Trina neared the end of her anecdote. Unexpected breathlessness. Mixed up “champion” with “championship.” No one at the table seemed aware of the error. They looked pleased with more than the considerate brunch that repelled all possible allergies. They looked ready for dessert, a sweet way to push back from the table. Reassured, she launched a punchy last line. Their chuckles and gentle nods revealed the reward for sharing her chance encounter in childhood with Cassius Clay, before he became the world-famous Muhammad Ali.
Finished with her story, she looked down at her plate, at a piece of avocado toast couched against a slice of potato tart. She lifted the green tidbit to her mouth. Heard her stomach growl, signaling her to head to the buffet table for another helping. A smidgen more wouldn’t harm her calorie and cholesterol limits, especially if she left the potato tart on her plate.
“And what do you say, Dad? Is that how you remember it?”
Jackson. Half-brother of the groom, good friends with him, a testament to how a blended family can work out despite divorce. He was leaning over to spot his father’s answer. Trina was half-standing, the last of her avocado toast already in her mouth. Distracted by her growling stomach, but not enough to overlook Jackson’s question. She followed his lead, glancing down the table to the end where Terrance sat.
Part of Trina wanted to pretend. Make like she hadn’t heard her brother’s answer to his son’s request for verification. Or maybe Terrance was distracted, too, answering a question put by someone at that end of the table. Jackson’s question sounded innocent, plucked from a sea of submerged history. Limp, waterlogged stuff everyone dumps overboard to lighten the load of chugging through endless days and nights of good, bad, whatever. How about this detail, his question asked. Recognize this—the moment when this happened?
Terrance said no. A definite rejection. An order to throw the crap back. It’s worthless, doesn’t belong here, among us. Not acceptable on this day of happy matrimony.
She looked at him, her mouth finishing its job of chewing the toast with avocado smeared on top. Bit of a culinary miracle. The toast didn’t get soft, the avocado remained green. Later, she would remember thinking about the crunch, the creaminess. Her throat and tongue in concert. For now, she slumped back in her chair, unable to shift her focus away from her brother’s face. For a second she grew afraid she’d choke, cause even more of a scene than what was surely sucking out all the air while she stared at him and none of the gawkers said a word.
The look he gave her held onto pain. Held her in a bright gaze that stepped them onto a threshold and stopped. She was stunned. The threshold pooled, a watery mess. Her eyes were damp. She could have mistaken the choking sensation. It was more like a sucker punch, T-boning her liveliness. A rising tide of shock. She felt her eyes blinking, shutters slamming, protection from the storm: Terrance, the male’s male who always knew the correct answer. Always held his goateed chin high, his mahogany body the plank that survived the wreck of patronizing scholarships, made it to shore, became the frontispiece of success.
She sensed him forcing back something. Making himself turn down his temperature. Past heated anger, a conditioning of the air that reverted to cool and then to cold. Gripping the look he gave her as he sat, rigid. No recognition of a blood bond. No warmth. No rescue.
It was a time in childhood they shared. That was all. She’d told a tale that sounded almost silly. One small ripple of time. She was 8 or 9, he was maybe 15. She couldn’t see what the big deal was. She’d spotted the man as he left a neighborhood bar. She remembered late afternoon sunlight falling across him and the two men with him. The bar’s doorway taking its time closing after them. Darkness from inside the bar challenging the sun, giving the three a weird glow as they paused, squinting. The man in the center looked like her big brother, especially in the eyes and chin and molasses coloring. When she told the man, unabashed, on her way home from a piano lesson, the man reversed her notation: he was the Big Man, not her brother. A stance she’d stumbled back home from. When she told on herself, she got a comeuppance, for talking to a stranger and for mistaking the next world champion for someone anywhere near her brother.
Now, she was still confounded. How could her story—their story—smash his fabrication, his breastplate of confidence. What was he fighting not to reveal? Why the pain? She swallowed an urge to hug him, ask him to daub her tears, like he used to do when she scraped her knee or shoved a bully who knocked her flat. Remember, she wanted to ask but didn’t, how we laughed at ourselves as we practiced the Twist while you played your Chubby Checker 45? Now, Terrance was hard, unrelenting. Touch me, he seemed to warn her with his knifing stare, and I will make you hard too.
She stood, all the conversations at the table buzzing in her ears. Everyone sounded quickly and with relief interested in some other topic. Any other subject sounded OK to them as long as the words swerved them away from the smack-down they’d witnessed. They could step aside, revisit the merriment housing their smiles and nods and genteel chatter. It was difficult for her to move but she was able to make her legs take her toward the exit. Later she would chew on the astounding flavors and textures of one person’s pain flooding her. For now, she was glad she’d kept her coat on, relieved not to need to navigate the checkroom. She could go.