"I'm going to marry Chrissy," Toby said.
I took a bite of sandwich. It was turkey. I sipped at my milk.
"You can't marry Chrissy," Dennis said.
"Not right now, stupid. When we're older," Toby said. "You have to get married when you're old. Like 18."
We sat at a long square table in the school cafeteria. Alex sat to my left and Toby sat to my right. Dennis sat across from Toby and Trevon sat across from me.
"Why Chrissy?" Dennis asked. "Sarah is prettier."
"She is not."
"Then you marry Sarah and I'll marry Chrissy. What's the problem?" Toby asked.
"What about you, Trev? Who are you going to marry?" Dennis asked.
I took a handful of chips and stuffed them all into my mouth at once. Mom wasn't here now to tell me that was undignified. I even wiped my hand on my pants.
Trevon paused with a bite of his sandwich still in his mouth. "Melissa," he finally said. A little bit of bread fell out the side of his mouth.
Who would I say if they asked me? Did I have to choose right now? Was that the rule?
"What about you, Aley?" Dennis asked.
Alex paused with his hand wrapped around his half-eaten red apple. "Hmm," he thought. "Mark."
Dennis and Toby started laughing. Trevon followed their lead, but I didn't understand what was funny. Should I laugh? I didn't understand the joke.
"You can't marry a boy," Dennis said.
"Why not?" Alex asked.
"That's gross," Toby said. "You have to like a girl."
"But I don't like girls," Alex said.
Trevon had stopped laughing and looked slightly uncomfortable as he shifted in his seat, but he didn't say anything.
"Hey, Mark," Toby called out to the boy at a nearby table. "Alex says he is going to marry you."
Mark slammed his apple onto his tray. "That's gross. I'm not going to marry a boy," Mark said - almost shouted as if he wanted everyone in the cafeteria to know he would never marry a boy.
I didn't understand what the problem was though. Boys were cool. Girls were cool too. What was the big deal?
Alex stood up with his back straight and his head held up high. He raised his voice in rare anger when he replied, "Then don't! I'm not going to marry a jerk anyway. When I get married, he's going to be nice and cool."
"He?" some kid said loudly. I wasn't sure who. Then almost the entire cafeteria started laughing. Trevon hesitated, but in the end, he laughed too.
Alex took his tray, dumped his food and headed out to the playground.
I hesitated. I still didn't understand what was funny, but should I go along with everyone else or follow my friend who was alone? It took some time for me to decide - the cafeteria had stopped laughing - but I got up and followed my best friend.
The kids in our class teased him the rest of the day, but most weren't mean about it. Toby, Dennis and Mark stopped talking to him though. Alex acted like he didn't care, but he had to have. Right?
When I got home, I looked for Grandma but she was still at work. Mom and dad were both home. Mrs. Millard said we should talk to our parents if we had questions about life or if someone hurt us, but I wasn't sure she meant my parents. Whenever she said parents like that, I always interjected Grandma instead of parents. But Grandma wasn't here. Maybe it was okay to talk to mom.
"Mom." She was in the living room on the couch with a book in her hand. People on T.V. were usually curled up on the couch when they read or watched T.V. but my mom sat up straight as she always did.
"Yes, son?" She didn't look up from her book.
Dad was in the other room so I didn't think he would hear me. He didn't usually pay much attention to me anyway. It was because of my eyes. I hated my eyes.
"The kids laughed at Alex today, but I don't understand why."
"Kids can be mean," she said dismissively. "You didn't make fun of Alex did you? You know who his mom is."
"I know," I said. "I didn't."
"Good." She still didn't look away from her book.
"Can I tell you why the kids laughed and you can tell me why it was funny?"
"Did Alex laugh?"
"Then they were probably just making fun of him. Ignore them and stay friends with Alex."
I was going to stay friends with Alex anyway. It didn't matter to me who his mom was except that she was nice and always asked me how my day was when I went to his house.
"Alex said he was going to marry Mark."
My mom froze.
"The kids said he couldn't marry a boy," I went on.
My mom's tongue ran along the inside of her cheek. Oh no. She was angry. I had made her angry.
"Boys can't marry boys," my mom's voice grew dangerously quiet. I didn't understand what I had said to upset her.
My arm was grabbed roughly from behind me. The fingers pinched through my shirt and bruised my skin. I was turned and when I looked up, I saw the angry face of my father.
"What ridiculousness is this?" His voice was gravely with anger.
"Not me," I quickly said. I did not want that anger directed at me. "Alex," I said.
"You will not be friends with him anymore," my father said as his hand squeezed my arm even harder. I winced from the pain. "You will not associate with him in anyway."
Tears streamed down my face - tears from the pain in my arm; tears from the thought of losing my best friend; tears from the thought if I didn't obey, my family would abandon me. He shoved me away from him and started to walk out of the room.
