By JD Rockel
Renata and Tony had been working long hours at the Cucina. Several groups had booked the private side room. Since the regular restaurant crowd was there as well, it meant extra people and extra hours. There had been no time since the dance for quality time with Ella. Rosa knew Jerry had been paying attention to Ella during the week, but Thursday night was kept a secret. Liam knew next to nothing about Jerry. Everyone wanted to know more about Jerry’s relationship with Ella.
Sunday proved to be a refreshing break from the week, as it was intended to be. Tony suggested that the family have lunch where they wouldn’t feel rushed. Time to sit back and catch up on family and life matters. The greater Milwaukee area was well known for its many family restaurants. Choosing one was always difficult. They decided on their Sunday favorite, The Acropolis. It was a bit of a drive but worth every mile.
When they got to the car in the church’s parking lot, Tony asked, “Who wants to drive?” After the parking practice he realized this was a loaded question.
No one said a word, just looking around at each other until Rosa volunteered, “I will.”
“Ren, do you want to ride shotgun?” Tony was ready and willing to but didn’t want to have all the fun.
“I think my first experience should be when the traffic is calmer.”
“I’m not sure when that would be dear, but I’ll ride up front today.”
Renata wasn’t really sure what the seating arrangement should be in the back seats. Unless they were traveling further than across town, the kids would normally split between the first and second rows. When Lee and Sofie were born in 2020, it was clear a minivan wouldn’t be big enough. After some shopping around, they decided on a full-size passenger van. With a total of five kids in the back, having the extra space proved crucial when bickering occurred.
“You two OK if I crowd in with you?” Liam and Ella were in the first row. The younger twins preferred to sit as far back as they could.
“Sure, Mom,” Liam said first.
“I suppose,” was Ella’s response.
Renata understood teenage moods as it wasn’t that long ago when she was a teen. But it still annoyed her to hear that tone of voice.
“I’ll take the middle,” Renata said as she climbed in with Ella to her right and Liam to her left. Maybe she could have some girl time with her daughter while Rosa drove.
Renata waited a few miles before trying to get Ella to talk. “Ella, I heard you had a great time at the dance, but I haven’t heard any details from you. I’m sorry my work schedule has been so crazy this week.”
Ella came alive, just a bit. “It was a good dance. Jerry was there too. You know, the boy who ran me down first day.”
“I hope nothing similar happened at the dance. Is he in your grade?”
“Yes, Mom. We don’t have any classes together, but I get to talk to him in the hall once in a while.”
“So, I have to ask mother questions: what’s he like? Where does he live? Who does he hang out with?”
“Oh, Mom! First of all, he is VERY nice to me. He was a complete gentleman at the dance, and he has been very polite at school. I don’t know who he hangs with, but he hasn’t suggested that we do anything you would disapprove of. Oh, and he lives west of us in the same subdivision.”
“Nice! I’m really happy for you dear. I hope he can come over to the house sometime soon so I can meet him. Of course, we would need to coordinate schedules. How bothersome, right?”
“Right. I’m sure you will like him Mom. Honestly I need to spend more time talking with him so I can learn more too.”
“Well please have him come over on Saturday. You guys can have the family room to watch videos and talk. Just remember the rules about not being behind closed doors. I know you are a mature young woman, but boys’ brains need more time to catch up to their hormones.”
“In know the science Mom. I will be careful. I promise.”
Rosa was at the exit, so the conversation ended, for now.
* * *
The atmosphere at The Acropolis lived up to its reputation. Walking through the entrance revealed a clamor of activity. At the entrance, next to the cash register was a carousel of luscious dessert items tempting the customers to be taken home. Lee and Sofie were salivating as the carousel went round and round. Renata could tell Tony was focused on the business aspects of the operation while scrutinizing the smell of every food plate that passed by.
“What do you think Ren, should we open a family diner like this on the north side?”
Renata gave him the look. “I think we are plenty busy right now. Maybe the kids will want to follow in your footsteps and can open it up in about ten years. You know, once they are done with college.”
