She turned to look at me and squinted over the glass of Bailey’s in her other hand. It was her third, and it was the only reason I was talking to her about this at all. Her finger was still in her mouth, and the ice cubes in her drink jingled. “How do you know?” she asked carefully, turning back to the present she was wrapping.
I squirmed on the couch, wishing that I had something to do with my hands, but I’d gotten nearly to the end of my presents before stuttering out “I’m gay”, all squeaky and rusty wheel like. “I guess I just... know,” I said now, bringing one hand up to my own mouth to chew on the nail. I wished I had something better to say. Did she want to hear about the time with CJ after dance class this past semester, when she had followed me up to my dorm and slowly peeled my leg warmers off like slices from an orange? Did she want to know about the crushes I had on Stana Katic and Miranda Lambert? I certainly could never, ever tell her about Ella Mae. Trying to talk about Ella Mae was like trying to talk about what the heartbeat in your ears sounded like. You could get close to the sound, but you’d never understand unless you heard it yourself. In all of her letters, there was the darkness and brightness of angels. I could not put that heat, that rousing night, into words. I kept her letters hidden deep in my pillowcase, folded up tiny. The more important something is, the smaller it tends to be.
“Um,” I said, trying again, sucking in my breath. “When I see a girl I like, my lungs get all tight and my heart pounds and it’s like I’ve got a crush on a guy, except it’s a girl.” My mama turned to look at me, reaching for the next present: A Guide to Sport Fishing for my daddy. “Well, sugar,” she said after a moment that stretched to eternity, “there’s lots of us who appreciate the style of a well coiffed woman, but that don’t mean we feel the need to go out and make time with ‘em.” She furled out the red wrapping paper next and set the book in the middle, taking a big sip of her Bailey’s. She was quiet for a few seconds, then asked, “Have you ever... experimented? Enough to know this is what you want? Don’t give me details, now,” she added quickly.
I felt like all the blood in my body was in my cheeks. “Yes,” I muttered to the floor. “I have.” This was quite possibly the most uncomfortable moment of my life.
“Well then,” she said, putting a flourish on Daddy’s book and nestling it under the tree. ‘I hope you’re being safe and using protection. Venereal disease, that’s what we called it when I was in college, that’s no fun. Just ask your great aunt Bernice.”
I gaped at her. “Mama!” I did not wish to hear about great aunt Bernice’s venereal disease, and found myself apologizing to my brain. But I had to admit, this knowledge did neatly explain the rather strange smell that always hung around Bernice, like old feet and spilled champagne.
“Don’t worry,” Mama said, twinkling a smile at me. “I won’t tell Bernice you know.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” I said, placing another ornament on the tree. “And we won’t be telling Daddy about this until New Year’s, right?”
“Of course not,” she said, scoffing. “I’m not cleaning up the mess he makes when he passes out into his plate of French toast on Christmas morning. And neither are you.” She looked sideways at me. “You’re still going to find yourself a good woman, maybe a doctor like on the Grey’s Anatomy, and give me lots of adorable grandbabies from a turkey baster, right?”
I choked. “Uh, sure, Mama. Just like that.” Babies from a turkey baster! Obviously it was time for Mama to put the Bailey’s away.
She was looking shyly at me now, the tree sparkling between us. There was just that final secret, but I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to tell her about it. “Do you have a girlfriend? You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said.
I took a deep breath as Ella Mae’s dark, hypnotizing eyes flashed in my memory and sifted through my brain for a response that was something close to the truth. “Not exactly. It’s complicated.”
“That’s what all you college kids are saying these days. It’s complicated, it’s complicated. Either she likes you or she don’t, I don’t see how it’s so complicated,” Mama replied. She centered the presents under the tree. “But fine, keep your aura of mystery and danger.” Getting up and kissing me on top of my head, she handed me her half-empty glass of Bailey’s. “Have the rest, sugar, frankly you look like you need it.”
When she had left the room to take her shower, I tipped the rest of the booze into my mouth all at once, gulping, trying to ignore the burn. Maybe if the Bailey’s burned enough, it would set me ablaze, and I wouldn’t have to tell my daddy