1. When all I wanted was him
“You don’t have to go home, Tommy.” I slide off the edge of the bed, shuffle to the narrow closet beside my bedroom window, and open the door. “Look—clean shirts. I’ve got one to spare.” I wave the plaid flannel button-down Mom hung on a wire coat hanger as if it’s a white flag of surrender. “You can wear this one to Thanksgiving Day service tomorrow morning.”
Why am I so desperate? Maybe it’s because something’s going on in my head tonight. I haven’t been this worked up since soccer tryouts sophomore year; we both had to make varsity, or it wasn’t gonna fly. But what tonight’s mini freak-out comes down to is this: Aunt Sheila’s not really our aunt, even if Mom makes us call her that. At least we get to call her husband Michael—not Uncle Mikey, or some other dumb pet name—which is cool because he is so not the Uncle Mikey type. He’s not even the father type, according to Tommy. The man’s actually a little bit scary. In any case, even if Thomas Matthew Stecker has always been like a cousin to us, he isn’t related to me or my sister Dee by blood or marriage. Which makes us just plain friends, right? Not cousins.
“Good thing we’re the same size… and we go to the same church.” Tommy yawns and pulls my fleece Red Sox blanket up to his chin.
For a second I see ten-year-old Tommy, snuggled in his sleeping bag under the stars in my front yard, gazing at me with tired eyes.
“I’m half asleep already,” he adds.
He’s handed me more ammunition. I fight the grin. “Seriously, T, you shouldn’t drive when you’re this tired.”
Tommy shifts onto his side but doesn’t agree or disagree.
“Stay over tonight.” Is it panic that’s causing my heart to pound?
“Mmmhmm.” He’s so relaxed; he can’t sense the change in me. The need in me.
“There’s no reason for you to get up and go out into the cold night just to drive across town so you can lay your head on your own pillow.” This is true, but my reluctance to have Tommy brave the cold isn’t the real reason why I want him to stay. I just want to wake up on Thanksgiving morning of my senior year in high school, open my eyes, and see my best friend. No turkey dinner necessary—he’d be enough.
I sit down beside him on the bed and study his blond hair that’s spread out over my pillow. It’s way too long—Tommy hasn’t gone to the barber shop since before soccer season officially started in September. I don’t blame him; call it superstition, but his two-goals-per-game scoring streak may well have ended if he got his hair cut. He promised the team he’d keep everything exactly the same until the season ended. Tommy didn’t even dye his hair at playoffs when the rest of the Blue Knights went cobalt. His socks started reeking within a week of his oath, but it worked like a charm—he kept scoring and now we’re state champs for our division.
I’m shocked that Aunt Sheila hasn’t pestered him into getting a haircut, though. She likes everything and everyone neat and tidy, inside and out. And I’m glad too, because his hair starts curling a little when it hits his collar, and it reminds me of the summer we went to Bible camp on Crystal Lake when we were twelve. By the end of the six weeks, Tommy’s hair got stuck in his life-jacket every time we went canoeing. I always had to pull it out so he didn’t catch it in the zipper. That was the best summer ever.
He glances up at me and rubs his eyes. When they pop open again they’re as blue as my hair before it started to fade. “Will you text my mom for me? Tell her I conked out on the couch watching a Disney movie, and we’ll see her at church in the morning.”
A gush of air escapes from way down deep in my chest. It’s relief, even though we’ll both have to lie to pull this off. Lying may be sinful, but it never stops us. It just makes us feel guilty. “I can do that—no problem.” I grab my phone off the bedside table and send the text. Then I put it on silent. No need for Tommy to wake up when Aunt Sheila calls to complain, which she’ll definitely do because she likes to be in complete control of her kids. And I don’t have to worry about his phone. He left it in my car—kind of accidentally on purpose.
Not-my-cousin closes his eyes and smiles. But when I slide under the blanket beside him, our shoulders pressed together, my smile is bigger. It doesn’t last, though, because even if I won tonight, I’ve lost.
There’s an expression that fits this situation: I won the battle but am losing the war. Once again, I’ve given in to my unnatural feelings for my “cousin,” who also happens to be a boy. Tommy has succumbed to temptation too, as he’ll sleep beside me tonight. We won’t hold each other or even come closer than the meeting of our shoulders. And we’ll do the best we can to pretend it isn’t the kind of the moment we live for. But we’ll slide deeper into the pit of fire that awaits all losers at this kind of war’s conclusion.
Tommy’s worth it.
