Every Christmas, I would only recognize about three-fourths of the people in my grandmother’s house.
Most of my family members that lived there in the town of West Cliff chose to bring guests to Christmas dinner, most of which were people who couldn’t afford anything extravagant or didn’t have family to spend Christmas with. Usually they ended up being some of the most interesting people that I could’ve never met otherwise.
Last Christmas, I met two women that my aunt Tesla had brought. She had met them while working her shift at Wishing Wells, the tiny—but bustling—thrift shop a couple blocks down from Nana’s house. They hadn’t had much money and were ranting to each other about not being able to afford a quality Christmas dinner while paying for a couple dresses for some New Years day party. When Aunt Tesla had heard that, she invited them to join us. That small gesture led to the two ladies becoming best friends with my aunt.
Two Christmases ago, my cousin Britney brought a whole Muslim family of four over for dinner. Apparently, she hadn’t told them it was Christmas dinner and was going to try to convert them without them being aware of it, so they just left almost immediately after entering. She was pretty upset that her “plan” failed and complained about it throughout the entire night.
As I crossed through the front doorway, the smell of roasting turkey wafting in from the adjacent kitchen slapped me in the face. I glanced around the foyer, trying to place a name to each person’s face. Per usual, there was a copious amount of people that were unrecognizable.
By the entrance to the kitchen stood the two ladies from last Christmas—now noticeably less malnourished-looking than before—using wild hand gestures while chatting away with my aunt Tesla and her fiancé, Roger. In front of the fireplace was my one-year-older cousin Gage, conversing with some guy I didn’t recognize. He was a bit taller than my five-foot-nine cousin, and his blonde hair swooped perfectly over his tiny forehead.
Uncle Byron was right beside me, putting in his two cents about the results of the election in a conversation with a lively elderly couple, and walking in through the doorway behind me was my cousin, Rosie. A man’s arm was draped around her shoulders, and I assumed him to be her new boyfriend. A few months ago, when I had emailed her to see how her junior year of college was going, she wrote a whole two paragraphs about her “Australian model boyfriend”. She spilled all about him and the trips he’s taken her on. I was glad she was finally happy, mostly because earlier last year, she was engaged to this intelligent and dedicated physics student. He broke off the engagement after about five months, saying he needed to focus on his studies in order for himself to reach his full academic potential. But just a week later, after walking into the campus library, she caught him locking lips with a freshman psychology student.
“Nicki!” she shrieked, enveloping me in a tight embrace. Even though you shouldn’t choose favorites, Rosie was, without a doubt, one of my favorite cousins; she was never one to participate in family arguments or share her opinions very much—if any—making her extremely easy to get along with. The only somewhat-annoying thing about her was her pep; at first glance, it was blatantly apparent that she had been a cheerleader all throughout adolescence.
I stepped back to analyze her new boyfriend. Although I wasn’t sure if I completely convinced that he was a model or not, I did conclude that he was somewhat attractive in an extremely unique way—kind of like Rosie, who wasn’t a standard “model” type beauty, but was gorgeous enough to make you do a double take if you just normally passed her on the street or in the grocery store.
Rosie and her boyfriend had the same raven locks and tan skin, which made them somewhat look like brother and sister. Enter Gage, Rosie’s little brother, and they’d all definitely be mistaken as siblings.
Rosie displayed her pearly whites in a wide, Rosie-trademarked smile. “Nicki, this is my boyfriend that I told you about—Lane. Lane, my cousin Nicki.”
Lane extended a large hand for me. When I reached out, he grabbed mine and gave it a tight shake, aching a bit when he let go. “Nice to meet you, Nicki.”
“Yeah. You too.”
“Well, okay!” Rosie exclaimed, clapping her hands. “I’m going to go help in the kitchen. But first, I need to introduce Lane to Uncle Tom. Where is he?”
