The first time Tara sat at the Rosenberg table for dinner she was only about ten percent aware of the months of planning that had taken the universe to get her there. Mostly she just knew that months had passed since she and Willow had started… seeing each other.
She didn’t let her imagination run wild.
She smiled her crooked smile at Mr and Mrs Rosenberg. She ate all her peas and accepted seconds on the mashed potatoes even though they tasted a little bit like the box kind. She helped clear the table and answered all the right questions and good-naturedly deflected the ones that had the wrong sort of answers.
She couldn’t tell if their broad smiles and inquisitive questions were genuine or forced. And the suspicious glances Willow kept shooting her mother only made Tara more nervous and confused. Everything seemed relatively normal… as normal as a girl meeting her girlfriend’s parents for the first time can really go. She wanted to know what they thought of Oz – but Willow’s leg jiggling under the table and Mr Rosenberg’s eyes that seemed to be begging her to cut him some slack for not knowing if he was doing this right stopped her.
Tara was able to escape the house, after a slightly awkward wrestling match against Mrs Rosenberg over who was going to wash the casserole dish and a less awkward tray of cookies in the living room while Mr Rosenberg yelled at the television about global warming, without upsetting anyone or breaking anything.
There’s a first time for everything.
* * * * *
For the first three months of Willow’s relationship she was plagued with an ever-present will I? hanging over her head.
Well… for the first month she was still in a dizzy OH MY GOD IS THIS HAPPENING state and there was about a 12-hour period in there where she held an old shirt of Oz’s and listened to the Dixie Chicks and cried and Buffy kept bringing over stuffed animals and tissue and finally summoned Xander who brought a stack of Disney movies and a pizza and that was the end of that crying jag. And there may have also been a good two-hour episode where she wrote out a list of pros and cons for dating girls the rest of her life. Buffy found this list on their dorm room floor and with her patented quizzical air asked, “Why is dick on both lists?” Willow refused to dignify this question with a response aside from a significant raising of her eyebrows. “Oh no. I get it now,” which is why Buffy is her best friend. During this period she may have also spent a lot of time studying heterosexual versus gay versus lesbian porn and may or may not been kicked out of her sociology class for starting a debate on the subject during someone else’s presentation on postcolonial medical support in First Nation Reservation… a subject she now really wish she had paid attention to.
So she was well into the second month and was very happy settled into the whole idea of a new modifier and a girlfriend when Xander asked the question she didn’t want him to ask.
That was kind of his job as childhood-best-friend.
“So…” his mouth was full of French fries he stole off her tray. “Have you told—”
“NOPE! MORE FRENCH FRIES!?”
“Geez Will. Take a chill pill. I don’t think they heard you in New York,” Buffy looked two parts hungover and one part scandalized. (Which was legitimate, they were in a fast food restaurant at four in the morning and had some body parts not covered in goo from the hack-and-slash slaying duties they had just finished.)
And that was all anyone said about it.
Until about three o’clock that afternoon. (She didn’t even make it a full twenty-four hours.)
“I’m gonna pop by the house to use mom’s washer, want me to take anything with me?”
Willow brushed a crumb off her bedspread, “Maybe next time.”
Buffy bustled around, putting clothes in large black garbage bags, “Oh yeah- speaking of parents – how did yours take the whole—l”
“ISN’T WEATHER NICE? I LIKE WEATHER! I’M GONNA GO OUT AND SEE WEATHER,” Willow shouted before sprinting out the door.
Which is how she ended up wandering the long shady paths of UC Sunnydale in only an old shirt of Xander’s stolen long ago, a pair of very short running shorts (never once used for running), and some mismatched woolen socks. Hypothetically, she could go back to the room, but she didn’t want to risk running into Buffy. And as far as Willow could tell, she still needed to clean out the space under her bed which was mostly socks and slaying-wardrobe-mishaps. It could take some time before the room was safe.
Though without a key an empty dorm room was just a locked door taunting her with the promise of blankets and pants.
