"TJ, where do we keep the placemats?" I ask.
"Check the cabinet in the dining room," TJ responds.
I wind around the pillar separating the kitchen from the dining room and kneel down at the back by the tall, black cabinet that me and my husband received when we first moved in here at twenty-one. It was a gift from Amber that she got at an antique shop. A swirly pattern is carved into the door faces, showcasing its beauty, and the wood grain shines through. However, the base of the structure is covered in dents, many of them having been created in the last week from the RC car that my ten year-old son's been driving around the house since the day he got it. I would regret buying him that, but he actually saved up his allowance to pay for it, so the trashing of all the furniture is just an unfortunate side effect of his financial responsibility.
I find the stack of wicker placemats and begin laying them out on the dining room table. My friends are coming over for dinner in a couple hours, and they're bringing their families. This will be the first time I'm seeing Buffy since she and her family got back from their vacation to Disneyland, so I want everything to be perfect. Once I have the dining table set, I go back into the kitchen to check the list I left on the island to see what is still needed to be done.
"Okay, tables are set," I mutter to myself. "Living room is cleaned. Dinner is cooking, which smells great by the way!" I spin around to look at my husband who's busy stirring a pot on the stove. "What are you making?"
TJ smiles as I wander over to take a look at the liquid simmering that's making the whole place smell of savoury vegetables and spices.
"This is the vegan gravy," he answers. "The shepherds pie is in the oven."
"Yum," I reply. "Okay, so we have almost everything done. What am I missing?"
The answer comes as a slam to my foot, and I look down to see a familiar red toy truck attempting to climb my ankle. My kids. The vehicle backs up before zooming forward again, using my foot as a ramp to launch itself into the air. I turn to where my son is standing at the bottom of the stairwell, holding the remote.
"Wyatt," I call. "I told you no stunt jumps."
"But Papa told me go big or go home."
I shoot my eyes to TJ, who just grins innocently back at me.
"You're a bad influence," I say, a smile peaking through.
I give up my stern look quickly as my eyes flick down to TJ's mouth, and TJ notices the hint, stepping in to give me a soft kiss on the lips.
"Ew!" Wyatt shouts as we part. "Cooties!"
"Wyatt, that's not how cooties work," I respond. "You catch those from the opposite gender."
"Yeah," TJ supports. "Gays are immune."
"Like how Superman is immune to green kryptonite?" Wyatt chirps, lighting up.
"Yes, exactly like that," I confirm, although I have no idea whether that's actually true or not.
Wyatt's car steers back toward the stairs where he picks it up and carries it. On his way up, he passes by his sister, fourteen year-old Jayda who currently has her face scrunched in anger as she stomps into the kitchen and swings open the fridge. TJ and I watch as she fights with the orange juice jug, aggressively yanking it from its spot before shoving the door closed and unscrewing the cap.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"I'm fine," the girl snaps.
"Yes, I believe those were my exact words right before I drove into a library when I was seventeen," TJ reminisces.
Jayda glares up at her dad before going over to the cabinet and grabbing a glass.
"Well, are you going to be ready for when the relatives get here?" I check.
"It doesn't matter, because I'm not going to talk to them," she huffs.
"What do you mean?" I question, my worry doubling.
"I mean," she says, spinning to face me with grumpy eyes, "I don't want to see anyone. I'm not in the mood."
She pours orange juice into her glass and takes a sip. Next, she picks up the juice jug and begins bringing it back to the fridge, but then she thinks twice and decides to just take it with her back up the stairs to her room. With her gone, I turn to TJ and release a sigh.
After only a second of moving, Andi has to step on the brake again as the car in front of us jolts to another stop. The whole highway is backed up with red lights as far as I can see, and the honking in the distance is definitely not helping my wife stay optimistic. Beside her, I watch Andi's patience dissolve more and more every time she has to stop again, while our thirteen year-old daughter, Hazel, sits on her phone, only looking up every time her mom groans in annoyance.
"Why is there traffic?" Andi growls. "I don't even see an accident ahead."
"Relax," I tell her. "We have plenty of time."
