Author X Audience

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Chapter 13: Back to Boring

As it turns out, the great Terry Walsh flies coach just like the rest of us. When questioned about it, he raves about the price difference between coach and first class seats and then admits to enjoying the people-watching opportunities of coach. Usually, I’d agree with him. However this time, I’m replaying the conversation I had with my mother this morning about coming to visit in my head. She always asks so many questions. Why do I want to visit on such short notice? Whose wedding am I going to? Does she know the friend that invited me? Why hasn’t she heard about this person before?

Ever since my first girlfriend, I haven’t been exactly forthcoming about any potential partners in my life to any of my family members… I shrugged off as many of her questions about Terry as I could, but I couldn’t shrug off as many as I would have liked to while still securing lodging for both of us at the house. She still knows I’m going to a wedding, with a man, and that said event and person are important enough for me to attempting flying on Black Friday.

Terry sits next to me, reading a paperback about Bigfoot. Terry Walsh packs paperbacks when he travels.

Of all things.

I know he has an iPad in his bag for his drawing software, why doesn’t he just use that? Then again, he also packed a sketch pad. Wtf, hasn’t he heard of e-readers?

Just like my mother.

Ugh.

I curl forward and bury my hands in my hair, effectively shrouding myself away from the world around me.

I hear Terry shift softly. The next moment, his hand settles gently on the back of my neck. My breath leaves me in a long gust as he massages my neck slowly.

“You’ve been tense since we got on this plane,” he murmurs.

I tuck my hair behind my ear and give him a sidelong look. He’s got his eyes carefully trained on his book, not drawing attention to me, not watching me.

He only raises his eyebrows a little to acknowledge my look. “Care to share?”

“You know how I said we could stay at my place?”

“Has that changed? Because that’s fi—”

“No, it hasn’t changed.”

He waits.

“…I didn’t tell my mother about us.”

He puts his bookmark in his book and closes it.

“So you told her…?”

“That a friend and I were invited a wedding and needed a place to stay in Boring for a night or two.”

“…And she bought that?”

I bite my lip. “It’s not like I lied.”

“Ha!” His face falls into his hand. “I’ve got two moms, you think I don’t know how many questions she asked? How in heaven’s name did you…?”

“I didn’t, okay? I told her I had to go, I misdirected and changed the subject and didn’t give her anything. She doesn’t even know your name.”

Terry lifts his head, face changed into something like awe.

“You’ve got to teach me that trick…” he breathes.

“Wait, you can’t do that?”

“Ha! Titania and my moms know your freaking birthday already.”

“…You know when my birthday is?”

He waggles his eyebrows at me. I blush and turn to look out the window.

The Portland city lights cut through the low hanging clouds to greet me. Oh, it’s been so long. Hello, Portland. You’re always a sight for sore eyes—but I’m not sure if I want to smile or cry.

I’m so scared. What if Mom tries to make us sleep apart? I’ve never brought a partner over to stay before—at least not one she knew about. It was easy to have partners in my room under the guise of a sleepover, but Terry very obviously presents as male. She freaked out so badly when I told her I was bi, and I’m not sure I want her to let us sleep in the same room together just because she’s relieved I brought a man home with me instead of someone else.

Mom’s insecurity about my bisexuality is confusing. Dad told us about the girlfriend she had when she was in her mid-twenties back before I stopped listening to anything he had to say. Shouldn’t she understand how I feel? Then again, she only ever had the one girlfriend, and I know she’s only into men these days. But just because she dated a woman and then decided she only liked men doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to go hetero dating one! It’s not like she’s ever been good about understanding these things. She still makes comments about how Lizzy might one day change her mind about being asexual when Lizzy’s out of earshot, talking about it like Lizzy’s sexual identity is just baggage due to her rape instead of something she’s thought long and hard about. Even if Lizzy does change her mind someday, her shift in identity isn’t going to invalidate who she was in this moment!

Mom’s constant undermining of Lizzy’s identity and her obvious discomfort with mine makes me nervous. I’m tired of her issues running my life. Her scapegoating grief, her constant nagging about how nice it would be when I found a man and settled down. All of that was why I left.