Willow was contemplating curling up in one of the hidden stockrooms over in the theatre department for a nap and some good ol’ soul-searching, when she crash-banged into a woman with long red hair in a slate-gray pantsuit and…
“Willow! Help me pick up these papers, will you?”
And so Willow – in short shorts and no shoes – helped her mother gather up the impressive stack of books and papers her internal monologuing had knocked to the ground.
“What are you doing here?”
“I go here.”
Sheila blinked at her daughter for a moment, “Of course you do.” She looked around confusedly for a minute. “I forgot that Jim was at UC Sunnydale now. You know when you go to the same place every day and just forget that it’s the same place someone else you know is always at, too? I swear I would lose my head if it wasn’t attached. Why aren’t you wearing … um…”
“Do you… do you think we could talk?”
Willow regretted the words the minute they came out of her mouth.
“I mean! N-not if you have a meeting doyouhaveameeting?! I’m so sorry. We can do it another time.”
Sheila shifted the stack of paper and books in her arms and adjusted the handles of what looked like three large totes on her shoulder, “No meeting. Well, just leaving a meeting. I always have time for you, sweetie.”
Willow cleared her throat, reminding herself of the promise she had made to her reflection when she was eight (that was the year she named her reflection ‘Cecelia Davenport’ and pretended that she had very loving and overly-attentive parents who never forgot when it was the weekend or that their daughter was allergic to peanuts) (about six months after deciding Cecelia was the best friend a girl could ask for, her mother gave her an old box of books from the attic and she read Anne of Green Gables for the first time… she never talked to Cecelia again, even if the promises they made each other still carried the same weight they always had) to never, ever get angry at her parents for not remembering that they have a daughter.
Daughters, Willow hypothesized at the ripe old age of eight, must be rather tricky and slippery creatures that all parents lose track of. Just as all other parents sometimes dressed for the beach on the way to a ski resort, or thought that Wednesday was Saturday, or didn’t realize the keys they were looking for were in their hands.
“My car is just over this way.”
Sheila, being Sheila, took Willow’s pantsless, shoeless existence for granted and did not suggest that they go up to the room for her to change. If her daughter wanted to wander about in a t-shirt and wool socks, that was her business and no one else’s. Though once in the car, she kindly suggested Willow grab the extra pair of flats she keeps in the backseat because there’s this new and very cute little café she’s been dying to take Willow to and while wool socks are perfectly appropriate footwear for a college campus, the proprietor may not take too kindly to her shoelessness.
And then she hummed to herself and got lost about three times driving down the same street she always drove down to the same café she always goes to (Willow has been dragged to it at least five times in the past two years alone) and Willow is almost positive that for a portion of that time, Sheila was driving in neutral.
They didn’t die.
They ordered a pot of black tea and scones (rose flavored hunny, can you imagine? Isn’t it novel?) and the waitress didn’t look twice at Willow’s bizarre ensemble.
When the tea pot arrived, and they had waited the appropriate amount of time before pouring according to the mini hourglass sitting amidst the sugar packets, Willow took a deep breath and started.
“Mom? Um… I’d like to tell you something.”
“Is it about your hair? Because you know, I think this style is quite fetching on you. When did you cut it?”
“No. Mom. Listen.” Willow suddenly became hyper-conscious of the fact that they were sitting in their regular spot in their regular tea house and the waitresses were all pretending not to eavesdrop, but they always did so there wasn’t much she could do about that. “I’m gay.”
Sheila reached over and grabbed her hand, a rare and unexpected physical demonstration that startled rather than comforted Willow. “Oh. How lovely for you. Is it lovely? Is it hard? Who is she?”
Willow focused on the question she could answer, “How do you know there’s a she?”
Sheila pursed her lips and sat back in her chair, “You’re my daughter. I know that you like to work through things on your own and in your own time. If you are telling me, it’s either because you’ve known for a very long time – which your obvious nervousness negates – or it’s because there’s a girl and you love her and I think that’s wonderful.”
