Soft flakes of snow followed Simone inside the car as she plopped down into the passenger's seat up front, quickly leaning over to push her lips against those of the driver. Andrew's face grew warm as he felt the girl's hot breath force itself into his own mouth, her cool hand gently touching the back of his neck, pulling his head just slightly closer to her own. Awkwardly his hands fumbled for a place to lay, falling tentatively the small of her back, feeling the cold smooth texture of her down coat until she pulled herself away from him.
“Hey baby,” she said with a smile as she fell back into the well-worn seat. Andrew squeaked out a reply that could have almost passed for English. She laughed at him, running a hand down still flushed face, “Drew, calm down, it's me, just me. You don't have to get all red with me just because we can kiss now.” For a moment it looked as if she were going to push herself against him again, saying instead: “Nothing's changed, okay?” smiling again to reassure him.
Everything had changed. Returning her look with a forced smirk, Andrew wished things were the way she saw it, he wished she made him shiver inside, wished he felt something when she kissed him like that. All he felt though was the wet, fleshy bulge of her lips pressing against his own, nothing more.
“And don't be nervous about dinner tonight either, alright?” Simone continued, taking her hand away to buckle herself in with the seat-belt, “So your mom doesn't like me, who cares. If she don't like seeing us hold hands or kiss in front of her, too bad, fuck it, she needs to get over herself, right baby?” Andrew laughed, she had said something very similar to him a few weeks ago in the hospital.
She had kissed him for the first time after five years of platonic friendship right there in that clean, quiet recovery room while he wore nothing more than a sweaty paper gown. It was right after she told him how scared she had been, how she wouldn't know what to do if she lost her only true friend. He hadn't felt the warm, exhilarating feeling he knew he was supposed to feel after that kiss though, the act feeling no more intimate than a sloppy, warm handshake. What could he do though other than play along? How could he possibly tell her that he wasn't attracted to her like she was to him? Andrew loved Simone too much to hurt her like that. Sitting there in the car next to her, watching her glowing face, he thought to himself how nice it would be if the problem at hand were as simple as Simone believed it was. He thought how nice it would be if it was only something as silly as the color of her skin holding him back rather than the fact that he had never felt an attraction to her or any female ever.
From the open front door of Simone's house, her grandmother, holding her robe tightly closed with one hand against the whipping wind, stared sternly as she waited for the car to pull away. She had warmed up slightly to Andrew ever since he had almost died almost a month ago, going so far as to allow Andrew to come inside the house for a few minutes for a cup of hot cocoa on one particularly cold night.
There was a time when Andrew was forced to pick Simone up for school every morning at the corner store a few blocks from her house because “grandma don't like seeing me hanging around with you”. Simone would say, with eyes rolled to the back of her head, “She's always saying I need to find myself a nice black boy. Stay with my own kind. Right. Like it did mama any good to kick it with someone from the neighborhood. An' I try to tell her we're not even going out or anything but she don't want to hear it, thinks I'm gonna get pregnant every time I leave the house.”
He knew how it was though, his father had been the same way about the skin color of the girls with whom his sons' consorted – before the prostate cancer killed him. Andrew remembered the day his brother Francisco had come home from his college dorm downtown for the holidays with a white girl. Andrew couldn't recall the girl's name but could see in his head that she had long, orange-yellow hair that seemed always to be falling across her face. Their father had stormed out of the house as soon as the poor girl was introduced, not returning until sometime early the next morning, too drunk to put one foot in front of the other properly and screaming to the whole neighborhood how his son was a disgrace to the family. Francisco didn't come back to the house after that for any dinners or birthdays, not until the day of the funeral.
As for the old lady still staring as the car pulled away with some effort through mounds of slush, Simone said she had talked some sense into “the racist old bitch” once and for all, had sat her down to make her realize that the two of them, her and Andrew, truly loved one another and that nothing in the world would change that. In the last few weeks Andrew had gone from despised and unwanted to nearly tolerated around Simone's house. He even managed to make the old lady laugh at a joke about Mexican food a few days ago through the open screen door as he was dropping Simone off home for the night. According to Simone, it would only be a matter of time before he was treated like one of the family.
