“You can’t be serious!”

“Of course I am,” I sighed.

“But that would mean…”

“Yep,” I said, nodding slowly as I watched my cousin Lillian digest the news.

“So, you’re trying to tell me that Janice, the woman you were engaged to, is now a nun?” she asked, still not quite believing me. I didn’t bother to answer. Janice wasn’t a nun yet, but she had decided to become one. It pretty much amounted to the same thing.

We were sitting at a table in a hall waiting for the rest of my extended family to start showing up. I was drinking vodka on the rocks. Normally I was a beer drinker, but not today.

“What is it about you?” Lillian finally laughed. I nodded in acceptance. This was going to be a long day. I really didn’t want to come to the family gathering this year, but it was my mother’s turn to throw the party. I tried to skip it anyway, but mom became upset. So upset in fact, that in the end I backed off and agreed to make an appearance. I was regretting it now.

“I’m guessing little brother Michael just told you about Janice?” my sister Christina grinned as she walked up.

“It’s amazing!” Lillian said, continuing to laugh. “He really knows how to pick them!”

“You’re telling me?” Christina asked rhetorically, joining Lillian in her laughter.

“Are you two done having fun at my expense?” I asked as I took another sip of the vodka.

“Not hardly!” my sister replied. “The first girl you ever dated seriously quit school and traveled to India to find herself.”

“The second dropped you for another woman,” Lillian added helpfully.

“And now Janice,” Christina said with a shake of her head, still laughing.

“Bette traveled to Tibet, not India,” I said glumly.

“Same difference,” my sister laughed.

“So, you three seem to be having fun,” my cousin Tommy said as he walked up. “What’s the joke?” Christina and Lillian looked at each other, obviously trying to decide who would get to tell him.

“Oh, Christ!” I growled as I stood. “I need some fresh air!”

“What’s bothering him?” I could hear Tommy ask as I went down the stairs and out of the hall. I didn’t wait to hear their answer. The sun was bright and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. The fact that I was already half drunk didn’t help.

I made my way down the block toward a bar I knew. It wasn’t a particularly nice place, but the booze did what it was supposed to. It was one of those dark basement bars. I don’t know how long I was in there, but it was long enough to finish what I started at the party. I was so focused on my drinking that I didn’t notice someone come up behind me until I felt a tap on my shoulder. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Michael?” a soft voice asked. I turned and blinked hard a couple of times as I tried to make out the face of the young woman in front of me.

“Do I know you?” I asked, trying to place the voice.

“It’s me, Daphne,” the woman said with a frown. At least I thought she was frowning. It was hard to make out in the dim light. Okay, maybe the amount of alcohol I drank had something to do with it as well.

“I don’t know anyone named Daphne,” I said with a shake of my head. The motion caused my head to spin slightly. “Oh wow! I’m drunker than I thought.”

“You know me,” she insisted. “Take a closer look.” I know it was a figure of speech, but I was having problems making out her features so I squinted and literally moved closer. I would have fallen off of the chair if Daphne hadn’t put out a hand to help steady me.

“Good catch!” I laughed. The woman shook her head as she smiled. That did it! I suddenly recognized her. “Little Daffy!”

“No one calls me that anymore,” the young woman replied.

“I would imagine not,” I said, noticing the size of her breasts. They were quite a bit larger than I remembered. Of course, Daffy was only twelve the last time I saw her.

“Michael, you’re staring at my breasts,” she said with a crooked grin. This caused me to start.

“Sorry,” I said looking up into her eyes and blinking hard again. It didn’t help. I was still having problems making out her features.

“You really are plastered,” she laughed.

“It’s been a bad year,” I replied with a loud sigh.

“Why don’t we go down the block and get some food and coffee at the local diner?” Daphne asked.

“You drink coffee and are willing to eat at a diner?” I asked in surprise. You’d understand my reaction if you knew her family. They were health nuts.

“I’m not my sister Bette,” she replied pointedly. I didn’t want to talk about Bette! She was the first woman to leave me.

“So, you’re not planning on breaking my heart?” I slurred. Shit! What the hell was I talking about?

“We’ll see,” she replied with a laugh. “Now let’s go get something to eat.”

I’m not sure how we got to the diner. I was too big for Daphne to carry, but she must have propped me up most of the way. It was only after I ate a full order of pancakes and drank my second cup of coffee that I was finally able to see Daphne clearly.

