Most people get butterflies in their stomachs. Mine were always more like wasps. I could feel them buzzing around my gut as I watched my grandmother ladle out heaps of soul food into mismatched serving dishes.
Across the table from me, Mom was putting on her best fake smile as if she hadn’t spent the last ten minutes of our three-hour drive chewing me out for my attitude. I made the mistake of making a face at the succotash Nana spooned into a bowl and caught Mom’s eye. Her smile lost its grip on her expression. I could read the words in her laser-like gaze: fix your face. I schooled my expression before Nana turned around but crossed my arms over my chest in a small sign of defiance.
When Mom announced that Nana wanted us to come down to Georgia for a weekend, I’d gone to my father and begged him to veto Mom, but he seemed to agree with her. Either that or he was like me, too afraid to try and talk her out of it. I didn't know until we started the three-hour car ride south that it was Nana’s idea. She claimed to miss her girls so it would be me, Mom, and Nana spending the weekend together.
I didn’t usually see Nana except on holidays, and I’d grown out of the age where calling her on the phone was the highlight of my day. The woman I called Nana was almost a stranger to me, a person I'd never had anything more than small talk with. She was more so a figment of childhood memory. Not that it was my fault. We used to live closer to her, then we moved further north. Then my little brothers came along, and the car ride was too much of a hassle. Mom always had her excuses for why we didn’t visit her mother that much.
I couldn't decide whether or not Mom intended this to be punishment, but that’s what it felt like. I’d spent the last few days of eighth grade suspended and holed up in my room. It had taken another two weeks for the bruises on my knuckles to fade away. I’d picked with the scabs on my face too much, earning me scratch scars camouflaged among the acne-induced dark spots that littered my cheeks. Mom forced me to slather my skin with shea butter every night, but the scars remained. I didn’t mind them though—not as much as Mom did. They were the least of my worries.
“Ain’t you gonna ask your grandmother if she wants help setting the table, Keesha?” Mom asked me, giving me a nudge with her foot under the table.
The further south we’d gotten, the more often my mother started slipping into her old dialect. I knew how hard Mom had worked to shed her Southern girl skin. It only usually showed when she was angry or a little tipsy over dinner time wine. Looking at my mother, you’d never guess she came from such humble beginnings. Nana’s home looked like it had been built before electricity and running water were invented. It was a small rancher and the land that made up the property was bigger than the house itself. There were only two bedrooms, one shared bathroom, the living room, and the kitchen. It was hard for me to imagine my mother with all her chic class growing up in a place like this.
Nana scoffed when I pushed my chair back to stand up. “Don’t hear you offering either, Terri. In fact, I can’t remember a single day when you helped me set the table.”
Nana balanced dishes on her arms and set them on the table. I tried to help and slide them into place, but the dishes burned my fingertips. How Nana held them to her bare skin, I didn’t know. She winked at me.
“I’m gon’ spoil you this weekend. I got lots of time to make up for,” she said and moved back to the stove with more grace than most grandmothers.
Nana was much younger than my dad’s mother and much younger than most grandmothers of kids my age. I’d always known that she had my mom pretty young, but it was hard to tell how young with her. She was the type of woman who protected her age like nuclear launch codes. There was no guessing from just looking at her. She had near-perfect skin, save for a few wrinkles that came with decades of laughter and pain. Her hair was almost entirely black with only a single streak of silver that framed her face. It was long too. Even with the shrinkage, I could tell it probably went halfway down her back. I reached up and touched my short afro. A mistake involving a too-hot flat iron had been the start of my downhill journey. My hair appeared to be the only thing on my body that wasn’t growing.
If Nana sensed the tension between us when she finally sat at the table, she didn’t let it show on her face. My stomach grumbled at the sight of the spread. Mom never cooked soul food anymore. She liked her recipes and experiments with various cultures. Whenever she served some obscure white sauce smothered dish, I always found myself longing for the comfort of the food I’d grown up on. Nana made roast, but there was fried fish as well. A bowl of mac and cheese with a golden, crispy crust on top sat next to a dish of steaming collards. There was the succotash of course and even that somehow managed to look appealing. Unlike my mom, she didn’t care about doubling up on starches. There were candied yams, and she’d baked a fresh pan of cornbread topped off with a generous heap of pooling butter.
