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Living in the Now

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Thanksgiving, she says, is her favorite holiday. It’s been that way since elementary school, since the boy sitting next to her shared what he did with the class, some tale about his uncle drinking too much beer and nearly falling into the dessert table—a story that made Amanda tense and swallow hard, because if there was one thing she knew by then, it was that you never told stories like that if you wanted to be able to make it through church on Sunday without being surrounded by hushed whispers and sidelong glances you squirmed under.

But her teacher had just laughed, muttered something about “that’s what the holidays are for,” before she’d moved onto Amanda, whose own story—just her grandparents coming over, everyone around the table together for a few fleetingly short hours—for once didn’t feel like something she had to hide, the story she told for once not having to to be something she made up—something that, for one of the first times in her life, made her feel normal.

It’s stayed her favorite holiday because of its consistency—at first because it was the one day a year her father always managed to stay home, and then because it was the one day a year she and Kim and Beth Anne managed actual smiles and genuine conversation just long enough that, to an outside observer who didn’t know any better, they might just look like a real family.

Still, the way her nerves used to jolt the night before Thanksgiving, half-awake all night listening for the sound of the door opening, is nothing compared to the panic that’s running through them now, her knee bouncing as she zips Billie’s coat, hands smoothing her youngest’s hair down a little more roughly than they normally would.

“Ouch, Mama,” Billie whines, squirming as she leans away from Amanda.

“Sorry, baby,” Amanda says, the pang of guilt that flashes in her stomach only slightly noticeable over the churning it’s been doing since she woke up. She presses a kiss to Billie’s forehead in apology, lightly moving her toward the door. “We’re gonna leave soon, stay right there.”

“Jesse,” she calls as she stands from the couch, smoothing the hem of her sweater as she does, “we gotta leave soon, c’mon!”

Sonny emerges from the kitchen, bottle of wine in hand, at the same time her eldest emerges from the hallway, the way her hair is falling around her face, loose strands sticking out at odd angles, making Amanda’s stomach drop even further.

“Jesse, what happened to the braid I just put in your hair?” she asks tightly.

“It was itchy,” Jesse shrugs, moving toward the coat rack at the front of the room but stopping when she catches the way Amanda’s hands are folded in front of her face, tension worked into the way her lips are pressed together.

“What’s the one thing I asked you not to do?” Amanda says over a shaky breath.

Jesse bites her lip, arms folding across her chest. “Play with my hair.”

Amanda nods, swallowing hard. “And what did you do?”

Jesse’s cheeks flush, her chin jutting out defiantly in a way that’s eerily familiar to Amanda. “But you made it itchy, Mommy,” she says, “I don’t like it when my head is itchy.”

“Then you ask me to fix it,” Amanda sighs, “you don’t just do whatever you want.”

“You were busy with Billie,” Jesse whines, foot stomping. “You didn’t have time to fix it.”

Amanda takes a breath before she speaks next, trying to make the words come out evenly. “Because you didn’t tell me, Jess. You gotta remember to use your words when you need something."

And that's where Amanda should stop, but Jesse's rolling her eyes, pointedly looking everywhere but at her mother, and before Amanda knows it, a far too sharp "How hard is that for you to understand?” falls from her lips.

She regrets the words the instant she says them, the way Jesse’s eyes cloud over before she storms back down the hall hitting her like a shock of cold water. She almost follows her, too, but Sonny’s firm hand on her shoulder stops her.

“Give her a minute,” he says, hand moving gently across her back. “I’ll go fix it after she calms down a bit.”

Amanda nods, rubbing at the bridge of her nose as she glances down the hallway. “I shouldn't've yelled," she starts, exasperation threading through her voice. "But ten minutes alone and she does the one thing I told her not to do.”

“She’s six and a Rollins, hon. She’s gonna rebel a little,” Sonny smirks, pressing a kiss to her forehead that’s just enough to make her breaths come a little easier.

She nods as she folds herself further into him, voice wavering over her next words. “But why’d she have to pick today? She can’t go to your parents’ looking like that. They’re gonna think I don’t take care of her.”

His eyes soften as he takes her in, thumb brushing lightly over her cheek. “No they won’t, Rollins. They raised four kids, they know how messy they can be.”

“Still,” Amanda murmurs, and somewhere between the edge in her voice and the tight way she wraps her fingers into the fabric of his shirt, Sonny catches what’s really bothering her, a flash of recognition sparking in his eyes before he cups her face in his hands.

“You know we don’t have to go, right?” he asks, voice tender as he locks his eyes on hers. It’s the same thing he’d told her weeks ago, when his parents first invited them, and even despite the way she’d wanted to say no, the flicker of hope floating in his eyes was enough to make her swallow down the fear and say yes.

“What, and have dino nuggets for Thanksgiving dinner?” she quips back.

“If that’s what you want, yeah,” he breathes, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. There’s nothing but earnestness in the way he says it, nothing but softness in his gaze, and once again, she finds herself nearly knocked over by the rush of emotions that run through her at the knowledge that he’s really hers.

“Thank you,” she murmurs, leaning in to press their lips together, “but I can’t hide from them forever.”

The arm he’s got wrapped around her tightens then, eyes softening as he takes her in. “You don’t have to hide from them, Amanda. I love you so they’re gonna love you.”

