I hesitated for a moment at the front door. Should I knock? Ring the bell? Just walk in?
Ugh, I was being stupid. I’ve walked through this same forest green door a million times. The sounds of laughter, music, and shouting were already echoing through the house. No one would even hear the doorbell if I did ring it, but once everyone found out that I’d rung the doorbell to my own house… well, no one inside would let me live that down.
I swallowed hard. Looking over at my companion, I forced what I hoped passed for a smile onto my face, “Welcome to casa de Livingston, brace yourself.”
Kyle laughed but it didn’t sound as natural as normal. “After you, Deedee.”
My parents had been going through a Motown phase when I was born so I was named after Diana Ross. When I told Kyle that story for the first time, I sang I’m Coming Out for him, to which he replied that he thought it sounded vaguely familiar. Since Diana Ross had been a pillar of my youth, I was slightly dumbstruck at his lack of recognition. I’d always been the music influencer with my friends but with Kyle it was on a whole new level.
He thought I was a musical genius. I thought that was adorable. Which leads us to now.
Grabbing the door handle, I pushed in to reveal the small carpeted foyer. Boots littered the floor, so we bent to remove our own.
Squealing was the only warning I had before I was gathered into a big bear hug from behind.
“Oh, I missed you so much! A whole semester is too long!” The warm sing-songy tones washed through me and the knot in my stomach began to lessen.
“I missed you too, mama.” I awkwardly reached around my back to hug her.
“And it’s so nice to meet you! You must be Kyle.” My mom pounced on him before she was even done talking. Kyle hugged her back and I released a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
“It’s really nice to meet you too, Mrs. Livingston.”
“Oh wow, what a nice deep bass voice. And please call me Laura. But man, I wanna hear you sing O Holy Night, wouldn’t that be lovely Diana?”
Although I shouldn’t have been surprised that music would come up this quickly, it still caught me off-guard.
“Mom!” I hissed, “we talked about this.”
My mom stared blankly back at me.
I sighed and shot an apologetic look at my new boyfriend. “Kyle’s not musically inclined...”
“Oh that!” Pivoting her attention to Kyle, she continued, “We’d never force you to play anything, kiddo, I just meant singing.”
“Singing counts mom!”
My mom’s eyes went big but before she could respond, my dad rounded the corner humming Do You Hear What I Hear.
“Ah! You guys have arrived. Great!” My dad pecked me on the cheek in greeting. “You must be Kyle, nice to meet you.”
They shook hands and Kyle returned the greeting.
“Man, you’re tall. Would you come in here and help us with the star? We’re just about finished with the tree.”
“Of course, I’d be happy to.”
I watched the tension leave Kyle’s shoulders as my dad ushered them off into the house.
“Ya know, most people think they can’t sing, but it’s just because they haven’t really given it a shot.” I’d just awoken my mom’s vocal coach instincts but it was unlikely she’d be alone in her thinking. Almost everyone in my family was seriously musical. Could my family handle me dating someone who didn’t have a musical bone in his body?
I had to swallow down a burst of protective anger for Kyle, and shook my head, “just please don’t make him sing. He’s nervous enough just meeting all of you for the first time.”
“Okay, okay.” We followed my dad and Kyle into the living room, but under her breath she mumbled “are you sure he’s the one that’s nervous?”
Ignoring my mom’s retort, I scanned the room. In attendance were all my siblings, Grandma Sue, and Aunt Trinity with her brood. It was 15 people in total and the small room felt cozy to the point of bursting.
My brother Tommy had the guitar out and was noodling along to my cousin, Larissa’s, piano rendition of The Christmas Song while most of the rest of the family sang along.
The tree was a festive explosion of ornaments in all shapes and sizes. Multicolored strands of lights danced through the boughs and the spicy sweet scent of gingerbread cookies wafted from the kitchen. The sounds, smells, and sights were all so familiar and yet the ease I normally felt at Christmas gatherings was missing.
I found Kyle chatting casually with my dad and younger sister, Naomi, on the couch.
“-and when I saw her walk into my Psych class that first week and I knew I had to say something to her. So I followed her to lunch afterwards and made some comment about ‘an apple a day’ as I stood behind her in line and was grateful when she smiled and laughed-”
Kyle was telling our fabricated “how we met” story and my family was eating it up. We’d decided that telling our parents how we actually met - through a dating app - felt wrong, whereas lying felt… slightly less wrong.
“-and after lunch I asked if I could take her out to the movies for a real date.”
“Ohh, how adorably boring. And what movie did you see on your first date?” Naomi’s eyes sparkled with mischief and I deeply regretted telling her our real origin story.
I was fairly confident that a ‘Netflix and chill’ booty call wouldn’t go over well with my dad, but I couldn’t come up with an answer.
