Vee’s sitting by the fire in my favorite leather chair as I come out from the bedroom. She’s stretched her feet out, getting as close to the heat as she can. After the snow the other day, she’s been miserable, complaining about soaking her feet in the slush on her way to and from work, about the crush of Christmas shoppers, and having to mop the floor every hour. Now she’s quiet, holding a cup of coffee, her eyelids drooping. I almost hate to disturb her, but I’ve had this idea in my head all day.
“Let’s go out, Vee,” I say softly, coming to run my fingers through her red and green streaked hair. She did it for the holiday, but also to piss off her boss, who always fussed about her ‘abnormal and disgusting’ hair colors. I think it’s cute, and it’s the most holiday spirit Vee’s shown all month.
Vee leans into my touch, but frowns. “Do we have to?”
I gently tweak the silver hoop in her left ear. “They’re lighting the tree at Rockefeller tonight.”
She groans. “A zillion tourists, and us?”
“You haven’t seen the tree lighting before, have you?”
“No,” Vee admits in a grudging voice. “But can’t we just watch it on TV?”
I sigh. Vee sounds like a petulant child, and though I don’t want to indulge her behavior, I offer a temptation. “Next year, maybe, but this year, we should go. I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.”
“Hot chocolate?” Vee perks up at that. She has a sweet tooth like no one I’ve ever known.
“Once we get there,” I confirm. “Get your jacket on and let’s go. We’ll need to get there a bit early to get a good spot.”
Vee stretches, pointing her toes and arching her back before sinking into the chair again for a moment. “Do you go every year?” she asks as she rises.
“When I can.” I think back to last year, when I’d been too busy with work and feeling sorry for myself, all alone at Christmas for the first time. Though my mother and I hadn’t gotten along very well, we’d always put our differences aside at Christmas. I’d pick her up from her old folks’ home and bring her back here for a couple of days. We’d do our slow walk to Rockefeller Center and in the last couple of years before she passed, I’d sprung for a taxi in deference to her faltering steps. It had delighted her to see the tree lit, and she’d gone every year since she was a girl.
“We didn’t have much, you see,” she’d say to me like she did every year. “And seeing the lights…it made me warm inside, even if we could hardly afford to heat our apartment.” And so we saw the lights every year.
I haven’t told Vee about my mother, or much about my family at all. I keep meaning to, but maybe I’ll just write it down and leave it for her to read. Sometimes that’s easier than telling the stories aloud.
She must see something in my expression, because she pauses and slips her arm about my waist, kissing my cheek before she goes to pull on her battered combat boots.
“How many times have you seen the tree lit?” she asks, plopping down on the floor, one skinny knee poking from a hole in her snug jeans as she laces up her boots.
“Forty-one times,” I say. That sounds about right, assuming Mom took me when I was a newborn. She probably did, knowing her. I might have a photo somewhere.
Vee stops and stares. “Seriously?”
I can’t help but smile at the incredulous look on her face. “Seriously.”
“Holy crap.” She shakes her head and laughs.
I wrap my black pashmina scarf around my neck and shrug on my wool pea coat. “You’re making me feel old.”
“Well…” Vee pauses and cracks a grin. I shake a finger at her, pretending to be scolding.
“If you don’t mention my age again, we can go skating.”
“What age?” Vee asks, popping to her feet. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She pulls a purple hoodie from its hanger and puts it on, then takes down her leather jacket. I hand her the scarf that slides from the sleeve.
“Will you be warm enough?” I ask.
“I’ll manage. I hope.” Vee zips up her coat and pulls the hood up, covering her hair.
We take the stairs to the street and head to the subway, taking the F train up into Midtown and joining the crowd streaming towards Rockefeller Center. I pause, pulling Vee along with me, and buy two hot chocolates from a street vendor. He puts extra whipped cream on Vee’s when she asks, and she squeals in delight.
We’re able to find a spot with a decent vantage point, though we’re jostled as people crowd in, trying to get as close to the tree as possible. It’s dark and tall, and the ornaments glint in the light from the city, the Swarovski crystal star elegantly waiting.
The press of the crowd, the murmur of conversations, the smell of the hot chocolate and the cool breeze take me back years. I’d held my mother’s hand, straining on my tiptoes to see around the people in front of us. Finally we’d inched our way up, until we reached a spot where we could see clear to the tree itself. That had been a good year.
