An Awkward Family Dinner

Their dinner plates were clear but since Arlene, Tina’s stepmother, was always harping about how plates were cleared way too early — at restaurants, at home — they were just sitting there. Tina, Arlene, and her dad, Jay.

The room felt tense but Tina couldn’t figure out why. Maybe Arlene and Jay had had a fight before she came to the table. About something small like how Jay had put the dishes in the dishwasher the wrong way. Or the fact that the bathroom door still wasn’t closing right. So many fights about what struck Tina as silly little things. But Tina didn’t know anything about marriage. Her parents had divorced when she was really little and she’d lived with their lame boyfriends and girlfriends and then husband and wife since she was 8. Even though it had been almost 5 years since Arlene and Jay had gotten married, it seemed like they were constantly reorienting themselves around each other. One day, it would feel like a real home. And the next, Tina would be ready to ship herself across the country to stay with her cousins in California.

“Jay, what do we need from the market? I have time to go tomorrow.” Arlene spoke, as her dad, mercifully scraped and stacked plates and headed into the kitchen to rinse them.

“You want me to cook dinner tomorrow night?” he responded, from the kitchen.

While her dad and Arlene chattered away about groceries,Tina tried to figure out how she could politely excuse herself from the table, retreat back to her room, where she would read before going to sleep. She noticed an audible pause in the adults talking, and looked up to notice that Arlene had zeroed in on her.

“Tina, just let me know if you need any feminine products. I’d rather you tell me instead of sneaking to use mine.”

Tina was paralyzed. She didn’t want to have this conversation with Arlene, let alone in front of her dad. When she had gotten her period while sleeping at her dad’s house, she had stuffed paper towels into the crotch of her underwear and slept fitfully all night, with bad cramps that she had mistaken for gas. When she woke up, she called her mom immediately and made HER tell her dad. As far as Tina knew, she would never have to speak to either her dad or Arlene about it ever again, and here Arlene was, mortifying her then blaming her in just two sentences.

Even Jay looked uncomfortable. Tina didn’t want the conversation to go any further out of her control. What if Arlene asked her about something else embarrassing, like if she needed new bras, or razors to shave her legs, or if she liked boys or girls? Tina could feel a flush rise to her cheeks and anxious sweat begin to pool in her armpits.

Tina tried to calm down, smile politely, and thank Arlene for the gesture, but it came out in a croak, “Oh OK…thank you.”

Arlene seemed pleased, “I want you to feel comfortable with me about these things. Do you have any questions?”

Tina shook her head and asked to be excused.

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