“Ready to go, Jen?”
Ray creaked Jenny’s bedroom door open as she squealed in dismay.
“Wait, oh my gosh, one second!”
Jenny was sitting cross-legged on her bed, in a pair of jeans and a Jamestown High School Lacrosse sweatshirt.
Ray then noticed the curly-haired, fresh-faced boy in a Zoom window on her laptop. He was smiling mischievously and mouthing some wry comment, which only Jenny could hear through her ear buds. He reminded Ray of a Disney Channel star, an anodyne corporate model designed to maximize teenage girl lust.
Jenny pinched an ear bud between her fingertips and tensed her jaw.
“Hey, um, you can go to dinner without me. I’m talking with a friend,” she said, her voice steely.
Ray’s cheeks flushed.
“I already made reservations, we have a table for 2 at 7 p.m.”
He wasn’t lying about this; he had made reservations, even though it was a Wednesday night and the restaurant would almost certainly not be crowded.
“Okay, well can you take Mom or something?”
“You want me to take Mom to dinner?” said Ray, repeating the proposal as if it was indecent.
Jenny tossed up her thin arms in exasperation, “Or, I donno, call one of your friends, I’m busy right now...”
“Jenny, I’m offering to take you to dinner. You’re seriously going to bail on me?”
Jenny’s face fell, and for a moment Ray thought she might erupt into tears, the way she used to without warning when she was a toddler.
But then, slowly, a mischievous smile crept across her face - that teenage sense of irony - and she let out a small sigh.
“Fine. Just give me five.”
Ray nodded and excused himself from her room. The cute boy on Jenny’s laptop screen looked to be laughing at him as he left.
Jenny seemed perfectly content not talking in the car, her knees up on the dashboard and arms folded in her sweatshirt while Ray drove. The stretches of silence were painful for Ray, who had a whole gamut of topics he felt he should be providing big brotherly guidance on: her friends at school, her hopes and dreams for college, dating….
He decided to tread lightly.
“So, what kind of music are you and your friend’s into? Betcha it hasn’t changed that much since I was in high school…”
“Oh, mostly hip-hop,” she said.
“Very good, any artists in particular?”
“Hm, well people are really into the Migos’ new album....”
“Hah! Knew it. I’ve been playing Migos since before I could drive.”
By the end of the car ride, he had learned that she played midfield in lacrosse but hated it, that she wanted to major in biology in college, and that most of her friends got their fashion sense from Tik Tok.
When they walked into Nick’s Craft Burger Bar, the host considered both Ray and Jenny together and said, pleasantly, “Can I seat you in a booth?”
Ray had the passing thought that others might think he and his sister were a couple. He hated to admit, he wasn’t entirely unhappy at the facade.
Jenny had left her sweatshirt in the car and was wearing a black tank-top; heads turned at the bar as they were escorted to the booth.
When they were seated and scanned the QR-code menus, Ray decided he could poke a little further.
“So, what’s top of the list for college? Any dream schools?”
“Probably Yale,” said Jenny. “I’m applying early decision.”
Ray nodded sagely, “Good idea, colleges like it when you apply early. That should increase your chances of acceptance.”
Ray figured he deserved to be listened to, even if the only thing his community college experience had done for him was drain his bank account. Jenny said nothing and scanned the menu.
“So, what are you thinking for food?” Ray asked. “See, they’ve got a special Beyond Beef burger, with onion rings...”
“Oh, I’m actually probably getting the Bison Burger. I saw this picture on Instagram earlier, it looked so good.”
Ray blinked, “I thought you were vegetarian?.”
“I’m mostly vegan,” corrected Jenny. “But I had such a hard workout this afternoon, and sometimes you just need a burger, you know?”
Ray shrugged, “Whatever suits ya. I’m probably going for the double-bacon cheeseburger. And to drink - “ He flipped the menu over and scanned the beer list.
“You’re only going to have one, right?” said Jenny, suddenly serious.
Ray flicked his eyes up at her, “Huh? I mean, I don’t have to be up early tomorrow or anything, I’m thinking at least two….”
Jenny put both her hands on the table and said, “Okay, but you’re driving later, so…” She shook her head and stared at him wide-eyed, as if amazed he wasn’t making the connection.
Ray laughed, trying hard to sound amused and not annoyed.
“It’s just two beers. Even if I had to drive right after I’d be fine.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Ted Herrlein crashed his family van after only having two beers. And then UVA found out and revoked his acceptance..”
“Ted Herrlein’s only 17, and kind of an idiot. Jenny, I used to drink a six pack on the drive home from Harrisonburg, I can handle a few craft beers.”
“You drank what?” Jenny said, her eyes wide and alarmed. She looked away, and for the second time that evening Ray thought she might burst into tears.
But when she looked back, she had that familiar wry smile, and simply shook her head.
“You’re so stupid.”
“I’m no Yale graduate, that’s for sure,” said Ray.
The waiter came by, and Ray made a point to order the beer with the highest alcohol content on the menu, as well as an extra cup of ice. Jennie ordered a Diet Coke.
After the drinks arrived, Ray glanced conspiratorially around the bar, then pulled the glass of ice aside and poured out a few dregs of beer..
