Dating’s hard. But meeting the parents? That’s way harder. Anytime you love someone, you’re gonna want their family’s approval. Those butterflies in your stomach? They’re natural, but let me amp that up a gazillion notches. Try being the first woman your girlfriend has ever brought to dinner at grandma’s house.
Yeah, that was me back then.
Coming Out Is Hard
Honestly, I didn’t wanna go there. Don’t get me wrong, I love my girl to death, but leaving Philly to travel to the middle of Pennsyltucky scared the living crap out of me. Add the fact that this was how Ginger planned to come out to her father, and I nearly barfed up all those love butterflies. Me? I’ve never dated a guy in my life, and I never will. My own family disowned me when I told them I was a lesbian. Hardcore evangelicals. But Ginger? She’s always been real close to her dad, even more so after her mom skipped out on them. And I’m the first girl she ever… Uh, kissed. Yeah, let’s keep it at that. You don’t need to know the rest.
But then she smiled at me from behind the wheel, and my heart melted. One look at her gorgeous, natural red hair and beautiful green eyes, and I knew it would all be worth it. After all, how hard could it be? We’ll just come out and tell her father that we’re more than college roommates. That we’re a couple. That we’re in love. That we want to get married after graduation. Simple, right?
There's No Place Like Pennsyltucky
She parked the Subaru behind a rusty pickup, then gave me a kiss. “We can do this!”
“You bet.” I brushed the red bangs out of her eyes. “I’ll follow your lead.”
Ginger led me down the shoveled path past a row of snow-covered hedges to the front porch. As we huddled together between frosted spider webs, she looked me in the eyes and took a deep breath. We had this way of knowing what the other was thinking, and I could tell she was absolutely terrified. I touched the small of her back with my gloved hand, then smiled to encourage her. She closed her eyes and nodded to herself for the longest time, until finally, she knocked on the faded blue door.
Soon, a balding middle-aged man with thick glasses greeted us. “Ginger!”
“Daddy!” She jumped into her father’s arms, and he pulled her inside.
While I was left standing alone in the cold.
Still in her father’s embrace, Ginger turned back and waved me in. “Daddy, this is Jordan.”
Just Jordan. Not her girlfriend, Jordan. Not her freaking fiancée, Jordan.
“Oh, yes. You’re the roommate, right?” He held the door for me. “I’m Charlie. Charlie Hicks.”
“Jordan Gibb,” I said, offering my hand.
We shook hands, real gentlemanly like, and he said, “Welcome, Jordan.”
Ginger removed her coat, then offered to take mine.
“Grandma’s in the kitchen,” Charlie announced over the blaring television, “dinner’s almost ready.”
“Great. We’re starved,” Ginger said as she hung up our coats.
Did I just step into a time capsule? Was it 1978? With olive-green carpet, dark brown paneling, and plaster swirls on the ceiling, the living room felt like a rural-life museum exhibit. Frozen forever in mid-flight, a mounted pheasant hung on the wall next to me. A gigantic faux-wood television blasted a rerun of Survivor. And a twelve-point trophy buck stared at me from over the fireplace. I took a seat on the brown wool sofa and hugged the biggest crocheted throw pillow I could find.
A petite old woman with a humpback and a mane of thick white hair shuffled in from the kitchen. Her dentures wagged out of sync with her lips as she spoke, “Ginger!”
My girlfriend hugged her grandmother, and the old woman’s back cracked like a fistful of dried spaghetti. “Oh no, did I hurt you, nana?”
Ginger yelled,“Did that hurt?”
She raised her hand to her ear.
“Good to see you,” Ginger shouted through a smile, then she pointed at me, “I brought Jordan.”
Just Jordan again.
The old lady smiled at me, and with her dentures slipping said, “Hello there. I’m Helen.”
I didn’t bother to get up and mumbled, “Nice to meet you, Helen.”
Grandma nodded and went back to the kitchen. Finally, Ginger took a seat on the itchy couch next to me. An orange afghan slipped off the back of the sofa, so I turned to fix it, but Ginger shrunk away. Obviously, she was keeping her distance. Then Charlie sat in a gold velveteen recliner next to us with his trophy buck looming over his head. He reached for the giant TV remote, pushed one of the huge silver buttons, and the RCA boulder across the room switched off.
He asked, “How was the drive?”
“Slow going,” Ginger replied, “with the weather and all.”
“We got a ticket,” I added.
“A ticket? For what?’
I answered, “Too fast for conditions—”
“It’s nothing…” Ginger brushed it off.
I sniffed the air and asked, “What’s for dinner?”
