By Thomas Page

The tree sort of slumped over. Ornaments scattered all over the ground. On the way down, the tree took out several pictures on the mantle. The ground was covered in broken glass, clay, and porcelain. Their dog, Sparkles, was trying to eat the remains of a surfing Santa.

“Well, I’ll get some more eggnog,” my mother-in-law said.

It had been a bad trip and it was only day one.

Some context: I had met Suzanne at a party last semester. We hit it off and one thing led to another. Had an awesome summer. Eloped in the fall. You know, crazy things college kids do.

She hadn’t told her parents until they saw her wedding ring this morning.

“Oh, Suzie Q, what is this you’re wearing on your finger?” her mother asked.

Beaming, she grabbed my hand, “It’s a wedding ring, Mommy, and this is my husband, Mark.”

She looked thrilled.

“Hello, Mark. I guess I don’t have to ask how you know my daughter,” she said.

I tried to smile but ended up flashing my teeth.

“Mark’s one of those introspective people. It’s cute,” said Suzanne.

“Ah, yes. ‘Cute.’” she said.

I learned that her mother’s name is Andie, short for Andrea. Her father’s name is Clare, short for Clarence. Andie and Clare Byrne lived in a nice house nestled in Northern Virginia. They have only one other child, a daughter named Johnnie, short for Genevieve. I guess they wanted to people to know Suzanne was a girl.

“Mark, why don’t you tell us about yourself? Since you’re family now,” Andie asked.

I told her the polite version of my life story. Basic details: average childhood with average parents in an average neighborhood. I was an average student who went to an average high school. What wasn’t average was that I got into an exclusive college. This is where I met the exclusive Suzanne Byrne. She had stood out from the many other extraordinary students at the college because she did everything. There wasn’t an event on campus that didn’t involve Suzanne. I finally met the poster girl at a party.

“Tell them about the first moment I saw you, Mark” said Suzanne.

“Well,” I said, “it’s not much of a story…”

“You’re too meek, Mark,” she said. “I’ll tell it.”

I got a lump in my throat.

“So there he is, ping pong ball in his hand. There’s two cups left on the table. Mark turns towards me, winks, and gently tosses the ball into the cup. He scores. Beer pong champion of the campus, again.”

“Again?,” asked Andie.

Clare gave me a look.

“Are you division champion, Mark?” He asked.

“Well, it was just a party game so there wasn’t a medal ceremony,” I said

Suzanne spoke again, “After the losing player drinks his cup, Mark comes up to me and says…”

Oh, shoot. I don’t remember what I said.

“…’You must be Lady Luck, huh?’”

Drunk me thinks he’s suave. Well, it was suave enough for her but that’s not the point.

Her parents turned towards me. I can’t figure out what they’re thinking. Suzanne continued.

“Of course, I’m all flustered. He then gives me a drink and says, ‘So, you’re the girl on all of those posters?’ I say yes. ‘Ah, I think at this point you’ll be the school’s mascot.’”

Frankly, I don’t remember this conversation but Suzanne can craft anything into a great story. She’s the head of the literary magazine on campus among her many activities. What I remember is meeting her. That’s it. That’s how I tell it.

“‘Well,’ I say, ‘I hope that they don’t make a weird mascot costume of me for football games.’ He says, ‘It would be a lot cuter than the ugly dog-thing we have now.’”

Her parents reaction hasn’t changed. I think that might be their strategy. Until they get all of the facts, they won’t make a decision but I would say I have a lot of tally marks against me.

“He then grabs my drink and writes his name and number on the cup. ‘Mark Burke 555-555-5555’ He then winks again and resumes playing beer pong.”

“That’s quite an interesting story, Sweet Pea,” said Clare, “I’m sure you remember how your mother and I met.”

“Ooh, let me tell it,” said Suzanne.

She then told me that her parents met at a job fair. They were both vying for a engineering job at some firm. They gave each other pointers on their resumes. They both got jobs at said firm. He got her number from her business card.

“I just think that’s the most you way to meet,” said Suzanne, “you’re both very serious about your work.” She smiles at me, “Mark is very serious about his work.”

“What do you do, Mark?” asked Andie.

“I’m currently doing part-time at a local business while I finish up my senior year,” I said.