Because I was shorter than everyone else—at the whopping height of five foot three—I stood up on my tiptoes, attempting to catch a glimpse of my uncle, who would surely already be drunk by now. Like usual, Tom was in front of the television, watching a pre-recorded basketball game with a beer in hand, two more sitting on coasters on top the coffee table in front of him for easy access.
“TV,” I replied, pointing over towards the roaring television. Rosie thanked me by nodding and elbowed her way through an array of family members and strangers, Lane following behind her like a lost little puppy. It was still hard for me to process that in just a few weeks, I’d be living in this very town, alongside my family members that crowded the inside of this house.
West Cliff was so different than New York City, where I lived. It was toward the west, across the whole country, and was significantly less urban. Everyone in the town seemed to know everyone, a reason why I was terrified of moving there in the course of the next month. It was a small enough town that a new household would definitely bring attention, something I’ve always tried to avoid as much as possible.
Nana hadn’t been doing too well; her health had been gradually declining after the sudden death of my grandfather about two years back. My father decided it was his duty as one of her two sons to uproot the two of us and move here to West Cliff to aid in the care for her. We all had a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that she wouldn’t be here much longer.
None of our family members knew about the move yet, not even Nana. We just closed on a house last week: a cozy two-story ranch-style just a couple of streets over from Nana’s. I liked this new house better than our current tiny apartment, but in my mind, this town didn’t compare to the one that was truly home to me.
Yeah, we had family here, unlike in New York, but we constantly saw them. My father was a successful businessman and made a good amount of money due to the long hours he’d work; two round-trip tickets to West Cliff were something he’d buy on impulse when he had a hankering to see his humongous family. But besides the money used for family trips, he was wise with it, storing the rest of it away for emergencies and my future college tuition instead of buying a new car or television that we honestly didn’t need.
My father laid a soft hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to go look for Nana. You okay for a minute?”
When I nodded, he said, “Go find Reagan or Gage. I’ll be back in a minute.”
He knew that those two were the cousins I was closest to. There was a smaller age gap between me and them than anyone else. Reagan was probably one of the funniest people I ever had the pleasure of knowing, and Gage and I just easily got along with one another. Because of our eight month age difference, we bonded easily, and he was like the older brother I never had—or like the sibling I never had, since I was an only child.
I made my way across the living room to the place I had seen Gage before. He stood against the fireplace, his hands forced into his front jean pockets, deep in conversation with the blonde guy beside him.
His face lit up when he saw me. “Is that Nicki I see? I barely recognized you without your hair the same color as your face,” he teased, giving me a quick one-arm hug.
“Yeah, it’s me.” I smiled and placed my hands in the large pocket of my Lifeguard sweatshirt that Tesla had sent me from Wishing Wells last summer. Since the last time I’d seen him, I had cut some straight-across bangs and dyed my naturally-platinum-hair a pretty shade of gold that, in my opinion, fit my complexion much better—a topic that my father and I would disagree on until the day that either of us died.
“I like it.” He poked my hair that had taken me over half an hour to curl. “But I think you should’ve gone with dark green. Or salmon pink. One day, you have to learn to go big or go home and stop playing it safe like you usually do.”
I stuck my tongue out in disgust; we both knew I was the last person who could pull off edgy colors like that.
The guy beside Gage fake-coughed loudly and nudged him, a gentle reminder that he was here, too.
“Oh yeah!” Gage said, pointing toward him. “This is Brady. Brady, Nicki.”
Brady nodded his greeting and I smiled back. He was dressed in a blue and white plaid shirt that wasn’t tucked into his khakis, something that would look sloppy anywhere else. He was still the most dressed up person here. My whole family wasn’t much into formal attire; the most dressed up Watson family member was Reagan, who was wearing black leggings and a neon oversized sweater. Sweatpants, jeans, t-shirts, and hoodies made up the rest of the Watson family attire.
“Brady’s a senior, too,” Gage went on, an eyebrow raised. “Meaning that we’re too cool to be socializing with a junior like you.”