As Andrew carefully guided the old car out of the slippery and white splattered side streets and onto the salted and well paved arterial street, he thought, as he often did, about the blank white ceiling of his hospital room. He didn't know if he came close to dying or not, or how close. A doctor said it would have been pretty bad if he didn't come to the hospital when he did. Simone had looked ready to slap him when she came to see him, tears in eyes, angry that he had taken such poor care of himself. It was around then that he noticed that something had definitely changed in her attitude. No longer did he see his friend who used to yell and scream herself raw with him at soccer games, who would go with him after school across the street for greasy tacos, the friend who wasn't afraid to burp in front of him or give him a shot on the arm when she felt he deserved it. No, this new Simone was one who would caress the side of his face gently as he drifted to sleep, who kissed his forehead as she said goodbye. It was right around then that he also figured out that he was just as afraid to lose her as she was of losing him.
“I thought I told you to relax?” Simone moved a hand to massage the back of Andrew's neck. It was then he realized how stiff his entire body had become. He let out a long breath to let his torso droop back into the driver's seat, his white, bloodless fingers loosening their hold off the steering wheel. “I can see your mind moving a mile a minute babe, stop sweating this. It's just a dinner, I've had dinner at your house before...”
Andrew agreed, shaking his head without turning his eyes from the road. He thought about adding that she had only started having dinner at the house once his father had passed, but knew better than to actually verbalize it. He could only imagine the uproar that would erupt if his father could see him with Simone, with a black girl. The thought made him smile, made him wish for a short instant that the man was still alive but the desire disappeared as quick as the fallen snow shoved away from his vision by the windshield wiper blades.
When he was fourteen years old, Andrew came home from school one day with a bruise on his face. When his father saw this, he knew it was time to teach his youngest son how to throw a proper punch. And so, with a half-finished beer in hand, his fifth for the evening thus far, the father led his son into the long, narrow concrete walkway wedged between their house and the next one over. The autumn afternoon was swiftly giving way to dusk as the man showed his son how to properly make a fist and told him where the best places to hit another boy were, giving his son a light, supposedly playful punch in the gut as an example, a light punch that would turn the skin colors and hurt for weeks to come.
He decided he wanted to give Andrew some fatherly advice as well, something he normally only handed out to his sons while carrying alcohol in his bloodstream. As he finished off the bottle he held, he looked his son straight in the face (as straight as he could) and gave out what he most likely thought were the beginnings of the greatest piece of advice any father could ever give. “Mijo,” he said, placing an arm around the thin yet tall frame of the boy who had yet to finish his ascent through puberty, “let me tell you something very important, something I wish papi had told me.” He paused for a moment, as if wishing he had another beer in his hand, perhaps briefly considering grabbing another one, but then pushed onwards with his speech.
“Don't make my mistake mijo, don't make the mistake your brother Jorge is making, don't marry an American. Go to Mexico, find a girl there, one who will actually cook and keep house, one who won't mouth off. Your mother, she was born here, she thinks too much like these white American girls, like a damn gringa. She talks back too much and her cooking is shit...” he laughed just before Andrew landed his first poorly-thrown punch square on his father's chin.
“We're here.” Andrew said with a sigh as they turned down the small street that would take them to his mother's house. Francisco, who was already inside, met the two of them at the door. The sweet stink of tequila rode out with his greetings as he gave Simone a tight hug lasting a few too many seconds.
“Andy, boy, you still driving that old beater?” The older brother asked, one arm outstretched for a hug, the other thrown to point toward the dull blue colored hatchback parked two houses down on the crowded street. “You just got out of hospital man, don't go sending yourself back.”
“Yeah,” Andrew answered, giving into the quick embrace, “she's getting old but she still runs alright.”
“No man, it was getting a little old when dad gave it to Jorge. It was a piece of shit by the time I got to drive it. It's just shit now. Watch yourself,” he said, turning to Simone, “you keep hanging around with this guy and you'll be pushing that lemon more than you ride in it.” He laughed, gesturing for the two of them to come all the way inside as snow began to form tiny melting heaps on the inside doormat.
With the door closed, Andrew could smell food cooking, what smelled like a ham, a deviation from the norm that could only mean one thing.
“What, is mom cooking another Christmas dinner? Thought we just had one a few weeks ago.” Andrew asked Francisco as he took his and Simone's coats to the closet rack.
