Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In case you haven't yet heard....

I hopped back onto this blog to leave a post about my author blog (Of Ice and Men, in case you haven't seen the posts on my other blogs about it--AND my big news), and I got sucked into reading the story. And then reading all your comments at the end of each post. I hope that you guys like my new stories as much as these old ones!


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

seventy-one: the end

I wondered for a while if I should preface this, and I decided I should. Yes, this is the end of Paper Perfect. I'm very much saddened that this will be the last post of the story. I've grown to love these two beyond any other characters I've ever written, and I've been writing and working on this for days now. It's taken me this long, I think, because I'm so reluctant to see it end. This entire story has meant so much to me. But I think this is fitting, and I couldn't do it any other way. I'm still working on A Sharp Contrast and there's a new one that will be up and running short, eventually, Immediate Danger (links in sidebar). So, as always, thanks for being on this ride with me. I appreciate your support and love you for it. You're all amazing, and I've never forgotten it. Please enjoy.

Soundtrack Song - Damone, When You Live

My flight doesn't take off until around noon, but I'm so desperate to get out of the house that I pack my bag and leave around seven in the morning. Mommie Dearest is already awake, and my plans to escape unnoticed are foiled.

"Leaving so soon?" she asks me, peering over her steaming cup of coffee.

"Yeah. I'm gonna catch the El out to the airport."

My mom rolls her eyes. "Someone will take you. It's a shame to ride with all those people. It's the day after Christmas—the trains will be packed like sardines."

"It's okay, Mom," I say with a smile. "I don't mind. I kind of miss the big city feel."

"Well, you don't have to go back to Pittsburgh. You can stay here. Max will understand."

I don't say anything right away, because my mind is blank. It's like I can't even compute what she just said. Caroline wordlessly joins us, dragging her feet in slippers toward the coffee pot. Why is she doing this? Why can't she let me be happy as I am? I'm sick of this! I'm sick of my mother, and I'm sick of her shit; I don't deserve it and I don't want to have to put up with anymore. "And do what, pray tell? Stay here with yinz guys?"

Caroline snorts. "Yinz? God, Charlotte, you've been in Pittsburgh too long. That word is like nails on a chalk board in this house. Dad used to say it all the time."

"And what's so wrong with that?" I ask them, raising my right eyebrow. "So what if it's a silly word? It's a Pittsburgh thing, and that's where I live now. And if you don't like it, if you don't like me using it—hell, if you don't like me—I don't ever have to come back."

"Don't be ridiculous," my mother says, thinking I'm overreacting. I shake my head and laugh a little. That settles it: I won't be back. I won't deal with this again. My mom is just like John: hopelessly never going to change. The sooner I realize that, the better.

I leave them in the kitchen, take the El downtown, and then catch the 146 bus all the way out to Adler Planetarium, and then I go sit on one of the cold, metal pedestals by the lake. This has always been my quiet spot to relax and reflect when things got frustrating and confusing. This is where I made my decision to leave Chicago and escape to Pittsburgh—which turned out to be the best decision I had ever made in my life.

It hadn't been an easy decision to make last spring. It probably seems like it should have been a piece of cake, but it really wasn't. I had made John my world, and leaving him was like building a rocket out of scrap metal and flying to the moon. My point is that it wasn't easy. But sometimes, you have to take risks and hope—no, believe—that the alternative is better. Things will get better. The grass is going to be greener, and there are more fruitful pastures waiting to be grazed.

I'm incredibly lucky. I know that; not only did I find my own personal paradise, but I found it so soon. I'm twenty-three and hopelessly in love with the best guy in the world today. Max is everything to me, and everything I needed him to be when I needed him to be it. Without Max, I don't know where I'd be right now or in what state—mentally and geographically. His steady, devoted love has carried me through so much. He'd hate to hear me say this, but he's perfect. Okay, maybe not perfect, because he still wears those horrendous sweaters and shirts. He's still loud and boisterous. But he's perfect for me.

Of course I can see the similarities between the way things were and the way things are now. The way I'm head-over-heels and completely devoted to Max, blind to his faults and willing to give up anything for him. It's a dangerous path I'm treading. Love is dangerous. But it's worth it to give love a shot and hope for forever. It's worth it to risk the pain for a glimpse of happiness. Because I can only imagine that things are just going to continue to get better and better. The best is yet to come.

My trip home for Christmas was less than delightful. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, but it wasn't sugar plums and gum drops either. However, I'm oddly glad that I came to Chicago. It's not that I don't understand how grateful I am for Max; now, I just appreciate him a lot more. Going home showed me everything I left behind. And going back to Pittsburgh is going to be that much sweeter.

I draw the comparisons beyond just the men, and also between both my trips to Pittsburgh. Last May, I was so scared to be leaving. I was so afraid of the unknown. Of having to find a job in a strange city, living in an apartment that Gina picked out for us, and trying to figure out where I should go next with my life. I knew that I had to move on, and I had been trying to; part of me just kept wishing that John would turn back into the man I met and come sweep me off my feet again and whisk me away back to Chicago.

Today, I can't believe I was that person back then. I shake my head as I think about it and stare out toward the water. If I were to meet that old version of myself now, I'd pity her. I'm kind of amazed at myself that I think that. Either I'm a cold-hearted, cynical bitch now, or I really was that pathetic back then. Or a little bit of both.

And I can't believe how drastically everything has changed. No doubt, my life has been turned upside-down, and so much has happened. It's amazing. It takes my breath away. I always wondered how happy any one person can be. I think I'll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop and I'll expect it, but I wonder if it ever will.

I sigh and take another look around me, at the skyline and the shore. This view always humbles me. Looking out on Lake Michigan, not really being able to tell where sky meets water, always makes me feel small and insignificant. I'd come out here when things were stressful and remind myself that I was just one tiny person on this large earth. On this small planet in a giant galaxy. So whether John called me or not was irrelevant, because there was a bigger picture. But now, today, I look out and feel like I have the strength to conquer this big world. I can't remember feeling this good, ever.

When my nose feels like it's about to fall off from the cold, I stand back at the bus stop and begin my trek to the airport. It takes a while on the blue line before I'm finally back at O'Hare, and then I get through security and wait at my gate on concourse B. Usually, journeys home seem to fly by much faster than the trips out. This one, however, is taking forever. It's not just returning home. Pittsburgh's where I want to be, and therefore I can't get there quickly enough. Isn't that the way it always goes?

I ignore the flight attendant as she asks me if I want anything to drink. Instead, I look out the window at the passing clouds beneath the plane and stare at my watch, willing the minutes and miles to go by more quickly. I've never been like this. Not jumpy, not anxious... just impatient. I want to be with Max again, just to be around him. Get a glimpse of that easy smile that lights up the room. His scruffy facial hair that subtly disguises the mole on the side of his face that I always kiss on his cheek. That pair of deep cerulean eyes that I can get lost in—and have on many occasions. I want to run to him in the airport, just like in the movies; I want to drop my bags and sprint toward him with all the speed I can muster. I'm not a runner, but I'd run to him in a heartbeat.

The other passengers get annoyed with me as I push past them in the first class cabin. I can't possibly wait any longer! Max told me that he was flying into Pittsburgh sometime in the morning and would wait around in the airport for me. I send out a text to him as I follow the flow of the crowd and the baggage claim signs, navigating down through the escalators and people mover to the turnstiles to wait for my suitcase.

Text after text and call after call go unanswered. I stare at the tiny screen, puzzled and confused. Where is he, and why isn't he answering? Doesn't he want to see me as badly as I want to see him? Maybe something happened with his flight. I'd better check the boards. Before I can, I bump straight into a gaggle of girls. I mumble my apologizes and look around for the screens with the arrival times, but not before I run headlong into another person.

"Sorry," I repeat, not bothering to look at that individual I crashed into. I'm too busy trying to figure out where Max is.

"No problem, baby."

I do a double-take. Here I was, concentrating on finding Max, and he found me instead. There goes my hopes to run into his arms, but I think this is better. "Maxime!" I cry, standing up on the very tip of my toes and wrapping my arms around his neck, burying my face into his body. "Oh, I missed you."

