I don't have the exact data, but I'm fairly certain I spent 94 percent of my waking hours at my best friend Martha's house all the way through high school.
Martha's father was a college professor and her mother was a homemaker. Consequently, dinnertime consisted of candlelight, well-balanced entrees and delectable desserts. Conversation was muted and centered on what her father had taught in his biology class that day, which always seemed to be the reproductive cycle of one creature or another. In other words, sitting at the table with Martha's family was like being on a Norman Rockwell cover of The Saturday Evening Post.
"Why don't you invite Martha to have dinner at our house?" my mother asked one night, toward the end of freshmen year, when I called to tell her that, once again, I was eating at Martha's house. "You're always eating over there. It's getting embarrassing. Her mother must think I never feed you."
I hesitated. By that point, Martha had a passing acquaintance with my family but she'd never seen them in their natural habitat, certainly not at feeding time. "I'll ask her if she wants to," I said. "What are you going to make?"
"Something delicious," my mother promised. "Ask her over for tomorrow night."
Martha happily accepted my mother's invitation and the following day we walked home together after school discussing our current crushes, the clothes we needed to round out our wardrobes and which family gave babysitters the best tips. The closer we got to my house, the more my stomach hurt. While I could count on my mother to behave graciously, I wasn't at all sure about everyone else.
Suppose my father told one of his infamous politically incorrect jokes? What if my sister, the Queen of Quirks, crawled under the table after she was done eating, instead of walking around it like a normal person? (This wasn't an idle fear, as my sister had more than once taken the "short cut" from her chair to the kitchen.) And then there was my brother with his little pot smoking thing that resulted in an appetite that could put an elephant to shame. What was Martha going to think of me after dining with my family?
Dinner began well enough. Mom made spaghetti, served with a green salad, garlic bread and lemon meringue pie for dessert. My siblings, bless their hearts, were on their best behavior and Dad, thank goodness, was late. Maybe I'd get through the meal without dying of shame after all.
"How's it going, troops?" Dad's deep voice boomed as he entered the dining room ten minutes into the meal. "I see you started without me." Not the least bit offended, Dad took his place at the head of the table and began salting everything in front of him. "How are you, little lady?" he said to Martha as salt crystals flew through the air.
"I'm fine, Mr. Johnson," Martha chirped. "How are you?"
Dad paused for a long moment. "Well, I'll tell you. How I am is glad I'm not dead. I was driving home on the Dan Ryan when some Polack cut me off and I almost drove into a light pole. As soon as I got my car back under control I snuck up behind him and rode his ass all the way to his exit. Then I gave him the old bird as he drove off. People drive like complete morons these days."
Mortified, I stared at my spaghetti, wishing the floor would open up and swallow me or my father—preferably my father since I wanted a piece of that lemon meringue pie. "Polacks"? "Ass"? "The bird"? My father made Archie Bunker look like Cary Grant.
Dad continued his story, directing it at Martha. "And then I almost got a ticket because some lazy son of a bitch of a cop pulled me over and said, 'Sir, your mufflers are too loud for our town,' like we're living in goddamn suburb of Buckingham Palace!"
I stole a look at Martha and saw that her eyes were bulging and her cheeks looked oddly full. "Are you all right?" I whispered. She nodded but her face had turned a dark shade of crimson.
"I put half a jar of Vaseline on my face," my sister announced into the pocket of silence that followed Dad's story. "Can you tell? It's to prevent wrinkles."
"Maybe you could put the jar over your head," Dad suggested. "That way if you ever do get a wrinkle the rest of us won't have to look at it."
With that Martha exploded, spewing a mouthful of spaghetti onto her plate as she convulsed in laughter. "I'm sorry," she repeated again and again, after my mother had gotten her a new plate. "I didn't mean to do that. I'm so sorry."
No one minded; my father was actually pleased to have gotten such a visceral reaction since he was used to more or less being ignored by the rest of us. After finishing dessert, I walked halfway home with Martha, prepared to apologize for subjecting her to my collectively certifiable family.
"I'm sorry about my dad," I began, "and my sister too." At least my brother had been quiet throughout the meal. Stoned for sure, but silent.
"What are you sorry for?" Martha looked surprised. "I love your family. They're so … real."
I thought about that as I walked home. My family certainly was real—but real what? It took me many years after to figure out that the answer to that question never really mattered.