(A 5th Street Christmas)
Smiling about what he just wrote, Hector hit send then slid the keyboard on his phone shut. Just as he glanced out the window, he remembered something. “Shit!” He slid phone open as fast as he could.
“What?” His brother, Abel, glanced at him from the driver’s seat, a look of concern already on his face.
Relief set in as soon as he confirmed he’d sent the text to the right person and he chuckled. “Nah, I just thought I sent that last text to the wrong girl.”
Abel shook his head, the concern now replaced with a disapproving smirk. “It’d serve you right if you had.”
“Oh, I have,” Hector laughed. “That’s why I had to double check just now. Not that it really matters. I don’t owe any of them explanations, but they get all bent and crap.” He shrugged. “Girls are funny that way.”
“Yeah, funny how they’re like that.” Abel’s sarcasm only made Hector laugh more.
They got to Noah’s house and hauled out the basket of tamales and empanadas their mom had sent for their Christmas potluck. This was a first for all of them, but it was in honor of Jack, the only father figure any of them had ever had. This year was their first Christmas since he passed away. It was bittersweet, but they were the only family Jack ever had, and they all knew this is how he would’ve wanted them to spend at least one night during the holidays—celebrating together.
Once inside, they began setting everything up for their feast. As was the case anytime this group got together, they had way too much food.
“Wow,” Noah’s pregnant wife, Roni, said as she sat down at the heavily stocked table. “Nellie, maybe you should’ve invited your friend, Leo. We certainly have enough food.”
Hector glanced at Roni’s best friend, Nellie, then back at the overabundance of food on the table. There was still plenty more on the kitchen counters that hadn’t fit on the table.
Noah chuckled as he grabbed a roll. “No kidding,” he said. “You all could’ve brought dates.”
Hector shook his head adamantly as he reached for the rice dish “Hell no,” he said as he spooned a big scoop of rice onto his plate. “I don’t bring dates to meet family and friends.”
“What do you mean?” Roni asked. “What about Irma? You introduced her to us last week at Rio’s.”
Hector grabbed a tamale and began unwrapping it. “That doesn’t count. She was already there. I didn’t bring her, and she introduced herself to you guys. I didn’t do the introducing.”
Gio, his other friend and latest victim of the commitment trap, eyed him with a smirk. “What about the other chick? The one you’ve brought down to 5th Street a few times?”
“Same thing,” Hector dug into his tamale with his fork shaking his head again. “I don’t invite anyone down there. If they show up unannounced and then introduce themselves as my friend, that can’t be helped. Not my doing.”
“So they’re not your friends. They just say they are?” Noah laughed. “You and that girl certainly look friendly in the parking lot every time I’ve seen you out there with her.”
Abel turned and gave Hector a disapproving glare. Hector shrugged, chewing his food then wiped his mouth with a napkin. “They’re all friendly,” he smirked. “I’ll give you that, and you can call them whatever you want, as long you don’t call any of them my girlfriend. So, nope, don’t be expecting me to be giving them any ideas by inviting them to something like tonight.”
Surprisingly, his brother agreed but then added. “Yeah, he’s too young for that anyway. He needs to stay focused on school.”
Gio’s girl, Bianca, picked up her glass of wine with a smile. “Oh, I’d say it’s pretty obvious where his focus is already—girls, just not any one in particular.”
Hector wouldn’t argue there. With a nod and wink at Bianca, he continued to plow though his food. He glanced up in time to see Bianca turn to Nellie. “But tell me about Leo? How come I hadn’t heard anything about this new friend of yours?”
“Oh God,” Nellie rolled her eyes, picking up her own glass of wine. “He’s just a guy I met a few weeks ago at the grocery store of all places. A friend—nothing more.” She turned to Roni. “I told you. I’m done with relationships.”
The girls got into their girl talk while Noah and Gio took off to the kitchen for seconds, no doubt. Just as Hector polished off his plate, both Gio and Noah returned to the table with steaming bowls of menudo.
“Damn, that looks good.” Hector said as they both sat down.
“It is,” Gio said, setting his bowl down.
Hector got up. “I gotta try some now.”
The girls were still completely immersed in Nellie’s story about her new guy friend when Hector got back with his almost overflowing bowl of menudo. It smelled too damn good to not fill his bowl to the rim. Only during the holidays did they all allow themselves to indulge like this. Tomorrow they’d all be back in the gym, working all this stuff off.
