This is an unusual Christmas. My brother Jerry is in Europe, studying British history, and my brother Louie’s friend was having a big party, so he won’t arrive until Christmas Eve. The other odd twist is that my cousin Monique had come. When we were kids, Monique double-dated with Jerry, and I was stuck with another cousin, Alice, who later embarrassed everyone in our reserved family by becoming “Alice Actor, Action Eight News.” Monique went to culinary school in New York City, but she returned for reunions and holidays pretty regularly.
Monique is the next to arrive this year. She insists on taking over the kitchen, so my parents cue up “Miracle on 34th Street,” which I can’t stand. A film that rewards faith with real estate can’t move me. Once it starts, I sneak off to the kitchen.
“Ah, ah, ah, you’ll spoil all my secrets!” Monique chirps. Her pile of hair has no respect for gravity, curls in every direction, and she purses her lips as she measures some vanilla.
“It smells good,” I say. “Don’t worry, I’m just here for popcorn.”
She beats the batter with a wooden spoon, reaches for the canister of brown sugar. “I’m glad I came out. I love seeing your parents.”
“Good,” I say. I sit on the kitchen table to watch the microwave glow.
“You know, I’m outside the loop here, so it’s great. I don’t know about your fights.”
“Oh, we don’t fight much,” I say.
“What do you hear from Jerry?”
The popcorn started ticking.
“What do you hear? Probably all the juicy stuff. He doesn’t tell me much.”
Now she had to raise her voice above the sputtering popcorn. “Actually, David, I did want to talk to someone.” She abandons her bowl and leans on the counter, setting her black sweater against the flour dust. “I’m a little concerned about Jerry. I thought—I don’t know if he’s doing so well. I don’t know about him being in England—“
“Too much rain?” I joke.
“Seriously, I mean, I don’t know if I should say something to your mom.”
“What would you say to her?” The microwave stops. The popcorn cracks a few more times.
“Well—I don’t know, it’s like, I’m not exactly—I’ve been wild, too, and we tell our wild stories—you know—but it’s like all his stories now, and it’s….” She looks back at me, for help, but I don’t have anything to say.
“He’s—I’m not a prude, I’m a party girl, you know—you don’t really know. But these stories seem—“
“Martinis for breakfast?”
“I guess.” She stands up and there’s a thick white line across her sweater. “Oh, God,” she starts brushing it off. “Too much, I just think it’s really too much. I think it’s passing out and missing class.”
“Do you think—I should? Say something? He’s just—“
My father poked his head in. “Sorry, guys, I just want that popcorn. It smells so good. Don’t touch her cookies, David! She’s using her expert techniques!” He winked, and I rolled my eyes.
“I’m not a cookie curse,” I said. He dumped the popcorn in a bowl.
“I can’t wait to taste these,” he said as he left.
“I guess they ought to know,” I said. “Mom, at least.”
Monique nodded. The light fixture behind her is a hexagonal thing, which inadequately distributed the glare of two clear bulbs, and through her webs of hair there are searing and softened shards of light.