“Yeah we did, but you messed it up by being all sick and almost dying.” Francisco said with a smirk. “So the whole familia is coming over today - well, at least Jorge and Natalia and the kids anyway. What? Why are you looking like your puppy just died? This shit is ancient tradition, you know important it is to ma that we all spend time together as a family.”
Andrew took a deep breath to collect himself, assuring his brother with a laugh that all was well, that he just had some bad gas from lunch. Putting on a show for his mother with Simone would be bad enough; having to do the same for the good son Jorge and his swiftly sprouting family would be so much harder.
“Chili cheese fries,” Simone offered as an excuse for Andrew's sudden queasy looks, “so good but so bad for you, they always do a number on Drew's insides.” She turned to Andrew, mouthing and telling him with her eyes once again that everything would be fine.
From the kitchen Andrew's mother called out, asking who was at the door. When she came out to living room to meet her son, the smile she had brought with her fell just slightly when she saw Simone.
“Oh hello...Simone,” she greeted her as she always did, acting as though it was a great effort to remember the girl's name, “I wish I would have known you were coming along with Andrew...” Andrew rolled his eyes briefly; he had mentioned the dinner visit at least three times during three separate phone calls over the last week.
In his head Andrew dictated exactly what his mother would say next, what she always said without fail anytime Simone “unexpectedly” showed up for dinner: “Well, I sure hope there's enough food,” his mother said with a light chuckle, “otherwise we'll have to feed Paco here some of the cat's food”. Laughing at her own joke while patting Francisco on the back, she went back into the kitchen, calling out for everyone to make themselves at home.
“She seems like she's in a pretty good mood.” Simone said softly with a shrug as she and Andrew fell onto the cream-colored loveseat, its usual cloth covering removed in anticipation of company.
“Oh yeah, she loves to set up these casual family get-togethers so she can spend the whole day bitching about cooking for everyone while making sure the house is spotless,” announced Francisco, making his voice loud enough so as to be heard through the din of sizzling oil and running water in the kitchen. “Why else would I be working on a buzz at two in the afternoon?” He laughed, putting a hand each on the shoulders of his brother and Simone as he asked if either of them wanted a drink. Once he received their requests, he quickly he charged headlong through the dining room and into the kitchen to fetch a few beers, instantly bombarded by his mother's muttered complaints in Spanish once well within muttering distance.
“You have told her about us, right?” Simone asked, eyes narrowing inside her forward-tilting head.
“Yes, of course I did, but you know how she is, my mother blocks out everything she doesn't want to hear.”
“Well, just don't keep treating me like a stranger in front of her like you always do, okay?” She put an arm around Andrew's shoulder, drawing him in for a quick peck on the mouth just as Francisco returned, open bottles clanging in his hands. He smirked as he passed one out each to the two on the couch before settling onto his father's old recliner.
“So when did you two finally start knocking boots?” Francisco asked his little brother, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees while keeping his voice low.
“Uh...” Andrew struggled for an answer, embarrassed to admit that the two of them had not yet done the deed.
“Since a few weeks ago.” Simone answered smoothly while taking a sip from her opened beer bottle. Andrew felt his face go warm once again but tried to keep his expression controlled as he looked into the amused yet impressed face of his older brother who gave his slight nod of approval. In truth, Simone had been pushing for physical intimacy, hinting at it with body language and spoken words alike while Andrew could only meekly hold her off, creating excuses about his still-returning strength and how nervous being with her for the first time would make him.
Once Simone excused herself to use the upstairs bathroom, Francisco immediately took the opportunity to speak his mind to Andrew. Congratulating him on finally getting together with such a beautiful girl. Andrew didn't need his brother to tell him that she was beautiful, he'd known it all through high school when guys who saw them together would constantly ask if he was “hitting that”. But the answer to that question was always a “No.” The explanation being that they were simply friends, a concept that bewildered nearly everyone, Simone included. But she wrote it off, they both did, using that same excuse for themselves, that they were too good of friends, more like brother and sister than anything, and, more importantly, that their equally racist families would never let them be together like that. They were good lies and excuses. Simone only let the act falter for minuscule moments in the form of sad longing looks that Andrew pretended not to see.
