Julian pulls up to my parents’ half red brick and half beige stucco, two-story house with the charcoal scalloped roof and bright white window frames. He parks directly across from their newly painted burgundy door. Before the holidays, Ma wanted a change from the previous off-white one, so Pop did it. It matches the brick well.
There’s only one other vehicle parked in the street, farther down the road. During the warmer months and around holidays, the street could be covered in parked vehicles. My parents’ driveway is long. The detached garage sits several feet away from the house, and they rarely park in it. It’s full of outdoor items like lawn chairs, Pop’s tools, the grill, and shelves of old paint cans and various items that don’t belong in the house. It’s more for storage than anything else. Pop’s been talking about getting a shed, but he hasn’t yet. And when us kids were in our teens, there was talk about converting it into an apartment, but that never happened.
The driveway has just enough room for one more car behind Ma’s and Pop’s, but Julian wants to save that space for my sister Izzie and her family, since my nephew is merely seven months old.
“No one else is here yet,” he says while stepping out of his black SUV.
No one being my sister, her family, and my brother, Enzo. That’s it. Just nine of us today, including the baby. It’s usually just us for Sunday dinners and those small holidays that don’t include out-of-state guests, like Memorial and Labor Days, or even summer cookouts. Today’s gathering should be bigger. No, it should be grand. Family from all over. It’s Pop’s sixtieth birthday. That’s a significant one.
I open my door and slide off the SUV’s black leather seat onto the narrow strip of grass between the street and sidewalk. I’m short. Only five two, so sliding is a way of life sometimes. I pull the lapels of my white winter coat closer around my neck, immediately wishing I’d convinced myself to bring my scarf and hat, but I figured I’d go from apartment to car to house. Did I really need it?
The frigid air smells like snow and immediately turns the tip of Julian’s nose pink. There’s been a severe dip in temperature since yesterday. It’s at least ten degrees colder today. The grass crunches beneath my boots, and the gray sky is so pale, it almost appears white. The sidewalk has that icy top sheen like in the early morning after a night of freezing temps. It looks as if crushed diamonds were mixed in with the concrete before it was poured. Mother Nature is having her own celebration tonight. A nor ‘easter. The first major snowstorm of the new year. The weather people predict we’ll get a foot to eighteen inches, and it’s scheduled to begin around eight p.m. This is why Pop’s sixtieth has been reduced to only immediate family. He doesn’t mind. He’s not a frills and fuss kinda guy. Ma, however, does mind. She loves a good party.
I grab the present wrapped in bright yellow paper with a large white bow from the back seat and push the door shut with my elbow. It took me over a month to figure out what to get Pop. It’s from Julian and me. My idea. Julian’s funds. He insisted, and I didn’t argue because I want this day to be special for my father. As much as he, my brother, and brother-in-law watch sports on Sundays, Pop’s private passion is old detective series. So we got him DVDs of all seasons of his faves, a trifecta of testosterone-laden private eyes—Columbo, Barnaby Jones, and Kojak. I’d much rather spend Sunday dinners listening to chatter about fictional murders than sports commentators drone on about defense tackles and end zones.
A car speeds by, a dog down the road barks, and a small group of kids play in their yard, several houses away. This was normally a moderately loud street while growing up. Nothing’s changed.
Julian and I walk up the driveway a few feet and then turn onto the curved pathway leading to three short steps to the stoop. I kick any dirt off my boots on the black Welcome mat. A quick twist of the wrist while clutching the freezing doorknob, and we step into warmth and happiness.
The house smells like coffee and varying underlying scents, like garlic and onions from past meals. They always permeate the walls and furnishings. The house’s eau de cologne. And not in a stale stench-like way. They conjure up family laughter over pasta dinners and cooking alongside Ma while she hums show tunes. Comfort. Home. Love.
