Alek Khederian thinks about his life B.E. and A.E.: Before Ethan and After Ethan. Before Ethan, Alek was just an average Armenian-American kid with a mess of curly dark hair, grades not nearly good enough for his parents, and no idea of who he was or what he wanted. After he got together with Ethan, Alek was a new man. Stylish. Confident. (And even if he wasn’t quite marching in LGBTQ parades), Gay and Out and Proud.
With their six-month anniversary coming up, Alek and Ethan want to do something special to celebrate. Like, really special. Like, the most special thing two people in love can do with one another. But Alek’s not sure he’s ready for that. And then he learns something about Ethan that may not just change their relationship, but end it.
Alek can't bear the thought of finding out who he'd be P.E.: Post-Ethan. But he also can't forgive or forget what Ethan did. Luckily, his best friend Becky and madcap Armenian family are there to help him figure out whether it’s time to just let Ethan go, or reach out and hold his hand.
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Kissing Ethan rocked.
Kissing Ethan was like taking a rocket to outer space, floating in zero gravity, and marveling at the incomprehensible beauty of the creations of the universe. Kissing Ethan was sweet like the last piece of baklava, drenched in honey, snatched from the bottom of the box. Kissing Ethan was the answer to an unasked prayer.
And then there was being kissed by Ethan.
Being kissed by Ethan was not the same as kissing him.
Being kissed by Ethan was rapture, surrender. Being kissed was surfing a wave of joy, unpredictable and uncontrollable, that could break any moment and send you tumbling, an endless series of surprises.
Being kissed by Ethan was endorphins kicking in two hours into a tennis match, transforming pain into euphoria. It was being a ship in a violent storm, hoping you wouldn't be torn apart as the ocean churned beneath you. It was feeling like your skin, your very body, would explode because it couldn't possibly contain all the joy pulsing through it.
Alek brought Ethan's face back up to his own. He kissed Ethan back.
Kissing Ethan was safer than being kissed by him.
"Whoa." Alek pulled away, gasping for air, as if he'd just edged out a victory in the tiebreaker of a five-set tennis match, full of baseline strokes, cross-court slams, and net game saves.
"Come on," Ethan purred. "We're just getting started."
Hundreds of half-naked men stared at Alek from the images Ethan had plastered around his room, cut from magazine ads — a kaleidoscopic homage to homoeroticism. The effect was dizzying as wall and ceiling and floor merged, seemingly seamlessly, with sculpted torsos and abs and chests and calves.
"I promised my mom I'd help get ready for Thanksgiving." Alek retrieved his bright purple shirt with plaid-gray details from the chair by Ethan's desk, the only pieces of furniture in the room other than the bed, where Ethan remained.
"I hate to point out the obvious, but Thanksgiving isn't for another week." Ethan rolled over. "Or is this some weird Armenian thing, like Christmas, that you celebrate at a different time than everyone else in the whole freakin' world?"
"We Armenians celebrate Thanksgiving just like everyone else in this country, thank you very much. Although, did you know that Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October?"
"No, I did not know that." Ethan sat up, surrendering to Alek's departure. "You're going to your grandma's for Thanksgiving, right?"
"That was the plan." Alek finished the last buttons on his shirt and grabbed his leather book bag, groaning under its nearing-midterms weight. "But then Nana twisted her ankle, so she decided she wasn't up to hosting Thanksgiving. I will try to spare you the political saga that ensued as my dad and his two siblings negotiated who would assume the mantle, but suffice to say it involved three instances of blackmail, two of coercion, the reemergence of a fight from twenty years ago when my dad and his older sister were in college that had something to do with a cat, tears, apologies, more tears, and a complicated negotiation involving a credenza that both my dad and his younger brother would like once Nana finally passes to the next world. We're talking backroom deals that would almost put 45's presidential administration to shame."
"And this is sparing me the saga?"
