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  Andy Dehnart: Casualty of War

Dressed in black pants, a short-sleeved white shirt, and black tie, I looked like a stranger. So I changed, putting on jeans and pulling my "Impeach society" t-shirt over my head, careful to not mess up my gelled blond hair.

"Jack," my mother said, exasperatedly sucking on a cigarette and blowing the smoke at me. "it's Thanksgiving. Change. Now."

"No, mother, they're just clothes, and this is family."

"That's the point, dear, this is family, so you need to look..." But a fight wasn't worth her time, so she took another drag and went to refresh her vodka.

We were the last to arrive at my grandparents' house, which, of course, was somehow my fault. I'd long ago learned to stifle any emotional response when blamed for something, but today--as my half-drunk parents berated me for our two-minute tardiness--I almost failed to hold back the tears.

I hadn't seen any of my extended family since last Thanksgiving. I cheek-pecked my way down the line: first was Uncle Ben, whose twin brother Carl--still a bachelor at 42, perpetually embarrassing the family--was probably watching football. Standing literally in Ben's shadow was his wife. "Aunt Lillian!" I said, feigning enthusiasm. Next: their daughter Debbie, who was equal to me in age, but was a high school senior, not a college sophomore. Then her sister Ruth, 13, whose mother had plastered makeup on her round face to conceal blossoming acne. Finally, the family matriarch and her husband. "Hi, grandmother," I said. "Couldn't you have found something nice to wear, Jack?" I ignored her, moving on and hugging my grandfather with as little contact as possible so the Old Spice wouldn't rub off.

Absent from the lineup was Ben and Lillian's son: my cousin Brett. No one had spoken to him in two years, including--"out of respect" for my grandmother-- his parents. When he arrived for dinner two years ago, everyone raced to the door, anxious to fawn over the then-24-year-old golden child. We crowded around, an audience waiting impatiently for the curtain to rise. My grandmother melodramatically puffed her hair and threw open the door. "Brett, darling!" Standing in the foyer was my cousin, holding hands with someone, well, male. After the second it took her to realize what was happening, she slammed the door, pushed through the suddenly silent crowd and locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of the evening. I opened the door, but the hallway was empty. It was an odd scene since everyone knew about Brett, although they refused to accept the reality of the situation. Today, of course, no one mentioned his absence.

After our greetings, the women scurried off to the kitchen, and the men retired to the den. It started immediately.

"So, Jack, you got a girl?"

"No, I don't 'got a girl.' I don't think women are property." The men stared. Anticipating their thoughts, I added, "And that doesn't mean I'm gay like Brett." Saying those two words made them flinch, but they ignored me, and turned their discussion to some inconsequential subject.

I sighed loudly and, looking at my watch, shifted in my chair so I could see the TV. I got lost in the football game, imagining I was there, not here. After about 20 minutes, that illusion crumbled, when an obviously non-white player missed an impossible catch. Carl screamed his first words of the evening: "Goddamn affirmative action!"

I'd had enough. I stood up and headed to the porch. I sat there, alone, in silence, somewhat happy, until Debbie came out a half-hour later. "Dinner's ready."

"Thanks." As I stepped inside, my grandfather bellowed, "Ladies first!"

"Why?" I asked, grabbing a plate off the table. I stepped in line, squeezing ahead of Ruth. "Why must I be punished for having a penis? Must vaginas be fed first?"

"Well?" No one reacted, save for my father, who shot me a look that told me I was close to being written out of someone's will. I shut up, heaped food onto my plate, sat down and ate.

Ten minutes into dinner, Ruth grabbed her plate and headed to the kitchen for more. Her dad, mouth full, said, "Yeah, just have another scoop of mashed potatoes, Ruth. That'll help those thighs." She stopped, and, wounded, slinked back to the table.

I was furious. "Have as many as you want, honey. At least they won't turn you into a lazy, worthless jackass like your father."

Of course, they were all silent, and I started to eat again. But I couldn't stand it anymore, and dropped my fork. It clattered loudly, and I pushed my chair back and stood up, my head pounding.

"You're all racist, sexist, obnoxious people. Why do I come here, year after year, even though I despise each one of you? And why do you all continue this useless charade? For the sake of the kids?"

I was standing now, and yelling, but no one was looking at me. I went on, ranting about everything that had ever irritated me.

Finally, I was finished screaming. "I am so sick of this! I refuse to spend another second with any of you just because you're family, whatever that means."

And then, with nothing left to say, and with no one saying anything to me, I just left. I was finally free of the artificial, horrific constraints placed upon me by the arbitrary and useless familial society I had the incredible misfortune to be born into. I walked toward the street, feeling wonderful for the first time all evening, all year. But then, someone called out to me in a thin, raspy voice: "Jack, dear."

I turned. "Could you pass the gravy when you're done with it?"

"Of course, grandmother," I said, and I passed it down the table.

--Andy Dehnart, 22, is a writer living in Chicago and a producer for
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    Copyright © 1999 by Andy Dehnart. Used by permission of the author.