That brought dirty looks followed by laughter from both girls. Liam appeared to think about the prospects more. He had asked when he could start helping at the Cucina. Renata and Tony both agreed any of the kids needed to be sixteen. Liam reopened the discussion pushing for fifteen or even fourteen several times at home and when eating at restaurants.
It didn’t take long for the hostess to lead them to a table. The family most often got a rectangular table for six. But today they were overjoyed when led to a corner with one of the circular family booths.
As much as Renata wanted to ask Ella more questions about Jerry she knew it would be futile until after the orders were taken.
“Hello, my name is Jennifer. I will be taking care of you today. What drinks can I start you off with?”
Everyone offered their favorite drinks one at a time. They went one after another around the table to help the server remember the order. She didn’t write anything down.
“I’ll be right back with your drinks and to take your orders,” she said with a smile. As she scurried off, everyone at the table opened their menus. There was very little family talk while perusing the menu. Comments such as, “The orange duck looks good,” and “Did you see they have spinach salad with hot bacon dressing?” were the norm. Lee and Sofie got down to business coloring the kid’s menus.
As busy as the place was, Jennifer was back quickly with a tray of drinks. She efficiently put them down on little drink napkins in the same order as requested. Once done, she pulled out her order pad. “Are you ready to order or should I give you more time?”
For reasons no one could ever explain, this was the most awkward time at any restaurant meal. Everyone looked around to see what the reaction of the others at the table would be. No one wanted to start ordering for fear someone else wasn’t ready.
Tony broke the silence with, “Any objections if I start?” Everyone muttered, “No. Go ahead.”
“Then I will order the Orange Duck. Can I get a small spinach salad with hot bacon dressing as a side with that?”
“Absolutely,” Jennifer replied. “Are the Greek potatoes that come with it OK for you?”
“That will be perfect, Jennifer.”
And around the table requests went. When everyone was done and Jennifer headed for the kitchen to turn in the order, Renata grabbed at the opportunity to probe a bit deeper into Ella’s new friend. “Any other details you care to share about Jerry, Ella?”
“I don’t know. He thinks he has eaten at the Cucina. He likes Bar-B-Que ribs and everything at Culver’s. Dad, you might know Jerry’s dad. He does restaurant appliance repair.”
“Harold Weston? Is Jerry’s last name Weston.”
“I didn’t know Harold had a son. I haven’t met any of his family. Not even his wife Abigail before she died. That was so tragic. I think it was in 2018 she died of cancer. I don’t suppose Jerry mentioned that.”
“Actually, he did but he didn’t give me any details. I can tell it really hurt him.”
“Wow, such a small world,” Renata said. “You never know what the connection might be with someone new you meet. I guess we really do have to be careful with all new relationships.”
“This makes your new friend even more special,” Tony added. “I would like to meet him too. And I promise to be very careful not to mention his mom.”
“Thanks, Dad. That means a lot to me. Jerry has made a very nice first impression and I want to see where this goes. So, all of you, be nice!”
Everyone except the younger twins nodded and said, “We will.” The twins were too focused on picture puzzles.
Jennifer returned with a tray of appetizers. There were mostly salads on the tray, but Ella and Liam each ordered a plate of french fries to start the meal off. Those with salads began to put the little cups of dressing on top.
Rosa decided to pick up the conversation. “So how was Thursday night after school?”
“That’s right,” Renata added. “You were going to check out the club activities.”
Ella froze and almost choked on a fry. She took a sip of her soda to recover and stall for time.
“Did you find anything interesting?” Rosa asked, finishing the question.
Ella’s eyes were staring up to the left. She quickly recovered.
“Being the first night, I mostly just walked around and poked my head in the doors. I had a list of what clubs where in what rooms, so I didn’t have to ask at every room what was going on. I avoided the music rooms since I have no interest in singing or playing an instrument. There are a couple Spanish clubs that might be nice when I take Spanish next semester. There is a snowboarding club. I might get into that this winter.”
Renata froze, a mother’s look of terror on her face. “You are kidding about the Snowboarding, aren’t you?”
“You want me to be more athletic, don’t you? I understand snowboarding is a really good workout.”