After church, Mom, Dad, Aunt Sheila, and Michael head to my house to get everything ready for dinner. I head to the Wynne Academy Thanksgiving Day football game with my sister Dee and all three of my not-cousins.
The annual Thanksgiving Day game is a more of a social affair than a simple sporting event because we play our rivals from Sandler High School, and it draws generations of alumni from both schools. In the Wynne Academy stand, old folks cheer like they’ve been doing since before they were Dee’s age, and there are little kids with recent alumni, all bundled up in blue and white WA blankets. Tommy and I can relax and have fun today since soccer season is a done deal and the pressure is off. We get a few back slaps and high fives, too, because we’re soccer celebrities. Not that soccer celebrities rise to the level of football heroes around here, even if Wynne Academy’s Blue Knights Football Team loses more than it wins, and Blue Knights Boys’ Varsity Soccer is New Hampshire State Champion for our division.
Tommy sits between Dee and me about a third of the way up in the crowded stand. It’s halftime and the band is doing its thing on the field, but we’re watching his brothers, the twins Dave and Mike Jr., be players in a social sense, down by the wire mesh fence in front of the track that encircles the football field. The twins graduated last year as proud members of the Blue Knights Twelve-Club for three-sport athletes; they played football, basketball, and baseball all four years of high school. At the moment, they’re reveling in more glory than me and Tommy put together have enjoyed all four seasons we’ve been on the high school soccer team. And technically we’re better athletes.
All year long, every year, we focus on the single sport, which also happens to be our obsession: soccer. We do summer league, regular season, and AAU. But around here, soccer doesn’t draw the same kind of crowds that football does, since this is New England Patriot’s country. I doubt that anybody in town who isn’t on the soccer team even has a clue who the New England Revolution is. At least we caught the eye of a few college coaches. I desperately need a college scholarship. Tommy’s not as needy for one since Michael is a CPA for a law firm. Dad just runs the Wynne Pizza Palace.
“MJ and Dave are practically drowning down there,” he says softly, noticing, but not wistful. “Imagine that—drowning in a sea of girls.”
Dee misses it, but I hear. My ears are tuned in to Tommy’s voice. “Better them than us.” We both laugh. We’re not into being worshiped by an ocean of anybody. As long as we get respect for what we’ve accomplished in soccer—from Coach Miller, our parents, college scouts, and each other—it’s cool.
I’m not ready to think too hard about the college thing at this point. Maybe not ready is putting how I feel when I think of attending a different college than Tommy mildly. Paralyzed with fear or maybe holding back tears works better to describe my feelings.
Not gonna worry about college today, I decide. It won’t get me anywhere.
We turn toward each other, our necks stiff thanks to the bulky winter coats and wooly scarves Aunt Sheila insisted we wear. It’s seriously cold today. And Tommy’s still smiling, which brings me back to Thanksgiving Day.
“That’s for sure.” When our gazes meet, everything in my world clicks. We’re on the same page. We pretty much always are.
“The Knights are gonna go belly-up again this year,” Dee states, unaware of our magical moment. “Take note of my prediction, boys.”
I shake my head to break our spell before I agree. “They have a four-year losing streak against the Sandler Eagles. Why break it now?”
“Yeah, they should go for five.” Tommy murmurs, again watching his brothers. “Tradition, right?”
“I’m freezing.” Dee hops to her feet. “I’m gonna go get a cup of hot cider at the concession stand. Want me to bring you guys some?”
“No, thanks. Apple cider gives Vinny gas. It’ll be safer if we pass.” Tommy’s on the quiet side, but he’s a wise guy. Most people don’t know this about him. But I do.
Dee smirks and slides out of the stands. And Jenna Moore, a girl who also attends Life in Christ Worship Center, slips in between Tommy and me. It smells like a perfume-invasion.
“Hey, Vinny. Heya, Tom. Awesome job last week at the championship game.” She tosses her hair back with a fuzzy pink-gloved hand. Jenna’s hair is as light and smooth as Tommy’s, and just a few inches longer, but I don’t want to touch it at all. “At least one of our school teams is capable of a big win.” She’s staring at Tommy, but he’s still watching MJ and Dave. “The soccer team being New Hampshire State Champs gives me something to be thankful for today.”
Jenna is probably the hottest girl in our grade, but I’d like her a lot better if she didn’t act so much like she knows it. Hasn’t she heard that Christians are supposed to be humble? At school, she always dresses in stuff that’s super tight or shows so much skin that I’m pretty sure I’m sinning when I gawk. Of course, Jenna has the right to dress however she likes, but she obviously isn’t aware that Christians are supposed to be modest too. Thankfully, it’s so frigid outside today that she’s well-covered in a puffy white winter coat that reminds me of a cloud. I wish she’d drift away.