Before any of us touched the food, Nana held out both her hands. I followed Mom’s leading and clasped hands with her then completed the circle. Both Mom and Nana bowed their heads and closed their eyes. I bowed mine too, but kept my eyes open, staring at my reflection in the glossy China plate before me.
“Dear Lord, we thank you for this meal. Let it be a blessing to our bodies,” Nana started.
I looked up just to peek and found Nana watching me like she knew I’d have them open. She smiled at me and winked.
“And thank you for this family. For this household of women. Let this meal and this time together be healing for us all,” Nana said.
Nana stacked large portions of food on all of our plates. She gestured to it with her spoon.
“We gotta eat all of this tonight,” she said. She smiled at me. “You can eat as much as you want. And you look like you can eat. My kind of girl.”
I knew from my brief encounters with southern charm that Nana hadn’t meant the sentence as an insult. It wasn’t that she was wrong. Food was a sort of love language I spoke mostly to myself. I was bigger than the average thirteen-year-old girl, and not just in height. But it was hard not to feel the sting of her words. Nana paused and looked at me like she could see right through me and sense the hive stirring in my gut. I said nothing and found myself going for the succotash first, hoping that would ruin my appetite.
We started eating in silence. Just the sound of us chewing and smacking and sipping on the sweet tea Nana pulled from the fridge. When conversation started, she spoke to me.
“How’s school been, baby? You goin’ to high school next year, right?” Nana asked. “You excited?”
I barely understood her. She had an accent much thicker than Mom’s which had been whitewashed by life in Jersey and years of education. Nana tended to drop consonants and combined words as if to conserve energy. It didn’t help that she talked with her mouth full.
“I guess,” I said with a shrug.
“You like school?” Nana asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. “I like science and math. I’m not that good with the word stuff.”
“She would’ve been giving a speech at graduation if she hadn’t gotten suspended,” Mom cut in. She shook her head at me. “Wasting perfectly good opportunities over some petty drama.”
“It’s just eighth-grade graduation, Mom. It’s not that serious,” I said.
“That’s how it starts. You say it’s just eighth grade. Then your grades start slipping and you’re struggling to get into a good school,” Mom said. “You think I’m who I am today because I was getting into fights at school?”
I’d already sat through an unabridged version of this lecture. I wasn’t interested in the CliffsNotes. Mom was a paralegal. She’d met Dad in college. Had me while hustling through law school. She was proud of that, and I supposed she had every right to be.
“Oh hush,” Nana said. “It was one fight. I got in plenty of fights when I was growing up and I think I turned out alright, don’t you?”
Mom didn’t answer that question and it hung in the silence like a bad smell. For the first time, Nana lost her easygoing smile. I knew Mom noticed it, but she cleared her throat and continued talking like the moment hadn’t happened.
“If it was just a fight, she’d be forgiven, but she’s been having discipline issues all year long. At school and home,” Mom said. “If I didn’t have friends on the school board, she’d probably be expelled.”
I could only wish. My parents decided to send me to a private Catholic school where I stuck out like a tall, dark thumb masquerading as a schoolgirl. It made me ripe the worst kind of attention. I refused to call it bullying. I didn’t like thinking of myself as the victim of anything.
“Those girls you fought, they deserve it?” Nana asked, her tone serious and inquisitive.
Mom’s mouth dropped open. “Momma, do not encourage her.”
“Why shouldn’t I? She should defend herself if she needs to,” Nana said. “What was the fight about?”
“Everyone said she started it,” Mom answered before I could.
Nana’s eyebrows shot up, but her gaze didn’t move from me. “That true?”
I grabbed my cup and brought it to my lips to muffle my response. “Sorta.”
The fight had been a month in the making, and I hadn’t been the one to initiate that. But “she was asking for it” wasn’t a defense that worked with most adults.
