belonglltthwill

I’ve had a little trouble writing recently. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone. So I decided to write something that was a little self-indulgent. Something that would make me feel good. I was happiest when I was writing Will, so I returned to him.

This is just a little short story in what may become a compilation. I have this title… Belong: Love Letters to the Hollands. The concept is that different characters would write about the moment that they were accepted into the Holland family. Since so many of my recent stories are about characters outside the family, yet so close to them, I thought it would be interesting to think of those solitary moments. Those days or nights that changed their lives.

I’m impulsively posting this tonight, and it’s not edited. I just wanted to share a little love with all of you. So here is Will’s love letter. 🙂 Enjoy.

[Spoilers ahead!]

English peas. Jack and Emi Holland welcomed me into their family–officially–with a package of fresh English peas.

I was fourteen years old. My diet up until then had consisted of sandwiches made with stale bread, wilted lettuce and questionable meat with a side of off-brand chips, if we were lucky; the value menu at McDonald’s; peanut butter crackers from the vending machines at school; fruit that had passed its prime that my brother got at the discount grocer; canned soups; and, occasionally, spaghetti and jarred sauce, if Jon had extra time to cook. Sometimes, he’d get a loaf of French bread and add some butter and garlic salt as a special treat. There may have been times that I’d traded things for candy–I’d copied notes for more than one person in junior high in exchange for some chocolate–but as a kid, I never spent my own money on sweets like that. I knew my brother would kick my ass if he knew I had.

After he’d been dating Livvy Holland for a year or so, he started dragging us with him to have dinner at their house on Wednesday nights. Max and I would have to take an extra shower after school that day, and Jon would always bring an extra shirt for me to wear, even though he was four years older and much bigger than I was at that point in our lives. His clothes swallowed me whole, but all of my shirts were at least five years old–they were his hand-me-downs–and they showed their wear.

I sulked every time I had to go, even though Jack was a good cook and the Hollands had a game room, a TV that seemed about the size of my bed with a movie collection that may as well have been the actual iTunes store, and a backyard where we would always play catch if the weather was nice. The night away from my house took me away from my books and the comfort of my cold and dingy room. It forced me to be social with people I didn’t know. With people who were clearly different than I was.

I’d watch my oldest brother closely as we’d eat amongst this wealthy family–Jack, Emi, Livvy, and Trey, their son, who was my younger brother’s age. Max and Trey clicked immediately. They were six-year-old boys who loved baseball and pestering Livvy and Jon. Insta-friends.

At our apartment, when Jon still lived with us, he was never stationary. If he wasn’t up doing something for himself, he was bouncing back and forth between me and Max, making sure our homework was getting done, and if our homework was done, he was making sure we were doing something productive in our spare time–me more so than Max. Max was a kid. Max was allowed to play. I suppose he gave me that same leeway when I was younger, but I don’t remember playing. I don’t remember being carefree. Ever.

While at these dinners, Jon was helpful and polite, but once we sat down to eat, he had full conversations with the Holland family, always encouraging me to speak up and join in. I didn’t fit in, though. Jack had Emi. Jon had Livvy. Max had Trey. I had my books calling my name from Harlem and a brother giving me subtle looks from across the table. Eventually, I learned to stop making eye contact with him or anyone else. I’d answer questions when I as asked them directly. Sometimes they’d have to ask twice because my mind was elsewhere. I thought I was being polite back then, but I was an asshole kid. I see that now.

The routine was, after Emi prepared plates for Max and Trey, we would all serve ourselves. As a guest, they insisted I go first. I hated going first, because once I’d seen the food on the table, my stomach would determine before I’d even had a bite that it could handle every damn morsel on the table. I didn’t want to share. It was like having a Thanksgiving feast–the kind I’d only seen on TV at that point in my life–available to me every week, and I wanted it all. I was conservative with my portions, though, and I cleaned my plate, no matter what was offered–even if it was asparagus, which I hated. If Jon took seconds, then I did, too. If he didn’t, I’d look longingly at the food because I was never full. Even when Emi offered me more, I felt greedy taking more when no one else did.

