By Sarah A. O'Brien
I wanted to quit my job. I wanted to quit my job and un-quit cigarettes and most of all I wanted to un-hear the news I’d received last week, the unfiltered words that had slipped from my mother’s mouth into my morning coffee and eggs and bacon and I hadn’t eaten breakfast since.
“Oh hun, they still talk about that time you babysat. Play ‘Princess Slays the Dragon’ with us, they beg me. I tell them I don’t know how to play and they make me be the dragon and tell me I’m not as cool as that redhead, singing girl. So thanks.”
“Ha! I can’t believe they remember that! If you ever need a night out or something let me know, I’d love to make you seem uncool in other ways!” Erica laughed.
“Funny, funny. I think I’d rather go with Jade, though she’d probably show up three days after the fact,” Henrietta smirked. “You kids enjoy your night now.”
“Thanks, Mother Hen,” Erica waved as she headed for our table. I followed, fighting to keep my face from unveiling emotion—another nickname tarnished.
How was I going to articulate the news to my two closest friends? Just spit it out? Hey, you know my parents? Well, they’re not my parents, it turns out… Erica would think it was a joke and then, when she realized it wasn’t, would make jokes about it; Jade would pick up on my sincerity immediately, but would not understand why I was so upset. That was the other thing. Jade had been a foster child. Sure, she didn’t exactly paint having a foster family as Full House-wholesome, fairytale-ending fun, but she did genuinely love her family, and would adamantly swear that she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She had moved into her own apartment at age nineteen, but still visited her foster parents a few times every month. Why are you complaining? Count your blessings, she would spit at me, before changing the subject to her latest short-lived art school fling.
“So, lemme get this straight,” Erica interrupted my reverie as she returned from the bar with two whiskey sours in hand. “You went out with Dave and everybody on a Sunday night, and got so shitfaced that you ordered how many orders of fried rice?”
“Seventeen…for the six of us…if you’re craving rice anytime soon, I’ve got you,” I replied with a grin and a grimace as I sipped the drink Erica bought me because “you really need to try something new for fucking once.” As she chattered on about the hair salon where she was now working and a couple of auditions she was preparing for next month, I was once again at the wooden kitchen table my Gramps had made, staring at the refrigerator masterpieces my younger sister, Mia, had created in class and pretending not to listen as Mom unraveled my world word by word.
“Justin, man, you okay?” Erica was sporting her signature look of concern, lips pursed, eyebrows knitted together, and dark brown eyes catching mine.
Shrug. Was I? Barely. Before she could begin the game of 20 Questions that was sure to follow, Henrietta called to us from her podium. "The queen has arrived," she said in such a serious tone that we had to laugh. Jade walked in as if she had been the one waiting; she had an air of annoyance about her as she nodded curtly in greeting to Henrietta and made a beeline for the bar. I caught Erica's eyes again--for the eight years that we had known her, Jade only drank under two circumstances: when her beloved Dalmatian had died and whenever she had a fight with her foster father.
I had met the guy only once at a dinner party, but he had served us lasagna and made goofy jokes and seemed nice enough. Nothing like my own father had been, silent and contemplative, investing more of his heart into the football game on television than into the family sitting beside him on the couch. I felt guilty for even thinking this, though, since despite his inability to ever connect with his son on any real level, anyone would agree that Mark Abe had made his wife incredibly happy. This became clear in what was missing now—the tuneless humming, the trays of chocolate chip cookies “just because,” her wide dimpled smile. None of us had been the same since his death four years ago, somehow unable to go about our days in the same way without his gruff reminders to call Nana on her birthday or his simple nods of approval when I received academic honors or when Mia scored the winning goal.
Jade was the artist, the girl who found adventure in everything. She was the quirky one who had made us go to that cartoon costume convention or whatever it was that time, the one who gave us homemade cards every Valentine’s Day and Christmas, and, sometimes, just for kicks on Arbor Day, and the one who made friends with bartenders and bouncers and bosses. She was the least dependable of us, but the most loving and pure-hearted.
And me… I was the one who screwed up my own life in every imaginable way, but, according to my friends, would give the most helpful advice and would put everything aside to get them through a rough time. I’m the friendly fuck-up. Jade was giggling at something Erica had said, possibly making fun of Ken’s third attempt to get the number of an older woman who was ignoring his advances over at the bar.
“I was adopted. Mom accidentally let it slip. She said Dad never wanted me to know,” I was tempted to reveal. Jade and Erica were in good spirits now, though, and the anger I felt at my parents’ omission of my origin was dissolving by the minute. These girls were my family. Mom and Mia were my family. Dad was not to blame; his misguided attempt to protect me from the truth wasn’t his fault, not really. The family who had adopted me did not love me any less just because we weren’t biologically related, which I was realizing after only an hour of being around my friends.
Erica and Jade had been there for me at my darkest times: when I had failed out of college following my father’s death… when I had taken all of those pills and couldn’t see them for a whole month while in counseling… when I had screened their calls upon my return and they had shown up at my house with four cartons of mint chocolate chip.
“Another round?” Erica proposed. Why not? It was happy hour, and I was with two of my favorite people on the planet.
“I’ve got this one,” I said with a smile, interrupting Ken’s pathetic Attempt Number Four to have him pour a whiskey sour, a beer, a glass of wine. It was the least that I could do for my adopted family.