Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Stephanie Janiak

Family Dinner


1.                  Greetings. 

We meet at Mom’s house to celebrate Baby Evan’s second birthday.  We all seem happy to see each other, Mom, sisters, brother-in-law, Baby Evan.  We hug, get a good look at each other.  Dad comes in, and we are happy to see him too, until we notice that he has brought his girlfriend with him.  Not the one he left Mom for.  The new one.  He knows he is not allowed to bring girlfriends to family occasions but sometimes does anyway.  The old one was named Janet; we hated her.  This one we will name Janet Two; we will hate her as well.


2.                  Hors d’oeuvres. 

We rush in, hands grab, elbows fly.  Mom reminds us to be careful of the rug.   We arrange the food quickly, chips into dips, cheeses on crackers, pâtés on breads, then stuff it all into our mouths.  Janet Two does not know our feeding rituals.  She stands back and will get nothing. 


3.                  Post hors d’oeuvres. 

Mom stays in the kitchen to finish preparing dinner.  Dad and sisters run to the living room to sit on the good couch.  Janet Two is scraping up the last bit of dip with a heel of bread.  I go into the kitchen to help Mom with the dinner even though she says she’d rather do it herself.  I look out the window at Mom’s flower garden, at the roses we were never allowed to touch in case we broke a stem. 

I eat a cookie from the dessert tray and Mom asks if I have put on a few pounds since Christmas.  This makes me want to eat every cookie on the tray, but instead I leave.  In the living room they are discussing how much Baby Evan has grown.  My big sister Martha says he’s in the ninetieth percentile for height, so she must be doing something right.  Dad says it’s nice finally having a boy in the family, and he was sure one of us was going to be a boy, but it’s too bad how things don’t happen the way you want in life. 

Dad tells us he spent a lot on the gift for Baby Evan even though times are tight and it’s getting harder to dock his boat in Marin and pay for Janet Two’s art classes.  Then he calls to Mom to bring him another beer, and tells me I’d look so pretty if I just dropped twenty pounds.  Mom brings him the beer with her white knuckles gripped around the neck of the bottle and reminds me to put a coaster under my diet soda. 

They had sat us down a few months before Sadie’s high school graduation to tell us they were separating.  It was my second year in college and I was living at home to save money on rent.   

“It’s no one’s fault,” Dad said. 

“We still love each other,” said Mom.  “We just need to work through some things.” 

For a while Dad came home a few nights a week to eat dinner and spend the night, as if nothing had changed.  Mom, Sadie and I sat on the couch watching reruns of Cheers and eating dinner from our laps.  When he hadn’t come home for a week, Mom said, “I guess he’s not coming,” then threw his dinner in the garbage. 

Sadie and I watched her shrink down, with the speed walking, the running, lifting weights in the mornings, and then the nonfat yogurt lunches and brown rice and steamed broccoli dinners.  She didn’t allow sugar or fat in the house, so after classes I’d hit the Cinnabon at the mall and order the baker’s dozen minis and stuff them in my mouth on the drive home. 

On Sadie’s eighteenth birthday, a package came for Mom with divorce papers.  Mom started to cry because she didn’t know she was getting a divorce and locked herself in her room.  Sadie and I went out and got drunk and I held her hair back while she threw up the rest of the night.  

When Mom told us what Dad had been up to all those years, we decided we hated him.  Then he told us he was going to kill himself he was so sad.  So we told him it was okay, we forgave him, and we loved him, even though we knew we still hated him.  Then he didn’t call us for a while until Janet One broke up with him, and then he said he might kill himself again.  The doctor said Dad would have to go to an institution if he didn’t stop talking about suicide and we didn’t want to have to visit Dad in lockdown, so we told him we loved him and it wasn’t his fault, and that Janet One didn’t know what she was missing.

When Dad got better my little sister Sadie decided she wanted to kill herself too.  It was her second year of college, and she had stopped eating.  So we told her how good her life was and she had so much to live for and we loved her and then we tried very hard not to upset her.  So now I don’t ever tell Dad or Sadie when they make me mad or when I want them to shut up because I don’t want their blood on my hands.  My brother-in-law Ned says that long after we’re all gone Dad and Sadie will only have each other to call and threaten suicide and they won’t have half so much fun any more.

 We watch as Baby Evan pounds crackers into Mom’s Oriental rug.  Dad asks me how things are at the law firm, and whether or not I think the life has come back into the securities market.  Things are great over at his firm, and he just secured a seven-figure settlement in a trademark infringement case on behalf of their biggest client.  He asks if I’m still working the eighty-hour weeks and when I say yes he says, “good because there’s no getting to the top of that ladder if you’re too lazy to try.”

“That’s right,” Mom calls from the kitchen, “you’ve got to do your time to make the big bucks.”

“Earn it to own it,” Dad says.

“Plenty of time for sleep when you’re dead,” Mom adds.

And I nod in agreement, even though I don’t care about the big bucks and every time I look at a merger document I want to scream, but I’ve got to climb that ladder, do my time, make the big bucks, earn it to own it and look forward to sleep when I’m dead.