Is the Portland I see glittering up at me going to fit with me now? Or is coming back at all just going to cause more strife?

I jump in surprise as Terry takes my hand. I turn away from the window to look at him.

He squeezes my hand gently. “We don’t have to stay with your mother.”

I think about that for a moment. The stress of finding a hotel room right off the bat in Portland doesn’t sound fun, and I know Mom is coming to pick us up… I look at him and think. What am I trying to hide anyway? Just look at him. Mom couldn’t disapprove. Honestly, her disapproval isn’t what I’m afraid of. I’ve already lived through that. I’m afraid of her jinxing it by going too far. After all, he and I are going to a wedding together, and my mother’s a gossip.

But what happens if we don’t go?

I want to show him the trees. I want to take him down into the bit of forest and ravine we’ve got behind the house and lead him along the paths I ran along in my childhood—the ones he wrote into his show without ever seeing. I want to show him the magic he captured of the place he never experienced. I want him to rewrite the memories of those places so they belong to me again. But if we don’t go…

I hold his hand in both of mine and press the back of it to my lips. “No,” I say. “I want you to see where I grew up. And I want you to meet my mother. Hell, Lizzy’s detouring just to see us before going back to San Francisco for school on Monday.”

“I know,” he chuckles. “Remember I Tumblr-stalk her to keep tabs on you.”

I feel myself flush again. I keep forgetting he’s part of the internet. Probably has something to do with how I’ve had almost no time for it lately. Could anyone blame me when the things that are happening right in front of me are so interesting?

I tuck the armrest between us back into the seat and slip over to lean on his shoulder.

“We’re landing soon,” he reminds me.

“Just let me steel myself for what’s to come, okay?”

“…Should I be scared of meeting your mother?” His voice is light and jovial, like he’s trying to make me laugh. I wish my nerves would let me.

“You’re the first lover I’ve brought home since high school,” I whisper.

“Is that what you call me?” he asks, voice dipping. “Your lover?”

“When I’ve got nothing else to call you,” I grumble.

He kisses me. “I’ll take what I can get.”

The kiss helps a little. Him holding my hand from the moment we get off the plane until we find my mother past security helps a little more. I drop his hand when I see her and run up to hug her. Even with all of my nervousness, it’s good to see her. I can’t help but notice she’s lost weight. I hope it’s because she’s eating well instead of from forgetting to eat. Mom’s depression has never done good things for her appetite.

Mom and I are barely even past the pleasantries of greeting each other when, still holding me, she hisses into my ear, “Is that your friend?”

I laugh—nervous, scared, convinced it’s all going to go to hell any moment.

I pull back. “Yes. Um, this is Terry, Mom. H-he’s m-my…”

I glance over at him, and he’s just there; same small gentle smile, same kind eyes, same easy air of home he carries with him wherever he goes. My new normal. I look at him, and I find the words I’m looking for.

“He’s my new partner.”

My mother’s head snaps back towards me. “You mean, your boyfriend?”

Terry chuckles. “I’m hardly a boy anymore, ma’am. Is ‘ma’am’ the correct way to address you?”

My mother blinks and then reels back on her heels like she’s been taken off guard. “Oh, goodness, no! Helen will be just fine.”

“Helen. What a lovely name.” He takes her hand and shakes it. “I’m Terry, Alexis’s partner. We’re going with that term since one of my mothers is a trans woman and I’ve always been rather sensitive to issues of gender identity and eager to do my part in spreading awareness.”

Look at him, making up reasons for the term I’ve just pulled out of my ass to describe our relationship to my queer-illiterate mother.

“Oh, my, well.” My mother looks around his shoulder to stare at me. Her eyes are still wide with bewilderment, but she looks pleased too. “He seems like a nice young man.”

I grimace and look away. I wonder how much of that opinion of Terry has to do with her assumptions about him. Did she even hear the part about his trans mother? Or is she being selective with her hearing again?

I nod to acknowledge her instead of saying anything. She returns her attention to Terry.

“Very good to meet you. Terry, you said your name was?”

