“So when do we get to meet this boyfriend of yours?”
I had been mostly tuning out on my conversation with my mother. She was describing some new sort of diet to me. The diet involved something like, I don’t know, eating only rat dropping or something like that. Anyway, it doesn’t matter—I’ve officially given up on diets. All she has to do is say the word “diet,” and I zone out automatically. It’s like I’ve been hypnotized.
“Huh?” I say.
“The boyfriend,” my mother says impatiently. “The man you’re seeing. The crippled one.”
“That’s not very PC,” I say. Although actually, Brody will sometimes refer to himself as “crippled.” I think it’s like the N-word. If you’re black, it’s okay to use it, but if you’re not, it really isn’t.
“I didn’t realize I had to be politically correct when I’m talking to my daughter on the phone,” Mom sniffs. “So are you still seeing him? What was his name? Brandon?”
“Brody,” I say. “But I thought you felt like he was no good. That he was taking advantage of me.”
“Why? Do you think he is too?” Mom asks anxiously.
I sigh. For a moment, I debate pretending that Brody and I broke up. But she’d find out the truth eventually. So I reluctantly agree to bring Brody over for dinner at the Davisons.
Brody is very agreeable about the whole thing when I tell him. I think he likes the idea that we’re getting serious enough to meet each other’s parents. Of course, there’s the problem of how he’s going to get out to my mother’s house, which isn’t very accessible by bus. Finally, Brody’s mother eagerly volunteers to drive both of us over.
As we pull onto the street where I used to live, my parents’ house comes into view. Including the two steps to the front door. Damn. How did I forget about those stairs?
“I forgot about the stairs to get to the front door,” I say miserably.
“Don’t worry!” Maggie says cheerfully as she pulls up to the curb. “I always carry a portable ramp. Believe me, Emily, this happens all the time.”
The portable ramp is made of metal and sort of looks like half a ladder. Maggie shoos off my offer to help, and she lays the top part on our top step, and the bottom part on the ground. Brody is able to drive up the stairs without a problem, at which point Maggie takes down the ramp. I notice that our next door neighbor, Mrs. Jenkins, has stopped mowing her lawn and is just staring at us, slack-jawed.
“So I’ll come get you when you call,” Maggie says to Brody. “You’re going to spend the night at our house, right?”
Brody nods. “Yeah.”
Maggie looks over at me. “You’re welcome to stay as well, Emily.”
“Oh.” I am momentarily surprised by her offer. “Do you have a guest bedroom?”
Maggie laughs. “A guest bedroom? You’d sleep with Brody, wouldn’t you?” She seems amused by my pink cheeks. “My son is a grown up. I certainly don’t mind if he shares his bed with a young lady.”
“I think I’ll just go home after,” I mumble. I glance over at Brody, whose cheeks are just as pink as mine feel.
Maggie smooths out Brody’s hair and straightens his tie out, until he says, “Please, Mom. Quit it. I’m fine.” Then she makes her exit, and I ring the doorbell, although I have a bad feeling that my mother has been peeking under the window shade and witnessed the entire spectacle.
Sure enough, roughly one second after I ring the doorbell, my mother throws open the door. She has a smile plastered on her face that doesn’t even come close to reaching her eyes. “Hello, Emily,” she says. She looks at Brody and squares her chest. “It’s nice to meet you, Brody.”
She holds out his hand to him, which I guess is a normal thing to do if I hadn’t told her he’s a quadriplegic. Brody, to his credit, tries to make it work. He bats at her hand with his, and my mother looks properly horrified.
“Shoes off,” Mom reminds me as we enter the house. I slide my loafers off, and Mom looks critically down at Brody’s wheels. “Brody, we have a lot of carpeting in this house that I like to keep clean.”
“Oh!” Brody glances down at his wheels. “I, um… I could go back and forth a few times on the welcome mat…”
Brody and I spend the next ten minutes attempting to get his wheels clean. I end up grabbing a towel from the linen closet to help, because the last thing I want is my mother complaining about tire marks all over her carpet. I’d never hear the end of it.
“I’m really sorry, Emily,” Brody murmurs to me.
“Don’t be sorry,” I whisper back. “It’s my mother’s fault for having this stupid white carpet. She’s tortured us with it our whole life.”
And of course, while I’m on my knees, cleaning the tread of Brody’s dirty tires, that would be the moment my sister Camille walks into the room.
“Brody Nolan!” I hear her say. I look up and see her standing in front of him, all long legs and shiny, dark hair. The dress she’s wearing is tight enough that you can see every curve of her perfect body. Is she trying to impress Brody?
“Cammy Davison,” he replies, sounding less than thrilled.
I struggle back into a standing position. Screw the tires. They’re clean enough.
“Actually,” Camille says, “I go by Camille now.”
