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Chapter 6: An Abridged Family History
When we pull up outside Elizabeth’s house in Oakland, Terry insists on carrying things. I tell him I hope he’s picked the tea he wants, and he gives me a resolute nod like it’s the most important decision in the world and tells me, “I have it on good authority that I should go with Earl Grey.” Before I can come up with a response, Elizabeth spills out of the house.
“There you are, my dear!” she says.
I smile at her. “Hi, Elizabeth. How are you?” I open my arms to catch the old woman in a hug. My aunt may be vainly dying her hair even though she’s sixty-three this year, but her best friend Elizabeth has worn her aged white hair in the same beautiful short cloud since I got to know her three years prior. That hair, good wine, and spirited conversation about children’s literature make up some of my best memories of this woman and her home.
“Fantastic now that you’re here, my darling girl.” She gives me a final squeeze and then lets me go. She plucks my backpack from my hand and ushers us towards the house. “Now do come in, the kettle has just boiled and I could hardly be put upon to serve you anything but hot tea, my dears.” She gets us inside and then gives Terry a long, hard stare—like she’s finally realizing she doesn’t know him. Then she says, “Goodness, where are my manners!” As if she could have left them somewhere. Elizabeth is never without her manners. “You must be the lovely young thing that’s been taking care of Alexis all day. What was your name?”
Terry sets my suitcase down by the door and then extends his hand. “Terry Walsh.”
Elizabeth takes his hand and shakes it vigorously. “Lovely to meet you, Terry. Elizabeth Jenkins.” Obviously she has no idea who he is, because there’s no time spent over his name. Instead, Elizabeth runs with the name connection and launches into a story about another Terry—my cousin. She tells him about how Terry’s father died of cancer, and then how we tragically lost his twin brother Jay. But she doesn’t stop there, oh no. Next she regales him with how my grandfather’s death four months prior and my grandmother’s the following summer acted as sad bookends to the whole affair.
I listen in a stupor as Elizabeth goes on to explain about Greek funeral customs, and how lovely “the Papu” memorial was. Elizabeth has referred to my grandfather as “the Papu” since the first Culolias grandchild, even though we all just called him “Papu.” It caused me some confusion when I was a kid. I had Nana and Papu, and other kids had Grandma and Grandpa. There’s a small tug behind my breast bone as Elizabeth goes on to explain the symbolism of the Koliva that’s traditionally served at Greek funerals. She explains how the pomegranate seeds in the boiled wheat dish are a nod to the Greek myth of the queen of the underworld Persephone. She talks at length about how when the wheat seeds used to make the dessert fall into the earth and die they produce fruit. She keeps nattering about how it’s a great healing ritual that also bespoke of my family’s heritage—blah blah blah blah blah!
It feels like I’m listening to this conversation from behind aquarium glass, too far away to stop what’s happening or react. I know Elizabeth is a familiar person, and any subject is fair game once she gets to talking. But she’s only just met Terry. I haven’t told him any of this. I wasn’t planning on telling him any of this.
My head is buzzing, trying to spur me to action or get me to run away. I don’t know how to tell Elizabeth to stop without also showing Terry how big a chink this is in my armor.
To make matters worse, he’s got that focused hawk-like look in his eye—the one that means he’s paying attention.
I don’t want him to be focused on this.
I hate the way she tells this story. I sound like so much more of a victim in her version—like what happened to my relatives is something that happened to me instead of to them. I didn’t die, they did. It’s what happens when you happen to be alive. It’s inevitable, so why cry about it? But Elizabeth doesn’t mention the depression that my aunt and mother fell into. She doesn’t mention the way my mother’s grief differed from mine, the way we fought because she couldn’t tell me what she needed. The way she looked at me like I was some sort of heartless monster because I wasn’t a crying, broken-down mess like her. There’s none of my personal pain in Elizabeth’s story, none of the struggle I went through, none of what really happened except the events that decimated my family.
Elizabeth ties her ramble up with how strong all of the family that’s left is, and how she’s sure anyone who shares the same name as my cousin must also be a fine young man. She puts the kettle on, apparently unsatisfied with the temperature of the water, and then does indeed ask Terry what sort of tea he would like.
It takes him a moment to answer, like he’s thrown by how quickly Elizabeth switches topics. “Earl Grey sounds lovely if you have some,” he says quietly.
Elizabeth nods enthusiastically, whips open her cabinet, and then makes a noise of surprise. “Well, we don’t have any in the cabinets but I’m sure I have some in the garage. And I simply won’t disappoint a guest.” She closes the cabinet and smiles at Terry and me, as if she hasn’t just blown my whole family history wide open for someone I’m only just getting to know.
