by Michael Howard
Christmas music played as Lucy stood among her fellow passengers, eyeing the carousel for her two pieces of luggage. She hoped she’d brought enough for the nine days she was in town. And while she’d spent two days methodically packing, checking things off her list, nagging still was the nervous sensation that she’d left behind something vital—flattening iron or phone charger or some such thing. She tried to visualize placing certain items into her bags, zipping up the compartments, but the bustling holiday atmosphere inside the terminal wasn’t conducive to such meditations. Adding to Lucy’s anxiety was the off-putting fact that eight hours had passed during her five hour trip: it was already after six o’clock; she’d left San Diego at ten that morning. The flight had been a bumpy one—plenty of turbulence, plenty of playing down from the pilot—and somewhere in the back a baby screamed from takeoff to landing, straight through. Still, in spite of everything, Lucy was mostly excited. She hadn’t been home to visit since the previous winter, having decided to stay west for the duration of her summer recess. She missed her parents, and also her younger brother Travis. She wondered if he would look or speak differently, if he’d decided on a college to attend the following year. Did he have a girlfriend? A lot of questions to ask him, and she hoped he would like the sweater she’d picked out for his Christmas gift. Even if he didn’t he would pretend like he did, she thought. She spotted one of her bags and moved forward and lifted it from the belt with both hands, stepping back out of the way again. A diminutive old man to her left said:
‘A wonder more bags don’t get stole off the conveyer; who’d ever know?’
Lucy wasn’t sure whether this was directed at her, but she turned and gave him an understanding smile anyway. The man took this as a sort of invitation, moving closer and telling Lucy about how many times he had flown across the country, and on how many different airlines, and how air travel is not only the most convenient mode of transport but also the safest—even safer than trains, he said, and he’d seen the stats to support that. There was, he told her, a time when you could stroll through an airport terminal without so much as being looked at; but now that everyone was so suspicious of one another you had to be frisked and x-rayed and manhandled, and that was a real pity. A rough security guard had manhandled him just this morning, knocked his cap to the floor. Lucy told him she was sorry to hear about it. After awhile he said he could see that Lucy was a very gentle and considerate young lady, and that she would make some young man very proud, and that there ought to be more people like her in today’s world.
When Lucy’s second bag came around she wished the old man a Merry Christmas and moved towards the lobby, where Jim, her cousin, stood waiting for her. They saw each other from a distance and began smiling and waving simultaneously. After the niceties he told her to hand him her bags and button her coat and brace herself: the temperature was in the single digits. Outside Jim said:
‘When’s the last time you saw snow?’
Lucy laughed as she told him through chattering teeth that she hadn’t seen a single snowflake since last Christmas. ‘Spoiled!’ he shouted behind him. It was coming down horizontally, the snow, the wind whipping around like mad, and they marched straight into it on their way to Jim’s car, Lucy hugging her torso with both arms and wondering how she’d managed to brave eighteen Buffalo winters. When they reached the car Lucy jumped into the passenger’s seat and shivered. She could hear Jim arranging the trunk to make room for her bags.
‘Phew!’ Jim said, getting in and slamming his door. ‘Nasty.’ He looked at Lucy and grinned. ‘You look great. All grown up.’
Lucy blushed and told him thank you. She wanted to comment on his beard but couldn’t think of a clever way to do it. It had been something like five years since she’d seen her cousin. Four years her senior, Jim had gone off to college in Vermont, and stayed there until graduation. Now he was back in Buffalo, and he had a wife and a six-month-old baby girl. They’d always been close, Lucy and Jim, and Lucy, in spite of herself, had always had an unspoken crush on him. She remembered vividly how her pulse would thump in her temples any time she found herself alone with him. When they played tag with the other cousins she would deliberately let him catch her, and his touch never failed to induce butterflies. One time she overheard Jim grumble to another cousin that all the girls he knew lacked maturity, and so teenage Lucy made an effort to present herself as the exception. But all of that was over with, she thought as Jim steered out of the parking lot. She was older now, almost twenty, and Jim was a grown man—a husband and a father. There were no butterflies when they embraced in the airport lobby, and although Lucy noted that Jim was still very handsome, very charming, she was happy to learn—for her body told her this—that any romantic feelings had expired with adolescence.
‘You’re going to love her,’ Jim told her, meaning his baby, Allison. He said that Gina, his wife, was over her mother’s and would be coming with the baby around eight.
