Jordan chewed on her pinky nail until it started to bleed. 

“Shit!” 

She reached over Avery’s lap, opened the glove box, and pulled out a bandage. 

“Will you please relax? No one will be paying attention to us: it’s Colleen’s day,” Avery reassured her. 

He was a tall, Black man with broad shoulders that stretched the Polo brand dress shirt he’d bought on clearance at J.C. Penny. 

“That might have been the most naive thing I’ve ever heard him say,” Jordan thought. 

She drove slower than a child climbing the stairs after being sent to bed without dessert. Internally, she was screaming for Avery to challenge her to put her foot on the gas, to go willingly deeper into the old Maine suburb. Content to ignore Jordan’s sour mood, Avery hummed a song from his favorite Broadway musical. Jordan looked up at the red maples that lined the silent street where all her childhood friendships were made.

“The kids are all gone now,” she thought. “We all busted out of here, but somehow I’m back.”

Practicing the breathing technique her therapist taught her, Jordan inhaled deeply. She tried to split her focus between creating happy thoughts and instructing different parts of her body to feel relaxed. Her cocktail of anti-anxiety methods didn’t put a dent in her stress. If Avery wasn’t sitting next to her, she might have packed herself an actual cocktail for the road. A horse tranquilizer couldn’t calm her down: she was returning to her childhood home for the first time as a woman. She’d already come out as transfeminine at her brother Mitch’s house last Christmas, but that was before she had breasts or wore a dress that exposed her shaved legs.

She put the car in park in front of a three-story Victorian house. The lights behind the stained-glass windows were all lit. Three men on the wrap-around porch headed back inside after finishing their smoke break. Jordan tried to prepare herself for her public flogging. She hadn’t been home since her mother’s death three years prior; if it wasn’t for Avery’s incessant need for family in his life, she’d have been happy to have never returned. Avery unbuckled his seatbelt and reached for the passenger door.

“Jordan?” he asked. 

He gently grabbed Jordan’s chin and turned her limp, lifeless body toward him like she was a puppet on his strings. 

“It’s showtime, sunshine! Let’s get out of the car and start a brand-new day,” Avery sang. 

He shimmied his shoulders and waved his jazz hands. Jordan didn’t give him the courtesy of a pity laugh. Then, like a volcano overdue to erupt, Jordan unleashed the anger she’d felt since her invitation arrived in the mail.

“This whole thing is immoral and repugnant. There is no fucking way I am participating in this party! I’d rather be locked in a room, strung up by a fishing line hooked into my tits, and forced to listen to Pete Buttigieg read his autobiography than watch my father give us the fucking tour of his second-floor bathroom extension! If I had shown up to this house in this fucking dress when I was sixteen, they’d have kicked me out onto the street.” 

Avery ditched his goofy grin quicker than a gay man losing his shirt at Pride. Jordan stuck out her tongue and gave the house the finger. 

“Enough,” Avery warned her. “You’ve been acting like a brat ever since Colleen got pregnant. If you—” 

“I thought Mitch was going to grad school; I thought that was the big plan. Instead, he gets some girl pregnant, and we all celebrate that! No one celebrates anything I do,” Jordan interrupted. 

Avery scrunched his face like he was the coach in Rocky about to give a motivational ringside speech. 

“I know this isn’t your thing, but it’s time to dig in now. Your brother’s wife is having a baby, and you love your brother. Therefore, we will walk in there with our heads held high and support them because that’s what family does. Okay?” 

Jordan sighed. If Avery didn’t have a heart the size of a Cadillac, he’d have thought he was as condescending as everyone else in her life. Still, he was Avery, and that meant there was no point in fighting him when she knew she was going to give in. Sighing, she gave him two light slaps on the cheek, then reluctantly stepped out of the car. 

“A gender party is not even a real party; even you can admit that!” Jordan shouted as soon as they stepped out of the car. “An engagement party, a second bridal shower, separate friend and family weddings followed by the ‘real’ wedding! Where does it end for these psychopaths? I mean, how the fuck do they know what gender this baby wants to be? Did Colleen and the fetus have a chat? These people keep making up parties to copy their favorite TikTok celebrity.”

Avery smirked as he opened the trunk of their used Toyota Camry. 

“These people?” he asked. 

Jordan put her hand on her hip. 

“Yes, my family, their friends, fucking rich white people,” she said. 

Avery laughed so hard he had to grab his inhaler and take a quick hit. 

“You’re white, and you grew up rich,” he reminded Jordan. 

Jordan rubbed her temples. 

“God, I know.”

Avery reached inside the trunk and pulled out a tower of cloth diapers wrapped in blue tulle and white twine; a white ribbon the size of an adult rabbit rested on top of the monstrosity. It smelt like the perfume section at Macy’s. 

