We're only about a month away from the release of Winter Jacket 4! Normally I give a Chapter Preview of the first chapter, but this time around I wanted to share what's become one of my favorite standalone chapters of the new novel. Happy reading!
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Our return flight from Los Angeles was uneventful—no more children listening to loud cartoons and no additional Mile High Club mishaps. Upon landing in Minneapolis, we left directly from the airport for Hunter’s parents’ home for Easter dinner. I hadn’t seen her family since I’d hosted dinner a few months after Hunter’s graduation. I would have been nervous to see them, regardless of the situation, but knowing that Hunter’s mom knew about our temporary breakup had my anxiety spiking. Hunter hadn't told me how her parents had responded to our recent reconciliation, but I also hadn't asked. It was one of those complications I believed better left unacknowledged.
I would have felt more comfortable if we’d had time to clean up and change clothes after our four-hour flight, but Hunter’s mom had told her we were not to be late to Easter dinner. I tried to assuage my nerves during the drive—families were supposed to be comfortable around each other; they didn’t need to dress up or put on airs. I could tell Hunter was equally uncomfortable about not having the opportunity to freshen up before arriving at her parents’ house. We were the same in that way; we wore clothes like protective armor. It was one of the reasons I loved her best in pajamas or sweatpants.
Hunter’s family lived in a two-story, colonial-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac in an upper-middle-class subdivision. It wasn't Hunter's childhood home, however. She had only lived there for a few years prior to attending college. I had only been to her parents' home once before, which had mitigated our very first fight as a couple. Ironically the memory of that abridged dinner was the only thing that had me feeling comfortable about Easter dinner. There was no way tonight could be worse than the first time I'd met Hunter's family. But maybe I was only setting myself up to fail again.
I had to slow down substantially as we reached the street where her family lived. Both sides of the residential road were lined with vehicles, leaving only a narrow lane down its center.
"Where did all these cars come from?” Hunter wondered aloud.
“It’s Easter,” I reminded her. “People are probably hosting their families for the holiday.” I paused, a thought coming to mind. “Wait—your family isn’t hosting other family are they?”
Hunter’s eyes widened. “No.”
I had a sinking feeling her No was a visceral reaction, and not an answer to my question.
I had to park a few houses down the street from Hunter’s family home. The curb directly in front of the house was already occupied with other cars.
Hunter remained buckled up in her seat as I turned off the car. "All of the Dyson's are here." She looked shell-shocked. "I recognize my Uncle Max and Aunt Sarah's car. And I bet that blue sedan in the driveway belongs to my Aunt Alyssa and Uncle Charlie."
"Is that a bad thing?" I asked.
Hunter stared at the house. Her eyes shifted back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
“We could leave,” she announced. “I can call my mom and tell her our flight was delayed. They’d never have to know we were here.”
“This isn’t like you," I observed. "You’re always ready to parade me in front of your family.”
“I don’t parade you,” she scoffed. “I just don’t know why my mom didn’t tell me other people were coming to dinner. She hates having my dad’s family over.”
“It’s not a trap, baby. I’m sure your mom has her reasons.”
“You’re okay with this?”
“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
To be honest, the thought of more people at dinner was a welcomed alternative to a silent, awkward meal with just Hunter, her parents, and me.
"This is really happening." She exhaled. "I'm about to introduce my girlfriend to my extended family."
"You seemed okay with the idea when I was supposed to meet everybody after your graduation," I pointed out.
"I think I was a little bolder, a little cockier and fearless back then—like if people didn't accept me, I was better off without them." She swallowed hard. "But I need these people; they're my family."
"Your mom knows I'm coming to dinner. She's the last person in the world who'd ever want to put you in an uncomfortable situation," I tried to reason. "Everything's going to be fine."
Hunter took another deep breath and nodded. "You're right. My mom wouldn't have invited the whole family over if she thought it was going to cause conflict. That woman runs away from confrontation."
I reached for her hand and squeezed. "See? It'll be fun."
"I don't know about fun, but hopefully they'll at least be civil."
