Guinevere and I are eating breakfast with her parents. Normally, they eat about seven, but she asked them to wait until I arrived. Dad told me to drive our car. I’m five minutes early. I don’t think I slept last night.
Guin made waffles and Gretchen made homemade blackberry syrup, but not syrup. Compote, she called it. Way too thick for syrup. Noel Kinton must exercise hard to stay in shape the way they eat, though being six-twelve probably helps. He’s got a lot more territory to spread it out.
“Have you read Chaim Potok, Paxton? The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev are two of his best and most widely read, though Gretchen favors Davita’s Harp.” Noel Kinton has decided that he and I can talk literature. I know few of the authors he suggests, but I’ve gone to the library for every book he’s recommended.
“No, I haven’t. Did they make a movie of The Chosen?”
“I would not be surprised, though I haven’t seen it, personally. I tend to find theatrical adaptations of books disappointing. Do you enjoy them?”
I’m chewing waffle and compote, trying to frame an adequate answer to another question that sounds like a test, when Guin says, “Paxton and I wanted to talk to you both. Didn’t we, Paxton.” A cue, not a question.
I take a large swallow of milk, taking care not to choke (which is harder than you’d guess, when you’re consciously trying) and nod my head several times. She’s waiting for me to continue. Her father, who does not like being interrupted, is also waiting for me.
“Um, Guinevere and I had hoped to talk to you because, we, uh…well, we’ve been talking, and we decided we think it’s time to—I mean, we feel ready to talk about…” come on, one more word, “marriage.”
Pathetic, but I did it.
“You want to talk about our marriage?” Gretchen asks, half-joking, but she’s not laughing.
“No. We want to get married. I would like to marry your daughter.” So much better.
In the silence, Noel Kinton cuts another bite and puts it in his mouth. Trying not to avoid their stares, I count his chews.
“You’re pregnant?” Gretchen asks, but it comes out a statement. She wants confirmation.
I start to shake my head, but Guinevere says, “Hardly. We’re not even close to having sex.”
Wow, this is fun. Why didn’t I see this coming, talking with the Kintons about not having sex with their daughter? If only Dad and Coach could be here…
“You haven’t had sex once? Of any kind?”
“No, Mom. Nothing. He’s never tried anything.”
My head melts and my insides rip out sideways, like the Nazis in Indiana Jones. I’m both humiliated and guilty: I’m not man enough to have done what they would hate me for, but I’ve caused this moment so I must have done something wrong.
“You’re not pregnant…?” Gretchen leaves the option open once more.
“You’d like me to take a test for you? I’m seriously not pregnant. This isn’t about being pregnant.”
“Okay, then I don’t get it. What are we talking about?”
Guinevere makes her huge eyes at me. I’m on again.
“We want to get married.”
Hard question. I mean, I’m glad she didn’t ask, Why haven’t you tried to have sex with my daughter? But she doesn’t want to hear how I’ve always loved Guinevere. She wants to know if we have one reason that would qualify by their standards.
“Guinevere and I love each other and we…” What? Want to start our lives together? Believe we’re ready to settle down? Would this be easier if she were pregnant? “I love your daughter and I want to commit the rest of my life to her.”
“Young man, you don’t know my daughter and you have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life. Nor would I expect you to. You’re seventeen, for pity’s sake. And you–”
Guinevere interrupts with a snort. “’Young man?’ What happened to ‘Oh, Paxton, call me Gretchen?’ Now he’s ‘young man?’”
Did Guinevere hope for this reaction? I’m horrible, thinking that. Try growing up like I did without learning to suspect motives. Anyway, everyone’s tangled up with conflicting intentions. That’s not just me, right?
“Yes, he is. He’s a young man who’s obviously smitten with you, but that’s no reason to get married. How long have you been dating? You both have great futures and you’re talented and intelligent and he, at least, may still be innocent.”
“Mom, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that we had reason to worry that you were pregnant, and one of the reasons I’ve been glad to see Paxton around is that I thought maybe you had finally moved past your promiscuous stage. I’d hoped so, anyway.”
To Guinevere’s credit, she doesn’t scream. Though if she had, I might have tried to sneak one in underneath hers.
“I’m not promiscuous and I never was!”
“Guinevere, I love you, but I see how quickly you move through boyfriends. I think Paxton is a fine young man. I’m trying to protect him as much as you. Is it really fair to make him believe that you’re committed to him?”
