Don huffed at this, taking another swig of his beer. “Music is not a real career,” he said. “Up until last year this boy was majoring in business, can you believe that? At UVA.”
“Well, isn’t that interesting,” my mother said. “Now, tell me again how you two are related?”
“Don is my father’s brother-in-law,” Dexter told her. “His sister is my aunt.”
“That’s just wonderful!” my mother said, a bit too enthusiastically. “Small world, isn’t it?”
“You know,” Don went on, “he had a full scholarship. His way paid. Dropped out. Broke his mother’s heart, and for what? Music.”
Now, even my mother couldn’t come up with anything to say. I just looked at Don, wondering where this was coming from. Maybe it was the Ensures.
“He’s a brilliant singer,” my mother said again to Jorge, who nodded, as if he hadn’t already heard this several times. Don seemed to be distracted now, looking out across the patio, holding his empty beer. I glanced at Dexter and realized that I’d never seen him like this: a bit cowed, uncomfortable, unable to come up with the quick funny retort that always seemed so close at hand. He ran a hand through his hair, tugging at it, then glanced around the yard, taking another sip of his beer.
“Come on,” I said, and slipped my hand around his. “Let’s get some food.” Then I pulled him away, gently, over to the grill, where Chris seemed very happy to be poking at the hot dogs, back in his element.
“Guess what,” I said, and he glanced up, eyebrows raised. “Don’s an asshole.”
“No, he isn’t,” Dexter said. He smiled, as if it wasn’t any big deal, then put an arm over my shoulders. “Every family has a black sheep, right? It’s the American way.”
“Tell me about it,” Chris said, flipping a burger. “At least you weren’t in jail.”
Dexter took a big swig of his beer. “Only once,” he said cheerfully, then winked at me. And that was it: so quickly, he was back to his old self, as if all that had just happened was a big joke, one that he was in on, and didn’t bother him in the least. I, however, kept looking at Don, my stomach burning, as if I now had a score to settle. Seeing Dexter so quiet, if only for a second, had somehow made him more real to me. As if for those few moments, he wasn’t just my summer boyfriend but something bigger, something I had a stake in.
The rest of the evening went well. The burgers and dogs were tasty, and most of the expensive olive-and-sun-dried-tomato spread went uneaten, while Jennifer Anne’s deviled eggs and three-bean salad were a hit. I even saw my mother licking her fingers after consuming a second piece of Jennifer Anne’s chocolate pudding pie, which was garnished with a healthy scoop of Cool Whip. So much for gourmet.
By dark everyone was saying their good-byes, and my mother disappeared to her room, claiming to be completely wiped out from the party because entertaining, even when other people do most of the work, can be so exhausting. So Jennifer Anne and Chris and Dexter and I stacked the dishes and wrapped things up, tossing most of the gourmet crap and the burned steaks, saving only one, with the blackened stuff trimmed off, for Monkey.
“He’ll love it,” Dexter said, taking it from Jennifer Anne, who had wrapped it up in foil, the edges folded neatly. “He’s really a Dog Chow kind of guy, so this is like Christmas to him.”
“What an interesting name he has,” she said.
“I got him for my tenth birthday,” Dexter told her, glancing outside. “I really wanted a monkey, so I was kind of disappointed. But he’s turned out to be much better. Monkeys get really mean, apparently.”
Jennifer Anne looked at him, somewhat quizzically, then smiled. “I’ve heard that,” she said, not unkindly, and went back to covering leftover pita bread with Cling Wrap.
“So if you’ve got a minute,” Chris said to Dexter, wiping the counter down with a sponge, “you should come up and see my hatchlings. They’re amazing.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dexter said enthusiastically. Then he looked at me. “You okay?”
“Go ahead,” I said, as if I was his mom or something, and they took off up the stairs, feet clumping, on the way to the lizard room.
Across the kitchen, Jennifer Anne sighed, shutting the fridge. “I will never understand this hobby of his,” she said. “I mean, dogs and cats you can cuddle. Who wants to cuddle a lizard?”
This seemed like a difficult question to answer, so I just pulled the plug on the drain, where I was washing dishes, and let the water gurgle down noisily. Upstairs, it sounded like the honeycomb hideout: giggling, various oohs and ahhs, and the occasional skittering noise, followed by uproarious laughter.
Jennifer Anne cast her eyes up at the ceiling, obviously unnerved. “Tell Christopher I’m in the den,” she said, picking up her purse from the sideboard, where it was parked next to her plastic containers, now cleaned, lids accounted for. She drew out a book and headed into the next room, where a few seconds later I heard the TV come on, murmuring softly.
I picked up the foil-wrapped steak and walked outside, flicking on the porch light. As I came down the front walk Monkey got to his feet and started wagging his tail.
“Hey buddy,” I said. He poked at my hand, then got a whiff of the steak and started nudging my fingers with his nose, snuffling. “Got a treat for you here.”
Monkey wolfed down the steak in about two bites, almost taking part of my pinky with it. Well, it was dark. When he was done he burped and rolled over onto his back, sticking his belly in the air, and I sat down on the grass beside him.
It was a nice night, clear and cooler, perfect Fourth of July weather. A few people were popping off firecrackers a couple of streets over, the noise pinging in the dark. Monkey kept rolling closer to me, nudging my elbow, until I finally relented and scratched the matted fur on his belly. He needed a bath. Badly. Plus he had bad breath. But there was something sweet about him, nonetheless, and he was practically humming as I moved my fingers across him.
We sat there like that for a while until I heard the screen door slam and Dexter call out my name. At the sound of his voice, Monkey instantly sat up, ears perked, and then got to his feet, walking toward it until the leash was stretched to the limit.
“Hey,” Dexter said. I couldn’t see his face, just his outline in the brightness of the porch light. Monkey barked, as if he’d called him, and his tail wagging grew frenzied, like intense windmill action, and I wondered if he’d knock himself down with the sheer force of it.