“What’s your major?”

“Management. I’m going to get an MBA next year.”

“So you’re in the Business School?”

Suzanne is a sophomore in the Arts and Sciences School. She’s majoring in psychology.

“Yes, m’am.”

“Do you know what you’re going to manage?”

“I was shooting for working with a business for experience and then opening my own.”

“What would your business be selling?”

“I was looking to sell software.”

“What kind? Programming or application?”

“I was hoping to enter the video game market.”

“Ah”

“I’m also doing coursework in graphic design and software engineering.”

“Tell them about your game, Mark,” says Suzanne.

I don’t really want to tell them. It’s just a concept but I figure I’m already down the rabbit hole.

“It’s a game where you’re a astronaut trying to discover extraterrestrial life. You fly around various planets looking for signs of life. It’s kind of like an adventure game mixed with anthropology,” I said.

“Sounds interesting,” Clare said.

“No, not the space game, the other game,” said Suzanne.

What other game? I don’t remember telling her something else.

“The feminist fighting game”

Oh, right. That game.

“It has a roster of prominent women and they ‘duchess’ out, haha,” she said.

This had been another drunken idea. Most of my game ideas came from a couple of shots of tequila. This had been prompted by International Women’s Day. I’m sure I missed the point with the game.

“So it would feature women like Susan B. Anthony?” asked Andie.

“Yeah, and Jane Goodall, and Grace Hopper, and Amelia Earhart. She’s special because she can disappear in the middle of a match.”

“Charming,” said Andie.

I tried to steer the conversation away from me.

“What do you guys normally do for Christmas?” I asked.

Clare looked at Andie saying, “Well, we don’t do much. I suppose we decorate the tree on the weekend before Christmas. We’re going to wait until Johnnie gets here.”

“When’s Johnnie getting here?” I asked.

“She said around noon but she tends to be late. She’s bringing her boyfriend but we all have met him before.”

Suzanne did mention a boyfriend but not much detail. When I had asked her about him she said, “He’s nice, I guess.”

“I’m going to order in,” said Andie. “We’re going to save the special feast until everyone is here.”

This break allowed me to relax. I hadn’t noticed that I didn’t have any awareness of the Byrnes’ house. I had been in it for an hour or so and I couldn’t even tell you what color the walls were. I did a quick scan of the house. It appeared to have at least three floors based on the number of stairs. The walls were colored off-white. The living room had what I would call a “hall of fame” for the Byrnes. A picture of Suzanne winning at a science fair, a picture of Johnnie (I’m presuming) with a swimming medal, and so on. The house had many doors shutting off rooms from each other which was unusual. My mom had told me this was common in British houses.

Clare comes up behind me unexpectedly.

“I see you’ve found the ‘Hall of Fame.’”

My hunch was right.

“Yeah, it’s quite impressive. I’m pretty sure I can pick out which pictures are of Suzanne.”

“If it has to deal with STEM or the Girl Scouts, it’s Suzanne. If it has to deal with sports or theater, it’s Johnnie.”

I noticed that her parents also had victories on the wall.

“That’s a picture of me when I was in college,” he said. “I had just won the robotics contest. Our robot was a valet.”

“That’s cool.”

“Do you have a hall of fame at home, Mark?”

No. The biggest accomplishment I ever had in school was not failing Algebra II. My parents had to meet with Ms. Naylor at least five times. I passed with a C-. Most of my grades were in the C range. I also don’t have talents in any discipline. This is true for my brothers as well. The Burkes were never on the “Who’s Who” list.

“Well, my family doesn’t do that kind of thing. We normally get pizza,” I said.

This is true. When I passed Algebra II, I got pizza. It was pepperoni.

“For Andie and I, it’s important to show we’re proud of our children.”

The door bell rang. He went over to open it. It was Johnnie, her boyfriend, and the Chinese food Andie had ordered.

“I hope you don’t mind, Dad,” said Johnnie, “but I intercepted the food guy. He still needs to be paid.”

She walked in and turned to me.

“Who’s this? Is he some Mormon missionary you’ve trapped in the house? They told us to stop doing that.”

I was wearing my only nice shirt, which was white, my only nice tie, which was black, my only nice pants, which were black, and my only pair of shoes besides my tennis shoes, which were black.

