Eli Ward hasn’t been back to his suffocating hometown of New Port Stephen, Florida, in ages. Post-transition and sober, he’s a completely different person from the one who left years ago. But when a scandal threatens his career as a TV writer and comedian, he has no choice but to return home for the holidays. He can only hope he’ll survive his boisterous, loving, but often misguided family and hide the fact that his dream of comedy success has become a nightmare.
Just when he thinks this trip couldn’t get any worse, Eli bumps into his high school ex, Nick Wu, who’s somehow hotter than ever. Divorced and in his forties, Nick’s world revolves around his father, his daughter, and his job. But even a busy life can’t keep him from being intrigued by the reappearance of Eli.
Against the backdrop of one weird Floridian Christmas, the two must decide whether to leave the past in the past...or move on together.
|Atria/Emily Bestler Books
|5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Eli Ward counted four MAGA flags on his parents’ street, and those were just the ones he could see in the dark.
They were mostly in tatters, having weathered years of Florida thunderstorms, some so raggedy as to be illegible. There were yard signs, too, one bent completely backward on its coat-hanger legs. Oh, and a couple matching bumper stickers slapped on the backs of SUVs.
In a perverse way, Eli was comforted by all this. At least those households were displaying their intentions; it was the homes with empty yards that made him wonder.
The truck trundled by a house that was positively festooned with star-spangled merchandise. Eli craned his neck to take in the scene on the driver’s side. Jesus, they’d decorated the signage with red Christmas lights, giving everything a decidedly demonic cast. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a fervent display of right-wing sentiment—he’d been on the road during election season, when there were pockets of it everywhere: the Midwest, the South, Upstate New York—but it felt different here in New Port Stephen, where he’d grown up.
He glanced at his cousin in the driver’s seat, but Max didn’t seem to register the house, eyes firmly on the road. When had the kid gotten old enough to drive? Eli’s most enduring memories of Max were from Facebook photos of a toddler picking clover. It just didn’t compute with the lanky beanpole in combat boots and a billion necklaces who’d picked him up from the airport. Bit of a queer vibe, but who knew what teens were like these days. He should probably make an effort to find out, at least when it came to his own flesh and blood.
Eli cleared his throat. “So, uh, how’s school going?” Great opener. He only sounded about nine hundred years old.
Max gave an eye roll because that’s what teens did; it wasn’t because Eli was irredeemably uncool, surely. “It’ll be better in a few months. When it’s over.”
That gave Eli pause. “Wait. You’re graduating this year? Seriously?”
“I’m eighteen,” Max drawled, guiding the truck along a snakelike bend. “I know the Florida public school system hasn’t improved much since you were in it, but they did teach me simple addition.”
Eli resisted the urge to fling himself from the slow-moving vehicle to hide in a ditch, where he could spend the rest of his twilight years without being sassed by young’uns. “And how is Port Stephen Prep these days?” Seemed polite to ask, like the school was some mutual acquaintance of theirs.
“Closed. Hurricane damage.” Max shrugged. “No one’s sure when it’ll reopen; some fight about who pays for the repairs. I might have to finish the year out at Southern.”
“That sucks,” Eli offered.
“Not really. It’s all the same,” Max said.
Couldn’t argue with that. Eli looked out the window, letting his breath make a circle of fog on the glass. The house he’d grown up in finally came into view. For the first time in almost twenty years, Eli was back.
The driveway was packed with cars, so Max parked on the street. Eli took his time unbuckling his seatbelt, staring at his parents’ house through the passenger window. Of all the houses he’d seen so far, it was the most decorated for the holidays. Eli’s dad had always gone a little overboard with the lights back in the day, but this was something else.
Eli got out of the truck to take in the full effect of the Christmas display. Strand after strand of multicolored lights flickered in a repeating pattern. The eaves were dripping in lights, as were the azalea bushes out front. And the squat cabbage palm in the flower bed. And the mailbox. And the arch of the carport. And a million other things, probably, that Eli’s overwhelmed eyes hadn’t yet noticed. A half dozen holiday characters sat on the lawn, including a plastic Santa wearing a Panama hat and an inflatable Rudolph with a glowing red nose. The rest of the reindeer were represented by pink flamingos with felt antlers glued to their heads.
“Dad really went all out, huh?” he said to Max, who was getting his suitcase from the bed of the truck.
“You should have seen it a couple years ago.” Max slammed the tailgate shut. “It was like Disney World. Tons of people came to take photos.” A shrug. “Uncle Wen said this year he wanted to scale it back. Tasteful or whatever.”
Eli watched as a robotic deer outlined in bright white lights lifted its head from the front yard’s grass, swiveled it around Exorcist-style, and, apparently satisfied that no Christmas predators were close by, lowered back down to fake-eat.
“Huh,” Eli said. “Tasteful.” He took his suitcase from Max.
