imagined Jeremy would emerge with us. 

“Maybe we’ll skip this year,” my mother said and patted his hand. 

He shrugged and dove into his meal. Mundane conversation sprung up around us, and I couldn’t stop staring at the quarter of my plate taken up with a fluffy peak of mash. When they told me Jeremy was sick, it was over a dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They were too runny, not enough butter, and Jeremy pushed them back and forth across his plate all dinner. He never brought a forkful to his mouth. It had occurred to me I should have noticed he had been eating less, but I hadn’t been looking for warning signs.

I took a bite, swallowing the memory with the butter, and told my mother everything’s delicious. She beamed. Then she reached forward and scooped a section of globby cranberry sauce onto the edge of Jeremy’s plate. The gesture set me ablaze. 

“You don’t need to do that for him,” I said. 

The conversation between Jeremy and Dad halted, and their gazes turned toward me. It felt like I was the monster on display, the odd one out as the conversation died and was replaced by only the hard clinking of forks against plates. 

“She’s just being nice,” Jeremy said. 

My mother’s eyes darted from me to the plate to Jeremy, unsure what to say. My father ate heartily without thought, already over whatever small interruption my words were. “I want him to try everything,” my mom said with a light laugh and a wave of her hand. “You don’t like cranberries,” she finished with a shrug. 

Jeremy joked about something, and my mother laughed, but the sound was muffled. It was almost as if I was watching them through glass, like an exhibit at the zoo. Between us an unbreachable distance. I didn’t know how to articulate, didn’t know if anyone would have heard it anyway, that I would have gladly taken an unwanted scoop of cranberry on my plate. That it would have reminded me of the way my mother used to comb my hair before bed. Or how my father would pat my shoulder when we shot hoops in the driveway, and I made every free throw with a swooshJust like that, he said every time, and I would square my shoulders and try again. 

I took a bite of the turkey. It was perfectly moist, not dry in the least. 


Jeremy found me sitting on the back porch, elbows on my knees as I stared at our old playset in the backyard. I was surprised they hadn’t donated it already. It was an eyesore on the rest of the perfectly manicured lawn. 

“Here.” Jeremy held out a beer, and I took it even though I agreed with my father about IPAs being shit. He took a large swig, Adam’s apple bobbing, and ran a hand through his frat boy hair. 

When I had imagined his funeral, he was never this old. He never made it to legal drinking age. We were Irish twins but only by a slim margin, a few more weeks and we would have been separated by more than a year. I would have looked too similar to him lying in the coffin, as if fate could have flipped the coin either way. 

I was able to imagine the funeral near perfection. My mother in her one simple black dress, tears riddling her cheeks the whole day. My father stoic at the bar. The nestling of all my mother’s sisters cascading around the place with extra tissues and supportive head nods. The only odd part out was me. For all the hours upon hours I had spent running through the scene, I had never been sure how to place myself in it. So many hours wasted on a scene that never came to fruition.

I took a drink from the bottle and pulled it back in surprise to look at the label. “Hey, this isn’t half bad.”

He laughed. “That’s what I’ve been saying.”

A smile came to my lips unbidden, and I took another drink. A wind rustled through the yard, swinging the one lone swing. Soon the weather would turn too cold, and no one would be able to sit out on the back porch any longer. I dipped my head toward the sky to enjoy one of the last perfect Fall nights. 

“Thanksgiving is sort of a fake holiday, right?” he said. 

My eyes closed. I imagined the spattering of stars on the back of my eyelids. “I really just like it for the sweet potatoes.” 

“Mom wanted to try them without marshmallows this year.” 

I gasped and turned toward him with an expression of horror. Jeremy laughed and nodded along. “Thank you for saving us from that.” 

The laughter quieted. “I should have helped with the mashed potatoes. I was just being an asshole.” 

“It’s okay. I’m always an asshole.” My blue hair flickered into eyesight as if by reminder. I can hurt you.

“Nah.” He ran another hand through his hair, and I was beginning to notice that it seemed like a nervous gesture. 

“I like the haircut,” I admitted, the words slipping out as easily as the breeze around us. 

He turned to me, and the smile he gave was one I swore I had never seen before. Maybe new or maybe something I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to familiarize myself with yet, who was to say. I didn’t know if it mattered. His hand went to his hair for the third time. “I was just excited to have hair again.”

I hummed in response and took another sip. It wasn’t as terrifying to accept I didn’t know him anymore as I thought it might be.

He stood up and wiped dust off his khakis. “I’m gonna go watch some TV I think. You coming?” 

“I think I’m going to use the swing.”

He leaped down the stairs in one jump and then was running. “Race you for it!” I pushed up from my seat by instinct, the beer sloshing as I knocked it down in my haste, and I sprinted after him. “Fuck you!” I screamed, the sound too loud for the suburban nighttime, but it was caught in a breeze and rushed away. Taken to someone else’s backyard.


  • Annie Lindenberg is a MFA candidate in Fiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato where she also works as the Graduate Assistant for the Good Thunder Reading Series and as the Editor for The Corresponder. Her work has previously been published in The Tower Journal.

  • Photographs of EastOver courtesy of WM Robinson.