“This’ll chill you out,” he said, pushing the cup towards Jennie. “Happy summer.”
Jenny didn’t look at the plastic cup, and shook her head, “I told you I can’t drink anymore, lacrosse starts in two weeks.”
“Anymore? So you have drank.”
She shrugged, “I mean, obviously. It’s just not a habit. I personally believe in moderation.”
“You know, in Germany, it’s considered an insult if you don’t drink the beer that’s served to you.”
“How would you know, you’ve never been to Germany?”
Jenny was right; Ray had never been anywhere in Europe. He folded his hands on the table and decided to change the subject.
“So - who was that guy you were talking to on Zoom?”
“Garrett? We’re friends,” said Jenny, her forearms twitching mildly.
“Hm-hm. What’s his deal? Is he your year? What’s he good at?”
“He’s captain of the baseball team. Also, oh my gosh, he’s such a talented singer. Wait, watch this video.”
She tapped around her phone for a moment, then slid it sideways across the table to Ray.
In the video, Garrett - looking mop-haired and dream-boaty - was sitting in front of a piano, the edge of a bed behind him, playing a dirgeful melody. Ray leaned closer to better hear, just as Garrett broke into a bloodless chorus of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.”
He sounded good, in the way of preternaturally talented choir boys or college a capella singers; Ray could see the video, on TikTok, had over 20,000 views.
“Not bad,” said Ray. He took a sip of beer and pushed the phone back across the table.
“Wait, but do you actually think it’s good?” said Jenny.
Ray licked the foam from his top lip and shrugged, “Sure.”
She pulled the phone off the table, looking slightly injured.
“Everyone thinks he’s going to be a star. He’s applying to Berklee next year.”
“Berkeley in California?”
“No, the music school.”
Ray was struggling to think of an analogue to Garrett from his own high school years; he must not have crossed paths with the baseball-playing musical prodigies.
He took another chug of beer, and tapped his hand on the table to a rap song that had just come on over the restaurant loudspeakers.
“So are you guys - dating, friends…”
“Just friends,” said Jenny, shaking her head solemnly, as if she dared not give voice to whatever hopes she harbored.
Ray nodded; he wondered if she might follow-up with any questions of her own, perhaps show some effort to push the conversation forward. But she was seemingly still lost in the Garrett fantasy, staring off across the restaurant and drumming her fingers on the table.
He decided to chill in the silence for a bit; he sunk back into the booth, holding the beer near to him and taking hearty draughts while Jenny began to play with her phone.
After a minute, just as Jenny looked up and frowned at Ray, the waiter came by with the burgers.
Jenny’s bison burger was gorgeous, with blue cheese, bacon, frizzled onions and mushrooms happily peeking out from under a steaming pretzel bun.
“Yours looks better,” muttered Ray, considering his plain double-cheeseburger. He then turned to the waiter, “Another Goose Island IPA, please.”
Jenny popped a sweet potato fry into her mouth and considered Ray’s burger.
“Well, yours is bigger.”
Ray was disappointed, too, by his burger’s taste; the double-beef patties were almost overwhelmingly salty. He gratefully accepted the new beer as it arrived from the server.
“Hm, wow,” said Jenny, putting a hand over her mouth and nodding with appreciation at her first bite.
“Liking your bison burger?” asked Ray, narrowing his eyes.
“Hm, yeah. The blue cheese really pulls it together.”
Ecology had never been Ray’s strong suit, but he was fairly certain bison was an endangered species.
He thought back to when Jenny first declared vegetarianism, at age 14; the whole family had lauded and immediately kow-towed to her decision. Taco Tuesday became Tofu Tuesday, seitan burgers went on the grill on the 4th of July, and Jenny was given ample room to speak her piece on the dire effects of meat consumption at any and every family gathering.
Unhappily chewing on a french fry, he pushed the cup of beer he had poured earlier closer to Jenny.
“Drink up, Jen, there are sober kids in Africa.”
She shook her head, holding her hefty burger with a dainty but firm grip. “You know I’m not going to.”
This was Jenny’s problem, thought Ray. She was so rigid; her life had no room for, well, life. How was she ever going to be successful - really successful - if she didn’t learn to enjoy the moment?
Ray ate another unsatisfactory bite of his burger, licked his fingers, then watched Jenny closely as she leaned over her plate, mouth full.
He waited until she had put the burger down before pulling her plate away.
With food still in her mouth, she shrugged dramatically, as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’
“I want you to drink your beer,” said Ray. “I’m paying for this meal with my hard-earned money, and you’re being very rude by not drinking what I serve you.”
Jenny swallowed, and looked at him for a moment as if to discern whether he was being serious.
“Stop being weird.”
Ray pulled the plate closer towards him until it was teetering on the edge of the table. “Drink up, or no more dinner.”
She scoffed, “Ray, what are you doing.”
“I’m teaching you manners. Evidently Mom and Dad never bothered.”
He took a long drink of his own beer and smacked his lips.
