He had been avoiding it all summer, always being able to make up an excuse. There were always other things going on, doctor appointments, trips with his in-laws, friend gatherings and fake diseases. He was running out of material and that partly explained why she eventually got him.
“You got to come.”
“We can’t, Mom. Hopper needs my help tomorrow, he is building a new garage.”
“Bullshit! You are way too clumsy to help with that.”
“Honey, I´ve been very patient with you. You have barely show up in this house and I haven’t complain about it, not even once.”
“You are now.”
“Michael! Just come see your parents before you live town.”
She wasn’t lying about the barely showing up part. For starters he wasn’t staying with them (something or someone in Joyce and Hopper´s house was way more appealing), which only left them with brief encounters on the front of the house. He might be starting to grow apart from his parents, but he wasn’t planning on doing the same with Holly, Friday play dates being almost an institution by now.
Eventually the guilt made him realize one visit to his parents was not a lot to ask for, that’s how he found himself ringing the bell of their house. It was the last weekend before he had to leave for his third year of college, and he could think about a couple of things he had rather be doing. Even tough El and Mike lived in Indianapolis, a city that was pretty close to their hometown, the chance of spending time with their friends was something almost limited to summers. Their schools were in very different parts of the country, and said visit pretty much blew up their last opportunity to be together.
Another thing that was troubling for him was the dinner party. He suspected, by the way his mother lure him in to attend, that it was their way to show what a lovely family they were. Fancy clothes, extra delicious food and a couples only policy that allowed Lucas and Max to attend but excluded Dustin and Will at the same time. Mike knew that both his mom and his dad had the tendency to prove how happy they were when in reality they were not happy at all, and he couldn’t bare that level of bullshit. In fact, he was way past tired of it.
While he and El were waiting by the door, he decided to be a gentleman.
“We should have a sign, for when you want to leave.”
“You think is going to be that bad?”
“I am sure of it.”
“Ok, if it gets bad I will rub my foot against your leg.”
“The usual then?”
It’s what they did in uncomfortable social situations. On even on fun situations they didn’t want to be in because they prefer to be by themselves.
“Yeah, but this time it doesn’t mean we are going to have sex.”
“It doesn’t?” He asked playfully.
“It’s not a guarantee. But it could happen if you play your cards right.”
“Fine by me.”
They stared at each other, she started to pull on that look, and just when he was leaning in to kiss her, his mom appeared at the house main door. She stood there with a big smile on her face, wearing a pretty red dress that he had never seen before. And in that brief moment he thought that he was doing the right thing. Maybe she didn’t deserve his bad attitude, she seem happy to be seeing him, willing to spend time with a son that in some way has been neglecting her for so long.
He was thinking that when his dad showed up. At the sight of him the genuine smile in his mother´s face disappeared and the air in the room became dense.
Ted Wheeler said this almost deadly serious, as if he was in a totally different context and not greeting his son for a lovely meal. He was wearing his typical after work attire, short sleeve shirt and a boringly looking tie. Mike quickly shocked his hand.
“Eleanor.” Ted said as he nodded his head towards El.
And at that cold greeting, his very sweet and very polite girlfriend, smiled. Even though his dad didn’t deserve that kind of gesture.
It was one of the things that amazed him about her. El had always had an ability to surprise him with her goodness. This girl who spend all of her childhood on a laboratory, surrounded by people who didn’t care about her. He still couldn’t believe how good she was, which was incredible considering they have been together for so many years. Did his dad ever felt that way about his mom? At the moment, he wasn’t sure, but by the end of the night he would have a very clear answer.
For some reason his parents decided to show them around the house.
“Mom, is not like we have never been here before.”
“Honey, just wait till you see the improvements.”
Her mom then led them to the living room. She was talking with El, his dad just standing next to them, when Mike noticed an old picture of Nancy and Holly. It was from Nancy´s high school graduation. She was hugging a four year old Holly while wearing her cap and grow, both of them smiling at the camera.
Even though they pass a lot of rooms after that, he couldn’t stop thinking about his sisters. If he was being honest he didn’t miss them that much while he was in Indianapolis. He really liked his classes and was constantly receiving affection, so he didn’t precisely need them at that context. But here, in front of their parents, he long for them.