“Don’t tell me it was about some boy,” Nana said, letting the teasing back into her voice.
I sucked my teeth reflexively at the accusation. Mom shot me a look and I tucked my chin into my chest, stabbing my fork through some greens. “No. I’d never fight over a boy.”
“Good,” Nana said with a chuckle. “You’re too smart for that. Means you’re already doin’ better than me. I’ll never forget punchin’ Kim Saunders in her boyfriend-stealing mouth. That was fifth grade.”
I laughed for the first time. It was a small sound barely deserving to be called a laugh, but it existed. Then Mom cut in again.
“Please don’t make light of this, Momma,” Mom said. “fifth grade isn’t eighth grade.”
Nana waved a hand dismissively. “She’s still got plenty of time to get herself together. It’s perfectly normal for a girl her age to go through these sorts of things. Something you should remember. You used to be 14 too and I seem to remember you getting into your fair share of trouble.”
“Really?” I asked with a little too much interest. Mom glared at me.
“Your Mom didn’t fight anyone but she wasn’t exactly making friends in school. I think it was ninth grade though,” Nana said. Mom turned her glare on Nana, but Nana ignored it. “Yes. Ninth grade. I was working at the post office then. I get this call that your momma’s been bullying some poor girl in school. Made her cry and everything. Had to come all the way down to the school. Everybody thought I was her sister, not her momma. When they found out, they started questioning me. Askin’ if I was fit to be a mother to a teenage girl. I was just shy of my thirtieth birthday.”
I did the math in my head. “You had Mom when you were sixteen?”
Nana nodded. “Sure did. So, I know a thing or two ‘bout dealing with people that always want to give they two cents.”
I looked to my mother next. For the first time, Mom looked uncomfortable under my gaze instead of the other way around. Somehow it wasn’t hard to imagine that my mother had been the proverbial childhood bully. Somewhere out there was a woman harboring memories of how my mother had made her life miserable. I’d spent the last year of school wondering what happened to the girls who picked on those they deemed lesser than them. I’d comforted myself with the idea that they’d peak in high school and end up with sad office jobs. I never imagined they’d turn into someone like my Mom. A successful and loved woman thriving while the past remained a distant memory. The betrayal of it stung deep inside me.
“I don’t know why you had to bring that up,” Mom said into the silence that followed Nana’s statement. She pushed her untouched succotash around on her plate. It had to be cold by now.
“Why not? I ain’t lyin’,” Nana said. “I suppose part of it was my fault. I spoiled you too much.”
“And now you want to spoil Keesha?” Mom replied.
“I’m spoilin’ her cause you’re not.” Nana emphasized her words with a jab of her fork in my mother’s direction. “I know a love-lacking girl when I see one.”
Mom scoffed. “I love Keesha.”
Mom looked at me as if waiting for me to chime in and affirm her words. I shoveled the last of my candied yams into my mouth. The food lodged in my throat when I went to swallow, and I chased it down with some watered-down iced tea.
Mom splayed her hands out on either side of her plate. “So, I made a few mistakes in my past. Doesn’t make me a bad person, now. I learn from my mistakes. And the mistakes of others.”
There was weight behind her last statement, and she threw it all at Nana. Nana sagged back in her seat. The movement was barely visible, but I recognized it because I did it all the time. She shrunk before my eyes and busied her fingers with the fork on her plate. The wasps started buzzing in my crowded stomach.
“I’m not surprised that you were a bully,” I said.
Mom turned an incredulous gaze on me. “Excuse me?”
I was surprised too. I’d meant for the words to remain thoughts. I shrugged off the shock. “Explains why you never side with me. You never listen to me.”
“Just because I disagree with you, doesn’t mean that I’m not listening, Keesha. I’ve been listening to you and your attitude and puttin’ up with your behavior for the last year. Don’t paint me out to be a bad mother just ‘cause I’m at the end of my line. I’m not gonna stand for this behavior anymore.”
“You only care about the behavior that affects you. You don’t care about anything else.”