“Sorry about this,” I said glumly as I used one hand to rub my eyes and then the rest of my face. “Thanks for getting me out of there.” She nodded.

“So, dare I ask? What brought this on?”

“Family gathering.”

“Do you always get drunk by yourself because of family gatherings?”

“Not normally,” I replied. “At least not by myself.” Daphne laughed and I fell silent. I was still having problems keeping myself fully focused. A couple of minutes passed as I drank more of my coffee.

“How have you been?” she asked. “I hear you’re getting married.”

“No,” I said succinctly, not wanting to talk about it. Yet a moment later, I added, “We broke up. She decided to become a nun.”

“Are you serious?” Daphne asked. I was so sick of that question!

“Yes, I’m serious,” I replied. “Your sister dumped me to go find herself, Sally dropped me for another woman and Janice decided to marry God instead of me.”

“I’m sorry,” Daphne said. I nodded, but then frowned because her reaction was not typical.

“You’re not laughing?” I asked in surprise.

“I suppose it could be funny at some level, but your pain isn’t.”

“Thanks,” I said, really meaning it. I decided to change the subject, so I asked, “Why don’t you tell me about yourself and what’s been happening to you for the last six years? How does a girl who was raised in your family eat at a diner? A hamburger no less!”

“Please!” Daphne laughed. “If Mark or Francesca saw me eating this burger they’d have a fit!” Mark and Francesca were Daphne and Bette’s parents. They were good people, but bleeding heart liberals were just a tad too far to the right for their liking. The year I dated Bette was interesting to say the least.

“But you’re eating it anyway,” I grinned.

“I like hamburgers,” Daphne shrugged.

“And I notice you’re wearing a bra,” I teased. “You must be the first girl in your family to do that!”

“You certainly keep staring at my chest often enough to notice,” Daphne teased back. I refused to look anywhere but at her face, yet Daphne’s smile let me know that she knew what I was thinking. I blushed and she laughed again, adding, “The bra has more to do with need rather than rebellion.”

We spoke for another half hour as I continued to pump coffee into my veins. Mostly we talked about nothing special. Daphne was working as a waitress and studying to be a child psychologist. No surprise there. Not being raised in her family. Her father was an environmental lawyer and her mother a doctor who was instrumental in starting a nearby clinic.

Yet, then again it still said something about Daphne. She didn’t have to follow her parents’ lead. After all, as far as I knew Bette was still traveling the globe ‘looking for herself’ on daddy and mommy’s money.

“Where are you living?” I asked, just trying to hold up my part of the conversation.

“I’m renting an apartment,” she smiled. “Mark is helping pay for the basics while I’m at school.”

I was feeling almost human by the time the check came. Daphne reached for it, but I snatched it first.

“Making you pay would be like adding insult to injury,” I joked. “Thanks for sobering me up.”

“You’re welcome,” she smiled.

Daphne had turned into quite a beauty. She had honey colored hair and soft brown eyes. Her features were attractive and when she smiled, she lit up a room. It didn’t hurt that she was curvy in all the right places.

“Michael, you’re staring again,” Daphne smirked.

“You’ve grown,” I said with a shrug. “And I mean more than in just the chest area.”

“I could do with losing a few pounds,” she said self-consciously.

“Nonsense,” I insisted. “You’re perfect just the way your are.” Daphne blushed.

“So, what were you doing in a bar like that?” I asked, changing the subject again. Daphne was Bette’s little sister and quite a bit younger than me. I had no right to flirt with her.

“Looking for you,” she replied with a shrug. “I was driving by on my way to do some chores when I saw you going in. I decided to stop on the way home and see if you were still there.”

“Good thing,” I smiled. “Otherwise more than my recent breakup with Janice would be the talk of the family.” We shared a laugh.

“Can I drop you home?” Daphne asked.

“I wish!” I sighed. “But I have to return to the party.”

“I can give you a ride there. Is it at your parents?”

“No, it’s just down the block at the hall above the rescue squad. There are too many people for my parent’s house. But thanks for the offer,” I sighed again.

“You really don’t want to go back to the party, do you?” Daphne grinned.

“Would you? Considering?”

“Probably not,” Daphne replied. She wasn’t laughing and I appreciated it once again.

“I don’t suppose you want to come with me?” I found myself asking. What the hell was I thinking? I didn’t want Daphne to think I was asking her on a date, so I quickly added, “For moral support.”

“I’m not dressed for a party,” Daphne said.

