“I have to see if my mom needs help in the kitchen,” I said, watching my father’s excitement build the closer he got to Quinn’s car. “Will you be okay?”
“I’m good,” he said, his eyes sparkling with amusement.
Before I turned toward the house I said, “Wait, I think I got it.”
His eyebrows slammed together. “Got what?”
I tipped my head toward my father and uncles. “The names of your cars.”
“Cars?” he said. “As in plural?”
“Of course. There are two of them, right?” I said, as if it was the silliest thing in the world for him to question my logic.
“I guess.” He appeared unconvinced that I hadn’t lost my mind.
“That one is Fury because she’s dark and foreboding.” I pointed to his black beauty in our driveway. “And the one in your garage is Fire. Red and feisty.”
“Hmmm,” he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin as he contemplating the names I’d chosen. “I think I approve.”
I was mesmerized by how his fingers worked his jawline. “Yeah?”
“I like them.” His gaze landing on my lips before sliding up to my eyes. “I like them a lot.”
He turned to join my father and uncles as his double meaning swept over me, like a salve. I stood there in a drunken stupor, watching his tight backside move in those dark-wash jeans.
My father was already rubbing his hand along the side of Quinn’s black shiny paint job and I giggled to myself as I stepped inside to help my mother.
Mom was busy setting the tables. There were always two for these types of dinners. The formal one in the dining room was for adults. And a smaller foldaway table set up in the living room for the kids. My two older cousins were helping align the chairs while their children played in the backyard with bubbles and fake swords.
“What took you so long, Corka?” My parents had spoken half Polish, half English my entire life, so I understood the language better than I communicated it. I would’ve been more fluent had I practiced, but my parents didn’t push it. I was more interested in appearing as Americanized as I could in front of friends.
Avery was the only friend who got on my case about it. Said I should feel lucky and embrace the language. But I wasn’t as confident or strong-willed as she was. I’d actually cared about being popular and fitting in. Which seemed ridiculous in hindsight.
Besides, after Christopher died, I’d never fit in again. Nobody had gone through what we had and none of my friends besides Avery had seemed to understand. So I’d stood out like a sore thumb even more. And that’s when I’d decided to focus on healing rather than being popular.
“We weren’t that long, Matka,” I said. “He wanted to change his greasy shirt.”
“That was polite,” she said and gave me a knowing look. “He’s very handsome, that one. Just make sure the other one knows you’re finished before moving on, you hear me?”
My cousin Andrea wiggled her eyebrows, and I felt my cheeks heat up.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Mom said, placing her hand on my shoulder, forcing me to look at her.
I had trouble meeting my mother’s searing gaze. “So . . . you wouldn’t be upset if that were to happen?”
“Upset?” she asked, her eyebrows bouncing together. “Prosze, I only want you to be happy.”
I nodded and felt my stomach unclench. Relief washed through my limbs.
“And right now, your eyes are dancing for that boy.”
I heard my cousins snickering in the kitchen as they separated utensils for the place settings. Aunt Karina wasn’t here yet, and I was grateful to not also be under her direct scrutiny.
Soon enough we were all packed into the dining and living rooms. Quinn and I were at the kids’ table, and he seemed relieved about that—kids didn’t dissect you the way adults did, though they were honest to a fault. So far my little cousins were smitten with Quinn, one asking him to sit next to her. Apparently even she saw his appeal even at her young age.
When Quinn helped my cousin cut her kielbasa so that her mother could stay seated at the grown-ups’ table and then wiped her spill when she knocked over her apple juice, I felt my heart swell in my chest. He was surprisingly good with kids—a natural, in fact. My Aunt Karina nodded her approval across the room.
After a couple plates of food each, we sat back in our folding chairs stuffed to the gills.
“That was so good,” Quinn said, nudging me with his knee. “You get to eat like this all the time?”
“Not all the time. But, yeah, I guess so.” I realized that I took all of this for granted. What kind of meals did Quinn have to look forward to?
“What favorite thing does your mother make?” I asked, figuring he had something to be nostalgic about.
“My mom?” He nearly choked on the soda he’d been sipping. “I could tell you my favorite restaurant takeout menu. Or about the spaghetti and meatballs our cook used to make.”
I bit the inside of my lip to contain my reaction. “Oh. Sorry.”
“No sweat,” he said. “It’s how I grew up. I didn’t know any different—unless I stayed with my aunt and uncle.”
And that’s when I finally saw a wistful glint in his eyes. Or maybe it was regret.
“My father’s a career politician, and for us, that meant another way of life,” he said.
Before I could ask him exactly what he meant, he took the conversation in a different direction. “How do you say thank you in Polish?”
Something unlocked in the very center of me. I’d tried teaching Joel how to say a couple of words to impress my parents, but he’d never seemed interested enough to try. Besides, he’d already known my family well enough from church and sports.
I leaned across my seat to whisper it to him as gratitude and admiration lodged in the back of my throat. When my lips closed in on his ear, I felt him shiver. “Dziekuje. I’ll say it slowly for you. Jin-ku-yeh.”
“Jin-ku-yeh,” he repeated two times, and it was the sweetest sound to my ears.
Then he cleared his throat. “Mr. and Mrs. Abrams, jin-ku-yeh. This food was amazing.”
The whole table went silent at his rough translation. My cousin Andrea’s eyes twinkled at me and my aunt Karina looked taken aback and pleased at the same time. She tapped my mother’s hand.
“That’s a lovely thing for you to say, Quinn,” my mother said. “Prosze bardzo. You are very welcome.”
Quinn smiled and then patted his stomach. “Gosh, I don’t think I’ve eaten this well in maybe, ever.”