I’d hoped the words would diffuse her anger. I imagined in my head that we’d share a tender moment full of tears and reconciliation while Nana finished it all off with some words of wisdom like something out of the inspirational movies Dad loved watching. Instead, Mom pointed a finger at me.
“You are my daughter,” she said through tight lips. “What you do reflects me. It’s my job to care.”
I pushed my chair back from the table. I felt my eyes stinging too and I knew it had nothing to do with the sweat trickling down my brows.
“Where are you going, young lady?” Mom snapped.
I didn’t answer her. I didn’t know where my bedroom was yet, but I knew where the porch was and there was a rocking chair out there. I moved to the kitchen doorway. Mom was faster. She stood in my way, chest to chest. I had to look to meet her eyes and when I did, she took a step back.
“Sit down, Keesha,” Mom said.
“Leave me alone,” I snapped back, my voice dangerously close to breaking. I didn’t want her to see me cry—I knew the tears wouldn’t mean the same thing to her as they did to me
Mom barred her arm across the door. “You’re not leaving this kitchen without being excused.”
I fisted my hands at my sides and turned to Nana. “Can I be excused?”
Her gaze flicked from me to Mom, then down to my fists. She nodded. “Go on baby. Go cool off.”
“Momma,” Mom said in protest.
“Sit down, Terri, and let the girl go. She’s done eating,” Nana said.
I didn’t look at Mom as I walked out of the kitchen. I pulled my hood up over my head and headed for the front door. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel like slamming it.
We all went to bed and woke up in silence. Somehow, I didn’t think that was what Nana had in mind for our little makeshift retreat. I’d waited for Mom to go to bed in our shared bedroom before coming inside from the porch. By the time I did, it was pitch-black outside. Only Nana was awake, sitting on the edge of her bed in an oversized nightdress when I got inside. The scent of wintergreen alcohol drifted out from her room as she rubbed down her swollen ankles. Her room was right across the hall from mine and Mom’s. I stood at my door, watching her until she noticed me. For the first time, she looked old in my eyes. She’d smiled like it pained her then spoke.
“Gonna be a storm tomorrow. A big one,” she said. “Ankles always act up when one comes in.”
I’d nodded to her and muttered a good night before heading into my room. Mom was already snoring so I went to sleep in my clothes, too scared to wake her and bring in that storm Nana had been worried about prematurely.
I woke up in the room alone the next morning. I made my way to the kitchen where I found Mom sitting at the table, silk bonnet still wrapped around her hair and robe pulled around her body. Used pots sat on the stovetop, but they were empty. The sight made my stomach sink. That was how we usually handled our fights. Silence followed by a goodwill meal. But mom had cooked only for herself, and I wasn’t familiar enough with Nana’s gas stove to cook for myself. She’d shown me where to find the cereal the day before, so I settled on that. I poured myself a bowl, then grabbed the milk from the fridge.
“Where’s Nana?” I asked.
Mom looked out through the back door. Nana had been right about the storm. The wind outside kicked up fiercely and heavy grey clouds made it look like it was closer to night than it was to dawn. It dashed any hope I’d had of avoiding my mom by spending the day outside.
“She went to the store. Don’t know what’s wrong with that woman,” Mom said. “I told her not to go.”
I knew from experience that mom wasn’t really talking to me. I poured milk into my bowl and brought it to the table. When I sat down, Mom stood up almost immediately and went to the living room, muttering under her breath as if I’d never entered the room.
Nana came back just as it started pouring. Mom was in the living room, and I was in the bedroom. Mom called out my name, and I came out to find both Mom and Nana in the front yard scrambling for oranges.
The bag blew damply across the yard. The oranges spread through the grass, occasionally toppling out of Mom and Nana’s arms while they tried to gather up as many as possible. I made my way outside and nearly toppled over from the force of the wind. Together, all three of us collected what must’ve been three pounds of oranges. We dripped our way through the house and into the kitchen where we dropped the oranges into the sink.
“What were you thinking?” Mom snapped at Nana.
Nana ignored Mom’s questioning. When she spoke, her tone was unusually short and clipped. “Y’all dry off. Then you report back to this kitchen.”