As they neared the wreath-bedecked front door, Eli could hear the clamor of overlapping voices and Christmas music. He took a deep breath and held his suitcase handle in a white-knuckled grip. Why had he flown in tonight of all nights? He should have waited one more day. He should have found another couch to crash on. He shouldn’t even be here.
No. This was going to be fine. There were worse things than a family holiday party. A party was just a performance, and he was used to performing. Sure, he hadn’t actually been onstage in over a year, but it was like riding a bike. Probably. He hadn’t done that in decades, so he couldn’t be sure.
The door was unlocked as usual, and Eli stepped inside. He had just enough time to get a vague impression of the house: Christmas kitsch on every available surface and stuffed to the gills with people, most of whom he didn’t recognize. Probably his parents’ friends and co-workers. A few turned to give him polite nods, clutching their red Solo cups. Bluetooth speakers scattered around the room belted out that song that went, “So this is Christmas...” The John Lennon version, not Céline, because life wasn’t fair.
“Eli’s home!” A woman with gray-streaked hair swooped out of the throng of people, caftan flapping. Her Bakelite bangles—red and green, naturally—clinked as she wrapped Eli in a fierce hug. She still wore plumeria perfume. “You made it,” Cora Ward said right into his ear.
“I made it,” Eli said, hugging back with one arm. She felt smaller than he remembered. Were his parents shrinking? He certainly wasn’t getting any bigger. The T had done all it was going to do at this point. He closed his eyes and tried to enjoy a moment of floral-scented comfort.
“Hey, son.” Giddy emphasis on the son. Eli opened his eyes to find his dad standing by with his arms held wide. What hair remained on his head was grayer than the last time Eli had seen him last year. He wore a navy sweater vest over his long-sleeved button-down, and his glasses were horn-rimmed. His mustache was neatly trimmed, but not too thin because he felt that was the mark of a pervert, which Eli still thought about every time he trimmed his own Selleck-esque ’stache.
In short, Wendall Ward looked like a librarian because he was one. Cora had been a librarian, too, until she’d retired the year prior.
“Hi, Dad.” Eli released his mom to hug him.
A flurry of activity followed.
“Where’s Max? Max, get in here!”
“Close the door; the cat’s been trying to get out all night.”
“How was the flight? Let me take that bag—no, no, I insist.”
“Was traffic bad coming up from the airport? I swear, gets worse every year. Last week—”
“My god, what did you pack? Bricks? Max, do me a favor, sweetie, put this in the back bedroom for your cousin.”
“—it was shut down for four days, every single lane. That’s why I always take the Turnpike.”
“No, the back bedroom. That’s the front. Wen, you can’t take the Turnpike to the airport. It doesn’t go to the airport.”
“Yes, it does. You just have to exit before the dog track.”
“Wow,” Eli said in a desperate bid to interrupt their double act, “look at all these old photos, huh?” It was the first thing that caught his eye, the only thing he thought might derail another hour of patter about the Florida highway system. He slipped between his mom and dad to examine the framed photographs on the wall of the sitting room. A few partygoers obligingly stepped aside to give him a better view.
His mom took the bait. She cooed at the pictures of Eli in eighties and nineties film of varying quality. There was a second little kid in many of the photos: black hair, gangly legs, oversized T-shirt. “You two were the cutest,” she said, tapping a fingernail against the glass that covered the other kid’s tousled head. “Do you keep in touch at all? Facebook, that kind of thing?”
“No,” Eli said, only half-conscious of the question. “No, I don’t do social media anymore.” He stared at the figure in the most central photograph. Aunt Honey and Uncle Hank’s wedding. Must have been ten or eleven. Wearing a poufy purple dress. He didn’t bother trying to discern a familiar nose or a tilt of the mouth. There was nothing about the kid in the picture that looked like him except the haunted look in the eyes that seemed to scream Get me out of here.
That, Eli could sympathize with.
“His dad’s here if you want to say hello.” Wendall pointed over to the family room, where a dark-haired figure was standing next to a folding table covered in finger foods, chatting with Aunt Katie. “He still lives over on Papaya.”
Eli could see only the back of Mr. Wu’s head, and he had no plans to see much more than that. This day was stressful enough. “Yeah, maybe later,” he said.
Wendall was called away to mediate a debate between his friends, but Cora stayed right where she was, like she couldn’t bear to take her eyes off Eli. She was practically bubbling over with excitement. “So how is the new job going?” she asked.
Eli cracked his neck side to side. “Oh. You know...” There was only so much you could say when you didn’t want to say anything.
Because the truth was, there was no job.
