Martín bounced on the balls of his vans-clad feet, watching the precarious way his younger primo balanced the glass platter of chocolate chip cookies on top of his head. As the small boy rounded the corner into the kitchen, Martín imagined him tripping over his own shoelaces, or knocking his shoulder into the wall. The platter would shatter outwards, and hours of baking the mysteriously misshapen cookies would be for nothing. He started walking forwards, was about to snatch the platter from out of his grip when somebody grabbed his shoulder and pulled him in for a hug.
“Martín! How are you? I saw your new photos on Instagram; that picture of the waves crashing off the wharf? Amazing.”
The woman pulled away from him, and he could feel the stiffness of her curls against his cheek. “Oh really?” he said distractedly. He tried spotting his little primo again, but he was long gone. Martín turned back to the woman, his older prima Lucía. “How are you? Is your dad coming?”
Lucía smiled, shaking her head. “Wow, you really cut to the chase, huh? Didn’t you just see him yesterday?”
Martín felt his face go warm. He scratched the skin around his eyebrow piercings. “Yeah, I did. Sorry. Really, how are you? I haven’t seen you since, well,” he thought back to the last time there was a holiday, running her face along the catalogue of people in his head who’d been there.
“Since the fourth of July, primo. Remember, the fireworks in the backyard with the neighbor?” Lucía nodded her head towards the plate of cookies in her hands. “We’ll catch up later. I have to go set these down, okay?” She took a step forward. “I’m sure my dad will be here soon, and then you two can geek out about lenses or lighting or whatever.”
Martín stepped aside to let her walk past him, a heavy uneasiness settling in his stomach. He wished all he had planned was geeking out, or dreaming of the best locations to photograph. They always joked about capturing the world in photos together, in a Miyagi/Daniel duo fashion. Him and his tío both agreed that they worked better together.
He breathed deep, exhaling the nerves that lingered in his lungs, then headed towards the sound of talking in the living room. His apartment was perfect for him and his boyfriend, which made squeezing his twenty-something family members into the building challenging. He’d tried placing folding chairs in the small free space between the couch and the recliner, but still people stood in corners, sat on one another’s laps, or leaned against the railing on the balcony. He wove his way through sets of feet, stopping to hug everybody- tíos, tías, primos, primas, a few sobrinos and sobrinas and, of course, his abuelita. She was a woman difficult not to love; five feet of power and wit sharper than her meat knives. She grabbed onto his forearm, keeping him from standing up straight.
“Mijo, mira que guapo eres.”
“Gracia—oh,” he sucked in his stomach as she gave it a pat, nodding her head approvingly.
“Comes bien? Dime, cuales galletas son tuyos?” she asked, craning her head up to look him in the eyes.
The noise around them swelled as Tía Risa told a story about a crazy client, so Martín leaned in closer, talking to his abuelita in her ear. “Las unas con el glaseado naranjo.” He’d created cookies that looked like fall leaves, and thought he had enough food coloring to make a few red and yellow. When he’d gotten back from the store, he discovered all he had were leftover colors from Halloween; purple, green, and a neon orange.
His abuelita smiled. “Pensé que fueras un artista, no?”
Martín choked back a laugh. “Prefiero cuando el arte ya está hecho.” He looked around at the people in the room, then at the people out on the balcony. “Está aquí Tío Ramón?”
She shrugged. “Nadie me dice nada.”
Martín gave her a pat on the shoulder, then stood up straight again, backtracking his way out of the living room and into the kitchen. The square island counter was covered in the caloric monstrosity of cookies, some covered with cling wrap, others in tin foil or plastic containers. He set to work organizing them on the small space, distracting himself with guessing who made what. The perfectly round sugar cookies were definitely the work of his Tía Carmen, and the goblin-like oatmeal mounds were probably his Tía Risa’s. When they were all in their place, Martín felt like pulling out his camera to document a job well done. He tilted a plate diagonally and was about to join the group again when he felt a clap on his shoulder.
“Mijo, how are you?”
Martín’s blood jumped in his veins as he recognized his Tío Ramón’s gritty voice. He let himself be pulled into a hug, then bent down to hug his Tía Gabrielle. He took the plate of cookies from her hand, hesitantly piling the dish on the cookies he’d just organized.
“Everybody’s in the room, if you want to go and say hi.” Martín gestured to the muffled clamor.
Tía Gabrielle rubbed her hands together. “Have they decided who’s going to be the judges for the cookie contest? Your abuelita, of course, but I think we need one of the kids to judge too.” She walked through the hallway, clutching the thick strap of her purse.
Tío Ramón shook his head. “She was trying out a new recipe, some lemon chocolate cookie, and messed up the batter. If you ask me, a kid’s gonna be a lot less polite when judging a cookie than an adult.” He shrugged. “Then again, with this family, nothing goes unsaid.” He began walking towards the rest of the family, but Martín grabbed the side of his tío’s arm, stopping him.