I’d thank them before I left, tell them the food was good, and go home wishing I’d had more. By the time I got home, my stomach was already growling for more.

The second week, Emi started sending a plate of leftovers home–one for me, and one for Max. As the weeks went by, my portions got bigger. My plate of leftovers never made it to the next day. There were times when I’d wanted to bribe Max for his, but I knew he needed the home-cooked food as much as I did. Plus, there was always the lingering threat of Jon kicking my ass. He would never actually beat me up, but he’d be pissed, and I didn’t like it when he was pissed at me.

The sixth week of these Holland dinners, Emi set down a dish to my left. I leaned into it, scrutinizing the color of the tiny balls that resembled peas, yet didn’t.

“What in the hell are those?”

“Will!” Jon said, admonishing my language. I got away with it at our apartment, but I had felt my cheeks spike in heat when Jack and Emi both looked over at me.

“They’re peas, Will,” Livvy had said, sending Trey and Max into a fit of giggles at my ignorance. I knew I wasn’t supposed to think so, but she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen in my life. Uncontrollable and embarrassing things happened to my body when Livvy Holland looked at me, so I never wanted her attention. I mean, I did, but I didn’t. I gazed at her breasts before I looked back at the food. Well, I first made sure my brother hadn’t seen me checking her out, and then I looked back at the food.

“I’ve never seen peas like that. Are they radioactive or something?”

Emi started laughing, too, as she walked up behind me and dished two spoonsful on my plate. “They’re fresh,” she said. “Try them. What are you used to? Canned?”

“Whatever mushy, swampy-green colored shit they dole out when I splurge and go through the lunch line at school.”

“Will, I mean it!” It was the pissed-off Jon I hated seeing, but I was finally beginning to feel comfortable in their presence. Apparently, that didn’t mean I could be myself.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, watching as Emi continued to pile huge portions of the rest of the dishes on my plate. “Thanks,” I said to her repeatedly. She patted my shoulder lightly before she returned to her seat. “These are just so… absinthe green.”

“How do you know about absinthe?” my brother asked.

“What’s absinthe?” Max followed up.

“I exist,” I shot back. “My mom’s a drunk–“

“Shhh!” Jon tried to quiet me, glancing at our little brother.

I shouldn’t have said it, but it was my go-to excuse for everything back then, and I continued my rant anyway. “My school’s made up of an assembly of criminals in Harlem. Who doesn’t know about absinthe?”

“Better not be drinking that shi–stuff,” he said, catching himself.

I smirked at him. “I don’t drink. I don’t like the taste of it.”

We had a record-breaking staring contest that made everyone else feel uncomfortable. Livvy finally broke the silence. “Something to look forward to in college, I guess,” she joked. Jon was still watching me, so I didn’t look over at her when she said it.

I’ve never had absinthe,” Jon admitted to her.

“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Jack lectured. “You’re only eighteen.”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect my little brother to, either, but I guess I’ve missed some things.” I caught his frown just before he’d hid his face from the rest of the table by looking into his lap.

Pissing him off was one thing. Disappointing Jon was something I couldn’t stand to do. “I’ve never tried absinthe, Jon. I’ve seen it at my dad’s place. He’s offered it, but I’ve never tried it. I’ve tried Mom’s… other stuff.” I looked at Max when I admitted this, not wanting him to catch on to what we were talking about to give him any ideas. We’d kept him in the dark about so much of it that even admitting she was a drunk out loud that night was probably more than I should have said. “I meant I don’t like the taste of that… but I’ve seen absinthe,” I told him. “Our dad used to drink it when he had friends over on those weekend visits. That stuff does look radioactive.”

