The turkey wasn’t going to roast itself. Marla picked herself up off the floor and walked back to the counter where she’d been chopping herbs when the argument started.
She wasn’t surprised that Jeremy had left her. She was surprised that he’d decided to do it on Thanksgiving, however, four and a half hours before 15 members of their family would be ringing their doorbell.
Marla tore a sheet of paper towel off the big roll on the counter and blew her nose into it. She’d wasted enough time crying on the floor, she needed to get it together now.
She picked up her eight-inch chef’s knife and ran it through the half-chopped pile of fresh sage leaves she’d abandoned on the cutting board. She’d been planning this dinner for weeks. It was the first time she and Jeremy were hosting the wider family, and she had wanted the food to be perfect. She’d scoured recipe blogs and her favourite Jamie Oliver cookbook, she’d made pages of notes and she’d even tested a couple of the recipes a few weeks ago. She considered herself a pretty good home cook, capable of making above-average weeknight dinners for herself and her husband, but hosting 15 people was not your typical weeknight dinner.
The finely chopped sage was to be mixed into softened butter, along with minced garlic, fresh thyme, rosemary and a little parsley – and sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, of course. This would be generously rubbed all over the bird, inside and out, but especially on the skin for that crispy golden effect that made people ooh and ahh. She had hoped they would ooh and ahh so much that they wouldn’t notice how she and Jeremy barely looked at each other, but she wasn’t sure the crispy golden skin would be enough to keep them from noticing he wasn’t there at all.
Marla added the sage to her bowl of butter and herbs and began to mix, her mind drifting back to the argument, repeating snippets of it on a loop: I don’t know why I ever married you. I don’t even know who you are anymore. I’m leaving.
Things with Jeremy had been good once, she would swear it to anyone who asked. They’d fallen in love on a bridge overlooking a ravine, in the middle of fall with red and gold leaves all around them. It had been the picture of romance, she thought, as she gazed into Jeremy’s eyes and saw her future: a wedding, a home, a baby or two, stability, safety, security.
“So naive,” Marla muttered as she started smearing the compound butter all over the turkey with her left hand. How had she believed what they had was the real thing? “The real thing” wasn’t supposed to end, not like this, anyway.
The turkey sufficiently lathered, Marla moved over to the sink and pumped dish soap into her palm with the back of her hand. She nudged the levered handle for hot water and began to wash away the grease.
Again, her mind drifted back to the argument, how angry Jeremy had looked, how defeated she had felt. What was she supposed to say when the family arrived? It was too embarrassing to tell them the truth, too raw to explain it without breaking down. She would tell them Jeremy had been called in to the office, because an accounting emergency on Thanksgiving was believable, right? She would avoid being alone with his mother, because that woman had been waiting for their relationship to fail from the first time Jeremy brought Marla home. She would make the meal, and they would love it or they wouldn’t, and then they would leave, and it would be over.
Marla looked for the source of the sound and saw two rings glinting up at her from the bottom of the sink. She hadn’t taken off her rose gold diamond engagement ring, or its matching wedding band, since she’d received them, and now with a little butter and dish soap she’d inadvertently slipped them both off. Marla stared at the rings, feeling like the moment was so painfully poetic she could almost laugh. Almost.
The engagement ring teetered on the edge of the sink trap, water and bubbles running over and around it. The wedding band sat flat on the stainless steel sink bottom, tiny bubbles pooling in its centre. How could two small circles of metal signify so much?
As a younger woman she’d often wondered if a man would ever love her so endlessly that he’d want to give her rings like these. She’d wondered what the rings would look like, if they’d be family heirlooms or custom-made pieces she helped design. Maybe they’d be engraved with a bit of poetry or a quote about love, with a matching engraving on his wedding band. Maybe they’d be simple, a plain band and an engagement ring with a small stone, because she and her husband didn’t have much money but they were rich in love and that’s all that mattered. Maybe they’d be flashy, thick circles of platinum with a hefty diamond on one, because money was no object and her husband liked to prove it.
When Jeremy had put those daydreams to bed with a real gift of an understated-but-beautiful engagement ring, she’d felt like the star of a made-for-TV romance. Pinkish gold, with a medium inset diamond, flanked by two tiny ones, the ring was modern but classic, she’d thought, just like her, in Jeremy’s eyes. Its matching band had nestled right up against it on their wedding day, looking at home on her finger, as if it had always been waiting to be placed there.
Marla gave her hands a final rinse and turned off the water. She left the rings where they lay as she put the turkey in the oven.
Three hours later, guests were arriving and Marla had her party face on.
Where’s Jeremy? Everyone had asked the dreaded question as they walked in the door, handing Marla hostess gifts of flowers, chocolates, candles, pies. His sister and all her kids, her parents, his cousins, his mother. Marla had smiled apologetically and made up a lukewarm story about how Jeremy’s boss had called him about some mistake in a client’s tax filings and how he’d been so troubled by it he felt he had to go to the office to sort it out.
Marla’s mother had known she was lying, but Marla knew she wouldn’t press the issue. She would wait until Marla brought it up, if she ever did. That’s how they operated, for better or for worse. Part of Marla wished her mother would press the issue, would needle at it until Marla’s façade finally cracked and she bellowed, My husband left me and I don’t know what to do! But instead Marla’s mother made polite conversation with Jeremy’s mother while Marla passed around dishes of mixed nuts and poured wine in people’s glasses.