‘I can’t wait to see her,’ Lucy said. She asked about her parents and Jim said that they were over the house with everyone but that he hadn’t had a chance to speak with them because he wanted to be on time picking her up from the airport. She thanked him again for doing that and he said that it was no problem at all. She asked about Travis and Jim said that he barely recognized him, he looked so much different. And speaking of which, he added with a grin, he couldn’t believe how tall she was now; she was such a shrimp the last time he’d seen her. Lucy laughed, and Jim said that she was growing into a beautiful young lady. And Lucy laughed.
Lucy’s entrance was met with cries of ‘Look who it is!’ and ‘Miss California!’ and ‘Long time no see!’ and she blushed and smiled as she went around and said hello and Merry Christmas to all her aunts and uncles and cousins. Jim said he would set her things down in the dining room and told her to help herself to any food or drink that was out. It was warm in the house and Lucy could feel her face flushing. She ate some cheese and poured a glass of sparkling water. After a minute her parents walked over, smiling wide, and she hugged and kissed them and told them how nice it felt to be back in town for the holidays.
‘Where’s Travis?’ she asked.
‘Oh, he’s around,’ her mother said. She inquired about the flight and Lucy told her about the turbulence and the crying baby and her mother commiserated and said that it sounded like a real hassle but that she was glad she was safe and sound now. Lucy was so tan, her mother remarked; and her hair was lighter. She ran her fingers through her it and smiled. ‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s find your brother.’
Travis was standing in the sun porch talking with, or rather being talked at by, Lucy’s Uncle Mike, the party’s host. He was holding a can of Guinness beer, Travis was, and Lucy playfully reproached him for it, slapping him on the arm and telling him he wasn’t old enough to be drinking. Travis said, ‘Dad doesn’t care,’ and Uncle Mike, after greeting Lucy, said he would leave them alone to talk because he understood that they hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. When he left the sun porch Lucy hugged her brother and kissed his cheek and he resisted and then wiped his face with his sleeve. Lucy teased him about the beer again and about being too old to hug his sister. She patted his head with her hand and he backed away, saying she would ruin his hair. Lucy noted that he was wearing a sweater not unlike the one she had bought him for Christmas; she couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing. They talked for awhile about school and work, Travis’s rock band, and then their father came over and told them that everyone was getting ready to eat dinner. After dessert they would play a gift exchange game.
There was only room for eight at the dinner table, so Lucy ate with her parents and Travis and a number of her cousins in the living room. Flames rippled inside the fire place; Lucy thought the fire made for a comfortable if slightly over-warm atmosphere. After everyone had sat down Jim’s wife, who Lucy noted was pretty, arrived with their baby. She came in through the front door, and Lucy was going to get up and walk over, but Jim’s wife carried the baby in her car seat straight upstairs after having what looked to be a quiet yet heated argument with her husband. When Lucy asked him if everything was okay, Jim smiled and said:
‘She’s asleep. I’ll take you up to see her after dinner.’
They continued eating, Jim having brought a chair into the living room for his wife to sit on, and Lucy fielded questions from relatives about her new life out west. Her cousin Tina asked sarcastically whether she missed the northeastern climate. Lucy smiled and said no, but that she did miss spending time with family and going to Buffalo Bills games with her old friends. Tina said she wished she’d gone away to college like Lucy, because now she had her career in Buffalo and she felt as though she were trapped. Lucy’s mother interjected and said that was nonsense, it was never too late to change your course. Jim and his wife seemed on good terms despite their private quarrel, the two of them sitting beside one another and talking and laughing with everyone else. When Lucy looked at him he smiled, and a little while later when her Aunt Liz announced that dessert was being served Jim asked Lucy if she would like to go up and see Allison now.
Lucy followed her cousin up the stairs and down the hallway and into a bedroom, where Allison slept in her car seat. The temperature was much cooler upstairs and it felt like there was more air to breathe; Lucy was happy to escape the closeness of the living room. When she glimpsed Allison she gasped and held her hand to her mouth and whispered:
‘Oh my God, Jim, she’s beautiful.’
Jim asked if she’d like to hold her and Lucy expressed reluctance, afraid of disturbing the baby’s peace. He laughed and told her not to worry about that, and then he lifted Allison from the car seat and passed her into Lucy’s arms.
‘Like this?’ Lucy asked, concerned with taking the proper grip.
‘Perfect. See? She trusts you already.’
