“So, what’s the plan?” Brody asks me.
“For what? Graduation?” I ask back.
“Yeah. Where are you going for college?”
“I have a couple places in mind.”
We both sat on the porch with our knees up to our chests and our arms hanging around them. Brody looks out in the air and I wonder what he is thinking.
“Maybe you should come to Jacksonville. There are some good colleges there.”
I take a deep breath. “Maybe that’s not such a bad idea.”
I look at him and he at me and I smile. We stare at one another for a moment and then begin to lean in for a kiss but then the door snatches open and we jerk apart.
“Don’t be alarmed, it’s me Cinderella,” Nellie says. “We are all getting ready to open the gifts and eat in a few and your parents are requesting your presence.”
Brody and I rise from our spots and go inside where I head in the kitchen. With all the women in there, I had just come in and help. I walk in to the men in the living room and hear Uncle Otis yell to the top of his lungs. He sounds like he has been drinking. He always brings his own liquor when he comes on Christmas. Everyone gathers around the living room and Mama starts grabbing gifts and handing them to whoever’s name was on them. All of these people in one room, start to rip paper apart and pull gifts from their gift bags. Caleb has the most gifts with all of his toys. I got a new laptop for college and an upgrade on my cell phone. Afterwards, we clean up the living room and Mama puts me to work. She begins by filling up the dishes and I place them on the table.
Thirty minutes later, the table is full of soul food and the family is migrating to the table. The men are distracted as they walk to the dining room and try to see the TV all at once. Mama has turned on the radio in the kitchen and they are playing old school Christmas classics. The sound of Jackson Five is playing and we have all settled. Mama is pulling her chair out as she is ready to sit and notices Daddy leaning in his seat trying to catch a glimpse of the TV. She pops his shoulder.
“You can finish watching the game after you eat.” She says.
Brody is sitting at the other end and as soon as mama sits, the doorbell rings. She motions for me to get it and I do what she says. I leave everyone, hoping they say the prayer while I’m gone, so when I get back, I can just eat. When I open the door, Tesha is standing there with my nephew, Trey.
I gasp. “Hi nephew! Come to Te-Te.” I put my hands out for him and he leans into me.
Tesha walks in and I shut the door while she removes her coat.
“Everyone in the dining room?” she asks.
“Yeah. I’m so glad you came. We’ve been waiting to see him.”
We both go to the dining room and everyone immediately gets excited.
“I’m so glad you came,” Mama says, giving her a hug.
Trey goes to Duke and they make a seat for Tesha next to him. We say grace and began to pass around the dishes to eat.
“I hope I’m not eating nothing from the sto,’ because the grocery store soul food gives me gas,” Uncle Otis says.
Everyone at the table makes faces and moans with disgust.
“Come on Otis, we are about to eat,” Daddy says.
Uncle Otis throws up his hands in defense.
“Well, I guess it’s a good thing everything is homemade,” Mama mentions.
As we dig in, Brody and I keep stealing glances and grins at one another. Uncle Otis is talking so much that Aunt Nellie keeps rubbing her head and getting frustrated. I notice Uncle Nate has been quiet this whole time and then he receives a notification on his phone. It's lying face down on the table and he turns it over to look at it. His face is confused and he looks at it and then at Nichelle. Nichelle is oblivious until she looks back at him.
“What?” she asks, noticeably irritated at him.
He hands her the phone and she looks at it.
“I needed to buy it for Olivia,” she explains.
“And you had to spend that much? You didn’t think to tell me before you spent any more money?”
“Do you two need privacy?” Nana asks them.
“Speaking of money,” Uncle Otis began again. “I’m surprised y’all spent money to come here after getting fired from your job, Bro. You’on think yall need to save?”
All of the attention is on Uncle Nate and Nichelle as they both look angrily at him. He sees their expression and realizes they hadn’t told anyone. Uncle Nate and Nichelle get up from the table to leave and I now realize what their tension has been about. I feel bad for them but everyone tries to convert the conversation to something more joyful.