Julian shuts the door behind him and helps me out of my coat, while I smile at the decorations my siblings and I hung around midnight. We wanted to wait until Pop was asleep so it would be a surprise. With Ma’s permission of course. We snuck in and taped a large gold banner saying Happy 60th Birthday, over the fireplace. We stood on dining room table chairs to twist yellow and navy blue streamers from each corner of the ceiling, crossing around the chandelier, over the table. Luckily Ma had gone upstairs and couldn’t scold us for standing on her recently reupholstered furniture. Enzo had forgotten to bring his step stool, and we didn’t want to risk waking Pop by rummaging around for his in the garage. He likely wouldn’t have heard since their bedroom is on the opposite side of the second floor, but it was easier to simply grab a chair just in case.
Next, we blew up and taped three dozen yellow and navy balloons throughout the entire first floor, even adding two in the half bath. We didn’t love the color combination, but they were Pop’s faves, so that was a no-brainer. Then we slid out in the wee hours of the morning and went home to crash. Unfortunately this meant we didn’t get to see his face when he came down at seven sharp this morning—his daily wake up time regardless of if it’s a workday, day off, or vacation. That’s okay. Knowing he was happily surprised is good enough.
Now Pop appears at the end of the narrow hall, in the kitchen doorway. His enormous grin is everything I expect and makes my heart swell. I shove the present toward Julian, who takes it without question, and go to my father.
We embrace in a big squishy hug, and I whisper in his ear, “Happy birthday, Pop.”
Thoughts of not seeing his face light up when he came down this morning completely fade away. This is all that matters.
When we pull away, his eyes are misty. “Your mother told me it was the three of you who did last night. You didn’t have to.”
I scoff and wave away his words. He doesn’t like anyone going out of their way for him, but there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my folks or my siblings, especially celebrating their existence.
“Of course we did,” I say and kiss his cheek. “You do so much for everyone else. You deserve this.”
Actually more, but I don’t have a million dollar retirement plan in the meticulously wrapped gift.
Julian meets us and extends his hand. “Happy birthday, Pop.”
Instead of shaking though, Pop opens his arms, and I take the present from my boyfriend just in time before it becomes sandwiched between them.
Now it’s my turn to grin wide enough to show my molars.
It’s been a year and almost a half since Julian moved to South Shore Beach. Well, he basically followed me when I left Connecticut, which is where he and I met and lived together for a short time. My folks, especially Ma, instantly liked him and immediately welcomed him as family. They believe in hugs and kisses and showing our emotions as much as verbally acknowledging them. And while they may not have loved every ex my siblings and I introduced them to, they’ve treated them all warmly. Julian is as close to being a Mancini as my sister’s husband Paulie is. The only difference between the two men is that Paulie and Izzie have a piece of paper legally connecting them and my folks have known Paulie longer, and Julian and I simply have an unspoken promise toward the future. I’d bet that Ma and Pop love both men the same though.
Heels softly click clack on the stairs, and Ma turns the corner in a red dress, her dark hair full around her face, lipstick that matches her dress perfectly, and small gold hoop earrings that are shrouded by her hair but catch the light as she moves.
We do another round of hugs, and when I pull back, Ma admires my outfit. She cups my chin and says, “You look so pretty. Is this new?”
I beam at the compliment because A. it makes me feel good, and B. this feels like a happy, loving, sunshiny day. Despite the weather forecast.
I glance down at my recently purchased white, leaf green, indigo, and burnt orange floral, long- sleeve, wrap dress. It almost meets the top of my also new burnt orange knee-high boots, and only a glimpse of my navy tights show. I couldn’t find them in indigo to match the dress, so navy was the closest.
“Yes,” I answer Ma. “I decided to splurge since it’s a special day. Where should I put this?” I ask about the gift.
Ma takes it from me and turns toward the living room. “I’m about to make a new pot of coffee. Your siblings should be here any moment,” she shouts.
I turn back to Pop, and the three of us walk into the kitchen. “So how does sixty feel?”
He softly chuckles. “Not any different from fifty-nine. How is work, Julian?”
Clearly he doesn’t want to talk about his age. That’s fine. Ten years ago, I thought sixty was ancient. Now that I’m closer to thirty, I know it’s not as old as it sounds. Plus, old is more of a mental space, and no one has to park there.
“It’s going well. I’m back full time at the law firm,” Julian says.
