The second half of a chapter from a book I’m writing. The first is here.
Sara slapped her plate onto Matt’s pants, and, picking up her chair, relocated to an empty patch by the sofa. Parris Island, South Carolina, where Pam trained when she joined the Marine Corps, was just an hour from Savannah, Georgia, where Sara had spent the past five Christmases. However, the two women’s experiences in Savannah were distinct enough that it felt as if they were discussing two different cities, separated by an ocean of class and privilege.
More guests blew through the living room and kitchen, moving in triple time with Sinatra’s “The Christmas Waltz.” The German shepherd, overwhelmed by the day’s events, had abandoned his instinctual concern with everyone’s comings and goings and collapsed in a heap under Kay’s feet.
One late arrival, with thick glasses and a wobbly inner tube around her middle, knew Mr. Williams and Kay from the same local writers group.
“So, Mark, I spiced up the sex scene in my story like you suggested.”
“Great! You want to make it real, Nicole. Don’t weigh it down with fluffy romance.”
“I really liked the piece you read Monday. I loved the scene when you told off both the hippies and the country club crowd.”
“Your dad’s writing about his time at Seattle Pacific,” Kay explained proudly.
“You’re writing a memoir?” asked Matt skeptically.
“Oh, no,” Mr. Williams quickly objected. “This is a novel. Memoirs are for when you’re happy with how everything in your life turned out. Fiction is what you write when you wish you’d done things differently.” He patted Kay’s thigh. “If I get around to writing about the past year, that’ll be a memoir.”
As his father spoke, Matt checked the time on his Cartier watch, confirmed it on his iPhone, and even glanced up at the ceiling as if he’d spot the time scurrying across like a winged insect. Then came a snap of pressed trousers and he was on his feet.
“I’m afraid it’s time for us to head out.”
“Oh?” said Mark Williams. “So soon?”
Although they hadn’t exchanged more than a handful of words, Mr. Williams’s expression implied there was much he wished to tell his son but he’d mistakenly believed there’d be plenty of time to do so.
Sara made no movements toward the front door, because she’d learned during their fifteen years together that whenever Matt said he was ready to leave a party, the actual process of extricating himself took at best an hour and at worst longer than Sara had ever wanted to spend anywhere.
She went into the kitchen for more water. The oven clock claimed it was 10 but guests continued a circuit of the pots and dishes until their plates wheezed from exertion. It occurred to Sara that there was no place at this party where one could be safely alone. Gina Merrick always set aside an area at her house for that purpose, ostensibly for private phone calls, but Sara most often used it as a brief meditative retreat before returning to the fray.
Kay’s voice soon entered the room, embracing everyone present while her actual arms were filled with a stack of plastic plates. They all looked licked clean except for Sara and Matt’s, whose dinner had cooled and congealed into something unrecognizable.
“When I was little, we used to wash these plates and reuse them. But not anymore!” Kay smiled and, as Sara’s foot pressed down on the silver pedal to pop open the lid, Kay dumped the plates into the tin cavern as if realizing her own American dream.
“What do you write?” Sara asked.
“Poems, mostly, nothing too fancy. Honestly, I just like hearing other people’s stories. That’s why I go. Although I think what made Mark first notice me was my poem May 26, 1981.”
“What’s the significance of that date?”
Sara knew this was a risky question. Her experience from the bare minimum of literature courses she’d taken in college was that direct questions only erupted geysers of pointless subtext and supposition.
“It’s when Paul was conceived.”
It pleased Sara that the answer was straightforward and not a reference to green lights.
“Absolutely is. I worked it out, which wasn’t easy because his father and I were pretty frisky back then, but that’s really what the poem’s about. You just know when it’s happened. Anyway, I was comparing it to the rain. How when there’s a big storm, you just get pounded and your skin’s all wet, and there’s this smell in the air. After I finished, Mark just asks, ‘Look, what I wanna know is did you have an orgasm or not?'”
A moment passed, during which Sara considered what she’d heard and concluded, “Mr. Williams seems to have a consistent critical focus.”
Once her laughter settled down, Kay leaned in to whisper, “So, how far along are you?”
“Far along in what?” Sara asked innocently.
“I know I shouldn’t ask,” Kay admitted, “but you weren’t drinking and you sort of picked at your food. I had the same problem early on with Paul. All I could eat were sweets. Cheesecake for breakfast, chocolate creme pie for lunch, hot fudge sundae for dinner, and I was popping those little Easter egg candies like breath mints.”
Sara exchanged a confused look with the Redskins mascot on Kay’s sweatshirt.
“Oh,” she said, realizing. “I’m not…”
“Ready to tell people about it yet, I know, but if you ever want someone to talk to…”
Pam Kaye marched into the kitchen, her controlled stride not that different from Sara’s, despite the latter’s lack of formal training.
“Looks like you’re shipping out.”
Just a half hour had passed since Matt expressed his desire to leave, which was normally nowhere near long enough for it to appear that he was actually going someplace, but looking past Pam’s shoulder, Sara saw her husband standing restlessly in a dark corner of the living room. He’d already put on his coat, and Sara’s hung limply over his folded arms.
“Just wanted to say good-bye. I really enjoyed talking to you.”
“You, as well,” Sara said, and, as if removing a bothersome splinter, she added, “Could I have one of your cards? I think I’d like to take you up on your offer.”
“Awesome!” Pam smacked her fist into the palm of her hand. “You won’t regret it! Paul does great work. Wow, once we get samples of your session on our site, traffic is sure to spike.”