He nods and starts in on the subject of how much my mother must enjoy living in Oregon. I should have known Terry’s small talk abilities would come in handy here. He goes on about the scenery and the mountains all the way to the car, and about the rain and the rivers and the lakes all the way home. All I have to do is exist and occasionally be pulled into the conversation for commentary on the wildness or elaboration as to why the California-born-and-raised Terry has such a grand obsession with Oregon’s water.

There’s an ease to it that I haven’t felt with my mother in years. The relief is overwhelming. If I could sleep in moving vehicles, I would nod off.

Instead, I watch as the city gives way to suburbs, and then to the trees. I wonder if Terry’s watching too. I count the cars as we pull into Mom’s long gravel driveway—an old habit. You always knew who was home by the cars. No one gets anywhere in Boring without one, and with two daughters as crazy and passionate as Lizzy and I, my parents gave everyone a way to leave the house early on. I still think it’s weird we’re missing Dad’s car. My car sits in the driveway, left behind due to my proximity to public transport in San Francisco. Lizzy’s is absent, spirited away in a student parking lot at her new school, no doubt. I know she’s home, though. Her light is on in her window.

I ask Mom how Lizzy’s doing as we come to a halt in the garage. We exit the car and Mom tells me that Lizzy’s been drawing like a mad since last night and has barely said a word to her all day. “She went straight to her room when we got home this morning, muttering something about needing her tablet. She only just came out to feed the animals before I left to come pick you two up. You know how she likes to do that when she’s home.”

Terry looks around like a five-year-old at the word “animals.”

“Did you not see the horses or the barn?” I ask him.

“I, um…” He gives me an abashed look. “It’s dark.”

My mother chuckles. “I’ll let you acquaint him with the troops. See you two inside.” She gathers her purse from the back seat of the car and goes inside.

I open the trunk and hand Terry his suitcase. “If you’re excited about the horses, you’ll be thrilled to know we have cats too.”

“And you didn’t warn me?!”

Oh stars, he’s not allergic or something is he? Wait, no, that wouldn’t make any sense. Even after a year in Japan I have cat hair clinging to most of my wardrobe, and what wasn’t christened by the Boring cats was certainly done in by Elizabeth’s. They love my tiny attic room, especially the warm patch of sunlight that falls on the carpet just inside my closet most afternoons. I pull my suitcase from the trunk and set it down on the garage floor. “Why would I have needed to warn you?” I ask.

“I could have brought catnip!” He has a crazy look in his eye.

Suddenly I fear for my cats.

“Are you one of those people that always wanted a cat and never had one?”

I can tell he’s trying to smother it, but the manic grin he gives me is answer enough.

“Right, just a sec.” I stride out of the garage, lift my hands, and call for my cat. “Phantom!”

She never comes on the first call, but after two more, my tiny runt of a tabby cat comes prancing out of the darkness, giving me her tiny “Mrah!” of a meow in welcome.

I kneel to scoop her up, and cuddle her in the crook of my neck. She’s used to me going missing for long periods of time, but there’s always a specific amount of cuddling required when I get back before she forgives me for being gone. Once I’ve got her purring, I take her into the garage to meet the new guy.

He gasps when he sees her. “You have an outside cat?”

Oh, right. He was a Bay Area boy. Not too many outside cats there, I suppose. I reposition Phantom in my arms so she can see Terry. “Do you want to hold her?”

“Yes!” he squeaks. He holds out his hand for Phantom to sniff.

Phantom inspects Terry’s fingers curiously. She then reaches up with a paw, directs one of his fingers down, and bites him in a way that I would describe as gentle—Phantom and I have a complicated relationship—and my sister would describe as vicious. Leave it to my little kitty to establish the pecking order right away.

“Ohmigosh!” Terry starts to pull his hand away.

“No, don’t move. She’ll let you go in a minute if you don’t move.”

A moment later, Phantom releases him. He does a quick once over of his finger, I assume to make sure he isn’t bleeding, and then offers his hand to Phantom again. This time, she licks his finger. Then she butts her head against his palm and purrs.

I smile and hand her off to him. He takes her with a look of reverence. “Well, isn’t she a warrior,” he remarks.

I laugh. “You were expecting upfront cuddly behavior from my scrappy little kitty?”

“Heh. Guess I should have guessed with a scary name like Phantom.”