Alek nodded. "The long and short of it is that we will be hosting Thanksgiving this year, so yes — seven days is barely enough time to prepare. My mom took the week off from the UN. THE ENTIRE WEEK. Because she knows that hosting her in-laws is a prime opportunity for Nana to judge my mom's cooking, housekeeping, and child-rearing. In fact, one of the Sunday-morning news shows theorized that Nana intentionally twisted her ankle just to have the opportunity to criticize whoever was fool enough to step up."
Ethan rolled over on his back, defeated. "Are all Armenian families this complicated?"
"From what I hear at church, we're on the simpler side. My mom has six siblings who all live in the same town in Southern Cali. I'm amazed they haven't had a Romeo and Juliet – style feud spring up there." Alek finished tying his shoes. "I'll see you soon, okay?"
"'Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?'" Ethan asked, eyes batting innocence from the bed.
"'What satisfaction canst thou expect?'" Alek flirted back. "See, I can quote R and J, too, but I'm still outta here."
Ethan hopped out of bed and threw on a plaid flannel that hung open on his wiry frame. He kissed his boyfriend goodbye. "I'll see you soon, okay?"
As Alek pedaled his way home, he tried to imagine what his life would be like if he hadn't met Ethan last summer. They had lived in the same township for the entirety of their lives, but Ethan was a badass skater boy who hung out with other badass skater boys, and Alek was a geek/nerd combo with honor roll aspirations. They hadn't met until they found themselves in summer school last June: Ethan because he'd failed Standard Geometry as a junior, and Alek to raise his C in Freshman Algebra to an honors grade.
Alek jumped the curb, landing lightly, his body hovering in midair, before lowering back down on the frame of his bike. Soon, it would be too cold to ride and he'd exile his bike to the shed until spring rolled around to liberate it. He adjusted the secondhand leather backpack that Ethan had found for him during one of their clandestine trips into NYC, early in their relationship.
It was easy to imagine what life would be like without the external stuff that had come from Ethan, like the backpack and the haircut and the clothes infinitely hipper than the suburban fare to which his mother had restricted him. He wouldn't have any of those things if Ethan hadn't strutted into his life. But those weren't important.
It was the emotional stuff that had wrapped itself around his very being, like ivy around a building, that was impossible to untangle from his imagination. For one thing, he probably wouldn't have come out if not for the super-chill pixie skater boy who made his insides yearn every time they were within arm's reach. And if Ethan hadn't taken Alek into New York City, Alek would've never discovered the one place where he truly felt himself, unlike the suburbs where he'd spent all 14 and 11/12 years of his life. It wasn't that Ethan had changed Alek: rather, he'd helped Alek discover who he was. The alternate-universe Alek who'd never cut summer school to go with Ethan into New York on that first fateful trip would have no way of knowing how unrealized he was. But luckily, Alek wasn't that Alek anymore.
He pulled up to his house, depositing his hybrid bike in front of the three stairs leading to the front door. The sun was setting earlier and earlier now, and within a week or two, it would be dark even at five o'clock. Normally, his mom would still be at the United Nations, having rejoined the workforce last year, deeming her teenage sons old enough to grow up without her full attention. She usually caught the 5:37 p.m. train that would have her walking through the Khederian front door approximately one hour later. But her red Toyota was docked in the garage today, as it would be for most of the following seven days leading up to Thanksgiving. Alek didn't bother locking his bike up, just as his family didn't bother locking the front door to their house. South Windsor, New Jersey, might've only been fifty miles from New York City, but it may as well have been another universe.
Even from outside, Alek could smell the odors of deliciousness wafting from the kitchen. Although his dad had assumed most of the domestic responsibilities since he got laid off last year, when it came to the major cooking events, he served as sous chef to his wife.
Alek made his way through his parents' old-world living room: doilies hand-knit by both grandmothers adorned Queen Anne–legged furniture, proudly standing on authentic Persian rugs, with coasters aplenty to protect every surface from possible water stains. He dropped his leather backpack on the banister leading upstairs, took a deep breath, and braved the kitchen.