Lucy cradled the baby while she and Jim discussed his newfound responsibility. He’d been a little apprehensive, he confessed, but when he saw her lying in the hospital that day he suddenly felt like there was a purpose to his life. He told her it was difficult to explain without sounding trite and over-sentimental; but Lucy told him she knew what he meant, that it felt special just holding her. Jim smiled and said she was always so mature and understanding; he could always talk to her about things. After a minute Allison began to stir, so they placed her back in her car seat and lowered their voices. Jim asked Lucy about California, about school, whether she had a boyfriend. She told him about Kyle, the boy she’d dated over summer, and about how she had to break it off because Kyle was too jealous and possessive. Jim laughed and said he didn’t find that hard to understand, since Lucy was such a gorgeous girl. Lucy, uncertain how to interpret that, smiled and politely thanked him. Jim then clarified that he was not the jealous type, and that he let Gina go out all the time with people from her office, and that the two of them never had any problems with jealousy. ‘You’d have to be a fucking jerk,’ he said crossly, ‘to think you can control what another person does, even when you’re married.’ An awkward silence followed, Lucy not knowing what to say, and then Jim reiterated that Lucy had really come into her own, and that she was looking like a grown woman now. Lucy thanked him and then, taking care not to sound brusque, suggested they go back downstairs, so as not to miss the start of the gift exchange. ‘They’re probably wondering where we went,’ she laughed. She could hear the din from the party below, and for some reason she longed to be downstairs again with everyone else; she felt as though she had to be downstairs. Jim looked at her and smiled, and then he said, ‘Lucy,’ and then he wasn’t smiling anymore—his countenance suddenly turned very severe, and he said in a grave tone:
‘You know I wasn’t kidding about what I said. You are a gorgeous young woman.’
Lucy had the sensation that the room was growing smaller. She could feel her pulse thumping in her temples as she forced another smile and told him that it was nice of him to say so, but that they really should go back downstairs now. Her words didn’t seem to penetrate. Jim gazed intently upon her face, as though appraising it, and said that as soon as he saw her at the airport he was struck by how gorgeous she was, and that Gina didn’t ever pry into his affairs, and that he and Lucy were the only ones upstairs at the moment. He came nearer; she could hear him breathing. He told her again, very sternly, as if Lucy had expressed incredulity, that Gina didn’t pry, and then his hand was on her waist, and Lucy took a step backwards and felt the wall behind her. She wondered if Jim’s breathing was actually getting louder and more labored or if she was only imagining it. Surely this wasn’t real; this wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. And yet it was. Lucy tried to explain that she wasn’t comfortable but the lump in her throat prevented the words from forming in her mouth. Her voice had abandoned her. Meanwhile there was a collective roar of laughter downstairs, and Jim’s hand was migrating now, his eyes narrow and intense, locked onto Lucy as though she were his quarry, and Lucy’s legs were paralyzed, and then, suddenly, there was another voice in the room: Allison began to cry. Jim froze and looked to his daughter, his face relaxing at once into a benign expression, and Lucy moved around him and out of the room and through the hallway and down the stairs, resisting the impulse to run.
Downstairs Lucy sat next to her mother on the couch, contriving an air of calm. The relief swept over her like a great temperate breeze. She took it in in a deep breath and let go of it slowly. She felt, strangely, like a child again: vulnerable, looked after, protected. Safe and sound. Her mother was drinking red wine and gossiping with her sister-in-law, Lucy’s Aunt Barbara. People were getting ready to draw numbers for the gift exchange. Her Aunt Liz was busy folding small pieces of paper in two and dropping them into a large wooden bowl and then mixing them up with her hand, wondering aloud who was going to draw number one. Lucy’s father stood talking and debating sports with her cousin Ronnie, whose young son cried as his mother cleaned dessert from his face with a napkin. Travis was standing beside Lucy’s Uncle Eric, the latter bending his knees and leaning forward and offering up his shoulder, encouraging a reluctant Travis to give him his ‘best shot.’ Moments later Jim came downstairs with Allison in his arms. Lucy fixed her eyes onto the fireplace, the flames rippling as before, though shrinking gradually. She felt her pulse thumping in her temples again; the lump returned to her throat. A crowd began to form around Jim, and he laughed and smiled and made gestures of humility and gratitude as people told him that his daughter was beautiful, gorgeous, perfect, that his eyes were her eyes. Lucy’s mother stood up. She turned to Lucy and said, innocently:
‘Come on. Come see Jim’s baby.’
Michael Howard is a writer and teacher living in Vietnam.