I huff at him and pick up my luggage. “For your information, I chose it because I found it both ethereal and unique.” I turn and mount the stairs into the house. “That, and it was a memoriam to the cat I had before her. It’s eerie how much they look alike.”

He chuckles. “Well, she is quite a beauty.” I turn back and see that Phantom has taken one of his shoulders as a throne, looking every inch the queen she usually does. He’s brushing her plush winter coat softly with his ravaged finger. His eyes flick away from her and up to me. “Just like her person.”

“She knows it too,” I tell him, opening the door. I set my suitcase inside and wink at him. “Just like her person.” I hear Terry chuckle as he follows me inside.

We find my mother just past the entry way, idling in the kitchen with some mail. “You two don’t mind sleeping together in Alexis’s room, do you?” she asks. She passes off the letter she was reading and opens another. “I admit, I wasn’t expecting to have company today until you called this morning, and the green room”—read my father’s old room, we’re in the process of rebranding—“is a bit of a disaster, what with Lizzy’s recent move…”

So Terry gets to sleep with me but the first girlfriend she knew about had to sleep on the couch when she came to visit? I grimace and stare at my shoes. “Sure.”

Mom finishes her note, turns, and smiles when she sees Phantom on Terry’s shoulder. She reaches over and scratches her between the ears. “Probably where this little one wants to go anyway. I think there’s still half a bag of cat food up there for her.”

“Cool. We’ll get her squared away.”

“Good. You do that. I need to run back out for some groceries. It’s been so quiet around here with just me, we don’t have anything for breakfast!”

“Oh, you should have said something!” I tell her. I hate it when she does this! Next thing you know, it’ll be my fault she was out so late buying groceries and I’ll have to live with the guilt trip all through breakfast. “We could have stopped at the store on the way home. It would have saved you gas, and we could have helped you carry—”

My mother raises her hand with a kind smile, cutting me off. “Honey, it’s fine. You’ve got a big day tomorrow, and I’ve got it. You two settle in. There’s hot chocolate mix in the cupboard if you’d like some. Still have some things around here, thank goodness!”

She grabs her keys and sweeps past us back out to the car. “See you soon. And do please make yourself at home, Terry.”

He gives her a small salute, still petting Phantom with his other hand. “Yes, ma’am.”

She laughs and closes the door behind her.

I stand there, lost in the surreal nature of what just happened. Is this a dream? It feels like a dream. Things are going too smoothly. Mom’s got her shit together. She didn’t say anything about Terry’s family, or our newly decided upon substitute for the word “boyfriend.” She’s letting us sleep in the same room. Even if I’m not 100% sure of her motivations, that’s a big deal after the divorce. Neither Lizzy or I have had a partner since the divorce, but Mom wanted nothing to do with the old romcoms she used to love after Dad left. It’s hard for me to feel like she could support me making a romantic connection right now.

Phantom mews demandingly.

I blink back into the present. “Right,” I say, pointing to her. “This cat needs food.”

I lead Terry out of the kitchen into the front entryway and then up the stairs to my old room. As I open the door, I realize Terry’s about to get a blast from the Alexis-centric past. Most of the décor in my room is just the way it was my senior year of high school. I brace myself as we walk in, sure his eyes will go straight to the Marauders of the Caribbean and unicorn posters I never took down.

I make straight for the bag of cat food. “Welcome to the realm of high school Alexis,” I say, ripping the bag open. Phantom immediately leaps from Terry’s shoulder to my bed, and then from my bed to the floor. She waits for me to finish and then digs in.

When I look up, Terry isn’t engrossed in my posters. Instead, he’s studying the manga volumes double-stuffed onto my bookshelves. “You’ve been at this manga thing for a while, haven’t you?” he asks, reaching out and picking up the first Japanese volume of Wandering Swordsman Kenshin.

He blinks and then picks up the first English volume. “Is this… the same series?”

“Same series, different languages.”

I pull the first volume of the live action movie-inspired manga re-do of the first story arc of the series he’s holding and hand him that too. “And here’s the alternate beginning. It compresses about the first ten volumes into two.”