“Venison and stuffing,” Charlie answered while drumming his fingers on the armrest. “I started the broiler when I heard you girls pull up.”
Venison? That was gonna be a problem. I was a vegan. Ginger must have mentioned that to her family, right? I’d never had venison before. As a matter of fact, I’d stopped eating red meat last year when cholesterol killed my father. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t one of those righteous, crunchy vegans. For me, it wasn’t about animal rights or cute faces. Although, with a stuffed deer head staring down at me, I was starting to reconsider. But honestly, I just didn’t want to die young like my father did. My mother didn’t even invite me to his funeral. I found out he died on Facebook after he was already five months in the ground. Anyway, this didn’t seem like the best time to raise an objection. I was already dancing on the edge of another family disaster, so I decided to make a meal of side dishes. Nice and polite. No big deal. I’d done it before.
The Strangest Meal Ever
Helen peeked out to tell us, “Dinner’s ready.”
Her son jumped out of his chair and raced into the kitchen, shouting, “Did you flip the meat, ma?”
Finally alone, I leaned over and softly asked my girlfriend, “Are you sure you’re ready to tell them?”
She nodded to herself without looking at me.
“Ginger, we don’t have to do this tonight. Really. It’s okay—”
“It’s fine,” she said, staring straight ahead. “It’ll all be fine.”
I whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
“Yes,” she muttered to herself as she stood and ambled to the dining room like a dazed sleepwalker. “Everything will be just fine.”
I followed her. I mean, what the hell else was I supposed to do?
Charlie sat a platter of grilled meat on the dining room table. I pulled out a chair for Ginger, then took a seat next to her. As Helen filled our glasses with ice water, my girlfriend eagerly grabbed my hand under the table. Finally, a comforting display of affection. Her touch gave me goosebumps, and for the first time since we got here, I felt like the two of us were in this together. Much to my delight, nobody said grace. Everyone just grabbed the closest bowl of food and started serving themselves family style.
When in Rome, right?
So, I took the wooden bowl and started dishing out a huge salad of iceberg lettuce, thick carrot circles, and shredded purple cabbage. I piled the veggies high on my plate, expecting them to be the bulk of my meal, then passed the bowl to grandma. She filled her salad bowl and sprinkled it with lots of black pepper. Next, I passed on some overcooked peas and grabbed the glass decanter to douse my plate with vinaigrette. After serving herself, Ginger handed me the platter of deer meat. I almost passed on it, but everyone was staring at me. Charlie sat on the edge of his seat at the opposite end of the table with a big, stupid grin on his face. Grandma smiled like the cute, little old lady that she was. And Ginger? I swore her eyes were begging me. Please, don’t make a scene. This is already the hardest family dinner ever. It’s just this one time. It won’t kill you. Just eat the meat, okay?
I never could say no to that adorable face. So, I winked at her and pushed a small piece of venison into my empty salad bowl. When I passed the platter, Helen’s eyes twinkled with approval. Next, I plopped a mound of Stove Top stuffing onto the meat and drowned it all in gravy.
It was the strangest meal ever.
While everyone savored their meat, I gobbled up my lettuce. Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the heavy taste of black pepper in the tangy dressing. Before long, I devoured the entire salad, leaving the lonely bowl of stuffing and venison. I’d never tried venison before and had to admit I was a bit curious. I felt Charlie watching me, eager for validation. So, I ate all the stuffing, then soon learned that cutting meat in a bowl is nearly impossible. I abandoned the knife, stabbed the steak with my fork, and bit off a piece. The venison was more mild and tender than I expected, and I actually loved the taste of game. I devoured the rest and instantly wanted more, but there was no more venison left.
“It’s delicious, Charlie,” I admitted.
“My secret’s the cut. I only grill tenderloins. Five minutes a side.”
Ginger nodded in agreement.
Her father continued, “I grind up the more gamey parts and mix ‘em in with beef to make burgers.”
“Or meatloaf,” grandma added.
Charlie started clearing the table, and Helen went to the freezer to wrestle with a big tub of vanilla ice cream. Before long, spoons clanged against glass bowls as everyone enjoyed their dessert.
Afterward, Ginger said, “Let us help with the dishes, nana.”
But grandma politely refused, “No dear. You and Jordan sit and enjoy your coffee.”
“Okay, Helen,” I said, sipping coffee and soaking up the rustic ambiance of the dining room. Tall stacks of yellowing newspapers crowded the top of the sideboard. A cold draft flowed from an ancient air conditioner crammed in the only window. I fingered the mended stitches in the stained tablecloth that had seen better days. And just as I finally started to relax, I spotted grandma pouring the left-over dressing from the dirty salad bowls back into the decanter.