He counters by holding my waist, nuzzling into my hair, and taking a deep breath. "Mmm. I missed you, too." For a minute, I stay in that position. I don't want to move; I can't stay on my toes like this for long, so I lean back and forth from foot to foot, and Max sways with me as he holds on. "Do you want to stay in the airport forever? Or do you want to go home?"

"Home," I say into his neck, and the sounds are muffled.

Soundtrack Song - Michael Bublé, Crazy Love

My flight lands at half past ten, so I have a couple of hours to kill until Charlotte's flight arrives. I grab a coffee and sit and wait. It probably seems useless to waste all this time; I really should just go home and come back out and pick her up, but I can't. The idea of driving back to an empty house, alone, and especially without Charlotte.... I can't do that. I'd rather wait here all day, if I had to.

A couple people walk by and recognize me. I gladly shake their hands, sign some napkins, and chat with them. It's a fun way to spend the time as I wait, especially so since my phone died because I forgot to charge it before I left. I love talking to the fans—Pittsburgh, hands down, has the best and most appreciative sports fans in the U.S. It's so easy to spend the time to talk to them about the game, about the season, and just about anything in general.

"You get back in town?" the one guy asks me, his son looking bored beside him. "We live up in Boston now, and we were down for the holidays."

"Oh, yeah. I went home for a few days. I'm just waiting for my girlfriend's flight." I chuckle and correct myself. "I mean, my fiancée."

"Congrats, man," he says, slinging his bag over his shoulder and aiming his son for the security gate. "She's a lucky girl."

As he walks away, I wonder about his words. Is Charlotte the lucky one? Or am I? I was never adverse to the idea of settling down; I had plans to do that eventually. I wanted a family, and my family wanted that for me, too. It was going to happen. But I didn't imagine it would happen this soon. I figured I had years to go before I was even going to consider finding someone to start my family with. Looking back on it, though, I wouldn't change a thing. I wouldn't have it any other way. So maybe we're both lucky.

The timing was perfect. We both had things on our minds that we wanted to forget about. We were so good for each other back then. Hell, she's still good for me. She's my rock and my constant, always there for me when I need her. Through the wins and the losses, she never changes. When I come home from the long road trips, or even the short ones, she's always there waiting for me. I want that, forever. And I'm pretty sure that Charlotte wants me just as badly as I do her.

Flower said that it was probably because I needed the distraction away from the rink and my injury that I devoted so much time to Charlotte and figuring out the puzzle she presented me. Maybe that's true. Maybe it also had something to do with how she didn't want me at first, as anything other than friends. So I had to take the time to get to know her, as well as let her get to know me. Whatever the reason, it worked. I'm hooked.

After about a billion cups of coffee, I'm wired and have to piss. I run to the restroom and then check the boards for her flight and make sure that's it going to arrive on time. It is, so I check the baggage turnstiles to see which one will have her luggage. Too impatient to wait there, I walk back to the escalator from which she'll descend. A rush of people begin to come down, and I finally spot her as she slowly appears.

Her eyes are trained on her phone, not even searching for me. Charlotte doesn't even look up once. It makes me laugh and shake my head. Doesn't she know I was going to be waiting for her? I call her name out once, but she doesn't hear because she's so absorbed in whatever she's doing. Crazy girl. I yell again, a little louder this time, and it seems that I turn everyone's head except hers.

Since hollering for her isn't working, I just decide to meet up with her. She's not watching where she's going, and she collides with a group of girls. I move in front of her, thinking she'll see me, but she walks right into me, too. Charlotte doesn't bother to look up to see who she's just run into, instead just muttering her apology. "Sorry."

I smirk and answer in a way that I'm sure will get her attention. "No problem, baby."

Charlotte glances up once, turns away, and then focuses back on me. I watch as the recognition dawns on her face and her lips curl up in a smile. "Maxime! Oh, I missed you." She pushes up on her toes and flings her arms around me, pressing her entire body against mine.

I likewise wrap my arms around her waist and inhale the familiar scent of her shampoo. This feels so good that I can hardly fathom a time when she didn't fit in my arms. "Mmm. I missed you, too." We sway back and forth gently, side to side, as if making up for the two or three short days we went without having each other to hold onto. As much as I want to stay this way for a long time, I want to go home, with Charlotte. "Do you want to stay in the airport forever? Or do you want to go home?"

"Home," she answers, still not letting go or stepping away.

"Well, then let's go." I let go of her waist and wait for her to do the same. After a few more moments, she does. Our hands meet like magnets and our fingers lace together. As we walk over to the baggage area, I lift her hand to my lips and kiss her palm. "Did you have a good flight?"

"It was too long," she giggles. "It took too long to get home to you. You'd better be serious about marrying me, because I'm not leaving you again."

I smile at her. "Wow, was your trip home that bad? We'll have more fun when we go together."

She shakes her head and lowers her voice, checking our surroundings before broaching this serious topic. "I'm not going back. Never. Chicago isn't home anymore, and my family doesn't hold me there. I'm done trying to make my mom happy. I'm done with her. It's true what they say, that you can't please everyone. And I'd rather please myself than her."

"You don't mean that," I say. I can't imagine my life without my family; I know hers isn't the best, but to sever the ties so completely sounds wrong.

"I do, Max. Being with your family, seeing them interact.... That's what I want. And my family can't provide that."

"It's yours. My family is yours now." I mean it; whatever I have, I will share with Charlotte.

The carousel kicks on, and the bags begin to trickle down. Hers is one of the first, and I grab it for her and pull it behind me in my left hand and continue to hold her hand in my right. We make our way, just like that, to the parking lot. When we get to my beemer, I move to let go of her hand so I can reach into my pocket for my keys; however, she squeezes my hand tightly and turns to face me. Charlotte reaches her free hand in my pocket to fish my keys out for me, but her hand lingers a little too close to my package for it to be an accident.

"We're going back to your place, right? Our home?"

Everything about this moment feels so right. "Oui."

We both have ridiculously large grins on our faces as her bag gets tossed in the car and we both hop in and head for home. I drive through the tunnel and downtown comes into view. Charlotte sighs and tilts her head to the side. "You know, I never planned on making Pittsburgh my permanent home. I always thought I'd go back. I'm glad it worked out this way, though."

I swallow, a little uneasy about her words. "You know, Charlotte, I can't guarantee that I'll play in Pittsburgh forever. A lot of players—most players, in fact—get traded or don't get resigned and move to other teams and cities. It all depends on the needs of the team, and if I—"

"If, or when, that happens, then we'll move and make that place our new home. It doesn't matter where we are, Max. As long as I'm with you... that's where home is."

I look over at her in the passenger seat and watch her smiling at me. It's such a beautiful sight to behold. She reminds me to keep my eyes on the road before we crash or go careening into the river. It's a difficult thing to do, but I peel my eyes away from her face and try to concentrate on the road and the short journey home.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

seventy: christmas day

Everyone leaves around one in the morning on Christmas day, and my mother, Terry, Caroline, Derek, and I all barely make it up the stairs before we collapse into our respective beds and pass out. The Christmas Eve festivities may be over, but we have to do it all again on Christmas day. Except this time around, everyone is invited over. My grandparents, Uncle Tim, Aunt Georgia, and our cousins Brooklyn and Helena are coming back, but Terry's family is coming over, too. Derek's parents show up just for dinner but won't stay afterward.

The four of us in my immediately family exchange presents in the morning, and then we get started on the preparation for today's gathering. Caroline and I are in charge of washing all the dishes dirtied yesterday and then arranging the twenty place settings for dinner.

"Remind me again why we do this two nights in a row?" my sister asks with an attitude as she washes yet another plate.

"Because Mommie Dearest doesn't think that we get to spend enough time with her family on Christmas day when everyone's here. So they come over on Christmas Eve and then the day of."

"But why does she have to host it both days? Let someone else do the work and have the party at their place," she grunts. "Because we're the ones stuck with the clean up."

I shrug and sigh. "You're the one who said yesterday that we just have to put up with it on major holidays. You can't pick your family. You don't have a choice."

"Are you kidding? Of course you have a choice. You can not show up!"

For some reason, that never occurred to me before. "Well, if you hate it so much, why did you show up?"

