The whole family is getting pizza.
Communal dining is the standard at this restaurant. Tables are long and picnic, like in a Munich beer hall. We wait awkwardly among the seated patrons for a table to open up, specifically a table large enough for an extended family of 11. I hover near a potential group as they vaguely clean plates, finish drinks. I glare at them passive aggressively, sending psychic waves about how good it would be for them to leave.
I sit at the end of my extended family group, not by choice, but out of the necessity of taking up as much table real estate as possible while the others file in. On my right, my father begins talking to my uncle about beer and brewing and the complex flavors inherent to a fine IPA. Across from me, my mother pretends to hear for a while, then gives up and simply watches the restaurant occupants curiously. To my left, non-family teenagers caress each other over half-eaten pizzas, the appetizing slices soon to be left as waste.
I hate these teens.
They’re gorgeous in that tan, lithe Southern Californian way. They probably went to the beach earlier in the day. They’ll go back tomorrow, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter for them, there are no seasons. Any day could be a beach day. Any day could be an anything day. They talk openly and earnestly about dumb things like homework and parties and what their friends are doing. They touch their phones constantly, mid-sentence, post-sentence, pre-sentence, whenever their thumbs are idle for too long. Swipe, swipe, swipe. Soft drinks fizz absently in front of them, forgotten like the days of the week. These teens are young and beautiful and absolutely going to ruin the world when they grow up.
I talk to my mom occasionally, or try. She’s fairly deaf, even with her ears in, and the open, echoey space of the restaurant is the opposite of soundproofing. We fondly remind her on occasion that she couldn’t hear a dump truck driving through a nitro-glycerin plant. The sound level in the room is similar to that. Fortunately, I think she’s comfortable studying the natives from afar, watching the line behind me inexorably seep towards the counter to place pizza orders.
My father and uncle continue to churn through words. It’s like they’re riding the needle of a record player that just slipped into the first track’s groove. It’ll be hours before the outside world intrudes on their conversation.
Further down the table my other uncle plays Uno with my cousin while he converses with the grown ups. I’m intensely jealous. The prospect of multi-tasking is drool-inducing when you’re stuck at the lonely end of the table. I would tear off my left arm for a deck of cards. I know they’re family, but I hate them in this moment. I’ve been purposely ignoring the various time-wasting applications on my phone so I can at least feel a slight, holier-than-thou thrill in the deep black cavity of my soul.
My cousin and other two cousinettes are lined up next to my mother. They grimly contemplate the wood grain of the table until suddenly one launches the trio into a lightning-fast, laugh-heavy conversation. It’s kind of miraculous to watch these young people of disparate ages find things in common. I wish I were that age sometimes, but especially in this moment.
The teens next to me depart, probably off to “make love” on a ragged blanket in the back of Steve’s Chevy before wandering down to the beach bonfire to get wasted on cheap vodka and listen to Chris play his dad’s guitar better than anyone really expected. I still hate them.
A new family takes the teen’s place. I’m immediately sucked into watching this family, to the point of ignoring my own. Not because they’re a particularly interesting group, but because they’re particularly awful.
The mother coddles an overly energetic child who appears more likely to scream and cry than ever eat a bite of food or make a coherent statement. Across from her, a sullen 10-year-old takes a seat, resting his head in his arms on the table. His eyes resemble those of a dog chained to a stake in the backyard during a cold rain. It doesn’t help that his lower jaw juts out slightly, leading to a permanent frowning expression. Perhaps he’ll grow out of that. It doesn’t seem like he’ll grow out of the eyes though.
The father steps in briefly, asking what everyone wants. Sullen boy has no opinion. Mother wants something specific. Wild child could eat the table, he doesn’t give a shit. Father departs.
Wild child releases an especially harsh scream, such that even my fairly-deaf mother is startled. The mother tries to shush wild child, who responds by screaming harder. Perhaps thinking this is a fun game, mother shushes harder. Child screams and cries as if his favorite toys are being dipped in acid while he’s made to watch. Sullen boy looks resigned to the situation, like he expected it, like he’s seen this before, like his parents are stupid for bothering to bring wild child anywhere.
Mother drags wild child outside, leaving sullen boy behind alone. Father returns, asks where mother is. Father departs to find mother.
Several minutes later the trio return. Their attention is focused on wild child, who appears to have been placated for the moment with a cheap toy from a coin-operated dispensary. Sullen boy watches blankly as wild child slams the toy on the table in an obvious attempt to shatter it. Wild child then screams because his parents don’t want him to shatter the toy. Or maybe he’s crying because the toy won’t shatter. Or because if he shatters the toy it won’t exist. Logic doesn’t seem to be wild child’s strongest suit. Regardless, the screaming starts up again and mother departs once more with the boy. Father leaves to get the pizza. Sullen boy is sullen.
Someone give this fucking kid something to do. A book, a phone, a goddamn dull charcoal nub and a napkin. Anything. He just sits and stares vacantly at the middle distance, as if hoping that the middle distance will suck him in and he’ll be gone. It’s the kind of situation where you want to tap the parents on the shoulder and say, “Hey, hi, sorry, but you’re ruining this kid’s childhood.”
The parents return. Sullen boy says something about wild child’s antics along the lines of “Why’d we even bring him” and mother goes off on him. Of course. She has to take out her frustration on something, might as well be the boy who hasn’t said a word for the past thirty minutes, her elder child who is so obviously waiting for the day that he can move out of his family’s shitty home and get some shitty apartment in the suburbs where he and his friend can play Grand Theft Auto all day until he needs to leave for his shift at Best Buy.
Wild child screams again, but then the pizza arrives and he is tempered, somewhat. The parents straddle the bench with wild child in between, both helping to feed and care for this one small imp. Sullen boy sits across the table, ignored. It’s like watching a human being go extinct. I want to tell this kid that it gets better, but I’m not sure it does in this case.
Father takes a picture of sullen boy with his phone. Sullen boy cracks a slight, slight smile. Maybe it will get better for him. But not tonight. Tonight is just one big ball of suck. And now I’ve spent enough time watching this awful family that I’m sucked into their suck. Thanks communal dining, you ruined my meal.
…although, if you’re looking for a happy ending, I found a pretty simple one: turning around and re-engaging with my own wonderful family. Guess I do like hanging out with these kind folks who share my genes.