“Well,” he said. He paused for a moment. “This is your brother-in-law. His name is Mark.”

“Beer pong Mark? I think Suzie mentioned a boyfriend at some point.”

“So Suzie told you about Mark? We found out about him today.”

Remember I was still standing there.

“Yeah, she called one time about this dude who she met at a party.”

She turns to me

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m your sister-in-law Johnnie or, if you prefer my Christian name, Genevieve Denise Byrne.”

“Johnnie’s fine” I said.

Her boyfriend has also been isolated during this exchange. She grabs him by the hand.

“This is Mel. He’s bad at beer pong.”

“Well, you have to like drinking to be good at it,” said Mel. “I assume you’re good at drinking, Mark?”

“Uh, I would say I’m more of a hobby drinker,” I said.

“I can tell by your ruddy face you’re going pro.” He gave me a good shake on my shoulder. It hurt like the devil.

“I’m just joshing you, bro. But your nose is an indicator of drinking.”

Clare tried to break up the tension.

“Let me pay for the food.”

After all was said and done, the six of us sat at the dining room table. Clare took one of the heads of the table. Andie sat at the opposite head. The Byrne girls sat near their mother with their respective men sitting next to them. Mel and I stood out from the Byrnes. All four of them had sandy colored hair with paler complexions. It was clear that blue was the family’s eye color because they all possessed the same shade. It almost looked like that the Byrnes were their own nation. Mel had black hair and a full beard which extended beyond his face. His eyes were dark brown. His complexion was more hued with olive. It almost as if Johnnie was looking for the antithesis of the Byrnes. I wondered if Suzanne did the same with me.

The food was served family style. The Orange Chicken hasn’t gotten to me before Johnnie asked, “So, Mark Loverboy, can you tell us about your whirlwind romance with Suzie?”

I was silent for a moment but I eventually said, “As you all know, we met at a party. I gave her my number and we began to talk. We both stayed up at school for the summer and became good friends. Eventually, I asked her on a date. By midsummer, I knew that she was the one. I told her my feelings and she reciprocated them. I officially proposed to her as the Fall Semester was starting. We got married in October.”

“Where did you get married?” she asked.

“The county courthouse.”

“Did you invite anyone?”

“Some close friends.”

“Mark’s family was there,” said Suzanne.

I didn’t want to say this because I knew the reason why Suzanne didn’t invite her family. She didn’t want to invite them because they would “freak out” over her rashness. Her comment now would suggest her parents were correct.

“Oh, were they?” asked Johnnie.

“Yeah, they flew up from Florida and everything. The Burkes are nice people. I met his brothers, his parents, his cousins, his aunts, his uncles…”

“…That’s nice,” said Andie. “Why didn’t you tell us you were getting married?”

“I didn’t want to bother you.” She said.

She was not defusing the situation. I tried to find something to talk about but the sheer uncomfortableness of the conversation kept me silent. I was a sitting duck.

“We’re always happy to hear what’s going in your life, Sweetie,” said Andie. “We would have loved to be at your wedding.”

Suzanne got a weird look on her face. “When have you ever been chill about anything in my life?” she asked.

I was going to die. I was going to expire on these poor peoples’ table. Nothing in my life prepared me for this moment. College did not have a “How To Take A Hint 101” or a “Talking Respectfully To Your Parents 202.” This conversation would never happen at the Burke house. To be fair, my family would know something was up. They can sense when you’re up to something. This even manifests itself when you’re about to grab the last ice cream sandwich. They always know.

“Suzanne,” said Clare.

This was serious. He was using her full name.

“Your father and I care about you. We want you to be open with us” said Andie.

She sort of groaned and looked at her mother. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you. It just happened so fast and I was focused on so many other things in addition to the wedding.”

“Mark wasn’t too busy to tell his family?” asked Johnnie.

“Well, Mark is a senior.” Suzanne said.

“Wouldn’t it be more stressful being a senior than a sophomore? I certainly found the last year of college more stressful than my second year.”

“Johnnie, drop it,” said Andie.

“No, I want to know the real reason why Suzie didn’t want us there,” said Johnnie.

“Genevieve!”

