“Say the word, and we’ll leave.”
My stomach lurches with each bend on the road. Outside the window, the world was black with night. My reflection stares back at me in the glass, and the lights from the dash casts an eerie blue light throughout the vehicle. The weight of the crockpot warmed my lap, and I grip onto the sides to steady myself and prevent it spilling.
“I’ll be okay,” I say. “I’m not sure how many more Christmas’ we’ll have anyway.”
“Great Grandma Charlotte still has years left, and if anyone could get your Aunt Jude to shut it, it's her,” Mom says. “Jude may be stuck up higher than a light pole, but Grandma has the hickory bush right by the firepit. She’ll set her straight.”
I smile, but don’t respond. We come around a bend on the mountain, and my Aunt Pamela’s house comes into view, with the plastic swing set and Fifth Wheel camper parked out front. Around another bend, Grandma Charlotte's brick house comes into view. The building glows like Olympus, situated atop the only mountainside void of trees and looking out across the field on the other side of the road. Lights reach across the hill, illuminating the winding drive. Nearly two dozen cars parked off the drive, perpendicular to the paved path. It snakes up the hill to the main house, like the ribs of a snake.
Each year I wonder how we are able to fit as many vehicles as people, with cousins marrying and bringing more bodies and cars and food and presents to Christmas Eve. Each year our car works its way up the hill, and backs into the same spot next to the swing set. Boxes rattle in the back as he leaves the paved drive and sink into the grass, and Mom scolds my dad, as if he had any control of the movement of the presents. We clammer out of the car; my parents going straight to the back and my brother and I carrying our load inside.
I stick close with my brother, hoping to hide in the shadows of his greetings as we bring the food in, but reaching the patio we are met with a queue of people, Aunts and cousins with heavy boxes and casserole dishes waiting to enter the patio. The smell of ham and bread and potatoes escapes from the kitchen, and my stomach rumbles again, empty save for the coffee and toast I had midmorning. Laughter follows the smell of the feast, and I hear Aunt Jude’s voice in the patio grasping for a conversation from the people arriving. Under the awning, picnic tables were set up with citronella lamps and relatives making conversation. Boy cousins race up the red-clay hill next to the house, and Uncles toss rocks at them.
“Watch for snakes,” Someone exclaims from the queue, and the younger boys hop off the wall, leaving the oldest to reach the treeline. Cheers erupts from the adults, and the younger boys groan in defeat. The queue moves forward, and we reach the patio where Aunt Jude waits to greet my brother and I.
“Ah, well call me silly, but I wasn’t expecting you, Charlotte,” Aunt Jude says when she sees me. “Listen, I’m sorry you took offense to what I said the other day, but-”
“Please call me Charlie,” I say, and enter the kitchen without another word. Light fills the room, casting away any shadow despite the crowd all conversing at once. I follow behind in the wake my brother leaves, and watch him shake hands as he balances a pile of presents in his arms.
“Do y’all got it all?” Aunt Cindy says from the kitchen table. I nod, but she stands without another word and makes her way out to the patio. “Here, I’ll go help your Mama.” A few Aunts stand, and march out to the car, yelling about our arrival to the rest of the crowd. My brother disappears into the den, leaving me in the kitchen. After situating the crockpot of potroast in the corner with the other slow cookers, each filled with meats and pastas and dips, a head of curly blond hair comes around the corner and I let out a breath at the sight of Madeline, my first and closest cousin, only a handful of months older than myself.
“I’m surprised you came,” she says. “I figured you’d go to your dad’s family this year.”
“That’s tomorrow. We always do Christmas Eve at Grandmas.” I take her in, and chuckle at the sequin reindeer on her shirt, strobing light across the room as she walks out with me. “I couldn’t leave you all alone this year.”
“That’s why you’re my favorite,” She says and sneers down at her shirt, and I notice the glitter on her eyelids. “Perhaps Mom will let me wear what I want, seeing how Aunt Reece lets you do whatever.”
I don’t respond as we pass through the patio once again. Jude’s gaze follows me as she continues her conversation, and I exit without a sound.
“I didn’t have the confidence to do whatever until I came out to them,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets. A procession of people pass, each carrying a box or bag or casserole dish. The car slams closed as we approach, and Mom claps her hands together. She, too, is already counting the minutes till it is appropriate to go home. At the sight of us, she embraces Madeline and pulls back to admire the shimmering shirt.
“Oh, hon, you’ll love this,” Mom says, pulling a rolled up plastic package from her back pocket. “Cindy got each of us one.” She manages the plastic open, and displays a green shirt with white vinyl instructions on how to make brussels sprouts. I looked between her and the shirt, unimpressed.