Seeing no room for argument in her tone, Mom and I obeyed. We took turns in the bathroom drying our hair and changing into new clothes. With my hoodie soaked through, I was forced to go out in just a t-shirt. Instinctively, I pulled the sleeves down over my stretch marks when I entered the kitchen where Nana and Mom waited for me.
“Sit over there,” Nana said in that same, no-nonsense tone.
I took a seat and looked at the spread on the kitchen table. There were three piles of oranges and three manual juicers.
I fiddled with the juicer in front of me. “We’re making orange juice?”
“No,” Nana said. “We’re making marmalade.”
I frowned. “I thought that was a winter thing.”
“It is,” Mom said. She sounded annoyed—the way I usually sounded when she tried to force me to do things I didn’t enjoy. “The house is hot enough as is.”
“Hush,” Nana said. She focused on me, rolling her eyes at my mom. “You ever have marmalade?”
I shook my head. Nana smiled. She stood at the front of the table.
“First thing’s first, we gotta juice all these oranges,” Nana said.
“Do we really need this much? There’s only three of us,” Mom complained.
Nana didn’t answer. She fitted one of the orange halves over the juicer and demonstrated the hand motion. Juice trickled down through the juicer and into the cup below.
“The trick is to get the right angle. When you’re done, you scoop out what’s left and put it in this bowl.” She pointed to a cloth-lined bowl at the center of the table.
I picked up one of the oranges. “Don’t they have electric juicers?”
“Hush,” Nana said. “Complainin’ ain’t gonna get the work done. Besides, can’t use electricity in a storm like this.”
I realized she’d turned off almost all the lights. The microwave, toaster, and coffee maker were all unplugged. The fan in the living room was off. I’d been too wet to notice the heat before, but the air had gone heavy with humidity. It showed in the frizzy flyways of my mom’s drying perm.
Mom sighed and rose from her seat. I did the same. I was only two orange halves in before my hand started cramping. Mom was on her fourth. Clearly, this was something she’d done before. Nana juiced like a pro. She finished her pile before either of us, and took care of the ones we had leftover. We cleaned out the orange skins and Nana cut the peelings into little strips, dumping them into a big pot on the counter.
“The juice goes in too?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “A good chef tastes everything she cooks with. You gotta know what you’re putting in to appreciate what comes out.”
She screwed off the cup under her juicer and took a big gulp. She let out a soft ahh and poured the remaining juice into the pot. She motioned for us to do the same. Mom grimaced at her cup. I couldn’t imagine why. I took my sip before Mom and sputtered. I expected it to be at least a little sweet. Instead, it tasted and felt like acid. It took my breath away, my throat refusing to swallow what it mistook for poison. When I did swallow, it burned all the way down, leaving my throat raw and making my chest burn.
Mom, in her experience, pinched her nose first, then took a sip much smaller than mine. It didn’t stop her from shuddering and she couldn’t fix her face for a minute. We poured the juice into the pot. Nana diluted it with some water, sugar, a cup of lemon juice, and a splash of whiskey. Mom gave her a disapproving look with the final ingredient. Nana waved a hand dismissively.
“It’ll burn off,” she said, then added an extra splash of the alcohol.
Nana scooped some of the pulp and seeds into a cloth and tied it off. She hung that over the side of the pot and let it hang into the liquid. With a soft grunt, she moved the pot from the counter and over to the stove where she had to turn on two burners just to heat it properly.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Now we clean up,” Nana said.
My hands were sticky with orange juice and my skin was ashy where the rinds had left residue behind. Nana scooped the leftover scraps into the trash, then started piling up the dishes by the sink. Outside, lightning cracked across the sky, lighting the shadows of the kitchen and shaking the windows with its boom. Nana was the only one not to startle. She clicked her tongue in disapproval.
“There goes my plans. Probably gonna drown my tomatoes too,” she said. “Should’ve listened to my bones.”