I coughed a fit.
Ginger asked, “Are you alright?”
I gave her a startled look that she misunderstood. Strange, my girlfriend usually read me like a book, but not this time. Instead, she smacked me on the back vigorously.
“So, you bagged a deer?” She asked her father while still whacking me. “Good hunting this season?”
“Nope.” He patted his satisfied belly. “Found that one along the road. Someone hit it with a car.”
“What?!?” I gagged. “You fed me—” I coughed again. “—road kill?”
Ginger got real quiet. From the look on her face, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.
I blurted, “Oh my GOD!”
Charlie asked, “What’s the big fuss? ”
“Why would you do such a thing?”
“It wasn’t more than a few hours old—Stomach wasn’t bloated or nothing. It smelled just fine when I butchered it.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” I jumped up from the table. “I’m going to puke.”
Ginger pointed down the dark hall, and I ran into the pink-tiled room and slammed the door.
After that dinner disaster, Ginger never did work up the nerve to come out, but that was how I met the family.
After graduation, we struggled to find work and fell behind on our bills. I should’ve known a sociology degree would be useless. Ginger did far better with her art major, bringing in a few bucks from Etsy and making props for theater gigs. We had to leave the student ghetto by the end of the summer and couldn’t afford an apartment in the city. So, Ginger asked grandma Hicks if we could live with her for awhile. Helen agreed to let us stay, and instead of paying rent, the three of us worked out a deal. In exchange for free room and board, I’d help with housework, while Ginger helped with landscaping and repairs. It seemed like a win-win for everyone.
Months later, we still hadn’t told grandma the true nature of our relationship. We just shared a room and pushed the two twin beds together at night, then pulled them back apart every morning. That was the summer Ginger went from being a screamer to a pillow-biter. Then she started a new job with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and with her commute, time just kinda got away from us. We hid the truth for too long. Waited too long. Coming out at that point would’ve been like confessing a sin. Besides, we had other problems.
The Food-Hoarding Matriarch
Helen and I constantly fought over the definition of trash. It made me absolutely crazy when the old lady washed and reused tinfoil. She even did it with paper towels! One day, I thought it would be a nice gesture to clean out the refrigerator. I tossed out condiments that had expired years ago and scrubbed the inside until it sparkled. When I finished, the garbage can was overflowing and the fridge near empty.
“What’s this mess?” Grandma gasped as she immediately started rifling through the trash. “You can’t throw this out. It’s food.”
I pled with her, even offered to pay to replace everything, but lost a very ugly argument.
And that’s how I learned to stay out of her kitchen.
One day, while doing laundry in the basement, I found a blue tarp covering a rickety card table in a dark corner. When I pulled back the cover, I discovered a stockpile of expired food. Faded labels. Missing labels. Bloated mason-jar lids. Rusty cans. Chewed sacks. A bursted bag of flour riddled with mealworms. An unopened 80s package of Oreos. And to top it all off, mouse shit was all over everything. Right then and there, I decided to find a way to eat on my own without offending the food-hoarding matriarch.
From then on, Ginger and I decided to live exclusively upstairs. We converted one of the bedrooms into an eat-in kitchen. First, we stacked a microwave on top of two dorm fridges. Then, we stocked the bookshelves with cereal, canned fruit, and nukable dinners. We got tap water from the upstairs bathroom and ate with plastic utensils off paper plates. Ginger and I managed every meal without going into Helen’s kitchen or tapping her questionable food supply.
A Potential Killing Machine
Even at the ripe old age of eighty-seven, Helen still insisted on driving herself everywhere, and her beige Chevy impala had all the scratches and dents to prove it. She never let me drive. One time on our way to the ShopRite, she started drifting over the center yellow line. An oncoming car blared its horn and narrowly swerved out of the way. The driver cursed out the window at us. After that, Helen overcompensated by hugging the shoulder, then sideswiped the mirrors off two parked cars. Later, while turning left on a yellow arrow, she hit the median and blew out one of the front tires. The stranded Impala blocked the entire intersection as I got out to examine the wheel.
“Oh my,” Helen sighed, “what will we do?”
“Give me your keys,” I yelled from behind the car as traffic honked and swerved around us.
Grandma refused to surrender her keys and opted to unlock the trunk with her remote instead. “Do you know how to change a flat tire?”
“Yes, grandma,” I replied as I pulled the spare out of the trunk, grabbed the jack, and got to work.