“Camille,” he repeats obediently.
“Brody.” She lays her hand on his shoulder, and I cringe internally. “You look good. Really good.”
Brody laughs. “Okay, whatever. It’s good to see you too, Cammy.”
I want to give him a hug for calling her “Cammy” two seconds after she instructed him not to. I love the way her lips turn into a straight line.
“Emily said you got married,” Brody says. “So congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Camille beams. “And you’re dating Emily then, huh? That’s… very nice.”
My mother comes into the foyer then to recruit my help in the kitchen. I always end up helping in the kitchen—never Camille. Camille would always complain that working in the kitchen made her too hot and sweaty.
“Carrots,” Mom says to me, pointing out a pile of ten large carrots. It seems like an awful lot of carrots for five people. Is this the start of some new all-carrot diet? “Peel them and chop them.”
“Okay,” I agree.
I peel carrots for a minute in silence, trying not to think about what Brody and Camille are discussing in the next room. My mother breaks the silence: “Emily, this is really too much.”
I put down the knife, relieved. “I knew it was too many carrots. How many do you want? Three?”
“Not the carrots,” Mom says. Damn. “That boy. Brody. I can’t believe you’re really… seeing him romantically.”
I should have known this was where the conversation was going. “Well, I am,” I mumble.
“It’s so weird, Emily,” Mom says. “Nobody really dates men like that.”
I don’t respond. I just focus on the carrots. Peel, peel, peel. Chop, chop, chop.
“You know,” she continues, “Camille knew that boy in high school, and she didn’t have one good thing to say about him. She said he was always on drugs, Emily. Drugs.”
When I don’t answer her, she keeps talking, “He’s probably trying to get more drugs from you, Emily. I bet that’s his game. Did he ask you for drugs? Are you getting him drugs?”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Brody don’t even drink alcohol, much less take drugs. And if he wanted drugs, I’d be the last person who would know how to get them for him.
My mother puts down the spoon she was using to stir her sauce. “I’ll give you $5,000 dollars right now if you break up with him,” she says.
I almost choke on carrot fumes. My parents are not wealthy, and offering me $5,000 is kind of a big deal. That’s not money they would just throw around.
“Stop being ridiculous,” I snap at her.
“That’s a serious offer, Emily.”
I lay the knife down on the table. Part of me is scared that if I don’t put it down, I’ll do something dumb with it. “I need to go to the bathroom,” I say to my mother, before she can offer me more money.
There’s one bathroom in my parents’ house located under the stairwell. Usually, I hate that bathroom—it’s so tiny that I feel like I have to take a deep breath just to fit inside. If there’s anything on the rim of the sink, my butt knocks it over before I can get out.
But right now, going to the bathroom serves a dual purpose. Well, three purposes, actually, because I really do have to go to the bathroom—for some reason, I’ve been peeing practically every hour lately… I hope I don’t have some new fungal infection that I need to return to Dr. Richmond to treat. But the second purpose is that I get to escape my mother. And thirdly, you can hear absolutely everything going on in the living room from the bathroom. The minute I get inside, the voices that were once distant are now loud and clear.
“She’s a school principal now!” Camille is saying. “Can you believe it?”
Oh, thank God. It’s just Camille talking about her stupid friends from high school.
“Uh huh,” Brody says politely.
“You remember Charlotte, don’t you?”
“Um, not really, to be honest.”
“Well,” Camille sniffs, “you probably don’t remember much from high school.”
Brody laughs. “Yeah. That’s kind of true.”
“So Brody.” Camille sounds a little peeved that her insult missed the mark. I’m proud of Brody for not letting her get to him. “You and Emily. What’s the deal with that?”
“We’re going out. I thought you knew.”
“Ha ha,” Camille mutters. “You know what I mean. Emily doesn’t remind me too much of the girls I used to see you with.”
“Yeah, well. I’m a little different than I was when I was sixteen. You know?”
“But you can’t really like her, Brody.”
There’s a long pause while I press my ear against the wall so hard that it starts to ache. Finally, Brody says, “What is that supposed to mean? Just because she’s a little overweight…”
“A little overweight!” Camille hisses. “Oh please! Emily hasn’t been ‘a little overweight’ in the last ten years. She’s gigantic. And she’s just getting bigger.”
“So what? I think she’s pretty.”
“You’re so full of shit, Brody,” Camille says. “You don’t really mean that—nobody could. She’s never even had a boyfriend. My mother has been hassling my husband for years to find Emily a date. He tricked one guy into agreeing to go out with her without seeing a picture first, and the guy saw her sitting in the restaurant and called her to cancel. And she was thinner back then—she’s gained at least fifty pounds since college, probably more.”