“Definitely. Because the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of you is cool,” I said sarcastically.
“I know you aren’t talking. I still have your seventh grade yearbook picture. Bright red braces, thick glasses. I’m sure everyone would enjoy seeing that.”
“Bring that out and the trampoline video is making a reappearance.” Back when Gage was going through his angsty teen phase three or four years back, he tried to be rebellious and cool, wearing flat-bill hats and jeans with no belt. Ruby was my savior when she was recording a video of him jumping on the trampoline for a little homemade movie she was making for our grandparents’ anniversary, and she caught what may be the best footage ever recorded. Gage jumped a bit too high—off came his hat, displaying the worst hat-hair I had ever seen, and down went his pants, giving the camera a great view of his dinosaur underwear. It was the best blackmail material.
Gage’s face turned more red than my seventh grade braces. “No, Nicki, please don’t—”
“That’s what I thought. Well, nice talking to you guys,” I said to Gage and Brady, “but I’m going to go look for some other family members I haven’t seen in a while.” Making my way toward the middle of the living room, I turned around to wave to the both of them and ran straight into Reagan, who was carrying a large tray of bread baskets filled with delicious-smelling rolls and small ramekins of butter.
“You know, I’d be pissed off if it was anyone but you,” she said, trying to balance the rolls on one hand, but failing, forcing her to use both. “I almost dropped, what is, in my opinion, the main course—without a doubt, the most important part of our meal.”
With a laugh, I replied, “You can’t have Christmas dinner without rolls.”
“You almost ruined our entire Christmas, Nicki!” she yelled back, walking slowly toward the kitchen to keep her balance.
Two couches and many wooden kitchen chairs were arranged around the television, the volume set up to deafen. The only available seat was right next to Uncle Tom, which was not preferred, as I could see four empty beer bottles scattered around his bare feet, and it was not even six o’clock. Reluctantly, I sat down, scooting as far away from him as I could without crossing into the personal space of the little girl I didn’t recognize on the other side of me.
No one got more involved in basketball games than a drunk Uncle Tom; he’d yell the whole entire time, causing his seat neighbors’ ears to ring for hours after. When he was really sloppy drunk, he had a strange tendency to spit towards people. A lot.
Whenever a ref made a call he didn’t agree with, he’d spit. Whenever someone would get too close to him to handle, he’d spit. When there was no apparent reason for him to be agitated, he’d spit. Unfortunately, my seat was in the splash zone, so I ended up crossing into the girl’s personal space just to stay a safe distance away from him before he’d become angry—and drunk—enough.
It was just easier to accept his insanity instead of questioning it. And usually, it’d be pretty entertaining. For a while, at least.
When I grew tired of his drunken interjections, I decided to make a round around the kitchen to talk to the family members that I hadn’t seen yet.
The kitchen was absolutely crammed full of people. Trying to find someone to talk to, I glanced across the room and found my father and Nana sitting at the small kitchen table, Dad talking lively with his hands. Nana didn’t say anything, but just displayed a humongous smile across her face. That smile brightened noticeably when she laid her eyes on me.
“Nicki! Oh my, don’t you look gorgeous!” she squealed, touching my face with her shaky hands as I gave her a peck on the cheek. “So grown up! How old are you now? Fifteen? Sixteen?”
“Sixteen,” I smiled, crossing my slender arms. “I’ll be seventeen in March.”
Nana shook her head dramatically. “No, no, no. We can’t have that!” I noticed her dark pink lipstick stained her front teeth. “You’re getting too old on me.”
Whenever I’d first see my Nana after arriving in West Cliff, she’d say almost the exact same thing every time. She’d comment on my growth and age, as if she could persuade me to stop aging altogether.