"I dunno. It's tradition, I guess. Either that, or I'm worried more about what she'll do if I don't visit for the holidays."

I nod and pretend like I understand, but I don't. Not really. I'm more resigned in my distaste for my family, but Caroline is always vocal about how she hates these stupid family functions. If either one of us were to skip out on one, I'd firstly assume it would be her. After all, we all feel like our mother blames becoming pregnant with Caroline for why she never realized her own dreams. And Caroline feels resented for it. If I think I have it bad, well, my sister's got it worse.

So, no, you can't pick your families. But does that mean you have to subject yourself to them? I never really put much thought into it because I thought it didn't matter; however, now I feel like I have an alternative. Something better. A family to love me unconditionally, just like I always wanted. Just like I hoped to be able to provide for my kids someday, but I wasn't exactly sure if I could be able to.

Caroline and I finish our duties, shower, and change for the night's events before everyone starts to show up. While we wait, I slip away and make a quick phone call. He answers on the first ring, but I can barely hear him over the din in his background. Sounds like the holiday is being celebrated in full force up in Montréal.

"Hey, baby. Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas, Max." Before I can even get all the words out, I hear a scuffle on the other end of the line and a chaotic, muffled exchange in French before another voice takes over.

"Joyeux Noël, Charlotte. Uh, merry Christmas." I instantly recognize the voice as Francis's.

"Frankie," I laugh. "Merry Christmas."

"Why aren't you here in Montréal? Max misses you. He's like a woman. But we all miss you. And everyone else in the family wants to meet you, too."

I hear Max say, "Donne-moi mon téléphone!" Frank doesn't give it up, though. I can hear Frank fight off his little brother and maintain control of the situation, and I can just picture it in my head how red-faced Max is as his brother slightly tortures him.

"I miss you guys, too," I sigh, thinking about how different my Christmas would be if I were up there instead. It would be loud and confusing and hectic, but it would also be fun and probably less nerve-wracking despite the language barrier and attempts to make a good first impression on the rest of his family.

"Your boyfriend is a pain," he says as the battle continues. "I'll let you talk to him now."

That makes me laugh. As if I called Max to talk to Frank anyway. "Thanks. Tell everyone I said Merry Christmas. But, you know, in French."

"Sure thing. Take care, Charlotte."

"You too, Frank." I continue to laugh; these two are hilarious together. It may irritate Max, but it amuses me.

"Va achaler quelqu'un d'autre." His voice becomes louder and clearer as he takes his phone back and presses it back against his face. "Je suis désolé. He just doesn't know when to stop."

"It's fine, Max-A-Million. I actually like knowing there's something that gets under your skin. It makes you normal. Human, just like the rest of us."

"Are you okay? Is there something bothering you?"

Letting out a breath, I internally debate a moment on whether I should say what's really on my mind. I do. "I know you want a family, Max. But I'm scared. What if, because I didn't have a good mother, I'll be a horrible mother?"

"Whoa whoa whoa. Why would you even think that? You're going to be a great mother to a bunch of rambunctious Talbot boys."

I smile at Max's immediate response and certainty. It's reassuring that he's got that confidence in me, but I'm still not sure. "How do you know? Because I don't."

"You're worried because you don't want to turn into your mother. I'm telling you that you won't. You know what it's like to have a mother that isn't supportive and loving, so you're going to be the type of mother you wish you had."

"Thanks," I whisper, pulling back the curtain and watching the snow fall. "You always know the just right things to say."

"I'm not just trying to flatter you or anything. I mean it. I can't wait for you to have my babies. Maman can't wait either. She's already asking me if we've set the date yet."

"We can figure that out after Christmas, when we're back in Pittsburgh. I just miss you. I wish you were here. Better yet, I wish I were there."

"Me, too, baby. Me, too."

I see the first car pull up in front of the house. "I've got to go. But I'll see you tomorrow, right?"

"Oui, I fly in first thing in the morning. I'll wait for you at the airport until you land, and then we'll go home."

"Okay, great. I'll see you tomorrow. I love you."

"Love you, too. See ya."

Hanging up the phone, I plaster on that fake that smile and hope to get through the dinner like I did the night before—hiding in the background and hiding from sharing my good news. And it is good news; I should have been able to share it. I want to share it, but not if they aren't going to be honestly happy for me.

Too bad I don't get that option tonight. Things never go the way I plan them.

Terry's daughter, who's a few years younger than me, spots my ring before she's hardly through the door. I'm helping to gather coats, and I stretch my arm out to take hers when the diamond catches the light and she shrieks.

"Charlotte! Oh em gee!" she hollers.

At first, I think to myself, did she seriously just say "omg" out loud? Secondly, I realize what she's freaking out about. Why do women have to get so excited about stuff like this? "It's nice to see you, too, Sara," I say, trying to play it off.

"You're engaged! Congratulations! Where's John?"

Ugh. I just can't escape him. "Um, actually, John and I aren't together anymore. I'm engaged to someone else."

"Well, where is he? I want to meet him!" Sara squeals. Her reaction has attracted everyone else, and now the spotlight's on me. This is what I wanted to avoid. "Is he here?"

"No," I mumble. "He's visiting his own family for the holiday. We just got engaged three days ago, so it was too last minute to change plans." I leave out that if either of us were to be changing plans, it would have been me; I would have gone up to Montréal instead of bring him to Chicago.

The other present guests swarm around me, and all the questions come at once. "Where did you meet him?" "How long have you known him?" "Why didn't you tell us yesterday?" "How could you get engaged to someone your family hasn't met and approved of?" "Wait, I still don't understand—what happened to John?"

Oh, Jesus Christ. Why is my family so critical? "There's no more John. We aren't together anymore. I met Max in Pittsburgh, and he's an incredible guy. And he wants to share his life with me, so I consider myself very lucky."

They continue to lob questions at me. The ones from the adults are condescending, but my cousins and Terry's kids seem excited. When Brooklyn asks, "What does he do?", my mother jumps in and chirps, "He's a hockey player."

Brooklyn turns up her nose. "Like, missing teeth? Black eyes? Broken noses? Ick."

I laugh at her. "If that's your impression of hockey players, you're surely missing out. You live in Chicago—I know you've seen pictures of some of the Blackhawks."

"Oh yeah! Patrick Kane is soo hot," she giggles.

I roll my eyes at that. I find my purse and dig out the picture of Max that I brought with me for my trip home. I first show Brooklyn, and then the picture gets passed around the room. That's when I start get their approval. Max is handsome; there's no doubt about that. If he were here, he would win him over with his charm. My mother's the only one whose mouth is still drawn in a thin line.

For the next five minutes, I continuously field their questions. Then, they somehow start talking about something else. Just like that, I'm off the hook as they find something or someone to complain about. I take one more look down at the picture in my hand before I stuff it into my pocket.

Tomorrow, I'm flying home. To my real home in Pittsburgh, to the place where I'll be surrounded by the people that truly care. To my real family, even if none of us are related. I'm relieved and excited to return.

Friday, November 27, 2009

sixty-nine: going home

Soundtrack Song - Jason Mraz, Plane

I'm nervous as hell. Getting through security doesn't bother me. I don't worry about whether my bag will end up in China rather than Chicago. Finding the gate and making it there on time isn't an issue. And the flying doesn't bother me either. There's some turbulence on the flight, but it's not enough to scare me and think about the possibility of crashing. I'm not even afraid of contracting swine flu.

Ugh, no; the process of traveling home is not what's got me anxious and concerned. It's going home that is under my skin. I wouldn't be looking forward to this for any reason, but especially now that I have this newly acquired precious stone on my finger, I'm worried about how this return trip is going to go. I absentmindedly play with the ring for the duration of the flight as I gnaw on my lip.

I get off the plane and wait patiently at the baggage claim counter for my suitcase. I wouldn't have even checked anything, except I had to bring presents home. Everyone knows it's not Christmas without presents, and I wanted to get them all something from Pittsburgh—even for my mother, who's going to see it as a little bit of a slap to the face or a bitter reminder of how I practically ran away from home.

As I wait, I send Max a quick text message just to let him know that I landed safely. Within a matter of seconds, he calls. "Hey, baby. Back on solid ground?"