“Hm, yeah that’s refreshing. See, I’m trying to help you loosen up, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Jenny reached for the plate; Ray slid sideways, dodging her hand. She looked around the restaurant, as if gauging who might be watching and how much of a dive for the plate she’d be willing to make.
He moved his forearm to shield the plate, “Gotta drink for your dinner, Jen. What, is your lacrosse coach gonna blood test you?”
“No, I just don’t want to.”
“Oh? You’ve already been drinking this summer, there’s probably less beer in that cup than in a Bud Light can...”
“I don’t care, I don’t want to drink it.”
“You think you’ll fail the SATs? Think the cops will bust in, you’ll get a citation and you won’t be able to apply to Yale? Oh -” He gasped dramatically, gripping her plate of food tighter. “Or you think Mom will find out and she won’t let you go to Germany for graduation?”
“I don’t want your depressing beer,” said Jenny, her voice lilting sharply upward.
Ray felt eyes in the restaurant turn towards him; the same man on the barstool who had been checking Jenny out turned all the way around and glared.
He felt himself get red.
“Well, I hope you’re full,” he said, and placed the plate on the seat next to him.
Jenny laughed incredulously, “Oh my gosh, Ray.”
Ray sniffed, straightened his back and proceeded to tuck back into his own burger. He took frequent swigs of his beer to wash down the overwhelmingly salty flavor.
After a moment, he looked up to see that Jenny was crying, her hair tossed about her face.
He sniffed, “It’s not like you’re starving.”
She shook her head and wiped her eyes. After Ray had another bite, he noticed her reach out for the small plastic cup of beer.
He put his burger down and watched with satisfaction as she raised the cup.
“You’ll give my food back?” she asked, tears in her eyes.
Jenny tilted her head and started drinking, slowly at first, then quickly chugging. The beer was gone within seconds.
She slammed the plastic cup down; it was nearly weightless without liquid, and toppled over, rolling towards the edge of the table before stopping and rocking back-and-forth.
Ray gave a golf clap, “There you go! See, that wasn’t so bad...Now you’re nice and relaxed…”
He lifted the plate of food from the seat next to him; a fry fell between the table and the seat.
Jenny pulled the plate as soon she could reach; more frys fell on the table.
“Easy, don’t waste food…”
Jenny didn’t look at him as she dug into her burger. He watched her, somewhat impressed by her heartiness; he imagined she might be great fun at a college party one day.
Jenny didn’t talk to Ray the rest of dinner, or on the drive home; little had changed from before, as far as Ray was concerned.
And besides, he thought, he had given her a free dinner, in addition to a well-needed attitude adjustment; one day she might realize his sagacity. After arriving home, they branched to their respective bedrooms - Ray to the basement, Jenny to her trophy-adorned, book-filled, pillow-covered fortress - and Ray managed to finally finish a job application he had procrastinated on for days.
Later in the evening, to reward himself for submitting the application, Ray went to the kitchen for a snack.
He pulled out a box of Toaster Strudels from the freezer, and rummaged around the box’s contents; he could feel only one strudel in the box, and no frosting packet.
He cursed under his breath. Someone had been double-dipping, taking two frosting packets for one strudel.
He slipped the final strudel into the grease-laden toaster oven anyway, and flapped open a crumpled front page of The Washington Post, still left on the counter from that morning.
He heard a pattering coming down the hallway; Jenny emerged into the kitchen. She looked like she had brushed her hair, which fell naturally and voluminously to her shoulders.
Her cheeks were slightly red-rimmed at their peaks; otherwise, there was no sign she had been crying.
“Hey,” she said, her voice even. She went to the refrigerator; Ray hoped she was looking for the Toaster Strudel. Instead, she opened the refrigerator door and pulled out a red stainless steel water bottle, which their mom had given her for Christmas.
He watched her take a long sip, giving a satisfied gasp as she let the bottle down.
She turned towards him and - in a firm, gracious voice - said, “Thank you for paying for dinner tonight.”
Ray shrugged, and turned the front page of the newspaper, making an effort to find an article to read. Some white guy in a bowtie was saying the Delta variant was going to be worse...
Jenny cleared her throat, and added, “I hope next time we can have a more civil meal, though.”
“Next time?” said Ray, his voice keening. He looked up from the paper, with wild eyes, and pointed a finger at Jenny. “You doubled-up the frosting packets on the Toaster Strudel, didn’t you?”
“There’s one strudel and no frosting left. I told you…” He banged his fist on the table. “To just use one frosting per strudel. The box comes with six strudels, and six frostings. You can’t double-up…”
“Ray, I didn’t….”
“Don’t lie! Stop lying!” he shouted. He looked at her with fury, his breathing ragged; she looked back, confused and guileless.
He wondered, suddenly, how he might fit into the grand story of her life. She would probably turn him into a character in a killer college essay, make it a part of her protagonist narrative - how she overcame an abusive, jealous brother to become valedictorian of her class, captain of the lacrosse team, Mom’s favorite….This lying, greedy, bison-eating, double-frosting fake of a sister…
He stood up from the kitchen table, shaking his head sadly, as if regarding a lost cause.
“You can take yourself out for burgers next time, Jenny. I’m never going out with you again.”