“Whoa…” He looks at the three books in his hands and then carefully puts them back. He puts his hands on his hips and turns in a full circle. “This is quite the room.”

“High school Alexis admired a lot of things.”

“Unicorns, lots of The Legend of Helga—is that a tiny Sephiroth I spy? Jonathan Dhepp…”

Marauders of the Caribbean as a whole, really, but his acting was pretty phenomenal. I admired his talent.”

A satisfied smile slides across Terry’s face. “Of course you did.” He sounds sincere. Then he looks down. “And a cat named Phantom!” He bends down and scoops her back up into his arms. She yowls at him, obviously not having yet finished her dinner. He tickles her nose and gets bitten for his trouble. He stops moving and Phantom holds him loosely in her mouth for a moment before letting go and scrabbling for a more comfortable position in his elbow.

“How ever did high school Alexis come by a name like that?” he asks, stroking Phantom from her ears to the root of her tail.

“She was named for her predecessors.”

“Is this a reference I’m missing, or…?”

“No. The cat before her was Ghost. She looks a lot like him—runt, tabby, same ‘don’t fuck with me, I’ll eat you’ eyes. But Ghost got his name partly because I wanted something unique for him, and partly because he was the first tabby we’d had since Mom’s tabby McKinley passed. He was the ‘ghost’ of one of the cats I’d grown up with, and I thought I was being clever.”

I tickle Phantom’s chin.

“What happened to Ghost?”

“Coyotes, we think. Of course, at the time, I invented a story about how the Forest Fairy Queen had threatened to turn all the coyotes’ teeth to rubber if they ever ate another pet. The Queen, in all her wisdom, knew the coyotes had a reputation to uphold however, so she struck a deal with them: if the coyotes brought all the pets they would have eaten to her, she’d turn them into forest fairies so the coyotes reputation wasn’t ruined and the pets could continue to look after their loved ones from the trees. Kind of a stiff tradeoff for the coyotes, but I’m sure the Queen had some sort of magic tofu supplement or something arranged for them. Can’t be concerned with their reputation without being concerned about their health first, can you?”

Terry laughs.

I smile.

“It was silly, but it made Lizzy feel better. She’d lost her cat Arwen before Ghost went.”

Terry’s face falls. “Man, no wonder you had to leave when shit went down.”

Wait, what? “You’re gonna have to clarify the link between those two thoughts for me.”

“Your cat goes missing, and the first thing you do is invent a story to console your sister? You already told me that nothing you did seemed to help when your family members were passing. I can’t imagine what it was like, being right next to them and not being able to help them.” He pauses. “I can’t imagine what it was like deciding the best thing you could do for them was leave.”

An old memory of pain pulses through me. “It was better than feeling like the only thing I could do was hurt them.”

“You really love your family.”

How did he get all that from a silly story I made up for my sister? But… I mean, it’s not like he isn’t right. I couldn’t help them. Being with Mom and Lizzy only seemed to bring them pain and trouble for so long. I loved them too much to keep causing them pain—and I loved myself too much to let them keep taking the pain they already had inside of them out on me. Running away to Japan may have been the best decision I ever made in regards to my family.  “…Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

He steps in and pulls me to him.

“Promise me right now you’ll never ruin yourself for anyone again.”

It took me three different therapists and a year in a foreign country to figure out I was wrecking myself for the sake of my family. Obviously Terry missed his calling as a clairvoyant. I return his embrace, feeling safe for the first time since I stepped into my old home.

“Don’t worry,” I whisper. “I promised myself that a long time ago.”

“Good.” He kisses my cheek roughly and then steps away. He gestures towards the door and says, “Shall we go check up on Lizzy?”

I beam at him. “Definitely. Wanna get in on one of the traditions I started with her since my dad left?”

“Oh, you know I do.”

“Then follow me.”

I lead him back downstairs. He raises an eyebrow when I take the hot chocolate mix down from the cupboard.

“What exactly is this tradition?” he asks as I pull the milk from the refrigerator.