My brother looked even sadder at that admission; he’d hated when our mother would send me and Max to my dad’s for the weekend. He never liked us having to go stay with our respective fathers. His was a decent man, but he knew ours was a criminal simply enjoying his freedoms until his next illegal act was discovered.

“Just pretend it is radioactive,” Emi said, “and stay away from it. You’ll thank me later.”

“Good advice,” Jack commented, smiling.

“Does it really cause hallucinations, Mom?” Livvy wondered aloud softly.

“What’s a lucy-nation?” Trey asked.

“Yeah. Who’s Lucy?” Max had to get in on the conversation.

“Later, Contessa,” Jack said to his daughter, ignoring the younger boys.

I was surprised when I actually put a few peas in my mouth. They were firm, crisp, buttery and salty, and I popped them with my tongue to unleash a sweet, earthy flavor. I loaded my fork with as many would fit and took another bite. They tasted like… spring. Like… good health. I felt invigorated eating them. They were the best things I’d ever eaten. Before I knew it, the beautiful absinthe green was gone from my plate, and I missed it. I looked around the table for the bowl, longing for another helping. They were in front of Emi, and my eye caught hers as I was yearning for them.

“Did you like them?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said with a nonchalant shrug, but my smile belied my feigned indifference to the vegetable.

“Have some more,” she suggested.

“No, I mean… I have all of this still,” I told her, sadly glancing back at the plate overflowing with food that didn’t include that garish green. Before I knew it, she was on her feet shoveling more onto my plate. “Thank you,” I gushed, going back in for more.

“Slow down,” Jon whispered to me. And I tried. I did. But they were so good.

“Will’s a growing boy, Jon,” Livvy said. I remember the crude internal thoughts of the teenager I was: I’m growing alright, Liv. See this?

I had blushed while she watched me eat, wishing she’d look anywhere else. When she finally did, my eyes settled back on her chest. The pendant my brother had given her drew my eyes there. It’s not like it was my fault. That’s what I had told myself.

Since I first met Livvy last Christmas, I would lie in bed some nights and think of touching her there. Sometimes I would have to get up and escape to the bathroom, not wanting to wake my little brother and explain to him what I was doing. I had decided I’d let Jon have that awkward conversation with him. I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the one to do it.

“Will?”

“Huh?”

“I asked if you like the chicken,” Jack said. It took me a few seconds to realize he was actually speaking to me, and then a few more to catch the severity in his tone.

“Can you excuse my brother and me for a moment?” Jon asked, standing up.

“Which one?” I asked, his movements finally breaking me out of the daydream.

“You. Now.”

“Oooooo!” Trey and Max taunted, knowing what it sounded like when Jon was angry. He’d caught me.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized as the two of us left the dining room. I followed him downstairs into the basement, which meant he was really mad if he couldn’t simply talk to me in the adjoining kitchen, or even the living room beside that.

“What’s up?” I asked innocently after he closed the door to the game room. He lightly knocked me across the forehead. “Ow! What?!”

“I’m surprised I didn’t have to wipe drool from your mouth.”

“The peas?”

“The peas,” he’d laughed, but he was obviously not amused. “Not the peas, you idiot. You were on the verge of living out your vivid fantasies with my girlfriend’s breasts at her parents’ dinner table. You moaned!”

“I did not. Did I?”

“No, but you may as well have. Everyone was watching you. I’m embarrassed for you.”

“She shouldn’t wear clothes like that. Her shirt’s way too tight. She’s just asking for people to gawk at her… maybe live out some fantasies,” I’d said, not taking him seriously.

“I’m about to hit you for real, Will, and violence isn’t really my thing. Let’s back up and think about what you just said.” He wasn’t merely pissed or annoyed, he was full-on angry with me… and disappointed.

“What?”

“Do you know when women ask for people to live out fantasies with their bodies, Will?” He waited for me to answer, but I wasn’t sure what the right answer was.

“When they dress sexy like Livvy is.”