From the beginning he knew that Nancy was not going to be there, her and Jonathan had left to their apartment in New York a couple of weeks ago, but the absence of Holly was a surprise to him.
Her being on a sleepover totally ruined his plan of ditching his parents to go watch some cartoons with her.
These circumstances also left him alone in mockery territory. What was great about his relationship with his sisters was that even though they fought a lot (especially him and Nancy) they have always put their differences aside when it came to mock his parents. And he just couldn’t do it with El. Every time he had tried to make fun of his parents with her she felt uncomfortable, because she didn’t know them that well and was worried that she may say something that hurt him.
How was he supposed to keep a straight face while his parents constantly address each other as darling? It was wrong in so many senses. Pet names were stupid, even more so when you can’t even stand the person you are pet naming.
“These are for you.”
Lucas handed a bucket of flowers to his mom just after he came into the living room.
“Oh, how thoughtful.” She dreamily answered.
“Except for one flower which is for my flower.”
His friend said this while offering one of the biggest flowers to Max.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” She responded, annoyed by the cheesy gesture.
The exchange was followed by an uncomfortable silence. The Wheelers startled and Mike and El, although not surprised, didn’t know what to say.
Lucas and Max were having a lot of troubles lately. And it’s not like they didn’t love each other, there was a reason why they were still together, but they didn’t seem to figure out a way to solve the problems that came with long distance relationships. With Max in California and Lucas in Pennsylvania they barely saw each other during the school year, and the long calls that made their respecting freshman years a little bit more special were no longer a constant. They were too caught up in their own things to put attention to the other.
Things were clearly not going well and Mike expected them to face their troubles because he knew by experience that ignoring them was a terrible mistake.
While they were sitting in the living room, his mother announced that dinner would be ready in 45 minutes, because late dinner was “trendy”. That discouraged him. If there was anything that excited him about this party it was the food. Plenty of bad stuff could be said about Karen Wheeler, anything except that she was a bad cook.
Then the dinner news were followed by something even worse. Right after Max told an anecdote related to football, Mike's parents started talking about college. And he knew exactly where this was going.
For the last two years this was their usual move, kind of like their own foot rubbing. Every time they have the opportunity, whenever they were with Mike and his friends, they started questioning Lucas and Max about their careers. And he understood their reasoning because both of his friend´s mayors were way more profitable than his.
El´s major was more profitable too, and that made his dad particular angry. He decided to tell him so the months prior to his high school graduation.
“Your girlfriend will be making more money than you! How is that supposed to make you feel?”
He didn’t felt bad about it. That was probably coming. She was very talented and passionate about the things she loved, so her success as a psychologist was practically guaranteed. And thinking about that possibility didn’t make him anxious. In fact, he was eager to see her succeeding. He want to be with her no matter what were the conditions, willing to be a shoulder to cry on if she failed a couple of times on the way and to be a supporting partner when the world realized how amazing she was. Because he loved her that much.
Just when he sense that his mom will start rubbing in his face what a poorly decision he had made by choosing Creative Writing, he stood up to go find El. She had left a couple of minutes ago to go to the bathroom, and while he was kind of worried of her the main reason he left the room was to avoid the conversation that was taking place.
“El?” He said when he arrived at the bathroom´s door.
“Can I come in?”
“No! I don’t want you to see me like this”
“Are you actually using the bathroom or you are just eating candy while sitting on the toilet?”
“It´s none of your business!”
The door was opened immediately after she finished that sentence. And he found exactly what he was expecting.
His girlfriend was sitting on the toilet with a candy bar on her hand and a little bit of chocolate in her upper lip.
“You are ridiculous.”
“You are ridiculous.”
“Which one of us has been eating on the bathroom?”
She had to admit defeat by then.
“Okay, I am sorry. I just want to eat. Which I realized is a lot to ask for. At a dinner party.”
He laughed at that last part before answering.
“It´s fine. Actually, do you, by chance, have any left?”
