“I didn’t say that,” she said simply. “All I’m saying is I would hope he did before you went ahead with this.”
“It’s just three words,” I said casually, finishing off my Coke. “I mean, lots of people sleep together without saying, ‘I love you.’”
Scarlett sat back, pulling her legs as best she could against her stomach. “Not people like us, Halley. Not people like us.”
My mother, who is serious and businesslike about most things, is an absolute fanatic about the holidays. Christmas begins at our house the second the last bite of Thanksgiving dinner is eaten, and our Christmas tree, decorated and sagging with way too many ornaments, does not come down until New Year’s Day. It drives my father, who always loudly proclaims himself a Christmas atheist, completely bananas. If it was up to him, the tree would be dismantled and out at the curb ten seconds after the last gift was opened—a done deal. Actually, if given his choice, we wouldn’t have a tree, period. We’d just hand each other our gifts in the bags they came in (his chosen wrapping paper), eat a big meal, and watch football on TV. But he knew when he married my mother, who insisted on a New Year’s Eve wedding, that he wouldn’t get that. Not even a chance.
I figured Grandma Halley’s being sick would make the holidays a little less important this year, or at least distract my mother. I was wrong. If anything, it was more important that this be the Perfect Christmas, the Best We’ve Ever Had. She took a day, maybe, after we got home from Thanksgiving before the boxes of ornaments came out, the stockings went up, and the planning was in full swing. It was dizzying.
“We have to get a tree,” she announced around the fourth night of December. We were at the dinner table. “Tonight, I was thinking. It would be something nice to do together.”
My father did it for the first time that year, a combination of a sigh and something muttered under his breath. His sole holiday tradition: The Christmas Grumble.
“The lot’s open until nine,” she said cheerfully, reaching over me for my plate.
“I have a lot of homework,” I said, my standard excuse, and my father kicked me under the table. If he was going, I was going.
The lot was packed, so it took my mother about a half hour, in the freezing cold, to find the Perfect Tree. I stood by the car, more frustrated by the minute, as I watched her walk the aisles of spruces with my father yanking out this one, then that one, for her inspection. Overhead, what sounded like the same Christmas tape we had at Milton’s played loudly; I knew every word, every beat, every pause, mouthing along without even realizing it.
“Hi, Halley.” I turned around and saw Elizabeth Gunderson, standing there holding hands with a little girl wearing a tutu and a heavy winter coat. They had identical faces and hair color. I hadn’t seen her much lately; after the scandal with her boyfriend and best friend, she’d been away for a couple of weeks “getting her appendix out”; the rumor was she’d been in some kind of hospital, but that was never verified either.
“Hey, Elizabeth,” I said, smiling politely. I was not going to make a mute fool of myself again.
“Lizabeth, I want to go look at the mistletoe,” the little girl said, yanking her toward the display by the register. “Come on.”
“One second, Amy,” Elizabeth said coolly, yanking back. The little girl pouted, stomping one ballet slipper. “So, Halley, what’s up?”
“Not much. Doing the family thing.”
“Yeah, me, too.” She looked down at Amy, who had let go of her hand and was now twirling, lopsidedly, between us. “So, how are things with Macon?”
“Good,” I said, just as coolly as I could, my eyes on Amy’s pink tutu.
“I’ve been seeing him out a lot at Rhetta’s,” she said. “You know Rhetta, right?”
The correct answer to this, of course, was “Sure.”
“I’ve never seen you over there with him, but I figured I was just missing you.” She tossed her hair back, a classic Elizabeth Gunderson gesture; I could still see her in her cheerleading uniform, kicking high in the air, that hair swinging. “You know, since Mack and I broke up, I’ve been spending a lot of time over there.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “I mean, about you and Mack.”
“Yeah.” Her breath came out in a big white puff. “Macon’s been so great, he really understands about that kind of stuff. You’re so lucky to have him.”
I watched her, forgetting for the moment about being cool and friendly, about maintaining my facade. I tried to read her eyes, to see beyond the words to what might really be happening at Rhetta’s, a place I’d never been. Or been invited to. Elizabeth Gunderson obviously hadn’t been grounded, her life controlled by her mother’s hand. Elizabeth Gunderson could go places.
“Elizabeth!” We both looked over to see a man standing by a BMW, a tree lashed to the roof. The engine was running. “Let’s go, honey. Amy, you, too.”
“Well,” Elizabeth said as Amy ran over to the car, “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow in class, right?”
She waved, like we were friends, and her dad shut the door behind her. As they pulled away, their headlights flooded my face, making me squint, and I couldn’t tell whether she was watching me.
“We found one!” I heard my mother say behind me. “It’s just about perfect and it’s a good thing because your father was almost completely out of patience.”
“Good,” I said.
“Was that one of your friends from school?” she said as Elizabeth’s car pulled out.
“No,” I said under my breath. The Christmas Mumble.
“Do I know her?”
“No,” I said more loudly. She thought she knew everyone. “I hate her, anyway.”
My mother took a step back and looked at me. As a therapist, this was almost permission for her to pick my brain.
“You hate her,” she repeated. “Why?”
“No reason.” I was sorry I’d said anything.
“Well, here’s the damn tree,” my father said in his booming radio voice; a few people looked over. He walked up and thrust it between us so I got a face full of needles. “Best of the lot, or so your mother is convinced.”
“Let’s go home,” my mother said, still watching me through the tree. You’d think she’d never heard me say I hated anyone before. “It’s getting late.”