“How was I supposed to know?” Uncle Otis mumbles while dad looks at him with disappointment.
“So, Chelsea,” Aunt Nellie looks my way. “Have you started receiving any acceptance letters for Seattle?” she asks, looking at me.
I freeze and glance at Brody before answering. “I think so. I’m just waiting on a couple others.”
“She has gotten some good offers so far,” Daddy says, obviously happy. “I’m proud of her. More than I can say about my other kid.” He looks down at Duke holding Trey and bouncing him up and down.
Duke stops and looks back at Dad and then shakes his head. “Here we go. You just can’t help ya’self.”
“Well, I thought we had an agreement,” Daddy says back.
“We didn’t agree on nothin. I thought I was going to school in Tennessee and then changed my mind. I found what I want to do with my life. You can’t control everybody like you try to do Chelsea. That’s why she-”
I am scared of what Duke is about to say until the doorbell rings. I jump from my seat. “I’ll get it.”
I scurry from my chair as I go to the door. I still hear Daddy talking to Duke and I hear Brody tell everyone he has to go to the bathroom. When I get to the door, I look out of the peephole. It’s Leslie, Duke’s girlfriend. Instead of opening the door I turn to walk back to the dining room. Before I get there Brody stops me and tells me we need to talk.
“Not right now,” I say and walk into the dining room. “Duke, I think you should come to the door.”
Everyone is confused as he gets up and follows me. He opens the door and Leslie smiles a big smile and hugs him around the neck.
“Hey, baby,” she greets.
Duke is shocked and doesn’t know what to say.
“Hey, I didn’t think you were coming. Did I miss your call?” He pulls his cell phone from his pocket and looks at it.
“No, I just wanted to surprise you,” she tells him.
I stand there watching as they talk. Then we hear footsteps and Tesha comes approaching from behind. When Duke turns, she is able to see Leslie in the doorway. I watch as her face change to angry and Duke holds up his hands to tell her to keep calm.
“Why is she here?!” Tesha screams. “Why did y’all invite me if she was coming? Is this some game you playin’?!”
“No, I just wanted to see my son!” Duke yells back.
I inch outside as Tesha stomps back to the dining room and then comes back with her things and Trey hanging on her hip. Mama is following her, trying to figure out what is going on. They all follow her to her car to try and convince her to stay. I’m not sure where Leslie has gone. I sit on the porch to breathe because that’s really what I wanted to do. After Tesha leaves, Mama and Duke go inside and Brody comes out and sits next to me on the stoop again.
“So, you’re moving to Seattle?” he asks.
I inhale and exhale. “That’s the plan.”
“Well, we just talked a few hours ago and you didn’t say that. You didn’t even hint at it.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt what we have going on. It seems like things could be good for us.”
“They can, but I don’t want to be in a long-distance relationship. It can get messy.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll stay,” he says.
He grabs my face and pulls me in for a kiss. While we are enjoying the savory taste of one another’s kiss, the door opens again and we both look back to see Daddy standing there. He was about to say something until he saw us and stopped in his tracks. Before he could speak, mama comes rushing out of the house, angry and holding her keys. She stomps to her car, gets inside and drives away from the garage. I’m confused and nervous all at the same time.
“What happened now?” I ask.
“Your grandmother is divorcing your grandfather,” he says.
He looks as though he knows there is nothing he can do but let Mama go blow off steam.
“Nevermind that. What is going on with you two?”
“Nothing,” I say. My voice is low and fragile.
I am looking back but I see the look that Brody gives me. Daddy stands and looks at me as if he knows I’m lying.
“I want the truth,” he demands.
I stand to my feet and turn to face him. I think I am ready, but I immediately get more nervous.
“Brody and I want to date. We like each other.”
Daddy grimaces at me. “I didn’t raise you to be stupid. You just met him yesterday.”