I turn on the stove. Water goes on to boil and milk to simmer for the half and half concoction Lizzy likes and full milk version Mom likes. “One day when Lizzy was home from school, she was sad. I didn’t know what to do for her. She’s very particular about the way she takes her tea, and I’d learned long ago I couldn’t talk her and Mom out of their sadness. For lack of anything better to do, I made her hot chocolate. The next day, she asked me to do it again. Now I do it whenever she’s home. Eventually Mom wanted in on it too, so…” I hold up the canister of cocoa and shrug.

“It’s not some ceremony you and your family created long ago in honor of chocolate?” Terry teases.

“You know me.” I pull the milk off the stove and pour it into mugs. “I barely have a sweet tooth.” I add hot water to Lizzy’s mug and then stir the cocoa in. “It just makes me feel like I’m doing something.”

He shakes his head. “You’re not good at just sitting around, are you?”

“Like you’re one to talk,” I tease, continuing to stir. “Don’t you remember when I first told you about all of this in Elizabeth’s attic?”

He gives me a clueless grin. “Refresh my memory?”

I shoot him a fond look and switch mugs. “You refreshed my tea and told me if there was ever anything you could do for me to help, you were there. And then you used a very ‘us’ involved script that someone wrote to cope with his feelings of wanting to be around me.”

He rubs at his hair. “You don’t still have that script, do you?”

“Are you kidding? I’ll always have that script.”

“Heh,” he says. “Not my best work.”

I leave my stirring spoon in the mug and close the distance between us. I plant a kiss on his cheek. This little moment is the most at home I’ve felt since getting here.

“You helped me calm down when I needed to finish Lizzy’s comic script this week,” I remind him. I stroke his spine. “You helped me take back my childhood plaid shirt.”

He puts his arms around my waist and huffs into my hair. “Even then, I don’t think I’m on your level when it comes to needing to do things.”

“Disagree. You may have more tact than I do, due to the few years of life experience you’ve got on me, but you haven’t seen you in the writer’s room the way I have.” I tweak his nose and step back to my hot chocolate project. “I will admit, however, that most of my responses to the vast and various situations of life are fight ones instead of flight ones.”

“You don’t say?” he chuckles.

Before I can respond, Lizzy comes dashing into the kitchen. “I smelled hot chocolate!” she says.

I hold a mug out to her and she seizes it.

“Whoa, slow down there, tiger,” Terry says. “If you go too fast, you won’t be able to appreciate the love your sister put into that.”

Lizzy lowers her mug fractionally and stares at Terry. “Okay, two things,” she says. “First.” She holds out her hand. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Walsh. I trust you’ve been taking good care of my idiot older sister.”

He takes her hand and they shake. “I wouldn’t call her an idiot, but she’s allowing me the privilege. I do hope I’ll live up to your and her expectations.”

Lizzy nods like that’s an acceptable answer and takes her hand back. “Secondly, there’s only one person I know that calls me ‘tiger…’” She slams the mug down on the counter like she’s just made a discovery. “Terry Walsh, are you DeOriginalGrunkle?!”

Terry bows.

“That is not your screen name,” I plead.

He smirks. “I’m very sorry to tell you that it is.”

I place my hand over my eyes with an exasperated sigh.

“But now that I’ve told you a secret of mine,” Terry prompts, turning curious eyes on Lizzy, “you simply have to tell us what you’re drawing up in that room of yours.”

Lizzy goes from flushed with excitement to flushed with embarrassment. The nuance of my sibling’s facial expression is wasted on Terry, but you don’t spend decades with someone and not pick up a thing or two.

“Hang on,” I say. “If you’re embarrassed about it, it can only be one thing.” Lizzy gives me a panicked look. Then she puts down her hot chocolate and bolts for her room—but she’s too slow.

“Terry, grab her!” I yell as I shoot past Lizzy into the hall. I sprint down it and use the door frame to spin myself into Lizzy’s room. I sit down in her desk chair and shake her mouse to get rid of her screen saver. Terry and Lizzy show up in the doorway panting as the screen comes up—and the unmistakable mosaic of a comics page unfolds before me, Finean’s face plain and recognizable in each sequential panel.

His face blurs as tears rise in my eyes. I turn to Lizzy, who’s biting her lip.

“You hate it that much?” she asks.