“Wrong. Do you really think you could go up to a girl and start touching her simply because of the clothes she’s wearing?” I’d shrugged my shoulders. “No. No, you cannot. Ever. That is a fucking crime, Will. You are only allowed to start messing around with a woman when she gives you permission to. Verbally. It’s called consent. You know what that means?”

“Of course I know what it means.”

“Well, you need to learn how to apply it to relationships with women, Will. You want to go to jail like your dad, fine. Go put your hands on a woman unsolicited. Do you remember when we were little, and we’d hear those scuffles in Mom’s room? When we’d hear her crying and yelling ‘go away!?’ That was her not giving consent.”

I shook my head at him, not fully understanding. She had another one of those ‘scuffles’ not too long ago, but I hadn’t told Jon about it. After the stranger had left my mother–after her cries had stopped–he’d tried to come into the bedroom with my brother and me, but I’d pushed him out and sat against the door to keep him out. After he gave up, he returned to her, and the noises from Mom’s room began again.

“It’s not the same thing,” I’d said, my young brain trying to put together all the pieces. Had my own mother been raped in the next room? Is Jon saying it happened often when we were younger? And I remember those days, when there would be those scuffles. They were mainly with my dad. “Touching a girl isn’t… like, raping her.”

“It’s assault.”

“It’s not assault. Assault is beating someone up.”

“I thought you were a smart kid,” Jon had said, pulling up the new smartphone he’d purchased with scholarship money. “Assault. Noun. An act, criminal or tortious, that threatens physical harm to a person, whether or not actual harm is done.”

“You said torturous wrong,” I’d said to him cockily, wanting so badly to be smarter than he was. I knew I was in many ways already.

Tortious,” he continued, this time not looking at his phone. “Adjective. Wrongful. It’s a law term. One you should learn, should you decide to go down the path of your father.”

“Well, me touching a girl wouldn’t threaten physical harm.”

“Says you,” he had cut me off. “If she feels threatened, it’s assault. Done. You’re behind bars, kid.”

“Look, I didn’t touch your girl, Jon, and it’s not like I was going to.”

“You were making her uncomfortable.”

“Was not!”

“You were making everyone uncomfortable!”

“I wasn’t… was I?”

“Yes! Will! Jesus!”

I’d sat down on the recliner that faced the pool table and started tugging at my hair. The fact that Jack and Emi all knew that I had been ogling Livvy’s breasts was too embarrassing for me to deal with. And Livvy knew, too? I was sure she’d never be in a room alone with me again. “I can’t go back up there,” I mumbled.

“You have to,” my brother ordered. “You have to finish eating.”

“Bring my plate down here.”

“That’s not how they do it at the Hollands. They eat as a family, Will. Get your act together and come upstairs.”

“I’m not,” I’d told him, watching him leave the room. “You can’t make me.”

“Then I hope those peas were enough for you.” He didn’t even turn back, and I’d wanted to yell at him, but I’d made enough of a scene for one night.

After five minutes had passed, I tiptoed up the stairway and grabbed my backpack from the foyer so I could work on some homework downstairs. With seven more pages of advanced calculus problems to work on, I knew I’d be distracted from the hunger pangs. I was a freshman working at a junior level. The work wasn’t hard, but writing proofs was time consuming.

I was sitting on the floor of the main room in the dark, squinting at the paper I was scribbling on, when Jack came downstairs fifteen minutes later.

“You need some light on, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for me to answer before flicking on the track lighting that instantly put my work into focus. I was used to doing homework by the moonlight in our bedroom at home so that Max could get some sleep. Light was a luxury in our apartment.

“I was fine,” I’d lied.

“I can turn it back off–”

“That’s okay.”

I didn’t look up, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye straightening up Trey’s toys around the room. Once he was finished, he stood about six feet from me. “Mind if I have a seat?” He pointed to the sofa across from me.

“It’s your house.”