“If you knew there was going to be a storm, why’d you ask us down this weekend?” Mom asked, not quite angry, but a little irked. She started filling the sink with hot water. Her movements were jerky and dishes clattered under her hold
“Storms don’t stop ‘round here. If we waited for good weather, I wouldn’t see you ‘til Christmas,” Nana replied. “Besides, I know how to handle a storm. Been handling them alone for years now.”
That stole the edge from Mom’s movements. For a moment, nothing but the storm sounded between us.
“I’m sorry,” Mom said finally.
Those two words seemed to encompass a universe of weight much heavier than the one she’d carelessly thrown out at dinner. I found myself envying the way they flowed so easily off of Mom’s tongue, knowing they’d never come to me like that.
Nana accepted the apology with a nod. “I know. Now, let’s get this place cleaned up before dinner time.”
We moved in harmony. I brought dishes from the table to my mother, and she handed them off to Nana for drying. We switched up roles once the table was clear and mom got tired of standing on her feet. Occasionally, Nana stood to stir the simmering pot of marmalade. In the end, we all sat at the table. We were slow cooking in the heat of the kitchen, but no one wanted to be the first to leave. It somehow felt wrong. Like leaving a wound open to bleed.
“I suppose this was meant to teach us something,” I said finally.
Nana was putting the juicers away. She stopped to look at me. “Marmalade’s pretty easy to make. Now you know. Usually, you let the mixture sit overnight, but the Lord hasn’t given me that much patience.”
I shook my head. “No. I meant some sort of life lesson.”
Nana smirked. “Marmalade’s not exactly a life-changing thing. Although you might change your mind when you taste it tomorrow morning. That’s an award-winning recipe there.”
I frowned at the memory of the juice. I could still taste it on my tongue and now I could taste it in the air. “Then why’d you make us drink that stuff? It was awful.”
Nana laughed for the first time. It was a genuine laugh. The kind that usually followed a mean prank. “I know. Those are bitter oranges. Ain’t easy to get this time of year.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “Was this some sort of joke?”
Nana kept on laughing. Mom smiled, shaking her head. “Come on, Momma. Keesha doesn’t like ambiguous answers. She’s like me in that way.
I’m nothing like you. The angry response stopped just on the tip of my tongue. Nana glanced at me as if she’d read my thoughts and I swallowed the words and a little more of the bitter aftertaste on my tongue.
Nana dropped herself into her seat. It groaned under her weight. “What do you think you learned?”
I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer, and I was too afraid to get it wrong.
“What did it taste like to you, Terri?” Nana asked.
Mom snorted. “As disgusting as I remember.”
Nana looked at me. “And you, Keesha?”
I rolled my tongue around my mouth, still tasting the bitterness there. “Angry.”
Neither Nana nor Mom said anything for a moment. Thunder rumbled distantly. It had stopped raining long ago and the lightning had calmed. Nana kept the lights dim though no one was complaining.
I caught mom’s gaze and felt the urge to apologize. To pour my heart out to her and let all the acidic hatred I felt burning in my gut spill out onto the kitchen table, but I didn’t trust myself to speak in anything other than sobs or shouts of profanity. So, I chose nothing at all. The marmalade mixture started to boil on the stovetop. It made the kitchen even hotter than before, and the citrus scent burned my nose and eyes. I told myself that was the reason for them watering.
“It’s not for me to tell you what it means,” Nana said finally. “Maybe it is a life lesson. Maybe it’s something you’ll never forget.”
She stood up and stirred the pot. Steam rose in a plume and she turned down the stove.
“Or maybe I just needed something to go with breakfast tomorrow. I always prefer the homemade stuff over the store-bought,” she said, throwing a grin at us over her shoulder.
Mom shook her head again and smiled, but there was something bittersweet in the dimples on her cheeks. Nana rejoined us at the table and propped an ankle into her lap. Outside, the storm returned with a reluctant vengeance.
“Yup,” Nana said with a thoughtful hum. “I knew it was gonna be a big one.”
