Five Days to Buff

Fiction
Mary Sophie Filicetti


Photo Credit: Jonnie Anderson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Day 1:

The in-laws have landed. Monica is wandering the supermarket aisles arguing with Adam over whether he’ll allow his parents to purchase Velveeta, Cool Whip, and other assorted foodstuffs Ron and Leslie consider necessities.

Adam has meticulously planned the menu for The Visit, and he’ll be damned if any processed foods are going in his refrigerator. She tells him to keep his voice down, or they might hear him, but he continues on, aggrieved over the tragic landscape of his childhood, where cheese existed solely in this unnaturally colored form.

“I’m holding the line,” he insists. “There are principles at stake here.”

Monica couldn’t care less about the Velveeta. It’s later, when her father-in-law grouses about the cashier’s accent—“Why can’t they hire people who speak English?”—she hopes Adam will exercise those very principles.

 

One week before arrival:

The house is subjected to the same scrutiny as the food, beginning with a stem-to-stern cleaning, ending when Monica pulls the plug on Adam’s plan to touch-up the white molding and trim.

“Why are you making yourself crazy? Your parents barely bother to tidy up, much less paint, when we come.”

“It’s their first impression of our house. If Dad has any idea of the amount we’ve spent on this place, he’ll be searching for defects.”

“Your mother is the one who will judge, not your father,” Monica says, piling tools onto the paint can for Adam to return to the basement.

“That reminds me—do you know where we’ve stored the decorations Mom’s given us?”

Which is how Monica finds herself hunched in the attic, searching for decorations gifted by Adam’s parents. The clothing items can’t be retrieved—a lavender sweatshirt emblazoned with silk-screened puppies comes to mind—most swiftly removed from the house in donation bags, but somewhere in this stifling space are other presents saved for this reason.

The box has been pushed to the back corner behind plastic bins holding Christmas ornaments and a china set inherited from her grandmother. Opening the folds of the box, a light floral scent wafts out. The fragrance, originally applied to a blue-and-yellow silk flower wreath, clings to other articles inside: framed religious quotes, figurines, and a pink crochet toilet paper holder. In general, Monica appreciates home-made crafts; Leslie’s afghans warm the couch in the winter, and the wedding quilt holds a place of honor on their bed. Creating cozies for kitchen appliances and toilet paper somehow crosses a line.

She hangs the wreath on the guest bedroom door, and replaces family photos in the hallway with the framed quotes. She wants to remind her husband of her own mother’s visits. How she does for them—helping with the cooking and cleaning-up without being asked.

How they once returned to their grad school apartment and found her sitting on a chair, hemming the too-long, white curtains from the Salvation Army. Settling into their world, and making herself at home.

 

Day 2:

Leslie is perched on the edge of the couch beside her husband, poised like a runner on the starting blocks, ready to bolt. They’ve visited the couple one other time, preferring to host from familiar turf, Leslie presiding over the kitchen, Ron at the head of the table. It’s Monica and Adam who are expected to make the every-other-month, every-other-holiday, six-hour drive to Ohio.

“To be fair,” Adam says whenever the subject comes up, “it’s hard for Dad to get away from the farm for even a few days.”

Which doesn’t explain their lack of manners over dinner. Leslie, who might have appreciated the night off from a hot stove, accepted the merest dollop of Adam’s stir-fry, the green broccoli a bright pop of color surrounded by a large expanse of white plate. Both picked at the food, and neither parent complimented their son on his cooking.

After a coughing jag, Leslie complains the air conditioning is wreaking havoc on her lungs, still recovering from a bout of bronchitis. Adam adjusts the temperature right before she steps outside to smoke a cigarette.

Monica’s phone lights up.

Are they there yet? Julia texts.

Monica retreats to her bedroom, claiming a work emergency. Before she calls Julia, she drops to the floor for a set of push-ups. The push-ups are her version of a drinking game: one set for every insulting remark from either in-law. She’d prefer an actual drink, but Ron frowns on the ‘use’ of alcohol.

“It’s been two days,” Monica tells Julia, “and so far, my father-in-law has targeted women, ‘foreigners’ and the entire LGBTQ community.”

“Keep doing your push-ups,” Julia says. “You can make it.”

“Either that, or by next Saturday I’ll be on Xanax.”

 

Day 5:

Monica cuts out of work early and asks Julia to meet for coffee, before she faces the scene at home. “How do you manage to stay calm when your mother-in-law is in town?” she asks. Jana, who travels from Poland, stays with Julia’s family for months at a time.

“Communication is an issue,” she says. “I only know a little Polish, and Jana doesn’t really speak English. She waits until Dominik comes home, then bends his ear with complaints.”

“And that doesn’t create friction between the two of you?”

Julia smiles briefly. “Only when he feels compelled to translate.” She swirls the last dregs of her cappuccino, then sets the cup back down onto the table. “Jana once made a remark—Claire wasn’t yet two at the time—which I consider unforgivable.”

A cheery five-year-old, Claire receives speech therapy for disfluency, Monica knows.

“Claire had begun trying to communicate, and Jana made an ignorant comment about her future prospects as a woman. I understand there’s a generational difference, but some thoughts you should keep to yourself.”

Monica waits, unsure what to say.

“I used to make an effort—studying Polish, learning to cook family recipes,” Julia continues. “Now, I keep things civil, but I’ve given up trying to forge a relationship.”

*

Monica returns home to find Adam cooking dinner while his parents are watching a news segment on the recent Women’s March. The search for an acceptable source of TV news, an ordeal lasting several days, has finally been resolved with a local station.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Ron says, gesturing towards the screen. The National Mall bobs with pink hats, cameras zooming in on a few controversial signs. “What are they even trying to accomplish?”