Just the sound of his voice eases me. Hundreds of miles away, but it feels like he's right beside me. "Yup. Just waiting for my bag. Wait, aren't you supposed to be getting ready for your game?"

"We're about to go out for warm-ups. I had my phone on and in my stall in case you called."

I smile to myself. How did I ever get so lucky? "All right. Well, go have a good game, and then have a safe flight home. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Sure thing, Charlotte." When he says that, I hear echoes of noises in his background of the locker room: kissing sounds, fake sighs of bliss, and even a couple shouts of congratulations. I can barely hear him over the chaos when he adds, "I love you."

"Love you, too, Max-A-Million." I hang up the phone and feel a little reassured. No matter what happens over Christmas, I know I'm going home to him. That's all that matters.

Finding my suitcase quickly, I grab it and then walk toward the station to pick up the blue line of the El. I purchase a three-day pass and ride the train for forty-five minutes before I get off and haul my bag to my parents' house. Even though I haven't been home in seven or eight months, the city has that familiar feel. Unfortunately, no one else of my family is back home yet. My sister and her husband live in the suburbs, so they'll show up tomorrow, on Christmas Eve. For now, it's just me, Mommie Dearest, and my stepdad.

I knock on the front door and enter without waiting for her to answer. I'm unsure of what the proper etiquette is, because it's my mother's home and it used to be mine, but it isn't anymore. I hear my mother call, "Come in!"

I drag my bag behind me and set it by the stairs in the foyer. If I take it straight upstairs so as not to mar the holiday decor, I'll get a stern, disapproving look; if I don't immediately find her and say hello, I'll probably get worse. Slipping out of my coat and hanging it in the closet, I look around for my mother. She's in the kitchen and in fully glory: pristine, white apron and cooking up a storm.

"Hi, Mom." I perch myself on a stool by the island in the kitchen.

"Merry Christmas, Sweet Pea! What time did your flight come in? I would have sent Terry to come get you. Did you take the EL?" she asked, pursing her lips as if riding on public transportation is a fate worse than death.

"Yeah. It was fine. I didn't want to inconvenience you guys and make you deal with the traffic." That's partially true; if there's anything worse than Pittsburgh drivers, it's Chicago drivers. Plus, driving with my stepfather would be incredibly awkward. He's a nice guy, of course, but he's an awkward stepfather.

"Oh. Well. Why don't you go wash up and help me with all the baking?"

I nod and head back toward the foyer, grabbing my bag and heading up for my old room. The pale pink walls of my old life. I feel like this was all so long ago, but it hasn't even been a year since I graduated and moved back home for a week before I bought that bus ticket to Pittsburgh. Before I turned my old world upside down and left behind everything I knew for a chance at starting over and figuring out what I wanted out of life.

I freshen up quickly and head back down into the kitchen. "Okay, what do you need help with?"

"I'm working on the cookies. I have everything out to make the bread. Can you handle that?"

"Yeah, sure," I tell her, knowing what's expected of me. I've been doing it every year since I was old enough to help out. Everything for Christmas is homemade, because my mother is an impeccable hostess. She always wants to outdo herself every year, so everyone can tell her what a delightful job she did. It's definitely how I learned the need to constantly please.

I pull back my hair and grab an apron. Even though I'm wearing bummy clothes, my mom would insist on it. I remove my watch and then go to take my ring off. As I tug on it, I hesitate. I don't really want to take it off, but I don't want to get it messy and doughy.

"Where'd you get that?"

Looking up at my mother, I see her eying me suspiciously. Do I explain, or do I let it go? "Max gave it to me."

"As a Christmas gift, I hope," she says.

"No, Mom. It's an engagement ring." Here we go. "I'm... engaged."

"To Max?"

I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. Now she's just being ridiculous. "Yes, Mom. I'm engaged to Max. I'm going to marry him. I thought you liked him?"

"Well, as your little excuse to screw around before you finally settled down with John. I get it, Charlotte. You wanted to go out, see the world, and experience new things. You did that. You had your fun. And look where it got you—in Pittsburgh and in the bed of a professional athlete. But it's time you get this out of your system, whatever this is, because it's time to move on. You were always meant to be with John."

"No, Mom. I never should have been with him in the first place. Please, I don't want to do this now. It's the holiday, and I don't want to have this discussion."

"There's nothing to discuss. I'm telling you that you're making a mistake. You should listen to your mother. You always were so stubborn."

"This isn't about being stubborn or trying to be a rebel. Mommy, I love him."

"I remember you saying the same thing about John. And look at what you did to him: you left him devastated. He went after you, and it landed him in the hospital. That wouldn't have happened if you hadn't played games with him. So what are you going to do to Max?"

"Wait," I say, holding up my hand in the air. "Are you saying it's my fault that John got into a car accident? That's insane!" My chest feels so hollow, and I can't believe she's just implied that.

"He wouldn't've had to be in Pittsburgh if you would have stayed here and stayed with him, now would he? No Pittsburgh, no car accident."

"No, Mom. It's his fault. If he hadn't have turned out to be such a dick, I wouldn't have had to leave him. Then he wouldn't have needed to follow me. You're my mother. You're supposed to be on my side—"

"I am on your side, Charlotte—"

"No, you're not! Stop defending him. He didn't treat me right."

"And do you think your father and I always got along perfectly? Do you think Terry and I always get along perfectly? No. All relationships have their ups and downs."

"I'm not talking about typical ups and downs, Mother. I'm saying that my relationship with John was one deep depression. There were no ups, ever. It started well, and it was all downhill after that. He tricked us both, and he fooled his own sister. He's got some kind of personality disorder, and he's manipulative and controlling. He's fooled you, and now I feel like I'm being gaslighted. But I'm not going to let you make me feel bad. Now, you can either be my mother and we can agree to disagree but you can let me live my life the way I want to, or I can go grab my suitcase, turn around, and fly right back to Pittsburgh. Or better yet, catch a flight to Montréal and spend the holiday with Max's family instead. They like me."

Mommie Dearest clucks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She looks at me for a moment and says nothing. Eventually, she turns around and faces her plates of cookies and ignores the issue. "Can you hand me the green food coloring?"

It's rude, for sure, but it means I've won. When she pretends the argument never happened, it means that she wants to forget about it, but she of course refuses to apologize. It's only rarely happened in our confusing mother-daughter relationship. I let out the breath I had been holding, slip off my gorgeous engagement ring and stash it away in my pocket, and then begin mixing the bread dough for tomorrow's big Christmas Eve dinner.

The following day, on Christmas Eve, everyone comes over to spend the day. I wear my ring, but I pass on sharing the news with everyone. It's bad enough that my grandparents are both asking me where John is. I guess my mom hasn't told anyone about our break-up or Max. It's the first Christmas in three years that I've spent it alone, i.e. without a boyfriend by my side. I don't mind it, because I know I'm not truly alone. That fact makes their looks of pity a little easier to endure.

When I go into the kitchen to snag a few appetizers before dinner, Caroline steps beside me at the counter and looks down at my hand. "So, what's the deal with that rock? I'd assume it means you're engaged, but you haven't broken the news." She grabs a gingerbread cookie and watches me, waiting for my answer. When I don't speak up right away, she continues, "We all know John's history. And thank God, because you know I didn't like him."

I smirk. "Yeah, well, that was nothing against John. You just don't like anyone. You barely get along with Derek, your own husband. I think you only talk to me because I'm your sister, and no one else is capable of understanding our upbringing, so there's no one else to commiserate with."

She snorts and smiles. "You have a point, there. But you're avoiding the question. Are you, or aren't you? And if you are, then where's the lucky guy?"

"What? Bring him here and let our family run him off? Give Uncle Tim any more reason to poke fun at me?" I joke with her. Uncle Tim's already four drinks in, and it's not even time for dinner yet. Aunt Georgia, my mother's sister, can't do anything to cut him off, so he's loud and obnoxious at 5:30 in the evening. It's a joke because I know that it wouldn't even scare Max off. He's put up with much worse in our short relationship.

"Hey. Derek had to go through it, so what's his name should, too. But you still haven't said...."