Jordan thought she was going to be sick. 

“What the hell is that?” she asked. 

The gift obscured Avery’s entire upper half. He jogged toward the house like he was afraid Jordan might try to burn the diapers if she got close. 

“It’s a diaper cake,” he called over his shoulder, “and I don’t want to hear a word about it. There was never any universe in which we were going to be the only people to show up to this party without a gift.” 

As Jordan expected, it was her father who opened the door. He had grown out his white beard and bought a new pair of oval glasses. He dressed in a light blue suit that made him look like a hybrid of Colonel Sanders and a southern plantation owner.

“Ah, Jordan,” he said. 

He sounded like he was greeting Charles Manson. 

“Eric,” Jordan replied. “And you remember Avery.”

“It’s so good to see you, sir,” Avery gushed. 

Thrusting the diaper cake into Jordan’s unexpecting arms, Avery leaned forward to give Eric an awkward, one-armed hug. Eric did not reciprocate the gesture, but he did manage to force a soft smile. 

Behind Eric, the foyer was packed with bustling guests in similar blue and pink outfits carrying their drinks on napkins that read “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!”. The foyer stretched back to the kitchen’s swinging, white door, from which an infinite number of waiters emerged from an endless pool. To their right, against the sitting room wall, blue and pink cupcakes filled the white cloth table. Under the sparkling chandelier, people placed blue and pink jellybeans in a clear vase. Jordan could hear couples teasing one another for rooting for the opposite sex. 

After reading the invitation’s specific instructions to wear the color of the gender they preferred, Jordan told Avery she would only come if they both wore black. Judging by the 3:1 ratio of blue to pink outfits, Jordan guessed that the guests might boo if Colleen committed the sin of having a girl.

“This place looks so cute!” Avery exclaimed. “And I love your suit, sir.” 

Eric straightened his baby blue tie. 

“Why, thank you, Avery. I so do want a boy. Someone to watch the game with, you know?” 

Avery, who had been a track star in high school, nodded along as if this made perfect sense. Taking the diaper cake from Jordan, he pointed at the gift table around the corner. Jordan counted five more diaper cakes neatly stacked on top of the mountain of presents. 

“I’ll just go put this with the others,” he said.

Eric moved out of the way to let Avery pass, then quickly moved back to block Jordan’s path inside. 

“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!” he hissed under his breath. 

Checking to make sure no one was near, Eric’s head jerked violently back to his left, right, left, then right again. For a second, Jordan thought he might have developed some sort of old-man, parkinsonian-like tic. 

“You’re two hours late, and you’re dressed like you’re hoping the baby is going to die!” he hissed.  

“Hey, Eric, you’re missing the kickoff,” a voice Jordan recognized as one of her father’s law partners called from the living room. 

Eric laughed a deep, bellow laugh. He waved playfully toward a group of men that had gathered around the television.

“Hold your horses, John. You know I wouldn’t miss my Patriots crushing your Giants,” he replied. 

He looked perfectly pleasant to any guest that glanced their way, but twenty-nine years of watching the tips of her father’s ears turn red told Jordan that he was deeply embarrassed by her. She hated herself for the tear she had to hold back. After all this time, how could she still care what he thought? She rubbed her temples and swallowed hard so her voice wouldn’t crack. 

“Not now, Eric. Please, my head hurts and—” 

Eric raised an impatient hand. He leaned closer as if he thought hovering over Jordan could hide her from the rest of the guests. 

“Keep your voice down. It was embarrassing enough having to warn all my friends about your condition, so they wouldn’t stare and point. You had to come here looking like this, didn’t you? Dressed like some sort of prostitute! You can’t bear not being the center of attention. Good grief, Jordan, why can’t you like normal things?”

Avery slapped Eric’s back. Sliding past her father, he returned to Jordan’s side and grabbed her hand like it was completely natural that she was still standing outside on the porch. Jordan hadn’t seen Avery coming; she wondered how much he had heard. 

“You ready to give us the tour of that new bathroom Mitch says you’ve been bragging so much about?” Avery asked.

Eric made a brief gesture toward the grand staircase. 

“Of course, of course. Please, come in, both of you.” 

Avery smiled and joked with the other guests as Eric led them to the stairs. 

“Excuse me … coming through … if we could squeeze by you … I love your hat!” 

Jordan took up the rear; she shuffled with her head down and shoulders slouched forward. She could sense eyes turning toward her, and she imagined each person she passed whispering about “Eric’s ex-son” as soon as she walked away. She glanced up a few times to see if she could spot Mitch and Colleen, but she didn’t see them around. 

“The sooner we congratulate them, the sooner we can escape,” she thought. 