He’d chuckled. “I suppose it is. You’re our guest, though, and we want you to feel welcome.”

“It’s fine.”

“Good. Thank you.” He sat down and sighed. “Algebra?”

“Calculus,” I responded. “Two.”

“You’re a freshman, aren’t you?”

“So?”

“You take after your brother, I see.”

“I’m smarter than he is.” When I looked up, he was laughing at me, and it made me angry. “He just doesn’t know it. And it’s not funny.”

“I’m not laughing at you, Will. I love the competitive spirit between two brothers. I had it with my younger brother, Matty.”

“Good for you.” I mentioned I was an asshole kid. I wasn’t lying.

“Jon didn’t go easy on you earlier, did he?”

“Don’t know what you mean,” I lied. I did not want to talk to Jack about what happened at dinner.

“It may come as a surprise to you, Will, but I was fourteen once, too.” I looked directly at him to show my annoyance in what sounded like an upcoming after-school special monologue. “Humor me.”

I went back to my homework, but he kept talking anyway.

“Her name was Tiffany Berkley, and she was like a model. From the very first day of school in the eighth grade, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. In fact, I waited to see where she was sitting in all the classes I had with her just so I could find the best seat from which to stare at her. Looking back, it was terrible. But it was human nature. It was curiosity and raging hormones getting the best of me. And there’s really no female equivalent. It’s not like they’re compelled to look at us, right? Our handsome faces are one thing, but… They just aren’t made the same as we are.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“So don’t talk,” he said. “I’m doing the talking. Listen, there are two other people in this house who know what you’re going through right now: me and your brother. And I have no doubt that Jon thinks he knows everything about everything. I’ve had enough conversations with him to know that. But if you ever need to talk with someone else about things, I want you to know you can come to me. I’d prefer we not talk about my daughter, and I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere with her because she’s seeing your brother, but I’ll do my best to listen to whatever you have to say–and give advice only when you ask.

“This is a confusing and challenging time, and it can be damn hard to overcome those natural urges. I know. But you’ve got to respect the women around you for the traits and charms and talents they bring to any relationship and learn to accept that their bodies are not there for your pleasure. They’re there to protect all of those traits and charms and talents.” I looked up at him. “You see a woman’s true beauty when you learn what those wonderful characteristics are, and when you look into her eyes and see that she has chosen you to be the lucky man to share those with her. And then you’ll be head over heels in love with her character and her soul and then her body, regardless of what it looks like, believe it or not. Because you will love her. And she’ll love you.”

“Is that how you fell in love with Emi?”

He nodded his head. “Yeah.”

“Is she prettier than Tiffany Berkley?”

“Emi’s the most beautiful woman in the world to me.” To this day, I’m certain his eyes watered as he made those declarations. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how a man could be so emotional over a woman. Even with my first love, I was driven more by hormones than feelings. It wasn’t until Shea came along that I could really relate. “And I am the luckiest man that she chose to share her life with me.”

Still, even though I was a jerk of a teenager, I could respect his vulnerability. I respected Jack Holland. “I’m sorry about what happened at the dinner table,” I’d said meekly.

He stood up. “I appreciate that. But I’m not the one you need to apologize to.”

I dropped my pencil in my lap as I shook my head in protest. “I can’t talk to Livvy about it. No. I can’t do it.”

“Will,” he said, squatting down to my level, “if you can tell Livvy you’re sorry, it will speak volumes about the man you’ll become someday. If you can do this, you can do anything. I believe in you.”

He began his ascent upstairs. “I can’t, Jack! But… I can’t!!”

When I rested my forehead down on the coffee table, my head met the wood a little too hard, and I started to rub what was sure to be a bump with my thumb while I got back to my homework. I could hear Max, Trey, Jon and Jack outside in the backyard through the small window at the top of the basement wall playing catch. I didn’t want to join them. Going out back meant passing the kitchen, which meant passing Livvy.