"Yes. I'm engaged," I say, but I tell her nothing more. My sister and I aren't close and never have been. You'd think we'd be allies against our mother, but that's not the case. We talk sometimes, mostly on-line, but when I say we talk I mostly mean she finds something to complain about and I pretend to listen and/or care.


"Thanks," I say, hoping she means it. "He's celebrating with his family, and Mom insisted that I come home. She met him, you know. Of course, she doesn't like him."

"Oh, fuck Mommie Dearest. You know she's never happy."

I nod. I know that very well, but it still doesn't mean that I don't want her to be happy with the choices I've made and my life. I'm still her daughter, and I want to make her proud. "When Mommie Dearest isn't happy, no one's happy," I laugh with a roll of my eyes.

"Yeah, but we only have to put up with it during major holidays. Derek's parents are both alcoholics, so actually, putting up with her and Terry isn't so bad. It could be worse."

I shrug and say, "I guess." That saying is supposed to offer me some sort of consolation, but it doesn't really.

"You know she tried to invite him for Christmas? John, I mean."

My eyes widen. "No, she didn't. Please tell me she didn't. Oh God, please tell me he's not coming."

Caroline laughs. "No, he's not. Apparently, he's still up in Toronto, but he's supposed to be coming back to Chicago after the new year. Something about having better mobility by then or whatever."

"I can't believe she'd invite him. After what happened over Thanksgiving...."

She gives me a sad look. "I can't believe that you can't believe she'd try something like that. She's our mother. Of course she would. Don't be a fool." Caroline finishes her cookie, grabs another, and leaves me in the kitchen with my thoughts.

As the rest of the night progresses, I try to stay in the background and keep the conversations on topics other than myself. Luckily, my family is full of the types of people that enjoy talking about themselves. As long as I ask questions about them, I never have to talk about what I'm doing in Pittsburgh or who I'm doing in Pittsburgh. And no one notices the ring, because I keep my hand shoved in my left pocket. A cop out? Maybe, but I don't care.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

sixty-eight: morning after

Dearest Readers: I pulled a Charlotte, and I'm in Chicago for the holiday (in this case, Thanksgiving), so please forgive any delay in/lack of chapters for a while. I still plan on writing, but I don't how much I'll get done. I love you all, and I know you'll be here when I return... just perhaps disgruntled. :P Have a lovely Thanksgiving to my Americans!

The rest of the night passes by with little other interference. Will and Frank wisely keep their distance and stay by their wives' sides. I guess it's payback, though, because I had interrupted them plenty of times growing up, when they were teenagers bringing their girlfriends home and sneaking them up to their bedrooms when they were supposed to be babysitting me.

When we walk back into the living room after having been so rudely interrupted by my brother, Frank bursts into laughter. Stupid brothers. I shoot him an angry glance. Charlotte squeezes my hand and bumps and nudges me with her shoulder. I look down at her to see her smiling up at me.

"They're just having some fun with you," she says.

"I don't think it's funny," I reply, but I'm not offended. That's my family for you. Crazy, but you can't be mad at them.

"Come on, not even a little?" she chuckles.

I wrap my arm around her shoulders and pull her against me in a one-armed hug. "No, not even a little." I kiss the top of her head. Then I think about what she said, and I pull back and give her a puzzled look. "How is it that you're sticking up for my brothers, over me? That can't be."

Charlotte laughs again. "Hey, they're going to be my brothers now, too."

As the night progresses, a lot more wine and other types of alcohol are imbibed, and the traveling finally catches up with my family. Flower and Véro leave, congratulating us once more, and then my family begins quieting and retiring for the night. They yawn and head off for whichever room or sleeping arrangements. It's none too soon when I get Charlotte alone again, back up in my room with the door locked, and I have no intention to answer it no matter who may come a-knockin'.

Her mouth tastes of brownies and red wine, a delicious combination that has got me intoxicated. Besides how much I've already had to drink. As good as her mouth tastes, I want to taste the rest of her, too.

As soon as her mouth is free, her speech comes out slurred. "Max. Oh God, Max. I need you... I need you to take me home. Ugh, but don't stop."

"I'm a lil busy right now," I tell her, unzipping her dress again. This better be the last time I have to take this damn dress off her tonight. Drunk sex is better than no sex.

"I have to work in the morning," she says. Charlotte's giving me all the reasons I need to take her home, but her uncoordinated hands fumble with the button of my jeans. She doesn't want to stop, either.

"Then I'll take you home in the morning. Problem solved."

She slips out of one of her heels and then teeters, unbalanced, until she falls back on the bed and giggles. I take advantage of her new position and crawl on top of her. I pull the straps of her dress down, and she takes her arms out so I can push the top of her dress down to her waist and touch her naked tits. I pinch her nipples, and she closes her eyes and licks her lips. She moans, wiggles beneath me, and then admits, "I'm drunk."

"Yes, you are. And you're useless when you're drunk," I tell her as she continues to fumble with my pants.

"I am, aren't I?" she giggles again drunkenly, still making no progress on undressing me. It's killing me that we're going nowhere. My cock is pressing against the restrictive denim, begging to be freed.

Finally, I bat her hands away so I can do it myself—because that's the only way it's going to get done. "It’s okay. I love you anyway."

"I love you, too, Max-A-Million. Make love to me. L'amour... avec moi? Oh fuck. Just do me," she mumbles, hiking up her skirt to her waist and then pulling her panties down for me.

By the time I kick off my pants and rip off my shirt, popping off several buttons in the process, there's a soft rap on the door. Not again. I intend to ignore it when my mother calls out, "Bonne nuit, Maxime! Bonne nuit, Charlotte!"

I holler out an answer quickly as I untangle her panties from her ankles and spread her legs so I can fit between them. "Bonne nuit, Maman! À demain!"

"Bonne nuit, Madame Talbot!" Charlotte squeaks out. She covers her face in her hands in an attempt to hide her embarrassment. Her moods swing so quickly when she's tipsy. "Your mother knows we're having sex."

"So?" I ask, not getting her point. "Do you think she thinks I'm a virgin?"

"No, she knows we're having sex now," she groans, trying to roll away from me. "The mood is ruined."

I reach down with my left hand and pin down her hips against the bed, and with my right hand I roughly push two fingers inside of her, and then I rub her clit with my thumb. She makes an odd noise that sounds like a moan and a gasp at the same time. I nuzzle her neck as I move my hand and say, "Do you still think the mood's ruined?"

Charlotte moans loudly again and then replies with a low voice, "They're going to hear. Tu familia.... Shit, that's Spanish," she giggles, still finding humor in the situation because she's drunk. "Your family will hear us."

"They'd better hear you," I say, thrusting my hand a little harder to make her gasp again. Charlotte grabs the sheets and contorts her body. "My brothers won't let me live it down if I can't make you scream."

"You and your brothers." She laughs again, and I think that I don't want them to hear that. They should be expecting to hear moans and grunts and affirmations and my name repeated over and over again.

Instead of trying to reason with her—because you can't reason with a drunk person—I roll her over onto her stomach. Instinctively, she gets up on her knees and grabs the headboard, and then she casts a glance at me over her shoulder. She bites her bottom lip and sticks her ass out; I grab her hips and slam into her from behind. Charlotte pushes back against me and meets me thrust for thrust. The bed slams into the wall, but those thuds are drowned out by the sounds of her encouragement.

Max wakes me up early enough in the morning that I can minimize my embarrassment by not having to see his entire family first thing in the morning. I slip into a pair of his sweats and an old tee shirt as we tip-toe down the stairs. We try to suppress our laughter at having to sneak around like teenager lovers so as to not wake up his family. I don't think I'd be able to face them after last night.

I have a headache after consuming all that wine and sugar last night, and I need to hurry and get home so I can get ready for work. That's why on weekdays, Max usually would stay over at my place, and weekends were spent at his. However, last night threw a wrench into our usual routine. It's okay, though; I wouldn't change a single detail about last night.

Much to my dismay, Max and I sneak downstairs only to find that we aren't the only people awake in the house. Francis is feeding the baby, and Lucie is searching the kitchen cabinets to find coffee and filters. I blush feverishly, immediately trying to find a way to slip out of the house unnoticed, but Frank spots us and comments before I can execute the escape plan.