A couple of minutes of uncomfortable small talk later, they heard the doorbell and his father offered to go find out who it was.
“Dustin? What are you doing here?” And then he opened the door fully. “And Steve! Why would you bring Steve?”
“We came here to eat dinner and to party. This is a dinner party, right?”
Everyone besides Mike´s parents laugh at that.
“Karen, what is he doing here?”
“Just let them in, Ted.”
A sudden realization came to Steve at that moment.
“We weren´t invited?”
Dustin, not even a little inclined to state the obvious, direct his attention to Mike´s dad.
“You said that I couldn’t come because I was not part of a couple, and because you didn’t have enough wine glasses. So I brought glasses and a person.”
His dad just stared at them, clearly annoyed.
“Ted, just let them in.”
“Fine, whatever you want, just like always.”
“Whatever I want? It’s never whatever I want!”
That was the beginning of their first fight of the night. They shamelessly shouted at each other, way past the passive aggressive comments. They were talking about what was affecting them at the moment (“I don’t even know why you insist on defending this stupid kids!”) but also bringing back things from the past. In all honesty, he stopped putting attention to them when his father mentioned his vasectomy. With that they crossed all the limits, and after hearing that it was inevitable that his subconscious would protect him by zoning out.
Maybe things were coming to an end. All his life his parents had been pretending to be the hall some American family, pretending they loved each other to supposedly benefit their children, using stupid pet names that were pure bullshit and didn’t convince anyone. But now here they were, not a tiny bit interested in what other people might think about their broken relationship.
He honestly didn’t know what was better.
“So, can we come in?” Steve said notoriously embarrassed. They all seem to have forgotten that he and Dustin were still standing by the door.
“Sure.” His mom said through gritted teeth.
Then Steve and Dustin came in and all of them started walking towards the living room couches. That’s when El whispered to Dustin.
“I thought that you were going to bring Will.”
Have they planned this?
“I was, but he said something about not wanting to intrude.”
“Yeah right.” His girlfriend said.
Yeah right in deed.
There were still a couple of minutes until the food was ready. So they obviously democratically decided to play charades.
(There was nothing democratic in his mom making the decision for them.)
“First name is Tom.”
“Dustin, we said no names!” Max practically yelled from her sit.
“Yeah, dude. No names, no rhyme and no sound-alikes.” Lucas said, equally annoyed. It seemed that keeping the order on a game they wanted to win was a common goal for him and his red headed girlfriend.
“All right, stop it until you get into my head! First name is blank, and he goes on a cruise.”
“Katie Holmes!” El enthusiastically said.
“No, but he's married to her.”
“Oh, Dawson. From Dawson´s Creek.”
“No, it has to be a real person El. Come on!”
“Mmm… I think I'm gonna pass.”
He tried not to laugh at the exchange, not wanting to ruin El´s fun little game. She had explained it to him a couple of months ago, that she played dumb every time they took part of this kind of games just to irritated people who were condescending with her. People like her really beloved friend Dustin, people who thought that she was not able to understand the pop culture references. Even after being in the outside world for 6 years.
His girlfriend was a pretty smart girl and Lucas and Max seemed to be at their element while playing this ridiculous game. So of course that’s when his dad decided to ruined the fun by making a really bad joke.
“Ted, what are you doing?”
“I was making people laugh.”
Since when his dad was the funny guy?
“No.” His mom retread.
“Yes. I was watching Steve´s face and he was laughing.”
“I was looking at Steve´s face and no smile.”
“Look at him. He is laughing.”
Mike could tell that Steve didn’t know what to do with his face.
After eating his steak he decided that he had had enough. He was about to rub his foot against El´s leg when she got up to check her cell phone. While getting up she said something about needing to answer the call, which was weird because he didn’t hear her ringtone.
When she came back she said something that made him really happy.
“It was my dad. His house is flooded!”
Then she threw him a knowing look that made him realize that it was a stunt. She was making up an excuse for them to leave and he love her so much for it.
“Mike and I should probably get going.”
“Yeah, dinner was delicious.” He said while standing up from his chair. “Thanks, Mom.”