I wasn’t sure if I could hide from her all night, but I was going to try. And then, by next week, maybe all would be forgotten. After turning the giant television on for some background noise–and to distract myself from my earlier embarrassment–I returned to my homework.

“The TV works better when you’re actually watching it.” My head jerked up to see Livvy standing at the bottom of the stairs holding a plate of food. “What is that, the Science Channel?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled, even though I’d specifically chosen the program about Neptune, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t watching it. I pretended to be hyper-focused on the math proof that I’d already completed, but she set the food down on top of the page, as if she knew I was only looking there to avoid her.

“You didn’t finish your food, so I heated it up for you.” After she said this, she went to her room, which was right off the living area in the basement. She returned a moment later wearing a pink, buttoned-up sweater, covering herself, and she sat down where Jack had been a half hour before. It wasn’t cold in the basement, and I felt horrible because I know she did it because I made things weird between us. She’d always been cool before. “Mind if I change the channel, since you’re not watching?”

“Nope.”

I started eating the food, eventually taking the plate into my lap as I turned around to watch something on a cable channel we didn’t have at my apartment. Even though it felt awkward with her in the room with me, it felt less so when I wasn’t facing her.

“Anything you want to say to me, Will?” she asked me.

“Thanks for the food.” I’d had a mouthful of potatoes when I said it.

“You’re welcome.” I thought I was off the hook. “Anything else?”

“Ummm…” I stalled. “Nice sweater?”

“Close.”

“Wouldn’t you rather I give you a genuine apology? Who sent you down here to force one out of me?” I’d asked her, wondering with whom I should be angry.

“Nobody. I think you know what you need to do. You’re a decent guy. You had a brief lapse in manners tonight, that’s all. I’ve been rude before. I’m sure Jon has, too. Who cares how it manifested itself, right? I’m over it. I should be more thoughtful about what I wear when you come over.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I didn’t say it was… but I did dress overtly sexy for Jon. I do that sometimes. I like making him a little crazy. I didn’t mean to garner the same attention from you. I forget you’re at that age.”

I kept eating my dinner and staring at the TV, but my ears were attuned to her every word. She was being too nice. Too generous.

Five minutes later, when the tension didn’t dissipate by itself like I’d hoped, she continued. “Look, Will, I don’t want things to be weird between us. It’s dumb. I want you to feel comfortable coming over here on Wednesdays–hell, whenever you want, if you’d like. I love your brother. I intend to be with him for a long time.”

I thought about what’s she’d said, being stubborn and too proud for a few more minutes. As I heard her stand, I finally spoke up. “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable at the dinner table, Livvy.” I’d swallowed hard, finding the words difficult to force out. I took a deep breath and turned around to face her. “I’m sorry for staring like that. It shouldn’t matter what you wear. I have more self-control than that. Or I will, anyway, going forward.”

She’d smiled genuinely. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It was pretty fucking bad,” I admitted with a chuckle. She laughed, too.

“Hug?” She offered with her arms outstretched.

“I’m good.” I stood up with my empty plate. “Do I, just, like, take this upstairs?” I’d asked her, inwardly hoping she’d take it for me.

“Have you forgotten where the kitchen is?” she said with a hint of snark.

I narrowed my eyes at her, wondering if this is what it was like to have a sister. “Yeah, can you show me?” I’d played along. “And carry this, while you’re at it?”

“Nice try, kid.”

“You can’t call me kid. You’re not that much older than me,” I’d argued, following her up the stairs.

“Three years?”

“Two and a half,” I corrected her.

“You’re a freshman. I’m a senior. That gives me full authority to call you a kid.”

“I take junior level classes.”

“Yeah?” she’d asked, turning on the faucet and pointing to the sink. “Skip a grade. I did.”

“That’d involve my mom actually showing up to parent-teacher conferences. My teachers know she’s an alcoholic. They work around her and give me elevated coursework. I’ll just start earning college credit next year sometime, I guess, if they let me keep doing what I’m doing. I forge her signature when I need to.”