“Mother, that would be a horrible thing to say if we were alone and he’s sitting here!”
“You two introduced the subject of marriage. That means we’re talking about sex and commitment. Paxton, what do your parents think of this?”
“Well, my dad shook my hand and wished me luck.” Guinevere looks at me as if I’m lying. “He did,” I say, just loud enough for her to hear, though of course her parents are both staring at me.
“Did he? Well, isn’t that wonderful?” she asks her husband. Noel Kinton has not spoken a word nor changed expression. I’ll bet he looked like this in the courtroom.
I try again. “I understand this seems sudden, and I–”
“Sudden?” Gretchen repeats. “This isn’t sudden; it’s foolish. Paxton, just because you have a crush on a pretty girl, you don’t marry her. You both have college and you’ll leave this place and meet other people and grow up and get jobs and learn to take responsibility, and then–”
“We want to do that together,” I say.
That stops her. She considers me for a few moments. Under the table, Guin rests her foot on mine.
“Paxton, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, and you seem like a nice enough boy. I’ve certainly liked you better than the other boys Guinevere has dated, or whatever she calls it. But you have more maturing to do yet, and, considering everything, I don’t know if you’re really who we’re hoping to see Guinevere–”
“Gretchen?” Noel says, in the tone he would ask her to pass the salt.
“You are speaking to the young man who may be your future son-in-law. Please do not say anything that you would prefer, later, not to have said to him.”
He takes a long, silent breath, studies me—I am meeting his eye, whatever comes next—then turns to Guinevere.
“Guinevere, I would like to hear why you are thinking about marrying Paxton. But we need not have this conversation in front of him, as you pointed out. It might be easier if we had some time to talk as a family. Paxton, I appreciate the courage this required on your part and I respect you for that. If you would–”
“No, I want him to stay,” Guinevere says.
“I think perhaps it could prove less awkward if–”
“Of course it would. But I’d rather he heard what I say about him. I expected you to react differently; I told Paxton that you love him. Sorry, Paxton, I didn’t realize they were faking it, I guess because they thought you were my best chance to stop being a slut.”
“Guinevere,” Noel says, stern but at the exact same volume. I’m now betting money he has never raised his voice at her.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Hussy? Harlot? Woman of questionable moral repute? You were twenty and twenty-one when you got married, right? Were you virgins?”
Oh, my dear Lord in Heaven (whom I hope exists), I do love this woman and could you please make the floorboards swallow me until this is over?
“Those were different times and we made some naive choices, but our point is that you are young and can make better choices,” Noel replied.
“Wait, you’re not telling me you regret getting married?”
“Absolutely not. But we were lucky. We had no idea if we were compatible, nor did we know enough about ourselves to know whom we should marry. We’re fortunate to have our marriage, but we would not counsel you or anyone else to start as we did.”
“Well, we weren’t really asking for counsel. We’re hoping for your support, but we didn’t come to discuss whether you think we should or not. Here’s our situation: I’m going to Stanford; Paxton can’t start college this year, but he’ll work and start next year. Instead of dating from a distance or waiting to see if I meet someone who is closer to your choice for me—or just sharing an apartment, by the way—we want to get married and do this together, as Paxton said.”
“Wait, I don’t understand—Paxton didn’t get into a college? Or he didn’t get into Stanford?” Gretchen asks.
I’ve been trying to keep from reading bad stuff into the Kintons’ objections, because how could I know how they feel, having their one daughter come announce her marriage plans, at seventeen, to me of all people. But this? Like I was going to get stuck here, hang out with my parents another year, maybe beg my way back into Grocery Warehouse? No wonder I’m trying to hook up with their daughter.
“Mom, Paxton got into UCLA, Northwestern and Princeton. You already knew that. He can’t afford it. He didn’t apply to Stanford, that’s all.”
Both Gretchen and Noel keep watching their daughter, I don’t know whether for her to explain the rest of the plan or why I can’t afford it. But my stomach rolled when she told them. Gotta head off the pity.
“My parents aren’t in a position to help me with school. I applied for scholarships, but I’ll be okay when I’ve worked for a year and have independent status. Plus, then I’ll be a California resident.”