Eric wrapped an arm around Avery as they ascended the mahogany steps. 

“You, of all people, are going to appreciate the craftsmanship on my new cabinets, and don’t even get me started on the tile. That is a funny story; you wouldn’t believe the mix-ups I’ve had with these constructions guys.” 

Jordan was unsure what quality Avery possessed that made him more appreciative of bathroom tiles than an average person. She zoned out as Eric rambled on about leaks, pipes, tubs, and trips to Home Depot. Three minutes into Avery and Eric’s inspection of the new, gray tile, Jordan was saved from excruciating boredom by Mitch’s whistling welcome. 

Before she could turn around to say hello, Mitch had wrapped her in a tight bear hug and lifted her into the air. 

“Put me down: you’re pulling up my dress!” Jordan cried. 

Avery chuckled as he and Mitched performed their standard bro shake. Holding her belly with both hands, Colleen waddled in behind her husband. 

“Hey, strangers! You finally made it,” she said. 

Jordan reluctantly waved. 

“Congratulations,” she muttered. 

Avery stepped forward to kiss Colleen’s cheek. 

“You look fantastic,” he said. 

Colleen blushed. 

“I’ve only gained 10 pounds, and I’m six months along.” 

“I think she looks huge!” Eric retorted.

Slapping his knee, he filled the room with his deep laugh. Mitch laughed nervously along with him. Failing to hide the shock on his face, Avery pretended to cough so he could turn away from Eric. Colleen’s blank stare gave Jordan no clue about her feelings. 

“That’s just Eric’s sense of humor,” Jordan said, hating herself for instinctually making excuses for her father. 

“Anyway,” Colleen giggled, “my friends have been dying to meet you both. We don’t see many unusual couples around here! I told them not to worry about offending you. If they don’t know the pronoun stuff, you’ll be cool, right? I know how laid back you two are. I mean, I voted for Hilary, and it’s still hard for me to keep it all straight.”

Avery flinched; he looked like he was ready to ream Colleen out. Jordan squeezed his hand. Was she the one telling him to be calm now? She wished they had come up with some sort of signal for when they wanted to leave. No one else seemed to notice Avery’s discomfort. 

“No political talk today,” Eric reminded his daughter-in-law. “We all know Trump’s tax plan has been a boom for the economy. Come on now, let’s not keep your guests waiting any longer.”

As soon as they got downstairs, Mitch and Eric went to watch the football game. Colleen introduced Avery and Jordan to her girlfriends, who huddled in a corner near the cupcake table. They had to shout to hear one another over the television.

Colleen’s friends were young women with heavy lipstick, mascara, Botox, and plastic surgery on their faces. No one messed up Jordan’s pronouns because no one bothered to learn anything about Avery or Jordan. None of the women seemed too interested in Colleen either. They each rambled exclusively about themselves, unperturbed by the fact that none of them were listening to each other. 

Rachel informed them all about her new volunteer position writing the newsletter for St. Anne’s Parish. Marnie told a scandalous story about the bartender her drunk friend had flashed at her sorority reunion. Tiffany pointed out her hunky fiancé sitting on the couch watching football with the rest of the men. 

“Bryan, what did I say about keeping the tv down?” Tiffany shouted. 

“It’s Sunday, babe,” Bryan answered.

Tiffany shook her head and shrugged. The rest of the women playfully rolled their eyes like they all had a mutual understanding that their men were lost causes. 

After thirty minutes of everyone blabbing about themselves, Mitch tapped his fork against his beer bottle and announced it was time for presents. Colleen turned off the game; the men groaned. 

The unwrapping of the gifts was a cruel and unusual exercise in torture that took over an hour. Colleen sat in the center of the room; the crowd stood around her in a tight circle to watch Mitch hand her presents. Colleen ripped open each stork and gender-neutral wrapping, gave each gift a lovely compliment, then passed it around so everyone would have an equal opportunity to pretend to inspect it. Though the diaper towers were the biggest hit, jewelry, robes, pacifiers, bottles, and a stroller each got a big round of applause. Colleen surprised Mitch with a daddy toolbox filled with newborn baby essentials. 

“My goodness! That is so clever! A diaper bag for men,” gushed Rachel. 

“A-DORABLE!” Tiffany agreed. 

Jordan didn’t know what was left to get them for their baby shower next month. 

As the pile of unwrapped presents started to dwindle, Eric asked Jordan to check on the cake for him, which their private chef, Jose, had been tasked with creating. Mitch and Colleen’s plan was to cut into the cake and see the color inside to reveal the gender. 

“I’m sure Jose finished the cake before the party started,” Jordan said. 

Eric looked sharply at his daughter.

“No one has checked on that cake. I specifically told Jose to keep it hidden at all times, except when we were opening presents. Imagine if Colleen and Mitch had learned the gender early.”