“You two stay put here while I brave the garage cabinets. Just be sure to look after the kettle,” Elizabeth instructs, bustling back towards the entryway. “Oh.” She stops in the doorway to the hall. “But it really is ever so nice to meet you, Terry, dear. After everything our poor Alexis has been through, it’s good to see her friends take such good care of her.”
She then continues on her way, leaving me to deal with the broken story of my past.
I don’t want to look at Terry when he turns to me. I don’t want to see the pity. I don’t want to see the sympathy, like he knows what I went through.
Instead he says, “Jay and Terry were twins?”
I swallow my anxiety. “Yeah.”
“Wow,” he says. He shifts and puts his hands up behind his head, looking troubled.
“Yeah,” I say again.
“Dunno what I’d do without Titania.”
“Don’t dwell on it. You don’t know until it happens,” I say, surly and unhappy. I don’t want to talk about this. Everyone always has an opinion about grief, like they know how it works—like there’s only one way it can work.
“Yeah?” he says.
I could leave it at that. I could just say “Yeah” one more time and drop it, let Elizabeth start off on something else when she comes back. But we’re already here, and he’s asking, and he doesn’t know anything about this even though he’s heard the whole story.
“People react differently to death,” I say. “It’s too personal for everyone to do the same way. But you never know who’s going to react in what way just because you know them. We’re too close to the people we love to see the way it’s going to get to them, and half the time, we don’t expect it.”
I glance at him to evaluate his reaction. He’s looking at me thoughtfully.
“How did you react?” he asks.
I keep my eyes on his, evaluating. How much do I tell him? How much do I have time for? Energy for? How much can he take?
What will he think of me after?
“There was nothing I could do,” I tell him. Then I look away. “Death isn’t one of those things you can fight off or fix. It just happens.” I shift against the counter, nervously rubbing my hands against each other. “I don’t handle it well when there’s nothing I can do. So I figured out what I could do, and I ran with that.”
“And that was?” His tone is quiet, unthreatening.
My fingers stop running over each other so quickly. Maybe he’s not going to tell me I’m a monster like my mother did.
“The day after my grandfather died, the sun was shining. The grass was green, the sky was blue, the air was sweet…and he wasn’t there for enjoy any of it. He never would be again.” I glanced up and then away, still worried what I might see in his eyes. “I went outside, and I enjoyed it for him. I ate lunch at the little Greek deli down the hill that day, and I enjoyed that for him too. I reminisced about him to my friends, and laughed for him at the funny parts. I did the same thing after my uncle, and my cousin, and my grandmother.”
“You didn’t cry?”
I smirk sardonically and tense back up, my hands agitated once more, my eyes still anywhere but on his. “Would you like me to have cried?”
“Hey, that wasn’t… Alexis, look at me.”
I look up from the floor where my gaze has fallen, and he has a serious look on his face. More serious than I’ve ever seen him. Grave, even.
“I never want you to cry,” he hisses. “But I don’t want the clean version of this story either.”
I stare at him, wondering if he might evaporate if I pinch myself. I hold out my hand to him. He takes it, and he’s warm and solid. Real. I take a deep breath and let the words flow out.
“I cried when I felt like it, and I laughed when I remembered the good times. I wasn’t lying to you, I decided to live for them. It was all I could do.”
“You’re very goal oriented, aren’t you?”
“That… That has nothing to do with this, Terry!” I say, giving his hand a shake. “There’s just nothing you can do to change it! You can’t bring people back, and what’s the point agonizing over it?”
I stop there. Terry looks at me thoughtfully. Then the front door opens. I drop Terry’s hand like the sound was a whip coming down on my fingers. Elizabeth totters back in, waving a small box in her hand.
“Good news, my dears, we have returned triumphant!”
The kettle starts whistling, and I dart forward to turn off the burner. Elizabeth takes it and makes a show of pouring it over three tea bags in her favorite china teapot. After she poured the tea into three delicate cups and pushed two of them into our hands, she excuses herself, saying how it’s very late for her and that she must be up early the next day, but if Terry wouldn’t mind staying and helping me with my luggage, she was sure I would appreciate it. Terry says he would be happy to, and Elizabeth gives him this secretive smile and nudges him with her elbow.
“I bet you are,” she says. “I would be too, in your shoes.” She winks at him and laughs. She then walks off down the bedroom hall, calling over her shoulder to wake her should I need anything and to lock up again if I show Terry out.
I think my jaw is on the floor, I’m so taken aback by Elizabeth’s behavior. I’ve never had a partner during the few short years I’ve known her, and I had no idea she would act like this when she suspected one.
Terry stands there in the kitchen, holding his teacup and saucer and grinning from ear to ear like a kid on Christmas.