“Hey,” Noah whispered.
Hector looked up, but it wasn’t him Noah was glaring at. Confused at Noah’s sudden change in mood, he turned in Abel’s direction. Even though the girls weren’t talking to him, he was completely engrossed in what Nellie was saying. Curious now, Hector nudged Abel.
Abel turned to Hector a little bewildered until Hector motioned in Noah’s direction. As soon as Noah had his attention, he glanced at Nellie then back at Abel, giving him a weird look. Then almost through his teeth said, “Try the menudo will you?” He motioned with a subtle head movement toward the kitchen.
Hector refrained from laughing now as understanding set in. This wouldn’t be the first time Noah had warned any of them not to get any funny ideas about Nellie, his wife’s recently divorced but still very “emotionally fragile” best friend.
He turned to his brother with a smirk and a knowing roll of the eyes. “Yeah, go try the menudo, Abel, it’s good.”
That got Nellie and the other girls’ attention. “Oh, yeah,” Nellie said. “Roni’s menudo is always to die for.”
Roni beamed as Nellie stood up. Abel’s eyes were immediately on Nellie again with a smirk. Hector knew his brother well enough to know he was probably doing this now to mess with Noah’s head.
Abel turned back to Noah with a playful grin. “I think I will try some,” he said, standing up and following Nellie into the kitchen.”
Yep, Hector knew it. Once again, just looking at Noah’s annoyed expression, Hector had to refrain from laughing. He didn’t want Roni to ask what was so funny because he didn’t want either one of them in on Abel’s head games and ruin Hector’s fun.
A little pissed about being so damn obvious that Noah had caught him staring at Nellie again, Abel walked into the kitchen behind her. He was just curious. For weeks now, he thought Nellie might be sending out signals, signals that maybe she was looking for the very thing, the only thing, he’d be interested in having with her—a good time.
Tonight was not the first time she’d made it a point to say she wasn’t interested in a relationship. He had to get it clear. Was it just his imagination, or did she subtly glance at him every time she mentioned she wasn’t looking for commitment? She’d done it again tonight.
Nellie stood at the stove, pouring soup into her bowl. Abel took her in from top to bottom as a smile lifted the corners of his lips. It was still hard to believe this was the same Nellie from when Noah first started seeing Roni. She’d gone from frumpy and looking older than eight years his senior, to looking his age and sexy as hell.
Almost as if she sensed him standing there with his eyes eating her up, she turned back to look at him with a smile. “Couldn’t resist, huh?”
“No, I couldn’t.” He smiled even bigger.
She pointed at the bowls and moved out of his way. “Well, there you go.” A little of the soup spilled over the side of her bowl, and she brought her finger to her mouth, looking at him then licking it very slowly. She glanced at the pot on the stove and then back at him. “It’s all yours so why resist?”
With a sinful smile, she turned and walked out of the kitchen. He stood there speechless but with no doubt about it anymore. He wasn’t imagining anything. Her signals were loud and clear.
A little disappointed that Nellie was back from the kitchen so fast and alone, Hector glanced at Noah one more time. He’d been having way too much fun listening to Noah grumble under his breath every time he glanced toward the kitchen.
The doorbell rang. Noah’s tense expression finally eased up on and he smiled. “That’s gotta be Felix.”
A little surprised that Noah would be so pleased about this, Hector watched as Noah walked over and opened the front door. Sure enough, it was Felix. He walked in with bags of gifts. “Hey! Mi gente!” He dropped the bags and gave Noah a hardy bear hug. “How’ve you been, man?”
He was a little too loud, and it was immediately apparent he’d already been drinking. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if their old friend wasn’t also Bianca’s ex.
“I’m good,” Noah laughed as he pulled out of Felix’s bear hug. Felix moved on to Gio, hugging him just as hard. “Merry Christmas, brother!”
Gio’s forced smile was a reflection of the obvious guilt he still felt over the way things had gone down between him, Felix, and Bianca. After their hug, Felix moved down the line until he got to Bianca. He stopped, and the mood in the room got a little weird. “Merry Christmas, Bianca.” His words didn’t carry quite the same enthusiasm as they had with everyone else, and Hector was sure he wasn’t the only one that noticed. Awkward.
