Autumn’s mom answers the door, stepping back to let me in. She gave her daughter the dimpled smile genes, but that’s about it. Auddy is all red hair and freckled nose and bright blue eyes. Mrs. Green has black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. I wonder what it’s like to every day look at a daughter who is so similar to Mrs. Green’s dead husband. It’s either wonderful, or heartbreaking. Most likely it’s a combination of both.
We have a routine: I kiss her cheek hello, and she tells me she has some Yoo-hoos in the fridge, and I act excited. They’re the weirdest thing, like watery chocolate milk in juice boxes. I mentioned I liked them one time to Mrs. Green, my first summer here, and she’s been buying them for me ever since. Now I always feel obligated to take one with me on my way up to Auddy’s room, but, actually, I can’t stomach them anymore. We’ve been doing a small science experiment with a plant on her shelf: Can African violets survive solely on Yoo-hoo?
Princess Autumn is sprawled on her floor with a draft of her chapters in front of her. She’s even marking it up with a red pen; I can’t make this shit up.
“Auddy, you are the cutest, nerdiest person I have ever met in my entire life.”
She doesn’t even look up when I enter. “Don’t be patronizing.”
“Don’t you know that red pen can be viewed as harsh and can hurt students’ esteem? Better to use purple.”
Blue eyes turn up to my face. “I like red.”
Her long ginger hair is piled in an enormous bun atop her head. “I know you do.”
Pushing off her elbows, she moves to sit up, cross-legged now. “What are you doing here?”
This hurts a bit, because it tells me Dad is right. Before Sebastian, it wouldn’t be weird for me to just come over here anytime. Now I see Auddy maybe once a week outside of school, and spend so much more time alone, writing words and words and words about him, no matter how much my brain screams at me to start the new book. “I can’t stop by and hang with my best girl?”
“You’ve been busy.”
“So have you.” I give her a meaningful eyebrow waggle. “Did you have fun with Eric the other night?”
“If by ‘fun’ you mean ‘make out until our faces fell off,’ then yes.”
My jaw drops. “Seriously?”
She nods, blushing through her freckles.
“And how many ‘your mom’ jokes did he make?”
Laughing, she sings, “None!”
“I don’t believe you.” To Eric, everything is an opportunity for a your mom or that’s what she said joke. It doesn’t matter how many times we remind him it’s no longer 2013.
“It was fun,” she says, leaning back against her bed. “I like him.”
I reach forward, pinching her cheek. There’s something tight inside me. It isn’t jealousy exactly, but it’s some weird sense of loss, like it isn’t Tanner and Autumn versus everyone else anymore. We both have other people now.
Even if we don’t know it yet.
“What’s that face?” She draws a circle in the air in front of me.
“Just thinking.” I pick up her red pen, doodle on the sole of my sneaker. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“This sounds serious.”
“It’s not.” I narrow my eyes, thinking. “No, it is, I guess. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
She doesn’t say anything, so I look up at her, trying to read her expression. I know Autumn better than I know almost anyone, but right now I can’t decipher what she’s thinking.
“For what?” she says finally.
“For being so distracted.”
“It’s a busy term,” she says. She leans back and tugs at a loose thread at the hem of my jeans. “I’m sorry I haven’t been the best friend lately either.”
This surprises me, and I look up at her. “What do you mean?”
“I know you’ve become friends with Sebastian, and I guess I was jealous.”
Oh. Alarm bells go off in my head.
She swallows, and it’s awkward and audible, and her voice wavers when she says, “I mean, he’s getting some of your time that I usually get. And there’s something so intense about it when you guys are talking, so I feel like he might be taking something that’s mine.” She looks up at me. “Does this make sense?”
My heart jackhammers up and down in my chest. “I think so.”
Her face goes red, telling me that this conversation is more than just about friendship. If she were just staking her bestie territory, she wouldn’t blush; she would be brass. But here it’s something else. And even if she doesn’t know the extent of things between me and Sebastian, she feels the intensity of it. There’s some awareness she can’t name yet.
“I’m jealous,” she says, and tries to look brave with her chin in the air. “For a lot of reasons, but I’m working on some of them.”
It feels like I’ve been knocked in the chest with a hammer. “You know I love you, right?”