“Really?”

“You’re not gonna tell him, are you?”

She’d smiled softly, then shook her head. “No. As long as you’re doing it for good reasons.” A smirk drew across my face, and I shrugged. She started laughing. “Don’t let me find out you’re cutting classes and signing your own detention slips!”

“Cutting classes? What, and staying home with my mom and some asshole I’ve never met before? Or better yet, my dad, if he’s on parole? No, thanks.”

Her smile faded, and her face became pale and worried.

I wasn’t kidding, but I didn’t want her pity. “I’m just kidding, Liv. But I like school.”

“Oh, thank God.” Her hand touched mine. I wished it hadn’t, and I pulled my arm into my body immediately. She didn’t seem to notice my reaction to her. “I’m going out back to referee the catch game. Wanna come?”

“No, I still have more homework to do.”

“You’re going to be just like your brother, aren’t you?”

“Probably,” I told her, wondering if I’d ever date a girl like her. “If I’m lucky.” I looked away after I said it so she wouldn’t be able to tell what I was thinking.

“You’re sweet.” I guess she’d figured it out anyway. We both went our separate ways. She went outside and I returned to the basement, but only after grabbing a soda from the refrigerator when I knew no one was watching. I tuned back into the Science Channel. After working through one of my math problems in my head and staring at the television for about seven minutes, not even hearing the sound that came out of the seven speakers that were conspicuously hidden in the room, I blinked out of my haze and began to hurriedly write the proof down on the paper. It wasn’t like I was going to forget it. I was just really excited to get to the next challenge, which always turned out to be not much of a challenge to me anyway.

I remember being disappointed after I finished the last problem. I flipped through the following three chapters in my textbook, fully comprehending everything that I’d be studying before winter break. Calculus II was a breeze. I couldn’t wait to put my natural knowledge of physics to the test next semester.

A new show started at eight o’clock, and I knew it was time to go home soon so Max could get to bed at a decent hour. I settled against the couch to watch an episode of Edge of the Universe, waiting for Jon to come downstairs and tell me he was ready to leave. To me, it felt like everything they were saying was common sense. I may as well have been learning the alphabet. Zoning out again, my brain returned to a problem I saw in a later chapter of my Calculus book.

“Am I interrupting something?” I blinked my eyes to focus on the TV first, and then on Emi, who was standing just to the left of it.

“Sorry, what?”

“You’re really into this show, huh?”

“Not really. I was thinking about something else.”

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?”

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “I’m talked out. Really. I apologized to her–“

“Will?” she had stopped me from continuing. “I’m glad. But I’m not here to talk about that.”

“Oh. Okay.” I’d straightened up and grabbed the remote, turning off the television. “Sorry.”

“Here.” She set down a white paper bag in front of me and then handed me a small notecard. “Jon said you know how to boil water.”

“Yeah. I don’t do it much, but I can.”

“Do you have decent pots and pans?”

“Well… they hold water, if that’s what you mean.”

“I guess that’s all they need to do. I wrote out some instructions here on how to prepare these.” She tapped on the sack in front of me. The bag was cold to the touch. I looked inside to see a whole bunch of peas, separated in individual baggies. “You’ll need to freeze any you don’t make tomorrow. Or tonight, if you’re still hungry. You want them to stay fresh, okay?”

“Okay. They’re already frozen?”

“I stock up in the spring. We keep them in the deep freeze. You can’t buy them year-round, so… they’re so much better this way than buying them frozen in a bag from the store. Just takes a little bit of prep work.”

“Cool. Thank you so much. They were so good.”

“They’re good for you, too. I’d tell you to share with Max, but I don’t think he liked them quite like you did, and I’d much rather them not go to waste.”

“They won’t. I promise, they won’t.”