“Earth to Alex,” Vee says, nudging me. She slurps her hot chocolate, the whipped cream leaving a line on her top lip, which she licks off.
“Just remembering,” I reply, taking a sip of my own hot chocolate. We hadn’t gotten hot chocolate that year, mom and I. She hadn’t had the money. But it hadn’t mattered.
“My mom.” I motion to the crowd awaiting the tree lighting. “She loved all this.”
“What was she like?” Vee asks, curious but kind, not demanding.
“Determined,” I say. “She did so much with so little, always mending clothes, sewing new ones, managing for us to have proper meals.”
“She was a single mom?”
I nod. “She was a secretary, but she didn’t make a lot of money. The apartment I’m in now, she bought it with inheritance money. It’s the only reason I still can afford to live in Manhattan. She said it was one of the most sensible choices she ever made. Mind you, the area’s nicer now than it was.”
“What about your dad?”
“I don’t remember much about him. He left when I was little.” I shrug, but it still hurts, just a twinge. Mom never really explained why he’d left, and after a while, it didn’t matter why. He wasn’t there.
“That sucks,” Vee replies after a moment of silence. She takes my free hand in hers. “Speaking of moms…mine wanted to know if I was going to bring anyone home with me for Christmas.” She leans on me, batting her eyelashes. “Wanna come?”
I laugh despite the sad nostalgia I feel for my own mother. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Vee answers. “Who else would I subject to lumpy mashed potatoes and my younger brother’s bad jokes?”
I consider the invitation. I know what I’d do if I don’t go: sit at home and work. I don’t want to do that again this year, and I want to spend time with Vee. She makes me happy, makes me laugh, keeps me from taking myself too seriously. I don’t know what I’d do without her.
“I will. What day do we leave?”
“We’ll go out for Christmas Eve, right after I finish work,” Vee says. “And we’ll stay over two nights, if that’s all right.”
“And your parents are okay with…?” I gesture to the both of us.
“Yeah.” Vee shrugs. “I’ve talked to them about you, and they’re cool. Maybe not at first, but they are now. Mom thinks you’re a good influence on me.”
At that I do laugh. I’d never thought myself a good influence on anyone.
“Something about me settling down a bit,” Vee says. “I think she’d like it if my hair were a normal color, too, but you can’t have everything.”
“Don’t tell her I was a punk chick, then,” I say.
“Not a word.” Vee pretends to zip her lips.
A roar goes up from the crowd. It’s time.
Three weeks later, I find myself in front of a modest clapboard house, my stomach churning with nerves. Vee’s parents. And her brother, but mostly, it’s her parents that worry me. I know I’m not their age, not quite, but I’m closer to their age than to their daughter’s. If it had been my mom, she would have tsked at me and asked why I couldn’t find someone a little older. She would have done it gently, but still…
“Ready?” Vee asks, practically bouncing on her toes. Her nose is red in the chill breeze. The snow out here in New Jersey is cleaner than in the city; there’s an expanse of pristine whiteness on the front lawn, marred only by the sidewalk down one side, leading to the front door. She takes my hand and we head towards the house. I’ve worn my nicer knee-high black boots, but I’m sliding on the cement, thanks to their lack of grip on the thin soles. I clutch at Vee, and she steadies me. Rarely have I been so glad of her wearing sensible combat boots.
We make it to the door without falling, and Vee doesn’t wait on ceremony. She yanks open the metal screen door and twists the knob of the heavier inner door, pushing inside.
“Mom! We’re here!” she calls, slinging her backpack from her shoulder to the linoleum floor. I press in behind her and close the doors, pausing to sniff the cinnamon-scented air. My stomach grumbles. I haven’t eaten much all day; I’ve been too nervous.
Vee unties the laces of her boots and pulls them off, and I set my overnight bag on the floor, bending to unzip my boots.
“You’re later than I expected.” A cheerful voice makes me glance up. Vee’s mother stands a few feet away, her rounded cheeks flushed, a frilly, old-fashioned apron covering her jeans and t-shirt, her dark hair in a short pixie cut. There’s a smudge of flour on her chin, and I don’t think she realizes it’s there.
“Took longer to get a cab from the station than usual. Guess it must be Christmas,” Vee quips, moving forward to envelop her mother in a hug. “You’ve got flour on your face, by the way. On your chin.”