“It’s OK, Mommy,” said Suzanne, “I’ll tell you. I knew that you would all overreact. That’s all that this family does.”

“The reason why we act this way is that this is a big decision,” said Andie. “We want to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”

“My husband’s right here.”

Apparently the Byrnes remembered they had guests.

“I apologize for our frank discussion, Mark,” said Andie. “You can understand that the news shocked us dearly.”

“I understand,” I said.

“No, we don’t,” said Suzanne as she took my hand, “why don’t we grill the other Byrne. Johnnie, are you ever going to accept Mel’s proposals? You clearly find him tolerable.”

Johnnie looked at her sister with disgust. She began to speak but stopped. Instead, she thought for a moment and said, “At least I have the prudence to think about something rather than throwing myself at the first guy who showed you interest.”

“Are you saying you have a choice of potential men? Like a buffet?”

“I’m not saying that but Mark has been the only guy in your life.”

“I don’t have to shop around to see the good qualities in someone. Also, I think we all know that Mel has passed his sell by date.”

I had no idea what to do. Here I was, a guest to this family’s downfall. It went out with a bang instead of a whimper. But I’m part of the family. What should I do? I decided to do what I was the best at doing—running from the situation.

“Where is your bathroom?” I blurted out.

The Byrnes looked so shocked at this question that the room went silent.

“It’s down the hall on the left,” said Andie.

I escaped that room as quickly as I could. I found my refuge and locked myself in the bathroom.

I sent a group-text to my family.

“This is a code red! Code red! Byrnes have issues. Major issues. I am trapped in the house. What do I do?”

My brother Matt replied first.

“That’s a you problem, not a me problem.”

My mother intervened.

“What kind of issues. Do these relate to the marriage?”

I replied.

“Her sis grilled her about why they weren’t invited. Turned ugly. Am hiding in bathroom.”

My brother Luke chimed in.

“So you’re going to hide in their bathroom for 5 days?”

This trip was from the weekend before Christmas to the day itself. We were leaving on the 26th.

I replied:

“I might. I’m sure they’ll come for me soon. If you don’t hear from me today, assume I’m dead.

My mother:

“Don’t worry, sweetie! I’m sure you’ll make it through the trip.”

I texted:

“You don’t know these people.”

I heard some of the argument from the dining room.

“I think you doth protest, Suzie. ‘My man is so perfect.’ What do you know about him? What’s his favorite color?” I heard Johnnie say.

“It’s blue,” said Suzanne.

It’s actually green but to survive this trip it’s blue.

“Oh, that’s a cop out. Blue is a man color.”

“Blue is just a color.”

I tried to push that fight out of my brain. I really didn’t want to be here and my gut feeling was right. Why couldn’t people have a happy holiday? Why did people like the Byrnes have to turn into everything into a fight? I looked at the embroidered towels. A large B stood in the middle of the towel. I wondered what the B really stood for. Was it for boisterous? Seemed more fitting.

I heard a knock on the door.

“Mind if I join you hiding in the bathroom?”

It was Mel.

“Find your own hiding spot. I got here first,” I said.

“Well, Johnnie has taken the basement, Suzie has the attic, and the ‘rents have the main house,” he said.

“All right.”

I opened the door. Mel sat down next to me.

“To answer the question I’m sure you’re asking yourself, they’re always like this.”

“Huh. Not just when one of them elopes?”

“Eloping is making it slightly worse. You should have been there when Johnnie announced that she was going to minor in Theater.”

“What was she majoring in?”

“Neuroscience. They didn’t want her to waste her extra credits on something of no value.”

“Did it ruin lunch, too?”

“It did.”

“I’ve never seen this side of her.”

“Yeah, Johnnie’s more pugnacious when she’s around her family. I’m sure you think she’s a monster or something based on how she’s been acting today.”

“I know it’s just the extreme circumstances of our meeting.”

“I probably should formally introduce myself. Mel Akca.”

“Mark Burke. How long have you been dating Johnnie?”

“On and off for five years. I went to prom with her but not the first formal dance of college. She seems to have seasons with me.”

“Ah. If you don’t mind me asking, does she date other people when she’s not dating you?”

“I don’t know. I sometime see her with a potential boyfriend but I think she goes into retreats mostly.”