I was quite close to my grandmother, mostly because she was the only grandparent I got to see on a somewhat-normal basis; I didn’t ever see my mother’s parents after the accident. It upset me sometimes, knowing that we weren’t really a part of each other’s lives, but the first few meetings after were just straight-up uncomfortable for all of us. Since then, they hadn’t really made much of an effort to see me or my father. At first, it really hurt my feelings, but I had grown pretty used to it, as sad as that is.
I just smiled back, allowing her to gush over my hair that, as she said, made me look “at least ten years older”, for about another five minutes, until Aunt Tesla yelled out the two words that excites everyone on Christmas:
“Pass the rolls, please,” I said, poking Gage in the elbow. He nodded and handed the woven basket containing the rolls down to me.
At Christmas dinner, most of the cousins sat on one side of the table, and the aunts, uncles, and Nana would sit on the other. Every Christmas, I sat beside Gage. It was practically tradition. This year, Brady sat on the other side of him.
“They smell heavenly, don’t they?” Reagan asked me as she passed the plate of butter to me.
The rolls smelled just like garlic bread, definitely a heavenly scent. I nodded to Reagan, taking in another whiff of it before cutting it open and smothering it in butter. Unfortunately, it smelled better than it tasted.
“Everyone?” I heard my dad call out. As I looked down the table, he stood up, a glass of red wine perched in one hand. We exchanged a glance, and my stomach flipped as I knew just what he was about to say. I willed him not to, but his brown eyes returned a blank, expressionless glare.
Most of the family members and guests looks up to him, but some kept conversing. Like usual, that wasn’t enough for my father. Because of the businessman in him, he constantly needed all the eyes in the room centered squarely on him.
“Everyone?” he repeated much louder this time, grabbing the attention of every person in the dinning room. “I have an announcement to make. Nicki and I,” he held out a hand toward me and everyone shifted their gaze, “have been wrestling with this decision for a long while now.”
Please, I thought, almost laughing out loud at this. We both knew I didn’t have a say in the matter.
“We’ve decided that we are moving out of New York, and back here to West Cliff, our true home.”
His true home. I rolled my eyes discreetly.
Everyone clapped and cheered, the family members around him trying to pull him into a hug.
“Really, Uncle Nate?” Lily, my eleven-year-old cousin, asked my dad. “Have you guys found a house yet?”
“Yes,” Dad said, loud enough for not just her, but everyone to hear. “We’ve already bought one just two streets over from Nana’s.”
More cheering. I felt nauseous—nauseous enough to bring that disgusting roll back up. Not like I wanted to taste it again.
Earlier, since the news hadn’t been revealed to the universe, it hadn’t felt official, like we weren’t definitely moving; it could just be a slight possibility. But now that he told everyone, it was more like a definite decision. We were packing up and traveling across the country, no doubt about it.
Gage nudged me with his elbow. “Do you know what school you’re going to?”
West Cliff was a small enough town to only need one public school. In the larger town about forty-five minutes away, Monraville, there were just two private schools. When my father had told me about the move, I had wanted to attend one of the private schools over in Monraville, but my father wouldn’t allow it. “West Cliff High School,” I mumbled, almost unsure of whether it was loud enough for him to hear it or not.
“That’s where we go,” Gage said, pointing to himself and Brady. “But I doubt you’ll see us very often.”
“Why? Isn’t it a really small school?”
“Yeah, but remember, we’re too cool for you,” he answered as he poured a disastrous amount of gravy onto his turkey.
“Two words: trampoline video.”
“I’m just kidding,” he said, trying to cover up his tracks. “We’ll be in senior classes. You won’t.”
I shrugged. “Actually, I’m in advanced classes. So, with some luck, we’ll probably have the same schedule or something.”
“Don’t even say that. You’ll probably jinx it or something. I do not want my little cousin following me around all day. Do you know what that would do with my popularity?” he said with a laugh, almost choking on a mouthful of turkey. “But if I decide to be generous, I might allow you to sit with us at lunch. If you’re lucky.”