The Hit and Run
The next day, rather than ask for a ride, I decided to take the bus to a dentist appointment. Afterward, on my walk home from the bus stop, I spotted a huge blood smear down the passenger side of the Impala. Bits of hair and skin were stuck in a broken headlight. When I ran inside, I found Helen sitting at the dining room table drinking a cup of coffee.
“Are you alright, grandma?”
“Yes.” She nibbled on a basement Oreo, and her dentures slipped.
“I had an accident, Jordan.”
“I saw blood.”
“I hit a bicycle on my way home from the market,” she admitted.
“You hit a bicycle? Or a bicyclist?”
“What?” Helen had trouble hearing soft s and c sounds. Or maybe she chose not to hear my damned question.
I shouted, “Did you HIT a PERSON with your CAR?”
“Maybe. I couldn’t see where he went.”
“Good Lord, did you call for help?”
“No. I came home and waited for you.”
I just didn’t know what to do. On one hand I felt flattered, even honored, that grandma trusted me with the truth. But on the other hand, this old lady just confessed to a hit and run! “Helen, we need to call the police—”
“Jordan, I think I should tell you something…”
“I know about you and Ginger.”
“Oh, er my, I uh—”
“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen lesbians before.”
“The way my granddaughter looks at you—she’s in love. You’re like one of the family now, and that’s just fine by me.”
Her words left me speechless.
That sweet little old lady had survived the Great Depression. She was so proud of her independence, and yet, so ashamed of that accident. This woman invited me, a total stranger, to stay under her roof—for free. Now, I was starting to love her like my own dearly departed grandma. How could I blame her for having a tough time letting go of things? Aluminum foil? Paper towels? Food? Who cared? And driving… It was just another one of those things.
“Don’t worry, grandma.” I patted her shoulder. “I’ll call Charlie.”
Even though I knew he’d gone fishing, I left five voicemails and sent eight text messages. Of course, I got no response. No surprise.
Finally, I called Ginger at work. I hated having to do that, but she didn’t seem to mind. Why wasn’t she as freaked out as I was? She calmly told me to go upstairs and wait for her. So, I did. But hours passed, along with the sunset, and when still she hadn’t come home, I was beyond worried.
Finally, when headlights swept across our bedroom wall, I ran to the window. Ginger pulled our Subaru into the driveway with her father close behind in his clunky F-150 pickup. They both switched off their lights, turned off their engines, and got out of their vehicles. Ginger lowered the tailgate and climbed in the back while Charlie tossed a wrecked road bike onto the lawn. Then, working together, they slid something heavy over the tailgate. I rubbed my eyes, because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sure enough, bungee cords wrapped a blue tarp around what looked like—a body. They carried it to the backyard, and I ran down the hall to our kitchen-room to watch. Then Charlie opened the cellar doors, and they dragged the body down to the basement. The tarp caught, a bungee snapped, and a mangled leg slipped out. A human leg! Then I lost sight of them.
Hours passed before Ginger came upstairs and jumped right into the shower. I pretended to be asleep on my side of the twin beds until she finally joined me. In a few minutes, she started snoring, but I lied there wide awake all night.
The next day, nobody spoke to anyone about anything. I avoided the basement, but Charlie spent the whole Sunday down there. Grandma spent the day in her kitchen. Ginger busied herself with housework, so I mowed the lawn. Imagine an entire family on weekend autopilot.
Soon, I was invited to join the family for dinner.
I dreaded the meal.
When I sat at my usual spot, I found someone had already dished salad into a bowl for me. Grandma offered some recycled dressing, but I declined. Then like always, everyone gathered around the table and grabbed the closest dish of food. First, I took some steamed broccoli, then added a heaping spoonful of Kraft macaroni and cheese. So far, so good. But when Ginger handed me the meat platter, the serving fork fell and clattered on the table. Six steaks remained, so I took two slices of grilled bicyclist.
Tonight, we would feast.
As I munched on my dry salad, I watched everyone eat the offensive meat. Charlie devoured his eagerly. Grandma chewed with a slight smile on her face. But I fixated on Ginger, who swallowed each bite with a blank far-away stare. That look on her face reminded me of the first night I came home to meet the family. Back then, I thought she was nervous about coming out, but now I realized something much more gruesome was bothering her. I mixed my broccoli with mac and cheese, hoping to delay the culinary atrocity that awaited.
I ate until all that remained was the meat.
When I finally cut into the steak, buttery pink juices pooled on my plate.
Charlie said, “Welcome to the family, Jordan.”
Then Ginger leaned over, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “I love you.”
Grandma smiled at me with her slipping dentures. “I suppose we have a wedding to plan.”
What else could I do? I loved these people with all my heart. They were my family.
So, I ate all my meat.
And it tasted just like venison.