I feel sick to my stomach. I remember that night. Camille talked me going out with some guy named Jared—a friend of Rob’s. We talked on the phone and he sounded nice enough. Then when I was waiting for him to show up, Jared called me and said a family emergency had come up and he wouldn’t be able to make it. I felt bad about it, but figured at least he wasn’t rejecting me because I was too fat. So much for that delusion.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Brody says tightly. “I like Emily. I don’t care what some asshole friend of your husband did.”
“Is it that you think you can’t get anyone better?” she asks. “Do you get high all the time so you don’t have to think about who you’re actually hooking up with?”
“How could you talk that way about your own sister?” Brody snaps at her.
“That’s why I’m trying to protect her,” Camille retorts. “I can tell you haven’t changed at all since high school. I know what kind of person you are, and I know there’s no way you could really like Emily.”
“You haven’t changed at all either,” Brody says. “You’re still a self-righteous bitch.”
“Fine, don’t ‘fess up,” Camille says. “I’ll just tell Emily you hit on me while she was in the kitchen. She’ll believe anything I tell her.”
“Whatever, Cammy,” Brody says. “Emily’s a lot smarter than you seem to think she is.”
“Book smart maybe,” Camille concedes. “But not smart enough to see through your little act.”
“It’s not an act,” Brody says, so quietly that I have to strain to hear. “I love her. And if you’re not cool with that, then you can go f—”
Brody’s profanity gets cut off by my mother banging on the bathroom door. “You okay in there, Emily?” she calls to me. “You didn’t get stuck in there again, did you?”
I swear, that only happened once.
Dinner is a tense affair. My father shows up just before the food is ready, and he greets Brody with just as much suspicion as the rest of the family. I’ve never had a boyfriend before, but I’ve seen Dad give the first degree to Denise and Camille’s boyfriends, so I know what’s coming. I already warned Brody that my father can be “intense.”
“So you’re the one dating my daughter, huh?” Dad says gruffly. He peers across the dining table at Brody as we wait for my mother to serve our food.
“Yes, sir,” Brody says politely.
“What are you in that wheelchair for?” my father demands to know.
Brody doesn’t bat an eye. “Car accident. I broke my neck.”
Dad snorts. “Well, I guess it’s a good thing you can’t drive anymore.”
“Actually,” Brody says. “I can drive.”
I look at him in surprise. I had absolutely no idea he was able to drive. I can’t even imagine how it’s possible.
Dad shakes his head. “Yeah, right.”
“I can,” Brody insists. “I had a car back in college because I was a commuter student, but it was too expensive to keep it in Manhattan, so I gave it up.”
Dad looks Brody over, focusing his attention on his hands. “How in hell are you able to drive?”
“Hand controls,” he explains.
My father raises his eyebrows. “You can operate hand controls?”
Brody slides his right hand into his lap self-consciously. “Well, yeah. With some modifications.”
“No,” Dad says. “Sorry, I do have some medical knowledge. There’s no way you could drive a car. It’s just not possible.”
Brody glances at me, then back at my father. He seems to be internally debating something in his head. Finally, he says, “Um, okay.”
Mom bursts into the dining room, holding two plates of chicken with rice and carrots. She places one plate in front of Camille and one in front of my father. Brody already has his splint on and he’s working to get the fork in place. He’s just gotten it when my mother puts his plate of food in front of him, and then a plate for me.
I look down at my plate of food, which has one tiny piece of white meat chicken, a dime sized scoop of rice, and more than half the plate covered with carrots. I knew the carrots were some sort of diabolical plot on my mother’s part to get me to diet. And of course, everyone else at the table has an entirely normal portion of carrots in front of them.
“Carrots are really healthy, Emily,” Mom tells me. “You should eat more of them.”
I love how she’s called attention to my weight in front of the first boyfriend I’ve ever brought home. Also, I don’t hate carrots, but I don’t want them to make up 75% of my dinner.
“I was reading that Demi Lovato lost a lot of weight by snacking on raw carrots,” Mom adds. “In fact—”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Davison,” Brody interrupts my mother’s soliloquy on carrots. “Do you have any straws? Usually I carry them with me, but I guess I ran out…”
He’s looking at his water glass. I’ve never actually seen Brody drink a beverage without a straw.
“Sorry,” she says. “I don’t believe in straws.”
My mother doesn’t believe in straws? What does that mean? I had no idea she had any sort of strong opinion about straws.
“Okay,” Brody says quietly. He glances at me. “Emily, do you think you could help me with the… you know, the chicken?”
My mother has given him a large chicken cutlet. I’m guessing the only way he’d be able to eat it would be to stab it with his fork and eat it whole. I lean forward and slice it for him into smaller chunks while my entire family gawks at me. Well, at least we’re not talking about carrots anymore.