Hunter climbed out of the passenger-side door. Her feet dragged reluctantly on the concrete. I would have laughed at her exaggerated antics if my heart wasn't caught in my throat.
We trudged up the long paved walkway and Hunter rang the doorbell. The sounds of muddled conversation could be heard through the front door.
I had expected Hunter's mom or her brother, Brian, to answer the door, but a middle-aged woman stood in their place. Her dark hair was short and curly. Her face was round, and her blue eyes looked kind.
"Hunter!" The woman wrinkled her nose. "Why did you ring the doorbell?"
Hunter's laugh sounded nervous. "Just making a grand entrance."
"I bet." The woman's stare fell onto me next. "And you must be the girlfriend."
"Elle," I supplied with a tight smile.
I had once vowed to myself to never be a woman's first girlfriend ever again. Coming Out was messy, and I'd been too selfish to be put under the familial microscope again. But for Hunter, I'd do whatever it took.
The woman, who still had yet to introduce herself, regarded me for a long, uncomfortable moment. "Well come on in, you two," she finally said.
"Who’s that?" I asked quietly as we stepped inside and removed our coats.
"My Aunt Sarah," Hunter whispered back. "She's my dad's sister."
I committed the name and affiliation to memory.
"Where's my mom?" Hunter asked.
"In the kitchen, cooking up a storm," Sarah said. “She hasn’t left since I got here.”
"We should probably see if she needs any help," Hunter noted.
The sound of additional voices lured us deeper into the house. Hunter's hand in the small of my back ushered me past the living room and dining room and the inquisitive stares of people whom I didn't know.
We found Hunter's mom in the center of the kitchen, moving from one task to the next. The delicious scent of honey ham and cheesy tater tot hotdish wafted from casserole dishes and other containers spread out on the kitchen countertops.
Ellen Dyson was a stunning woman—tall, willowy, and blonde with the same intense grey-blue eyes as her daughter. She was singular evidence that Hunter was destined to age beautifully and gracefully.
Hunter approached her mom to give her a hug. "Happy Easter, Mom."
"You made it, just in time," she approved.
"We drove straight from the airport," Hunter told her. "Which is why we're dressed like this."
"Nonsense, you both look lovely," Ellen dismissed.
I looked down at my jeans and v-neck t-shirt, both rumpled from travel. In addition to being beautiful, Ellen Dyson was also polite to a fault, a trait her daughter had similarly acquired. Even though she had probably been elbow-deep in food prep since sunrise, her own collared blouse looked crisply pressed and free of cooking splatters or stains.
"Why didn't you tell me everyone was coming to dinner?" Hunter kept her tone light.
"I didn't want to give you the opportunity to back out." She gave me a pointed stare. "It's happened before."
Hunter leaned over a bubbling green bean casserole. "You've got enough food to feed a small army," she observed. "I thought you didn't like hosting the whole family."
"Your Uncle Max is out of town for work," Ellen explained. "Sarah was going to be alone for Easter, so I told your dad we should have her over. Which then turned into inviting your grandma. Which turned into inviting Alyssa, Charlie, and their kids." Her exhaustion was palpable. "How can we help?" I offered, speaking for the first time.
Hunter's mom shooed us away. "I've got things covered in here. Dinner will be ready in a little bit. Go make the rounds and say hi to everyone."
I looked to Hunter for verification. Moms didn't always mean what they said. I was the expert at that.
Hunter nodded. "Okay, but call if you need anything."
Her hand ran down the inside of my arm until our hands met and our fingers intertwined. "How about I introduce you to my grandma," she smiled.
"Is she the arthritic gardener?"
Hunter shook her head. "No, that was my mom's mom. She passed a few years ago. Grandma Erma is my only living grandparent."
We left the chaos and fragrant smells of the kitchen for the living room at the front of the house. An old woman, whom I took to be Hunter's grandmother, sat by herself on the couch, legs crossed at her ankles. She was a small woman with dark curly hair frosted with silver strands. She wore slim black slacks and red lipstick.
"Hi, Gran," Hunter greeted as we approached.