When they part, her mother swipes at the flour, finally bringing up the lacy edge of her apron to rub at it. “That always happens when I’m making pie,” she laments.
“Doesn’t matter,” Vee says. “Your pies wouldn’t be as good if you didn’t make a bit of a mess.”
“I wanted to be presentable for your friend.” She smiles at me and holds out her hand. “I’m Mary.”
“Alex,” I reply, shaking her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I hope you like pie,” Mary says. “And turkey dinner with all the fixings, though that’s for tomorrow. Tonight Vee’s dad is going to do up a fondue.”
“He here?” Vee asks. “And Rob?”
“They went to the store. Your dad forgot to defrost the chicken, so he decided to go buy more.”
Vee laughs. “Typical.”
“Come on in,” Mary says, waving a hand. “Make yourself at home. Would you like a cup of tea, or something to drink?”
“We’ll put our stuff away first. Is my room still intact?”
Mary chuckles. “As ever, even though Rob annoys me on an almost daily basis to let him make it his video games room.”
Vee rolls her eyes. “Brothers.” She grasps my hand. “C’mon, I’ll show you my childhood.” We scoop up our bags and she takes me down the hallway to a door that’s been painted black with pink panels.
“I can’t believe they let you do that,” I say.
Vee shrugs. “Yeah, well, as long as I kept my mess to my room, they weren’t too concerned.”
Inside, her room is tidier than I’d expected, and I’m relieved. Posters of rock stars paper the walls, and I spot a few of Debbie Harry, Marianne Faithfull, and even David Bowie peering down at us from the myriad of images. The bed is a double, covered in a plain black coverlet. White towels are folded at the foot of the bed. Vee drops her backpack and plops onto the bed with a sigh. I set my bag beside hers and take a few moments to look around.
The bureau is covered in stickers, and I can see black paint beneath. The window is covered by a venetian blind, over which is draped a Union Jack. A bookshelf holds a stack of old Rolling Stone magazines, and a rather diverse selection of books.
“What do you think?” Vee sounds almost nervous, and I turn to glance at her.
“It’s just how I wished my room might be when I was growing up,” I say truthfully. My mother would never have stood for it, but I always wished.
“The bed’s comfy too,” Vee says, arching a brow at me, then winking. She holds out a hand. “Come try.”
I settle on the bed next to her, taking her hand, and she tugs me to her. “I always wanted to kiss you here.” Her lips brush mine, sending a tremor through me.
“But your parents,” I protest, halfheartedly.
“Don’t care,” Vee says between kisses. We sink down into the bed, our legs dangling over the side, entangled, sandwiched together as if we could become one person.
A door slams and I sit up, startled.
Vee listens. “It’s just my dad, and Rob. No biggie.” She pulls me back down. “Just one more kiss, then we can go say hello.”
Before we leave the room, I fix my hair, which has come loose from its clips thanks to Vee’s enthusiastic caresses. I smooth it back, peering between the stickers that clutter the mirror. Taking a deep breath, reminding myself not to be nervous, I straighten my shoulders. “Ready.”
Vee’s brother pauses in the hall, giving us a close once-over as we emerge from Vee’s bedroom. “Hey, sis.”
“Hey.” We catch up to him at the entry to the kitchen. “Rob, this is Alex. Alex, my big brother Rob. He’s smarter than he looks.” Vee sticks out her tongue, and Rob snorts.
“Ignore her, she’s just jealous I’m older.” He holds out his hand, and we shake.
“Younger siblings can be tough,” I agree, though I didn’t have any of my own. But I’ve heard tales.
“Cut it out you two.” Vee’s dad looks over from where he’s standing at the coffee machine, measuring out grounds. As his son had done, he gives me a close once-over, and I wonder if he’s estimating my age, and how many years there are between myself and Vee.
“Hi Alex, I’m Brian,” he says, coming forward to shake my hand. “Sylvia’s told us about you.”
“You’re still Sylvia to me, even if you prefer otherwise,” Brian says.
Vee leans against me. “Vee’s more punk-ass,” she says.
“Language,” Mary intones as she hovers over the stove, checking on pots. The pie in the oven smells delicious.
“Can I help with anything?” I ask, though I am not much of a cook.
“It just needs a little longer,” Mary says, “but you and Sylvia can set the table.”
Vee goes to a drawer and opens it, pulling out silverware, which she hands off to me. I take it into the small dining room, where Christmas-themed place mats have been set. Vee comes through with plates and we set the table. Rob brings out the wine glasses.