Since she’s invaded our space, Tommy’s entire face has turned as pink as her fuzzy gloves and my armpits have started to prickle. Our irritation surfaces in different ways.
“Thanks, Jenna,” Tommy replies, now studying the band as they file off the field.
She looks my way, expecting me to add something like “and we dedicate our big win to you” but I don’t. I don’t say a word.
Jenna’s focus returns to Tommy; after all, he’s the reason she’s wedged between us. A few weeks after we started school in September, Jenna told Ellen DeSantis, who told me, that she wants to have platinum blond, blue-eyed kids. She went on to explain that this is much more likely to happen if she hooks up with a blond guy. It’s something about recessive genes that I should probably remember from Freshmen Bio, but it has slipped from my brain. And I don’t need to understand the genetic specifics to know that Tommy is her blue-eyed, blond-haired mark.
“Are you going to the dance tonight?” she asks him.
Tommy shrugs and peers at me. “Not sure yet, ‘cause….”
I finish his sentence. I do this a lot. “It depends on what’s for dessert. We refuse to miss out on my mom’s apple pie.” She sprinkles the crust with brown sugar and cinnamon crumbles, and there’s probably a pound of butter in the recipe. It’s kind of spectacular.
Jenna shoots me a glare. “I wasn’t talking to you.” Of course not; I have brown hair. With that, she stands. “I’ll save you a dance, Tom. A slow one.”
As soon as she slithers from the spot between us, I rise to my feet. “Think Dee’s up for ditching the game early?” I try to ignore how much my armpits itch. “I’ve had about enough of this… this sorry game.” But the truth is, when girls flirt with Tommy I get annoyed. It’s a human weakness I’m working on. Or at least I should be.
“Let’s go ask her. The appetizers are probably already waiting on your kitchen island.” He stands beside me and wraps his fingers around my wrist. I don’t pull away and he gives me the squeeze I’m waiting for. “I love those artichoke-thingies Aunt Gina fries in salty batter. And if we’re late our dads will polish them off.” He snorts like a pig. Normally, I’d snort too, or at least poke him in the belly with my elbow and laugh. But I can’t right now.
I follow along behind him as he slides from our row. I’m still bent out of shape about the way Jenna just came on to him. But I’m more bent out of shape that I’m so bent out of shape about it. I’ve got no excuse for being this stirred up.
Once we’re on the grass, he stops walking just long enough to lean back on the fence, stare up at the gray sky, and say, “School dances suck, Bucci. My vote is for going to a movie tonight instead.”
I rub my face with both palms hoping he won’t notice I’m actually wiping away relieved wetness from my eyes. “I’d be up for something sci-fi.” I’m glad when my voice doesn’t crack, which happens a lot when I get all emo.
“Sounds like a plan. Now let’s go find Dee and get the hell outta here. There are artichoke-thingies to consume.” He snorts once more.
Mom never cooks just a simple turkey dinner and leaves it at that. For some reason, she feels obligated to reach back to her Italian roots and do the whole pasta and meatballs thing too. She’s a great cook, Italian and otherwise. Dad loves the two-meals-in-one holiday dinner thing, so he never complains. Actually, none of us complains—the Steckers are as much into major food overkill as the Buccis are. But I know Mom does it because she misses the traditions she grew up with. And even if she never admits it, she misses her family.
My mother was blackballed from the rest of her clan when she and Dad got married. Her folks, like Dad’s, are Roman Catholic Italians, so it shouldn’t have been a problem. But where Dad’s parents have retired to Florida and his siblings are spread all over the country—at most, we all get together at the lake for a week each summer—Mom’s entire family lives less than twenty minutes away. We never see them, though, because Mom’s folks are all about Catholicism. Her parents take trips every few years to Vatican City just to be near the Pope. They can’t forgive Mom for leaving the Roman Catholic Church to join the Evangelical one she and Aunt Sheila joined in college. When push came to shove, she refused to marry Dad in the Catholic Church, and it meant the end of Mom’s relationship with her family. Sometimes I think this is exactly how Aunt Sheila wanted it: Gina Bucci, isolated from everyone she ever loved and needy for her.
I’m trying to improve my suspicious nature… pretty sure it’s sinful. But still, I don’t get it—we all pray to the same Jesus, right?
Mom’s banishment from her birth family is how the Steckers and the Buccis ended up as honorary family members. In any case, Mom still embraces whatever traditions she can dredge up from her youth, and she remembers the family recipe for authentic Italian sauce like she learned to make it yesterday.