“What the fuck are you talking about, you idiot?” I choke. “I love it.” I stand and hold my arms out for her. She darts in between them and hugs me around the middle. My arms fall around her shoulders. I hold her close as she buries her face in my shoulder. Terry watches gently from the doorway and then says, “I’ll go start making more hot chocolate.” I nod and he departs.

“I didn’t think you’d like my script,” I say.

Lizzy shakes her head against me. “Are you crazy? You brought them to life! I couldn’t stop myself from drawing them, I—” She cuts herself off and squeezes me tightly. “Thank you.”

I squeeze her back. “I’m just glad I finally managed to do something to help.”

“Well, get ready, because this is the first comic like this I’ve made, and it’s totally gonna suck, and I’m gonna need a pretty badass editor to help me clean it up before I can even dream about getting it published.” She backs out of our embrace and shoves me gently into her desk with her shoulder. “You better be ready to take care of that.”

I laugh and shove her back. “Well, I know a man in our kitchen with an animation degree that might be able to save me some work if you’re willing to go pick his brain.”

Lizzy grins at me. “I should get back to my hot chocolate before it gets cold anyway, but having a monopoly on Terry Walsh’s artistic advice for an hour or two is a nice perk.” She saunters back towards the hallway, but stops in the doorway. “Thanks again, sis.”

I’ll start crying again if she keeps on like this. “Go drink your hot chocolate and harass my partner!”

“Ooh, so he’s your partner now,” Lizzy teases. “Nice!” She sticks her tongue out at me and winks before disappearing into the hallway. I take a moment to collect myself before following her back to the kitchen.

Lizzy has Terry pinned down by the stove, bombarding him with questions when I walk in. I shoo them over to the table to continue their conversation, taking the new pan of heating milk from Terry. I press my mother’s cup of hot chocolate into Terry’s hand so it won’t get cold and go to waste since Mom hasn’t come home from grocery shopping yet, then turn back to making sure the new milk doesn’t scorch. Their conversation turns to the craft of drawing and quickly becomes too littered with technical jargon for me to engage in or follow. Regardless, it’s satisfying to see how happy it makes them.

I’m just finishing up the new batch of hot chocolate when Mom comes in through the garage. She sets down her grocery bags on the counter, points to Terry and Lizzy, and whispers to me, “What the heck are they talking about?”

I feel a small smile slide across my lips. Mom never could follow it when Lizzy and I talked video games either. “Lizzy has cornered an animation pro and has decided to absorb all of his existing knowledge,” I say, offering her a mug of hot chocolate.

She takes her hot chocolate from my hand, takes a sip, and makes a noise of appreciation. “It’s really good to have you here, honey,” she says.

I really want to make nice with my mother. I don’t want to fight with her, but I can’t help making a noise of disbelief when she says that. “You mean now that I’m not dating a woman?”

It was the wrong thing to say. I feel my shoulders tense, readying for the incoming storm of yelling and self-justifying excuses about how she’s having to deal with so much and can’t I just understand what she’s going through and stop making her life difficult for five minutes.

Instead, my mother makes a pained expression and leans against the counter next to me. “I’m really sorry about how I acted, honey. I was in a dark place, but that was no excuse to take it out on you.” She takes a sip of her hot chocolate. “I may have been projecting a little. You dating women and Lizzy not dating at all made me feel like there had been alternatives to marrying your father that I just had been too wrapped up in the heteronormative brainwashing to see, and I think it led to some pretty unfair behavior towards both of you. I’m sorry.”

I’m frozen. Is my mother really apologizing or am I already upstairs in bed and dreaming?

She touches my arm and gives me a loving look. “I’m going to do my best to learn how to be respectful of both of your identities from now on. Will you help me when I mess up?”

It takes me a moment to respond because I’m still trying to process that this is happening. How is this happening? I didn’t do anything! What changed her mind?

“Y-yeah,” I say. “No problem, Mom.”

She kisses my cheek. “Thank you. You’ve always been so good at getting things done.” Her words feel loaded.

“Mom, if you’re talking about what happened during the divorce, I—”

“No, it’s okay.” She takes her hand back and fiddles with one of her gold hoop earrings. The motion draws my eye to them. Mom’s always worn small, modest hoops. Her favorite always were a pair Dad got her for their first wedding anniversary. I blink in surprise at the unfamiliar design of the ones in her ears. They’re new.