4.                  Dinner. 

Mom tells us it’s ready, so we rush to our places at the table.  We leave the metal folding chair at the end for Janet Two, the place where your knees hit the leaf under the table.  Janet Two stands next to the chair and looks at Dad, who tells us she’s allergic to metal, and wouldn’t one of us be willing to switch with her since she’s our guest.  Sadie, Martha and I exchange smiles until Dad says, “Cassie?”  And then I get up and go sit in the folding chair and say fuck when my knees hit the leaf.  Mom says to watch my language in front of Baby Evan and Dad asks Mom if she has any plastic silverware for Janet Two.  Even though there’s been a box of plastic forks and knives in the bottom kitchen drawer since the 70’s, Mom comes out with some wooden chopsticks and says they’re all she has.

Mom serves all of Dad’s favorites even though she would never eat any of them, the Honey Baked Ham and the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts, macaroni salad with mayonnaise and more bacon.  I’m a vegetarian, but I eat it all anyway, because I can’t hear again from Dad how it’s all that dairy and bread that’s making me fat, and I should just try a little red meat now and again.  

Martha talks about Baby Evan and how he’s so smart and cute and likes to put his toys to bed at night and say “bye-bye” to them and he’s really coming along with the potty training and that problem with him biting the kids at day care is getting better, and now her voice is high pitched and scratchy.  Then Sadie jumps in and tells us about her new exercise routine at the gym and how the trainer is really pushing her to pull more weight but she doesn’t want her muscles to get too bulky, so she goes lower on the weights but higher on the reps.  Mom says she’s running a marathon in the fall and doing her twelve miles on the weekends until she gets up to nineteen, and then she’s supposed to go back down to twelve, but she’s not sure she will because running keeps the heart rate up, and helps you lose those extra pounds, and I keep my head down and pretend she’s not looking at me.

 The ham is particularly fatty today and I gag on bits of gristle, but keep chewing, because otherwise I will have to pay attention to the conversation.  I eat through Dad’s story about his trip to Hawaii with Janet Two and how romantic it was, and how that’s where they want to get married and it sure would be nice for us all to be there.  Janet Two nods and saws at the ham with one of the chopsticks.  And Dad says they stayed at the same condo complex where we stayed in ’86 that had the nice sunsets on the lanai and the free towels at the beach.  By now we’ve lost Sadie.  Mom is cleaning up in the kitchen, smashing pans against the stainless steel sink.


5.                  Gifts.

We watch as Ned and Martha try to get Baby Evan to open his gifts.  “Over here sweetie!  Pull the ribbon!”  But Baby Evan would rather chase the cat, so they open them on their own: the sailor suit from Mom, the toy trucks, football, bat, glove and basketball from Dad and picture books from Sadie.  I knew Martha and Ned got Baby Evan a play stove so I bought a miniature copper pot set.  Dad wants to know what those are about and when I tell him, he says, “Too faggy.  You should have bought a train set instead.”


6.                  Dessert.

I am so full I have to unbutton my jeans and pull my sweater down to cover my stomach.  Mom brings out cake, cookies and ice cream and reminds me I already had my dessert.  She had the cake specially made for Baby Evan with a drawing of Winnie the Pooh and little plastic characters from the books.  Baby Evan gets the piece with Pooh and the plastic Roo.  Mom goes back to the kitchen so I eat the frosted honey pot off the slice she left at Sadie’s place and suck Piglet’s bottom.  Dad is discussing the trip he took to Hawaii with Mom ten years ago. Now Janet Two has disappeared. 

Dad asks Mom if she liked the dozen roses he sent to her work last week for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Never once forgot our anniversary, he says.  Mom says “Yes, thanks,” even though she threw them away because people in the office kept asking what the occasion was.


7.                  Post dessert. 

I am alone in the living room.  I have to lie on the floor because sitting up is too much pressure on my stomach.  I wish I still made myself throw up like I did in high school.   Now the floor is moving.  Baby Evan is running by.  He stops, pokes me in the eye and laughs, and when I reach up to tickle him, he bites my wrist.  Mom’s cat, Elizabeth Bennet, jumps down from the couch; he chases after her. 

Sadie has reappeared and is sticking her toe in my ribs, telling me to get up.  She needs a ride home.  She’s not supposed to drive when she’s taking Ativan, which she always does for family get-togethers.  I tell her I need to let my food digest before I can go. 

Sadie pulls down her sleeves like she always does to cover the scars on her wrists.  Not deep enough for suicide, the doctors said, just ideation.  “Can’t be around these assholes any more,” she says.  “Maybe I’ll rub Evan’s shitty diaper in Janet Deuce’s face.” 

I see feet in the doorway and look up to see Janet Two, mouth open, staring at Sadie.  Sadie looks at her, then at me, then walks out the front door.


8.                  Goodbyes.

It’s time to go.  Caesar and Jub Jub will be starving by now and are probably digging their claws into the couch to punish me.  I do the rounds, Mom, Martha, Ned, Baby Evan, Dad.  Ignore Janet Two.  Dad puts his arm around Janet Two and says we’ll all have to do this again real soon, because wasn’t this fun for everyone, and I nod, and smile and go out to the car. 

Sadie is leaning back against the passenger seat, eyes closed.  I watch as the smoke winds out of her cigarette and forms a cloud under the moon roof. 

“Was it always this bad?” she asks. 

I look at the crack in the driveway where Dad took a sledgehammer to the toaster because it had burned his toast for the last time.

 “Yes,” I say.  “It always was.”

I take the cigarette from Sadie’s outstretched fingers and relish the burn in my throat as I inhale.  As I exhale, the smoke settles in the front window of the car, blurring the outline of the house until it is a hazy shadow.


Stephanie Janiak recently completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.