Concerning dirty dishes and interruptions

Quite unexpectedly, my husband and I found ourselves attending a marriage conference last Friday. My husband’s cousin and his wife just so happened to have extra tickets to the conference and invited us to go with them. We hadn’t seen them in a while, plus we’d never been to a marriage conference before, so we went. The four of us drove over to a church I’d heard about but had never actually attended. The large auditorium was full with several hundred people. After some announcements from the hosts and a short introduction, the speaker, a Dr. Randy Carlson, came on the stage.

His points and insights, although familiar, were good reminders of things married people can do to create a happier marriage. Saying ‘I love you’ every day, listening without interrupting, abandoning criticism, forgiving one another, using words of affirmation, and etc. He called them Love Habits. By the end of the hour and a half, he challenged us to pick one thing we could do for our spouses for thirty consecutive days. Stopping bad habits and creating entirely new ones can be daunting, but doing one thing is all it takes to start the process. Or at least, that’s what he said.

I sank in my seat when Dr. Carlson mentioned listening without interrupting, sure he was talking to me. It was just too coincidental that he would mention it days after my husband himself pointed out this bad habit of mine. I don’t interrupt to be malicious or to hog the spot light. Sometimes, as he speaks, ideas or opinions pop into my head and I verbalize them so that I don’t forget. Half the time, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. During one conversation, it got to the point where my husband just stopped talking. Once I was through with the point I wanted to add to the conversation, I turned to him expectantly, waiting for him to finish whatever he had been saying before. When he didn’t, I asked if there was anything wrong. He admitted he was frustrated with me and was trying to collect himself. Surprised, I asked him what I’d done to upset him.

“You kept interrupting me and I kept having to repeat myself,” he said. “I don’t like repeating myself so I’m just not going to.”

Feeling like a jerk, I apologized and promised to work on it.

After the marriage conference, I used my added guilt to make that committment. I was going to be a better listener. I was going to be more considerate of my husband and that was that.

Well, it’s been more of a challenge than I thought. I’ve found myself literally biting my lips to keep myself from interjecting. Worst of all is trying to really listen to what he’s saying while I’m trying to remember what it was I wanted to add. Who knew something so simple would be so difficult? I’ve messed up a couple times and spoken when I should’ve been listening, but my gracious husband has forgiven me every time. I’m happy to report that it is getting easier! I just have to keep focused.

My husband had been having some trouble thinking of one thing he could do for me. Not to brag or anything, but he’s pretty awesome and he does a lot of the things Dr. Carlson mentioned in the marriage conference. I cook every evening (with the exception of those rare mornings when I get up early and make dinner then or when we’re having lasagna and I can just leave a note for my husband to throw it in the oven an hour before I get home from work). But I also wash the dishes 99% of the time. I hate having a dirty kitchen. It immediately sucks the energy out of me when I come home from work to see a pile of dirty dishes on the counter. I finally expressed my frustrations to my husband, who gets home three hours before I do.

“I’m sorry, babe. I just don’t notice when the house is dirty,” he admitted. (Which is hilarious because he can spot a finger smudge on my car window from a mile away while I can go weeks, even months, at a time without washing my car.)

Men and women are different; I’ve seen evidence of this all my life. I never realized just how different they were until I got married. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I believe it’s perfect. We complete each other this way. But it’s so easy to allow those differences to drive us insane! I expect certain things from my husband because, to me, they’re obvious. I mean, why wouldn’t he notice the dishes? It’s the first thing I see!

It takes a lot of selfless love to be able to set our expectations aside and see someone for who they truly are, how they operate, how they think and feel. I’ve decided to let my expectations go, face reality, and try to see my husband for who he is, not necessarily who I want him to be.

My husband decided to make his one thing washing the dishes every day, even if there’s only a handful of plates in the sink. He doesn’t care about the state of the kitchen so long as there’s food in the fridge. But I’ve told him it bothers me, so he’ll do it for me. A whole week has gone by. My counters are clean. The sink is empty. The dish drainer is full. And I’m considerably less stressed. It’s amazing how something so small can make such a difference. I’m so thankful! I hope my one thing is making a difference in his life as well.

So, married folk, what’s your one thing going to be?

A lesson on pride

“Adventure is out there,” my husband said Saturday morning, holding his fist out so that I could bump it with my own.

Despite his knee injury, my husband is going hunting next weekend. I’ve tried talking him out of it but to no avail. He’s been planning this trip with his cousin for months and nothing is going to keep him from going. (Unless, by some miracle, his surgery is scheduled before Friday). So Saturday was his prep day. He hobbled around the house, gathering all the supplies he would need on his trip. (“Babe, could you look for my brown and blue boots? I can’t find them anywhere.” “Have you checked the box labeled shoes in the guest room’s closet, love?” “What box?” “Never mind. I’ll go look…You mean these?” “Yeah! Where’d you find them?” “In the box labeled shoes in the guest room’s closet.” Lol.)

Next order of business was getting his rifle sighted in. Instead of paying to go to the shooting range, my husband figured we’d be able to find a secluded spot in the mountains somewhere to shoot for free. So we loaded the truck with his rifle, some targets, shooting earmuffs, and ammunition. After a pit stop at Sonic for Limeades, we turned up Pandora and then hit the road.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been on an adventure,” he said with a grin full of child-like excitement.

Three hours, three “No Target Shooting” signs, and a half a tank of gas later and the  excitement was replaced by annoyance.

“Sloppy shooters ruin it for everyone,” my husband grumbled as we pulled into the shooting range. “They take their old TVs and refrigerators and shoot them up in the wilderness, and then leave the pieces out there for rangers and boarder patrolmen to find. Maybe if they cleaned up after themselves, we wouldn’t have “No Shooting” signs all over the place.”

By happy coincidence, the shooting range was offering to sight in rifles for the upcoming hunting season. My husband had the opportunity to sit with two old timers who knew a heck of a lot more about guns than he did. They had a great conversation about hunting, gun cleaning and assembly.

“I thought they were going to be jerks at first,” he told me as we drove home about an hour later. “The guy told me I had the wrong set up for hunting, talked to me like I didn’t know anything. Turns out, I don’t know anything.” He chuckled. “It didn’t feel to good but I’m thankful we ended up at the shooting range. It was totally a God-thing. He knew I needed to talk to those old guys and get a pride check.”

“Well, hey,” I said, “at least you learned something new.”

“Yeah, but still…my ego’s bruised.”

I laughed. “Oh, I understand. Take it from someone who lives with you, a guy with much knowledge about things I can’t even begin to understand; it’s not easy to just smile and say, ‘Thank you. I didn’t know that.’ But it beats staying upset about it. Be humble, babe. Have a teachable spirit. You learned something new today and are better for it. Now you can pass on that new knowledge to someone else.”

It’s true that when we first got married, I’d get upset whenever he proved to be better at something or know more about something or have a better way of doing something than I did. He’d beat me at cards, prove one of my facts wrong, show me a quicker way to get to work in the morning so that I could avoid traffic, all with a good attitude and good intentions. I’d sit there simmering silently, feeling like a dumb loser, until I could let it go. It took time and God gently tapping on my heart, reminding me that I once admired this man for his skills and his knowledge. If I let my jealousy and inadequate feelings get the better of me, it would poison our marriage. So I worked on praising my husband instead of looking down on myself whenever he proved to be more knowledgeable than me.

I feel I’ve become a better person and a better wife for taking on this new attitude. On Saturday I was able to pass that little lesson on to my husband. It’s amazing how that works. We might not have had that conversation at all if it weren’t for those “No Target Shooting” signs, so I’m thankful for them.

A true account

Sunday, 7:45PM:

“All right, babe,” I say as we get ready for bed.

“Tomorrow we get back into our workout routine?” my husband assumes.

“You got it. We’ve slacked off for too long.”

Monday, 11:40AM:

‘So I hurt my knee at work today…’ he texts me.

Doesn’t sound too serious, I think. Maybe it’ll be all better by the time I get home.

