“I wish your dad didn’t criticize you so much,” Julie whispered.
Kevin whispered back, “It’s fine. I’m used to it.”
“I guess. But you shouldn’t have to be.”
“That’s how he’s always talked to me.”
Kevin’s father and stepmother had gone to bed not long after Kevin and Julie had said their goodnights to them and retired to the guest bedroom they stayed in whenever they visited. Now, half an hour later, all was quiet throughout the large house.
“I think your dad thinks it’s my fault that we didn’t come here for Christmas,” Julie whispered.
“Nah. I told him how we both had to work the 24th. And he knows it’s a four-hour drive. I doubt he even wanted us here before yesterday. You know how he is. One major event at a time.”
“Speaking of which, are we all doing anything for New Year’s Eve tomorrow night?”
“I don’t think my parents are doing anything here. But they do have their whole social set. Somebody in one of those mansions might be throwing some soiree we’re invited to.”
“Oh no!” said Julie.
“I left my soiree sweatshirt at home.”
Kevin stifled his laughter. “Me too! Oh well. Our everyday sweats it is. Which works out, actually. I wouldn’t want to shock my dad by not completely disappointing him.”
“You don’t completely disappoint your dad.”
“What are you talking about? That’s all I do. You know that. It’s not like he tries to hide it. You were just saying how much he criticizes me.”
“Which is fine, really. Because I think that at heart all he’s really trying to do is help make me a better person. And let’s face it, a lot of what he says about me is right.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is. I do need to lose weight, obviously. And I should have a real career at this point in my life.”
“You have a good job.”
“Julie, I drive a school bus.”
“Yeah. And that’s a good job.”
“But it’s not a career. My dad had an actual career. That’s why he was able to retire as early as he did.”
“So what? Does he seem happy to you?”
“No. But at least he’s not worried about the future.”
“Yeah. I am.”
“Because what if we, like, want to have a baby?”
“Then we’ll have a baby.”
“But we rent, Jules.”
“So what? Lots of people rent.”
“But a baby should have a real home.”
“We have a real home. Sweetheart, this is just your dad inside your head, making you feel all these negative ways about yourself.”
Kevin sighed. “I guess. But, some of it—I mean, I know there’s no denying that I really am too fat.”
“I’d deny it,” said Julie. “I’d double-deny it.” She turned onto her side, moved her body right up against his, and bent her leg until her thigh was resting atop both of his. Rubbing her hand in big circles around his chest and stomach, she said, “My only criticism of you is that you’re not fatter. Because then you’d be even more cuddly!”
* * * * *
The following morning, not long after they’d awakened, Julie whispered, “Let’s go to the Waffle House.”
“Yeah. Before your parents wake up. I want a real breakfast.”
“But they’ll make breakfast for us here.”
“Then we’ll eat that when we come back. It’s not like it’ll have any calories in it.”
“C’mon. It’s not that bad. They’re just trying to help us eat right.”
Julie got out of bed. “Well, you can stay here, and enjoy your delicious breakfast of egg-white omelet discs and Fakin’ Bacon. But I’m gonna go get myself some real food.”
“But what if they wake up while you’re gone? What am I supposed to say?”
“I don’t know,” said Julie, pulling on her jeans. “Tell ’em I went out for a walk. Or say I got so delirious with hunger that I stumbled out of the house, desperately looking for food.”
Kevin got a wildly happy look on his face. “What?”
“C’mon!” Julie laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. Then she pulled her hand away, and, with maximum enthusiasm, whisper-yelled, “Waffles!”
Kevin rolled out of bed. “I think maybe you’ve gone insane.”
“Yeah. It’s an effect of starvation.”
Pulling on his pants, Kevin whispered, “We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“And yet,” said Julie, “waffles!”
Zipping up the Old Navy hoodie that Julie Claus had left under the Christmas tree that year, Kevin said, “There’s no denying that you make an excellent point.”
Three minutes later, he and Julie were driving toward, as Kevin put it, “Le House de la Waffel.”
Four minutes later, they were heading back the other way.
Kevin had forgotten his wallet.
Kevin left the car running in the driveway. “Wait here,” he said. “’l’ll be right back.”
He very quietly opened the front door of his parents’ house, stepped inside the entranceway, and closed the door behind him.
That’s when he heard his father’s voice—and then, in reply, his step-mother’s. They were in their kitchen, right around the wall from where he’d frozen in place.
“She is so dull,” said his father. “I mean, Kevin’s not exactly Fatty Arbuckle—except for the ‘fatty’ part. But what a hulking glob of boredom that Julie is. And it’s not like things get any more entertaining when she talks.”
Kevin’s blood went cold. It took him what felt like an eternity to realize that he wasn’t imagining or dreaming it, that his father really was talking about his Julie, his beautiful wife, his amazing friend, the same Julie who was the warmest, funniest, best-natured person he had ever met.
“If she lost some weight, she might actually be sort of pretty,” Kevin’s dad continued. “Not that we’re ever likely to find out. Boy, can that girl eat.”
“They seem happy together,” said Kevin’s stepmother.
“For now, maybe. But with a wife like that, Kevin is never gonna make anything of himself.”
Kevin made no sound as he walked back to the guest room, picked up his wallet, and left through the same door he and Julie had used earlier.
“Did ya get it?” said Julie, as he climbed back into their car.
“I did,” said Kevin, buckling up.
“Is everything okay?”
“It is,” said Kevin, pulling back out onto the street.
A mile or so up the road, instead of continuing on toward the Waffle House, Kevin turned onto the entrance ramp for the highway they’d come in on.
Several moments later, Julie said, “Are we still going to Waffle House?”
“Yes. But maybe not the one right in town there.”
“Okay,” said Julie. She looked out her window. This part of the country was so beautiful. Literally minutes out of town, and the highway was cutting through what appeared to be an endless forest of towering pines.
“It feels like we’re going home,” she said.
Kevin looked over at her. “That is what I’d like to do, yes.” He drove for a while in silence. Then he said, “I’ll go back there for our stuff later, or whatever.”
Julie said, “I’ve got my purse. So I’m good.”
After a bit of time, Julie said, “So, what happened? Are you okay?”
“I am. And it’s just—I dunno. It’s just my dad. He’s fine. He’s who he is. But listen, Jules. It’s New Year’s Eve, right?”
“So, if we were going to make the very best New Year’s resolution—one that we swore we’d stick to for the rest of our lives—this would be the time to do that, yes?”
“Okay, so, I have that resolution. Are you ready?”
“I want our New Year’s resolution to be that you and I keep being exactly the way we are now. I want us to resolve to change absolutely nothing about ourselves, ever—unless we want to, which we never will, because we’re awesome just the way we are.”
When he looked at her, saying, “Does that sound good to you?” Kevin saw that Julie’s eyes were filled with tears.
“That sounds great,” she said softly.
When Kevin reached out his hand for her, Julie brought it onto her lap, where she held it between both of her hands like a small animal she was protecting and keeping warm. And then she turned her gaze away from her husband, and looked back out at the long, beautiful road ahead.