“And a good way to break bones in your body,” Tony added.
Liam and Rosa just laughed.
“I don’t see myself in Math Club, Chess Club or Robotics. The choices are a bit limited. I suppose I could get involved in SAGE.”
“SAGE? What’s that,” Renata asked with fear in her voice.
“Sexual and Gender Equality.” Rosa offered the answer for Ella. “I think she is pulling your chain now. You are pulling our chain, aren’t you Ella?”
“Yes! I’m with Jerry, remember. I don’t think our relationship would fit into the ‘scope of interest’ of SAGE. Anyway, the only club I may spend time in right away is a board game club. They just play board games for fun.”
“That sounds like my kind of club,” Liam said.
“Me too,” added Tony.
“Well, keep an open mind about Spanish and have fun with board games,” Renata said. “I’m sure you will make friends there.”
“I think so, Mom. What’s most important is that I show up Thursday nights to keep up with what’s happening.”
* * *
Rosa drove home and Ella recalled the dance and Thursday after school. Her secret was still safe. She treasured each moment of the time she spent with Jerry.
No one asked if Jerry was involved in a club. That would have been awkward. All she wanted right now was to spend time alone with Jerry. No one needed to lecture her, she would be careful. Ella wondered what Jerry meant when he said they could spend more personal time together. What could he possibly have in mind?
* * *
Rosa hoped to get some more details from her sister. As they were settling down for bed that evening, Rosa asked, “Ella, sister to sister, how is Jerry treating you?”
“Rosa, it’s amazing. I really can’t believe it. We’ve been texting and talking a lot, mostly about our lives, not about silly stuff. He has been so gentle and kind to me. He hasn’t tried to make any moves on me. He genuinely seems to like me for who I am, not for what he can get from me.”
“That is amazing, sis. I am really happy for you. I mean it does seem too good to be true, but I won’t be a naysayer. Does he really live on the other side of the subdivision? Why isn’t he on our bus?”
“He’s just on a different route. Apparently the subdivision is split in half between the two routes. By the way, don’t tell Mom, but his kisses are wonderfully sweet too.”
“Kisses? Already? Ow, I’m trying really hard to not be cynical. When did you guys first kiss?”
“After the dance. And please believe me, they were sweet, gentle, giving kisses. I didn’t feel like he wanted anything else.”
“At least not yet. He is a boy, after all.”
“Rosa, stop that! He has been a perfect gentleman.”
“OK, I’m sorry Ella. You know I love you and am just concerned as a good sister should be.”
“Promise you will be careful and tell me if things are getting out of hand. I want to be there for you no matter what happens, good or bad.”
“Rosa, I understand anyone can turn and show their true colors. But I really believe I’m seeing his true colors. I promise I’ll be careful, and I promise I will keep you informed of any questionable behavior.”
“It just occurred to me… remember the youth night when the pastor talked about relationships? He said that we need to set boundaries early in the relationship. We need to know when something is going too far. I know he was talking about physical stuff, but I guess it applies to manipulative talk and actions also.
“Anyway, I am simply encouraging you to set some real boundaries and agree on them with Jerry. If he is as genuine as he appears, he will understand and agree without trying to push you further. Am I making sense?”
“You are. I remember that night. I’m afraid the discussion got me thinking about stuff I shouldn’t have been thinking of… for days. But I agree. I need to think about the boundaries and talk with Jerry about them. I appreciate you, sis! Please help me stay safe.”
“It’s more than my pleasure. It’s a promise. We are twins in more ways than looking exactly alike.”
Ella broke out laughing. “It is fun to be so identical sometimes.”
“I agree, but we share a connection that goes beyond feelings. I really think there is a link between us. What you said the first day of school may really be true. Whether you call it a psychic connection or a spiritual link, we do know each other in uncanny ways.”
“There must be a connection, Rosa. Joined at the hip, right? After all, the number of times you took the fall with me is unprecedented.”
They hugged each other and laughed till they cried. There was so much truth to their connection. Rosa hoped that the connection would help them both get through high school in one piece.