Janine grilled us when we got back downstairs. “Are you sure he’s asleep?”
“Pretty sure. That or he’s a good faker,” I said as we sat down at the table and Court started passing us dishes. “Why?”
“It’s a miracle is all. A kid who actually goes to sleep on Christmas Eve?” Janine put the spoon in the dish of stuffing like she was about to give herself some more, then handed it to Ziggy instead. “He was more excited about you two than Santa, I swear.”
Claire stared at her wine glass somewhat disappointedly, I think because it was empty. “He craves male role models.”
“Oh, don’t start with that again, Mother,” Janine said. “I’m not going to hurry up and re-marry the next male role model who comes along.”
Claire rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Jan. You can’t mis-underestimate the need a growing boy has for one.”
My skin began to prickle, and not because of Claire’s drunken grammar.
“And what happens if he doesn’t have one?” Janine asked, rolling her eyes right back. “He turns out a sissy?”
Ziggy could not hold in a bark of laughter. “Like me, you mean? Or like your brother? Because Digger was no role model, I’m sure.”
Janine’s face was red. “That wasn’t what I meant. I didn’t mean you.”
“Oh, yes you did,” Claire said, with an exaggerated wave of her hand. “You’re right. Digger was the opposite of a role model. He was a… a…” She snapped her fingers trying to come up with the word. You know. He was a…”
“Negative influence?” Court tried.
“Turd,” Claire finally said with a firm nod. Which as you can imagine set me and Courtney off laughing, and pretty soon the entire table was laughing, even Janine and Ziggy. Ziggy got up and retrieved another bottle of champagne from his carryon suitcase and poured some for himself and for Claire. I declined and was mostly focusing on stopping laughing long enough to eat something.
“Okay, but seriously,” Court said, after everyone had calmed down. “Daron did have a male role model, he just wasn’t your husband.”
“Remo, you mean?” Claire asked. “Well, of course. It’s the only reason I didn’t drive him out of town.”
I almost choked on my potatoes. “Wait, what?”
Claire leveled an acid-filled gaze in my direction. Her voice was low and rough, like Lauren Bacall. “You think it was easy having him five minutes away when we couldn’t be together?”
“You’re saying you would’ve made Remo move away, except you knew your little boy would need him?” Court voiced the skepticism I was feeling.
I had to add something. “I thought you disapproved of me hanging around with him.”
She batted her eyelashes. “You don’t know me very well.” She looked around the table and added, sadly: “None of you do.”
Ziggy gripped my hand under the table.
“We know you better than you think, Mom,” Court said.
Claire literally put her hand against her forehead and said, “Then why do I feel so alone?”
Ziggy put his other hand on her arm. “That’s the nature of the human condition. We are forever isolated in our own heads, and our obsession with love and intimacy is driven by the fact that whether one considers it real or illusory, it mitigates that feeling of that isolation.”
I squeezed his fingers. “You sound like Jonathan.”
“Who’s Jonathan?” Claire asked.
Ziggy chuckled. “I’m sure Jonathan has read a lot of the same books. The point is, Claire, darling, everyone feels that way to some degree, and we each deal with that existential isolation somehow.”
She blinked at him. “Oh. Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
He tried: “Sometimes knowing you’re not the only one who feels alone makes you feel less alone?”
She looked at the ceiling while she let that sink in. “I suppose.” Then she looked at him. “You are a confounding little man. I think I like you.”
“I take that as a compliment,” Ziggy said. “Now. Do we have a ton of gift-wrapping to do, or what? We should probably clear this table off if so.”
No one argued with that suggestion. Four adults going back and forth in a tiny kitchen is a lot, but despite the chaos we managed to get stuff pretty well put away before Claire could finish her second glass of champagne.
I didn’t remember her drinking when we were growing up. Maybe she did when she and Digger went out, but otherwise I really don’t remember her drinking on holidays or anything. Maybe I just hadn’t paid attention, but I’m pretty sure she had mostly avoided it.
Court went to make sure Landon was still asleep while Janine and me pulled his gifts out of hiding. Some had to be hidden in the trunk of her car as the only “safe” place where a curious five-year-old wouldn’t be able to look.
In the end the three drunkest adults did all the wrapping (Claire, Ziggy, and Courtney) while the two soberest washed the dishes (me and Janine). That way no dishes got broken, although I did question the idea of giving the three of them sharp scissors.
This also meant that the two taciturn adults were in the kitchen, while the three chatty ones were in the dining room. Janine and I worked in silence while the three of them were like a radio talk show—never a moment of dead air.
Courtney: So is that what you really believe? About everyone feeling isolated?
Ziggy: Who me? Believe is kind of a loaded word.
Courtney: But, do you?
Ziggy: I know I feel isolated sometimes and that I will do anything to alleviate that feeling, if that’s what you mean.
Courtney: What do you call that?
Ziggy: Um, bad decision-making, you mean?
Court: No, no. I mean–
Claire: You mean existential angst? I’m pretty sure that’s what that means.
Ziggy: Close enough, yeah.
Claire: It’s a rather bleak worldview, isn’t it?
Ziggy: Well, the world seems rather bleak when I feel isolated, so it fits?
Claire: I suppose that makes sense.
Courtney: It’s Christmas, shouldn’t we talk about something more cheerful?
Claire: You, dear, are the one who brought it up.
Courtney: Yeah, okay, but come on. Think of something merry.
Ziggy: Something merry? Like mulled wine?
Claire: No more wine. I am probably going to be unhappy later, anyway.
Courtney: But you’re supposed to be merry.
Claire: That’s not what I meant.
Ziggy: She means she’s probably going to upchuck later, but she’s too much of a lady to say it directly.
Courtney: Oh! Oh, I get it. You know, throwing up is probably the one thing it makes sense not to talk about directly.
Ziggy: It does?
Courtney: Yeah, because when you do, it makes some people feel sick to their stomach, too. So you have to have euphemisms for it.
Ziggy: You mean like “ordering Buicks on the big white phone?”
Courtney: I was thinking more along the lines of upchuck, but yeah, there are the ones like “driving the porcelain bus.”
Ziggy: Did you learn that one from a roadie?
Courtney: Oh, probably. My fave though is “liquidate your assets.”
Claire: Oh, you miserable children.
She got up hastily and hurried to the bathroom. Which just goes to show, sometimes euphemisms don’t help.