“And don't even worry about what ma thinks, bro.” Francisco continued, speaking rapidly in a lowered voice, “Look, I know what you're thinking...” Andrew knew that he didn't, “...but dad's not here anymore, you don't have to be afraid of him now. But shit, even if he was here – what I'm saying is if I had a girl like that, I'd fight for her, I'd fight dad if he was here to fight. I let him run my life when he was here and I wish I didn't. So if you really love this girl, don't hide from it because she's black or for whatever stupid reason. Do right by her man, she deserves it.” He took a long swig of the bottle, beaming wide when he pulled the glass from his mouth, “Because if you don't, I will.” he said with his eyes turned up to watch Simone just as she descended the stairs from the upstairs bathroom.
The phone rang. Jorge would be arriving soon, announced Andrew's mother loudly from the kitchen. Dinner couldn't begin until Jorge Jr. – first-born and pride of his father and mother, following proudly in his father's footsteps into the trades as a union electrician – arrived with wife and children in tow. Little Armelio and Christine would filled the house small running footsteps and excited shouts of “tio, tio!” and “abuela!” as they asked for piggyback rides from both of their laughing, well-buzzed uncles and for hugs from their laughing grandmother. Another little one was already pushing out Natalia's belly beneath her blouse, a sight that would certainly send the proud grandma rushing over to touch the slightly protruding stomach, feeling for a kick.
With food safely cooking, roasting, and simmering, the tireless chef emerged from the kitchen into the living room, wiping sweat off her brow with a dish cloth.
“So,” Andrew's mother began, pretending to show interest in the football game Francisco had put on, hitting Andrew with her usual line of questioning about school studies and money problems, working her way to her favorite subject matter: the love lives of her sons. “Andrew,” she started to ask with narrowing eyes, “you got a girlfriend yet?” The instant heat from Simone's glare felt strong enough to burn a whole in the side of Andrew's face as he searched for the words to answer her, feeling an equally strong stare from his older brother as well.
“Because you know, I'd like as many little ones as possible running around here before I die.” She turned her gaze to Francisco who was still staring at his younger brother, “It's obvious Paco here is never going to find a good woman...”
“I told you ma, I told you plenty of times over the phone” Andrew heard himself saying, unable to keep the tiniest of shakes out of his voice, “I have a girlfriend now.”
“Oh really? When and what did you tell me exactly?” His mother spoke in a mocking tone, believing, as she often did, that her son was simply lying to his mother. Yet all the same she seemed awash with joy, relieved beyond measure. “You know,” she said to Simone, who had visibly begun fuming, “he always used to say he had girlfriends in high school, but he would never bring them home. I thought, maybe he was just embarrassed. And,” and at this point she was laughing, “his father would always joke that maybe he just likes boys.” Andrew shuttered at the sentiments of his late father, echoing the concerns he had often heard straight from the man himself more times than he cared to think about.
Andrew was brought back to his fourteen year old body, back in the narrow walkway beside the house. The punch he had thrown at his father only made the large man topple over with more laughter. He got up to show his son how a real shot to the jaw should look, hitting him hard enough to cause the boy's teeth to clamp against his tongue, filling his mouth with the metallic taste of blood.
“Now don't start crying like a little faggot,” his father said to him, still laughing as he started heading back into the house. “I have three sons, not two sons and daughter.”
“So what's this girl's name?” asked his mother, back in the present. Briefly Andrew imagined vomiting profusely all across his mother's newly washed rugs, or simply running out of the house and into the cold to freeze to death, anything to avoid continuing with this charade he'd constructed. He fantasized that Simone and Francisco could get married in a beautiful ceremony by the lakefront and neither of them would have to hate him or look at him with disappointment. For just the smallest instance he wished his mother would have a heart-attack and fall comatose to the floor, breaking up the moment like a pane of glass hit by a hurled brick.
None of those things happened though and Andrew spoke Simone's name without further hesitation while placing a cold, sweaty arm around the girl's shoulder. The look on his mother's face was one of initial momentary confusion, collapsing swiftly into understanding before being just as quickly molded into forced elation. Andrew turned to Simone to see her face had relaxed into an expression of relief, leaning in as he did for a light, close-mouthed kiss. As Andrew pulled away and saw the look of pride on his brother's face, he wondered how hard it would be to continue this performance for the remainder of his life.