Her grandmother looked away from the evening news on the television. "My goodness. Hunter, is that you?"
"Yeah, Gran." Hunter waved her free hand--the hand not currently holding mine—when her grandmother began to struggle on the couch. "Don't get up, Gran. You're fine."
The elderly woman appraised me. I watched her clear blue eyes move from my face down to our conjoined hands. "Who's your friend?"
"Gran, this is my girlfriend, Elle."
I had to give Hunter credit. For as much as she'd fretted earlier in the car, her resolve was as steady as her unwavering voice.
"Oh, gracious. Bill told me about this. Let me get a good look at you," her grandmother fretted. "Where are my glasses?"
Hunter quietly chuckled. "They're around your neck, Gran."
Hunter's grandmother joined in on the joke. "You'll have to forgive this old woman; I'm not as sharp as I used to be."
She continued to laugh as she retrieved the glasses that hung around her neck by a fine silver chain. She was in no hurry as she adjusted her glasses over the bridge of her nose; she and Hunter had the same nose.
When her glasses were in place, her gaze returned to my face. "Well, aren't you a beauty," she remarked with some satisfaction.
"Oh, I'm not—I'm just—" I had no idea how to respond. I self-consciously tugged on my ponytail. I didn't ever do much with my hair. I had three go-to hairstyles: down, up, and homeless.
Hunter's grandmother grinned at my expense. "You're supposed to say Thank You, dear."
My smile matched her own. "Thank you."
Grandma Erma patted the space beside her. "Sit down you two."
I hadn't planned on lingering, but I'd always had a soft spot for grandmothers. The feelings I had for my parents and sibling were complicated, but I only had fond memories of my own grandparents.
We spent a few more moments bonding with Grandma Erma, just long enough for her to ask when we were getting married and to make sure none of her children had given us a hard time about being together. She excused us from her presence after we fumbled through minimally satisfying answers.
Hunter's fingertips grazed my elbow as we left the living room. "Was my Gran hitting on you?"
"I have no idea what that was," I laughed. "Maybe she was expecting me to look different."
"A mullet, perhaps," Hunter mused.
"Flannel shirt and a tool belt."
Hunter playfully fanned herself. "Stop talking dirty to me in front of my family."
“Speaking of dirty ….” I peered up the hallway staircase to the second floor. "Do I get to see your bedroom?"
Hunter arched a pale eyebrow. "I don't know. Are you going to behave yourself?" she posed.
Hunter's old bedroom was the second room to the right at the top of the staircase. It hadn't been her childhood bedroom as her family had only moved into the house just before her senior year of high school, but it was still cluttered with knick-knacks and treasures from her past.
Hunter waited in the doorway while I made the rounds. I explored the painted jewelry box with the miniature ballerina inside, the wooden shelf adorned with track and field ribbons, and the small collection of dusty snow globes from cities I'd never visited.
"So? Is it what you expected?"
"I'm not sure I was expecting anything," I admitted.
I strolled over to the vanity mirror with my hands behind my back. A few wallet-sized portraits of smiling, teenaged faces had been wedged between the mirror and the wooden frame. I plucked one of the pictures from its place—a younger version of my girlfriend standing in front of a wooden arch. Her long blonde hair had been swept up and she wore a pale pink corsage around her wrist a few shades lighter than her prom dress. I returned the image to its previous spot without comment and tried not to think about the tuxedo'd boy with his arms around her waist.
Hunter stood beside me. "Are you sufficiently freaked out?" she asked.
"Because your prom was in this century?" I laughed at the absurdity of it all. As the years progressed, our age difference would continue to become less important, but for now I still felt the acute sting of these tiny reminders.
"When do I get to see your childhood bedroom?" she questioned.
I shook my head. "It's gone. You won't find a shrine to Elle Graft anywhere."
"That's not fair. I should at least get to laugh at your awkward school pictures."
"I'm sure if you asked my mom she'd be able to find something sufficiently embarrassing.”
I looked away from Hunter to watch the bedroom door slowly swing all the way open. The wooden door creaked loudly on its brass hinges.