Instead, my mutinous mind just kept replaying our first night together on that couch. His warm hands caressing me. The light brush of his lips. The delicious weight of his body. Between the couch, his body, and the blankets, I had been lost in a magical world that existed only for the two of us.
Was it any wonder that I couldn’t remember what we’d watched that night? Not to mention that if - by some miracle - I could remember what we watched, it still wouldn’t line up with Kyle’s story.
My ears felt hot. I looked over at Larissa on the piano pretending that I hadn’t heard the question. Time seemed to grind painfully to a halt.
Kyle’s voice broke through my rising panic and I turned back to look at him, “Ummm, it was that all-female remake of Anchorman.”
I laid my hand on his knee and willed him to understand just how grateful I was for the save. He laced his fingers through mine and squeezed gently. He knew.
“But I’m not sure I remember much of it. I think I was too worried about how sweaty my hands were the whole movie,” and Kyle lifted up our interlaced hands to provide a visual to the group.
Aunt Trinity’s youngest daughter Samantha had scooted across the carpet to get in close enough to hear the story and started laughing uncontrollably between bursts of “sweaty hands!”
It was contagious and we all started laughing. Kyle knew an out when he saw one.
“And I kept rubbing them against my legs to dry them off but then I started to worry that by the end of the movie it would look like I’d peed my pants!”
Samantha exploded into a laughing fit that had her gasping for air.
Kyle was killing it and when the hilarity began to subside, he redirected the conversation to even safer ground.
“What’s your favorite movie? I’m Kyle by the way.”
Samantha was gazing up at Kyle as if he was the only one in the room. I knew the feeling.
Her soft soprano voice sounded demure but I knew from experience that she was a talented little actress, “I’m Samantha but everyone calls me Sammy.” She looked down at her lap and fiddled with her fingers. “You can call me Sammy too, if you want.”
“Sounds good, Sammy.” She looked up and beamed. Kyle returned the smile and my heart skipped a beat. I don’t know if I’d ever get used to his smile. When Kyle smiled it changed his whole face, and despite him being very good-looking to start with, when he smiled… he was literally stunning. “So what’s your favorite movie?”
“I don’t like princess movies anymore, cuz I’m not a baby... but I still like the songs. But my favorite movie right now is Silk Road. I like the part when the Mongol girl steals a horse and then meets that the guy who sells rugs and then he hides her from the bad guys. I know all the songs by heart. Do you know the song How Much Further?”
“I don’t know it, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay, I can sing it for you some time.” She hadn’t taken her eyes off Kyle the whole time, “will you sing Jingle Bells with me, Kyle?”
In childlike fashion, her request came out of nowhere and I struggled to intercept the response, “oh, oh, Sammy, I… uh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” but my dad drowned out my attempt to decline on Kyle’s behalf.
“What a great idea, we’ll start the Christmas karaoke. Laura, would you grab the eggnog, and we’ll get everyone loosened up?”
My dad winked at the end of his statement.
Tommy whooped, put his guitar down, and began pulling out the karaoke mic stand which he set-up next to the Christmas tree like a makeshift stage.
Kyle leaned over to me and whispered, “you have a karaoke mic stand with an iPad?”
I grimaced, “Were you expecting anything less? It also AirPlays the music to the house stereo system.”
Kyle looked around like a deer in the headlights. He graciously accepted a cup of eggnog that my mom had begun handing out and drained the glass in two swigs. Then a crease formed between his brows and he dipped his head to my ear, “I think your mom forgot the brandy.”
“Yeah, ‘bout that… my family has a rule where we don’t serve booze til after dinner. So this is the kid-friendly version.”
“Why did your dad say it would loosen us up?”
“He thinks he’s being funny.”
It was Kyle’s turn to grimace, “I see…”
Tommy swapped the amp from his guitar to the mic and suddenly we were wired for sound.
“Come on…” Samantha grabbed Kyle’s hand and pulled him off the couch.
Kyle’s eyes pleaded with my own and I mouthed I’m sorry as Kyle was marched off towards the stage. I had no control here, I couldn’t even properly warn my mom.
Samantha cued up the lyrics for Jingle Bells on the iPad with the confidence of a modern 8 year old. And soon the tinkling of bells filled the house.
Samantha pulled herself up tall and soaked up the attention directed at her. Kyle had gotten down on his knees to match her height at the mic but was practically hiding behind her. A bright soubrette soprano voice lilted into the lyrics “dashing through the snow.” She looked back to frown at Kyle who was not singing along but instead mouthing the words and her tone dipped dangerously on “sleigh.” She tapped the iPad pausing the music.
“You have to sing along,” she reproached. Her tone was somewhere between a pout and a command.
Kyle nodded and said, “Right, but I don’t know the words and you were doing such a good job, I thought I’d just let you keep going.”
“You don’t know the words to Jingle Bells?” She put her hands on her hips, clearly unconvinced.