Monday, 5:50PM:

“It hurts to walk,” he says as he plays Destiny 2. “I can’t put pressure on it.”

“What?” I gasp. “It’s that bad?”

“Yeah. My boss said to go to urgent care if it doesn’t feel better by tomorrow morning.”

“So how does this work? You’ll get up tomorrow at the same time you always do, get out of bed, and if you can’t stand, I take you to urgent care?”

“Sounds about right.”

I try to remain calm despite the ringing in my ears. “Okay.” As soon as my back is turned, I text everyone I know and ask them to pray.

Tuesday, 3:45AM:

The alarm goes off. I crack an eye open to watch him crawl out of bed. He tries to put weight on his injured knee and collapses back into the mattress with a groan.

Looks like we’re going to urgent care…

I throw the blanket off and hurry around the bed to help him.

Tuesday, 4:00AM:

“Can you grab my shoes?”

“Yes, love.”

“Oh, and a hat too, please?” His hair is so long and unruly; he’d rather cover it up than try to fix it.

You’re so cute. “All right. I’ll be back.”

“Don’t forget my wallet.”

“Yes, dear.”

“Oh, babe? Can you get some socks too?”

“Here you go.”

“Um…” He holds out the right sock. “Can you give me a hand?”

I suppress a smile as I bend down before his injured knee and carefully slide the sock over his foot. I can see myself doing this in the future, when he’s old and has arthritis or something. In sickness and in health…

“I’m sorry I’m such an invalid,” he says with a sheepish smile.

“Don’t worry about.” I’m supposed to take care of you, silly. I’m your wife.

“Your car is too low to the ground. I don’t think I could get in or out of it,” he says. “Are you going to be okay, driving my truck?”

The thought makes me nervous, but I say, “It should be fine.”

I sit in the driver’s seat, scooted all the way back to accommodate my six foot two hunk. I scoot it forward and adjust the mirrors. I’m tiny when compared to him. The key slides timidly into the ignition. With a roar, the truck comes alive and rolls out of the garage. It’s still dark outside.

“If you were the one injured, I could just carry you,” he murmurs, using me as a crutch to get to the idling car. “I’m sorry you have to do this.”

“Stop saying sorry. You’re fine.” At least, I hope you’re fine…Please, be fine.

Tuesday, 6:30AM:

“We couldn’t find anything on the x-ray,” the doctor tells us.

My husband sits in a wheelchair.

I swallow hard. My rock, my bear, my safe place…in a wheelchair. It’s almost painful.

“We’re going to schedule an MRI but it could take up to two weeks.”

My husband exhales. He hates getting MRIs.

“If your knee heals on its own, we’ll cancel the MRI,” the doctor continues. “I’m going to give you a prescription for naproxen and a muscle relaxant in the mean time. The muscle relaxant you’ll take before you go to bed. It’ll help you sleep.”

“Thank you,” my husband and I both say.

Tuesday, 7:00AM:

My husband leans on his crutches as he talks to the nurse at the front desk. I watch him from the other side of the waiting room. He nods, accepting the papers she hands him, and then starts ambling carefully toward me. I jump up and hurry over to take the papers from him.

“Thanks. I have physical therapy tomorrow,” he says.

“What time?”

“After work.”

I blink in surprise. “But you’re not going to work.”

“I might.”

“You should be resting,” I protest.

“I need to work,” he says seriously.

I bite my tongue and hold the door open for him.

Tuesday, 7:45AM:

A headache is building behind my eyes and across my forehead.

“Are you going to work?” my husband asks as we wait in the drive-thru for our breakfast.

“I don’t know. There’s technically nothing wrong with me. Now that you’re on crutches, you don’t need me as much anymore…But I am tired.”

“Do you have any vacation days left?”

“No, but I have sick days.”

“It’s up to you, hon.”

I glance at the clock in the radio. “Well, even if we got home right now and I rushed to get ready, I’d still be late. And I don’t feel like rushing.”

“So stay home with me.”

“All right. I’ll stay home.”

Tuesday, 9:00AM:

“I’ve got your drugs,” I say, setting them down over the counter. “Do you want to take anything right now?”

“I’ll take some naproxen,” he says, his eyes on the TV screen.

I wait until he’s done battling robots before I hand him the pill. He swallows it dry and smiles.

“Thanks.”

I love you.

Tuesday, 12:15PM:

I reach across from him to place a soda on the chair he’s using as an end table. “Need anything else?”

“Not right now.”

“All right. Let me know when you’re hungry.”

Tuesday, 1:30PM:

“What did you say was for lunch?”

“I have chicken thawing in the fridge,” I say. “I can fry it for you and make mashed potatoes or I can make you a salad.”

His mouth works for a moment as he processes his options. “Neither sound really appealing right now…”

I chuckle, reading his code. “Would you like to order in, love?”

He grins. “Pizza sounds amazing.”

I whip out my phone and start the order.

Tuesday, 7:00PM:

I lower the book and poke him in the side. “Hey, are you falling asleep on me?”

“No,” he says drowsily.

“I’m almost done with the chapter.”

“I’m listening,” he insists, eyes closed.

I smile and continue reading out loud from The Order of the Phoenix.

Wednesday, 4:00AM:

“I’m taking my phone off of do-not-disturb mode,” I tell him, handing over his lunch box. “If you need anything, call me, okay?”

He puts his lunch in the passenger’s seat and gives me a kiss. “All right, babe. I love you.”

“I love you too.” I close the door and step back.

Please, keep him safe, I pray as I crawl back into bed.

Wednesday, 11:00AM:

My phone buzzes on my desk and I flip it over to check the text. Finally, he answered my text from this morning.

‘Yes, babe. I did get to work okay.’ Smiley face.

I breathe out a long sigh of relief and text back. ‘Was it hard to drive?’

‘Not really.’

‘That’s good! What did you do at work?’

He tells me and I smile. I was worried they wouldn’t find anything he could do while sitting down. I can’t wait to see him.

Wednesday, 5:35PM:

“How was physical therapy?” I ask, falling into the couch beside him.

“It was all right I guess. Painful. Oh, and there are little pieces of bone floating around in my knee.”

“What? I thought the doctors couldn’t find anything on the x-ray.”

“Well, the physical therapist took another look at the x-ray and said he saw what looked like pieces of bone floating around my knee.”

I shake me head. “How…?”

“No idea. The therapist thought the bone pieces could’ve been there since I tore my ACL and had surgery to fix it.”

“Wow. Okay. So how are we going to get those out?”

“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “But they’re not going to do anything until I get an MRI and they can confirm that’s the only problem.”

I lean back into the couch. Lord, have mercy on my baby.

Wednesday, 7:10PM:

“What if you have to have surgery on your knee again?”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. You just have to trust God in these situations.”

He says it so easily! I roll over to press my cheek against his chest. “What if it takes you months to recover?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“What if–?”

He gives my hand a squeeze. “We’ll be fine, babe.”

I shut my eyes. I want to believe, God, but I’m so afraid. Help me not to be.

Thursday, 3:55AM:

The truck’s lights disappear around the corner as I pull the trash cans out to the curb. I want to go back to sleep, but the dishes are piling up. I plan on making fried chicken and potatoes for dinner. If I put it off until I get home at 5, it won’t leave me much time to hang out with my husband before we have to go to bed again. I could make it all now, put it in the fridge, and just reheat it when I get home from work. I amble into the bedroom for my glasses. The world sharpens into focus and so does my mind. Squaring my shoulders, I march into the kitchen and start the day.

The plight of the married couple (I think this counts as poetry…)

They march about the house,

Soldiers pacing their designated wall.

With barely a glance at each other

They go about their business, big or small.

You wouldn’t know it if you peeked in,

But they’re married and madly in love.

A slip of the tongue, a word unsaid,

The wrong gift or lack thereof

Upsets the wife, frustrates the husband.

They stew and huff and grumble and then

An argument pushes them over the edge.