“No I didn’t. We’ve always known each other.”
By this time, Aunt Nellie had joined us outside.
“Chelsea, You are smart. You are young. You have time to date guys, right now you need to stay focused on graduating and going to college.”
“I am focused. I’ve done everything you have asked me. I can graduate, go to college and be in love.”
“Oh my-” Daddy turns away from me as if he is appalled by what I said.
Aunt Nellie steps forward. “Chels, your father is right. You have so much ahead of you, and relationships will only distract you and slow you down. I think it’s best that you two just hold off on this.”
“I do like your daughter, sir. And I think it could work,” Brody speaks up.
Daddy turns around and gives Brody an evil stare. He then looks at me.
“Ok, let me put it like this. If you think you are so grown, you can go in that room and pack all that stuff and get out. I don’t care where you go but grown people pay bills in my house. As long as you are here, you will live by my rules. What’s it gon’ be?”
I look down, no longer willing to keep eye contact with him. He understands my response.
“Duke!” he yells, not taking his eyes off of me. Duke approaches. “I think it’s time for you and your friend to get on the road.”
Duke motions for Brody to go and get his stuff and Daddy orders me to go inside. I do as I am told and go inside my room. As soon as I am there I fall on my bed and bury my face in my pillow to cry. Minutes later, I hear my door open.
“Are you ok?” It’s Aunt Nellie.
She sits on the bed and I sit up against the wall.
“He can’t tell me what to do anymore,” I say as I sniff.
“You still live with him and you are still his child.”
“Why can’t I just come with you? I can finish high school in Seattle.”
Aunt Nellie leans as she gives me a look. “You think you will be able to do what you want at my house? I have the same values as your father. You don’t think I have had to make sacrifices. You don’t think I know how these guys will break your heart and throw you off your game. You have time. And you don’t know who you will meet later in life. He will probably just hold up space.”
I don’t respond because I know she is telling me right. Although this seems right, I can say it’s fast. I just feel like I have never liked anyone the way I like Brody. I feel like I know him, like he wouldn’t hurt me. But how do I know we will work out?
After a minute or two of me calming down. I leave my room to join the family. As I am leaving, Brody is leaving Duke’s room and he stops and leans against the wall. I stand in front of him.
“Do you know when you’ll be able to visit again?” I ask.
“Nah. I don’t know. Would you be able to stop in Jacksonville?”
“I don’t know. I plan to leave for Seattle as soon as I graduate.”
We stop talking for a moment and Brody takes a deep breath.
“I think they are right,” I tell him. We don’t even want the same thing. You don’t want a long-distance relationship and I want to go to Seattle. I can’t change that.”
Brody stares at me. His eyes are soft and loving and kind of sad. “So I guess we should forget about each other.”
“We can still talk to each other. Maybe later things might change.”
Brody snickers. “You have a lot to learn. But if we cross paths again, I’ll get at you.”
He smiles and swipes my chin and walks away. Is this what a break up feels like? It doesn’t feel good. I want to run back to my room but I know someone will come looking for me. I stand in the hall to gather myself. Duke rounds the corner and sees me.
“Stop looking so pitiful,” he jokes. I laugh a little. “You should come to me for advice if you are going to disobey Dad. I could have given you some pointers.”
We laugh again.
“You’ll be alright,” he assures. “I have to go, but I’ll be back in a couple months. OK?”
I nod. We hug and he turns to walk away and I follow him as he leaves out the door. While he is leaving, Mama has come back and he lets her know he is leaving. They hug. I see Brody in the front passenger seat but he doesn’t look at me. He doesn’t look my way. Duke gets into the car; starts it and I watch as the black Camero disappears down the street. I go back inside and shut the door behind me to join my family. The atmosphere has changed and it’s like all the drama that just went down is over and the family is talking and laughing. I join them and try to suppress my emotions the best I can. I’ll see him again.