“So you’re hoping to find a full-time job, near Stanford, at which you will earn enough to cover Stanford tuition? Meanwhile, you’re paying for housing and transportation and everything else you’ll need. After you attend for a year, will you go back and work another year? I’m sorry, Paxton, I don’t think that is realistic.” Gretchen is now looking at me like maybe I’m not such a nice boy. Nor that bright, either.
“You two would be married, but Guinevere will be immersed in university life, taking her first-year courses, deciding her major. You’ll be living in two different worlds. I’m afraid that would prove a very difficult path,” Noel adds.
Man, they sound reasonable. Man, this sounds ridiculous.
“I’m hoping that I can apply for scholarships and receive better financial aid when I’m supporting myself.”
“But it won’t work that way, because you won’t be paying for Guinevere to go to school; we will. So your finances won’t look ‘independent,’ because Guinevere will be receiving all the money she needs from us. I’m not certain how that will look to the financial aid office, but I suspect they will expect us to support you, as well. They won’t look on your status as only what you are earning.”
“Then we won’t go to Stanford,” Guinevere declares. “You have no idea how hard Paxton can work. He’s not asking you to pay for him. If you don’t want to support him when we’re married, then we’ll both work and pay for our own college.”
Gretchen and Noel both open their mouths to object. But I win.
“I won’t do that to you.”
“What?” Guinevere asks. Okay, demands.
“You’re going to Stanford. You’ve been pursuing this as long as I’ve known you and I’m not going to take it away, even if you’re thinking now that you’d be okay with it. I can wait and work here and try to get in next year, or go somewhere else and try to transfer, or…”
Her teeth clench. She’s pissed. She walked out on that branch and I’m sawing away. But how can I take this from her?
“No, what I’m going to do is marry you, Paxton. We’re getting married, and everything else will work around that.” She turns from me to her parents again. It’s scary how similar they all three are. “Now, you wanted to know why I’m marrying Paxton? Of course. I’m marrying Paxton because he loves me. I’m marrying Paxton because he makes me laugh and I can’t wait to see him every day. I’m marrying Paxton because I really want to have sex with him but I’m waiting because he wants more than just sex with me. I’m marrying Paxton because he taught me about loving somebody no matter what, and he’s still teaching me. And I’m marrying Paxton because I want to have a happy, ridiculous, sappy life like you have, because that’s what you taught me. Objections?”
They stare at their daughter, who defies any one of us to answer. She wants to have sex with me! It’s kind of included in the “I want to marry you” package, but amazing to hear for the first time…and in front of her parents. Am I dying from happiness or mortification? Who knew they could be indistinguishable?
Now they turn to each other and start a conversation without words. Maybe Guin knows them well enough to interpret.
“Paxton, would you care for another waffle?” Gretchen Kinton asks me as she stands up and walks into the kitchen.
“Um, no, I, uh, no thank you,” I stammer.
Noel Kinton considers me and raises his thick eyebrows.
“Congratulations, you two.” He smiles, happy and rueful and proud and sad, or maybe I’ve just never seen him smile before.
“Thank you, Daddy,” Guinevere almost knocks her chair over, lunging to give him a hug.
“Thank you, Mr. Kinton.”
“Now I think you’d better call me Noel.”
Guinevere goes into the kitchen and I can’t hear anything from in there. I’m alone with my father-in-law to be. We’ll be together like this a lot. A lot. One of many things that have yet to sink in.
Things are not clearly settled with Guinevere’s parents. Guinevere told me we were asking them, but that was when she thought they would be excited and say “yes.” I can’t tell if they have resigned themselves to our decision, knowing that their alternative is to alienate their daughter, or if they are standing by in the hope that we will work out for ourselves that we’re making a mistake. They aren’t excited, and Gretchen Kinton, ironically, is no longer treating me like her son. I’m now a guest to whom she is exceedingly polite yet upon whom she keeps an eye, to prevent me from carrying off the silver. I suppose if I gave her that choice, she’d hand me the silver.
I’m a bit pissed off about it, to be honest, because I know bloody well she was rooting for me to succeed…but apparently not to this degree. I feel used, even though I keep reminding myself that she still treats me better than either of my parents do.
Mom had less to say about it than Dad did.
“Is that right?” she asked.
I waited for her to add something, congratulate me, protest, faint… But she had spent her words.
She turned to Dad. “I suppose you knew about this already?”
“Of course. He told me,” Dad sneered, and they were off. She found a lot more words for fighting with him.