Where is your tolerance, your ability to bend?

It must have died at the end of your dating.

Didn’t you marry him because he was the best?

Didn’t you marry her

Because she was kinder than the rest?

How easily you both forgot!

Remember the silly girl you fell for,

The one who obsessed about her hair.

Remember the guy who opened the door

Let you go in first, let you have your way

Happily you once apologized and forgave

So she said the wrong thing to your mother,

So he left the sink dirty after his shave.

You were human then and you are human now.

Don’t yell, accuse, or bargain

Remember how it was then, let go, forgive

And try again.

My husband

My husband isn’t like the men in those romantic comedies we women like to watch.

He doesn’t send flowers and balloons to my office or give me little gifts just because. He doesn’t whisk me off on elaborate dates or nights on the town. He doesn’t plan big vacations or surprise me with plane tickets to some romantic destination. He doesn’t take it upon himself to make the house spotless when he notices that it’s dirty. He doesn’t welcome me home with a foot rub or a full bathtub or a three course dinner. He doesn’t willingly jump through a thousand hoops to make me happy. He doesn’t have the power to read my mind and know exactly what I mean when I’m being cryptic. He doesn’t humiliate himself for me or change the way he thinks to best suit my needs or allow me to be the one who’s always right.

It’s just not in his nature. And you know what? That’s okay.

Because he’s real.

He works hard at a job he doesn’t particularly like because he knows it provides for our needs right now. He fixes things that break so that we don’t have to hire someone else to do it. He talks me up when I don’t think too much of myself, and knows what to say to get me to stop stressing out. He supports my dreams and cheers me on through every endeavor. He listens to me talk until I’m all talked out. He isn’t afraid of my tears and will hold me for as long as I want. He isn’t afraid to be open and honest and vulnerable with me. He laughs at my mistakes, but doesn’t make me feel stupid for making them. His infectious sense of adventure and child-like trust in our God challenges me. He pushes me to try new things, dig deep, and find out things about myself that I didn’t know before. In my Sunday best or in Batman pajamas, he thinks I’m beautiful either way. He knows the value of my love and trust, and would never do anything to betray them. He’s always willing to help, to be my safety blanket, to walk with me through whatever comes our way.

And really, what more could I ask for?

An excerpt

Prologue (The Andromeda’s Ghost) :

 

Kylee stared at her reflection in the compact mirror, trying and failing to suppress her horror. Her dark hair had been braided and twisted into three buns along the back of her head (one behind each ear and one at the nape of her neck) with only one long curl trailing down her shoulder. Makeup had been caked onto her face to supposedly make her look older than her twenty-one years. She looked like an escort drowning in white lace and chiffon. She gave her mother a miserable look.

The queen snatched the compact from her daughter and tossed it at one of the ladies in waiting. “The doors will be opening any minute. Lower your veil now. No one needs to see you pouting like a child.” Her raven black hair was piled on the top of her head to make her look taller. Her makeup was even more exaggerated than Kylee’s, although, if makeup was meant to make one look older Kylee wasn’t sure why her mother had bothered wearing any. The dress the queen wore was made of red satin with pearl embellishments and sported a plunging neckline. If this had been the first time the queen had tried to prove she still looked thirty-years-old, Kylee might have been embarrassed. Sadly, it was not.

Kylee tugged the veil into place as one of the guards opened the door to the large hover craft. He extended a hand to help her climb out, for which she was grateful. Her wedding dress was ridiculously large and heavy.

The venue was just about the only thing Kylee’s mother had gotten right. An enormous cathedral sat on a slightly elevated plateau toward the outskirts of the jungle. It had tall towers, archways, and the traditional stain glass windows of a medieval cathedral from 20th century earth. It was one of the few of its kind in New Sol. Kylee gazed up at the artistically designed structure barely visible through the layers of tulle covering her face, and smiled for the first time in months. She’d wanted to get married here since she was nine years old.

Grief smothered her moment of joy. It’s the wrong man.

The queen fluttered about her daughter, fluffing the already too-fluffy skirt of her gown, swatting away the occasional insect, and muttering, “Stand up straight, my dear. That’s right. You’re so beautiful when you exercise good posture. Hands clasped before you…Perfect. Now, nod ever so graciously at the camera and proceed.”

Kylee found the camera hovering over the heads of the thousands of guests crowded around the cathedral’s entrance. She obeyed her mother and began the long walk across the lawn. She knew Taren wouldn’t be there but she still looked for him, desperate for a glimpse of black curls or oak brown eyes or a dimpled chin. Her mother and ladies in waiting trailed behind her, smiling and waving. An armored guard stood on either side of her.

Not long ago, Taren stood dutifully at her side during grand, obnoxious events like these. He would murmur lame knock-knock jokes out of the corner of his mouth to keep her smile genuine for the crowds. Sometimes he would cup her elbow and stay a step ahead to shield her from the cameras when she was too upset to face them. The more she thought about him, the sadder she became, but she couldn’t help it. He should be here.

She stumbled. A collective gasp rang through the crowd.

One of her guards took her by the arm. “Are you well, Princess?”

She nodded, perhaps a little too hastily, and continued her walk. But yet again, maybe he shouldn’t be here. Going through with this was painful enough for her. If she had to see the look on Taren’s face when she said, “I do,” she might’ve broken down on national television.

The doors to the cathedral loomed before her, blocked the sun for a moment, and then she was inside. The walls had been modified to mirror the scenery outside. She could still see the tangles of green jungle stretching out below and the grassy floor of the plateau. The only differences between the exterior and the interior were the drop in temperature and the seemingly magical appearance of chairs. Yet more people stood here, smiling and ogling and whispering and sighing and throwing her envious looks. There were quite a few more Mer-people within the cathedral than there were outside. An archway heavy laden with pink hydrangeas and ivy waited for her at the end of the aisle, along with her groom.

Kylee swallowed hard and lifted her chin when she saw her father. He wore his traditional general’s uniform, medals, and ceremonial sword. Even with the inserts in his boots, he was barely taller than she was. He looked deathly pale; his almond-shaped eyes were sad. He mutely held his elbow out to her, still powerless to oppose his wife and the demands of their almost-enemies. Kylee felt the familiar rush of frustration before accepting his arm. What good was there in being the king if he could still be overruled?

A hush fell over the audience and then the music began to play. Ten, twenty, thirty steps later, she stood before her fiancé. He was built like a pampered prince with undeveloped muscle beneath his tuxedo and waxy, green skin. Gills cut across both sides of his neck and scaly frills grew behind each ear. His glassy black eyes stared at her, unblinking. He extended a hand with a slight bow of his head; his fingers were webbed. Kylee couldn’t help but stare. Could he speak English? Was he kind? Was he expecting her to carry his children?

Kylee’s grip on her father tightened as the floor tilted beneath her feet. She’d always wanted to be a mother, but the thought of giving birth to tadpoles made her stomach turn. But she could feel the focus of that flying camera like a light blazing through a magnifying glass and aimed at the back of her head. The whole world was watching, waiting for her to continue the ceremony. She took a deep breath and reached out to him with a trembling hand.

The sound of an explosion made her twist around in alarm. Through the open doors of the cathedral, she watched her mother’s hovercraft erupt in a ball of fire. The floor shook from the blast, causing the cathedral’s walls to flicker in and out of existence. Chaos followed. The guests jumped from their chairs and ran to where they assumed the nearest exits were. They encountered invisible walls instead. The guards masquerading as attendees tried to calm those nearest to them with little success. The armored guards rushed outside to investigate the cause of the explosion, only to be thrown off their feet by a second blast which destroyed yet another hovercraft. Kylee was torn away from her father by the desperate throng. The second earthquake from the blast sent her looking for shelter. She fell back against the wall. Her fiancé, mother, and personal guards wrestled through the people running in every direction, trying to get to their princess.