“That’s what you think now,” she shrugs, eyes casting downward as she lets her fingers trail against his chest.

“No,” he says, tilting her chin so her eyes meet his, the tenderness in his voice back in full force. “That’s what I know.”

***

For someone who thought Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday, it turns out there’s a lot Amanda Rollins didn’t know about it before today—because hours after she leaves her Manhattan apartment, stomach churning and limbs weighed down by nerves, she finds herself surprisingly calm in Staten Island, with cheeks that hurt from smiling and a lightness floating through her that she didn’t know was possible.

The change starts slowly at first, tension easing when they make their way up the driveway and Sonny’s arm loops around her shoulders, his lips on her hair and a whispered “I’m gonna be with you the whole time,” just enough to make her steps to the front door a little steadier.

Her nerves keep calming in the entryway of his parents’ house, when his mother wraps her arms tightly around Amanda, her “It’s so good to finally meet you,” coming out warmer than any greeting Beth Anne has ever given her. Amanda’s stomach, too, starts to level out when his mother finally lets her go with a “just call me Ma, dear, everyone does,” and Amanda catches the gentle way Dominick Sr. is bent in front of Jesse and Billie, whose arm is wrapped tightly around Sonny’s knee.

“Your Uncle Sonny told me you like to read,” he’s saying, and Billie nods, eyes wavering over him curiously. “You wanna come look at the books we have here?”

It’s those words that make something spark in Billie’s eyes, her grip on Sonny’s leg loosening as she turns toward Amanda. “Can I, Mama?” she whispers.

“Yeah, baby,” Amanda says, words failing her entirely as she watches her youngest reach her tiny hand toward Dominick Sr.’s, gripping it tightly and following him to the living room, Jesse trailing not far behind.

“They’ll be okay,” Sonny whispers, hand wrapping back around her shoulder as his mother starts to lead them toward the kitchen.

And somehow, over the lump that’s formed in her throat and the moisture that’s started pricking her eyes, Amanda manages a few words. “I know.”

***

At first, she’s keeping track of it—every time her body doesn’t tense like she expects it to, every moment that makes her smile without her even realizing it, every time she presses her nails softly into her skin to remind herself that this is actually what her Thanksgiving is like this year and not one she’s dreamed up—but somewhere between the hugs his mother keeps wrapping her in and the warm conversations his sisters keep starting with her and the sight of her girls giggling on the floor with a whole horde of Carisi grandchildren, Amanda forgets to keep track.

Instead, she starts letting her defenses dissolve into each moment, laughter and smiles—things she’d never thought she’d associate with any kind of family gathering—escaping her in earnest. The rest of the dinner melts away like that—calm conversations that, even despite the loud volume they get to, never reach the angry fever pitch of the ones from her childhood, further tempered by the way Sonny’s hand warm finds her shoulder and his eyes search hers every few minutes.

It's so different from everything she expected that by the time it’s over, Amanda’s surprised at the small jolt of disappointment that flashes through her as she starts wrapping the girls in their coats, her stomach light and empty of any trace of the heavy dread that's been swirling in it all day.

She’s got so much lightness floating through her, in fact, that it takes her longer than it normally would to notice Sonny’s no longer next to her—and even when she does, it doesn’t make her stomach drop like it would’ve earlier in the night. No, even despite the slight trickle of worry that runs through her, Amanda just keeps talking to Dominick Sr., a laugh escaping her at his quip about the way the girls are better behaved than Sonny ever was.

Still, all her comfort in the moment doesn’t make her miss the awestruck look Sonny gives her when he comes back, his mother, pinked cheeks and sparkling eyes, not far behind.

“What’s that face for?” she asks when he stops next to her, a kiss on the cheek and a murmured apology about going to the bathroom. “I have something in my teeth?”

“Huh?” he asks, voice thick as he tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “No, you’re just—you’re just perfect,” he whispers.

She feels her cheeks flush, her mouth half-forming around a quip about how thickly he’s laying it on in front of his parents, but his mother beats her to it, smile wide as her eyes rest on Amanda and Sonny.

“Oh, save it for home, Sonny,” his mother scoffs, pushing him lightly aside to wrap her arms around Amanda again. “You get to see her all the time, let us love her for a little bit.”

It’s an embrace that’s equal parts warm and homey, one Amanda willingly folds herself into—the kind of embrace that she wants to feel again and again, the kind that’s making her rethink the way she thought she loved all the Thanksgivings that have come before this one, because she’s never left them feeling quite like this, stomach and heart both equally full in ways that are still making her breath catch.

But for all the realizations that embrace allows, what Amanda doesn’t know is that it’s serving a dual purpose, because it’s only that embrace that lets Sonny’s mother point over Amanda’s shoulder at the visibly square-shaped lump in her son’s pocket—the reason that, unbeknownst to Amanda, her boyfriend is also leaving Staten Island unable to look at Thanksgiving the same way ever again.

And it’s only during that embrace that Sonny’s eyes manage to leave Amanda’s form as he tucks the box deep into one of his coat pockets, the now-smooth exterior earning him a nod from his mother as she releases Amanda.

“Come see us again soon, dear,” she whispers as she does, her hand squeezing Amanda’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Amanda nods as Sonny’s arms come back around her, making her nerves start to sing again. “We will.”