We sat there on the floor for a moment. Everything about the Byrnes’ house was spotless. Even this bathroom looked like it was from a model home.

I asked, “Do you think the Byrnes actually live here? The house just seems so…”

“…Perfect,” he said. “I had the same reaction when I first came here. It’s just their personalities. The Byrne household has the highest standards of not only Fairfax County but of the entire world. I’ve never seen the house dirty. They even have a dog.”

“They have a dog? I can’t even smell traces of one.”

“That’s the weird part. They somehow even have the dog to their standards.”

There was a knock on the door.

“If this is a party, I want in,” said Johnnie.

“Sorry, this land has been commandeered from the Byrnes,” said Mel.

“You know you’ve given your tacit consent to House Byrne by being here. Open the door.”

“She always gets me with Locke.”

She opened the door and looked down on us.

“Is this what the cool kids on doing? Having soirées next to the toilet?” she asked.

“Only at the fanciest of toilets, mademoiselle” he said.

She tried to sit down on the floor but the bathroom could only comfortably seat two.

“Why don’t we take the potty party outside. I know the rest will pout for another hour. Are you up for a walk?” she said.

We agreed.

The neighborhood the Byrnes lived in was sleepy. Each house was painted in a pastel color and was nestled in a glen. The streets had forgettable names like Winter’s Circle and June’s Way. The design, which was deliberate, was to create each property as if it were a manor house. It reminded me of something the Bennetts or the Eliots from Jane Austen’s books would live in if they were placed here at this moment. Each house also had ornate curtains which were drawn shut. Long driveways snakes through bowling greens which were pristine even in winter. Our walk took us around the perimeter of the development.

During our walk, I heard more about Johnnie and Mel’s relationship. They met when they were seniors in high school in a chemistry class. They would casually go on dates. The Byrnes would call these “monthly excursions” and were normally trips to the movies. She did go to prom with him but this didn’t make it “official.” Their relationship has been like this the whole time.

When we got back to the house, the remaining Byrnes were sitting on the couch drinking eggnog. They had their dog Sparkles with them. It was a poodle-looking thing.

“How’s the neighborhood?” asked Clare.

“Normal” said Johnnie.

“I think you should meet the most special Byrne,” said Suzanne, “this is Sparkles.”

I tried to pat the dog on the head but did it awkwardly.

“You’re not a dog person, are you Mark?” asked Clare.

“I’m more of a cat person,” I said.

“There are two types of people in this world—dog and cat. We Byrnes are dog people.”

“Uh huh”

“Dog people are loyal, determined, and kind. Cat people…”

“…No one wants to hear your rant,” said Andie.

“Since Mark is part of this family, he should hear it at least once. Cat people are smart, cunning, and mean.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, “I think you’re just describing cats and dogs.”

“Well, that’s why they’re dog and cat people. The animals describe them.”

I couldn’t really argue with that logic. Sparkles now was waltzing around the room. The poodle-thing was white as driven snow. How do they keep a dog clean? Is it even a dog? It’s too sedate to be a dog. Maybe they’re giving him pills?

The next half hour was filled with dog stories. I was very bored but at least it was a break from the fighting. The problem is that everyone’s dog stories are the same. There’s “The Dog Eats Something It Shouldn’t” story and “The Dog Threw Up” story. This is also true of cats, birds, rodents, and children.

Once they had exhausted all of the dog stories, Andie said, “Shall we decorate the tree?”

It was one of those reusable Christmas trees. Clare had gone down to the basement to get it. Andie went to a speaker to play some festive music. Suzanne and Johnnie went to the attic to get the ornaments. I would have thought fake trees came with ornaments but what do I know. Mel and I were told to prepare the floor. Mel understood that this meant putting a rug on the floor.

“It’s so the wood floors don’t get scratched up. You’re not concerned with floors in Florida?” asked Mel.

“The floors have to be tougher when the weather is bad most of the year,” I said.

“It can get pretty bad here.”

“Uh huh.”

The Byrnes came together with the various parts of the Christmas tree.

“Reminds me of Osiris,” I said.

No one reacted.