All she could hear was white static. She blinked at the fire consuming the two hovercrafts in the distance and gaped the herd of frantic people as if in a stupor. What in the world was going on? Someone touched her shoulder. She spun around to see Taren standing beside her. He was dressed in a tux for the occasion. He could have passed for a guest. Her former bodyguard lifted the veil away from her face, cupped her cheek, and pressed his lips against hers.

He flashed her a crazy grin once they parted. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

“You know you just started a war between my father’s kingdom and the Mer-people, right?” Kylee sputtered.

Taren squinted at the burning hunks of machinery in the distance. “I set the bombs under your mother’s hovercrafts. If anything, it appears the Mer-people are waging war against your father.”

Kylee let out a hysterical laugh before she threw her arms around him. “Thanks for waiting until my mother was out of the car.”

“Oh, it wasn’t easy. Believe me,” he said with a chuckle.

The sight of the Mer-prince sprinting toward them with murderous rage twisting his face made Kylee shove Taren out of the way. She received a punch to the face that was probably meant for the back of Taren’s head. Stumbling back, she slapped a hand over her aching mouth and blinked away tears.

The Mer-prince gaped at her in horror. “I’m sorry!”

Taren tackled him into the archway. “You bastard!” The wood collapsed, sending hydrangea petals and leaves of ivy everywhere. The men wrestled, but it was obvious who had been trained in hand-to-hand combat. Taren quickly gained the upper hand.

“Kylee Wen Dao!” her mother screeched from somewhere behind her.

The princess half turned, hand still over her mouth. Through a sliver of a gap between people, Kylee could see her furious mother marching toward her, hair undone, makeup ruined, dress torn. It was the angriest and most disheveled she’d ever seen her mother look. The rebellious child in her rejoiced. Kylee gripped Taren’s shoulder before he could continue to beat up the Mer-prince.

“If you have an escape plan, now would be the time to share it.”

He nodded somewhat grimly at the prince before rising. Then he took her hand and expertly zigzagged them through the crowd. She didn’t know when he’d taken the time to memorize the locations of the camouflaged exits and she didn’t ask. She knew they were outside when the temperature changed. A cargo cruiser waited in the shade of some trees toward the bottom of the plateau. She grinned at the man leading her by the hand, memory after memory flashing through her mind.

Taren sitting at his usual chair on the terrace, calmly cleaning his blaster gun while explaining his reasons for not telling the queen about her daughter’s alter ego, the Golden Mare, champion racer of the underground.

Taren laughing a full belly laugh when Kylee asked for his opinion on her god-awful painting.

Taren lying in a hospital bed, battered and bruised, after surviving a bomb blast that had been meant for the princess.

Taren wearing a white tux and holding out his hand during her birthday ball, asking for the first dance.

Taren pressing her up against the wall and kissing her with enough passion to make her head spin.

Taren bowing stiffly after the queen had fired him. “Good bye, Princess. It was an honor serving you.”

The dress tore while she ran down the steep decline. Kylee hefted up the heavy skirt with her free hand and picked up the pace. Then her veil ripped away from the clips keeping it attached to her head. Kylee couldn’t have cared less. Once at the bottom of the plateau, she let go of Taren’s hand so that he could press the button that would lower the cargo ramp.

“The Mer-king’s ships will be waiting for us as soon as we leave the atmosphere.” Taren winked over his shoulder at her. “Are you ready for one last race, Golden Mare?”

Kylee laughed and kicked off her shoes. “You better believe it.” She reached for her tiara as she followed him into the space ship, wanting nothing more than to chuck it into the jungle. But she paused when she caught her reflection in the diamonds.

“If you do this, you’ll never be able to come back,” her mother’s voice hissed at the back of her mind.

Kylee took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. Racing in the underground and falling in love with the youngest bodyguard to graduate from the Guard Institute had been the only acts of rebellion she’d had the courage to do. And those had been committed after twenty years of trying to please her unappeasable mother. But there had been no leniency upon the discovery of these two secrets. The queen had put her daughter on an even shorter leash, organized this marriage, and banished Taren from the palace grounds within a week.

Tears made Kylee’s eyes burn. Was there ever a time when you loved me? You were so focused on turning me into what you believed would be the perfect daughter and princess. Did you ever wonder who I really was? Were you ever the least bit curious?

“Kylee.”

She turned to face him. Taren’s eyes flickered to the tiara in her hands before landing on her face. The wind tousled his hair as a sad smile made his lips curl.

“It’s a part of you whether you leave it behind or not.”

She glanced down at the symbol that had always set her apart from the rest of the world, the metallic piece of headwear her mother never let her leave the palace without. She knelt by the edge of the ramp and gingerly placed the tiara in the grass. Yes, she would always have royal blood running through her veins, but she was done playing the part of the perfect princess.

The diamonds reflected the sun as the cargo cruiser made its ascent. Kylee turned her head skyward and didn’t look back.

On branches and weeds

“Babe?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you decided what you want to do about the yard?”

A casual glance through the front window. “Nope.”

“Okay.”

My husband and I had been having this same conversation for four months. The two trees in our front yard were so over grown that the leaves were only inches away from the ground. One exceptionally long branch was hanging over the street, waiting for a strong wind to knock it into one of our neighbor’s cars. Our yard was a hazard and an eye-sore. We both knew it and we both wanted to do something about it. We looked into hiring a landscaper. We had seen several trucks on our block and they had all very helpfully stuffed their cards through the screen door. Still, every offer seemed too expensive. In my eyes, the logical thing to do would be to trim the trees ourselves, but we didn’t have the tools or friends we could borrow the tools from.

“Besides,” my husband would always say. “Our trashcans are too small to fit that big branch and all of those leaves. They would just end up in a big pile in the back yard, and I don’t want to have to deal with that.”

I asked if he could borrow some tools from work since they sometimes have to do landscaping around their billboards. I volunteered to help him so that we could get the task done quicker. I suggested renting a dumpster to put the branch in. I did everything in my power to make the job sound easier than it was. There was always a good reason why he couldn’t ask his boss about the tools or why this weekend wasn’t a good weekend to take care of the yard or why renting a dumpster wouldn’t work. Meanwhile, the wind kept blowing and the rain kept coming and before we knew it, there was a jungle of weeds in our backyard tall enough to touch my hips. I started pulling them myself but the task was daunting, especially since four hours of pulling weeds had barely put a dent in the sea of plant parasites in our backyard.

I didn’t want to nag him. Nagging men doesn’t ever seem to work. I watched my mother do it and it only ever seemed to make my dad angry. He would make his decision/do that one chore/buy that one appliance/paint the fence/file that document/get rid of the clutter in the backyard when he was good and ready, and no amount of complaining or begging was going to change that. (He always did get it done, just not when my mother wanted it done.) I tried nagging my little brother about his chores in the years after my older siblings were out of the house, my parents were both still working, and it was just the two of us on Saturday mornings. Mom had given us both responsibilities and I had done my share. I didn’t think it fair that he got to laze around and told him so. It would take an hour of his day tops to do his laundry, clean his room, and take out the trash. But no! He didn’t feel like doing it right then so he wasn’t going to do it. I would yell and scream until I had no voice and no dignity, and he would still sit there, very calmly, and say, “Nope. Don’t wanna.” (My little brother and I get along great now, by the way.)

The same thing pretty much happens with my husband. Neither of us have ever gotten angry enough to yell at each other, but we’ve gotten frustrated and annoyed with each other when I ask him do to anything repeatedly and he doesn’t do it immediately. Every time, he has stated very clearly that he heard me the first time and he does indeed plan on doing that thing I asked him to do, just not at the exact moment I would like this thing to be done. At times, I’ve been able to remember that I love this man and I chose to marry this man and, with that choice, I also vowed to respect this man whether he drops what he’s doing to do what I want him to do or not. And at other times, I simply stew in the corner, muttering under my breath about the “stubbornness of dwarves.” (Hobbit reference to those of you who are raising your eyebrows right now.) As you have probably concluded, the former response is the more mature and loving response, and the one I think we should all strive to achieve in situations like these.