As usual, Michael says grace. He’s a take-charge type of guy. “Lord, we thank You for this food and for this family to share it with. We pray that Your gift of a Thanksgiving meal will provide our family with fuel to do Your will and resist all things evil. Please bless us as we live our best lives and remind each and every member of this family to live with grateful hearts. In Jesus’s name…”
I say Amen, too, but excuse me, Michael… there are two dang families seated at our dining room table. Michael forgot this detail three times in one short prayer.
When Tommy digs in, I get distracted. I like to watch him eat. He does it with gusto, as if every bite is the best thing he’s ever tasted. Sometimes he even closes his eyes.
Michael notices his gusto too and shakes his head. “Manners, Tom.”
Tommy freezes with his fork in midair, reaches down and slides his napkin off the edge of the table and onto his lap. “Sorry, Dad.”
Then Michael makes the zip-your-lips gesture. “Talking with food in your mouth, son?”
Dad always tries to lighten things up when Michael gets critical. Which is most of the time. “Sheila, haven’t you been feeding Tommy lately?”
Everybody except me laughs. Even Tommy smiles, but his face turns as pink as Jenna’s stupid fuzzy gloves again. He slows down on his dinner. I’m mad at his father for ruining everything, but I don’t glare at him. He’d tell me off in his know-it-all way, which wouldn’t be much fun on Thanksgiving Day.
“How come you guys took off from the game early?” MJ asks, his eyebrows sinking in annoyance.
“We knew they were going to lose,” I reply. This isn’t the real reason, which makes it a lie. I’ll pray about it later.
“So you guys are fair weather fans—is that what you’re saying?” Mike Jr. is a lot like his namesake. He has no problem calling you out for whatever he thinks you did wrong.
“I asked them to take me home,” Dee insists while buttering a roll. “I was freezing my butt off.” My little sister always has my back. Tommy’s too. And even as a ninth-grader, she isn’t afraid to speak up to anybody.
Michael shakes his head at her coarse language. Really? She said “butt” not “ass.” It’s no big deal.
“I told you after church to stop by the house and get your winter coat, dear. But teenage girls know best, don’t they?” Aunt Sheila chides. “Don’t they?”
Before Dee has a chance to talk back, Mom changes the direction of the conversation. It’s a good thing the Bucci family has mastered the art of distracting the Stecker family, or there would be plenty of screaming matches around here. “Dee stayed for the whole game last weekend when the Blue Knights Boys’ Soccer Team won the New Hampshire State Championship.”
“What a game!” Dad roars as if he were still on the sidelines of the soccer field. I’m pretty sure his bluster is in the interest of continued Stecker family distraction. “What an awesome game!”
“Tommy scored three times,” Dee adds. She sinks her teeth into the roll and winks at Tommy.
MJ mumbles, “It was just soccer.”
“Shut up, dude. Our baby brother—the freaking Wynne Academy soccer star—is getting scouted by three colleges.” Dave is the cooler of the twins.
“Language, David.” Michael, the curse-monitor, lives ready to cleanse our conversation of language unsuitable for a Disney movie.
“Sorry, Dad. But you gotta admit that little Tom’s unbelievable.”
Tommy wipes his mouth with his napkin, swallows, and says, “They’re scouting Vinny too.”
Dave reaches out and high-five’s me over the enormous bowl of mashed potatoes. “I guess all those hours of you two living and breathing soccer are going to pay off. Way to go, my cousin Vinny.”
We all laugh at the movie reference, but my laughter is fake. College-talk stresses me out as much as cousin-talk. Who knows where Tommy and I are going to end up? Our schools could land us half a world away from each other. And since I’m as good at changing the subject as my parents, I ask the twins, “Did you guys decide on college majors yet?”
“I expect both of them to at least minor in Christian Studies.” Aunt Sheila answers for them, effectively ending any further youthful contribution to the downward spiral of dinner conversation. Rumor has it that she had to threaten MJ and Dave to attend Thanksgiving service with us at the Life in Christ Worship Center this morning. Attend church services if you want to use the car over break. But I highly doubt they make a weekly Sunday morning journey to the local born-again church in Western Mass where they attend Talbot College, the “biggest party school” in the state. Still, the rule is they have to at least minor in Christian Studies if they want their tuition paid. “And I’ll expect the same of you, Tom.”
All three of my not-cousins, Dee, and me put our heads down and attack our giant bowls of ziti, gladly letting the adults take over dinner conversation.