Pre-Dinner Briefing

William Patterson, from Wynnewood, PA, is majoring in Communication Studies at Temple and plans to graduate in 2021.

Image of Short Story

Just around sundown, Tina burst into Justin’s apartment and informed him that he needed to stop whatever he was doing because something big had just come up. Startled, Justin set down his cereal bowl and prepared for terrible news. He was immediately worried that she was going to break up with him or that someone had been in a horrific accident, so he was (somewhat) relieved to hear her say that she had scheduled a dinner with her parents.

“Tonight?” he asked. “I wasn’t expecting to meet them so soon, I didn’t really know we were that far along.”

“Me neither,” said Tina, as she started to skim through the shirts in his closet. “I wasn’t planning on doing this for a while, but we need to capitalize.”

“Capitalize on what?”

Tina turned around and tossed a handful of dress shirts down on the bed. “There’s a window of opportunity here. I’ve finally got a chance to impress my parents. My older sister Lucy- remember her, you met her at the barbecue?”

“I think so. She looks kind of like you, but older.”

“That’s her. Anyway, she’s been the favorite child for as long as I can remember. Growing up, she was always the best at everything, Little Miss Perfect, while Sarah and I were just there to provide symmetry for our family photos. But not anymore. After all these years, Lucy finally made one crucial mistake.” Tina held a striped dress shirt up against Justin’s chest and examined the look. “She let her marriage deteriorate and then caught her husband cheating on her with one of his co-workers. In their own house, too. He wasn’t even slick about it.”

“Wow, that’s terrible,” said Justin. “Aren’t your parents concerned for her?”

Tina lifted up another shirt. “Oh, of course they’re concerned for her. But she’s getting a divorce and talking about quitting her job and moving to Arizona or something, so they can’t brag about her at dinner parties anymore. She’s been knocked off her pedestal, this is my chance.” She handed him one of the shirts and dropped the hanger on the floor. “Wear this, with a blazer. While Lucy is dividing her assets, I’m going to impress Mom and Dad by showing up with my smart, handsome, Account Supervisor boyfriend.”

Justin was shocked. “Wait, what? You’re seeing someone else?”

“No, you idiot, I’m talking about you,” said Tina.

“But I’m not an Account Supervisor. And no one’s ever called me smart before.”

“Well obviously we’re going to have to massage the truth a little bit. But that’s a necessary evil if we’re going to get my parents to like you.” Tina reached out and brushed some cereal crumbs from his beard. “And we don’t have time to waste, because I know Sarah’s going to be making her move soon. She’s not dumb, she smells blood in the water, too.”

“I don’t know about this,” said Justin, taking a step back. “I mean, you’re a twenty-seven-year-old woman, you shouldn’t be this desperate for your parents’ approval.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re an only child. You’ve got no competition, your parents are proud if you can tie your own shoes.”

“Maybe so, but it’s still a little demeaning when you ask me to lie about who I am in front of your family.”

“Aw, Justin...” Tina wrapped her hands around his waist and pulled him close. “I didn’t mean to upset you, you know I love you just the way you are. But unfortunately, my parents won’t. And to be honest, you’re a twenty-eight-year-old man, you should have been planning to amend your personality around them anyway.”

“That just seems so inauthentic...”

“This is the real world, Justin, everyone’s putting up one façade or another. If you want to live ‘authentically,' put on a loincloth, move to the forest, and kill your own food.” She ran her fingers through his hair. “So can you make a few changes for me?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, nodding. “If it will make you happy.”

“That’s the spirit.” She gave a warm smile. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but in a long-term relationship, you have to alter your temperament to suit the other person. It’s perfectly natural, except that our circumstances require us to complete your whole transformation in the next forty-five minutes. So pay attention and start getting dressed.”

Justin hastily began buttoning up his shirt as Tina handed him a stick of deodorant. “Now,” she said, “my mother just wants you to be sweet and gentlemanly, so be polite and compliment her about everything you can think of. For my dad, just be cool and tell him you like bowling. Oh, and he’s a big history nerd, especially World War One, so be careful not to betray your lack of knowledge, but if you could drop a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm or chemical warfare, that’d be great.”

Justin nodded, working hard to absorb her advice and tie his necktie at the same time.

“And if they bring up their opinions on music and movies,” Tina continued, “try to agree with everything they say, but don’t overdo it- no one likes a kiss-up. And if the conversation gets political, just pretend to start choking on your food.”

Justin’s pre-dinner briefing continued as Tina fed him information and instructions before quizzing him to make sure he understood. Once she was sure that he had a good grasp of the key concepts, Tina fixed her hair in the bathroom while she guided him through a few diction exercises.

As the two prepared to leave, Justin grabbed the car keys and Tina snatched up her purse. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, withdrawing a cheap pair of reading glasses and quickly peeling off the sticker. “I picked these up for you on the way over. You need to look more mature and a little less suave. I can’t have them thinking I’m just dating you for your looks.”

“Aw, thanks,” said Justin, blushing a bit as he put on the glasses. “Wow, these really hurt my eyes.”

“It’s ok,” Tina said, “I’m driving. I’ve got a word-of-the-day calendar in the car for you to study on the way to the restaurant. You really need to bolster your vocabulary, and it’s a thirty-minute drive so you should at least be able to make it to April.” She gave him a pat on the shoulder and then headed for the door.

“Wait,” said Justin, doing his best to make eye contact as he squinted through the glasses. “I think it’s only fair that if I’m making all these changes for you, you should do a few things differently to accommodate me. A relationship is a two-way street, after all.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Tina, grabbing his hand to help guide him to the exit. “But let’s go, we’re going to be late.”

“Maybe you could work on being a little bit less bossy,” he said.

Tina sighed. “Fine. But you need to improve your posture and find a higher-paying job.”