“It’s not that kind of a party,” I responded, surprised to realize just how badly I wanted her to go with me. “Come on, help a guy out!”

“And just how would my going with you help you out?” Daphne asked, obviously stalling as she considered.

“Well, for one thing you’ll certainly be a distraction for all my male cousins,” I grinned.

“Oh great!” she said sarcastically, but she was laughing.

“Come to think of it, you might want to be careful around cousin Debbie too. I’m pretty sure she’s gay,” I added, and then teasing added, “Unless of course you prefer that sort of thing.” “I don’t know,” Daphne shrugged. “I’ve never tried it.” I looked at her in shock. She saw my expression, laughed and added, “Well, I haven’t!” Daphne seemed like such a normal girl that I kept forgetting that she was brought up in a family where there was no such thing as a taboo subject. They prided themselves on being open about everything. I can still remember a rather uncomfortable conversation about birth control when Bette and I started getting serious.

“I’m surprised,” I said, trying to regroup quickly. “I would think that your parents arranged for lessons in sexual gratification when you came of age.” I was joking once again, trying to win a point off of Daphne. No such luck. She was too quick witted.

“Oh, they did for Bette and my brother John,” Daphne replied. “But I decided to forgo the honor.” I thought she was just going along with the joke, but you could never tell with her parents.

“How come you passed?” I asked, honestly curious.

“I’m the black sheep of the family,” Daphne smiled. “I actually want my first time to be with a man or woman that I love.”

“You mean you’re a…” I began, but couldn’t finish my thought.

“It’s not a dirty word!” she laughed. “Virgin. Yes, I’m a virgin.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Eighteen,” she replied with a shake of her head, and then before I could say anything she added, “Yes, there are still eighteen year old virgins out there!”

“I hope you don’t form a club,” I grinned. “I doubt the dues would pay for a place to meet. But then again, how big of a place would you really need?”

“You’re a jerk!” Daphne laughed.

“I’ve been called worse,” I shrugged. “For better reasons.”

“I’m sure.”

“Ouch!” I laughed. “I deserved that!” We both took a last sip of our coffees.

“Do you really want me to come with you?” Daphne asked after we were done.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” I said seriously.

“Okay,” she finally said in agreement. “But you’ll owe me a big favor.”

“Deal!” I said happily. “Let’s go.”

We stood and made our way to the door of the diner. Daphne was in front of me and try as I might, I couldn’t stop looking at her ass. It was just a little bit larger than what was considered normal these days, but I thought it was perfect. I could feel myself stirring.

‘Pervert!’ I thought to myself. It didn’t stop me from looking. Nor did all the other names I called myself as we left the diner.

“You’re staring again,” Daphne said as she turned to face me with a raised eyebrow.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I can feel your eyes on me,” she smirked. “I don’t really mind, but don’t you think you ought to stop before we join your family?”

‘Shit!’ I snapped to myself. Now Daphne was flirting with me. I kept trying to remind myself that the cute twelve-year old girl I remembered and this young woman in front of me were the same girl. It didn’t help. The fact that she was a virgin made it even worse.

“Sorry, I guess I’m still a little drunk,” I offered lamely. Thankfully, Daphne left it at that.

“So, what are your family gatherings like?” she asked. I sighed. It would be better if I warned her.

“Actually, a lot like yours,” I replied, and then paused for effect before adding, “And then again, absolutely nothing like them.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Daphne frowned.

“Well, like in your family there is pretty much no subject that won’t be broached at one of my family’s gatherings. We talk about politics and religion, sometimes in the same sentence.”

“I’m used to it,” Daphne shrugged.

“Not like this,” I sighed as I remembered one of Daphne’s family parties I went to while dating Bette. The conversation there were in controlled, calm voices with people giving each other the floor almost formally.

“I don’t understand.”

“Well,” I said, gathering my thoughts, “Take what you’re used to and make it larger, much louder and add an earthy quality to it.”

“Earthy?” she asked.

“That’s just a nice way of saying that everyone says what they think and could care less who they offend,” I explained.

“Oh dear!” Daphne said.

“Now you’re starting to understand,” I nodded. “They’ll be no sight of a meditation pool like I remember from one of the parties Bette dragged me to. Basically, it’s considered a success if there is only one fist fight and no broken bones.”

“And you asked me to come with you?”

“Oh, I’m exaggerating,” I smiled. “There hasn’t been a fight in a couple of years.”

“Thanks! I feel much better!” Daphne said sarcastically. I couldn’t help it. I laughed.