“Wait. There’s something I need to tell you.”
His tío turned around. His eyebrows were pulled together in concentration; something Martín had seen a million times when they were out on the water taking pictures together. “What’s the matter, mijo?”
“Nothing, it’s just…” Martín bit the side of his cheek. He wished he could think what he wanted to say and send them to his tío brain without having to say a word. “Let’s sit down,” he said, pulling the stools from out under the countertop. His tío sat on his left, their arms almost touching in the close space. He didn’t know how to start, didn’t know how to navigate his words around the knot of guilt and trepidation clogging his esophagus.
“Did something happen with you and Mando?” His tío asked, his voice low.
Martín smiled. He was the only tío that asked him about his boyfriend and wanted an answer beyond “good.” It made what he’d kept from him even more painful. “No, me and Mando are fine. Great, really.” He took a deep breath. “It’s about photography.”
Tío Ramón straightened his back in surprise, leaning his weight against his left elbow. “Oh?”
Martín nodded. “I’ve been meaning to tell you for a while. Besides my mom and dad, and Mando of course, nobody else knows. But a few weeks ago, I—”
“Tío Martín!” A little girl rushed into the kitchen, clasping both her hands in the crook of his elbow. “When are we going to eat the cookies? Tía Gabrielle made me a judge!”
He smiled down at the little girl, the daughter of one of his older primos. “Soon. I just need to talk to Tío Ramón right now.”
She groaned. “But you guys see each other like every day. Can’t you talk to him later?”
Tío Ramón chuckled. “If you let us talk, I’ll let you have two of Tía Gabrielle’s cookies.” She crinkled her nose, unconvinced. “Fine, I’ll give you my cookie from your abuelita.” She smiled, pleased, and ran off. Tío Ramón shook his head. “Tough crowd.”
Martín shrugged. “I probably would have done the same thing.”
They laughed, and after a few prods at Tía Gabrielle’s poor track record with baked goods, they finally settled down. Tío Ramón bumped Martín with his shoulder, glancing over at him. “Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong, mijo?”
Martín’s heart dropped, making him inhale to compensate for the empty space. “I’m just, well, I feel bad.” He waited for his tío to ask why, but he stayed silent, waiting. Martín sighed. “I got offered a job to document life in the Appalachian Mountains. I’ll be gone for a while. At least half a year.”
Tío Ramón turned his head to look at him. “That’s great news! I’m proud of you!”
Martín smiled briefly, tried not feeling too good about it. “Thanks.”
“How come you don’t celebrate? Tell everybody?”
He shrugged. “I just… everything that I do now, I owe to you. I mean, my dad didn’t know anything about taking pictures; it was you who bought me my first disposable camera, and most of the ones after that. I guess I just wish I could take you with me.” He ran the pad of his thumb over his nose piercing. “I mean, this is kind of your dream, isn’t it?”
Tío Ramón shifted so his knees pointed towards Martín, the denim pant worn thin and faded at the joint. “Maybe twenty years ago, Martín. But dreams change. Mine did when my brother had a kid with a better eye for a shot than I did. Don’t feel sorry for me,” Tío Ramón said. He smiled. “Besides, I’d just slow you down. I’ve been spending too much time behind a store counter; my muscles would probably burn out the first day. Just take a few pics for me, huh?”
Relief washed over Martín, dissolving the knot in his throat and the ache in his stomach. “Yeah, of course.” He exhaled heavily, looking towards the slew of cookies. “I guess we should start tasting some of those, huh?”
Tío Ramón stood from his stool and rushed over to a plate of cookies, lifting the cling wrap from the plastic plate. “Don’t tell anyone I took one of my mom’s cookies, eh?” He opened wide, shoving a whole Mexican wedding cookie in his mouth.
Martín laughed, shaking his head. He got up, slower. “It’s gonna cost you, viejo.”
His tío raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Cost? Come on, my favorite wouldn’t do this to me.”
“Favorite?” a feminine voice echoed around the corner, followed by his prima Lucía. “He’s not even your son—oh!” she gasped, pointing at Tío Ramón’s powdered lips. “You ate one of abuelita’s cookies! She’s gonna be so mad—” Lucía ran out of the room, Tío Ramón in pursuit.
“Hey! Wait, you’re my favorite, mija!”
Martín rested his hips against the countertop, content. As he listened to the drama unfold in the room next to him, he wondered how he’d made the photography situation such a big deal in his head. He mulled it over and realized he didn’t actually think his tío would be angry. He was just a little nervous about doing something so big without him there. His tío’s words echoed in his ears; don’t feel sorry for me. Just take a few pics for me, huh?
Martín smiled, then headed into his and Mando’s room to grab his camera. Who knew when he’d see his family again, and who knew when they’d be all in one place? Best take some pictures now, so he could look back on them when he was on the road.