Pop nods because he knows this. I’ve kept him and Ma in the loop about how Julian is no longer taking clients at his private PI agency and only investigating for his boss, Mr. Hamilton. They don’t know that Julian is also a fixer for said boss and sometimes has to do things he’s not fond of. Like driving an unconscious young woman to the ER for alcohol poisoning because a senator’s privileged, entitled son who she was partying with can’t afford to have his name in the paper. Again. Some of what Julian does is disgusting, but he doesn’t judge. And other times, he’s truly helping people. He loves that part.
But since this work isn’t exactly legal, my family will never know about it, not even Izzie, whom I confide most things to. I don’t know how my parents would feel about it, but my brother is a cop, and he’d be obligated to turn Julian in. It would be a messy situation easily remedied by leaving everyone in the dark.
“So you’re out of the office space you rented?” Pop asks as Julian and I sit at the kitchen table, on the other side of the kitchen and across from the living room archway.
The entire room is fairly large, but with the way two walnut wood cabinets stick out into the middle of the floor, from the left of the sink—forming an island—it basically divides the space in half. If those cabinets didn’t exist, though, there’d be a lot less countertop to use, and when my folks cook, they do so in large quantities. The extra space is needed.
“Technically I’m still renting it,” Julian says. “The lease doesn’t expire for a couple of months.”
I smile at my boyfriend, happy with how at ease he is around my family. Plus, he looks exceptionally yummy today in a steel gray suit that brings out the natural tan in his complexion and the iciness of his gray eyes. He’s been growing out a small goatee, and it looks particularly neat today.
Pop turns on the sink and fills the coffee carafe. “That’s a shame.”
Ma steps into the room and says to me, “Is it though? Maybe you and Izzie can take it over like you mentioned.”
“Maybe,” I say, not sure what we’re doing.
We’ve been discussing starting our own business, and we’ve narrowed it down to becoming PR consultants, which I know nothing about, and dog walkers-slash-sitters, which sounds easy enough, but no matter how much I love animals, I’m more of a cat person. No offence to the adorable doggos in the world, but with Izzie taking my nephew along during business hours, I’m not sure if the latter is a good choice. Plus, in times like today, do I really want to be out in the elements while some pooch takes care of his business?
Since we’re leaning toward PR consultants, Julian’s office space, which is directly across the street from our family deli and the apartment above it, where I live, would work perfectly. Yeah, now that I give it another thought, the dogs will have to walk themselves.
Guess I’m gonna have to learn how to do public relations.
In the meantime, I’m back working a shift at the deli. It’s not ideal, but it’s home and allowed me to save enough to buy today’s outfit. There are worse things I can do besides coming home smelling like salami and having mayo in my cuticles. At least it’s moisturizing.
Ma walks over to relieve Pop of coffee duty, and he goes to the fridge to rummage around. Neither of them are fond of sitting and doing nothing. Sometimes I wonder if I’m adopted, because I love both of those things.
But I also like being a good daughter, so I ask, “Do you need me to help with anything?”
It’s weird how there aren’t any pots on the stove, the oven light isn’t on, and I don’t smell the feast we’re going to eat today. We are going to eat today, right?
I nearly laugh and risk everyone turning to see why I’m chuckling at my inner thoughts. Who am I kidding? We are the Mancinis. An Italian-American family that specializes in cooking too much, sometimes overeating, and telling every stray who walks past the house to grab a plate. Okay, so I’m exaggerating on the last bit, but if a stranger stopped by to deliver something, Ma would ask if they’d like a bite.
The original plan, before the weather people predicted the nor’ easter, was to start preparing a feast at the beginning of the week. The guest list originally included all of us plus my new friend, Fiona, Ma’s friend Winnie, and Enzo’s partner, Detective Sanchez, and his family. Come to find out he’s married and has a couple of kids. Ma also extended the invites to her sister, Aunt Angela in Connecticut, and her family, and Pop’s side, which consists of his sister, Aunt Lucy in New Jersey, and her family, and a stray second cousin from Pennsylvania who’s beyond odd. Something about eating her hair. While Ma’s side tends to be more persnickety, Pop’s side has their fair share of eccentricities.
It’s just as well news of the big storm surfaced too. Ma would’ve been in her element with a full house, but Pop prefers smaller crowds. Like just his kids and their offspring and significant others. And this is his day.
