In fourth grade I had to do a project about Thanksgiving. My teacher, Mrs. Willis, granted a degree of freedom concerning the assignment, and kids were allowed to write essays, make up songs, draw pictures, assemble dioramas, or whatever else they wanted. Because I wasn't already enough of a social pariah in elementary school, I decided to make sock puppets and perform a skit for the class. Surprisingly, the performance proved to be quite popular, despite its lack of historical accuracy.
At ten years old I had a feeble grasp on the plight of the Native Americans, and my performance reflected that lack of knowledge. I was more concerned with the shock value associated with a violent and inflammatory skit. After all, children are idiots, and I was no exception. I was already showing a touch of ill-conceived defiance that would eventually blossom into full blown teenage angst.
Mrs. Willis was less than pleased with my project.
Eventually, she cut the piece short.
I wound up with a C+. On the comment card I received later that week, Mrs. Willis had written, "Lovely puppets. But next time do a little more research. Also part of the project was to talk about what you're thankful for this year, and you did not address that."
I'm thankful for Mortal Kombat 3, I thought to myself. Does that count?
My family never really celebrated Thanksgiving, and I think that's part of the reason for my lack of understanding concerning the holiday's roots. I have a few vague memories of Thanksgiving dinners at my grandparents' ranch, back when my grandmother still cooked. I recall dreading those dinners—not because my grandmother was a poor cook, but because I was such a fussy eater. My mother would cut me bits of turkey and I'd do my best to choke it down, though I usually only succeeded in chewing and chewing and chewing until the turkey expanded into a mushy, unswallowable puree.
Some time in the early nineties, my grandmother decided she was "over it" and stopped cooking altogether. And because my own mother rarely cooked anything more complicated than, "a bunch of random stuff in a stew, it's delicious, just eat it," I grew up a stranger to home-cooked holiday meals. It wasn't until college that I had my first real Thanksgiving dinner—though it left me with little to be thankful for.
It was sophomore year of college and my friend Nona had invited me to Thanksgiving thrown by her employer. She'd recently landed an internship at small design studio, and because she was new, she wanted to bring a friend as a social buffer. Since I'm never one to pass up free food, I obliged.
"How does this work?" I asked. "Is it like a potluck? Should I pick up a chocolate cake from Costco?"
"No, my boss reserved a big table at a restaurant," said Nona. "Just come. I don't really know anyone at work yet. Everyone is older than me except for this d-bag Galen, and I hate him. Just come."
I'd seen a picture of Galen before. I'd never met him, but i hated him too.
I appreciated the fact that Nona's boss had opted to hold Thanksgiving in a restaurant since the only holiday foods I'm really fond of are mashed potatoes and butter (these can be enjoyed together or separately). The joint he'd chosen was a cozy, tavern-style eatery. When Nona and I arrived, I did my best to make small talk with the dozen or so middle-aged designers in thick Buddy Holly glasses whom I knew I'd probably never see again. Thankfully, food orders were quickly taken and before long I was able to focus my attention on food instead of people, as that is my way.
About ten minutes into the meal, I noticed Nona stop chewing the bite of cranberry stuffing she'd popped into her mouth only moments before. She paused, swallowed laboriously, then gingerly set her fork down and whispered to me quietly, "I'll be right back." After that she disappeared from the table.
Roughly five minutes had passed when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I slipped it out and glanced at it under the table. It was a text from Nona.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and continued eating, hopeful that Nona would recover and return to the dinner table soon. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed again. It was another text from Nona.
I was nervous for Nona, but at the same time I was nervous for myself. If Nona didn't return soon and someone asked about her, I'd have to explain that her ass was currently exploding down the hall. I tried to imagine when Nona must be going though. I sat at the table, smiling awkwardly at the chattering folks around me, imagining poor Nona careening into space, propelled into the abyss by a never ending stream of diarrhea.
I received one last text from Nona before she went silent.
With no more incoming updates from my friend, I could only assume that she'd perished. I thought about her drifting through outer space for the rest of eternity, frozen solid. I would miss her.
When Nona finally returned after a near twenty minute absence, she sat down and delicately forked a bit of cold mashed potatoes into her mouth as if nothing had happened at all. From several seats down the table, I heard Galen crack, "Yo, Nona, you get diarrhea or what?" He chuckled to himself. Everyone turned toward Nona. She slowly lifted her head and stared at Galen icily.
Galen looked nonplussed. Nona turned back to her plate and continued eating. Nobody else asked about her absence. I thought to myself, This year I'm thankful for intestinal fortitude.
At the end of the meal, it became apparent that I was the only one paying with a credit card, so I offered to take cash from everyone and put the whole bill on my card. I'll get so many rewards points! I schemed. I'll probably be able to cash in for a five dollar Target gift card! Score! When the waiter came to pick up the check, I was daydreaming of the bountiful treasures I'd purchase on my next shopping trip.
Though distracted, I still managed to pick up on the fact that the waiter was acting a bit strange. Prior to meal he'd been attentive and chipper, but now he moved a little slower, his eyes drooping a bit, his face a bit flushed. He seemed to be drunk. I shrugged it off, handing him the check folder with the cash and my credit card inside.
After he'd left, Nona whisper to me, "Was that waiter drunk or something?"
"I... think so?" I said. "I'm not sure." I peered off in the direction the waiter had gone, but he'd disappeared around the corner toward the kitchen. He remained absent for quite some time, and when he returned there were visible droplets of sweat forming on his forehead. His hand was wrapped up in a thick white linen napkin. He hurriedly handed me the slim leather folder containing my card and receipt, mumbled something that sounded like "thank you," and scrambled back toward the kitchen. I glanced at Nona. From the look on her face, I could see she was just as weirded out as me. Nobody else at the table seemed to notice.
When I opened the check folder, my confusion turned to alarm. My debit card was smeared with blood. I nudged Nona. Her gaze turned to the open folder and her eyes widened. Without saying anything, she reached into her purse, retrieved a bottle of Purell, and squirted it all over my credit card.
A guy across the table peered at Nona and me quizzically, but said nothing. No one else appeared to pick up on Nona's and my alarm. I carefully fished the receipt out from under the the plastic flap and signed it, then hesitated for a moment before picking up my credit card. I thought about it for a moment, then decided I'd just leave it in the folder. "I can cancel the card and get a new one," I murmured to Nona, closing the folder. Some Purell gooshed out the sides.
Later, after we'd left the restaurant, Nona suggested we call the restaurant in the morning. "That waiter was, like, bleeding. On things. He was bleeding on things. Do you think he bled in our food?"
"I don't want to think about it," I said. "You can call tomorrow if you want. I guess he cut his hand on something. He's probably already been fired." I paused for a second before adding, "Maybe we should drink the rest of your Purell, just in case."
"Vodka would probably do the trick, too," Nona replied. "Let's go do that instead." I obliged.
I haven't had Thanksgiving dinner since then, mostly because all my friends are too lazy to cook, and damned if I'm going to attempt it myself. I don't feel like I'm missing out on much, though I understand the appeal of the holiday. It's easy to get caught up in the festivities around this time of year, and in recent years I've been making it a point to at least list things I'm thankful for. This year, as always, I'm thankful that the contents of my wallet aren't covered in blood, but I suppose that's a given. I'm thankful 30 Rock got seven seasons. I'm thankful for the seasonal Pumpkin Pie Blizzard at Dairy Queen. But mostly, I'm thankful that my life doesn't suck. I'm pretty happy. My feet are warm right now thanks to indoor heating and there's a kitten sleeping next to me. Life could be worse. I'm glad it's not.