My mother’s eyes flooded with sadness. She could tell how sincere his thank-you had been as well as I could. She must have been already deciding how many different kinds of leftovers to wrap up for him. He had just opened up the floodgates for my mother to gift him with endless amounts of food and bakery items. I was never going to hear the end of it.
“You come back anytime,” my father chimed in, rendering me speechless. “You hear me, son?”
I knew my father had enjoyed Joel’s company and thought he was funny, but I could tell he thought Quinn was special. Sincere. Genuine. As much as I did.
Having my father’s approval meant more to me than he’d ever know. Even if Quinn and I only remained friends. In his own way, my father was giving me permission to pave my own path, choose the people I surrounded myself with. My foot had stepped outside of his protective dome and he trusted me to explore the world a bit more on my own.
We gorged on Aunt Karina’s cream pies and my mother’s powdered-sugar pizelles while we played two games of Mario Kart with my brothers in our basement rec room. Afterward, I helped Quinn carry out four containers of leftovers, including some dessert.
My mother had gone as overboard as I’d expected her to, given the amount of Tupperware loaded in our hands. But I didn’t complain. I knew Quinn’s statement had touched her as deeply as it had me.
“Now I see where you get your gaming skills,” Quinn said, carefully placing the containers in his backseat.
“You mean my brothers?” I asked. “Nah, I taught them everything they know.”
Quinn laughed. “Yeah, you probably did.”
He leaned against his car, his keys dangling in his fingers, and I tried thinking of anything to say to prolong his visit. I wasn’t quite ready to let him go yet.
“Hey, how far is Seymour Park from here?” he asked. “Used to have games there in high school. Sometimes we’d hang by that cool waterfall afterward.”
“Not far at all, just around that bend.” I pointed down the street. “You could walk there from here.”
“Seriously?” He straightened himself and glanced at the sidewalk leading in that direction. The park was a regular hangout for us in high school. It boasted a fishing pond, a miniwaterfall, as well as a playground, and a baseball diamond.
“Would you . . .” He looked down at his feet, suddenly unsure of himself.
But I didn’t let him finish. I didn’t want the night to end, either.
“Yes. I’d love to take a walk to the park,” I said. “If anything, to work off this food.”
As we started down the street, he reached for my hand and laced our fingers together. My palm tingled from the contact. So I didn’t question it—just let my heart lead me.
“Ella?” I sucked in a breath when Quinn traced his thumb along my palm.
I peeked at him from beneath my eyelashes and reddened cheeks. “Yeah?” I wasn’t sure if he realized how his finger outlining my skin was affecting me. He seemed lost in deep thought.
“Did . . . um,” he fumbled, hesitant to ask. “Did your brother Christopher used to play video games, too?”
“A little,” I said. “He liked solo games more, like Skyrim.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry,” he said, his voice soft. “It’s just . . . your family seems so tight. So I found myself wondering where he fit in.”
“I think about that all the time. I mean, he and I were close, definitely. But there was this other side to him that he kept hidden,” I said. “That’s . . . that’s the only way to describe it. It’s hard to explain.”
“I get what you mean,” he said, and I realized that Quinn probably shared that quality with Christopher. He kept things close to the cuff, whether he realized it or not. I wondered how much it would interfere with getting to know him, even as a friend. “So does that mean you, um . . . didn’t know . . . he was planning to do it?”
“I definitely didn’t know. It’s probably one of those things that will haunt me for the rest of my life,” I said, and I felt his hand stiffen in mine. Maybe he had something he lamented, too. Or someone. “Guilt and regret are powerful things. But they can destroy your life. Somehow you have to learn to forgive yourself so you can move on.”
Quinn stopped walking and turned to me. Sorrow laced his eyes. What was he thinking?
“I’m sorry that this is a heavy conversation,” I said, concerned I had brought up some sort of painful memory for him.
“No. I started it, remember?” he said, moving forward again. “So how is it that you . . . got past that?”
“I got help. We all did. Grief groups, grief counseling, individual therapy.” It wasn’t something I was ashamed of. If I had been, how could I become a psychologist someday? It was part of being human. “I’m a pretty optimistic person, I’ll admit. One day it hit me that Christopher was somewhere looking down on us. And we were wasting all of this time. Always sad and quiet and crying. He must have been saying Move on already. So I did.”
“That’s . . . impressive, really.” Quinn’s gaze was so intense, I had to look away.
“Yeah, well. The pain never truly goes away, so you have to . . . file it away. And then get busy living your life.”
He looked up to the sky, lost in deep thought, and then to the tops of the pines where the stars hung so low they were like the toppers of Christmas trees.
I wanted to change the subject but I also wanted to ask him who was haunting him, too. I could see it in his eyes. But maybe he wasn’t ready to share it with me. For some people, it took time. I’d always been open about it, wanting to share, talk things through. I knew that it helped. But some people were more resistant.
“So, here we are.” I motioned to the sign. “See how close it is?”
As we walked through the park entrance and found the trail that led to the pond, I said, “Today wasn’t too bad, was it?”
“Meeting your family?” We came upon the water’s edge and Quinn picked up a stone to skip along the water. “It was great, actually.”
“I’m glad,” I said, letting out a breath.
The pond was surrounded on all sides by tall pines lending to the feeling of privacy, outside of a couple of walkers across the way. I tossed a rock in the pond as well but could only hear its splash. The crickets chirped their nighttime lullabies and there was a gentle breeze in the air that did nothing to cool my heated skin.
“My mom likes you,” I said, biting my lip. “I can tell.”
“Yeah?” He turned to face me, his voice softening. “You think she can tell that I like her daughter?”
My breath caught in the back of my throat. Something had shifted in the air between us. It was heavy and heated. Something so commanding I felt it down to my toes. My heart was thrashing so loudly against my chest, I was sure he could hear it.