“I don’t think the way either of us did things was better or worse, right or wrong,” she says. “You’ve always been a doer, and I’ve always been a feeler. We just couldn’t find the middle ground where we could decode that for each other. A lot of that is my fault, a lot of it couldn’t be helped due to the timing…”

“Yeah, remind me never to get divorced right after a series of deaths,” I joke.

Mom gives me a small smile. “I never used to understand your gallows humor.”

I shift, unsure of how to proceed in the face of this new understanding Mom model. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to talk with her like this. “You never laughed your way through pain, Mom. I’m just glad my jokes don’t upset you anymore. I’m sorry for the way they did before.”

“I’m sorry for not realizing you were trying to help. It would have made things so much easier if I’d only known they helped you feel better and that’s why you kept cracking them.” She laughs.

Her laughter makes me feel less nervous. I mirror her warm expression. “Next time we’ll have this whole kumbaya way of comforting each other figured out, huh?”

“I hope it’s a long time before we have to do that.”

“Me too.” Our conversation lulls after that. Where do we pick up? We may have negotiated a cease fire, peace talks may be in session, but the pieces of our relationship still lie around us like jagged gravestones. “Um,” I say, trying to fill the silence. “I like your new earrings.”

“Thank you!” she says. She reaches for one again, touching it with her pointer finger. “It felt like it was time for a change.”

I keep my eyes on my mother’s, lost in the change I’ve seen in her today. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”

Mom takes her hot chocolate over to the table and sits with Terry and my sister. She breaks into their conversation and demands a change in topic to something even her old lady brain can understand. She’s directing the table chatter the same way she used to during our family dinners, before everything went to hell.

I take my time pretending to stir my hot chocolate by the counter. When I finally give up the ruse and join them at the table, I mutter at Terry to pinch me.

“Why?” he whispers back.

“Because everything is going too well,” I say. The tension from the plane comes flooding back as I start to panic. When all of this first started, my therapist back in college told me that joy was the most vulnerable of emotions. Then, I’d only been defensive around my family for a matter of months. Now, it’s been four years of freaking out when I can’t see any obstacles in my way with them. It makes me feel like instead of being in a good place I’ve simply failed to see the signs and that some terrible thing is looming above me, ready to drop the moment I let my guard down. What have I missed that’s going to ruin everything this time? What have I—

No, no, no, we just fixed this!

I clutch Terry’s hand desperately. “I didn’t do anything to fix things, and now everything’s okay, and it doesn’t make sense,” I say.

He checks to make sure my mother and sister are still firmly preoccupied with the debate about the cons of dairy on vocal ability versus the pros of taste, and then coyly kisses me. “None of this was ever your fault,” he tells me. “It was never your job to fix it. Put that brilliant mind of yours to rest and stop analyzing it. This is real life, not a conspiracy theory-riddled cartoon.” He winks, and then faces front, sipping his hot chocolate innocently, as if he’d never broke his attention away from the conversation to kiss me.

I bury my nose in my cup too, but only to hide my blush. I don’t know when he started seeing through me, but I like it—and he’s right.

Life is crazy and fucking complicated, and the god complex I’d need to be responsible for all of it would rival even that of a high schooler with a killer notebook. Feeling the responsibility and guilt wash off my shoulders brings a laugh bubbling up my throat.

Conversation stops and my family watches me curiously. “You know,” I say, setting my mug down and lacing my fingers conspiratorially. “Terry actually gets paid to laugh manically.” My sister’s eyes slide to Terry with a look I recognize; gauging the competition. Her curiosity gives way to a contest of maniacal laughter. Terry is quickly disqualified for being too good. Mom puts an end to it before we can determine a winner between Lizzy and I, saying it’s too late for all this noise and we should all go to bed. We disperse from the table and go our separate ways for the evening.

A lot of different Alexises have curled up in my old bed. Some of them thought they could take on the world, some of them thought it was over. All of them thought whatever was happening in their lives was the result of their choices. This one is just happy that the stars aligned in a way that led to having Terry by her side.

 

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