"There you are, Alek." His dad was furiously scrubbing the black onyx kitchen counters they'd installed a few years ago. Every detail in the kitchen renovation, from counter material and color to cabinet hardware, had been selected with more agony and care than most parents spend on selecting their children's names. The entire room sparkled.
His mother was taping recipes to the cupboards along with the master schedule for the next week, which she had created as a three-page Excel document with color-coded timetables. She applied the final piece of tape and appraised the room with a combination of determination and satisfaction. "Let's get to work."
* * *
The next seven days were a blur of cooking, interrupted by school, homework, and explaining to Ethan why Alek was too busy to see him. The battalion of Armenians who would descend on the house to celebrate the most American of holidays included Nana (paternal grandmother) and both of his dad's siblings: (older) Aunt Elen and (younger) Uncle Samvel. Elen's husband, Hayk, was coming, of course, with their children Mariam, Ani, and Tigran. Uncle Samvel was on his second wife, who (luckily) was even more Armenian than his first, and he was bringing the kids from his first marriage (Nare and Milena), along with her kids from her first two marriages (Davit, Anahit, Erik, and Mary). It would be, in other words, a full house.
No room in the house was safe from the whirlwind of activity. In the dining room, the table was extended to accommodate both leaves, the good china was removed from its boxes, and the silverware still needing polishing was laid out like soldiers awaiting marching orders. In the bathroom, every surface had been sterilized. The furniture in the living room underwent deep cleaning, which felt perhaps like overkill to Alek since it was kept enshrined in plastic when it wasn't in use (on average, 361 days of the year). But this was the first time the Khederians would be hosting this holiday, and his mother wasn't taking any chances.
Charts, schedules, and recipes were added over the next few days, taped to every available cabinet, transforming the perfectly coordinated, granite-countered, oak-cabinet-lined kitchen into the headquarters of a complex military campaign.
And then there was the cooking, which resumed the moment Alek and his older brother Nik returned home from school and went late into the night. Even with the entire week of preparation, however, not a single dish was ready to be served an hour before the guests were scheduled to arrive.
Which was why Alek was so perplexed when his mother took a break from cooking and started making calls from her landline, hanging up a moment later.
"What's she doing?" Alek asked Nik.
"Have you ever wondered why we get prank-called every time we have to go to a family function?" Nik was showing no signs of halting his growth spurt. The effect, in Alek's humble opinion, was that Nik resembled a wannabe hipster beanpole, all legs and arms and trying-too-hard accessories, like the chunky glasses he was sporting today.
"Now that you mention it, it does seem weird." Alek removed the soaking carrots from the bowl in the sink and began peeling them. "And they always just hang up the second we answer."
"This is the time-honored tradition of our family: call the homes of your guests, and if they pick up, you know they haven't left yet."
"Wouldn't it just be easier to text?" Alek asked.
"These Armenians ..." Nik trailed off.
"These Armenians indeed," Alek agreed.
When Alek's mother finished her phone reconnaissance, she gathered her family and addressed them like a general might her platoon. "I have good news, everyone! I'm estimating that our first guests won't arrive for at least two hours, maybe even three, which gives us just enough time to get everything done. I've already removed the turkey from the malt/beer brine and put it in the oven to roast, but we'll need to flip it in ninety minutes. The apples for the dressing are peeled but still need to be cored. The sweet potatoes have been boiled but not peeled. The chestnuts have been roasted and peeled but not chopped, and the cranberries have been soaked but not boiled." Alek's mom paced back and forth in the kitchen as she recited the litany of work remaining. "Nik, have you trimmed the Brussels sprouts and chopped the parsley?"
"Yup." Alek's older brother, like all the members of the family, wore a crisp, clean apron whose daily stains had disappeared into the washing machine every night for the last week. "But I still haven't peeled the pearl onions because Dad said he was going to show me a trick."