As she emptied a bottle of chardonnay into a glass while pretending to listen to Jeremy’s insufferable cousin Charmaine talk about her winter ski trip plans, Marla couldn’t help but wonder where Jeremy was. If he had been there, he would be the one pouring drinks and listening to Charmaine’s nasally voice and Marla would be in the kitchen where it was quiet. But no, he’d abandoned her to host Thanksgiving for 15 people alone. She hated him.
“We talked about the Alps but who wants to be in Europe right now with everything going on? So we settled on a Canadian tour of ski chalets. We’ll start in Whistler and…”
Jeremy hadn’t left with a bag, but there were clothes missing from his closet, which meant he’d planned this, at least loosely. Maybe he didn’t know he’d leave her on Thanksgiving, but he knew he was going to leave her. Or at least that he wanted to. Maybe he went to his best friend, Steve’s. Maybe he went to a hotel. Maybe he left the country to start a whole new life. Maybe there was someone else…
“So where are you and Jeremy going for the holidays?”
The question was hanging in front of Marla’s face and Charmaine was staring at her.
“Oh, sorry. Um, I’m not sure yet.” There is no me and Jeremy, anymore.
“Leaving it a little late this year, eh?” Charmaine teased.
Marla smiled stiffly. “Yeah, things are a little up in the air.” That’s an understatement.
“Well, you know Turks and Caicos is lovely,” Charmaine offered with a syrupy smile.
Marla nodded, feigning interest. “Yes, I’ve heard it’s just beautiful there. Sorry Charmaine, I’ve got to get another bottle of wine.”
“Of course, of course, you perfect little hostess you,” Charmaine squinted her eyes in an expression that tried and failed to convey warmth.
Marla made her way to the fragrant comfort of the kitchen, grateful for its swinging door that blocked out chatter and prying eyes. She set the empty wine bottle down on the counter and leaned her forearms onto the granite, resting her head on her hands.
“It’s just one meal, Marla,” she muttered to herself. “You can do this. Just a couple more hours.”
She pressed her forehead into her palms and breathed in deeply, inhaling the scent of sage and garlic and turkey fat.
“Auntie Marla, are you sad?”
Jeremy’s four-year-old nephew Lucas had slipped through the sliding door without a sound.
Marla looked at the child, all bright eyes and shiny curls. She used to imagine having a child with a sweet face like his, with her eyes and Jeremy’s nose.
Tears pricked at her eyes, threatening to spill over and she tried to will them back down. She nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I am sad.”
Lucas touched her arm. “Why?”
Marla smiled at his innocence. “Oh, it’s just been a very long day.”
“Are you tired?” He spoke with a slight lisp.
Marla sighed. “You know what, I am a little tired.”
Lucas twiddled his fingers as he said, “I always get super tired when I have a long day.”
Marla laughed. It felt good to laugh. “I bet you do.”
“Is the turkey ready?”
Marla smiled. “Let’s take a look and see. Do you want to help me?”
The boy nodded with a grin.
Marla led him over to the oven. “Okay, you stand back over here while I open the door.”
Lucas stood dutifully off to the side.
Marla opened the door and leaned back as fragrant heat billowed out.
“Smells yummy,” said Lucas.
Marla stuck her meat thermometer into the bird and checked the temperature.
“Well, it looks done to me. What do you think, Lucas?”
He made a show of peering into the oven, furrowing his brow and rubbing his chin. “Yes, I think so.”
“Alright, I’ll take it out,” Marla said, pulling oven mitts on her hands. “Want to go tell everyone dinner will be ready soon?”
By the time everyone actually got themselves seated at the table and by the time they’d all eaten their salads and had more wine, the turkey would be juicy and ready to carve.
Lucas nodded, thrilled to have such an important job. “Okay!” He said, scuttling off toward the door.
Marla pulled the turkey out and set it on the counter.
“Oh, and Auntie Marla?” Lucas had turned around just before the door.
“It’s going to be okay.”
Marla stared at his cherubic face and felt tears of gratitude welling in her eyes. She managed a “Thanks, Lucas” without completely blubbering and watched him go back out through the swinging door.
As she took her oven mitts off and wiped her eyes, Marla smiled to herself. Maybe it will all be okay, she thought for the first time that day. Maybe she could handle this dinner and maybe she could handle life without Jeremy and maybe everything would be fine.
Marla looked at the turkey glistening on the counter. It was beautiful. She’d nailed the crispy, golden skin. It wouldn’t stop anyone wondering if Jeremy really was at the office but she didn’t care any more. Jeremy could answer any questions they had. Jeremy could clean up the mess he’d made.
Marla reached out and tore a small piece of the hot skin from the bird and popped it into her mouth. It melted on her tongue, all butter and salt and herbs. Marla smiled. Maybe it will all be okay.
Sarah Munn is a Toronto-based writer and editor. Of Jamaican and English/Canadian heritage, she grew up in Micronesia and the Caribbean, and looks to incorporate food and flavour in her fiction. Her fiction has appeared in 805 Lit + Art and Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, and she recently had a piece of micro memoir published by Five Minute Lit. Her novel in progress MISE EN PLACE was also longlisted in The Masters Review 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest. Sarah can be found on Instagram at sarahmunn_author.