After pulling away from Bianca, Felix turned to Nellie and thankfully the enthusiasm was suddenly back. “Damn, girl! You look hotter every time I see you!”
Hector let out a laugh when Felix hugged Nellie. It was just as hard but longer than he’d hugged everyone else, even though he didn’t know her nearly as well. In pure Felix fashion, he continued to flirt with Nellie, whispering something into her ear that had her blushing. He even took Nellie’s hand in his afterwards and turned back to Roni with a big smile. “Sweetheart, you don’t even have to put a bow on this one. I’ll take her with me just like this.” Nellie continued to blush and giggle.
Not long after making his rounds of bear hugs did Felix start up on the goodbye hugs, apologizing for not being able to stay longer. He took the longest saying goodbye and flirting with Nellie until she was red in the face again.
Once Felix was gone and dinner was over, they moved on to something Hector wasn’t really looking forward to: opening gifts. Hector opened his gift from Abel and pretended to be surprised. He’d accidently found it a little over a week ago in one of the garage closets. He’d been shocked because he knew what one like this cost, but he was also a little annoyed because he knew Abel had ulterior motives. He didn’t want to get into it with his brother now especially since, for some reason, Abel’s mood had taken such a dive in the last hour. But he still wasn’t going to let Abel bully him into anything.
Holding the hand-carved wooden chess set up for everyone to see, he smiled at Abel then got up and hugged him. “I’m not joining the chess team at school,” he whispered as he hugged his brother.
Immediately, Abel pulled away, looking even more irritated than he expected. “Are you really this pigheaded? You have so much talent.”
“Look, I just don’t want to be on the team. You don’t know what it’s like.” Hector wasn’t about to get into what joining the chess club would do to him. It was social suicide. “You can take the board back if you want.”
“No, I’m not taking it back. If you don’t want it, you take it back.” Abel walked away but looked back at him, disgusted, before taking a seat on the sofa again.
Hector hated that feeling: that feeling he got every time he knew he’d disappointed his big brother. He tried so hard not to now, not like in the past when he was always getting into trouble. But he’d tried checking out the chess club at school—dweeb city. No way. He’d stick to boxing.
The girls were still giggling about Felix even now that he’d been gone for over an hour. Abel glanced back at them, looking even more annoyed as Bianca poured Nellie another glass of wine. Hector didn’t know what to make of it. Was he really that mad about his refusal to join the stupid chess club?
“I kind of feel sorry for him, you know?” Roni said, pushing on the side of her belly, making a face. She’d done that several times earlier. She said the baby was really kicking tonight. “I mean where was he headed tonight?”
“Feel sorry for him? Nellie said, rolling her eyes. “He’s probably off to spend the evening with that lead singer from the Sting Rays, Shelby something or other.”
“Shelby Preston? He’s seeing her now?” Bianca asked. “I thought he was getting serious with that designer girl. I heard he even got her a ring recently—a really expensive ring that he gave to her in Tahiti.”
Gio’s face contorted in disgust at his fiancée’s comment. “Why do you know all this?”
Bianca turned to Gio and responded but too low for Hector to hear. He always got a kick out of watching Gio’s reaction whenever Bianca spoke of Felix, particularly when it appeared she’d been keeping tabs of his love life. The eyebrow was already at alert, and whatever they were arguing about now was getting heated though they kept it too low for anyone else to hear.
“Oh yeah, the blond girl,” Roni turned to Nellie, “I heard that too,” she said, still holding on to her side.
“Wasn’t he just at the CMA awards with that country singer?” Nellie said, looking just as annoyed as when Roni first said she felt sorry for Felix. “The guy flirts incessantly with everyone. It’s ridiculous. Don’t all these impressionable young girls see through him?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Abel finally added to the conversation. “Seems he has the power to impress even the older girls and turn them into silly blushing school girls.”
Both Nellie and Roni’s brows flew up, but Nellie spoke first as Roni began to stand out of her reclining chair. “What are you trying to say, Abel?”
“I’m just saying people who live in glass houses and all that shit.”
“Easy,” Noah warned glaring at Abel.
Hector couldn’t figure out his brother. He was fine on the way over there. Now he was in this foul mood and not just with Hector anymore. He was being an ass to everyone.