So I decided to be patient despite the fact that the yards made my stomach turn every time I looked at them. He knows it bothers me, I reasoned. To some degree, it bothers him too. I just have to wait until it bothers him enough to push him to do something about it. That’s not to say I didn’t gently prompt him now and then with the, “Have you decided what you want to do about the yard?” question. But I don’t think he considered that to be nagging because he never became frustrated or upset with me when I asked.

Finally, the blessed day arrived when I pulled into the garage and looked over at my husband’s truck to see heavy duty gardening tools. Once inside, I saw my husband sitting before the TV, playing his video games, with the curtains drawn away from the sliding glass doors. (Usually, he keeps the curtains closed because he claims the light from outside causes a terrible glare against his screen.) It was a wonderful sight to behold; a clean-cut back yard without any sign of weeds. I expressed my joy by falling into his lap, throwing my arms around his neck, and kissing him repeatedly. I might have been a tad overly dramatic, but I have no regrets.

He trimmed the trees the next morning. I raked up all the leaves and thinner branches for him and we filled our trashcan plus two large garbage bags. He took out the chainsaw and cut down that dangerously long branch. Then he cut it into smaller pieces and we loaded them into the bed of his truck. We took a little trip to the landfill and bid a very short farewell to that branch. Then it was off to Smashburger for a date we couldn’t afford. While I’m usually very frugal and disciplined about going out to eat when we really shouldn’t, I was happy to charge it to the credit card. And while I’m usually very self-conscious about the way I look in public, I sported a messy high pony tail, an old Spider-Man T-shirt, jean shorts, and my running shoes without a care. Because our yards were clean, our trees looked beautiful, my husband was in a good mood, and we were eating great food.

“In the sweetness of friendship, let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.” I don’t know who Khalil Gibran is, but he’s a wise man. I think sometimes I get so caught up in being a wife that I forget to be a friend. I could’ve said something along the lines of, “Finally!” or “It’s about time you finally got this done!” or “If you’d just listened to me four months ago, this would have been done by now!” but that would’ve changed the day completely. It would’ve led to an argument. Instead, we were able to work as a team and enjoy lunch afterwards, teasing and talking and just being together. As a couple but also as friends.

I’m so thankful that my husband and I can do things like that. We can work, run errands, do chores, even sit together in the same room (him playing his video games, me watching Gilmore Girls on the laptop), and be refreshed. Together. And I think it’s because of the way we choose to respond to one another in potentially upsetting situations. Did I have a right to be mad? I think so. Did he have a right to lay into me for asking him about the yards every so often? No matter how gentle or nice I was about it, I was still repeating myself so, yes, he probably did have a right to become frustrated with me. But I know my husband; he’s not a lazy, good-for-nothing, moocher who waits until I get tired enough to just do whatever it is I want done myself. He had a timetable that was different from mine, and respecting that brought forth good results. And he knows me; he knows my intentions are good, even if I sometimes let my emotions or other circumstances get the best of me. The key, I think, is remembering the truths about each other and using those truths to shape our responses.

I don’t pretend to know everything about marriage. After all, I’m still a newly-wed. (We’ll be celebrating our second anniversary at the end of May. Woohoo!) But I think we’ve got a good thing going on here, and if I can share it with others, maybe even be of some help, I will.

So children…

I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was fifteen years old. I know, I know. I’m weird. Normal girls at that age are thinking about boys, school, their friends, and the latest gossip. Well, I was mostly invisible to boys, I wasn’t too crazy about social gatherings, my friends didn’t attend my school, and gossiping about others has never appealed to me, so the only thing left to really think about (other than books and movies and my stories) was the future. At fifteen, I knew I wanted a big family. After all, I came from a big family. Being an introvert and a bookworm wasn’t such a bad thing when I had three siblings to hang out with. I knew having all of us kids must have been hard on my parents, but I also knew that they wouldn’t trade us for anything.

At fifteen, I knew what kind of man I wanted to marry. Having just broken up with my first boyfriend, I decided I didn’t like heartbreak. I didn’t like feeling like I wasn’t good enough for someone, like I was stupid for letting my guard down, like I had completely misjudged this person I once claimed to love and know everything about. I decided I wasn’t very fond of this thing called dating. It was fickle and unreliable and temporary. I wanted something more permanent. I wanted a husband. After only one year in high school, I knew none of the boys there were husband material. Call it instinct, call it very good observation skills, call it whatever you want, I just knew my future husband was not the guy sitting next to me in Biology. (There was a time when I wished he was. My sophomore Biology partner was a year older, Hispanic, into dirt bikes and adrenaline rushes, and thought I was cute. I might have been able to convince myself that he could have been my future husband if he had any interest in God…No regrets, though.)

Sure, I crushed really hard on a few guys and almost started dating two of them, but in the end I couldn’t see myself marrying either of them. Both had admirable qualities, but I had made a list of attributes I wanted in a husband and I was committed to sticking to it. (I went over this list repeatedly, adding things as I grew up, erasing things that I realized weren’t very realistic.) I prayed about it all the time, asking God to give me the strength and the patience to wait for my perfect fit. (I hope I’m not starting to sound holier-than-thou; I have a point here. I promise I’ll get to it quickly.) Anyway, God was faithful and did eventually introduce me to the man I’m married to today. Believe it or not, he has everything on my list, including some habits and qualities that I never knew I wanted. He also comes from a big family and has wanted to be a father for as long as he can remember.

Because we both feel so strongly about it, the subject of kids came up early in our relationship. (I learned three things about my husband in our first month of dating; he liked to travel, he wasn’t afraid of anything, and he wanted children.) Shortly after we got married, we compiled a list of house rules for our kids, just because we wanted to be prepared and on the same page about some things. (If you haven’t noticed yet, we’re very weird. That’s just who we are.) The older we got, the more real this concept of being parents became. Witnessing hissy fits at the grocery store, being thrown up on while volunteering in our church’s nursery, over-hearing bratty kids in the line at Chipotle, and watching movies starring lazy, disrespectful kids has done little to dissuade our desire to have children.

I was told once that if I waited for the day when I could afford children, I’d never have any. I’m sure whoever said that was half-joking, but I’ve spoken to several more parents since then and they’ve all seemed to reach the same consensus: there is no perfect time to have kids. Still, I was raised by a very logical, realistic father who always thought carefully about things before doing anything life-changing. (This instinct, his sweet tooth, and his stubbornness are some of the things I inherited from him.) My husband and I have needs that should be met before kids enter the picture. My husband’s truck has lived longer than any car either of us has ever owned; it needs to be replaced. We’ve started setting money aside and building up our credit for the day it finally craps out on us and we’ll be forced to replace it. I’m eight credits away from finishing my creative writing program and being done with school (at least for now). Thirdly, my husband is trying to get into the police academy because his current job is sucking the life out of him. Plus, a larger paycheck would be nice. I figured it would be wise to wait until we’ve accomplished these three things before trying to have children, and my husband agreed.

And then last week he tells me, “I’m ready when you are, babe.”

Cue panic attack.

Suddenly, there are lots of reasons not to have a child. I’m too young. I haven’t published a book yet. What if I’m a terrible mother? What if the child comes before my husband gets a better-paying job? What if we can’t pay the bills and are forced to move back into an apartment? After living in a spacious house for eleven months, we’ve accumulated some extra things and I really don’t want to have to rent a storage unit. I don’t know how to talk to children! Bring on the spit-up, the poopy diapers, the sleepless nights, and the endless screaming. I can deal with that. But a talking child, who is old enough to reason and make their own deductions, will be able to tell that I have no idea what I’m doing. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I drop the kid? What if I ruin his life?

Suddenly, I’m not ready.