“Will, if you two ever want to come over for dinner on other nights, you’re welcome. Even if Jon’s busy, okay? We’d even come pick you up, if you wanted us to.”

“Nah, we live way up in Harlem. It’s too far for you.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“I mean,” I started, “we have food and stuff. It’s not as good as yours, but we’re fine. It’s nice that you have us over on Wednesdays and shit. But, like, I have tons of homework I need to be doing, anyway.”

“Right,” she’d said. “Well, then let us at least make your favorite meal for you next week. What do you like most of all in the world that you never get to have?”

I thought about her question, trying to think of something. “The peas were really good.”

“Well, now you can make those. Something else.”

“Honestly, Emi, every week I come here and have my new favorite meal. Every week’s dinner tops the last one. I just fucking hate asparagus.” I knew I shouldn’t have said the word, but in a way, I was testing my limits with her.

Her eyes watered. “I know you’re being sincere because you’re not the type to be polite for polite’s sake.”

I stared at her, feeling guilty. “I’m sorry for…”

“Will, no,” she laughed. “It’s refreshing. Honestly. I don’t mind your language or you saying what you think. Your brother just wants to impress us, and he has in so many ways… sometimes he seems too good to be true.”

“He’s not,” I told her, vouching for him. “He really is that good.”

“Good. But it’s nice to see a slightly more real version of him. If you’re what he’d be like uncensored, I’d still be okay with him being with my daughter. I’d still welcome him into my home for dinner. I’d welcome him into my family.”

“Thanks, Emi.” Before I had known what was happening, she had her arms around me. I’d forgotten what it was like to be hugged in such a nurturing way. I held on to her tightly. “Thank you,” I had whispered.

“Anytime,” she’d said softly before letting go.

Needless to say, that night has stuck with me all these years. I knew I had a place in their home–and their family. When Max and I were whisked away to Utah a few weeks later, I longed for those dinners at the Holland’s home. When Livvy and Jon broke up months later, I worried I’d never get another of Jack’s home-cooked meals. When Jack picked me up from the airport after Laila had broken my heart–and subsequently followed through on my mother’s request to ground me at their home–I didn’t mind one bit. That grounding came with an amazing bowl of chicken noodle soup and fresh made bread. When I couldn’t sleep late that night, Emi heard me in the kitchen and warmed up another bowl of it for me on the stove as I plucked at strings on my new guitar. She had told me stories of Nate and his writing process. I remember thinking I’d never be a songwriter–thinking I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Even then, she didn’t believe me.

“Let life happen,” she’d said. “It will constantly change you. Let it. You will never be the same person today that you were the day before. As long as you’re willing to change and open to seeing the world in different ways, you’ll be surprised at the things you can accomplish.”

On that particular day, I could feel changes happening. I’d lost my virginity. I’d had my heart broken. My best friend had betrayed me. I was building walls, but girls were already trying to catch a glimpse over the top. I discovered I was a natural guitar player that day, and found confidence that had eluded me every day of my life before that one.

Emi had perfect timing. Her advice would stick with me as I started a new school late that summer. As I made new friends. As I started dating. As I began to write my own music. As I honed in on what I wanted to do with my life. I knew who I was, but I was flexible. Fluid. I was constantly observing. Taking things in and making adjustments until the world gave me what I wanted. I accomplished everything I set out to do. The only thing she was wrong about was being surprised about it. I was never surprised. I expected nothing less from myself. That came from Jon. It had to be an inherent trait, but not inherited.

Jon strived to be nothing but the best for Livvy and the Holland family. It took me years to find a woman who would inspire the drive to be good for her, but in all other aspects of my life, I never wanted to let myself down. I wanted to show my parents–who I believed had failed me until my early twenties–that I was self-sufficient. And I wanted the Hollands to be proud of me. I always wanted to be welcome at their dinner table.

©2017 Lori L. Otto

Let me know what you think with a like or a comment! Have you missed Will like I have? And Jon, too?