But she’s trying, so I try, too. “Congratulations, new sister!” I say. It comes out so forced and unnatural that I resolve to shut up.
“Thanks,” Natalie says, clearly very uncomfortable. “I think I’ll go see if there is anything else to bring in.”
We all know there isn’t a single thing to bring into this kitchen. But none of us says anything. When Natalie is finally gone, my mother starts speaking very gently.
“You don’t have to do this,” she says. “It’s not the nineteen fifties.”
“I want to do it,” Charlie says.
“Yeah, but why not take your time to think about it?” Rachel says.
“Why are you assuming I haven’t?”
“How long have you two even known each other?” my mom asks.
“And she’s three months pregnant?” my mom asks.
“Got it,” my mom says, starting to wash dishes. She’s frustrated, and she’s taking it out on the pots and pans.
“Don’t judge me, Mom.”
“Who’s judging?” she says, moving the plates into the sink and running the water over them. “I’m just saying, take your time. You have your whole life to decide whom to marry.”
“What are you talking about? Natalie is pregnant. We are moving in together. She is going to be my wife.”
“But moving in together doesn’t mean she has to be your wife. You can raise a child together and see how the relationship goes,” I say.
“Lauren, you’re supposed to be on my side here,” Charlie says, and it makes me feel . . . included somehow. As if I am in possession of something extra that makes Charlie and me a team. Charlie isn’t on a team with anyone. So the fact that he thinks I’m on his side, well, it makes me want to be on his side.
“I am on your side,” I say. “I’m just saying that you have never been married before, Charlie. You don’t know what it really entails.”
“Neither do you!” Charlie says. His tone is uncontrolled and defensive, as if we’ve cornered a rat. “I just mean that everyone is figuring it out, right? Mom, you tried it your way, and that didn’t work for you. Lauren, you’re not sure how to do it. Who’s to say mine won’t work just because it doesn’t look like yours?”
Rachel chimes in. “I guess I’m not needed in this conversation.”
“Of course you’re needed,” Charlie says. “I want you all to be on board with this. I really like this woman. I think I can make this work for us.”
“You can’t just make a marriage work because you want it to work, Charlie.” My mom says it, but I might as well have said it myself.
“But you had no problem when I said we were raising a baby?” he asks.
“They are two totally different things,” she says. “If you two don’t work out, you can co-parent.”
“I don’t want to co-parent!” Charlie says. “I want a family.”
“Co-parenting is a family. Single-parent homes are families.” My mom is starting to take this as an indictment of her, and I can understand why. I think it’s about to become one.
“No, Mom. That’s not the kind of family I want. I don’t want to live across town from my kid. I don’t want to meet Natalie in the parking lot of a Wendy’s on Sunday afternoons to drop him off, OK?”
This is something that Charlie learned from television. Our dad never took us for the weekend. He didn’t live across town. He just left.
“OK,” my mom says, trying to keep herself calm. “You have to do what you think is right for your children.”
“Thank you,” Charlie says.
“But I have to do what is right for my children,” she says. “And so I’m going to tell you that marriage is hard work. No matter how hard I tried, I could not succeed. It was impossible for me. Can you think of another thing that I have ever told you was impossible?”
Charlie listens and then shakes his head. “No,” he says quietly.
“And your sister,” my mom says, as she gestures toward me, “is a very smart woman, a loving woman, who means well and almost always does the right thing.” I stole a Capri Sun from the grocery store when I was eleven. I swear she’s never forgiven me.
“I know,” says Charlie.
“And even she isn’t sure how to make one work.”
“I know,” Charlie says.
“So listen to us when we say that marriage is not to be taken lightly.”
“Once again, no one cares about my opinion!” Rachel says bitterly. How quickly we all regress when we’re in the same room.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Rachel,” my mom says, losing her temper. “So you don’t have a boyfriend. Big deal. No one’s treating you like a leper.”
“When every conversation is about someone’s boyfriend or husband, then I do think—” Rachel shuts herself up. “Whatever. It’s not about me. Sorry.”
My mom puts her arm around her and squeezes her into the crook of her body. Rachel resigns into it. My mom keeps going, looking directly at Charlie. “You don’t have to marry Natalie to prove you’re not your father. Do you get that? You couldn’t be your father in a million years.”
Charlie doesn’t say anything. He looks at the floor. It must be so different being a boy without a dad instead of a girl without a dad. I should stop assuming they are the same thing.
“You have a lot of options,” Mom says. “And all we want you to do is think about them.”
“Fine,” Charlie says.
“Are you going to think about them?” she asks him.
“Already have,” he says. “I’ve made up my mind. I want to marry Natalie.”
“Do you love her?” Rachel asks.
“I know I will,” Charlie says. “I know I want to.”
His tone makes it clear that we have reached the end of the conversation. A part of me feels like saying, You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, and the other part of me thinks that if anyone can out-stubborn marriage, it’s Charlie. If anyone can trip and fall into a happy marriage, it’s my baby brother. And also, in the deepest part of my heart, I think he’s right. I may be married, but I don’t know a damn thing about marriage. So who’s to say Charlie’s way is any worse than anyone else’s?
“July it is, then,” my mom says, smiling. She gestures for Charlie and me to come toward her and Rachel. Charlie looks at me, and I c**k my head to say, “Come on, a hug won’t kill you.”
The four of us bear-hug. “The rest of them out there, they’re fine and all. But this . . .” My mom squeezes the three of us tight. It’s more of a metaphorical gesture now; we’re too old to fit anymore. “This is my family. You guys are my meaning of life.”
We’re so squished together that now I’m having trouble breathing. I figure Charlie will be the first one to break the huddle, but he doesn’t.
“I love you guys,” he says.
From deep inside the belly of the pack comes Rachel’s muffled voice, “We love you, too, Charlie.”
When it gets late and Grandma starts complaining that she’s tired, we all start packing our things. I gather my own pile of new sweaters and socks. Rachel grabs her new slow cooker. We throw all the wrapping paper away. Charlie and Natalie start saying good-bye to everyone.
“Welcome to the family,” my mom says to Natalie, as they make their way to the front door. She hugs her. “We couldn’t be happier to have you.” She hugs Charlie for a long time, holding him tight. “So you’re flying out tomorrow?” she asks. “And then when do we have you back for good?”
“I’m packing up my stuff over the next few weeks, and then I should be moved into Natalie’s place by mid-January.”
My mom laughs. “Oh, Natalie, I think you’re going to be my favorite kid. You’re giving me a grandchild and bringing my son home!” She puts her hand on her heart and frowns the way people do when they are really, really happy.