Mike was about to kiss his mom´s cheek when Lucas stopped him.
“I don’t think they need the two of you.” Lucas clearly knew this was a scam.
“I think they do. It wouldn’t be very nice of me if I don’t help them with this.”
“Mike, wait.” Max said. Just as Lucas she was desperate to not be left alone with his parents. “They can buy new stuff, but you can’t buy a new dinner party.”
He was about to retorted to that when his mom started shouting.
“Ted! This is all your fault!”
“How can it be my fault that Hopper´s house is flooded?”
“How can you be so stupid? Your son is making up excuses to get away from you!”
That was followed by ten straight minutes of screaming. This time he didn’t zoned out, and he wasn’t sure how he would live to tell the story. They said so many things that he didn’t want to know about, things that hurt him or embarrass him way too much.
At the end the fight was interrupted when Ted opened the door once again, someone was insistently ranging the doorbell.
“Hopper? What are you doing here?”
Mike couldn’t believe what he was hearing, so he decided to come closer to the door.
“I am in police duty.”
Yep, Hopper was there.
“Wasn’t your house flooded?”
By then all of the guests were standing close to the door, and Mike and El took advantage of the proximity by throwing frightened looks in the way of the Chief. That made him quickly realized they needed to be covered.
“Oh, yeah. Joyce is taking care of it. I am here because we got a call about a disturbance”
“A disturbance” His mother asked, as if she didn’t know what was happening before Hopper arrived.
“Yeah, the neighbors said they heard shouting.”
“Oh, that. We were just arguing.”
“Do any of you want to press charges?”
“Against the other?”
His mom seemed really worried while saying this. She might have come to the realization that the situation was kind of serious. Maybe she was in the face of something that she could no longer fix.
“Against the other.” Hopper said while nodding.
“I... I don’t know.”
By maybe the fifteen time that day the room was filled with awkward silence. None of them sure of where this was going.
“Ok, let me see.” Hopper touched the bridge of his nose, in the process of loosening his patience. “You have two options. You either try to be more quiet or spend the night apart.”
Mike hoped they decided for the latter.
“Ted, do you have any other place you could stay?”
His dad briefly look around. He was surrounded by Mike´s friends, kids that he didn’t like with parents he didn’t like either. There was also Mike, the son with whom he barely had a relationship with. They locked eyes for a couple of seconds, and it didn’t take long for him to decide that there was nothing to do there.
“I´ll stay in a hotel”
Later, El asked Mike if they could go to Benny´s. With all the chaos at his parent´s house she didn’t have time to eat her steak and was still very hungry.
They sat at their favorite table, the one they chose in their high school years, when they were two horny teenagers who constantly needed secluded places to make out in.
“Darling, this is the best burger I ever had.” El said while chewing her meal.
He smiled at her and she immediately noticed his grumpy mood. In other circumstances he would have laughed out loud at that joke, so happy that she was comfortable enough to make fun of his parents.
But he wasn’t feeling very well at the moment, and because she sensed this, she then proceed to grab his hand.
“I am sorry about what happened.” She said with that cute voice that she always used when she tried to comfort him.
“I am not. I hope this is the end.”
“Yeah. Just…” He made a pause, because what was coming next was a big deal for him. “Promise we will never be like that.”
“I promise. If our relationship goes that bad I will just break up.”
He frowned at that, because it was not the response he was waiting for. She immediately noticed this, so then she proceed to said exactly what he needed to hear.
“I am just messing with you. We will never be like that, do you know why?”
He shook his head.
“Because we´ve always wanted to be together. Ever since we were twelve. It´s not like we are obliged.” She made a pause. “Or at least I don´t feel obliged.”
“I don´t feel obliged either.”
After hearing that she shorten the distance between them. Now their lips could almost touch.
“What can I do to make you feel better, darling?”
“Well, darling” He followed her lead. “You did say something about playing my cards right.”
“So I am playing the I-am-depressed-because-my-family-is-broken card.”
“Okay, well played.”
She started getting up.
He couldn’t believe how great she was.
“Yeah, let´s go.”
He noticed something that was already really obvious, with her by his side nothing else matter.