Liam disappeared into the garage, no doubt to greet Dean. My impulse was to follow, but Sandy had other ideas. How could I object when she asked me to give her a hand in the kitchen? Did she notice that I was so nervous that my hands trembled while I chopped vegetables up? I kept on expecting her to tell me I was doing it all wrong, and to tell me I was hopeless, and to dismiss me from the kitchen. Sandy was very different to my mom. She chatted away telling me how she was making the curry, starting with a ginger and garlic base and layering spices before adding minced onions. I wish I could remember every step of her recipe. I was concentrating on my assigned tasks so much that I could not retain any of Sandy’s tips.
Soon, the aroma of the spices was filling the kitchen and wafting through to other rooms including the garage. I could only faintly hear the instruments as Liam and Dean played. Sandy told me they had installed top-grade soundproofing when they renovated the garage to house Liam’s drumkit and other musical equipment.
An hour after we began making dinner, Sandy asked me to lay the kitchen table. Then it all happened so quickly…I was sitting down, as Sandy had encouraged me to do at the same time as Liam entered the room, followed by Dean. I caught the expression of bewilderment on Dean’s face when he saw me. Instantly I interpreted that to mean Liam had not informed him of my presence. At that moment, I felt like such a fraud, as if I had invaded Dean’s territory without receiving his invitation and I was sure he felt offended by this incursion. Anxiety rose up into my throat. Dean clearly was directing his annoyance at Liam as evident by his glares. Did that mean he did not want me there?
Sandy was not going to allow an uncomfortable atmosphere to linger. She provided Dean with a brief explanation that perhaps he had a right to. “Liam just happened to bump into Annabelle when she was on her way to buy milk for her mom, and as I overestimated how much milk we would get through over Christmas, Liam knew it would help us if Annabelle could take a couple of cartons. But we ended up chatting and getting on like a house on fire. It’s easy to see why you would enjoy the company of this young lady.”
As Dean’s expressions softened, indicating he accepted Sandy’s carefully worded comments, I felt much less uncomfortable. Questions were soon directed towards Dean as to how his Christmas had been. He evaded giving any detail, but I picked up on a few expressions. He said he could not remember much of it. They’d been living on pastries and muffins for the past few days as the coffee houses had over-ordered, so he had been allowed to take a crate of baked goods home on Christmas Eve. Mark had brought some girl home who had been wandering around the house in nothing but one of Mark’s shirts. A friend of Gary’s had turned up to ask to borrow money. Dean also shared that he had missed his mom a lot this year and written a song about her. I was drinking in every word trying to paint a picture in my mind of what those details may have looked like.
I then heard more about the festivities in Sandy’s home. Her oldest daughter had stayed with her twin daughters over the weekend and right up to Christmas Day. Her first husband (clearly they were long since divorced) had come from West Virginia to spend the holidays with his children and grandchildren. Her parents had spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day under Sandy’s roof, before they had embarked on a trip to Florida. On Boxing day, Kevin, her second ex-his had visited with his son (from a previous relationship) along with Sandy’s brother and his partner who were on good terms with Kevin (who had originally introduced them). I marvelled that despite two divorces, Sandy seemed to be able to welcome her ex-husbands and their children into her home and only to say pleasant things about them. Her only criticism was the gift her first husband Jason had given her – she joked he had no idea what a woman in her forties would wear.
I was dreading the moment that questions were directed towards me about how our family Christmas had been. Somehow, a conversation developed that rescued me from that predicament. The subject of whether Sandy would ever consider re-marrying came up, and was one that clearly caused great amusement to all. Sandy asserted, “I am not against getting married again, but this time he would have to be filthy rich. Some tycoon who made his fortune from oil, or some tech phenomenon.”
Liam claimed he knew who his mother had her eye on. Sandy did not have to guess who Liam was teasing her about. “Well, he is hot! I just have to figure out a way to get rid of that ill-mannered girlfriend who thinks she owns this place when she comes with him.” It quickly transpired that they were talking about Rick, the bass guitarist who I had still not met. Sandy asked me if I thought Rick was gorgeous. When they realized I did not know what Rick looked like, Liam asked Dean to show me some photos on his phone.