"Bon matin," he greets with a smirk. "Aren't you two tired after your performance last night?"

"Who was performing?" Max asks. "Everything you heard last night was authentic."

I groan and feel my face redden. At least they said all that in English, so the innocent Mrs. Talbot wouldn't be able to understand that. To help her, and also to take some of the fun out of their raunchy comments by ignoring them, I leave them to their conversation and open one of the cupboards, pulling down the filters and bag of Starbucks ground coffee for Max's mother. After all, I know his kitchen like the back of my hand because I'm here so often.

"Ah. Merci." Lucie reaches out and grabs my face, kissing both of my cheeks for the thousandth time since I met her. She doesn't let go as she looks at Francis for a moment. "Welcome to... our family." She smiles, so proud of herself.

I smile, too, and get a little teary-eyed. I can't help it; Mrs. Talbot and the rest of Max's family have been so wonderful. They're nothing at all like my own; although I know that my family is crazy and dysfunctional and most families aren't that way, I've never known anything else. It feels like an honor and a privilege to have them usher me into their clan and treat me so well.

Lucie hugs me as she cries a little herself. Max laughs and shakes his head at us. "Femmes. Ils ne font que pleurer."

When she releases me, I smack the back of Max's head. He rubs it and scowls at me, feigning anger. Francis and Lucie chuckle as I reprimand him. "I don't know what you said, but it's not funny to talk about your mother. Or me, for that matter."

"Yes, dear," he sighs jokingly, and I hold up a finger to warn him against such facetious comments. Max tells them that I have to leave, and I hug each of them again, kiss little Paul's forehead, and wish them all a happy Christmas before Max drives me back to my cold and quiet apartment.

"Have a wonderful time at home in Montr
éal," I say, kissing him once more. "I'll see you when we're all back in Pittsburgh."

"You, too. I mean, have a good time with your family in Chicago."

I nod and slide out of his car, standing on the sidewalk as I watch him drive away. The idea of returning to my childhood home in Illinois is less than thrilling. It's going to be a miserable seventy-two hours with my family after getting a glimpse into a real happy holiday gathering. I hope that once Max and I are married, I'll never have to go back to Chicago to see my family again. Certainly never have to go back alone.

In the apartment, I find that Gina's awake, although barely. "Where have you been?" she asks groggily, rubbing her eyes and yawning. "I thought you were going to be back after Max's party?"

"Oh, well, it wasn't a party for his teammates, like he said. He invited his family down for today's game, and they showed up last night. So, I got to meet his family."

She smiles. "How did it go? Better than him meeting Mommie Dearest, I guess?"

"Oh, infinitely better. They're so wonderful. They made me feel like I've been part of their family forever, even though we could barely communicate. They're just good people," I answer, reaching up to scratch my forehead with my left hand.

Gina freaks. "Oh my God. Oh my God!" She grabs my hand and yanks it toward her with such force that I jerk forward. "Is this what it looks like?"

I chuckle. "Oh yeah. I almost forgot about the part where he asked me to marry him."

Her eyes are as wide as saucers. "And what did you say?"

"Obviously I said 'yes,'" I laugh. "I wouldn't be wearing the ring otherwise."

She squeals and dances in place. "Oh my God! Congratulations! This is great news!"

Gina's reaction continues to amuse me as she clutches me and jumps a little. I think she's more excited than I was. Of course, it is great news. I'm ecstatic, too, but I'm also a little hesitant about having to share my great news with my family and especially my mother. I don't know how well she'll take it. She seemed to like Max after our excursion out for lunch when she visited, but she still has a soft spot in her heart for John. My Christmas trip home is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Monday, November 23, 2009

sixty-seven: answer

Soundtrack Song - Girls Aloud, Can't Speak French

All of his words seem to go in one ear and out the other. French, English... none of it registers in my spinning mind. Except, that is, his questions. "Charlotte Marie Bickley, will you marry me? Veux-tu être ma femme?"

Suddenly, it's like I have tunnel vision. The Talbots disappear and fade into the background, and then the background vanishes away. I can only see Max in front of me, down on one knee with a box in his hand. A ring in his hand. A perfect, three-stone ring set in silver or white gold or something. A diamond in the center, flanked by two emeralds, sparkles and entices me to answer him.

Max wants to marry me. He's talked about forever and the rest of our lives; he's talked about it like he wanted it to happen.... And now it is happening. This is the beginning of the rest of our lives. Together.

It takes me forever to find my voice. I know what I want to say; my answer's a resounding yes!, but my brain is fried from having so much sprung on me today. Surprises are nice and all, but there's only so much surprise I can take in one day before it affects my mental processes. Especially when I want to give him the perfect answer in French. I want it to be in his language, and I want his family to understand.

"Maxime. Je t'aime...." That part was easy. But the rest of it is a little harder for me. I close my eyes and try to search quickly for the words. I'm cursing myself for just trying to memorize canned phrases and sentences instead of actually learning the language. I rack my brain and hope this will suffice. "Oui, je vais."

I open my eyes in time to see his head snap up, and his eyes meet mine. "Oui?" All I can do is nod, because I'm deliriously happy and I've completely lost all ability to speak at this point, so I nod and nod and nod until I think my head will snap off my neck. Max's eyes light up and his smile returns. He fumbles with the box as he picks up the ring and takes my left hand in his. His hands are shaking as he slides the band of precious metal onto my finger, and it touches me how overcome with emotion he is. That's when I start crying. Max stands up straight and I fall into his arms and kiss him like no one's watching. It's a beautiful moment we're in, just him and me and the love we're going to share until the day our hearts stop beating.

So many questions start whirling around in my head. I'm so happy, and I want to know all the details. Did he plan this? Did he invite his family down because he was going to ask me? And the ring—how long has Max had this ring? It feels right, but it's only been months. When did he buy it?

I don't get the chance to ask him for answers because his family pours in around us and begins to offer their congratulations. Max and I are pulled apart as everyone takes turns hugging us and kissing our cheeks and passing us around the room. It's pure insanity and utter chaos. The men all clap Max on the back as the women admire my new piece of jewelry. Someone, I think it's Will, hands me a celebratory flute of champagne. I don't even know where the champagne came from, only that there's some in my hand.

Max and I lock eyes, and he tilts his head to the side and shrugs subtly as if apologizing for his family. I smile at him to let him know that I don't mind his family. After all, they're happy for us, and I wouldn't want it any other way; I just wish he was by my side instead of across the room. There's so much going on: toasts that I don't understand, questions that I don't know the words to answer, and delightful stories of Max as a kid, which would be funnier and more endearing if they didn't have to translated for me.

After the initial celebrations, the party breaks off into several groups, and I somehow manage to find myself between Francis and Will. I can't help but think that this isn't going to be good as Will says something to Frank, and then Frank turns to tell me something.

Thank goodness their wives and Véro walk over and interrupt. Juliette pulls Francis away, and Sylvie does the same with Will, both giving me a knowing smile as they leave. They knew they were just up to trouble. Véro gives me a light squeeze. "Don't worry, we saved you. They were going to take advantage of your poor French by teaching you some rotten things to say to Max. Consider yourself warned about those two, because they love to pick on their little brother." She pauses. "You doing all right?"

"Never better," I tell her with a smile. "Today has been great, I'm just...."

"Overwhelmed? Excited? Tired?"

"Yes," I laugh, thinking that I'm all of those things. "So much is going on, I feel like I need just a little quiet time to myself to kind of soak it all in. I'm not used to all this," I tell her, gesturing at the loud atmosphere.

"Why don't you go upstairs for a minute, then? If anyone asks, I'll tell them you had to powder your nose or something."

"V, you are amazing," I sigh, pulling her into a hug. "I just need two minutes, I promise." I step behind her and cut into the kitchen, polishing off the champagne left in my glass before setting it on the counter and taking the back staircase up to the second floor. The voices echo up from the room below, and I step into Max's bedroom and plop onto his bed for a moment in the dark. I close my eyes and take in one deep breath, holding it for a few seconds before I let it out, long and slow.

"Welcome to the family," I hear as the room lights up around me.