I feel bad for Brody because I can tell he’s meticulously avoiding his water glass, but my mother makes the saltiest food in the world. The carrots aren’t too bad, but the rice is generously salted, and the chicken may as well be a salt lick. I have a taste for salty foods, thanks to years of my mother’s cooking, but you definitely need a drink with it. I’d kill for a soda, but if I didn’t at least have my water, I’d be in physical pain right now.
It takes about ten minutes of eating in awkward silence before Brody cracks. He leans his head forward as far as he can, his upper body straining against the belt, and he grasps the sides of the water glass with his wrists. He tilts the glass forward carefully and is just barely able to take a sip. I can see his arms starting to shake with the effort of the whole process, and sure enough, he drops the glass, and water spills all over the table and the floor.
“I’m so sorry!” Brody cries as my parents glower at him. “I’m really sorry.”
Of course, they couldn’t possibly have hated him more before he spilled the water, so what’s the difference? He could literally set fire to their house at this point and it probably wouldn’t change their opinion of him.
“I’ll clean it up,” I say. I push myself away from the table and head in the direction of the kitchen to grab some napkins.
Camille leaps out of her seat too. “I’ll help you.”
I glance at my sister in annoyance. Cleaning up a spilt glass of water isn’t exactly a two-person job. It’s obvious what Camille has in mind, so it doesn’t surprise me one bit when she grabs my arm the second I enter the kitchen. “Emily,” she says, “we need to talk.”
I start yanking paper towels off the roll by the kitchen sink. “No,” I say. “We really don’t.”
“You can’t seriously like him,” she says.
It’s pretty much the same thing she said to Brody about me. It makes me wonder if she meant it both times. Does she think we’re both so completely undesirable that nobody could really like either of us?
“Well, I do,” I say as I crumble a wad of paper towels in my fist. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
Camille sighs loudly. “Look, Emily. I didn’t want to tell you this, but while you were in the other room with Mom, Brody… well, he hit on me. I told you that he used to like me in high school, and… I guess he still does.”
I wonder if I hadn’t heard everything Camille said to Brody, I would have believed her story. The truth is, I might have. That would have really hurt.
“He was saying all these completely inappropriate sexual things to me,” Camille says. “As if I would ever be interested in a guy like him! Even if he wasn’t your boyfriend, obviously.”
“Camille,” I say quietly. “I heard everything that you said to Brody. I was in the bathroom.”
Camille’s lips form a surprised little circle. It takes her a good few seconds to recover her composure. Despite everything, it’s slightly amusing to watch.
“Okay, fine,” she hisses at me. “He didn’t hit on me, okay? He was ridiculously loyal to you. But it doesn’t matter. Brody Nolan is not a good guy. You need to trust me when I say to stay away from him.”
“Yeah,” I snort. “I trust you, Cammy.”
“I don’t want a guy like him in my family!” Camille says.
I roll my eyes. “Right. Because it’s all about you.”
Camille puts her fists on her hips. “Emily, this is for your own good. You have zero experience with men, and I… well, I’ve got lots. More than I’d like, to be honest.” She drops her arms to her sides. A sad expression comes over her. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt. And I know Brody will hurt you. I know him. I’ve seen him hurt so many girls. I’ve seen him hurt himself.”
For a moment, my resolve is weakened. Nobody would ever say that Camille and I are close. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve called her in the last year… hell, in our entire lives. But I’ve known her my whole life, and I can tell she means what she’s saying. She genuinely believes that Brody’s going to break my heart.
But she’s wrong.
“Camille,” I say. “I love Brody. And if you’re not cool with that, you can go fuck yourself.”
The rest of the meal is mostly silent. Nobody offers to refill Brody’s water glass and even if they did, I’m pretty sure he’d rather die than attempt to take another drink. In the end, he leaves over the majority of the food, explaining that he wasn’t very hungry. Nobody suggests dessert or coffee.
I walk him outside, where he’s able to carefully bump down the two steps to my parents’ house. Obviously, he can’t go anywhere until Maggie gets here, and she’s also going to be my ride to the train station, since it’s too far to reasonably walk without major thigh chafing.
“Your family seems nice,” Brody says, as he watches the street, the wind tousling his brown hair.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I snort.
Brody grins up at me. “Well, they didn’t try to stab me or anything. So that’s a plus.”
“Just you wait,” I mutter.
Brody looks up at me with nervousness in his blue eyes. “When you were in the kitchen with your sister, she didn’t… I mean, did she say anything about me?”
“I know you didn’t really hit on her,” I assure him.
His shoulders sag. “Okay, good. I would never, ever… like, not in a million years, Emily. I love you. I promise, you can trust me.”
“I know,” I say.
And for some strange reason, I think again of what Camille said to me: I know Brody will hurt you. He won’t though. I know he won’t.
To be continued...