Willow choked and tried to cover it up by sipping her tea, which burned her tongue of all things.
“Can I meet her?”
Willow stared down into her teacup.
“Can… Would it be okay? I’d love to meet her.”
“Oh so you’d make time between your meetings and your conferences and your clients.” Willow didn’t even have the energy to make it an accusation or a question. She drew out the sentence in halting syllables, letting it fall flat on the low table between them.
“We should have dinner. With your father. I’m sure he’d love to meet her, too.”
Sheila, as usual, was oblivious to her daughter’s anger and was rummaging around in her bag – possibly for the red leather planner that Willow was accustomed to being pulled out with what seemed like the best intentions, but lost or misplaced whenever something important in her life so happened to take place.
Willow stood up. “Thanks for the tea.”
It took a little less than an hour to walk back to her dorm. She knew the way. Once, Sheila had accidentally left her there. Willow had come out of the bathroom to find her mother, the car, and her iced chocolate chai had walked out the door. That was back when her father still had an office on the university’s campus. It wasn’t hard to find her way there, curl up on the sofa behind his desk, and get a ride home from him when his office hours were over.
She had been eleven.
Both parents (presumably) lived to this day believing that Ira had taken Willow to work with him that day intentionally.
It took a little less than five hours for Sheila Rosenberg to locate her daughter’s living quarters and knock on the door.
She was armed with several bags of takeout from various restaurants near campus – which either meant she had gotten lost, forgotten that she already had food in the car, or couldn’t remember what Willow had liked and so had gotten a little bit of everything.
It made the strange and sudden hug that Sheila thrust upon her in the doorway all the more awkward and strangely smelly.
But Willow sagged into her mother’s embrace regardless, wrapping her arms around the taller woman’s waist and smiling into her hair, “How did you even find me?”
Sheila stepped back, holding onto Willow’s shoulders (and potentially allowing grease from what smelled like nachos drip down her shirt), and said rather solemnly, “I’m a bad mother.”
Willow sighed, stepping around her to close the door, taking the bags from her as she did. “No, you’re not.”
“I am,” Sheila said stubbornly, following Willow’s lead as she sat on the floor crosslegged and began opening containers, sniffing them suspiciously. “I shouldn’t be. I read all the books and I talk to people about how to parent for a living. But I’m really not very good at it myself.”
“No. Listen. Did you know that when you were only four months old I set your basket down in a bookstore and an hour later someone brought you back to me? You never cried. You just waited for someone to find you.”
Willow bit into a veggie springroll and hummed sympathetically.
“You’ve heard that story.”
“Everyone’s heard that story.”
Sheila picked at the carpet for a minute, before looking up at her daughter, her eyes shining, “Okay. I know I’ve never told you this one.”
Willow dug into the nachos, knowing that Buffy had a sixth sense about cheese and could at any minute come bursting through the door, demolishing the haul with her Slayer metabolism.
“When you were four years old you liked to play dress up with my clothes. Heels and pearls and the whole thing. One day, you came downstairs wearing one of your dad’s shirts and a tie. You had tied a perfect Windsor knot, just from watching your father do it every day. I tried to ask you how you did it, but you shrugged me off – you were late for a meeting you said. And then you set up your stuffed animals in your room like a conference meeting and gave them a stern lecture over proper teeth-brushing before bed.”
Willow swallowed, “And all of this means…”
“It means that you didn’t need me. It took your dad and I three months of combined brainpower to perfect the Windsor knot. You did it all on your own… like…” Sheila snapped her fingers. “I may have been a better mother to a child that needed me. But Willow, sweetie. I’m still waiting for you to … ask for help.”
“Mom. I always need your help.” Willow cocked her head to the side, “Or at least, I don’t want to not need your help?”
“Okay,” Sheila blinked back tears. “Can you help me? Can you… how do I start?”
Willow gestured to the food in front of her, “This is a good start.”