Abel shrugged, taking a long swig of his beer. Nellie still glared at him.
“And is it just me, or did anyone notice all these girls he’s been with lately are blond?” Roni said as she limped into the kitchen slowly. “What’s up with that?”
“There you go,” Hector finally interjected with his own take on the gossip. “No way he’s serious about any of them.”
“Why?” Bianca asked, looking away from Gio for the first time since they’d started arguing, “Because they’re all blond?”
“Yep,” Hector nodded. “He’s just like the rest of us who grew up in East L.A. It’s in our roots. Obviously not any time soon, but when it comes down to it, we’ll only bring home brunettes—Latinas all the way.”
Noah laughed. “Dude, shut up. That’s not how it works. The day you fall in love, you fall in love,” he glanced over at Roni with a smile, “no matter what the circumstances.”
Hector glanced at Gio for some backup, but he was still focused on Bianca. She glanced back at him but lifted her eyebrow, crossing her arms in front of her defiantly. Stubborn girls. He then turned to Abel who was also no help. He was actually working his jaw now as he sat there lost in thought—a sure sign he was stewing.
Seeing as he was on his own, he shook his head adamantly. “Nope, not me, I’ve always had a type and that’s brown and beautiful and—”
“Honey,” Roni called out, the alarm in her voice so pronounced they all looked her way. Noah was immediately pushing himself out of the sofa.
“What is it?”
“You know what you said was all you wanted for Christmas this morning?”
Noah rushed to her looking confused. “What?”
Roni took a hold of his arm, stared up at him, and then looked down. “My water just broke.”
They were all on their feet now. At first, no one said anything. Then Noah finally came unfrozen and moved. “Oh shit.” He brought his hand to his forehead as it sunk in.
In an instant, everyone began rushing off in different directions. Within minutes, Roni and Noah were off to the hospital. Noah insisted they all stay put. “This could be an all-nighter, guys. No need for all of you to be there, but I’ll call if anything happens sooner than expected.
After Noah and Roni left the night before, the mood was still a glum one. Not even knowing Noah and Roni would soon be parents could shake any of them out of it. Gio and Bianca actually went out to the porch and argued for a while. Nellie took it upon herself to clean up the kitchen, and when Hector and Abel had offered to help, she accepted the help, but hardly two words were exchanged between her and Hector’s scowling brother.
The mood had gone south so fast Hector decided to take a nap on the sofa. He woke from that nap the next morning to giggling and the smell of coffee. When he opened his eyes, there were blankets on the floor and lots of movement and giggling coming from underneath. He’d recognize that giggle any day. Obviously, Gio and Bianca had made up. “Get a room,” he said, sitting up.
Abel, who was on the other sofa, sat up groggily and was apparently still in a mood because he glanced around then looked at Hector and frowned. Whatever. Hector stood up. He wasn’t about to get into with his brother this early.
Nellie rushed in from the kitchen with her phone in her hand. “It’s a boy!”
Hector stopped in his tracks, letting the news sink in. “A boy? Noah’s a dad? Holy shit.”
Everyone was there in seconds. Bianca nearly pummeled Nellie with a running hug. “Oh my God! We’re aunts!” She turned to the Gio with a big smile then to Hector and Abel, her eyes filling with tears. “You’re all uncles!”
For the first time since yesterday afternoon, his brother smiled at him then to Hector’s surprise, he hugged him. “We’re uncles.”
Nellie and Bianca both cried outright. “We have to go see our nephew.” Nellie said.”
“What’s his name?” Hector asked.
Nellie took a big trembling breath, her lips quivering now and was barely able to say it. “Jack,” she whispered.
The guys all exchanged glances, their own eyes suddenly becoming teary as well. Hector leaned in, meaning to give just Gio a hug, but suddenly, they were all in one massive group hug.
“I love you guys.” Hector choked out, and they all responded with their love as well. None of the annoying shit from last night mattered now. Even Abel and Nellie, who seemed most upset last night, were all smiles now. At that moment, he couldn’t think of anything he wanted more for Christmas than to go meet this kid. “Let’s go meet baby Jack.”
As you can see by the cover of Hector's story, he'll be eating his
"Brunettes and Latinas all the way"
comment. Can't wait to see how that goes. ;)
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