Monica, who knitted her own, somewhat misshapen ‘pussy hat’, says, “Tackling equality, encouraging more women to enter local politics.”

“Well, I don’t go in for any of that chanting and complaining. You ask me, I think this just stirs people up.”

“Good. Some of us could use a little stirring up,” she counters.

Ron scowls at her and returns his attention to the set. Leslie looks up from her own knitting, the corner of her mouth lifting up slightly. Monica can’t tell whether the response is approval or snark.

She’s putting in another set of push-ups in the bedroom when Adam walks in.

“What’s the point in arguing with him?” he asks. “You’re never going to change his mind.”

“If you let it go, it’s as good as signaling we agree with his attitudes,” Monica says, her voice muffled as she pulls back into a stretch, feeling the muscles of her neck and back elongate.

“I just think the visits will be more pleasant if we ignore his comments.”

“And you’re ok with him venting his ‘opinions’ without challenge?”

Adam reaches out a hand to help her up. “It’s how I survived my childhood. Keeping my distance, and my mouth shut.”

 

Day minus 1000 (approximately):

Monica’s parents have invited Adam’s family to their home in New Jersey for a meet and greet, and to celebrate their recent engagement. The same preparations preceded this visit: house cleaning, spiffing up the guest bedroom, her father cooking all day. An Italian feast is being laid on the dining room table when her future in-laws knock on the door.

The moment occurs when her father rolls towards the foyer for the introductions. Ron, registering the wheelchair, falters and stalls out mid-stride. Her father makes up the distance, left hand on the wheel, right hand extended. Ron automatically responds with a handshake, but his eyes are on the chair as he murmurs a greeting.

Monica attempts to bridge the gap during dinner, pointing out similarities between the families. Leslie and her mother, stay-at-home parents originally, both joined the workforce in their children’s teen years. Ron, clearly curious about how her parents manage, asks and says little. It’s not as though they haven’t answered these questions their entire married life. The way she cuts the lawn and he handles the bills. Divvying up household chores the way every other couple does.

Her mother picks up the conversation, seeks Ron’s advice about a withering tree on their property. Her effort seems to rebound, as a stretch of silence follows his response. In Ron’s world, a man is what he can physically do; it’s baling hay at the end of the summer, surveying crops from atop a John Deere. Managing your own property.

Leslie and Ron make excuses and retreat to sleep in their camper overnight. Monica rises early after a night of tossing and turning. Her parents’ beagle follows her around the kitchen whining to go out as she puts on a pot of coffee. Leash in hand, she doesn’t see the slip of paper stuck in between the screen door and the frame until she steps outside.

We needed to get back home—Ron’s worried about the chores stacking up. Thanks for having us—see you at the wedding. Leslie

Monica stares at the note, then leans around the corner, still expecting to see the RV in the empty space where they’d parked. The planned two-day visit has turned into a kind of drive-by, leaving her stunned in its wake.

She thrusts the note in Adam’s hand as he enters the kitchen. “Do you want me to call them once they’re home?” he asks.

“What would you even say?”

“Say about what?” her mother asks, entering in her robe. She pours herself a cup of coffee and reaches out for the scrap of paper. Adam obliges with the expression of a wayward child caught passing notes in class.

“Mom, it’s the way they are,” Monica says as her mother reads. “They’re only comfortable in their own space.”

She’s never asked if her parents recognize how the perceived disability played a part.

 

The big farewell:

Monica stands by the car, braced for the family send-off. The emotional good-byes are bookended in her mind by Leslie’s traditional ‘I have a bone to pick with you’ greeting, which precedes a half-hour, stomach-knotting discussion where the two apologize for some imagined slight from the previous visit. Like the time Ron berated Monica for her ‘lack of common sense and consideration’ after she locked the doors of his car. (“Wouldn’t they need to have the keys to drive the car?” she’d asked Adam later. “It doesn’t even make sense!”)

Leslie clasps Adam one last time. “You’re too skinny,” she says, glancing over his shoulder at Monica.

“You remember he’s the one who does the cooking?” Monica asks.

Adam shoots her a look as he detaches himself from the embrace.

“Yes, and he’s a grown man, after all,” Leslie says, patting his arm.

 

The after-visit recovery:

Adam has taken himself to the batting cages to excise childhood demons. The tally for the visit totals four arguments between them. The final clash, when Adam repeatedly interrupted her bath to update her on the latest drama, ended when she’d ordered him out of the room. For now they’ve established a truce, agreeing to disagree on her new tactic with his parents.

Somehow, despite the stress, the piles of linens waiting to be washed, and the offensive foods remaining in the fridge, Monica feels a sense of accomplishment. Their photos are again hung on the wall, the objects which temporarily replaced them slated for the donation bin.

She’s spent the last hour working her way through an old yoga routine, inspired by the dozens of sets of push-ups logged in the past five days. The house is quiet, radiating a sense of calm. Changing her mind, she dumps the pile of laundry in her arms onto the guest bed, shuts the door to block out the sight, and retreats to the couch with a novel and a glass of iced tea.

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Mary Sophie Filicetti is a teacher of the visually impaired who once spent time writing stories in the myriad coffee shops around DC, and now writes at home. Her fiction has appeared in AEL press’ Locked Room anthology, Montana Mouthful, Every Day Fiction, Nightingale and Sparrow, The Magnolia Review, and The Phoenix. Tweeting @marysfilicetti Email: mfk2009[at]gmail.com