Consanguinity was Cousin Tessa’s new favorite word. The one she whispered to me last week, when we made sticky, bone-crunching love in her bedroom. Tess collected words like pennies, snatching them up from wherever, setting them sideways and spinning them around, before she lost interest and tossed them aside for a newer, shinier word. She did the same with lovers.
Okay, that’s not fair. But as Aunt Louisa would say, it’s true.
Back to consanguinity. Of course Tess knew what it meant. Family. The thicker-than-water blood. She had a point, I guess, because our family does stick close. Thanksgiving. Easter. Baby showers. (Even the Our Lady of Polenta Feast, as my brother Eugene says.) Two things I know. That we’re always celebrating something, and Great-Aunt Gabriella is always cooking an enormous family dinner.
“Christmas Eve, my favorite,” Uncle Teo said to me, pouring out the white wine. “Come, I hope you’re hungry, Maura.”
I smiled and took the glass he offered, looked around for a seat. Christmas, and Christmas Eve, meant a stuffed and overheated dining room, long loud conversations that unraveled and rewove themselves, and a gorgeous soup of smells – cinnamon and baked apples, tangy pine and crushed peppermint. And tonight, the fresh baked haddock and breaded flounder, shrimp with hot sauce, and more. Always more.
Spotting an empty chair, I squeezed in between my brother Eugene and my cousin Donny. Uncle Sal was passing around the dishes of noodles and anchovies. Across the table, Aunt Delores and Aunt Louisa bent close, plunged into talk about their kids, while Great-Uncle Umberto argued politics with my father. It was like fireworks and cannons, the noise, but somehow we all managed to keep talking and eating, eating and talking.
Eugene snagged a handful of shrimp and popped them into his mouth. “Hey, sis.”
A shriek directly behind my chair made me jump. “Antonio!” My cousin Lia scooped up my nephew Antonio and deftly removed the fork from his grubby hands. “You nutty kid. You might stab someone with that.”
Little Antonio screamed happily and squeezed his aunt, who carried him back to the kids’ table, singing a nonsense song. I thought she hadn’t seen me, but she gave me a passing wave before turning her attention back to Antonio.
Good, capable, dutiful Cousin Lia. None of the kids were hers, but she always ended up watching over the children at these things. Just as Aunt Juliette helped in the kitchen. Just as Uncle Sal always vidded the whole evening. Tradition, Sal called it. Like a thick knitted muffler that kept you warm, and sometimes made it hard to breathe.
And here came Sal, with a tiny new vidcorder in his meaty fist, swooping in between the tables. “Formaggio,” he cried. “Say cheese, Antonio. Oh my god, the kid’s gonna burp anchovies. Hey, Teo, did I tell you how these new vidcorders pick up smells, too?”
“. . . he’s shipping out next week, Delores . . .”
“. . . hear about Pauly and Anita getting back together . . .”
“. . . have some more noodles . . .”
“. . . I think I’ll have some salad . . .”
“. . . no more room on the table . . .”
“. . . always more room . . .”
More wine appeared in my glass, even though I didn’t ask for it. Cousin Donny winked at me. “Cheers, cuz.”
His face was sweatier than usual, and his muskrat aftershave made me gag when he leaned too close. I mumbled a hello-and-thanks and turned to Eugene. “So, how’s the new job?”
“Good enough. What about you?”
I shrugged. “Same as usual. Hey, do you know if Tess will show up tonight?”
Before my brother could answer, Donny leaned in. “Yeah, she’s coming tonight. She emailed Grandma about half an hour ago to say she’d be late. At least, I think she did. I was kinda busy.”
He leered at me, and I shifted my chair a couple inches back and away. That’s when I noticed the mesh glove on Donny’s left hand. “What the hell is that?”
Another leer. “Early Christmas present. Watch.”
He wriggled his fingers, and a funny look came over his face. Good god, I thought yanking my gaze away. I’d heard about those things, advertised on lurid X-rated websites. Cousin Donny hadn’t changed since we were eight and he tried to catch me naked in my bath on his camera-phone. Only now he’d figured out how to jerk off in public and not get arrested.
A loud popping noise caught everyone’s attention. “Umber-to!” came a cry from the kitchen. The next minute, my Great-Aunt Gabriella staggered through the doorway, wreathed in clouds of acrid smoke. “System crash!” she wailed.
I sighed. Last month, Great-Uncle Umberto had replaced all the kitchen appliances with the latest stainless steel AI models. Everything had sensors and links and touchpads and programmable features. It was all supposed to making cooking easier, but it turned out that the new AIs had a few bugs.
Cousin Nicci wiped her mouth with a napkin and slid from her seat. “No problem, Aunty. I know how to jig the system.”
Nicci, Gabriella, and Juliette vanished into the kitchen. The roar of conversation swelled up in their wake.
“Good thing Nicci knows her hardware,” Donny said. He was busy stuffing his face, using only one hand.
“Not like some,” Eugene said with a grin.
Donny had just opened his mouth to toss back an insult when the front door banged open. Tessa ran through, laughing and chattering, and exclaiming how cold it was outside. Her cheeks were ruddy, her black eyes bright with mischief. Dark hair tumbled from underneath her knitted cap, which sparkled with miniature Christmas lights. Oh, yes. Already my mood got better. I lifted my hand to wave, when I saw Cousin Lucia.
Lovely Lucia, who wore a bright red cashmere dress that barely covered her thighs. Uncle Teo called her the family angel, but seeing her slip an arm around Tessa’s waist, I thought she looked more like an imp.
Not fair. Not even really true.
“What’s the word, Tess?” someone called out.
“Serendipitous!” Tess replied with a laugh.
I closed my eyes, feeling sick. Oh yes. I could just imagine how Tess picked that particular word. Next to me, Eugene muttered something about some cousins being idiots, but I ignored him. He knew about me and Tess. Everyone did. But the last thing I wanted right now was pity.
One good thing about family dinners: you eat. And if you eat, no one bothers you. So I loaded up my plate with the baked flounder and noodles with cheese and spinach bread, and with my aunts and uncles and cousins and parents all chattering over and around me, I ate. But all that time, I could see Tess and Lucia flirting with each other, bumping shoulders and giggling and who knows what else.
Just like Tess and me at Thanksgiving. Or my parents’ anniversary celebration last week. Or . . .