The truth was, after having a decent career in various writers’ rooms for years, all that had evaporated like so much canned milk. The truth was Eli’s plane ticket had been one-way because his apartment in Brooklyn was currently home to a subletter, and Eli had no idea how or when he’d be going back. The truth was Eli was possibly stuck in Florida for the foreseeable future while he got his shit together, but if he tried to explain this to his mom in the middle of her annual Christmas party, he was going to have to tell her how he was a huge disappointment, and then she would cry, which would make his dad cry, which would make Baby Jesus cry, and Eli was going to throw up just thinking about it.
“It’s going,” he finally choked out.
His mom beamed at him, oblivious to his internal whirlwind. “You’ll have to tell me all about it later. I’m sorry I never caught that last show you worked on, but you know how your father and I don’t care for raunchy humor.”
“Yeah. I know.” His parents subsisted on a media diet of public radio and the odd rerun of Antiques Roadshow, and he didn’t expect them to start watching M-rated streaming dramedies simply because their only child was writing the material.
Or had been.
Cora sighed gustily. “Working in television must be so interesting. Much more interesting than anything in our sleepy little town! I hope you don’t get bored while you’re here.”
In the dining room, someone dropped a cup. His parents’ cat—a hefty ginger named Sweet Potato (the third of his name)—tried his best to lick up the sticky concoction that had spattered onto the floor before being shooed away by the guests. Eli hoped that would require his mom’s attention, but Wendall stepped in to clean it up instead.
“Hey-hey!” A meaty hand landed on Eli’s shoulder, making him startle. “The prodigal... whatever returns.”
“Son,” Cora said in a singsong voice.
Eli turned to face his mother’s younger brother. “Hi, Uncle Hank. How’ve you been?”
Hank’s red face stretched into a grin. “Getting by, getting by. How’s life in the big city? You doing all right in that crime-riddled hellhole?”
“Ridden,” Eli’s mom said. “It’s crime-ridden. And Eli lives in a nice neighborhood, not one of the bad ones.”
“Mom...” If he cringed any harder, Eli was going to implode.
Uncle Hank leaned in like he was imparting state secrets. “You heard about the new law they’re trying to pass here?”
“Yeah, Uncle Hank. I heard,” Eli said. “I don’t live under a rock, so... yeah.”
The proposed law was the subject of opening monologues on the late-night circuit, a topic of conversation for internet trolls, a headline for days when there was nothing else happening. It was the brainchild of the governor—a guy who looked like undercooked pizza dough and with a haircut to match. The poorly written law prohibited “cross-dressing” on the campuses of state-funded schools and universities, making it illegal for “biological” men to wear skirts or dresses and “biological” women to wear... pants. This last part, naturally, had caused so much confusion and uproar that the real issue—the fact that some douchebag in Tallahassee wanted to terrorize transgender people to the ends of the earth—was usurped by round-table discussions about women’s lib that had all the relevance of moldy cave cheese. It was so depressing and predictable, it made Eli want to crawl into said cave, wrap himself around a cheese wheel, and sleep for a month.
“Ridiculous.” Eli’s mom clicked her tongue. “They wouldn’t even be able to enforce that law.”
Not its biggest flaw in Eli’s opinion, but okay.
Hank pointed at her with the hand that was holding his plastic cup. “I told Honey, I said to her, I said, ‘No way are they going to make my nephew wear a dress.’ Not even if it’s, like, a really nice dress. I’ll fight ’em. Sock ’em in the mouth if they try.”
“Amazing allyship, Uncle Hank, thank you. I don’t plan on visiting any school campuses while I’m here, though.” Eli eyed the sloshing cup in Hank’s hand. Smelled like rum. “How many of those have you had, by the way?”
“Why, do you want one? I can get you one.”
Cora sighed. “You know Eli is sober.”
“You can’t even have one?” Hank’s eyes went wide with disbelief.
“Oh, I can,” Eli said. “I’ll just have nine or ten more in quick succession, and I’d rather not spend Christmas getting my stomach pumped.”
It was an old punchline that Eli usually pulled out at parties. It was easier than explaining how bad his drinking had been when he first moved to New York, back in his early days on the stand-up circuit. How he’d woken up in an MRI after getting blackout drunk on two separate occasions. How his closest friend, Margo, had not-so-gently pointed out that once might be classified as a funny story to tell in greenrooms, but twice was a pattern, and he should probably talk to someone about it. How therapy had pulled off his alcoholism’s Scooby-Doo mask to reveal—surprise!—repression! Gender stuff! All the things he’d been trying to avoid his entire life!
How he’d gotten sober and transitioned and pulled himself together just so he could go on Christmas vacation in a state where the leading government body was actively trying to make his life a living hell.
Yeah. Much better to tell a joke.
Eli smiled tightly. “I’m going to get some water.” He gave his uncle a manful pat on his arm. “Incredible seeing you again, Hank,” he said, putting every sense of the definition into the word.
The kitchen was crowded since that was where all the booze was. Eli squeezed between bodies and snagged a Zephyrhills bottled water from the fridge, then headed for the screened-in back patio for some fresh, albeit humid, air.