I look to my left and see the figure in the doorway. It takes me a split second to realize that it's not Max, and it's one of the brothers. It takes another split second to realize it's Frank. I kick myself, because Will doesn't speak English, so of course it's Frank. I wonder how much wine I've had. "Merci," I giggle, finding a touch of humor in how the Frenchie is speaking English to me, and I'm speaking French back to him.

"You're not regretting your answer, are you?" he asks, sitting down beside me.

"What? No!" I squeal out quickly and loudly, sitting up. "Not at all, Francis. I love Max, and I love your family. I just needed a breather. I needed to recharge for a second."

Frank smiles back at me, being very sincere. "Good. He's obviously crazy about you. When I saw your escape.... He kind of put you on the spot when he asked. I was worried you said yes to prevent his embarrassment."

I laugh. "Put me on the spot... yes, he did. But that's Max. I couldn't imagine it happening any other way. I meant my answer with all my heart."

"You two are good together. We can all see it. You just let me know if my baby brother does anything I need to, uh, how you say, kick his ass for."

I chuckle again. "Thank you, Frankie. I hope to never need to take you up on that." I look down at the ring, sigh, and look back at up Francis. "I can't even begin to tell you what a good man your baby brother is."

"Please, begin," Max says, leaning in the doorway. "Frank won't believe it otherwise."

"He's always been a trouble-maker," Francis laughs, deserting our serious talk for a chance to poke fun at Max.

"Don't put bad thoughts in her head about me. Va te faire voir!" he orders as he smiles, nodding toward the doorway as he steps farther into the room.

"C'est bien, à plus tard," he returns, getting up from beside me and heading for the door. On his way out, Frank squeezes Max's shoulder and nods at him. It seems like such a sweet moment between two brothers who normally concentrate on ribbing each other.

Francis closes the door behind him, and Max takes that fact to his advantage. He reaches for my hand and pulls me up off the bed. He removes my sweater, and my skin almost instantly starts to get goosebumps—and not just from the cool air. He kisses my bare shoulder. "Finally, some alone time."

As if on cue, loud laughter reverberates through the floor. "We're not exactly alone."

"Close enough." One hand presses against the small of my back, pushing our bodies together, as the other hand unzips my dress. "Take your hair down."

"If you wanted alone time, you shouldn't have invited your family into your home," I giggle. That fact doesn't stop me either, because I do as he commands and remove the clips and let my hair fall down around my shoulders. Then I reach up under his shirt and lightly drag my nails down the flesh of his sides. Next, I go to work on the buttons of his shirt.

"They won't care if we celebrate our engagement properly," he mumbles, kissing across my collarbone to my neck. His scruffy chin electrifies my nerve endings. "I thought you were going to say no."

My hands quit their progress of undressing him. As badly as I want him, those desires are temporarily put on hold. "What? Why would I say no?"

"You took forever to answer. It's not supposed to take that long to say 'yes.'"

"Max, my answer to you will always be 'yes.' From here on in, it's always yes." He kisses me hungrily, igniting all my pent-up passion. "I just wanted my answer to be perfect."

"What did I tell you about perfect? As long as you agreed to wear that ring, any answer would have been perfect. In English or in French. I don't care what you speak."

"Really?" I ask, raising my eyebrows. "I guess all those special lessons from V have gone to waste then." Max looks at me and waits for me to explain. "Embrasse-moi." I end the conversation here, not wanting to distract myself from the task at hand. He grabs my waist and guides me down on the bed. His right knee's between my legs, the left is on the other side of my body, and he's peeling the straps of my dress down my arms slowly.

That doesn't mean we don't get distracted, however. There's a loud knock at the door as one of the brothers says, "Maxime!"

"Will, va-t'en!" he growls, bending over and kissing right above the neckline of my dress.

"C'est important," Will calls.

"Je suis occupé."

"Allez, Maxime." He knocks on the door again. "Ouvre la porte."

Max sits up and shakes his head. "Stupid Frank."

"I thought it was Will?" I ask, feeling confused.

"It's Will at the door, but I bet Frank sent him up here. He knew...." Max throws open the door as I pull the straps of my dress back onto my shoulders and make sure the hem is pulled down so I'm at least covered. "Qu'est-ce que tu veux?"

I can see that Will is grinning much like the Cheshire Cat. The brothers are definitely messing with Max, and Will knows what we were up to as he spies a half-naked Max and my disheveled appearance. "Hé, Charlotte. Comment allez-vous?"

Max groans and steps in the line of sight so Will is forced to look at him and not me. "Qu'est-ce que tu veux?"

"Papa et Maman ont pris la chambre d'amis. Et nous? Où sommes-nous supposés dormir?"

Max scowls. "Il y a le divan-lit dans le séjour et le matelas gonflable. Organisez-vous." Then he shuts the door and engages the lock.

Will hollers through the door, "Quelle impolitesse! Et penser qu'on est venu jusqu'à Pittsburgh pour te voir!" He laughs and hollers down the stairs as his shadow disappears from the crack below the door. "Oui, Francis!"

He shakes his head and groans. "Be glad you don't have brothers. Now, where were we?"

"Later," I sigh.He pouts and I laugh, "I promise. Later." I stand up and turn my back to him, pulling my hair across to one shoulder so he can zip me up. "We shouldn't be rude and ignore your family."

"Our family," he whispers, zipping my dress and kissing the nape of my neck. Then he goes to work on putting his shirt back on. "Maybe it's not official yet, but you're a Talbot now."

That's not a comment meant to make my cry, but it does make me get weepy. I love his family. I can barely even speak to them, but they made me feel so at ease and so at home with them that it's like I really am a part of their family, and I had been a Talbot for my entire life. It's a happy feeling, but I'm sad, too, because I have to leave them and go home tomorrow to my real family that isn't nearly as sweet.

"Don't cry, baby."

"I'm sorry. Your family is so accepting. I love them to death, Max-A-Million. I think I love them more than my own family."

He smiles broadly. "It's great seeing you fit in with them. I knew that they would like you, but I didn't know they'd like you this much so soon. And my mom.... She will love you enough for a billion mothers. She's probably already planning our wedding. Let's go back downstairs, Charlotte." He laughs at his thought. "You're going to be Charlotte Talbot. That kinda rhymes."

I groan. "I don't want to have a rhyming name."

"I think it sounds perfect. It's got a nice ring to it," he says with a smile.

I look down at the brand new ring on my left hand. Charlotte Talbot. Yeah, that definitely has a nice ring to it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

sixty-six: sign

Soundtrack Song - Natasha Bedingfield, I Wanna Have Your Babies

We walk back into the living room, and everyone looks up at us expectantly. I'm not sure what they're waiting for; maybe they think that we were going to fight or something. The old me would have flipped out on him because I would have wanted this meeting to be perfect, but the new me is less of a perfectionist and doesn't see the point in getting worked up over something that I can't control. Needless to say, their expressions ease when they see us return and we're hand-in-hand and smiling.

"Venez vous asseoir!" his mother invites, sliding down the couch some so there will be room enough for the two of us together. We do as she bids, and Mrs. Talbot, Max, myself, and Véro all sit together in a line. "C'est à ton tour, Maxime."

Max hands the glass of wine to me so his mother can hand him Paul. I expect him to put up some kind of fuss or act frightened to hold him, but that isn't the case. On the contrary, Max is a natural. I suppose I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, because Max is very much a family-oriented guy. Sure, he's loud and fun and a bit of a clown (okay, more than a bit), but he's this man, too, who's comfortable holding babies and cooing at them in French baby-talk.

My heart melts in a puddle of goo in my chest cavity. Max is no doubt going to be a great father someday. To my children. We had never really talked about the future, our future, but he's said things like "for the rest of our lives" and "forever." Forever includes babies of our own, and I try to picture in my head what it'll be like during Christmas a few years down the road, when Paul's old enough to run around in excitement over Santa's imminent arrival and maybe there are a few other of Will and Frank's kids to add to the clan. And maybe Max and I will have one of our own, too.

I lean my head against his shoulder and look up at him looking down at Paul. He tilts his head to the other side to watch me. "Are you okay?"

