“Ma, this is Gene” I said carefully, feeling like I about to embark on my first date all over again.
It seemed only fitting that I finally introduce them, hoping to convey to her his importance, without her actually knowing just how important he was. In a way, I was simply curious if she would be as taken with him as I and Marisol were. A flicker of surprise passed through her features.
“You’re her son” she stated through tight lips.
“Yes, Darla’s son. It’s a true pleasure to finally meet you; your girls speak very highly of you.”
He’d stepped forward, to hug or kiss her I’ll never know because she stood frozen with her hands on her hips. My heart sank as I studied her narrowing gaze. I’d thought for sure he would’ve won her over.
“And just how long have you been seeing my daughter?” she asked icily.
To my surprise, Gene did not even flinch. “Since the weekend before Christmas” he answered honestly, not in the least bit ashamed.
The blood seemed to drain out of my entire body. For a moment that lasted a lifetime, they squared each other up. Not once did Gene falter or show his nerves. At last my mother caved, the hostility leaving her.
“Well,” she began, “then you must be hungry, ‘cause that girl can’t cook.”
It was like some parallel universe, one where Gene and I were actually dating. His one hand rested on mine on the table top, the other digging into his pile of rice and beans while keeping polite conversation with my mom. I, on the other hand, had no appetite and absolutely nothing to say.
“You met on the train you say?” my mom asked, genuinely intrigued.
Gene nodded “Yeah, well at the airport technically. We shared a cab, hit it off on the train, and the rest is history.”
“And your mother doesn’t know?” she asked skeptically. We both shook our heads and my mother tsked her tongue at me. “Drew, I thought I taught you better than to sneak around?”
I frowned, but Gene answered for me “We didn’t really have a choice. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“Hurt? Oh someone is going to get hurt alright. Most likely the both of you will. This has to stop.”
“We know, ma” I blurted out, swallowing hard, “We know.”
My mom was taken aback by my outburst. “Do you honestly think no one else has noticed?”
“I won’t be the one to ruin this for pop” I responded fiercely.
“Oh mi hija” my mom sighed, for the first time appearing sympathetic. “You never could bear to see anyone hurt. I remember how hard you had it in deciding who to live with. It broke your heart.”
I darted my eyes away, emotion welling in the backs of my eyes. Gene’s thumb stroked the tops of knuckles, blue eyes probing mine in concern.
“Let us change the subject” my mom said quickly, smiling at Gene, “Tell me more about yourself?”
Gene returned her friendliness in equal measure “Well, for one thing, I love Spanish culture. The food, the women, the dancing.”
I took a moment to compose myself and I nodded in agreement “He can dance, ma. Bachata, a little salsa and tango. He’s good too. Like abuela and abuelo good.”
My mom laughed, clapping her hands together “Is that so? Well then you are formally invited to our next family party. Her abuelitos would certainly get a kick out of that.”
I smiled to myself, imagining him dancing with my abuela and being a part of my family and being with me. I scolded myself for daydreaming about such improbable nonsense. I snapped back to the jingle of keys in the front door, catching my mom’s eye and snatching my hand out from under Gene’s.
“I’m home!” Tony yelled, slamming the door shut behind him.
“In here Junior, come say hi” my mom called back.
“Gene!” Tony cried out in genuine happiness.
They gave each other a man-hug and Tony ruffled my hair before throwing himself in a kitchen chair. There was an obvious shift in the atmosphere; the three of us had made an unspoken pact not to bring Tony into this. But in the back of my head, I began counting the numbers: Tia Clarabelle, Florence, Laurie and now my mom. Plus there was ever-suspicious Marisol.
The only thing that quelled the rising panic was the knowledge that whatever this was, it was basically over. Sadness quickly overtook the panic. Glancing over in Gene’s direction, I took in his liveliness, the amused expressions he held as he conversed with my family, the curve of his lips as grinned, smirked and at times tried not to laugh. There would always be a tinge of sadness in his eyes, a token for the loss he sustained. But it was like the one wilting flower in the Garden of Eden. The rest of him was just alive and animated and…beautiful. Gene was beautiful. Even the slope of his nose, even the ark of his eyebrows and the square of his chin. There was more to it, for sure. A fierce protectiveness over his family, a certain domination in the way he walked around his household. Nonetheless he had a heart of gold. Not to mention he was an amazing flirt.
I sat back and watched him converse with the two of them, offering up a comment here and there.
My mother kissed his cheek as we prepared to depart, and as her arms came up around me she whispered “He’s a hard one to let go.”
I pulled out of her arms, head hanging, and jumped down the two stairs like I used to when I was a kid.
Slipping my hand in Gene’s, I beamed up at him. “Well, you’re three for three with the Espinosa women. Didn’t think you could pull it off.”
His grin was wicked as he pinched my cheek. “Never underestimate me.”
“This is my apartment” I announced, checking the time when I realized no one around.
Abby – at work. Chessie – “apologizing” to Eddie. Jasmine – study session? I ticked each of them off in my head, and then my body began to hum, electrified by the prospect of having Gene all to myself.
He shifted his weight onto his other foot. “Nice place. Which bedroom is yours?”
“Getting ahead of yourself, don’t you think?’ I responded abruptly, but I was already blushing profusely.
Gene grinned “Easy tiger, I just wanted to put my bag down.”
My eyes widened but I said nothing, directing him to my bedroom. He set his bag down and slipped his coat around the back of my desk chair, where it spilt onto the floor. Seeing my face, he wrapped
his arms around me, rubbing my lower back soothingly.
“Why are you so nervous? Acting like you’ve never been around me.”
I averted my eyes but they betrayed me and found the bed. That’s where Gene followed them, his face falling stone serious. Both hands slid up my back toward my shoulder blades in a massage that was making me dizzy with its comfort.
“Drew, when I said proper goodbye I didn’t mean – unless you wanted – I just wanted to see you again. Before I have to give you up for good.”
I half-listened to him, the rhythmic motions of his hands nearly putting me in a coma. But the last sentence was enough to click, and my eyes, which were falling closed, now sprang open to take him in. I stared at him for so long his hands stopped and fell to his sides. I swung my hand towards his, lacing our fingers together.
The nerves left me all at once; my keys that had been dangling in my free hand falling to the floor. My teeth sank into my bottom lip as I peered up at him through my lashes, full of suggestion. Gene’s eyes widened in understanding. He sat me down at the edge of my bed, letting go of my hand only to push my jacket gently off my shoulders and remove the cap from my head. We did not talk, though his eyes asked me if I was sure, and my hands answered yes, in fact, I was. He sank down on top of me kissing my neck with purpose, my hands in fists around the shirt on his back.
There was no mistaking the way I returned his intimacy with fervor, the way he shuddered with every sigh of pleasure that passed through my lips. Every action was intended, uncensored and full of love. There was no thought of the end, no thought of tomorrow, or the next hour, or even the next minute. It was second by second, prolonged to the point where it would be mistaken as forever.
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