“Food?!” Sheila looked unbelievably relieved that parenting could be so easy.
“Coming here, being here, asking. … and the food.”
“I’m really late to this.”
Willow nodded, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
“No overblown Disney-level expectations.”
They sat in silence for a long while, eating and thinking. Willow turned on the radio, which elicited amusing reactions from Sheila. She was a closet fan of pop music, like with most things Willow’s mother seemed to forget that she even knew pop music existed until the moment it was playing and then she was like a child at Christmas (or Hannukah).
As they were cleaning up the obscene amount of empty containers – Willow slipping some leftovers in the fridge for Buffy or for later, which ever came first – Sheila broke the relative silence, “Is it scary?”
Willow sat down and leaned against her bed, Sheila scooting over to sit next to her, “I mean. There are scarier things.”
“I guess I mean the relationship. Oz was a big deal. And it took you nearly a year to even mention him at the house.”
Willow considered, “It’s just… not scary? Which is kinda the scariest part?”
Sheila leaned her head down on Willow’s, “I remember when I met your father. We were both in grad school and I … well I had had other boyfriends of course. But there was something about him. He made me feel…”
“Like a whole new set of possibilities.”
“Tara is like that, too. Like I’m learning all sorts of crazy things about myself because I know her.”
“And … maybe some not-so good things. And in-between things.”
Sheila sighed, “That’s a relief. Someone who only lets you see the good in you can’t help you grow.”
“Growing hurts,” Willow pouted.
“Life hurts,” Sheila agreed.
Which was maybe not what movies told you mothers are supposed to say when you are sitting on the floor of your dorm room when you’ve just come out and you maybe are craving chocolate a little bit, but it was what Willow needed to hear.
And she was enough of a child to still listen.
And enough of an adult to know how.
You’re sage motherly advice at work again, she didn’t say.
“Thanks mom,” she did.
“Anytime,” and Sheila meant it.
She always meant it. She just was the kind of person that sometimes forgot what she meant.
Buffy came hurtling through the door right then, she wasn’t the type of person to ever take a doorway at a reasonable pace. Willow felt, now that they were cohabitating, that Buffy was 90% hurricane and 5% girl and 5% sugar.
Buffy sniffed the air, “Food!”
“In the fridge.”
“Sheila you are a goddess,” Buffy crowed, sitting down in front of the fridge and clapping her hands at the leftovers.
Sheila stood up, “Your father may start to notice if I’m not home soon.”
Sheila laughed, “Maybe not. Last month he spent three full days in his office and neither of us noticed. His assistant sent him home with a note pinned to his jacket that I wasn’t supposed to let him leave until he had showered and eaten something that wasn’t vending machine food.” Sheila’s eyes glazed over, “But I had just seen an ad for an independent film showing at the library and we didn’t notice the note until we were leaving.”
Willow shook her head, “Someone pointed it out to you, didn’t they?”
Sheila smiled ruefully, “We are who we are.”
“Love you, mom.”
“See you next week for dinner?”
Four weeks later, Willow left a series of messages on her parent’s phones. Her father’s office. Her mother’s colleagues. Everyone knew that she was bringing her girlfriend over for dinner. And when she arrived home and found them glassily staring at their laptops while dinner burned well… for the first time in her life, she didn’t get mad.
Because they hugged Tara and asked her genuine questions about her major and family and interests.
Because they were worried about Tara liking them and weren’t for a second worried about the fact that Willow was bringing over a girl instead of a guy.
Because at the end of the night, her mom squeezed her and asked her if lesbians wore different kinds of lingerie because her research partner was getting married next month and she had heard somewhere that you bring lingerie to the bachelorette party.
Because in the bag of leftovers there was a note from her dad that said, “Chin up, kiddo!” and it definitely didn’t make her cry.
Because even though she had to forcibly take away their laptops and threaten them with destruction if her parents didn’t take a shower before meeting her girlfriend, they wanted to meet her girlfriend.
And really, it could be a lot worse.