Her cheeks flush bright pink. “Yeah.”
“Like, you’re one of the most important people in the world to me, okay?”
She looks up, eyes glassy. “Yeah, I know.”
In truth, Autumn has always known who she is and what she wants. She’s always wanted to be a writer. She’s white; she’s straight; she’s beautiful. She has a path she can follow that will lead her to these things, and no one will ever tell her she can’t or shouldn’t want them. I’m good at the physical sciences but am ambivalent about following my dad down the doctor trail, and have no idea what else I could be. I’m just a bisexual half-Jewish kid who’s falling in love with an LDS guy. The path for me isn’t as clear.
“Come here,” I say.
She crawls onto my lap, and I wrap her up in my arms, holding her as long as she’ll let me. She smells like her favorite Aveda shampoo, and her hair is soft on my neck, and I wish for the hundredth time to feel something like desire for her, but instead it’s just a deep, desperate fondness. I see now what Dad meant. It’s easy to say that I’ll keep my friendships, but I need to do more than that. I need to protect them too. More than likely we aren’t going to be going to the same college next year, and now is the time to make sure we’re solid. If I ever lost her, I’d be devastated.
- • •
The Warriors are playing the Cavs in a rematch, and Dad is planted on the couch. Every line of his body is tense. The degree to which he despises LeBron James eludes me, but I can’t fault him for his loyalty.
“I saw Autumn today,” I tell him.
He grunts, nodding. He’s clearly not listening.
“You need a beer, and a beer gut, if you’re going to be this zoned out at the television.”
He grunts again, nodding.
“I’m in trouble. Can I have five hundred dollars?”
Finally, Dad looks at me, horrified. “What?”
Blinking a few times, he exhales in relief as the game goes to commercial break. “What were you saying?”
“That I saw Auddy today.”
I nod. “I think she’s dating Eric.”
Again I nod.
He processes this the way I expected him to. “I thought she was into you?”
There’s no way to answer this without sounding like a dick. “I think she is, a little.”
“Did you tell her about Sebastian?”
The game comes back on, and I feel bad for doing this now, but it’s like termites eating at a wooden beam. If I don’t get it out of me, I will be riddled with anxiety. “Dad, what happened when you told Bubbe that you were dating Mom?”
He gives the television a last, reluctant glance before he reaches for the remote, muting it. And then he turns, pulling one leg up on the couch to face me. “This was a long time ago, Tann.”
“I just want to hear about it again.” I’ve heard the story before, but sometimes we hear things as kids and the details sort of wash over us—what sticks isn’t always what is meant to. The story of my parents’ courtship is one of those things; it was romantic when they first told us about it, and the reality of how hard it was on Dad and his family—and Mom, too—was lost in the greater narrative that they got their happily ever after.
I was thirteen, Hailey was ten, and the story they gave us was abbreviated: Bubbe wanted Dad to marry her best friend’s daughter, a woman who was raised in Hungary and moved here for college. It was normal, they told us, for the parents to be hands-on with the matchmaking. They didn’t explain the other bits that I learned over time, talking to aunties and cousins, like how having the family involved makes sense in a lot of ways: Marriage is forever, and infatuation wears off. Finding someone that comes from the same community and has the same values, in the end, is more important than being with the person you want to have sex with for a few months.
But Dad met Mom at Stanford, and, as Mom says, she knew. He fought it, but in the end, he knew too.
“I met your mom my first day in med school,” he recounts. “She was working at this funky sandwich shop near campus, and I came in, frazzled and starving. I’d moved only the day before classes started, and the reality of being away from home was so different from my expectations. It was expensive, and busy, and my workload was unbelievable already. She made the most perfect chicken sandwich, handed it to me, and asked if she could take me to dinner.”
I’ve heard this part. I love this part, because usually Dad slips in a joke about the bait and switch with Mom’s cooking. This time, he doesn’t.
“I thought she meant it to be friendly because I looked so overwhelmed. It never occurred to me that she would think we could date.” He laughs. “But when she showed up, it was clear what her intentions were.” And now his voice lowers. I’m no longer given the surface version of the story. I’m given the version a grown man gives to his grown son.