Having heard Eric, Colleen passed off her new, monthly-milestone blanket and waved toward them. 

“Oh, if it’s not too much trouble, I’d prefer someone else check on the cake,” she said. “You understand, Jordan. Some of the kids are in the playroom behind the kitchen, and I don’t want their parents to have to worry about explaining what you are later.” 

Jordan felt like a knife had twisted in her stomach. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her. Somehow, it was her and not Colleen that filled with shame, and no one else thought twice about it. 

“I hate them all,” Jordan thought. 

Stepping back in silent retreat, she knew she hated herself too. Avery stepped forward.

“It’s okay,” he assured everyone, “I can check on the cake.” 

Counting the seconds until Avery returned and took her home, Jordan remained as still as a deer that had spotted a hunter. Colleen finished opening the last of her presents while Jordan focused on not hurling. She was vaguely aware of her father’s claps and laughter beside her. 

“Thank you all so much for spoiling mommy and daddy with these heartfelt gifts,” Colleen said.

Setting down his beer, Mitch leaned over to give her a long, tender kiss. 

“Aww,” the chorus of guests sang. 

“Jose! Cake time!” Eric announced. 

Avery came dashing out of the kitchen with a large white box. 

“I got it here,” he said. 

Eric cleared the table. Avery placed the box down in front of Mitch and Colleen. Colleen started to cry tears of joy. 

“Oh, it’s my hormones!” she joked. 

“We couldn’t be more excited,” said Mitch.

Avery snuck back toward Jordan. He wore an uncharacteristically severe frown on his face. Snatching Jordan’s hand, he started to guide her out of the room and toward the front door. Snapped out of her self-loathing trance, Jordan shook herself loose. 

“Why are you all sweaty?” she whispered. 

Avery shook his head, then pointed at the door. He hadn’t blinked since he returned from the kitchen. 

“What’s going on? We made it this far; shouldn’t we at least see the damn reveal?” Jordan asked.

She turned back toward the cake. Eric had put his hand on the lid while Mitch and Colleen cuddled close together. Mitch had a large knife in his hand, ready to make the decisive cut. Puffing out his chest, Eric used the anticipation to attract one last attention grab from the crowd. 

“Now, I know my son warned me against giving any speeches after my drunken debacle at the wedding—” 

Colleen giggled. 

“But I can’t help it! Looking at all the friends and family here to celebrate my son and his beautiful wife, I am filled with pride at everything these two kids have achieved. Now, I think we all know what I’m rooting for when these two cut into this cake.” 

Eric pointed at his blue suit; the crowd laughed.

“But no matter what we find in this cake, I am beyond thrilled to know one of my children has decided to continue the great Montgomery family line!” 

“Here! Here!” Bryan sang, raising his beer.

“Drumroll, please,” said Eric. 

The crowd played the drums on their knees. 

Eric opened the box. 

Colleen screamed. 

Mitch dropped the knife, which nearly stabbed Eric’s foot. Jordan tried to fight her way through the crowd, who all swarmed toward the box to catch a glimpse of the horror. She could make out the torso of a naked, pregnant woman with enormous breasts and an alien-looking foot pushing against her outie belly button. Above the breasts, the words “Baby’s First Kick” were written in green frosting. 

At first, she thought the ridiculous design was the cause of the horror, but then she saw someone had already cut below the baby’s foot. Before she could see what was inside the cake, she was pulled out of the mob by Avery, who yanked her toward the door. 

“What is that? Who put that in the cake?” Mitch cried. 

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Eric moaned. 

“They’ve ruined it! Ruined it! What kind of person would do this?” Colleen wailed. 

Tiffany collapsed in Bryan’s arms.

“Call the police!” Marnie wailed. 

In the chaos, Avery and Jordan slipped out unnoticed. 

“Wait! I want to see it!” Jordan yelled. 

Avery ignored her protests; he didn’t stop pulling until they reached the car. 

“Mother Fuckers,” he said, spitting toward the house. 

“What the hell did you put in that cake?” Jordan asked. 

“Come on, we have to get in the car,” insisted Avery. 

He took the keys from Jordan, then shoved her into the passenger seat. He started the car and accelerated away from the crime scene. He was silent the whole drive home to Boston. Jordan quickly gave up asking questions. She knew Mitch or her father would text her to scold her soon enough, or maybe they’d never text her again. She didn’t care much either way. 

Avery parked in front of their apartment complex on Hemenway Street, pulled a large chunk of cake wrapped inside a napkin out of his pocket, and offered Jordan a bite.

***

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Matthew Downing

Matthew Downing is a graduate student in Chicago who has published pieces in the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, and Chicago Sun-Times.