"Cut a small 'X' on the root side with a paring knife, then drop them into boiling water for thirty seconds. They'll pop right out." Alek's father chopped the winter-squash varietals as he talked, never taking his eyes off the task at hand.
"Got it, Dad."
"We could just use frozen pearl onions, you know." Alek was only being half serious. The other half wanted to see how his mom would respond.
She didn't disappoint, inhaling sharply and clutching her imaginary pearls. "You know that there is only one vegetable we use frozen."
"Peas," Alek and Nik intoned in unison.
"And why is that?"
"Because frozen peas actually taste better than fresh peas."
"Only when fresh peas are out of season," Mrs. Khederian amended. Then, to make sure that aliens hadn't abducted her children and replaced them with changelings, she asked, "And when are peas in season?"
"Spring," her sons replied in unison.
Satisfied that Alek and Nik were her own flesh and blood, Mrs. Khederian continued. "Now, Alek, have you finished the mushrooms for the gravy?"
A heap of soiled paper towels smeared with dirt from the mushrooms Alek had wiped clean surrounded the pile of quarter-inch-sliced creminis on his cutting board. "I still think it would be easier to rinse them out."
"The water content in mushrooms is already high, which is why they take so long to cook down. It makes rinsing them simply impractical." Alek's mom relished the opportunity to educate her sons on anything, and especially on all items culinary. "Okay — Nik, I'm going to have you peel the sweet potatoes for the gratin, and the parsnips and carrots that I'm going to throw in with the turkey. Alek, you're going to get started on the kale, then I'll need you to stir the farro as it cooks." Mrs. Khederian issued the orders with the effortless confidence of a master. "And all we need to do for the pies is whip the cream. Although I do wish we had made another one yesterday." Mrs. Khederian wrung her hands, tormented by the most frightening of all Armenian bugbears: running out of food. "Are we sure that six pies are enough? We could still bake one more before the guests arrive. Two, actually, if we put them in together and increase the cooking temperature, of course. We could even use the convection setting!"
"Six is plenty, mom," Alek reassured his mother. "That's forty-eight slices."
"Watch out, PSATs," Nik mumbled just loud enough for Alek to hear.
"I'm just saying, we're expecting fourteen people, right?" Alek continued, ignoring his older brother. "Plus the four of us — that means everyone could have two slices and we'd still have a pie and a half leftover."
"Yes, but what if all your cousins decide they want a second slice of the chocolate pecan and all we have left is pumpkin?" This doomsday scenario tipped Alek's mom over the edge. "Boghos, would you roll out another two crusts, just to be safe?"
Alek's father nodded wordlessly. He rose from behind his pile of now-peeled winter squash and fished out two fists of dough from the fridge, replacing them with two from the cache in the freezer. Alek was impressed that he'd been able to find them so quickly. Between the terror of running out of food and the refusal to throw out anything even possibly edible, Armenians' relationships with their freezers was the stuff of which reality TV hoarder shows were made. Alek theorized that since the genocide over a hundred years ago, all Armenians were programmed to have enough food on hand at any given moment to survive six months of unexpected calamity.
For another family, the seven classic Thanksgiving dishes (three-day-brined roast turkey with root vegetables, corn bread dressing, mashed sweet potato gratin, Brussels sprouts with pearl onions and chestnuts, cranberry relish, braised kale with sautéed bacon, maple-roasted squash) and eight pies (four chocolate pecan, two pumpkin, two apple) might've sufficed. But not for the Khederians, who believed that any holiday meal should be prepared as if twenty uninvited guests might show up unannounced. This must've happened plenty in ye olde times, Alek decided, since it had never happened once during his own life.
In addition, lest they be accused of assimilation, every traditional American dish needed to be matched with its Armenian counterpart. Alek removed the kale from the fridge, eyeing all the other dishes his family had prepared over the course of the last week.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hold My Hand"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Barakiva.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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