Or am I? My mother was nineteen when she had my oldest brother. My dad was the only one working for many years. Mom stayed home with us. We didn’t have much, but we always had something to wear and we never went hungry. If God could take care of us then, He can definitely take care of us now. Sure, I have a hard time interacting with other people’s children, children who can take one look at me and sense the uncertainty. But it might be different with my own child. My mom said the wrong thing once or twice and she dropped me as a baby, and I turned out all right. She made mistakes and she didn’t ruin my life. I’m pretty sure if I try my hardest and I love the snot out of the little person who comes out of me, I’ll be a good mom.

I’ve never been so confused.

Should I or shouldn’t I?

I’ve been praying about this ever since my husband brought it up last week. I wish God would just tell me what I should do. He does that sometimes, makes the path that I should take crystal clear. And then, at other times, He leaves it up to me. I feel like He’s doing that now, like He’s saying, “You’ll be okay either way. You decide.”

Ugh. It would be easier if He just told me what I should do. Then I wouldn’t have to have this same argument over and over again in my head. I’ll keep thinking about it and praying about it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even write another blog post about it. Sometimes, it just helps to think out loud.

 

Communication

I usually do the dishes in our house.

Despite the fact that both my husband and I make dirty dishes, the kitchen is my domain and he “wouldn’t know where to put the dishes anyway” if/when he ever got the overwhelming desire to clean. (Insert an eye roll from the wife right here.) But every once in a while, I’ll come home to find that the once large pile of dirty dishes is now gone, there are clean dishes in the dishwasher, and there are random plastics lined up neatly in the drying rack. I always make a big deal when I notice this in the hopes that my big hug, kiss, and a thousand thank-yous will encourage him to surprise me with a clean sink more often. Well, Monday after work was no different. He only got around to loading the dishwasher and left the plastic Tupperware containers for me to wash, but I was still thankful because most of the work was done.

Too lazy to actually take the dishes out of the dishwasher and put them away in their proper locations, I resorted to taking out the silverware I needed right from the washer. (We always run out of silverware before we run out of plates, cups, or bowls for some reason. At times, I think we just need to buy another 48 piece set of silverware, but I’m not so sure that would really fix the problem…) Anyway, it wasn’t until yesterday morning that I ran out of clean bowls and reached into the dishwasher for one. There was still chocolate syrup in the supposedly clean bowl I held, quite a bit of it. Which lead me to the dreadful conclusion that, if this bowl was still dirty, every other dish in the washer was too. (Insert gag reflex here.)

Whenever I load the dishwasher, I always run it whether it’s a full load or just half of one. I do this so that we can at least have some clean dishes at the end of the day. So, when I noticed my husband had loaded the dishwasher on Monday, I assumed he had run the washer as well. I was mistaken. As I washed the chocolate syrup from the bowl, I experienced a series of emotions ranging from anger to exasperation to self-pity to resignation. I know what people say about assuming. I concluded we were both at fault in this situation.

When I got back from work and found my husband gaming on the Playstation yesterday, I told him what happened as graciously as I could manage. His expression of horror and disgust was further proof that he had not done this terrible deed maliciously and, after he apologized profusely for the eighteenth time, I reassured him that it was all right. He explained that he was in the habit of leaving half-loads unwashed in the dishwasher with the hope that more dirty dishes would come later and he would be able to run it with a full load, thus saving water and soap. I asked him to please just run the dishwasher every time for peace of mind and he promised he would. We had a laugh about it later and I said the same thing I always say when something like this happens.

“We need to work on our communication.”(For those of you who don’t know, this is a quote from Independence Day, when Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are flying the alien aircraft.)

It’s funny to both of us whenever I say this because, when we were dating, we were so sure we had that communication thing down. We talked about everything. Literally. He found out about my problems with dairy and constipation the first month into our relationship. He texted me while he was on the toilet numerous times and wasn’t embarrassed to inform me when he had a surprisingly large bowel movement. We thoroughly discussed the pros and cons of home birth versus hospital birth and the possibility of aliens. We talked about what we would do if we won the lottery or were stranded on an island. We shared about our dreams (the ones we had while we were sleeping and the ones we wanted to accomplish in the future) and voiced every random question that flitted through our minds. When I did or said something that bothered him, he’d let me know in the nicest possible way and vice versa. We just had that kind of relationship.

Still, certain bits of information seem to fall through the cracks now and then. It can be frustrating, but mostly it’s humbling.

Our friends and family have commented on the ease of our relationship. I can count the “big arguments” we’ve had in our three and a half years of knowing each other on one hand, and even those can’t be considered big when compared to the fights other people have. I mean, we’ve never raised our voices at each other or thrown things at each other or spent a night apart to “cool off.” In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever gone to bed angry at each other. It was a struggle to admit he was right and his ways were best at the beginning of the marriage (I’m not just saying that; 99% of my husband’s methods have proven to be smarter/more efficient than mine.) But I was able to overcome my pride and get over that after a few months. There are things he does that bother me, but he’s made an effort not to snap his fingers to get my attention or whistle for the dog when I’m standing right next to him (he whistles through his teeth and it’s the LOUDEST sound I’ve heard to this day) or turn the water ice cold and jump out of the way while we’re showering together.

These trivial things we “suffer” through might sound small to other couples, but they mean a lot to me. These little things are what keep me from getting a swollen head and thinking I have a perfect relationship. They help me relate and be compassionate to other wives. They are the funny stories I can share with my single friends much, much later, when neither my husband nor I harbor negative feelings toward the matter/event. They are what makes my husband and I human. So, when you look at it that way, you can say that miscommunication and mistakes are things to be thankful for. (Insert cheesy thumbs up here.)

The vamp and the boring dud

Nina left the room after I announced my engagement.

Papa already knew because Wes had asked him first, but he smiled and congratulated us just the same. Momma let out a girlish shriek of excitement and ran into the kitchen for that bottle of cider she’d been saving for a special occasion. My brother, Phillip, rose from the sofa to help his very pregnant wife stand and give us hugs. He proceeded to shake Wesley’s hand and give him a crooked smile.

My sister-in-law squeezed my shoulders despite the baby bump between us. “Oh, Bea! That’s wonderful news! I’m so happy for you two!” She released me to take Wesley’s face in her hands and beam up at him. “I knew you were going to stick around! I just knew it!”

Wes smiled around the hands over his cheeks. “Thanks, Opal.”

I turned to smile at my sister, expecting to see her still standing by the floor lamp, waiting for her turn to congratulate me. But she was gone, the screen door closing behind her with a quiet click. I kept the smile on my face despite my disappointment and excused myself before slipping out into the night.

Nina leaned her elbows against the railing and lit the cigarette dangling from her lips. I used to think she looked so cool with a ciggy between her fingers, colored eyelids drooped, long lashes casting shadows across her prominent cheekbones, ruby red lips pouting ever so delicately. Nina was blessed with all the confidence and genes needed to be a choice bit of calico in this decade. The dress of a flapper couldn’t hide my curves and my bob could hardly be contained by a cloche hat. Plus, I’d always been too afraid of Papa’s disapproval to smoke.

I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “What’s eating you, Nina?”

She was too quick to smile. “Everything is Jake, Sweet Bea. I was just craving a smoke.”

I joined her by the railing. “Did I upset you with my announcement?”

Nina blew a raspberry and rolled her eyes. “Course not. It’s a surprise but not something to be upset about.”

I blinked. “Phillip bringing a woman of color home to meet our parents was a surprise. Wes and I have been going steady for over a year now. It’s only reasonable that the next step for us would be—”

“Julius and I have been seeing each other about the same amount of time and you don’t see me sporting a handcuff.”

I bit my lip and averted my gaze, sliding a hand over my engagement ring. I hated her a little for ruining this night for me. I wanted to say Julius was too much of a coward to get a divorce and would probably never be faithful to Nina even if he did. But I held my tongue.

Nina took a drag from her cigarette and sighed. “I’m sorry, Sweet Bea. I really am happy for you. Wesley is swell. You’re going to be a great wife.”

Now say it like you mean it, I thought. “Thanks…”

Nina scrunched up her face. “But level with me, sis. Are you sure you’re going to be happy having so little? Being a waitress can’t pay much and Wesley’s job at the railroad isn’t exactly a career.”