I tell myself that Mom feels guilty and acts distant because she resents that someone else might be giving me the attention she didn’t. That drives home her failure.
But since Trinket left, I rarely see any evidence Mom feels at all, especially regarding me.
One person will get it, though.
The morning after the morning we had waffles and told her parents, I’m at Jeff’s house. It’s Sunday, which often means Jeff is sleeping one off. I thought about telling him Saturday night, but I still needed some time to let it penetrate. Plus, I was recovering a little from that interaction. I hadn’t really believed the Kintons would crack open champagne and toast their good fortune.
But it would have been a good way for me to have my first drink.
“Oh, hi, Paxton,” Jeff’s dad says when he sees me at the door. “I’ll let Jeff know you’re here.” He glances back at me as he leaves the room. He always does. Does he think he can read my expressions to know if Dad might come hurtling through the door? Many folks look me over, in case some of the family crazy might be leaking out. You think I’m making this up, but I’ve seen the change after people have an interaction with Dad. Remember, paranoid is just good sense when everyone is out to get you. In Mr. Albermathy’s defense, my dad did come all-but-hurtling through this door.
Jeff comes out with his hair pointing in twelve directions, which is impressive considering how short he has it. One of his eyes looks matted shut. If he were a cat, I would take him to the vet this morning.
“Whatcha doin’ here, Pax?” Jeff asks, because his dad followed him back into the room. Otherwise, he would have asked me more colorfully.
“Oh, I just thought you’d like to hear about my date last night.”
He looks at me, then over his shoulder at his dad, then in slow motion back toward me. He’s pried both eyes open now, and they say, “You don’t want to describe having sex in front of my father,” though his wording would again be more graphic.
“Hang on, let me grab my keys,” he rumbles.
“That’s cool, we could just walk or something,” I suggest. He rolls his eyes. Well, the one that’s staying open.
“Jeff, why don’t you guys just sit in the kitchen. Marcy’s off to church. There’s coffee if anyone needs some.” He smiles at me. “You’re welcome to some, too, Paxton.”
We’re almost sitting down before he says, “Dude, I’m happy you got some, but couldn’t this wait ’til tonight? Or Monday morning? We were out last night. You coulda just called. Later.”
“Jeff, Guinevere and I did not have sex last night.”
Jeff immediately gets back out of his chair and sets his coffee cup on the counter.
“You woke me up at…8:32 AM to tell me your ‘I didn’t get laid’ story? Pax, when I wake up more, I’m punching you. I don’t even have to go soft on you for basketball anymore. The only reason to drag my ass out of bed—wait. No. You are fucking shitting me.”
“You scrawny little bastard, measly, runty sonofabitch.”
“What are you talking about?” Jeff couldn’t know. He hasn’t even swallowed his coffee yet. If I didn’t see it coming, how can he?
“Okay, just say it, before I have to beat it the hell out of you. You make me sick. Would you just fucking say it?”
“All right! Jeff, would you be my best man?”
“You are…” He looks like he’s grasping for another expletive but he’s used them all. “You proposed to Guinevere Kinton? What kind of balls could you possibly have to do that? And you’re trying to tell me she said ‘yes?’”
“At 8:34 AM, that’s what I’m telling you.”
“Oh my sweet, moonshine-loving Lord!”
“Paxton Kingsley, you are my hero, you’re my role model, you’re the mouse that roared, you are the fucking BOMB! Why did she say ‘yes?’” No pause in between and no guile in the question.
“Jeff, she kind of jumped on the question.”
“What do you mean? Like she was really excited when you asked her?”
“No. I’m only telling you this, but I wasn’t really even trying to ask her.”
“I knew it! No way you’re going to have the manhood for that maneuver.”
“Well, I did bring it up. But like a joking, wouldn’t-it-be-crazy-if-we-did-this question.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t count. Hell, I’ve done that with Darla, and we’re not getting married.”
“That’s all right, Man. We can’t all have my brass.”
Jeff makes a fist, then looks at me and starts laughing, in his throat, down to his chest, way into his stomach. He’s laughing like Santa Claus. It just might be the best laugh I’ve ever heard.
“You’re going to be my best man, right?”
“Hell yeah, you know it. Who got you here?”
“Uh…me? God? Lady Luck? You gotta give me a hint.”
“Sure. He’s bigger than you, he’s going to hurt you, and you’ll be lucky to survive his bachelor party.”
