The Everettes loved Richmond. Though Martin and Wanda hailed from different parts of the country, both had grown up in the sticks. Martin was a Virginia native that grew up stranded in the middle area that the interstates forgot. Wanda came from a part of Massachusetts that could have just as easily been New York or Vermont. Virginia Commonwealth University attracted them each to Richmond. There they fell in love—with the city first, and then each other.
Martin was the creative writing sort. Wanda loved to paint. Dating consisted of going to poetry readings, spending time together in the library, and frequenting talks. But they also spent a good deal of time off campus. There were a number of parks that provided them with enough trees to calm their nerves. Then they went moshing at the National and watched performances at the Landmark Theater. The two don’t mosh anymore, but they still frequent the theater, even if it’s now named after a tobacco company.
Both set of parents had their qualms when, around graduation, Martin and Wanda got engaged. Each had expected their kid to move back home. But the parents sucked it up, and when the wedding took place, they each stood behind their kids.
Still, some things, all these years later, were hard to overlook.
“What are these?” Thomas Nelson asked.
“They’re mushrooms, Dad,” Wanda said, handing her father a tray a portabello caps. She had lightly coated each in olive oil, salt, and pepper.
“I get that. What do you expect me to do with them?”
“What you’re doing with everything else. Grill.”
“Yes, like burgers.”
“I thought you guys ate veggie patties.”
“We do. I have a tray of those coming out next. But we also eat these.”
Begrudingly, Thomas tonged the caps onto the top rack of the grill. There they were far enough from the meat, both for his daughter’s peace of mind and his own.
“Look at you,” Hannah Nelson said. “You’re so skinny.”
“Mom,” Wanda moaned. “I’ve always been skinny. Just like aunt Annie.”
“I know, but it’s just been so long since I last saw you. You should let us fatten you up.”
It had only been two months, but Wanda did not want to have that conversation again. Nor did she particularly want to discuss her mother’s concept of fattening her up. It’s no wonder you’re still so skinny. Those veggies don’t have any fat in them.
Fortunately, Martin and his mother, Louise Everette, walked out at just that moment. Martin held a picture of sweet tea. Louise had a stack of cups. They placed them on the nearest table.
“Anyone thirsty?” Louise asked. “Help yourself.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Hannah said, shuffling over. “You don’t get tea like this back home.”
Wanda looked at Martin with “thank you” written in her eyes.
“Oh my, look at those!” Louise said as she glanced at the grill. “We’re having mushrooms. Wanda, child, I didn’t know you brought those.”
“Surprise?” Wanda said.
“Oh yes. Veggie patties are good and all, but there’s nothing quite like a juicy mushroom.”
“I’m with you there.”
“Louise,” Thomas said as he closed the lid on the grill. “Just who I wanted to see. What good Southern cookin’ do you have for us this time?”
“Well, there’s mac and cheese. There’s baked beans. There’s BBQ slaw.
“Think cole slaw covered in BBQ sauce.”
“For a second there, I thought you made barbecue. Louise, I’d love to see what you could do to a porkchop.”
“I bet you would.” The pig probably wouldn’t, Louise thought to herself. But she knew better than to say that out loud. Some people weren’t going to give up meat no matter what you told them, and it wasn’t her goal in life to go without having any friends. Or, in this case, making things more difficult for her son and his wife.
At that moment, her husband made his way out of the house. James Everette immediately went towards the sweet tea, despite having just stepped out of the bathroom.
“You look dark, girl,” James said when he caught sight of Wanda.
“Yeah, we just got back from the Outer Banks a couple days ago,” Wanda said.
“That’s right. You two went with that other couple. What were their names?”
“Don’t tell me. Sam and Jacob?”
“I will never understand how all your friends are gay,” Hannah said to her daughter. This wasn’t the outcome they had expected from sending their daughter down south rather than one of the local northeastern schools. But instead of coming back more grounded after four years of college, Wanda had seemingly befriended every queer person south of the Mason-Dixon line.
“Not all of them,” Martin said. Some of them were bisexual, including Wanda and himself. This, though, was not the kind of conversation he wanted to dive into with his in-laws.
How his hippie of a wife managed to come from such plain country folk could have been confounding, but their circle was filled with similarly quirky people raised in rural America. He was the only one whose parents were treehuggers as well.
“More than I’ve ever met,” Hannah replied.
“How many is that?” James probed.
“How many do you think?”
“I don’t know. Kids weren’t as out about it back in our day, but I knew a handful in high school.”
“Me too,” Louise chimed in.
“We went to the same school.”
“Yes, but they weren’t all the same folk.”
“Who didn’t I know?”
“Remember the other James?”
“Which one? There were several of us.”
“The quiet little white boy with the red hair.”
“Him? I would have never guessed.”
“How’d you find out?” Thomas asked.
“He and my girlfriend were tight,” Louise said. “She was one of the few people he actually talked to.”
Thomas looked surprised. “You had a—?”
“Oh no. We were just friends. I had my eyes on James at the time. My James.”
The cuteness was almost enough to make Wanda gag. Her mother felt the same.
“I bet your friends are happy they can get married now,” Hannah said.
“Not as happy as we are,” Wanda said. “They’re content as they are for now.”
“Figures. They start all this fuss over getting married and then rather continue living in sin than tie the knot.”
Wanda smiled at this, confusing everyone who saw her.
“What?” Hannah asked.
“So the being gay itself is no longer a sin, as long as they get married?”
Hannah’s mouth hung open for a moment. “You know what I mean.”
“Your mom is coming around,” Martin said to Wanda. “Maybe now would be a good time to show her your latest painting.”
“I’ve made it a point not to look at anything Wanda has painted since she turned fifteen.”
“Oh my work has gotten so much better since then,” Wanda said.
Her work had definitely improved over the years, as had her commitment to spreading those ideals that still made her parents wince. Sexuality, nudity, environmentalism, animal rights, ending poverty—she produced art that embraced them all. She had even painted a few murals throughout the city. Each stirred discussion, but she had not yet been forced to watch one come back down.
“Let’s not talk about this,” Hannah said, which was her way of accepting her daughter and her crazy Southern way of life. Better not to have the argument again than to try to make her change. At this point, that wasn’t going to happen.
Thomas placed his hand on his wife’s. Then he looked to his daughter. “And we’re proud of you, sweetheart. Now, I’m going to go check those mushrooms.”
Thomas would never understand why his daughter prefered these things to the chicken on the bottom rack. Nor did he understand her entire new family, for that matter, or this corner of the world she called home.
But at the end of the day, he was happy to flip over these funny looking caps for her. He couldn’t change how his only daughter turned out, the family she married into, or the way she chose to dress. But he could sprinkle Worcester sauce on her mushrooms and pretend they were burgers. That’s all she asked.