I tented my fingers and squeezed my eyelids shut. “For the last time, it’s juh-juh-gif.”
“Alina,” Paul, my boyfriend of six months began, “It’s widely accepted as gif with a guh sound.”
I let my arms fall to my sides in surrender. His slight smile and the fringe of hair falling down his forehead melted any desire I had to fight against his incorrect claim. He looked especially cute in his white undershirt, with the dishtowel tossed over his shoulder. The creator of the GIF had both the first and final say, as far as I was concerned, but he wasn’t my boyfriend.
My apartment filled with the aroma of garlic and onion as Paul continued chopping in preparation for dinner. He had been planning this dinner with my parents for almost a month, occasionally shouting out recipe ideas to nobody in particular, then darting to the shopping list to note the idea.
Unlike me, who could not pause long enough to jot anything on a shopping list, let alone keep a fridge stocked. He had no idea how to run a board meeting, though.
“Do your parents prefer sparkling, white, or red?”
I raised an eyebrow and tried not to smile. “My parents prefer vodka.”
He nodded, “Right. Yeah, that makes sense.” He reached deep into the back of the freezer to uncover not one, not two, but three different brands of vodka. He held them close to his chest, neck turning red from the cold of the bottles. I pointed to the one on the far right, knowing full well I’d enjoy the remainder anyway.
I shifted on the barstool on the other side of the kitchen island. It squeaked softly.
He looked me up and down, or what he could see above the counter anyway. “Aren’t you going to get dressed?”
I was busy picking through a bowl of trail mix on the kitchen island in search of chocolate candies. I shrugged. “Why? Do I smell?” I lifted my arms to stretch in hopes any strong odor would reach my nose without obvious sniffing. My parents had changed my diapers so there was nothing to do to impress them, but I didn’t want him to think I was smelly.
Paul turned back to the stove, visibly sweating.
“Do you need any help?”
His head shook no but he did not turn away from the stove to be read.
I stood up and padded over in my thick winter socks. I reached past him to the cupboard beside the stove, pulled down one of a hodgepodge of souvenir shot glasses. I twirled behind him toward the freezer, keeping one eye on him as I did. His head did not turn but his eye closest to me began to trace my movements. Now on his other side, I blew out the dust, set down the shot glass, pulled the lid of the vodka bottle we’d chosen in a single -- if revealingly expert -- motion, then filled the glass. “Na Zdorovie!”
He shook his head again, this time with a smirk.
“Go on,” I prodded, swirling the glass beneath his nose as if it offered a tasty smell. Even if it did, it could not win out over what he’d made happen on the stove.
He continued stirring the sauce for his dish, smiling a little too wide. “Babe, I’m trying to make a good impression-”
I tilted my head back and felt the icy liquid slide down my throat. “Me, too,” I assured him as I refilled the glass.
“I don’t think vodka is the best route, is all.”
I nodded, gently lifting the frosty glass toward him again. “How do you think I impressed your parents?”
His eyes lifted toward me without looking away from the stove. “With your wit and grace, of course.”
I tilted my head thoughtfully, shrugged, and knocked back the second, tiny glass. “Fair enough.”
I set down a final, full shot for him, glass frosting with condensation beside the hot stovetop. “If you want to impress my dad, it won’t be with food and wine. Drink.”
“If I get drunk, I’ll burn dinner and throw up on your parents.”
I set the glass down on the counter beside him, shrugged, and headed to the shower.
An hour later, Papa and Mama arrived. They brought the winter chill with them despite the long, indoor trek from the parking garage to our top-floor apartment. Papa shook his gloved hands over the welcome mat, cheeks flush and smiling wide. “Alina, my girl!” he called as if I was across the apartment and not within reach.
Despite my best effort to let this be the Paul show, I reached out for his warm embrace. He held me tight and twisted us both in a wide circle, nearly lifting me off my feet.
“Let me get in here, this hallway is so drafty,” Mama said with a smile. Her embrace was less theatrical but just as warm. She held on as I let go, arms extended, looking me in the eye. “You look skinny. What is he feeding you?”
I smiled and shot a glance to Paul. “It’s not what’s he’s feeding me, it’s that I’m rarely home to eat his incredible food.” My parents’ eyes followed me to the kitchen as they pulled off their outer layers and set them in the appropriate places near the entryway.
In the kitchen, Paul had stopped cooking briefly and turned – sweating and red-faced – to greet my parents. “Hello,” he said with a nod.
“That smells quite delicious. Did you say he was a professional chef?” Mama asked me as if Paul could not answer for himself. I nodded.
“Ah!” Papa all but shouted on seeing the full shot glass. “Good boy!”
Paul looked confused until he watched Papa take down the shot glass with expertise outweighing my own. I winked. Papa immediately refilled the glass and shoved it toward Paul. The movement was aggressive enough to show it was not optional, but not enough to spill a precious drop.