I take one look at him and transfer my cup and saucer to one hand so I can climb the ladder to the attic room where I’ll be sleeping. Then I make for the computer room where said ladder is.
“Oh, come on, it was funny!” Terry calls good-naturedly after me.
Terry grabs my backpack and slings it over one shoulder to follow me up to the attic.
I roll my eyes and take his teacup from him when I reach the top of the ladder. He’s still in the middle of the ladder, so he can’t defend his tea without letting go and falling. “You’re going to finish your tea and get out, got it?”
He nods and climbs the rest of the way up the ladder. When he stands, he has to duck even a little more than I do because the ceiling is so low up here—at least around the edges of the room. The ceiling gets higher as the roof comes to a point in the middle, making the middle of the room the only place it’s easy for tall people to stand. I take our cups to the center of the room and then sit down. I lay the cups out, one in front of me and one across from me, and then toss my purse over to the right to land beside the low bed in the corner. He places my backpack down next to my purse and then comes to sit down across from me.
“Alright, finishing tea and getting out,” he says as he sits down. His tone is unobjectionably pleasant. It’s the same soft, safe voice everyone uses when they don’t know what to say to someone. I’ve grown so sick of hearing it.
I hand him back his tea and take a rather large sip of mine.
He tries to copy me, and sputters.
“Good god, how do you drink this stuff when it’s so hot?” he asks.
I shrug. “Hephaestus mouth.”
“Is…that an illness? Some sort of condition?”
I snort. “Greek god of the forge. I always imagined he’d be used to really hot temperatures.”
There’s a pause and then Terry says, “You know that because of your grandfather?”
Oh yeah, I guess Elizabeth brought up that we were Greek when she was talking about my grandfather’s memorial and the special Greek Koliva we ate that day.
“…Yeah,” I say, hesitant to return to this topic.
“Did he teach you a lot about Greek mythology?”
I take a sip of my tea and don’t look at him. Then I put my tea down and say, “Look, Terry, I don’t want to talk about this. It’s a lot of old pain. Old, old pain that I’ve been running from for a long time, and—”
“If you haven’t dealt with the death of—”
“Don’t assume you fucking know what I’ve been through!”
I’m not avoiding his eyes now. Mine are up and boring into him, and I’m sure I look like a thunderstorm, because he’s got that shocked look people get the first time they realize I’m can be big and scary and intimidating instead of just cute and charming and passionate.
“It’s not the death that hurt me,” I say, my voice is low and hard and angry, booming like thunder ten miles away that you feel in your guy more than you hear with your ears. “Living is worth dying. Dying I can deal with if it means I get to do things like eat figs and read poetry and write anything.” I shift, pursing my lips, the tea gone sour on my tongue. “ It’s the people that couldn’t deal with it that hurt me. You never know how people are going to react.” I take a deep breath, and start going through the list of family members and reactions. It’s old and rehearsed by this point. I’ve repeated it for so many therapists, so many doctors, so many people who thought they could fix me with their affection and a kiss. “Instead of being there for each other, my mother withdrew into herself. My sister tried to mimic what grief was supposed to look like and thought something was wrong with her because she wasn’t as upset as my mother. And my father? He ran off and had a year-long affair behind all of our backs. All of them lashed out at me for not being enough.”
I glare at Terry for a moment longer. Then I look down at my cup and saucer to make sure I don’t mishandle them as I pick them up and take another sip of tea to wash away the bitterness in my throat.
He’s quiet while I drink.
I hate silence. It’s full of unknowns, and the longer it stretches, the more anxious I become.
Is he going to yell back? Stand up and leave? Say something cutting and horrible that’s going to make me feel small and like the crazy monster my family convinced me I was for nearly a year? I shouldn’t have trusted this back at the bottom of his hotel stairs. I shouldn’t have called him when I got my internship either! The negativity spiral picks up, pelt me with should’ves and could’ves and how I should’ve been smart enough to stay away from him, because it was only a matter of time. This is what happens with everyone. It’s what happened with my family, and it’s what’s happening with him. I stare into my cup and try to focus on breathing, but I can’t get the breath to go past my breast bone. I’m too tense. I can’t relax when my mind is buzzing, trying to prep me for the blow of how he’ll end this.
Instead of going with any of those, he holds his tea out to me. Confused, I put my own cup down—empty, he has good timing—and place my hand on his saucer.
I ask the question the situation seems to warrant, my anxiety derailed by the unexpectedness of the action. “You don’t want it?”
He shakes his head and says, “Nah, Earl Grey’s really grown on me over the last month or so, but, it soothes you, right?”
I nod, kind of annoyed that he thinks I need soothing or help or anything at all from him.
