“You would’ve liked Yusef,” Grandma said as the nurses came to the tables collecting trash and empty plates. She raised her empty glass to the nurse as she reached past her to take Tammy’s plate—nothing but licked-clean chicken legs left on it.
“You were mighty hungry, Ms. Tammy,” she said as she stacked the plate on top of the others. “Would you like something else?”
“Everything was quite delicious,” Tammy slurred as she rolled her tongue across her teeth, sucking at crumbs that had slipped underneath her dentures, “but I think I’m full.”
“Alright,” the nurse said, then nodded toward Grandma. “I’ll be back with some water for you, Ms. Millie.”
“Thanks, sweetheart.” Grandma cleared her throat, sat her glass on the curled up left corner of her place mat, and turned to me. “I thought you would’ve come home that Christmas to meet him, but you never did.”
I had planned to. Brick and I were living in Phoenix that year, and things weren’t working out. We had no money. Nights, we drove around the city looking for empty parking lots where we could park and sleep without drawing attention from the police. I never realized how cold it got in the desert at night until I found myself curled up in the fetal position on the torn leather backseat of Brick’s ’98 Buick in just shorts and a t-shirt, no blanket to keep me worm, and him nowhere in sight because we’d just had a fight, and he’d left to grab and beer and was gone all night.
I decided then I would come home, leave him for good, go back to school. I had just enough money to buy a one way ticket to Atlanta. Mama, Grandma or Uncle Richard would’ve had to drive down to get me, but it was close enough home and far enough away from Brick that it could work.
But on the day of my flight, he disappeared, took the car with him, and because I’d spent my last dime on a ticket, I had no way to get to the airport. I tried to walk, hitchhike, but after only an hour, I was completely lost, and any car that passed me sped up as soon as I stuck out my thumb. I couldn’t blame them. I looked wild—clothes hanging off me because I wasn’t eating, hair looking like a sombrero—I belonged in the wild. It was by a miracle that I found my way back to the Burger King parking lot where we’d been sleeping, that he was in the restaurant ordering a burger when I got there. I was too tired and exhausted to fight. I ate all of his fries and drank his shake, and that night we drove to California. He apologized with a Christmas present to Joshua Tree National Park. One parking permit was good for seven days. We welcomed the New Year camping out in Indian Cove, and I made the mistake of thinking things would actually get better after that.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t come, though,” Grandma said. The nurse returned with a pitcher, ice clinking against the glass as she poured the water. Grandma mouthed thank you before taking a long sip. She licked her lips and continued. “He died Christmas Eve. Craziest thing. He was allergic to mistletoe.”
“Allergic to mistletoe?” Thomas said, “That’s the first I ever heard of that.”
“He went that far just so he wouldn’t have to kiss you.” Jerry shimmied his shoulders laughing in his throat.
“Yusef was like my own personal St. Nick. He was always in the Christmas-y spirit, so when Christmas finally came, it was like an explosion of red and green lights and gingerbread houses. He hung mistletoe on every doorway so we couldn’t go to any room with kissing each other first.
“Throughout the night, I noticed that his lips were getting really swollen. Yusef had big lips anyway, but these were like platypus bills.” Grandma put the back of her hands over her mouth, opened and closed her fingers as if they were extensions of her lips. “He thought if he just put some ice on it, the swelling would eventually go down. We never thought he would be swelling up somewhere else too, like his throat, making it hard to breathe or swallow your mother’s ham. It was tough anyway—she overcooked it.”
“Grandma, that must’ve been tough on you. Especially with it being Christmas.”
Grandma shook her head. “They say Christmas can be the saddest holiday of the year. For me, that year, it was.”
I stood and walked over to Grandma, wrapped her arms around her and placed my chin on her shoulder. I turned and kissed her neck, and when I looked up, Drake was speed walking on the sides of his feet to our table, his arms moving back and forth like he was running. Behind him, a nurse had her hand on a man’s upper arm, leading him in the same direction as Drake. They moved quicker, walk around to meet us on the other side of the table. I recognized that salt and pepper hair anywhere, swooped over his right eyebrow—it was Kyle.
I quickly straightened up and tapped Grandma’s hand. “It’s him!” I smoothed my hands down the front of my blouse, tucked a rogue curl behind my ear, comparing my outfit to his loose black button down, his thin beige slacks.
“Stop it.” Grandma slapped my wrist. “You look fine.”
“Meg!” Kyle’s voice bellowed. He pulled me into a hug and kissed my temple. “You look beautiful as ever!”
Grandma tilted her head to the side, as if to say, I told you so.
I rolled my eyes. “This is my grandma, Millie,” I said gesturing to her.
He took her hand and kissed it just below the wrist. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Grandma curled her back. “Such a gentleman,” she said, fanning herself.
“Careful! Keep your hands to yourself,” Thomas said. He brushed his fingers together, twisted his mouth in disapproval.
“Grandma has a few boyfriends here,” I said when Kyle looked at me confused.
Grandma quickly shooed us toward the door. “Y’all get on before the restaurants get crowded. It is Friday, you know.”
“Wait, where are you going?”
We turned around. Drake was standing behind Frank. He hung his arms out to the side in a half-shrug, a questioning stance.
“Oh! Hey, dad,” Kyle said.
I threw his hand down, and it bounced off his thigh. “Dad?” I squealed.