Paul set down the spatula beside the cookstove, wiped his hands on the restaurant-style apron, and took the shot glass into his hand as if it were a Fabergé egg. He pushed it to his lips and slowly tipped it back, eyes and mouth wincing in unison. Once it was surely down his throat, Papa patted him on his back and laughed heartily. He walked back out of the kitchen toward me, oblivious to the coughing fit he had brought on in Paul.
Papa stood in the open space between the living room and kitchen island, surveying. His hands were on his back as he observed the city lights and distant waterfront through the floor-to-ceiling windows. He made a quick circle and peered slightly into the master bedroom and bath, then turned back around to the kitchen. “My Alina, you’ve done so well.”
I smiled, cheeks nearly as red as his. “Another?” I asked, lifting the bottle.
He lifted his hand in protest.
I capped the bottle tightly and set it back in the freezer.
Dinner passed, and not quietly. As usual, Papa was loud and in command. He spoke about his post-retirement obsessions of genealogy and Pickleball. Mama spoke of my brother and his wife. “They have their third on the way." She spoke as if I did not already know.
“Three? Wow! She’s so-” I glanced at Paul to see his reaction. With his hard work consumed and a glass of his favorite red in his hand, he watched me with heavy eyelids. “Fertile.” He did not smile but settled me with a wink.
“Yes, yes,” Mama said, her tone shifting as she quieted.
The silence was long, but not as long as I would have liked.
“Our Alina does not want kids,” Papa added suddenly. He said it as if he were announcing the sky was blue or that water was wet.
Still, I jumped up, making a play to clear the plates. “That’s enough vodka for you, Papa.” With an arm full of dishes, my back turned, and a growing distance between myself and those words, I was able to breathe more easily.
From the sink, I could hear Mama whisper, “Do you want kids, Paul?”
Paul leaned forward conspiratorially, “I want Alina. And who knows, maybe she’ll change her mind-”
I let the plates and bowls clatter in the sink, unconcerned if they broke. The upside to making six figures alone was that I could replace a broken dish without a second thought. My parents had had to glue them together.
“Everything okay?” Paul called out in his evergreen calm.
There was no need for me to look up to know all eyes were on me. Everyone knew how I felt; I’d made it no secret. When I was little, other girls asked Ded Moroz for dolls while she asked for personalized stationery and fountain pens for writing important memos to an imaginary Board of Directors. My stuffed elephant was an especially challenging member of the Board.
He’d only brought a baby doll that cried if you put batteries in it, so I’d made do with dollar store notepads and Bics.
“A word please?” Paul jumped up and sprinted to meet me in the bedroom, closing the door behind me.
He folded his arms and looked confused, “What’s up?”
I threw one on my hip and the other out wide, gesturing to my parents on the other side of the wall. “Seriously? You know I don’t want kids.”
“I do. I’m just giving them some comfort.”
“Are you sure? It sounds like you’re giving yourself some comfort.”
His skin reddened. As usual, the blush started at the top of his ears and sprawled toward his cheeks. “Well, I mean, you might change your mind. Some women do-”
“Not me.” It was my turn to cross my arms.
The air turned suddenly heavy.
“We’ve talked about this,” I added, this time more softly.
He took a single, cautious step forward. Then another.
My eyes dropped away; it was easier to study the dings the movers had put in the antique bedroom dresser than to meet his gaze.
He was close enough now to touch me. “Alina,” he began. When I did not look up, he placed a hand on the side of each arm and squeezed
I looked up, eyes wet. “If you’re not sure, or you’re waiting for me to change my mind, this won’t end well.”
“I knew before I met you how you felt about kids. It’s you I want.”
“You’ll change your mind-”
“I cut ties with my friend of thirty years because he kept calling you a commie.”
A smirk played at the corner of my lips. “I didn’t ask you to do that-”
“I know. But you’re the reason I realized what an idiot he was. There are more important ties than knowing someone for a long time. I realized that after I met you.”
The smirk melted into a wide grin. It was my turn to blush. He smiled on seeing it.
He pulled me into a hug and rested his chin on the top of my head.
“He was an idiot, though.”
His chin tapped my skull as he nodded in agreement. “Everyone knows you’re a born and bred capitalist.”
I leaned back to look into his face in the darkened room without letting go. “So you don’t want kids?”
“I think it would be nice to have that experience but that’s never been my goal. My goal is a life full of good meals and I want to spend it with someone whose absence would make the table feel empty. I felt that tonight.”
My eyes wet once more and I squeezed him tighter.
“Now, if you can’t get to calling it gif with the guh sound, we might have a problem.”
I laughed and released him. “I think I’d rather have a kid.”