Hunter's brother leaned against the doorjamb and folded his arms across his chest. "I thought I heard lesbians in here."
Hunter rolled her eyes. "Don't be weird."
"Like you?" he shot back, grinning.
"Hey, Brian," I greeted.
I'd always liked Hunter's younger brother. We'd only met two other times, but he'd always seemed like a good kid. My own sister and I weren't very close, but from their playful banter, it was clear that Hunter and Brian had gotten along as children, or as best as a brother and sister could.
"Happy Easter, Elle." Brian reached out and grabbed me in an unexpected hug. I blinked at Hunter, not knowing what to do.
"Hunter! Brian!" Their mother's voice carried up the staircase. "It's time to set the table."
Hunter playfully shoved her little brother so he released his hug. "Get downstairs, Mr. Handsie."
Brian grinned, setting off his twin dimples. "What? Worried I'll steal your girlfriend?"
"I hate to burst your delusional bubble," she retorted, "but you're not exactly my girlfriend's type."
"Hurry up you, two!" Ellen called up the stairs again.
Brian grunted his displeasure, but dutifully left the room. I could hear his heavy, teenaged footsteps pound down the staircase.
Hunter grabbed my elbow before I could follow behind. She gave me a quick kiss. "I'm going to have to keep a short leash on you tonight; my whole family is hitting on you."
The house seemed more crowded than I remembered when we made our way downstairs, but that was only because everyone had clustered near the dining room, eager to dig into the holiday spread.
Ellen was waiting at the bottom of the staircase. "We need place settings for five at the dinner table and five at the kids' table."
"Mom, you're not seriously making us sit at the kids' table." Hunter practically stomped her foot.
"You know the rules," Ellen replied in a no-nonsense tone that dared to be defied.
I lowered my voice. "What rules?"
"You only get to graduate to the 'adult table' when you're married," Hunter explained, looking annoyed.
While Hunter and Brian set the table, I noticed the absence of their grandma. I still had yet to speak to Hunter's dad or to meet the other members of her extended family, but without Hunter by my side, I felt less comfortable in initiating those conversations. Instead, I slipped away to the front of the house where Grandma Erma continued to sit by herself.
"Erma?" The name caught in my throat. "Dinner's ready."
By the time I helped usher Hunter's grandmother back to the dining room, the settings were in place and everyone had taken a seat at their respective tables.
The "kids" sat around a foldable card table a few feet away from the main dining room table. It was a little cramped between Hunter, Brian, their two cousins, and myself. I tried not to feel so ridiculous about the demotion. It had been over a decade since I'd had to sit at my own family's version of the kids' table.
Hunter's cousins Sadie and Joshua were 12 and 10 years old, respectively. I had no idea how to make dinner conversation with tweens, but luckily Hunter and Brian were able to fill what could have been an even more awkward dinner.
"It's your senior year next year," Hunter observed. "Have you thought about where you might go to college?"
Brian stabbed his fork into a pile of green peas on his plate. "You're as bad as Mom and Dad. Who says I'm even going to college?"
"Don't pretend to be a rebel to impress Elle," Hunter scolded him. "She's a college professor, remember?"
"I've applied to a few state schools," Brian tentatively revealed. "I don't really know what to major in though. Mom and Dad think I should study business, but that sounds really boring."
"Well what does interest you?"
"I dunno. Sports, I guess. I've kind of always wanted to do something with sports journalism, but my parents would never go for that."
"My parents didn't want me to be an English major," I sympathized.
"And look at you now," Hunter grinned. "Tenured professor who goes to parties in Hollywood on Easter weekend."
Brian arched an eyebrow. "You were in Hollywood this weekend?"
"Yeah. I used to write for a TV show, so I got invited to their season wrap party.”
“Cool. What show.”
I had no idea if Brian was a fan. He wasn’t the show’s targeted demographic. “StarQuest?”
I winced at the clatter of silverware against china dishes. "No way." Hunter's cousin Sadie had dropped her eating utensils on her plate. "You work on StarQuest?"