Mom is beautiful. She’s always been beautiful. Her confidence makes her nearly irresistible, but combined with her brilliance, Dad never stood a chance. He was only twenty-one, after all—young for a med student—and that first night, at dinner, he told himself it wouldn’t hurt to spend some time with her. He’d had a couple of girlfriends before, but nothing serious. He always knew he would eventually return home and marry someone from the community.
Mom and Dad dated in secret, and for two years together, even while he was staying at her place, he still insisted he would marry a Jewish woman. Every time he said this, she would hide her hurt and say, “Okay, Paul.”
When Bubbe and Dad’s sister Bekah came to visit for three weeks, Mom never once met them. He didn’t tell them anything about her, and the entire time they were in town, she never once saw him either. It was like he disappeared. He didn’t call or check in. She broke up with him after they left, and Dad never argued. He told her he wished her well and watched her walk away.
Whereas Dad has always been mute on the subject of their time apart, Mom has jokingly referred to it as the “Dark Year.” Joke or not, I’ve seen photos of them from this time, and the images always made me mildly uneasy. My parents are capital I, capital L In Love. Dad thinks Mom is brilliant, beautiful; he thinks she hung the stars. She thinks he is the smartest, most wonderful man alive. I’m sure their time apart made them grateful for what they have, but it’s clear they felt this way even before the breakup. In those photos, they both have this sort of carved-out, hollow look. The bluish circles under Dad’s eyes seem like dark phases of the moon. Mom is already on the thin side, but in the Dark Year, she was skeletal.
He admits to me now that he couldn’t sleep. For nearly a year, he slept only a couple hours a night. It wasn’t rare to find med students who were up all night studying, but Dad is an organized, dedicated guy and had no problem staying on top of his work. He couldn’t sleep because he was in love with her. That year, it had felt like he was a widower.
He went to her old apartment and begged her to take him back.
I never knew this. I’ve always heard that they just happened to run into each other on campus one day and Dad knew from then on he couldn’t stay away from her.
“Why did you tell us that you ran into Mom on campus?”
“Because that’s what I told Bubbe,” he says quietly. “It hurt her for a long time that I married Jenna. But to think that I had sought her out and begged her to come back to me would have been a more active betrayal.”
My heart aches when he says this. Every time I go see Sebastian feels like an active betrayal of Mom. I’d just never had a name for it before now.
“Jenna sat me down,” Dad says, “and yelled at me for an hour. She told me how much it hurt to be put in a position where she had no power. She told me that she would always love me, but she didn’t trust me.” He laughs. “She sent me away and told me to prove myself to her.”
“What did you do?”
“I called Bubbe and told her that I was in love with a woman named Jenna Petersen. I bought a ring and went back to your mother’s apartment and asked her to marry me.”
Apparently, Mom said, “When?” and Dad said, “Whenever you want.” So they were married at the courthouse the next morning, another detail I’d never heard. I’ve seen countless photos of their official wedding: the signing of the ketubah, Mom obscured from view beneath her veil, waiting to walk down the aisle, my Dad breaking the glass under the chuppah, the row of photos of honored friends and family members giving the sheva brachot—the seven blessings, my parents being lifted on wide wooden chairs while their friends danced around them. Their wedding photos line the upstairs hallway.
I had no idea they were legally married nearly a year before.
“Does Bubbe know that you were married earlier?”
“Did you feel guilty?”
Dad smiles at me. “Not for a single second. Your mom is my sun. My world is only warm when she is in it.”
“I can’t imagine what that was like for you.” I look down at my hands. “I don’t know how to stay away from Sebastian, or if I even could.” I need to ask, as much as I dread the answer. “Did you tell her that you walked in on me and Sebastian?”
“Was she mad?”
“She wasn’t surprised, but she agreed with what I said to you.” He leans closer, kissing my forehead. “What Jenna learned with me was that she always had power, even when she felt like I didn’t acknowledge her. You are not helpless here. But you need to be clear about what you are and are not willing to tolerate.” He tucks a finger under my chin, lifting my face to his. “Are you willing to be a secret? Maybe you are for now. But this is your life, and it will stretch out before you, and you are the only person who can make it whatever you want it to be.”