“TELL ME AGAIN why you can’t come Friday night?”

“Sis…I told you. I have plans. Besides, I went over every single line. Trust me, you’re good.”

Trixie pressed the phone more tightly between her shoulder and her ear as she chopped onions. She used to love this smell, love the simple act of fixing dinner for Ralph whenever she wasn’t working too late. Now everything made her want to lie down or throw up. “I like to understand them before I sign them,” she said. “And you know that I won’t unless you explain it to me.”

In the other room, Ralph looked up from his book, yet another tome on how to be a good father, and sent her the grimace he sent her whenever she was “being lazy with her intellect,” as he called it. It was one of the many things she loved about him, the fact that he never, not once, believed her to be ditzy because she made her living using her looks. Secretly, and sometimes not-so-secretly, she was convinced he gave her too much benefit of the doubt, especially when he would read to her from some academic text and she totally tuned out, not even noticing what the words were. It wasn’t her fault, though. His voice was so rich and smooth she just liked to hear them slide over each other like honey on fruit. He could make even the most dense book sexy, which probably accounted for the number of women clamoring for him to be on their dissertation committees.

Sexy. Ugh. Even the thought of it made her stomach turn. She shifted the phone to her other ear.

“How about tonight?” she asked, catching Ralph’s eye and raising one shoulder in an is-that-okay gesture. He nodded and went back to reading. “I’m making gumbo.”

There was a pause.

“With okra?” Youssef asked, his voice teasing, the way it had been for so much of their childhood.

She started to smile, almost forgetting that she was mad at him, that she had been mad at him for a very, very long time. “You want me to puke in your dinner? Okra! Seriously, little brother. You know I hate that shit.”

“It ain’t gumbo without okra,” said Youssef. His tone had stayed light, but Trixie was sure she could hear the underlying disappointment with the sister who never did what she was supposed to. With Youssef, nothing was ever enough: not smart enough, not interesting enough, not black enough, not thoughtful enough. Her smile hardened into a small, cold fist in her stomach.

“Yeah,” said Trixie. Ralph looked up at the change in her tone, flashed her one of those you okay? looks that never failed to make her remember to thank whatever Goddess it was that had made him fall for her. She nodded her head, yeah, I’m okay, and went back to chopping. “Look, forget it. I don’t want to put you out. You’re busy.”

Another pause. Then Youssef let out a long, hard exhale. When he spoke next, it was in the clipped lawyer tones he adopted with his clients. “I’ll be there tonight. 9 pm?”

9 pm. After dinner. After any chance to have time to just hang together had safely passed. After the not-good-enough, okra-free gumbo.

“Fine,” snapped Trixie.

“Fine,” said Youssef. “See ya, sis.”

“Arrogant prick,” Trixie muttered under her breath as she hung up, grabbed the celery, and began slicing furiously. It was strangely therapeutic. She didn’t even hear Ralph get up, slide his arms into the new forearm crutches which were supposed to give him better balance and fewer sores, and walk up behind her. His walking had been better lately, his symptoms less extreme.

“Hey,” he said, nuzzling her neck. “If Youssef isn’t coming over until nine…”

Trixie rolled her eyes, but she knew he asked more for her, not for him. He was as understanding as could be. It was her that was worried about it, her who wasn’t sure she would ever feel like having sex again. He knew she liked it when he let her know he was still interested. “Babe, I swear. As soon as I stop heaving up my guts every few hours, I am your good time mama again–“

“You’re always my good time mama,” he said, licking her neck, which he knew she hated.

“Careful now,” she said, whipping around with the knife still in her hand. “I’m armed.” She pushed past him and grabbed the sausage from the fridge.

“I like a woman with a weapon,” said Ralph.

“You sure?” asked Trixie. With one violent, sweeping chop, she sliced off the tip of the sausage, which rolled sadly across the board and onto the floor.

She and Ralph both stared at it.

“Well, all righty, then,” he said finally. “You’ve convinced me. An only child it is.”

previous installment                                                                                                                                                                                                    next installment

 Have Tales of Sea & Circus sent right to your inbox every Thursday.