By the time Ziggy and I arrived at the house there was a full-blown apocalyptic argument going on between Claire (of course), Janine, and Courtney. Remo opened the door for us and we made a beeline for the kitchen while the three women had their knock-down, drag-out fight in front of the Christmas tree. Then he went to make peace or something, but we could hear it all perfectly well. It went something like this:
Claire: Don’t be ridiculous.
Janine: I’m not being ridiculous, I’m being practical.
Courtney: I hear you, Jan, but maybe–
Claire: Gift-giving is one of the deepest oldest traditions of the holiday!
Courtney: What about going with all edible gifts?
Claire: Doing without it would simply be unthinkable.
Janine: You’re not listening to what I’m saying. There won’t be any–
Claire: Think of the children! Landon is too young to understand your petty concerns.
Janine: Petty! The fact that I’m flat broke just doesn’t compute with you, does it?
Courtney: None of us are made of money right now, Mom.
Claire: I mean, seriously, to even suggest–
Courtney: How about we just give gifts to Landon but skip exchanging among the adults?
Janine: That was my idea!
Courtney: And it’s a good one!
Claire: No, it’s not!
I whispered to Ziggy, “I haven’t gotten any of them anything.”
Ziggy whispered back, “Me either.”
I decided to wade into the fray. As I sidled out of the kitchen into the living room, Remo was saying, “Look, if the problem is money–”
Janine stopped him in his tracks. “Put your wallet back in your pants, you overbearing prick!”
Courtney patted Remo on the arm. “What Janine’s trying to say is that this argument is not about money, it’s about–”
“Yes, it is!” Janine’s face was red and blotchy as if she’d screamed so hard it pushed all the blood to the surface of her skin. She pounded her fist on her own thigh with each word. “I. HAVE. NO. MONEY. THERE. WILL. BE. NO. GIFTS. For any of you. Okay?” She sat heavily on the couch and put her head in her hands.
Silence fell as even Claire couldn’t muster a good come-back after that. I wondered what Ziggy was thinking in the kitchen about all this. He was wise to stay in there.
I perched myself next to Janine on the couch. “You know we did already buy some stuff for Landon. The night we bought the tree.”
She turned and looked at me. “You don’t even know my kid. You didn’t even know he existed until you got here. Why should you feel obligated to buy him things, just because you’re related by blood?”
“I didn’t feel obligated, I just–”
She was on a roll. “It isn’t like you owe him anything just because you share DNA or something.”
Remo tried again, god love him. “Claire’s right: Christmas should be special for a child.”
Janine lashed out. “Oh, so he’s a charity case, is that it? Poor Tiny Tim and the lepers down at the poor house–”
“No,” I said. “No. I bought him some stuff because I like him. He’s a great kid. That’s all.”
Claire stepped forward in her about-to-sing pose, elbows tucked in and hands clasped. “Well, but we can’t only give gifts to people we like. That wouldn’t be fair.”
It struck me then: this was all about my mother being afraid no one would get her anything. Jeezus. Like there was a fragile, watery-eyed five-year-old inside her, on the verge of a tantrum. It was heartbreaking and stupid at the same time.
Remo stood beside her. “I know everyone’s been occupied by more pressing issues–”
“Christmas is mere days away!” Claire admonished him. Yeah, Santa has a deadline.
“Like your illness,” Remo pressed. “No one’s had time to shop–”
Wrong tactic. Claire turned her sights on him. “Don’t you dare turn my cancer into an excuse to ruin Christmas! My last Chris–!” She burst into what I believe were genuine tears, which forestalled any further attacks. Remo gingerly put an arm around her and she allowed herself to be consoled.
Courtney edged around them until she stood next to Janine. “How about we do Secret Santa?”
Janine looked up at her, face askew with skepticism. “Secret. Santa.”
“You know, where we each pull a name out of hat and–”
“I know what Secret Santa is,” Janine intoned.
“Or,” I said, “what about Not-So-Secret Santa?”
Now they both looked at me. “What is that?”
“Instead of one secret person, the whole group can get together on each person and figure out what to get. It’ll still be a secret to that one person what they’re getting, of course.”
Courtney smiled, warming to the idea. “That could be kind of fun. Did you just think of that now?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.” I have no idea where I came up with that. I didn’t necessarily expect them to like the idea.
But even Janine could accept the compromise. “It could work,” she admitted tentatively.
Claire looked up from Remo’s chest, where she left a damp spot on his heather-gray henley. “I, I suppose if that idea works for everyone…”
Ziggy leaned against the doorframe into the kitchen and gave me a thumbs up.
“Great!” Courtney got a pad of paper from somewhere by the TV and started to write names down in it. “Jan, should we include Jake?”
“Sure,” Janine said with a resigned sigh. “I told him not to get me anything, but he’s so stupid-eyed I know he will anyway.”
She added him to the list. Then she looked around at all of us. “And what about Lilibeth? When does she get here?”
I saw the sudden panic in Janine’s eyes as she tried to head off Courtney’s question, but it was too late.
“I’ve been wondering that, too,” Claire said in a tip-toe lilt, disengaging herself from Remo’s embrace. “Jannnn, have you heard from her?”
Janine shot a glare at Courtney. “Now you’ve done it,” she said.