“I have everything I could possibly want; parents who support me, an honest and hardworking man who’s goofy about me, friends and siblings who care about me, and a steady job. What more is there?”

My sister chuckled and turned back to the Chicago skyline. “Oh, Bea, you’re adorable.”

“What more is there,” I said with a frown, “that matters?”

Nina’s smile grew sadder and slightly less condescending. “You’ve always been so easy to please.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

Nina waved an impatient hand at the house behind us. “You’re content to be a clergyman’s daughter and follow his rules and sit in church every week. You’re happy waiting on customers and wearing our cousins’ hand-me-downs—”

I defensively wrapped my arms around my jumper.

“And being a good housewife and bearing children and serving the same man until you’re old. You’ve never thirsted for something more, something better, in your entire life. You’ve never been the least bit curious about new things or brave enough to voice your opinion.”

I remembered with bitter clarity the last time I had ‘tried something new’ with my sister.

 

Nina had persuaded Momma to let me spend the night at her place because she was long overdue for a girls’ night. I was under the impression that we’d get dolled up and go out to eat, maybe go to the movies before returning to her flat. The moment I stepped through Nina’s front door, she dragged me to her closet to ask for my opinion on what she should wear.

“Julie’s meeting us downtown and I have to look keen.”

To which I replied, “I thought we were having a girl’s night, Nina Bean.”

My sister huffed. “Don’t call me that! I’m hardly as thin as a string bean anymore. We’re still having a girl’s night. I just want you to meet Julius first.”

So I gave my opinion on Nina’s outfit and squeezed into one of her flapper dresses. I let her do my makeup and wrap a silk scarp around my head, and then we were off. Nina was acting like a schoolgirl, giggling and gushing about her new sheik, while we waited for him outside the speakeasy that masqueraded as a diner. This man, who was the coolest ‘egg’ Nina had ever met, pulled up in a shiny new breezer and honked his horn at us. Nina plastered herself to the side of the car to give the driver a kiss.

Once out on the sidewalk, Julius wrapped an arm around my tall, slender sister and walked over. His head barely reached her breast, but he spoke loudly enough to be noticed by all. His dark hair was sleeked back under his maroon homburg. He sported a gray pinstriped suit with a maroon vest to match his hat, and black and white lace up oxfords. He called Nina ‘smarty’ and complimented her dress before he even noticed me.

“Julie, this is my sister, Beatrice. Bea, this is my Julius,” Nina said.

Julius vigorously shook my hand. “Nice to meet you, doll.”

“Oh, you’re such a charmer!” Nina exclaimed before turning to me. “Isn’t he a charmer?”

“Sure,” I said, not that she heard me.

“Let’s go inside. I’m dying for a lap.” Nina led the way, arm-in-arm with Julius. She spared me a glance over her shoulder when she’d reached the door. “Don’t look so terrified, Sweet Bea. This juice joint is hip to the jive! It’ll be fun!”

With great trepidation, I followed them into the basement. Three drinks, four songs played entirely too loud and fast, and two dances later, I was being groped by a man I didn’t know and had no intention of knowing. The lovebirds I was tagging along with magically reappeared from wherever they had slipped off to. Julius slugged the stranger in the stomach while Nina dragged me outside and away from the ruckus. We reached the alley in time for me to throw up all over the pavement and Nina’s dress.

“Oh, Bea! I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” Nina tugged a handkerchief from her purse and dabbed at my face.

I let out a moan and sank back against the wall. “I want to go home.”

Nina sighed. “I can’t bring you to Momma like this. Let’s just go back to my place, all right?”

Julius emerged then, looking angrier than a swarm of bees. “That futz-face won’t be coming around this place again. How’s your sister?”

“She’s fine, Julie, but I really think I ought to put her in bed. Could you take us home?”

 

I crossed my arms now, mentally channeled this memory to my sister, and waited for her to remember.

Nina cast me a sideways glance. “The night you met Julius doesn’t count.”

“Why not? It was the first time I’d ever been to a sp…”

A burst of laughter from inside the house reminded me there was only a screen door and several footsteps between us and the rest of our family.

I lowered my voice. “It was the first time I’d ever done something illegal before. And what about my hair?”

Nina shrugged. “What about it?”

“You shamed me into getting it cut this way because you were so certain it would make me look fashionable! ‘All your life it’s been long,’ you said, ‘and wouldn’t it be nice to have it styled differently for a change?’ Maybe if I’d been ‘brave enough to voice my opinion’ and said no right away, I wouldn’t look like I have a crow’s nest on the top of my head!”

Nina coughed and sputtered out a laugh.

I self-consciously patted my curls and scowled at her. “I know Wesley hates it, but he’s too much of a gentleman to say anything. It’s a good thing we’re waiting until the spring to get married, otherwise I’d have to…”

Nina rolled her eyes. “It looks fine. You’re being ridiculous.”

“Speaking of ridiculous, just what is wrong with being a housewife and having children?” I demanded.

My sister blew out a stream of smoke and flicked the cigarette butt into the grass. “Nothing, of course. Why would you do anything different? It’s all women are good for.”

I gritted my teeth to keep from swearing. I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Just because I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life with the man I love doesn’t mean I’m ignorant or stupid.”

Nina cast me an annoyed glance. “I never said you were.”

“Then stop insinuating that your way is best! Not all of us want to be vamps who drink until they vomit and dance with strangers. Some of us actually want to grow up.”

Nina’s jaw dropped. “Bea…”

“Tonight was supposed to be a celebration!” My voice cracked. “Why couldn’t you just be happy for me?” I spun on my heel and marched into the house, blinking away tears.

 

Wes climbed the tree by my bay window and tapped the glass with his knuckles. I rolled out of bed and threw on a robe before shuffling over.

“Were you sleeping?” he asked once I’d opened the window.

I sat on the cushioned bench and hugged my knees. “You know I can’t sleep after I’ve had a fight.”

Wes shifted on the branch, most likely to get into a more comfortable position. Leaves came loose with an audible shuffle before they flitted to the ground. Wes flinched and looked down at my parents’ window. He let out a sigh of relief when the light stayed off. Then he turned those soft green eyes on me. “What happened tonight, Bea?”

I swallowed the lump of anger and self-pity as best I could. “Oh, it was just Nina being Nina. I’m not dating a married man and twisting the night away like she is so, naturally, I’m a boring dud.”

Wes frowned. “She wasn’t happy for you?”

“Marriage apparently was designed to belittle and enslave women all around the world. Ugh! She drives me crazy!”

“Did she say those words exactly?” Wes asked.

“No,” I murmured, “but she was awfully upstage about the whole thing. I don’t understand how she came to hate marriage so much. My parents have a wonderful relationship. It’s not perfect, never has been, but they’ve found happiness in whatever situation they’ve encountered because they have each other and God between them. Opal practically saved Phillip after he came back from the war! True love and commitment are so medicinal to the soul. Why can’t Nina see that?”

Wes chewed on the inside of his cheek for a moment. “Could it be that she’s jealous?”

“Free-spirited, sophisticated Nina jealous of me?” I scoffed. “Unlikely.”

“Well,” Wes said carefully, “her younger sister is getting married before her. Despite what she thinks about marriage, the fact that she hasn’t been asked yet says something about her.”

I shook my head. “Even if she was asked, she’d just say no. The thought of depending on or being under anyone’s rule is too horrible. Why do you think she left home so soon after finishing high school? Momma and Papa were willing to go into debt to pay for higher education, but she wouldn’t have it. She worked herself to the bone paying for college and rent all so that she could be free.”

Wes reached out to take my hand. “You shouldn’t let this bother you so much, Bea. We’re still getting married.”