"Worked," I corrected. "I'm back to teaching now."
"Oh my God. My friends and I, we have a viewing party at my house every week. I have such a crush on Hunter."
"Wait," Brian interjected. "There's a character named Hunter on that show?"
"He's only like the most gorgeous creature ever,” Sadie continued to gush. “And he's so sweet and thoughtful. I thought I was going to die when Paige was on that scavenger hunt. I just knew Hunter had set it up for her."
Brian stared at me. "You named a character after my sister?"
I cleared my throat and pushed the cheesy scalloped potatoes around on my plate. "Yup."
Sadie produced a cell phone from God-knows-where. "Oh my God. I have to tell my friends about this. Bethany is going freak!"
After second-helpings had been served and leftovers had been divided into Tupperware containers, Hunter's family retreated to the living room to watch Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
I excused myself for a quick trip to the bathroom, but was delayed in my return. Even though the dishes had been cleared and food had been put away, Hunter's mom remained in the kitchen, scrubbing at dirty saucepans and casserole dishes.
I could have pretended I didn't see her and returned to the living room, but my feet were cemented to the floor. "Do you need any help?"
Ellen didn't look away from a particularly stubborn Dutch oven. "No. I've got this."
I ignored her second refusal of the night for my help. "I'll rinse."
I stood beside her in front of the kitchen sink and we proceeded to wash the dinner dishes in silence, neither of us really acknowledging the other's presence beyond her handing me a pot or pan after she'd washed it.
In the living room, Moses was probably parting the Red Sea.
"It broke her heart when you were gone."
I froze for a moment before continuing to rinse the soapy suds from a saucepan. "It broke my heart, too."
Ellen didn't look at me, but she continued to pass me dishes as she finished cleaning them. "I know she's the one who ended things, but I can't help being angry at the situation."
I released a tense breath. "I can understand your anger. But we're okay now. Everything worked itself out."
"I'll always want to protect her. She's my little girl." The words caught in her throat. "Christ," she breathed. She wiped beneath her eyes with the backs of her hands, damp from the dishwater.
She finally looked at me. I could see so much of Hunter in her, only there was something harder, more critical and suspect to her features. "I've been doing my best—to be okay with this. It's a lot, you know?"
Ellen resumed scrubbing at the baked-on remnants from dinner. It would have been easier to admit defeat and soak the dishes overnight, but that wasn't in her character. These dishes would be cleaned on her time, when she wanted them to be clean.
She continued to speak, but it wasn't clear if her words were directed at me or if she was merely speaking aloud. "I should be happy about this. We did our job as parents. She graduated from college. Got a job. Is living on her own. Her own friends. A g-girlfriend." She stumbled on the label.
"I know I'm not what you had in mind for her," I cautiously began. I handled my response as carefully as I did the antique china. "I'm not the right gender, and you probably think I'm too old."
"I want her to be happy," Ellen cut me off. "That's all I've ever wanted for both of my children." The tears started anew.
"That's all I want for her, too." I kept my tone even so as to not escalate the situation. "I know I'll make a few more mistakes along the way, because I'm only human, but I'm going to do my very best to make sure she's happy."
Ellen's hands became immobile beneath the sudsy dishwater. "Thank you, Elle. I can finish up in here," she said.
My brow furrowed, uncertain about her words.
She nodded in the direction of the living room. "I need a minute to get myself together before I go out there," she explained.
I grabbed a hand towel and dried my hands. I left Ellen standing in the kitchen to join the others in the living room. Moses was speaking to a burning bush.
All of the furniture was already spoken for, but Hunter was sitting on the floor, which was the only place I wanted to be. She smiled at me as our shoulders touched when I took over the spot beside her on the carpet.
"Hey," she said quietly. "Where'd you go? Is everything okay?"
"I was helping your mom with the dishes."
She rested her head on my shoulder and pulled my hand into her lap. "That was awfully thoughtful. You've been very sweet tonight. I may just keep you around."
I hummed in response.
Ellen never rejoined us in the living room that night, and I tried not to dwell on her words or our uncomfortable interaction.