He closed the sliding glass door behind him. The sounds of the party were muffled instantly, and the noises of the night bugs took over. Eli listened to them trill and buzz while twisting the cap off his water bottle, then gulped it down in a long series of swallows. He just needed a second to regroup, then he could continue pretending to be fine and normal.
He could feel a headache coming on.
Is it possible your guilt is manifesting physically? said a voice inside Eli’s head that sounded suspiciously like the therapist he had stopped seeing when he’d lost his health insurance. Very helpful observation, doc. Thanks for that. He paced around the porch, finishing off his water and leaving the bottle on the table.
The sliding glass door opened, and Aunt Honey stuck her head out. The sounds of various wails floated onto the porch. “Can I borrow you?” Her soft voice held a note of resignation. “Sweet Potato got outside. We’re organizing a search party.”
Eli felt deeply for the cat. He also wanted to escape this party, even if it meant running into the scrub pine wilderness.
He left the porch via the screen door that led into the side yard, his aunt right behind him. Christmas lights and cell phone flashlights provided pools of illumination. Eli sensed movement on the edges of his parents’ property, but he could make out only vague shapes while his eyes adjusted. The voices of the partygoers called out in different directions: “Sweet Potato! Come here, boy. Come on, Tater!”
“He’s a cat, not a dog,” Aunt Honey informed the person closest to her in the back flower bed. “He won’t come when you call.” Her tone made it clear she found this a huge defect.
“I think I found him!” someone shouted. Then: “Nope, never mind, it’s a plastic bag.”
“Oh, dear god.” Eli rubbed his forehead with the heel of his palm. Clearly he’d picked the wrong decade to stop drinking.
A figure appeared from behind the crepe myrtles and jogged up to him. It turned out to be Eli’s dad, his glasses fogged from his exertion. “Can you give me a hand? Hank fell into the swale.”
“What?” Eli couldn’t hide his surprise. The swale, the gutter-like ditch that ran along the front of the properties all throughout the neighborhood to collect excess rainwater, could only be half a foot deep at the most. “Can’t he just... stand back up?”
“Muddy patch. His foot’s stuck.” He grimaced. “I think he’s had a few.”
“You have got to be kidding me.” Eli was tempted to suggest they leave him there for the rest of the evening, but he knew that would probably not go over well. The Ward family was famously polite in that buttoned-up, mainstream-liberal kind of way. Eli’s parents had no doubt watched a PBS docuseries on the dangers of leaving uncles stuck in swales.
Several yards away, somewhere close to the street, Eli heard a collection of grunts followed by a wet pop. “Got ’im!” Max hollered into the shadows. Cries of relief came from all corners, so Max amended: “My dad, not the cat!” Huffs of disappointment from the Greek chorus. Eli’s head throbbed.
Aunt Katie sauntered by with a margarita glass in hand. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without Hank making an ass of himself,” she muttered to no one in particular.
“Sis, can you please at least pretend to be looking for the cat?” Wendall called after her.
Eli was about to suggest opening a can of tuna when a Creamsicle burst of color rocketed out of the underbrush. Eli’s dad yodeled in triumph. “There he is!” He took off running after Sweet Potato with more verve than Eli would have given him credit for. Eli stood where he was and let everyone barrel past him as they pursued the escaped cat. Too many cooks, he decided.
Eli’s mother trotted up then. “Oh, there you are, sweetie.”
“Here I am,” Eli said, like he couldn’t believe it either.
His mom smiled at him, a hint of anxiety clouding her face. “You know what? Could you do me a favor and go to the store to get more drinks? We’re running low somehow.”
Eli looked over at the scene still unfolding by the swale, standing on tiptoe to see over some bushes. Aunt Honey was trying to swipe the mud off Uncle Hank’s pants leg and was only succeeding in spreading it along the length of his khakis. “Yeah. Somehow.”
Cora followed his gaze, shaking her head. “I’d ask someone else, but everyone’s either had one too many or is underage. Please?” She held out her keys, a confused jangle of novelty key rings and supermarket savings cards.
“No problem.” Eli swiped the keys from her hand. Living in New York for so long meant his driving skills were likely rusty, but honestly? A fender bender sounded like heaven compared to staying at this party.
Cora bobbed her head in thanks. “There’s a Wine Barn down on Route 1 where the Circuit City used to be. You know, the one they burned down for the insurance money?”
“That was never proven in court,” Eli said automatically. Why was this town so goddamn weird?
His mom dug her Mastercard out of a pocket in her caftan. “Beer, wine, some of the hard stuff, mixers. Oh, and some more limes. They have everything there, so you won’t need to make more than one stop. Drive safe, okay?”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Lies. He was going to dawdle like he’d never dawdled before.
From deep in the woods out back, Eli heard the yowl of a cat who presumably had been captured by many sets of hands.