The new day’s reality hit me in quick bits: 5 a.m. Thanksgiving Day. Friends visiting. Making dinner for 10. We were 24 years old and marooned on an island, with two frozen ducks on our hands and a boyfriend missing in action. The day would be longer than I knew.
Becca was a staffer at Bon Appétit magazine and a perfectionist cook. She and another dear college friend, Laura, had come down to visit me over the holiday. In a lucky first job, I was working at the local Caribbean newspaper on St. Thomas and dating a fellow reporter. Becca and Laura flew from L.A., pulling between them an entire suitcase just of shoes.
On an island people do things in less grand style, improvising with whatever’s been shipped in. This hit my friends when we shopped the day before Thanksgiving. The only turkeys available were frozen. We were out of hours to thaw one. Still, there were a few ducks — also frozen, but smaller. Two herb-stuffed ducks it would be.
As the sun heated up St. Thomas, Becca tied on a dress-cut apron and bathed the ducks in cool water. Laura and I sliced up plantains for one of the local side dishes. We careened back down to Kmart for a Martha Stewart tablecloth and taper candles, the fanciest houseware on island.
All morning we veered around each other in the kitchen. I didn’t have a moment to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a tradition for my family back in the Midwest. Remembering it, I missed them.
The ducks commanded my attention back to the island. If we pulled out their insides, would they thaw faster? Becca stuck a hand up each of their freezing rears, guts oozing from her fist. Laura and I gagged holding out the trash bag. This had to be real adulthood.
By noon I was ready for reinforcements. Hosting preparations like moving the dining table out onto the patio felt daunting. I called my boyfriend, Aaron*. He lived down by the beach, two switchbacking miles away. “How soon can you get here?” I asked urgently.
Aaron had just woken up not long before, he drolled. He wanted to take it easy — maybe hit the water, kayak a little. He’d come down at, like, 3?
The half-dozen other guests expected a Thanksgiving feast at 4. “WHAT?!” I yelped. “I need your help!”
We argued. Aaron wanted to stay mellow; maybe he’d smoked to start the day. He was unmotivated to join our mission for a flawless holiday. I felt let down. I’d expected a worthwhile boyfriend to help, and so would my friends. “Don’t bother to come,” I hissed.
Aaron wasn’t feeling well, I announced to my friends and later, to our guests.
The golden hour that Thanksgiving Day lit up the Caribbean from our patio, the sunset lingering over heart-shaped Magens Bay. Becca delivered the ducks from the oven. They smelled rich with the bundle of sage and thyme peeking from where the gizzards had been.
The table looked as nice as we could make it, although with some island-style making do. We set out the hot sauce in the plastic bottle and served the beans in a dripping pot when we ran out of serving bowls.
Still, the Bon Appétit-worthy Thanksgiving feast was the best I’d ever had. Sangria in hand, I pretended to feel celebratory. Only Becca and Laura noticed there were no mashed potatoes. Aaron had been in charge of those.
There’d been big differences between us from the start. I zoomed at life with joy, while Aaron was subdued. My Midwestern high school drew students from a half-dozen farming towns; Tori Spelling and the Gyllenhaals had gone to his in Southern California. I was a practicing Catholic, and he was a nonbelieving Jew. The “believing” part felt like the biggest gap.
Yet those weren’t the reasons I didn’t regret cutting Aaron out. Later I’d feel guilty that he had to eat mashed potatoes alone on Thanksgiving. But I believe that people show themselves on a holiday. Maybe I’d revealed myself to be harsh, uninviting my boyfriend for a holiday. But he’d proven himself not to be someone I could count on when I needed it. That was the gap that couldn’t be overcome.
My friends had come through. We’d teamed together to pull off a feast. My boyfriend had not. I felt clarity: He wasn’t the One. The holiday was bittersweet for knowing it.