“Yeah, that’s not even close.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes. He keeps shaking his head. Then his ridiculous smile comes back.
“What is Brighton gonna say?”
“Wait—what did your dad say? You haven’t told him yet?”
“He wished me luck and shook my hand. I think he was kind of letting go. It was almost sad.”
“Really? He didn’t get angry or try to, I don’t know, show you it’s a mistake?”
“Not a word. He left that to the Kintons. He expected them to execute me.”
“Uh-oh. They aren’t cool with it?”
“I doubt you’d have called their reaction ‘cool.’ It got kind of ugly. But quiet ugly. It’s weird: you can walk away when parents are shouting and throwing things. When they sit and say it all calmly, even when they’re tearing you apart, it’s a lot tougher to blow them off.”
“They don’t want their daughter marrying you?”
“They don’t want their daughter marrying anyone right now because they think she’s too young—they think we’re both too young. That’s their official party line, though they’re talking like it’s our choice and they won’t try to stop us. But I’m definitely not top of Gretchen’s list for her only daughter’s husband.”
“I thought she loved you?”
“Apparently not as her son-in-law. I think I was supposed to play chaperone.”
“Ouch. Sorry, Man. But like my Uncle Pete says, ‘Check for fox teeth before you hire the henhouse guard.'”
Another great Jeff compliment.
“It was the strangest argument I’ve ever been in. She said some really harsh things about Guin, I mean, to her, to her face, but I don’t think she was trying to hurt her. I could have stood not to hear them, but I think we took Gretchen by surprise.”
“No way, really? She wasn’t already sewing the wedding dress?”
That’s right: she’s going to wear a wedding dress. It’s slowly filtering in.
“Jeff, seriously, how did you know?”
“You’re not gonna show up here before ten for anything less than this—or that you finally offed your coach. But you talk about this more. And you said you didn’t have sex.”
When I’m silent, Jeff stops and drinks some coffee.
“Hey, Pax, I know this sounds…I’m not giving you shit here, I’m just asking: why do you think she wants to marry you?”
So many sarcastic responses, but Jeff is being serious. That shuts me up.
“I mean, you dating her was amazing. But this is off the charts. Do you think…I don’t know, could she…”
He’s going to ask if she’s pregnant. And he knows we haven’t had sex. She told her mom flat out she’s not pregnant, and I don’t—no, I can’t think about asking her. So, I mean, are you really not pregnant?
“…could she be trying to get back at her parents or something? I’m not saying she doesn’t want you—however bizarre and twisted that is—but, you know, it could kind of work out for both?”
Part of me wishes I had left sometime between “moonshine-loving” and “bomb.”
Jeff takes two more swallows of Sanka, then wades in.
“Remember you said, ‘The only thing she has to fight against is being perfect,’ or whatever? This sure is a way to show she can do whatever she wants, but it can still be what she wants. I mean, I don’t want to piss on your campfire, Man, but…”
I’m a snob. That probably sounds funny, since my parents are poor and crazy. I don’t buy expensive clothes and I certainly don’t drive a nice car (unless you count the LVMCHN), but I’m an intellectual snob. I feel superior to my classmates, even the ones who have succeeded where I’ve failed (or utterly humiliated myself), because I’ve gotten into schools they haven’t—and, I like to think, couldn’t. (And it changes nothing that I can’t afford to attend them.) So here is my best friend, and yes, I look down a little on his shop classes and his shop friends, and I can’t fix a car but I still think I’m smarter than he is. Tell me then, why is he, just yanked out of bed and hung over, raising these questions,? Either I’m not all that I imagine in this area, too…or maybe he’s voicing the obvious. Maybe if he were more awake, we’d be talking about sex.
“Of course, you’re gonna get to have sex with her for the rest of your life,” Jeff raises his mug to salute me. “God, I’ll bet she’s amazing. Ho, I don’t get to think about that anymore, do I? I won’t think about that ever again…but you’ll have to tell me. You have to do that, right? I’m the Best Man.”
“Actually, now I’m thinking about Nill. You have his number?”
Jeff lunges—sloshing us both with coffee—and punches me in the chest.
My mouth gapes but my lungs won’t respond.
“Sorry,” Jeff says, as I re-learn how to breath, “Meant to do that when you walked in, but the caffeine took a while. Congratulations, Pax.”