“And the timing is just perfect,” Kay said. “I wish I’d thought to…” She stopped herself mid-sentence and made a shushing gesture with her finger. “Well, anyway… you’re gonna look gorgeous.”
Two voices had raised themselves, as if on stilts, above the rest in the house.
“You’re spending Christmas at a casino?”
“Yeah,” Mr. Williams replied, “Suquamish. And it’s a resort and casino. Full package.”
“I can’t believe you.” Matt turned to Sara, who’d entered the room along with others lured from the kitchen by the appetizing drama. “Do you believe him?”
“Suquamish,” Sara repeated. “That’s where Mindy Gardner got married. You said you liked it.”
“I said it was charming, which is what you say when you’re being polite.” Matt helped Sara into her coat. “This is what you’re doing for Christmas?”
“Yeah! It’ll be fun. I haven’t enjoyed Christmas since I was a kid. ”
“Mom put a lot of effort into Christmas.”
The party’s unseen guest was now mentioned directly, and Mark Williams struck down their forty Christmases together with a chop of his hand.
“It was all too much,” he insisted. “Three trees… What is it? Arbor Day? All these antique ornaments that can’t be broken…”
Kay attempted to inject levity into the flatlining gathering.
“I’m such a butter fingers. I break an ornament each year. Guess which one it’ll be this time and I’ll buy you an egg nog.”
“Then that big Christmas party,” Mr. Williams continued, “…no, not a party, a gala, with all those important people. The whole season was like jury duty but you got called each year.” His bald head shook defiantly. “No! No, this year’s Christmas dinner is just a simple buffet. Having my dessert on the same plate as my main course. It’s like all my options are in front of me and I’m in control of every one.”
Matt recalled a series of aborted childhood Christmas dinners: His father skulking off into the TV room to watch football, and gravy splattering from carelessly held priceless china onto his mother’s favorite Persian rug.
“Would it have killed you to sit still for one meal?”
“Who has time for the Twelve Days of Courses? It’s just food. Eat it, enjoy it, move on. This is why your generation needs a war. But why do you even care? You stopped coming over for Christmas after you met Sara.”
The occasion of Mr. Williams calling Sara by her Christian name, which he hadn’t done since she’d married his son, was not commented on as Matt instead recoiled at the audacity of his father striking him with a fistful of facts.
“I stopped because…” Matt looked through his father, as if he were a ghost, and explained himself to the parent who felt more tangible to him. “I couldn’t stand watching how miserable you made Mom.”
“Me?” Mr. Williams threw back his head and laughed. “Here’s the punchline. Everything could’ve gone perfectly but your mother would’ve still been miserable. Whatever the event, she’d spend it afraid someone’s gonna spill red wine on her white furniture. She owns most of Woodinville and she’s worried about spilling red wine. My life now?” He turned over a few drops of his beer onto the carpet. “See? No big deal. I’ll clean it up later.”
Matt’s face curdled with disgust.
“Wow. Well, I’m glad you’re comfortable enough to pour one out for your homies.”
The hallway mirror revealed that Sara was wearing her coat inside out, but before she could correct it, Matt’s hand was pressing against the dangling tag and compelling her toward the door.
“Let’s just stop having this same fight,” Mr. Williams called out to the vanishing couple. “What I wanted to say before…” He glanced at Kay. “We’re going to be at Suquamish through New Year’s. Sara mentioned that you’d be back from Savannah by then, so… well, Pam and Paul are coming up on New Year’s Eve. It’ll sort of be a celebration.”
Matt could only guess at what type of celebration his father was hinting at, and his only response was to slam the door shut behind him.
“That was unnecessary,” Sara said as they walked toward Matt’s car.
“Look, I don’t care what my father does now.” He gestured wildly in the direction of Kay’s house, as if they’d just left a pagan ritual. “But I hate how he’s so obsessed with assaulting my mother’s memory that he’ll lie about his life.”
It had started to rain, and drops of water struck Sara and rolled down her cheeks.
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you notice? Dad’s miserable.”
“How did you reach that conclusion?”
“Are you blind? That woman. That house.”
“Mr. Williams says he’s happy now.”
“He’s lying!” Matt screamed, practically begging Sara to agree with him. “Don’t you see? I took everything from him!”
Sara’s tone was neither comforting nor confrontational, merely curious.
“What did you actually take from him?”
“He was always going on about money and freedom, how money was freedom, and now he’s getting by on social security, spending his Mondays listening to blog entries, and living with that cartoon. He can’t be happy.”
“Perhaps your actions forced him to re-evaluate his priorities.” Her next words were intended to comfort: “You might have helped him.”
When Matt realized Sara was right, all he could do was slam his fist into an unfortunately placed traffic sign.
“That’s not what I wanted,” he whispered.
At the end of the block, a cloudy lamppost hovered over a gray Mercedes that Sara and Matt entered on opposite sides. The trickles of light falling through the passenger-side window was enough for Matt to see Sara struggling with her seat belt, as hot tears mixed with the cold rain on her face. When the belt finally clicked in place, she started to laugh.
“Gina told me this was the only reason you wanted to come.” It was now Sara’s turn to quote her friend: “You just wanted to see Mr. Williams… ‘in hell.'”
Matt pulled away from the curb.
“Maybe so,” he confessed, “but you weren’t there. You didn’t see how awful he was to my mother…” He added perfunctorily, “…to me. You can’t judge me.”
“No, I’m not judging you. It’s just…” She’d stopped laughing. “I guess Gina knows you better than I do.”
They drove home without speaking but not in silence. Once they reached the interstate, Matt, with a defiant flourish, switched on the radio, which had already started playing Christmas music.