“Don’t worry too much,” I continued. “It will be loud and most of my family likes to win arguments whether they’re right or not. Some of them make it particularly enjoyable by thinking that the loudest voice wins, but truthfully, no one is intentionally cruel.”

“That’s nice to know,” Daphne said, shaking her head.

“Unless of course, it’s funny,” I added with a sigh. “If that’s the case then all bets are off. They’re like sharks scenting blood in the water.”

“And your family thinks the whole situation with Janice is hysterical, don’t they?” she asked, reading my expression.

“You guessed it.”

“Now I understand why you don’t want to go back!” Daphne said meaningfully. I nodded. Of course, her compassion didn’t stop her from insisting that I go first up the stairs into the hall.

“There you are Michael!” my cousin Tommy called when he saw me. “We were wondering where you went off to.”

“Yeah, we thought maybe you went to visit Janice,” my sister Christina teased. “Only we were sure we would have heard the clap of thunder after the lightning struck you down for daring to even go near a church!”

“That’s enough Christina,” my mother said in my defense.

“Michael, who is that lovely girl hiding behind you?” my father added from across the room. I stepped aside so that Daphne could move forward.

“This is Daphne,” I said. “She’s an old friend.”

“She’s gorgeous!” my father said.

“Don’t mind him,” my mother said to Daphne as she took her hand warmly. “He’s just a harmless, dirty old man.”

“I heard that!” my father called.

“So?” My mother called back. “It’s true.” There was laughter throughout the rather large hall.

“Aunt Mary, would you mind making room?” Tommy asked. “I’d like to meet this lovely lady.”

“Me too!”

“Me too!”

“Don’t forget me!”

“Okay!” I shouted at my gathering male cousins. “All of you vultures back away! Give the girl some room!”

“Spoil sport!” one of my cousins grumbled.

“Teddy, you’re married for Christ’s sake!” I snapped at him.

“I just wanted to say hello,” he answered defensively.

“That better be all you wanted to do!” I heard his wife call from their table. Again every one in the room laughed.

I looked nervously at Daphne. I wasn’t sure how she was going to handle my family. They were pretty overbearing, but thankfully she was grinning. After that, the focus shifted and I sighed loudly.

“That was fun!” Daphne grinned at me.

“Masochist!” I joked. “Let’s go try and find someplace to sit. The vultures will start circling again if we stay standing.”

“Michael,” Lillian cried as we walked by. “There’s room at our table.”

“Thanks,” I said with a smile. Daphne and I sat. We ordered drinks as my cousins at our table got in an argument about the local mayor and whether he was corrupt or not. After that the conversation turned to religion, but thankfully there was only one wisecrack about Janice.

“So, you’re saying you don’t think there is really a Hell?” cousin Karl asked Lillian in disbelief.

“No, I don’t,” Lillian shrugged. “I think Hell is just a place that old people created to keep children in line.” They continued to argue for a few minutes before Karl turned toward me.

“What do you think?” Karl asked.

“I think hell is being born into this family,” I joked. Karl rolled his eyes and turned toward Daphne.

“How about you?”

“I think I need another drink,” Daphne replied with a grin as she picked up her second glass of wine.

“Chicken!” Lillian teased. Karl made some clucking noises. Others at the table joined him. Daphne started to open her mouth, but then closed it and looked at me.

“You don’t have to answer,” I said to her. “But don’t be afraid to either. I don’t mind if you offend them. They’re only family after all.”

“Jerk!” Lillian cried. Karl called me something worse. I shook my head, but didn’t respond.

“So, tell us? Do you think there is a Hell?” my cousin Debbie asked Daphne. She was giving Daphne a sexy smile. I sighed.

“I think that for Karl there is a Hell, but for Lillian there isn’t,” Daphne answered.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Karl asked.

“I think we make our own Heaven and Hell.”

“What are we, God?” Karl asked sarcastically.

“But of course,” Daphne replied with a grin.

“Oh, I like her!” Lillian laughed. The ensuing conversation got loud. So loud in fact, that it drew the attention of the other tables. I sat back and watched. Daphne was not nearly as vocal as the members of my family, but she made her points. It didn’t hurt that Lillian took her side. My cousin could hold her own in any family discussion. I sighed in relief when the conversation finally quieted down.

“That was fun!” Daphne said.

“You keep saying that and I’ll start to think you’re crazy,” I said, not sure if I was kidding or not. Daphne laughed and reached for her drink.