“So, Vee says you’re a writer?” Rob says, looking at me. “Would I have read any of your stuff?”
“I’ve had articles in the New York Times,” I reply. “And in the New Yorker, and a few other places.”
“Cool.” He looks impressed, and I feel myself beginning to relax. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
Mary and Brian carry the two fondue pots out to the table, where the burners sit, ready and waiting. There are little forks and Rob puts a platter of meat on the table, and a platter of vegetables and cubed French bread. Vee and I follow behind them with the wine, a crisp California Chardonnay.
“Nothing fancy here,” Mary says, almost apologetically.
“It’s good wine.” I’ve never been picky, never been a connoisseur, not really, though I suppose I could have been, if I’d been motivated enough.
We settle around the table and Mary places Vee and I together on one side. She and Brian take the head and foot, and Rob is across from us. I glance around the table, wondering if they’re the sort to say grace before a meal.
Brian lifts his wineglass. “To home, and family, and Christmas, and especially to new family.” He gives me a nod and a smile, and I feel my cheeks heat. Everyone lifts their glasses for the toast and we stretch across and down the table to clink glasses.
“Dig in,” Mary says. “And Rob, make sure your chicken isn’t pink in the middle.”
“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” Rob gripes good-naturedly.
“One year he didn’t leave it in long enough and it was raw on the inside,” Vee says to me, making a face. “Gross.”
I pick up the small forks by my plate, noting their light blue tips. Everyone has their own, in various colours. Vee’s, I’m not surprised to see, are purple. I spear a piece of steak with my fork and plunge it into the hot oil. Vee takes several chunks of bread and uses one of her forks to dip it into the cheese fondue pot. She savours each bite, closing her eyes.
“I’ve missed this all year,” she says, her mouth full.
“We used to have fondues all the time before you and Rob were born,” Mary says. “Alex, have you had fondue before?”
“Not for quite awhile, but my mother wasn’t very fond of them,” I reply. She hadn’t been; they were too fancy and took a lot of work and time that she didn’t have. “This is a real treat.”
“Remember our first one, honey?” Mary says, looking at her husband.
“Our first rental apartment after we got married. I thought for sure we’d burn the place down.”
“But we didn’t,” Mary replies, “and it was Christmas Eve.”
“Our last Christmas without rugrats.”
“Then I came along and made life more awesome,” Rob interjects.
“I’m the awesome one,” Vee says, and she and Rob go back and forth for several minutes.
“Aren’t you glad you came?” Mary looks at me, trying not to laugh.
“Delighted.” I feel like family here, sitting at the table, listening to Vee and Rob, sharing amused smiles with Mary, watching Brian shake his head and chuckle at his kids’ antics. It’s been a long time.
Vee nudges me awake. The weak winter sun is streaming into her room, but even its feeble light makes my eyes hurt. I groan.
“C’mon Alex, it’s Christmas!” Vee nudges me again.
“Not without water or aspirin,” I mutter, wishing I’d not had that last glass of wine. But the evening had been so much fun, and I’d enjoyed myself.
Vee lifts a glass from the night stand. “I thought of that,” she says. “Take your aspirin and then let’s go. Rob’s probably already down there.”
“What time is it?” I ask, sitting up in bed and taking the glass from her. She hands me two aspirin, and I knock them back.
“That’s too early.”
“Not at my house,” Vee replies. She’s dressed in her blue polka-dot footie pyjamas and her hair is sticking out at all angles. My pyjamas are much more sensible, a warm, modest plaid flannel. “Let’s go.”
I rise from the bed, smoothing my hands over my hair. “I need to shower first, at least.”
“No one showers. It’s all PJs and messy hair.” Vee takes my hand and we leave the room, heading down the hallway. There’s a multi-hued glow from the living room, and it’s obvious we’re not the first up. Rob’s sitting on the sofa, his hair looking almost as crazy as Vee’s, and he’s wearing plaid pyjama pants and a rumpled t-shirt.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, lifting his cup of steaming coffee. “We beat mom and dad up again.”
“Yes!” Vee grins. “C’mon, Alex, let’s get coffee.”
We backtrack into the kitchen and Vee gets down two large white mugs and fills them. I grab the milk from the fridge and pour a dollop into my coffee. Vee does the same, but then loads it down with two huge teaspoons of sugar.