Dean leant over and scrolled through his pictures at a fast pace. I was peering at the screen and catching fleeting glimpses other photos that were of great interest to me. There were a lot of pictures of guitars, and groups of men, some women too. I saw images of Dean with a girl with brown hair, pictures of his uncle and cousin. Then finally Dean slowed down his scrolling and showed me a photo of Rick. The first thing I noticed was his muscular arms and upper body. His arms were covered with tattoos and he had a closely shaved hair and a jet stud in his ear. Then Dean showed me a photo of Rick with a girl. She seemed much younger than Rick did and had deep chestnut hair. Dean told me Rick’s girlfriend was Lauren. Most of the photos of Rick showed him in ripped jeans and looking dishevelled, but there were a few pictures of Rick at his brother’s wedding that revealed how good-looking could be.
It’s hard to describe to you my blissful state while Dean was showing me photographs of his friends from his phone. Our physical proximity was closer than ever before, and I could breathe in his scent and try to memorize it’s trace. My knee touched his, and neither of us flinched. I would not put it past Sandy to have noticed my reaction to Dean. Perhaps that is why she stood up and asked if anybody would like some dessert. I felt full! The turkey baguette, the gingerbread, and now the delicious curry, I did not feel I could eat any more. However, the offer roused Dean to his senses and he was quick to volunteer to help take the dinner plates out to the kitchen.
In the end it was only Dean who wanted some dessert. After presenting a dish to Dean with a jug of cream, Sandy asked if she could have a word with her son Liam. I stared at the heap of Christmas pudding in front of Dean. If I had known, I would have asked for a serving. Dean tucked into it heartily. He made those hums of enjoyment with each mouthful. As if he needed to justify his reaction, he turned to me and said, “This is so good. Try some.” He held out his fork to me with some of the pudding balanced on the end. The moment he brought it to my lips was another I would recollect with glowing delight. It may have been a simple gesture, one that was open and unguarded, but I believe Sandy was weighing up everything she saw. She picked up that there was something sparking between Dean and I, and it concerned her.
Within the next half an hour, all four of us were in Sandy’s car. She had insisted on driving me home and dropping Dean off at the branch of Food Bizarre he worked at. When she pulled over on Kelly Street, she climbed out of the car with me and accompanied me to the front door so she could be sure I had let myself in and was safe. She pressed the two cartons of milk into my arms and hugged me. “You’re a good girl Annabelle. Thank you for your company today.”
It felt odd, I should have been thanking Sandy for her astonishing hospitality. But I was overwhelmed at how the day had turned out for me. When I left the house around ten hours before, I could never have imagined how the day would develop. Making it back to our house before my parents was an extra blessing. No interrogation about where I had been all day, no demeaning telling off or criticism to take away from the joy I had felt that day. I put the milk cartons into the refrigerator and ran upstairs. When I was safely tucked up in bed, the thrill still lingered. It felt like a prisoner who had enjoyed a day of freedom undetected and made it back to his cell before the security guards noticed.
How could I sleep that night with so much excitement within me? My mind and body were electrified with happiness. When my phone started to ring and I saw who was calling, I wondered if I was hallucinating. I answered it immediately, “Hi.”
“Hey Annabelle, it was a nice surprise to see you at Liam’s. Sandy said you had been with them most of the day?”
A punch of fear hit me deep in the stomach. Was Dean calling me because it irritated him that I had been there? “It was a total coincidence. Liam was on his way back from the gym, and I don’t why I told him about the milk…but then he told me I should take some of theirs and…well, I had no idea how nice his mom was gonna be…I’m sorry if it was weird of me to be there, they were just so kind.”
“Yeah, Sandy is great, I know. It’s cool you got to hang out with them. Sandy said some real sweet things about you in the car after she dropped you off.”
The fear dissipated, but a nauseous suspicion that something I did not want to hear was coming. I wondered where along the heartbreak scale it was going to land. “She’s very kind.”
“So, look Annabelle, Sandy had a talk to Liam and me in the car. Hold on wait a minute, I am just going to go outside.” I waited for him. I could hear a door creak open and then slam shut. I waited a few seconds more, curious about what was going on. I heard him curse, and then his voice returned. “Annabelle, I’m no good at this kind of thing so bear with me.” It sounded as if he was drawing on a cigarette.
“Is everything ok?”
“Yes, yeah everything is fine. Sorry, I’m crap at this kind of stuff. Sandy told me I need to be straight with you and not play games with you. I hope you don’t think that’s what I am doing.” When I did not reply, he started to grumble and curse about how cold it was and he told me it had just started to snow. I peered out of my bedroom window to see a mix of snowflakes and sleet descending. Dean repeated to me, “I’ve told Sandy and I’m telling you I’m not playing games – ok?”