“What are we having today?” I ask.
Ma and Pop exchange glances and sneaky half -smiles, so my curiosity is piqued, but before I get an answer, the front door opens.
A cold gust of wind travels through the house and wraps around my shoulders, followed by my niece, Alice, then my sister, holding their gift, and Paulie holding my nephew, in the baby carrier.
Ma and Pop go to greet them. Julian and I stay put. There’s no sense in a stampede in the foyer. They’ll make their way through.
Julian squeezes my fingers then brings them to his mouth for a quick kiss. We’ve been through a lot lately. Julian was accused of killing his boss’s law partner. He was arrested, and there was a good chance he’d be convicted. Luckily he was released after I stumbled upon the actual killer. This happened less than a handful of months ago, so we’ve vowed to make every moment special. And getting a second to absorb each other is precious.
I lean my chin on his shoulder and whisper, “I love you.”
He places a hand on his chest, widens his eyes, and gasps. “Little ole me?”
I laugh, trying to not draw attention because I want to keep our moments to ourselves.
“You’re a goofball.” I push myself farther against him and kiss his mouth.
“Then we’re perfect together,” he says.
He’s right. We are. Maybe not perfect. There’s no such thing, and I’m glad for that. It sounds exhausting. But we fit like two puzzle pieces—and not the fussy middle ones. A corner and an edge. Simple. Relaxed.
When Izzie and the rest of her family step into the living room, Julian and I get up and go over. My niece’s long, straight blonde hair smells like cotton candy, and she’s officially two inches taller than me, which puts her at the same height as her mother. It’s possible she’ll grow taller than Izzie. Not a big deal to most women, but my sister has a thing about being short, and she’s always been the tallest female in the family. Not anymore.
Alice looks super pretty in a pale pink sweater, a gray, white, and red plaid tartan A-line skirt with white tights, and a pair of fur-lined gray booties. I wouldn’t think to pair pink with red, but the top is so light it’s practically white and the three skirt colors blend to where the red is softened. She carries a backpack that almost matches her skirt, and I want to know when my niece developed her own style.
Izzie appears simple and elegant in a navy sweater dress and black boots. Her brown hair is back in a low ponytail, and she’s not wearing a single piece of jewelry other than her wedding set. Since when does she not wear earrings at least?
Paulie is all wide smiles and hearty hugs. He has this young boy look to him. I think it’s his smooth, hairless face and slightly chubby cheeks. I’ve never seen him sport a moustache or any chin hair. He’s a paramedic, so maybe there’s a facial hair rule? He chose to wear black pants and a hunter green sweater.
Somehow my nephew is asleep but stirring. They only live on the other side of town, but this boy loves being lulled to sleep by car rides. Izzie has probably spent more time driving in the last seven months than she has at home.
I don’t get to give him a smooch though, because as I’m leaning over, Izzie snatches the carrier from the coffee table, where Paulie had set it, and walks to the hall.
“I’m going to put him upstairs before he wakes up,” she says in a harsh whisper. She looks frantic, running up stairs with the hem of her shin-length dress curling against the breeze she’s causing. They’re out of sight before I can take a breath.
Fine. I’ll just have to smooch him later when he’s awake and full of giggles.
The coffee aromas tickle my senses, and I’m about to head over to the pot when the door opens again.
Enzo steps inside, shivers, and grins. “Happy birthday, Pop.”
He walks to our father and gives him a huge hug, with back slaps and all, but doesn’t shut the door. He realizes it’s winter, right?
When they part, Enzo says, “Paulie, Julian, can you help me at my car?”
“Sure,” both men say in unison, grabbing their coats and heading outside.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Ma pats my arm on her way to the kitchen. “Dinner.”
Just the word of food makes me follow her.
“We decided, since it’s just us, to order and let someone else do all of the work. This way we can enjoy today.”
That’s a great idea.
Her brow lowers as she gets out several mugs for coffee.
“What’s wrong?” I ask and grab a stack of spoons from the drawer.