Back in the living room, we sit together on the sofa opposite Rob’s.
“What did you get mom and dad?” Vee asks him.
“You’ll see,” Rob replies. Vee’s vibrating with energy, and once the sugar and caffeine hits her system, I can imagine she’ll be bouncing off the walls.
“I hope you can’t guess what I bought you,” I say.
“I’ve been DYING to know.” Vee hops up and paces around the tree, looking at all the gifts. For a moment it seems like she’s much younger than her twenty-one years.
“No presents until I’ve had my coffee.” Brian pokes his head into the living room, then disappears. I can hear him in the kitchen, shuffling around, getting out a mug. When he returns, Mary’s joined him. They’re both in voluminous robes, looking cosy and relaxed, like they just rolled out of bed.
“Sylvia, you can do the honours,” Mary says as she settles into the rocking chair. Vee grins.
“Brilliant.” She takes up a present, checks the tag, and then takes it over to Mary. “That one’s yours.” Then she heads back and does the same, over and over again until everyone has a small pile of presents at their feet. Even I have several gifts, though I’d only expected one from Vee. I’d of course bought small gifts for her parents, and her brother, though they were a bit more generic, since I didn’t know them.
“You first, Alex,” Mary says.
“Open mine,” Vee urges, but I pick one of the others instead. Taking off the red ribbon and undoing the paper, I reveal a small box. Opening it, I find a gift certificate curled inside, for my favourite bookshop. ‘Love Mary & Brian’ it says on the slip.
“Thank you so much.” I’m touched, really touched.
“We weren’t sure what to get you,” Brian says. “We don’t know many writers.”
“It’s perfect,” I reply. “There’s nothing better.”
Mary smiles and sips her coffee. Rob grabs one of his gifts and rips the paper off, revealing a new video game system.
“Wicked!” He chortles with glee.
Vee takes a turn at one of her presents, and reveals a selection of styling products, in several different colours. “I can’t wait to use these! My manager will be so pissed.”
More gifts are opened, and Mary and Brian are happy with what I’ve bought them, a classic tie for Brian, and a delicate necklace for Mary. For Rob, having heard that he loved his video games, I bought him a gift certificate for his favourite online store.
Vee holds up the big box that is her gift from me. She shakes it, gently, but there’s very little noise. “Open it,” I say, and she sets it down on her knees, pulling at the tight, thin blue ribbons. I purposely wrapped it so she’d have a little difficulty, and had to savour opening it. After much tugging, one of the ribbons finally snaps, and she’s able to push it off, and get to tearing off the paper.
I’ve left her gift in a very plain box, without any hint of what’s inside. She runs her thumbnail along the edge, breaking the tape I’ve used to keep it closed, and then pulls the lid off.
I really should have had a camera ready. The delight and wonder on her face made it worth lugging her gift all the way from Manhattan.
Vee takes out the knee-high, baby blue Doc Martens, and still, she’s speechless. Then she drops them and launches herself at me, burying me in a bear hug so tight I can hardly breathe.
“Alex, you’re the best,” she whispers in my ear. I hug her close and for a moment it’s just her and I, alone on Christmas Day.
“When I saw them, I knew they’d be perfect,” I reply.
Vee disentangles herself. “Now you have to open my gift.”
I pick up the small box, wrapped in a glitzy silver paper that catches the light from the Christmas tree. Vee’s been incredibly secretive about her gift, and until now I hadn’t even been able to see the box. I carefully undo the delicate bow, and unwrap the metallic paper. The box is a light blue, and I inhale a surprised breath.
“Open it.” Vee leans against me, watching me as I lift the lid of the box with shaking fingers.
Nestled inside is a beautiful silver bracelet, done with a simple chain and an infinity loop charm. “That infinity is us,” Vee whispers to me.
I blink back the sudden dampness in my eyes. “It’s lovely,” I manage to say, though my voice is a faint copy of its usual robustness. Vee lifts the bracelet from the box.
“Let me put it on,” she says, and closes it about my wrist, expertly doing up the clasp. I raise my wrist, looking at it.
Vee hugs me again, and I hug her back. “I love you,” she whispers.
“I love you too, Vee.”
When we look up from our embrace, Mary is dabbing at her eyes and even Brian looks a little touched.
“What a perfect Christmas,” Mary says.
Vee laughs. “It sure is.”