I half smiled when I noticed the leaf caught in his hair. I sat up and ran my fingers through his golden locks to remove it. He was right. Of course, he was right. I didn’t need Nina’s approval. It was only…

My smile faded. “I’ve always been able to talk to Nina about anything. I was looking forward to planning the wedding with her and Momma and Opal. I wanted to ask Nina to be my maid of honor. I don’t think any of that is going to happen now.” My eyes stung with the coming of new tears. “The more we grow, the less we have in common and I feel…Oh, Wes, I feel like I’m losing her.”

“That could never happen,” Wes said with confidence. “She’s your sister. She’ll come around to supporting our wedding when she realizes how much her involvement means to you. You’ll see.”

 

Nina never apologized for what happened that night.

I extended an invitation through Momma when I was going to try on wedding dresses several weeks later, and Nina brought her biggest smile. She gave her honest opinion on every dress I tried, and gushed about flowers and lace. She held her new nephew and complimented Opal on making such a beautiful boy. She didn’t even complain when the child spit up on her. My sister graciously agreed to be my maid of honor and be as involved as I needed her to be.

The months flew by. The day came. Nina stood behind me while I tied the knot with Wesley. She smiled for the pictures, she made a toast, and she joined the rest of the bridal party into tying cans to the back of Wes’s car. She threw the rice and waved goodbye. I saw very little of her after that. Married life proved to be more hectic than I expected, but even when I tried to reach out to her, there was always a good reason why we couldn’t get together. Then Christmas time came around and Momma told me Nina had promised to come home for dinner. As excited as I was to finally be in the same room with my big sister, I quickly realized nothing had changed.

Nina arrived with Julius, wearing a fur trimmed coat and suede slippers. She was cordial to Wes, but only spoke to him when she absolutely had to. She talked about her gossip column at the newspaper and the new friends she’d made at a publishing house. She was writing a book and, by golly, it was going to get published. Julius’ car sales business was booming. He and Nina had gotten a place together, bigger and more impressive than Nina’s old flat. But he was still married. His wife came to the house halfway through our gift exchange, forcing Julius to hurriedly retreat. I watched Nina strike up conversation with Phillip while her sheik and his wife argued outside. That plastic smile of hers did little to hide her unhappiness. I couldn’t take it anymore. I snagged her arm and led her upstairs to my old room.

“Bea, what in the world?” Nina said as I shut the door behind us.

“How can you possibly be happy with him?” I demanded. “You’ve been together for two years and he’s still with his wife!”

Nina rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. “Ours is a complicated relationship, one I hardly expect you to understand.”

“Hooey!” I said with barely controlled fury. “You’re giving him the freedom to switch from her bed to yours whenever he feels like it. And why? Because he buys you nice presents and pays for your new apartment?”

“Stop judging me!” Nina snapped. “Not all of us are happy to live in rags!”

I threw my hands in the air. “When have you ever lived in rags?”

Nina laughed harshly. “All throughout college, and a year or so after that while I was looking for a job.”

That was the first I’d ever heard of it. I sputtered in disbelief before I found my voice. “If you needed help, why didn’t you come home and let our parents take care of you?”

Nina waved my words away, lip curled in disgust. “Papa and Phillip both tried to talk me out of leaving, but I was sure I was ready to be on my own. I would rather starve than prove them right.”

I made a sound of pity and disbelief at the back of my throat. “You’re a dumbbell if you think either of them would ever say ‘I told you so.’”

Silence descended.

Nina ran a hand through her hair. “Am I such a terrible person for wanting some security, some luxury?”

“Of course not,” I said. “But you’re going about it all wrong.”

Nina smirked. “Says who? Momma and Papa?”

I frowned. “Says me. You and Julius are just using each other for your own means. You want to be pampered? You want to be provided for? Find a respectable man with a good career and an even better heart, fall in love with him, wait until he loves you enough to deny all other women, and say yes when he asks you to marry him.”

Nina chuckled. “Not all of us can have the same perfect, happy ending as you, Bea. Julius and I work for now. Why can’t you just be happy for me?”

“Because. It’s. Wrong. Why is this so hard for you to understand?”

Nina rolled her eyes yet again, marched over to the bay window, and wrenched it open. She dug around her new purse for a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, suddenly tired.

“What can they do?” Nina asked around her ciggy. “I don’t live under their roof anymore. I’m not a child.”

You could’ve fooled me…

I knew it was wrong the moment I thought it. Nina was never like this when we were girls. As a young lady, she was stubborn but brave. She knew what she wanted and went for it. She didn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams and she held onto her convictions no matter what. She always stood up for her shy, self-conscious, little sister. We used to whisper and giggle at all hours of the night until Momma would pound on the wall, remind us what time it was, and tell us to go to sleep or else. We used to be inseparable.

Nina took a drag and glanced at me out of the corner of those dark eyes. Exhaustion and sympathy tugged at her face. “Don’t cry, Sweet Bea. I don’t hate you. We’re just different, that’s all.”

I wiped my face.

Nina abandoned her place by the window and approached me. “We’ll always be sisters.”

I chuckled bitterly. “Sisters who only see each other on holidays? Sisters who argue because they don’t have anything in common?”

Nina brought the cigarette back to her lips, hand trembling. But she didn’t take another puff. Instead, she croaked, “I love you, Bea.”

I wrapped my arms around her and buried my face in her shoulder. She was so thin. So fragile. Suddenly, I wanted to take her someplace far away where she’d be safe from her world of smoke and gray areas and warped priorities. “I love you too, Nina Bean.”

She stroked my hair with her free hand. “I’m so proud of you. Have I ever told you that?”

I shook my head.

I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “You have a sweet attitude and such simple needs. You’re so…happy with your lot in life. Sometimes I wish I could be more like you.”

I laughed into the beaded swirls of her dress. “Sometimes I wish you were more like you and less like the 20s.”

Nina pulled away. “It’s the world we live in, Sweet Bea. I’m just trying to survive in it.”

 

I didn’t see Nina for two years. I only heard little snippets of news from Momma. I often prayed for my sister and wished her well. I missed her all the time, but whenever I found the courage to write to her, the words escaped me. I’d sit at my desk and stare at the empty page, pen poised, head empty. I’d get so sad and so angry; I’d just end up crumpling up the page and tossing it across the room.

Then my daughter was born. She came early. Phillip and Opal were out of town visiting her folks, but Momma and Papa were on their way to the hospital. Wes was getting a bite to eat in the cafeteria. The door to my room opened and I looked up from my baby girl’s face to see my sister enter.

Her hair was still short, but she wore less makeup. Her dress still ended below the knee, but it was a wrap around with quarter sleeves and made of cotton. There was no fringe or beading. A short string of pearls hung from her neck and black pumps decorated her feet. She carried a small box wrapped in bright pink paper. She gave me a sheepish smile. “Hello, new Momma.”

I smiled back. “Hello, Aunt Nina.”

She slowly approached, like I was a skittish horse that might run away if she came too quickly. “What’s her name?”

I watched my girl’s sleepy little face for a moment. “I can’t decide between Eleanor or Elaine.”

Nina placed her parcel on the bed beside me and leaned in to take a peek at the babe in my arms. “She’s definitely an Eleanor. She’s beautiful, Bea. A perfect little doll.”

“Thanks.” I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. “You look good.”

Nina placed a hand on my shoulder. “Considering you just gave birth to another human being, you’re not looking so bad yourself.”

I laughed and held the child out to her. “Would you like to hold her?”

Nina took Eleanor in her arms, brow wrinkled in uncertainty. But the more she held that baby, the more relaxed she became. I made room for her on the bed and patted the spot beside me.

I playfully nudged her once she had settled in. “So what have you been up to?”

We reconnected in that hospital room. We talked and laughed like we did when we were girls, as if the past few years had never happened. Nina was still Nina; fearless and stubborn. But she was an older and more weathered version of my sister, one created by years of wandering this city and figuring out this life on her own. Different though we still were, it was suddenly all right because these versions of ourselves, like the ones that came before, were temporary. Necessary phases. Parts of our history. Pieces of a puzzle not yet whole.