My mom sprang from the couch and hugged him from behind. "You can't tell him not to be friends with Alex," she said. My tears stopped and my heart lifted for one brief moment. It seemed my mom was sticking up for me for once until she said, "Remember who Alex's mom is? She is the granddaughter of the governor."
My dad sighed out loud and long. He turned back to face me. My mom ended her embrace, but placed her hand on his arm instead. "Fine," he said to me. "You can be friends with him, but if I ever hear the words out of your mouth that you like a boy in that way, you are out. You won't have a house or family. Do you understand?"
I nodded quickly. It was just one more thing to add to the list of things I couldn't do or my family would abandon me. I wished I had my father's eyes. Then they wouldn't be able to abandon me.
It was easy to stalk Mateo's social media. He had left everything public. I sat at my desk with my laptop in front of me. I scrolled back in time through all his posts. I searched for anything to use against him, even a tiny lie would do. I found nothing wrong with him - nothing I could use against him to convince Alex to break up with him.
I glanced at the time on my laptop. I still had a little time left before I had to leave for morning classes. Unless I wanted to stop somewhere to get breakfast. Then I should probably leave right away. I debated it for a moment, but in the end, went back to looking at Mateo's social media.
I had hoped his family was like mine and they would tell him to breakup with Alex, but the only family member of his I could see on his social media was a younger sister and she only had praise and supportive words for him. I couldn't find any indication that his parents or grandparents or anyone else were on social media. I should find his parents and tell them about Alex. Hopefully they would force the breakup for me.
The lock to my apartment door turned. I froze at the little dining table with my laptop in front of me. The door opened and my mom walked in. I had forgotten she had a key. This was the first time she had ever used it.
I closed my laptop as I stared at her.
"Aren't you happy to see me?" she asked.
"Of course I am," I said with mixed feelings. I stood up and rounded the table to stand in front of her. She gave me a short hug.
"You still have your bed in the living room?" she asked as she pulled away.
"Yes," was all I said.
"I thought you would change your mind after you had insisted the movers leave it there. I can call them back up and have it moved to your bedroom for you."
"No," I said careful not to let any animosity into my voice. "It's fine where it is. This is a pleasant surprise," I lied. "I'm glad you came to visit me."
A trace of a smile touched her red lips. "Your father is out of town on business and Aiden already went in to work. I thought I would come let you take me out to breakfast."
If we went out to breakfast, I would miss my morning class. I didn't want to miss my class, but this was the first time ever my mom had come to me. "Sure," I said. "I would love to. Is there anywhere in particular you want to go?"
"You pick," she said as she casually ran her fingers over my table. "Are you sure you don't want to hire a maid service of some kind?"
"That would look strange to the other residents," I said. "I am a first year college student living away from his parents for the first time after all."
"I suppose that's true," she said.
I guided her out and down to the first floor. We took my car. I drove to a fancier cafe I knew she liked. When she was feeling particularly elite, she would order an omelet. But she really preferred the waffles. Today she ordered the omelet. I ordered waffles mainly so she could steal a bite or two when she thought I wasn't looking.
"I thought you might come back home another night this past weekend after you left the dinner like that," she said.
"Sorry," I said. "I was busy."
"Busy with college parties?" She smiled, but the smile didn't reach her eyes. I couldn't remember the last time she had genuinely smiled at me. Maybe she never had.
"I suppose," I admitted. "Alex is dating someone new." She would find out eventually. It was better that I just get it out there now so she could say whatever disparaging things she was going to say and get it over with.
"His poor mother," she said. She spun her coffee mug slowly in her hands. "I really don't understand how she hasn't fallen apart yet. Well, you really didn't miss much at the dinner," she said before I needed to say something in response to defend Alex's mother - or lie and agree with my mother. "What did you think of Jasmine? She comes from a good background."
I almost said she was too good for Aiden, but managed to catch my tongue before it was too late. "I like her," I said instead.
"I do too," my mom said. "She's smart and respectful and doesn't act like she's black."
I froze. The waitress chose that moment to show up with our food. "Enjoy," she said with a strained smile. My mom didn't notice. I never forgot that my mom was elitist, but I did tend to forget she was racist as it usually didn't come up. Jasmine, if you are smart you will run far, far away from my family. Please. You are too good for all of us. With the exception of my grandma. My grandma was the only redeeming person in my family.
"I'd be okay if he married her," my mom went on not realizing she had just made a racist statement.
It was at times like this I wished I had Alex's courage. He had never been ashamed at showing who he truly was. Even when he had been teased and ridiculed. And he never stood by when someone else was teased or ridiculed. Not even when it had been done by adults. I on the other hand could not find my voice.
I covered my waffle with strawberry syrup and took a bite. I knew it would be delicious under normal circumstances, but at the moment I could only taste the filth of my family and my shame that I couldn't defy them.