“Thanksgiving is not an easy holiday for vegetarians,” Winnie said. They were cruising up Route 14 on the way from Ann Arbor to Farmington Hills. It was just long enough a drive for Joel to pick up on Winnie’s anxiety about spending the day with her family.
“I can imagine.” Joel reached over and lifted Winnie’s hand into his. “Will there be anything on the table you’re able to eat?”
“The stuffing I brought with me.” She held up the casserole dish that was resting in her lap. “My mom always includes giblets in her dressing.”
“Doesn’t she understand the concept of being a vegetarian?” Joel asked, incredulous that Winnie’s mother wouldn’t go out of her way to accommodate her daughter’s dietary needs.
“She thinks I’m just being difficult,” Winnie said, looking down at her lap with a frown. “Or a picky eater.”
“Why are you a vegetarian? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Originally for the health benefits. But the longer I go without eating meat, the less my body is able to tolerate meat.”
“That makes sense, I suppose.” Something occurred to Joel. “Will it bother you if I eat meat?”
“No, you’re fine.” Winnie waved her hand dismissively. “This is one of those situations where it’s me, not you. I’m not so much an animal rights activist as I am just disgusted with the whole concept of eating a dead animal.”
Winnie seemed more and more closed off and quiet the closer they got to her parents’ house and Joel wished he could take her in his arms and make the anxiety go away.
The LaFleur’s classy home was in an upscale neighborhood in a secluded cul-de-sac on the golf course of an elite country club. When Joel pulled into the driveway, Winnie didn’t reach for the door handle but clutched the casserole dish in her hands.
“You okay?” Joel asked, trying to soothe her anxiety.
“I’ll be fine.” She nodded once definitively, then opened the passenger-side door.
Joel hurried around to hold open the door and helped her carry the casserole dish. Not that it was heavy. It just seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. He wanted to make a good impression on her family.
He needn’t have worried. Winnie’s younger brother, Gage, latched onto Joel immediately by handing him a football and inviting him into the backyard. He looked back at Winnie as if to ask if she needed him to stay inside with her but she waved him on telling him that she would help out in the kitchen until dinner.
As soon as Marshall realized that Joel was there, he abandoned his girlfriend with the other women and met Joel in the backyard along with Aunt Violet’s son, Leon. Now they had two-on-two.
The teams would have been evenly matched if any of them were decent quarterbacks, which they weren’t. Pretty soon guys from nearby houses joined them and eventually the fairway on hole three had been transformed into a makeshift football field. Good thing for the holiday or they’d have gotten hit in the head by golf balls or kicked out of the club for defiling the fairway.
Joel was on one team and Marshall was on the other, which meant they were each other’s fiercest competition. Facing off on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage grew more and more tense until Joel intercepted a ball intended for Marshall and got tackled so forcefully, he almost couldn’t get back up.
When he finally pulled himself off the frosty, nearly frozen grass, he got right in Marshall’s face. “What the heck was that for?”
Marshall shoved Joel so hard he almost hit the ground again. “That was for making bedroom eyes at my little sister!”
“Got news for you, big brother, your little sister is all grown up now and can make her own decisions whose bedroom she sleeps in.”
“You cockroach!” Marshall lowered his shoulder to ram into Joel’s midsection, but Joel was ready for him and didn’t let Marshall gain any ground. “Keep your hands off my sister!”
Suddenly Gage was pulling Marshall away and some other guy was pushing Joel back even while Marshall continued yelling obscenities toward Joel.
Multiple voices bombarded Joel’s senses from multiple directions, and he tried to calm his breathing. Finally, a voice he recognized.
“Joel, are you okay?” Winnie tucked herself into Joel’s embrace and wrapped her arms around his waist. He pulled her close and bent down to kiss the top of her head.
“I’m fine. Your brother and I just had a disagreement about… my interception.” Joel glared across the way at Marshall. “He didn’t want me to rush the ball for a touchdown.”
“Humph,” Marshall said with a scowl. “You need to keep your hands off the ball.”
“You need to control your temper.”
“That’s enough, boys,” Warren La Fleur interrupted. “It’s time to get cleaned up for dinner. Your mother prepared a beautiful meal, and I won’t have you ruining Thanksgiving because you’re fighting over”—Warren glanced at his daughter— “a football game.”
Joel narrowed his eyes one more time at Marshall, then wrapped his arm around Winnie’s shoulder and walked with her toward the house.