Kyle’s smile was appropriately self-deprecating. “I’m not good at remembering the words to songs.”
Samantha huffed. “The words in songs are called lyrics and they’re right there on the screen.”
“Oh, right. See, you’re so much better at this. I should just let you finish up the song.”
“No, we’ll start over and this time... you sing too,” and with that, there was nothing left to argue.
The familiar sound of bells started up and as Samantha’s voice tinkled alongside the bells, Kyle sucked in a breath and stuttered through the first line, “d-dashing through the-” quick inhale, “s-snow.” The next couple lines went just about as well as the first.
Kyle had a natural magnetism, and in small groups he was the life of the party. You’d never guess that he had stage fright. But the proof was right there before us all, stuttering and sucking air through quite possibly the easiest Christmas song in existence. Coupled with his musical ineptitude, the sight was jarring.
I started chewing the inside of my cheek. It was painful to watch. The cat was officially out of the bag. Kyle couldn’t sing and might actually be tone-deaf. How would my parents react? Would they shoo us out of the house? Would they act nice to him until he left and then demand I break up with him? Every part of me wanted to look away, but my body wouldn’t let me.
It didn’t take long for Samantha to notice, which was no surprise. My mom and Aunt Trinity were both voice teachers and had grown up singing under the tutelage of my Grandma Sue. Singing was in our blood. My mom was infamous in our family for the phrase If you can speak, you can sing. But she had never met Kyle.
Samantha rounded on him, “You have to sing it riightt.” Her voice was getting whiny. I recognized the warning signs of a meltdown and knew I had to do something.
Jumping up, I said, “oh, I have an idea!” and raced to the mic stand.
I spoke into the mic, “sorry for the interruption, we will resume our Christmas karaoke shortly.”
The room was watching in rapt attention as if this was the best entertainment they’d had all year. Vultures. The lot of them.
Turning to focus on Samantha, I went for plan A.
“So Sammy, why don’t I sing Jingle Bells with you instead, and Kyle can go sit down?”
“Nooo,” the whining was higher pitched this time. Right. Plan B.
“Okay, okay. What if you and I sing, and Kyle rings the jingle bells?”
Samantha just glared back at me. Plan C.
“You like Jingle Bell Rock, right?”
“Well, you and I can sing and then I’ll point at the screen when Kyle can come in on specific words. So we’ll sing ‘jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell-” and then Kyle sings ‘rock’. That way he doesn’t need to know all the words. How’s that sound?”
“Patronizing but I’m grateful,” Kyle said with a shaky laugh.
Samantha looked up at two of us like she was trying to sleuth out some deception. “I don’t think that’ll sound good.”
“It’s not about sounding perfect,” I argued, “it’s about having fun all together. Let’s take a crack at it, okay?”
My entourage looked less than enthused, but they both nodded.
So for a third time, we started up the karaoke app and music filled the house but this time the sound of a jazzy electric guitar reverberated through the halls before those signature bells joined the fray.
Samantha and I sang in unison as we slid into a smooth timbre that was playful with just a bit of attitude. As we finished the third “jingle bell,” I pointed at the screen and Kyle joined in to sing “rock” in his deep rumbling voice.
The weight of his voice mixing with our mezzo soprano performance could have been amazing if he was anywhere near on key, which he was not. Within the next line, I had him chiming in on “swing” and “ring,” and despite his abject failure to hit the right notes, he was smiling. My breath caught and my next note went slightly sharp. It was his full faced smile that always made me forget myself.
A slow smile spread across my face. He always was more resilient than me. I felt an ease come over me that I hadn’t felt all day.
I leaned into the next couple lines with more of a crooner vibe. Samantha flowed seamlessly into a harmony with me and soon we were all snapping along to our quirky patchwork interpretation of Jingle Bell Rock.
It was quite a show.
We received a few shouts for “encore” to which Kyle and I politely declined.
My body tingled and it felt like a permanent grin had taken up residence on my face. I giggled and dragged Kyle into the kitchen where we began gobbling down freshly baked gingerbread cookies as we watched Naomi crush a convincingly Elvis Presley-ish rendition of Blue Christmas.
I leaned against Kyle as we stood at the kitchen island. He laced his arms around me and dropped his head to my ear, “you are a sexy musical genius, you know that, right?”
I giggled again and was sure I would have floated up to the ceiling if I hadn’t been enfolded in his arms.
“And you are a trooper, Kyle Sanderson.”
“I’m a keeper?”
“What?” I spun around in his arms and his lopsided grin told me he was intentionally misinterpreting my words, but as I looked into his dark chocolate eyes, I knew he was right.
He had just navigated the musical gauntlet that was my family and came out smiling. I wanted this man. In bed. Out of bed. By my side. Forever.
I pushed up to my tiptoes and kissed him thoroughly, hoping that my kiss could speak the words that I wasn’t yet ready to say.
He was a keeper.