My bewilderment made me more tense. What was I supposed to say to that? “Play games?”
“Yeah, I mean I was trying to make sure I was straight with you. You’re a kid, and I have been trying to make it clear that there is nothing going on here. Sandy told me I need to make it clearer though.”
“But I’m nearly fifteen.” Perhaps the high pitch of my voice communicated some of my distress at the conversation was attempting.
There was a long pause from Dean. “Being fourteen, being fifteen – it won’t last long. Before you know it, you’re gonna be an adult – with bills to pay and some job you hate, with a boss who is a jerk. Being a kid is good thing Annabelle, and you should make the most of it. You might not want to hear this, but in the future you will look back and wish you could have your childhood back – your innocence, your purity. Once you lose that, you will never be the same.”
“You keep on saying I’m a kid, but I…”
“You are a kid, and I have to keep on telling myself that. Do you get that? Maybe you don’t, but I need to keep that fact in view. That’s all there is to say. Hell, it’s obvious you are not going to be a kid for much longer. Damn – Sandy should be saying this to you, she knows the words to use. She has some ideas about what is ok when it comes to spending time with you, and she’s right, I know she’s right.”
So soon after the deluge of happiness I had experienced, tears were brimming over my eyelids, “About what? I don’t understand.”
“Well, for a start it is freezing – it’s gonna snow next week. We can’t be walking around the park when it is that friggin’ cold.”
“But I don’t mind. I don’t mind being cold.”
“Well I do. My fingers were so friggin’ numb a couple of weeks go I couldn’t feel my guitar strings for half an hour. Sandy said she was impressed by you and that you are welcome there, but only if she is around. She feels a responsibly for a kid being around Liam’s friends. We respect Sandy, it’s great of her to let us play in her garage. But she has rules – no smokes, no trashing the place – we wouldn’t do anything to annoy her. But look, there is stuff I need to be straight with you about. When I am at Liam’s house, I’m on best behaviour. Do you get that? Do you know what I’m saying?”
I am not sure I wanted to understand what Dean was trying to say. “I know you smoke.”
“Smoke? Yeah I smoke and more, plenty more. Man – this is hard to say – I’m a friggin’ terrible person for you to be spending time with Annabelle. For an hour a week, I make a real effort not to let that show, because I don’t want you to end up like me.”
“I don’t know how this is gonna work. I’m gonna have to check that Sandy will be at home, but it’s better that way. Her home is somewhere it is alright for you to be around someone like me. We’re all on her turf, her rules. You can’t come to my Uncle’s house and there is no point walking past in the hope you might be invited in, it’s not gonna happen. It’s a house with three men who don’t live by anyone’s rules – it’s not a place for someone like you.”
My heart was pumping loudly. The message Dean was trying to deliver was sinking in, even though the details were sketchy. “So, this Saturday…”
“I already checked and Sandy is fine with you just going straight to hers. She will be around this Saturday. Rick is not back until the following week. He is on his best behaviour when he is at Sandy’s too and he will probably just ignore you anyway. But you will meet Lauren. Sandy is not keen on Lauren at all, so, well, that is gonna make things a little weird. Just don’t copy Lauren. Stay you Annabelle, just be like you were today.”
When Dean ended the call because he had to start work, I was left confused and uncertain. I loved that hour with Dean every Saturday, and I was disappointed at the belief he was abandoning that. Was that because of the risk of snow? Or the opinions of Sandy? I think he had said I was welcome to go to Sandy’s home when the band were practicing. There was a whole bunch of other things he had said that did not make any sense to me, and I was not ready to ask him to explain them. I was going to have to be patient and plucky. My attachment and awe of Dean prompted me to make the most of even the slightest sign that he was alright with me enjoying a fraction of his time and attention. There would be tests to my resilience for over a year though, and of course I had not foreseen what kind of world Dean was going to draw me into.
Over the next few years, I guess I figured out what he had been trying to say to me that day. I saw Dean on his best behaviour, and Dean at his worst. Some of the things I saw with my eyes, I was completely ignorant with regards to their significance. While I was fourteen, while I was fifteen, I think Dean did maintain his efforts to be mindful of my youthful outlook. But by the time I was sixteen, the pressures in his life were building, the band were recording in a studio, they were playing at bars all over the state, he no longer seemed to have the energy to put on a polished front. I was going to be confronted with Dean’s habits and hard edge.