“Everyone got a shirt with the recipe for brussels sprouts on it?”
“Don’t be smart, everyone has a recipe shirt. Didn’t you see Cindy wearing hers? It has the recipe for the hashbrown casserole on it.”
“You brought five dishes, Reece,” Madeline chimes in. “Do you have the other four shirts in the car?”
“If so, can I get one?” I say, pointing to myself. “I helped cook and I did all the cleaning.”
Mom crumpled the shirt up, and gave me a pointed look. I had grown above her this past year, and she raised a brow. “Are you hurting to be included by everyone?”
No, I thought for a moment, the comment hitting closer than I anticipated. I laughed and shook my head, dismissing the thought, but my chest aches slightly at the knowledge of never being fully accepted into the wide range of people inside. So many different personalities, and I’m the one who sticks out. Yes. I do.
“I don’t think I ever will.”
Cheers erupted, pulling the attention off me and to the firepit. Flames licked the air, reaching above the heads of all the Uncles. Madeline and Mom make their way inside, leaving me alone to watch Uncle Daniel be clapped on the back. I imagined walking over there to the boys, rubbing my hands together before shoving them in my pockets like my cousin Stephen. They chatted about the season, about the hunting rifle 15-year-old Cody is getting for Christmas, and the price of diesel and how much it costs to simply go into town. I mess my hair, recently cut short and picture sliding into the circle around the fire.
I will never fit in with them. Despite the lean height I’ve gained this year, the men tower above me and their booming voices echoed against the hill. They talk of hunting and trucks, neither of which I’m familiar with.
Inside, Aunt Jude gives up on greeting me, allowing me to slip inside and to the back of the house unnoticed. A line forms in the kitchen, with Grandma Charlotte in the front. The prayer begins as I close the back room door behind me, cutting the blessing off.
The familiar room welcomed me like a hug. The air thinned to a breathable level, and the presence of the two people did not push against me the way most did. Madeline lounges against the sideboard of the trundle bed, patting the space beside her. I sidle up next to her and watch as she scrolls through Instagram. A small smile forces its way onto my face as I get comfortable next to her. If for no other reason, I’m grateful I came and am able to spend time with her. Her presence fit next to me, even when I didn’t fit with anyone else.
“You gonna say hi?” says the second presence, one I didn’t pay much mind to. Grace stares at me through the mirror, and when I meet her gaze she resumes inspecting her eyeshadow.
“Hi,” I say, giving an expression of apathetic confusion. “Since when do you wear makeup?”
“Since when did you stop wearing makeup?” She says. “When you decided to be a boy?”
“I’m not a boy,” I say. I crumple into myself, and Madeline feels my weight against her. The air thickens once again, and my chest tightens. The weighless relief I felt a moment ago dissipates, and I no longer feel like a part of the room. “I just don’t like makeup.”
“Maybe you should learn to match your shade before you start wearing makeup, Grace. At least Charlie knew how to do winged eyeliner.” Madeline continues her scrolling, and speaks without looking up. Grace’s mouth snaps shut, and she closes the mascara wand. I smile a little, and Grace gets up to leave.
“You’re a jerk,” she says, and Aunt Pamela is on the other side of the door when it opens. Her tight lips and beady eyes bear down on my younger cousin, and I watch her shrink.
“What did I just hear?” She says. Her arms cross and she tilts her head, the look threatening underneath the bright recipe shirt with Marble Cookies titled across her chest. “I was coming to get y’all for food, but you, Annie Grace, can wait till the girls are done. Madeline, Charlotte, it's the kids turn for food.” Madeline looks at me, and I don’t correct her. The aching in my chest returned, the two blows landing in rapid succession but I pasted a smile on and left the room with Madeline. The hallway seemed to tunnel forward, extending farther and farther with each step I took. I focus on the end, on the light of the kitchen and the laughter coming from the kitchen table. With each step, I fight against the words digging into my chest.
Till the girls are done.
If I spent the entire evening correcting my name, to people who’ve known me every Christmas since birth, for 17 years, who have known me as Charlotte, the first little girl from my mom, I’d never leave. I’d never get a chance to breathe. Our family is as endless as the trees surrounding us, and it's as if we were a puzzle constantly churning out new pieces to add. Maybe my piece came out a little wonky. I excuse them all, though, knowing they could never understand. I may not be a boy, but I will never feel like a girl.
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Oh good descriptions of a chaotic, and self-interested family! Some fav lines 'Her presence fit next to me, even when I didn’t fit with anyone else.' ...as if we were a puzzle constantly churning out new pieces to add. Maybe my piece came out a little wonky.