The house still smelled of oranges when I woke up the next morning. Based on the silence in the house, I assumed I was the first to wake up. I went to the bathroom, then made my way to the kitchen. Nana had finished the marmalade without our help. I went to bed early because sitting in the same room as my mother had become too awkward. The silence between us spoke volumes our words never could. All night, I tasted the bitterness on my tongue and wondered if she did too.
I got to the kitchen and found Mom sitting there. She had a cup of coffee that was mostly empty. I wasn’t surprised. She claimed it was a habit she’d picked up when I was a baby. Mornings were the only time when she could devote all her attention to me. I’d always been an early riser too, but when the distance between us grew, I stopped waking up on Saturday mornings like this to sit at the kitchen table with her.
I stopped when I saw her there. All barefaced and staring at the backyard. Her hair was still wrapped up in a silk bonnet, her edges and kitchens poking out from the elastic band. She turned when I approached. I backed up.
“Sorry,” I said softly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
I started to leave but she called my name. She gestured to the chair across from her. “Sit.”
I steeled myself for what I was sure was going to be a lecture, but I sat down. I figured neither of us was awake enough for it to turn into a fight. I folded my hands on the table picking with a spot of peeling cuticle.
“You’re not wearing the hoodie,” Mom said.
I frowned and looked up at her. “It’s still wet.”
Mom chewed her lip. “I know. But I hardly see you without it anymore.”
Mom’s statement hung between us like damp laundry. She took another sip from her coffee, then sighed.
“Look, Keesha, I still don’t appreciate your attitude lately. I know you’re having a difficult time fitting in at school, but that don’t—doesn’t give you the excuse to act the way you’ve been acting,” Mom said finally.
She paused. I couldn't decide if it was a trap or an invitation. I looked at my fingers again.
“It’s not an excuse. That’s not how I see it. It’s just… it’s just the way it is,” I said finally.
“Why don’t you tell me how it is?” she asked.
“Cause you don’t listen. You’ll just tell me to tough it out. Tell me that I shouldn't care what others think of me. But I do care and I don’t know how to not care. I don’t know how to not be angry.”
Mom opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself. She did that a couple of times before she leaned forward and put her hands over mine. “I’m listening now.”
So I talked. I told her about the girls at school. Told her about the comments and the names I got called. And she listened to it all. I knew she’d never agree with my actions. She’d never approve of my fighting or the way I’d spoken to her. I knew she’d never really understand what it was like being me. Her solutions down the line would involve buying skincare products and taking me to get my hair braided until it grew back. She’d teach me how to do my make-up and buy me dresses to replace the sweatpants and t-shirts that took over my wardrobe. She’d call me beautiful more often. Call me sweetie.
Most of it wouldn’t help. It wouldn't stop the girls at school from talking about me or chase away my insecurities. We’d both make mistakes along the way. We’d fight again after one of us said or did the wrong thing. But that didn’t matter at that moment. All that mattered was that she was there, and she was listening.
“Well, looks like we’ve got a house full of early birds,” Nana said, walking into the kitchen almost a half-hour later. “Means y’all can help me with breakfast.”
“I’ll grab the eggs,” Mom said.
We cooked together. By the time we sat down at the table with our breakfast and said grace, my face hurt from smiling.
“I almost forgot,” Nanna said, getting up from the table.
She went to the fridge and came back with one of several jars of fresh marmalade. She twisted off the lid and handed it to me.
“I’ll let you have the honor of the first taste,” she said.
I scooped some of the marmalade out with a butter knife and slathered it onto a piece of toast. Mom did the same while I bit into it. I could still taste the bitterness of the oranges, but it was subdued now. The sweetness hit second, the flavors combining into something warm with just a little kick.
“How’s it taste now?” Nana asked.
I licked the bittersweet jam from my lips. “Good.”
I made sure to go back for seconds.
Ariana Tucker is a teacher by day and a fiction writer by night. She writes short fiction that seeks to give a voice to those unsure of who they are and the spaces they occupy. Her short story, "Hollow," was the winner of Rowan University's 2020 Edward J. Czwartacki Award for Fiction and Touchstone Magazine's 2021 Debut Prize in Fiction for Emerging Writers.