He keeps talking. “Listen. I don’t know what to do for you. It’s killing me, because I’ve got this really big urge to do something, anything to help, but… Well, like you said. I don’t know what you’ve been through. I got the cliff notes, you lived it, and…you’re plenty smart, Alexis. If there’s a solution I could come up with off the cliff notes, I’m sure you’d have done it already. So, in light of that…” He relinquishes the tea. “The best I can do is make sure you’ve got more tea when you need it, right? And I know you like Earl Grey!”
I snort, feeling a little better, and lift the cup to take in the aroma. “All tea,” I murmur.
“All tea,” he amends as I sip from his cup. “And I just so happen to have a cup that I can give you, right now!”
I take another sip to cover up the smile I feel budding on my lips.
“But if there’s ever anything else I can do,” he continues. “I’m here.”
“No you’re not, you’re in LA.”
I’m in a mood. He made me happy, and after just panicking about how I was going to lose him, it hurts. Like he’s worming his way in, just so he can twist the knife when it all goes to hell.
“No,” he says. He points to my purse where Jesús and River’s story sits spilling out of the bag and says, “Read that script again, knowing what you know.” He opens his hand and holds it out to me. “I’m here.”
I set the saucer on the floor and take his hand, but frown. “Did I miss something? River didn’t come to live in Serenity Peaks.”
“No, she didn’t, but she came when Jesús needed her.”
I blush a little and hide behind his teacup, finishing what’s left inside of it. The thought of having Terry Walsh at my beck and call is a little overwhelming, and not something I’m sure I actually like the thought of. I’m tempted to pinch myself again. Then he lets go of my hand and stands.
“Whelp, tea finished, time to get out,” he says. He turns for the ladder. I wait until he’s all the way down before following him, then walk him to the door. When we reach it, I unlock it, open it, and then stand awkwardly in the archway with him, letting in bugs and night air, trying to say goodbye the right way for whatever the hell we are to each other now.
“Guess I’ll see you later,” I say.
He nods and shifts from foot to foot. It reminds me of prom dates and the awkward way they try to find the words for a goodnight kiss. But he can’t be doing that. I’m a fan. It’s completely impossible, even if I was fitted to him not hours before.
“Can I take you around the city this weekend?” he asks.
I blink at him, surprised. Why, yes, yes he can! That’s a thing he can do, can’t he? I run through my mental checklist, trying to see if that qualifies as bad fan behavior or if I’ve got other plans. Nothing pings. I smiled and nod. “Yeah, um, I’d like that.”
“Cool! Uh, there’s something at 7 on Saturday, if that’s not too early?”
What is time when I’m getting up to see Terry Walsh? “Not too early at all.”
“Perfect. Then I’ll see you then?”
It feels like the conversation is over, like he should walk out and I should close the door, but neither of us move, still shifting and hesitating. I laugh because this is getting silly. I push him with both hands towards the street. He catches one of my hands, and I can’t look away from his eyes as he dips his head just low enough to brush the back of my hand with his lips. He smiles when he’s done and all but skips into the street. “See you this weekend!” he calls over his shoulder.
I rub my hand and watch him go, thinking to myself once again about how this must be a dream. My hand better never stop tingling, I think, as I watch him drive away.
I stumble back into the house, lock up, and turn off the lights as I make my way back up to the attic. There I find both of our cups still sitting facing each other. I go to the one that I know is Terry’s and pick it up, musing to myself about how dreams don’t use tea cups, and then get ready for bed.
I’m just about to turn off the lamp next to my bed, when I look at the cups again.
I hesitate for a moment, and then get up and go back to Terry’s teacup. I turn it until I’m holding it the same way he had when he took his first sip and lift it to my lips, just so I can press my mouth to the place where his talented one was for just a second. Maybe if I’m lucky, some of the talent or kindness will rub off on me and then I’ll be an adult who has my shit together and their own TV show too. I put the cup back down and get back in bed. I lie there tracing my lips with my fingers. Wonder what his lips actually would feel like… Agh, that’s silly. He’s showing me around the city, not abusing hastily invented teleportation technology to save me from rampaging robots. I’ll need to survive my internship until the weekend anyway, and with my luck, they’ll chew me up and spit me out before I even get a chance to get comfortable here in SF.
I roll my eyes at my overactive imagination. It’s three days until the weekend, and more than anything, I need sleep. I scramble back down to the end of the bed and pull a bottle of melatonin from my backpack. Anxiety or no anxiety about celebrity lips and hard-ass bosses, with one of these and the right amount of uninterrupted darkness and conscious breathing, I’ll be asleep in no time.
Pill popped, breathing started, I lie back down and turn out the light.
It was an awkward way to end the day, but…at least he didn’t call me a monster.
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