"We don't have plenty of time. You're just comfortable with being late."
"Sorry, it's a Kippen thing."
The car shifts forward again but halts just as quickly, only a few inches keeping our baby blue Honda from rear-ending the vehicle in front.
"Why can't people just drive!" Andi complains.
"Momma," says Hazel from the back as she leans forward to speak to me, "why is Mommy yelling?"
"She has road rage," I reply nonchalantly.
"I don't have road rage!" Andi huffs.
I nod kindly then look back at my daughter again, saying, "She's in denial."
"If you don't like me driving, then you can drive," Andi states.
I let out a chuckle. "I'm the reason bad driving is a stereotype for gays."
Seeing a window of opportunity, Hazel leans forward, saying, "I'll drive," to which Andi and I respond in unison, "No."
I glance out through the blinds in the living room of my townhouse, spotting something a tad off-putting.
"Hey, Jonah," I call. "I think we have a problem."
My husband enters the living room in his dress shirt and jeans, having chosen to look nice for the dinner with our friends. He comes over to window to see what's captured my attention, frowning when he sees it.
"You've got to be kidding me," he mutters.
Jonah rounds the furniture and heads for the front door. I follow him, stepping out onto the doorstep to get a better look at the giant SUV parked smack in front of our exit route.
"What kind of idiot parks in front of a driveway?" Jonah questions. "That's such a dumb thing to do."
"I think being dumb is a requirement for idiots," I respond.
"Well, what should we do?"
I shrug. "We still have a couple hours before we're supposed to be there. Let's wait and see if whoever owns the car moves it."
Jonah settles with that, nodding as we return inside our home. The car can't possibly stay there for that long, right?
After completing a few more items on the list, I go upstairs to check on Jayda, but her bedroom door is still shut tight, a signal for everyone else to stay out. Respecting the barrier, I return downstairs to my husband in the kitchen, hoping to seek his advice.
"Should we do something?" I ask.
"She's still up there?"
I nod. "I know teenagers are supposed to avoid their parents, but they usually aren't this mad when they do it."
"Hey, speak for yourself," he says. "I was angry at my parents for an entire year whenever I talked to them, so I never left my room."
"Yeah, but that's because you were afraid to come out to them, because you thought they wouldn't accept you. I'm about ninety-nine percent sure Jayda's not afraid of that with us."
"Well, what do you think we should do?"
"I don't know. I've read a million books on parenting and psychology, but it all seems to slip away when my actual kid is in a crises."
I think TJ can feel my distress, because he lets out a sigh and says, "I'll try to talk to her. But if it's about bras or periods, I'm going to need that book you gave me."
I laugh a little and step up to TJ, reaching out to lace our hands together, slowly like the petals of a rose curling into one another to greet the summer. Then I rise up on my tip toes to grace his cheek with a soft kiss. On the way back down, his eyes follow mine curiously.
"What was that for?" he asks.
"Do I need a reason to kiss you?"
TJ smiles and brings his hand up to touch my face, moving a loose strand of hair out of my sightline. My eyes hold his for another moment, wading in the warmth of his gaze, before TJ steps back.
"Here goes," he says.
I take another second to capture in as much of Cyrus's encouraging smile as I can before I spin around and ascend the stairs up to my daughter's room. After knocking on the door, she replies with a shout.
"What do you want?"
Carefully, I open the door and look in at Jayda sitting with a bag of chips upon her mauve polka-dotted bedspread. She keeps her earbuds in, listening to something play on her laptop while crunching another mouthful of the potato chips. On her nightstand is the jug of orange juice, which is now half empty.
"Hey," I say. "Do you want to talk about what's bothering you?"
The teen shakes her head, shoving more chips into her face.
"Are you sure?" I press. "You know you can tell me anything."
"Not this," she insists. "I'm having boy problems. You wouldn't understand. Please just leave me alone."
I furrow my brows in puzzlement. I wouldn't understand her boy problems? What the hell does she think I'm married to?
Deciding not to push it, I comply with her request, mumbling, "Um...okay," as I pull the door shut again behind me.