“I just wish we didn’t need to keep an eye on the storm. That way everyone could relax and stay as long as they want. I also wish your father hadn’t been stubborn about not moving the date.”
I don’t point out that his reasoning was so Ma couldn’t invite half the continent. It’s not just that he prefers intimate gatherings. When they host large events, Ma spends the week prior cooking and cleaning and then the week after cleaning again. Pulling out most of the furniture, sweeping, dusting, vacuuming, windows, the top of cabinets, laundry, steam cleaning. It’s an Olympic event, and Pop hates to see how stressed she gets. He also doesn’t understand some of it. No one is looking behind the bookshelves or under the beds. No one should even go into the bedrooms, so why bother doing it? I agree with him, but Ma is set in her ways.
“It’s going to be fine, Ma. We’ll have fun whether it’s four hours or more. If we leave by five, that’s still several hours before the storm hits. Depending on how much we get, we’ll be back for dinner tomorrow.”
It doesn’t matter if a party or a holiday falls on a Saturday or a Monday, Ma expects our loyalty at Sunday dinner—aka, family time. It also doesn’t matter how old we get or if we’re married and our spouses’ family wants to do something special. We are to have it signed into a contract, like a prenup, that Sundays belong to the Mancinis.
I don’t think she actually means that last bit, but since Paulie’s family is three states southwest of us and Julian no longer has any, it hasn’t come up.
“I know,” Ma says with an enthusiastic smile. “You all can spend the night.”
A breath hitches in my throat. She’s not serious. There are eight of us, not including my nephew who came with his own portable bed, and only three bedrooms and one couch. I’m not fond of sleeping on floors. Mostly because they’re hard.
But to appease her, I say, “We’ll see.” In my head I’m screaming “no way” though.
Enzo, Paulie, and Julian come back into the house with an armful of aluminum trays of food that smells divine. They go immediately to the dining room and set them on the table.
Ma and I grab a handful of large serving spoons and set about lifting off the trays’ lids.
I swear my eyes drool and my mouth widens, or something like that, when I see the variety. The scent of garlic, mushrooms, and fried goodness adds to my need to stuff my face now.
“We figured we’d do something different than our standard deli dishes,” Ma says while admiring the pan with a trio of appetizers—mini crab cakes, macaroni and cheese bites, and baby meatballs.
There are trays of chicken Marsala, a mixed veggie medley of broccoli, carrots, and green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and a large salad of mixed greens, cucumbers, red onion, and tomatoes.
Izzie comes back down, and the men gather by the front windows discussing the upcoming storm while us women grab several more serving utensils and a couple of bottles of wine. Not wanting the coffee to get cold and possibly go to waste, I grab a mug of that too.
The table is already set with Ma’s bone white plates edged with a thin gold band, the fancy silverware with the swirled handles, and wine and clear drinking glasses. It’s all her best dishware. Like I said, Pop deserves the best.
“Let’s eat!” Ma shouts, and she doesn’t have to say it twice.
Everyone rushes to a chair, including Pop, and I decide to sit on the opposite side of the table from my usual seat. I normally like my back to the wall, but today I choose to face it. No reason other than this side of the table is closest to me now and I really want to eat.
We’re settled, eyes and smiles bright and wide, ready to dig in, and Pop says, “Thank you all for being here. I love each of you.”
“Happy birthday, Pop,” I say, and a chorus of birthday wishes echo around the table.
I’m staring hard at the taters when a gust of wind attacks my back, and I look behind me to see the door is open again.
Did the guys forget to push it shut?
Before I get up to not only shut it but lock it and bolt it with a nail gun if I have to so there are no more interruptions, a tall, stocky man with an unnatural tan, especially for winter, and a smile full of perfectly even, blinding white teeth steps in.
“Is there room for more?” he asks, and I spot other people behind him.
“Geno?” Pop asks and rises from his seat.
“Happy birthday, old man.” The man’s deep voice bellows.
“Who is he?” Alice whispers.
Izzie and I exchange glances. Her brows are lifted while I feel my eyes widen. Not because Uncle Geno walked in the door, but because he also brought his wife, kids, and a couple of guys I don’t recognize.
Our simple dinner party of eight turns into a shindig of fifteen.