The Byrnes had a system down. The tree was placed in a corner next to a window. It was decorated in the following order: Clare strung the light around the tree. Each trip around consisted by a decreasing number of bulbs. I’m sure the numbers on top lead to a logical number on the bottom. Andie would then remove the ornaments from two boxes. Box #1 had plain looking spheres of blue and white. Box #2 had “fun ornaments.” A plain one would go up then a fun one. Each fun one would require a story. Even if it were mundane like “We bought this at the outlet store,” it still was told. It took a half-an-hour to decorate the tree. There was one piece missing, the topper.

Suzanne asked, “Can Mark do it?”

I am a lot taller than the Byrnes. Andie and Johnnie are about the same height at 5’7”, Suzanne is shorter at 5’5”, and Clare is probably 5’9”. Mel wasn’t much taller than Clare at 5’10”.

I’m 6’4”.

The tree looked to be 8’.

“Only if you want me to do it,” I said.

“Oh, come on. It’s a big honor to putt the topper on the tree,” said Clare.

I agreed to do it.

The topper was this really ugly looking thing. I think it was supposed to be an angel but this one certainly revolted with the devil. It also had a weird sheen to it. Moreover, it was covered in these golden feathers that didn’t help.

I looked at the tree to try to find the top. It looked dead center. I aimed for dead center but I was out of reach.

“Do you need a step, Mark?” Andie asked.

“I should be fine. I just need to get on my tiptoes,” I said.

I stood on my toes but I didn’t prove much luck.

“I’ll get the step,” said Suzanne.

“I almost got it.”

“It’s really no problem.”

“Just about there.”

“You really don’t seem to”

“Aha!”

My fingers almost got it on top but I started to go down. The tree came with me. My life passed before me. How many near death experiences did I have that day. I should’ve had a streak of white hair by now. Why couldn’t I impress my in-laws? Can anyone ever impress them? Why should I try? I’ll always be their trashy son-in-law. Maybe I should just accept it.

I hit the ground hard. The tree hit me harder. Ornaments pelted me every which way. The room fell silent as the barrage came upon me.

I looked up.

The tree sort of slumped over. Ornaments scattered all over the ground. On the way down, the tree took out several pictures on the mantle. The ground was covered in broken glass, clay, and porcelain. Their dog, Sparkles, was trying to eat the remains of a surfing Santa.

“Well, I’ll get some more eggnog,” my mother-in-law said.

It had been a bad trip and it was only day one.

Now we’re back to the present.

Andie came back with some eggnog and gave me a glass.

“I know you mean well, Mark, and everything you’ve been doing today has been a valiant effort but sometimes you just got to accept you can’t do somethings,” she said.

“That’s a little ominous, Mrs. Byrne,” I said.

“It’s my advice to anyone trying to make a good impression. I deal with many people who try to impress me at work. They spend so much time trying that they end up causing havoc. Causing havoc is not good for an engineer. That leads to serious issues. Funnily enough, this isn’t the first time someone has knocked down this tree.”

“It isn’t?”

“Yeah, Clare, Mel, and Johnnie have all knocked over the tree. That’s why we have a good fake one.”

“What about the ornaments?”

“You heard all of the stories, they’re mostly store bought. Any ornaments of value aren’t put up.”

“Why don’t we go to the store to buy some more?” asked Suzanne.

We all cleaned up the shattered ornaments. Sparkles tried to eat an ornament the entire time. I guessed this would become another dog story. Once the room was cleaned up, we headed out to the store.

It seemed that my destruction of the tree was a good ice breaker. The Byrnes were able to loosen up throughout the trip. They even laughed at some points. It was nice to see them relaxed.

We came back with a new set of plain looking ornaments and hung them on the tree. I made sure to not help. When it came time to put up the topper, they asked me again to do it. They provided the step this time.

Somehow, the ugly topper made it through the fall. I stepped onto the step to put it on the tree. I stepped back carefully. I returned to the rest of the group to look at it. A sense of relief washed over me. The tree looked nice.

“I think it looks nice,” I said.

“It sure does,” said Andie.

The Byrnes looked at it for another moment. I saw the family crack a smile.

“Despite your best attempts, I think I like you, Mark, ha ha,” said Clare.

“I’d second that,” said Andie.

“I think I like you, too,” I said.

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