Everyone in her family had been tossing around the word balloon as a verb. I assumed it was a playful Christmas tradition.
At a Chinese restaurant, the eve of the Eve, the aunt stated, “Since I graduated from Wisconsin in ninety-five, state tuition has ballooned.”
The next night at the Eve dinner, over Georgian pork and sweet potatoes, the brother proclaimed, “By 2020 Texas will be a Democratic state with such a ballooning Hispanic population.” I tried to get in there with a shrewd response, something about voter suppression, but no one heard me over all the chatter.
On Christmas day, while tearing open a small squishy package, the mom said, “I guess the price on these is no longer ballooning.”
Later that night, everyone else in bed, taking up the entire couch, my belt loosened, legs kicked out, face flushed red, the narrator on Animal Planet kept me from dosing off. “The Larvae in rainy season balloons up to the surface.” I opened my eyes to see jellyfishlike creatures floating upward, like they were being pulled up by reverse gravity. I repeated the line to myself so that I would retain it. I didn’t know what was universal Christmas tradition versus a particular family mode of operation.
The next morning, I announced to the group that I’d like to go to midnight mass. The mom politely informed me that the midnight service had been two nights before, on the Eve. My thigh was squeezed. This was supposed to simultaneously make me feel better and tell me no need to try so hard.
After dinner, the brother escaped to the couch. He made himself horizontal and held open a Theodore Roosevelt biography. She and I sat with the brother while he read and the others walked over to the village green to burn some calories and admire the village tree.
Every so often the brother would rest his book on his stomach and she and the brother would talk about who was getting married and who he’d bumped into in the city and who, in retrospect, had an especially fucked up childhood.
When the others got back from their walk, we all gathered at the table for dessert. I wasn’t used to three straight days of feasting, eating meat with every meal and dessert after, so I respectfully turned down the rugelach.
“Ever since turning twenty-seven my waist-line has been expanding,” I said to everyone. The word expanding lingered on my tongue—how could I have not thought of the family verb.
“But these are from your people,” the dad said.
So I took the rugelach and stuffed it down, still disappointed in myself for my word choice. Starting to feel ill, I resigned myself to only listening to the chatter.
When the aunt suggested a round of cards, I made a run for the toilet, where much of the night came out of me while I tried to recall that line about the jellyfish. Whoever they were.
Michael Don is the author of the story collection Partners and Strangers (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2019) and Coeditor of Kikwetu: A Journal of East African Literature.