"I'm great," I sigh, looking up at him. "You're so good with him."

"I can't wait 'til he's older and I can teach him to do all the things that are going to annoy Frank," he laughs.

Frank cuts in and says, "All you have to do, then, is teach Paul how to be just like you." He then quickly says what I'm guessing is the same thing in French, so the rest of the family can laugh along.

Véro chuckles and says, "No offense, Max, but I don't think the world can withstand another person like you."

"Just wait until I have my own sons," he laughs loudly. "Mes fils vont être comme moi."

"I hate to break it to you," I interrupt, "but we'll be having daughters."

Max shoots me a stunned look. He's shocked and confused. "What?"

"My family is full of girls. My mother only had daughters, and her mother only had daughters. Our children will be girls."

He laughs quietly, so as not to disturb Paul as he slumbers away in his arms. "I hate to break it to you, but Talbots produce loud, hairy men."

I look around the room at Will and Frank, and I can't imagine having children that grow up to be like them. Not that this would be such a bad thing, but my sister and I always joked that if we ever had kids, they would be girls. "Nope. Sorry. My eggs will only accept sperm with X chromosomes. That's just how it goes," I laugh. "You're going to have to get used to that."

"No way. It's the man that decides the sex of the child, and I'm telling you, it's all about the boys. Me, Frank, Will, and now it's starting with the new generation in Paul. My manly sperm overrules your eggs. You're just going to have to get used to that."

Véro covers her mouth as she laughs. "You two are ridiculous. Why are you arguing about the sex of children you haven't had yet? Ils discutent à savoir si leurs enfants seront des garçons ou des filles."

Everyone around us smiles, and Lucie speaks up, "Je suppose qu'on verra bien." I look up at Max and wait for him to translate for me, because I don't understand. He smiles at me and presses his lips to mine very briefly as Will and Frank make obnoxious and loud kissing sounds.

"I'll be right back," Max says to me, standing up and passing Paul back to his mother, Juliette. "Une minute," he announces to everyone else, taking the stairs two at a time.

They all look at me, wondering what's going on, and I don't have an answer for them. I shrug and shake my head, just as confused as they are for his sudden departure. I guess the wine has finally gotten to him, and he needs to break the seal. I say to Véro, "Let's get this party underway. There's so much food. Can you ask them if they're hungry?"

"Sure thing. Est-ce que quelqu'un a faim?"

The boys all nod, and our party transitions from the living room into the kitchen. The bottle of wine gets passed around as everyone starts to pick at the plates upon plates of food. I hope that all the Talbots have as big of an appetite as Max does. Everyone's chatting and laughing and having a good time. Even Marc-André, who always seems reserved and quiet, is laughing loudly and clearly enjoying himself. The Talbot disposition is contagious, obviously.

Even though they are loud and probably won't notice the difference, I can't help but think we need a little Christmas music playing in the background. I slip out of the kitchen and head over to his stereo in the living room and turn it on. Music accidentally starts blasting through the speakers, and I yelp and quickly turn the volume down.

"What are you doing?" Max asks me, coming back downstairs.

"Trying to turn on some Christmas music. Trying to set the mood," I laugh, noticing that everyone in the kitchen has poked their heads into the living room because of the loud noise. Max steps beside me and turns it off completely. "Je suis désolé," I say to his family, apologizing for disturbing them. They all open their mouths in shock, and I wonder what I did that garnered that type of reaction. I meant to say that I was sorry, but maybe I said something offensive instead? I turn back to Max and the stereo, only to find he's gone down on one knee. It's my turn to ask, "What are you doing?"

"I hate to break it to you, but we'll be having daughters," Charlotte says matter-of-factly.

I'm taken aback by what she's just said. Charlotte never talks about the future; I'm always the one who brings it up. I'm afraid I didn't hear her correctly or I misunderstood. "What?"

"My family is full of girls. My mother only had daughters, and her mother only had daughters. Our children will be girls."

I laugh. I did hear her correctly, but I need to correct her line of thinking. "I hate to break it to you, but Talbots produce loud, hairy men."

"Nope. Sorry. My eggs will only accept sperm with X chromosomes. That's just how it goes. You're going to have to get used to that." She's laughing and her green eyes are glistening.

I banter back, "No way. It's the man that decides the sex of the child, and I'm telling you, it's all about the boys. Me, Frank, Will, and now it's starting with the new generation in Paul. My manly sperm overrules your eggs. You're just going to have to get used to that."

Véro giggles at our interactions. "You two are ridiculous. Why are you arguing about the sex of children you haven't had yet? Ils discutent à savoir si leurs enfants seront des garçons ou des filles."

My family is all looking at us and smiling. My mother is beaming and I'm afraid she's going to explode with happiness when she says, "Je suppose qu'on verra bien."

When she says that, it hits me like a tidal wave or crushing tsunami. I told myself that I would know when Charlotte was ready, when it was time to ask her the big question. I had no idea how I was supposed to know, but... I know now. I know. She's talking about kids, our kids, my family likes her, my mother loves her apparently, and I don't need any other indication to be sure that if I ask Charlotte to marry me, she'll say yes.

I also told myself that I was going to make the proposal special and romantic. Once I knew she was going to be receptive to the idea, I was going to plan it out and make sure it was going to be memorable and perfect. But now that I know, I can't wait. I have to do it now.

Giving her a quick kiss, setting Paul back in his mother's arms, and telling everyone that I'll be back in a minute, I rush up into my bedroom and look in the closet for that little blue box that's been collecting dust ever since I stashed it there. I have to take a few deep breaths to calm myself. I'm not nervous; I'm incredibly, unbelievably excited. My heart's pounding, and it almost feels like my first game back with the team this season. Almost, because this is way more thrilling and overwhelming.

I place the box in my pocket and take a few more deep breaths. Why am I so worked up over this? Mon Dieu, what am I going to say!? How am I going to ask her? Merde, I can't believe I haven't thought about this more. Maybe I should wait until I've thought more about it. No, I can't wait. I'm too excited. I have to do this now. The words will come to me.

Walking down the stairs, I see the living room's empty except for Charlotte looking at my sound system. My heart aches with love just at the sight of her. She presses a button and something wails out before she turns it down. "What are you doing?" I ask as I walk over to her.

"Trying to turn on some Christmas music. Trying to set the mood. Je suis désolé," she giggles, turning to apologize to my nosy family. I've got my girl, she's speaking in French, and my family's here. This moment couldn't be better. One last exhale, and I go for it and go down on one knee. My family reacts, but Charlotte's looking at them and not paying attention to me. She scrunches up her face, confused by them, and she turns to look at me, only to find I've suddenly gotten shorter. She peers down at me. Her mouth falls open in shock for the second time today. She whispers, "What are you doing?"

Just like I hoped, the words spew forth out of their own volition. "Charlotte, I knew from the moment I first saw you that you were someone special. I didn't know how special you were until you didn't want anything to do with me. Je ne peux pas croire combien tu m'as changé. Tu m'as transformé en un homme dont mes parents peuvent être fiers." I quickly glance over at my parents, and my mother's hands are over her mouth. They're all watching. I turn back to Charlotte and continue, letting all the words spill out. "I hope to be a man you'll be proud of, someone who you can love with all your heart until the end of time. Je ne suis rien sans toi parce que tu es tout pour moi. Je t'aime encore plus que ce que je croyais possible, tellement que ça fait mal. Je veux partager mes victoires et mes défaites avec toi. I don't just want you to be a part of my life. I need you in my life. I feel like our souls will always be connected, and I want to make it permanent, so everyone else will know how much I love you." I reach into my pocket and produce that trademarked blue box, opening it and presenting the ring. "Charlotte Marie Bickley, will you marry me? Veux-tu être ma femme?"

She stands as still as a statue, her mouth hanging open. Seconds begin to tick by, and I wait for her answer. With each moment that passes by in silence, I begin to get worried. I was so sure that she would say yes, but if her answer was yes, it wouldn't be taking her this long to say it. My heart begins to sink.

"Maxime," she whispers, finally reacting. Her eyes flicker down to the ring and then back to my face. "Je t'aime...." Her eyelids flutter shut, and I can see her eyes moving rapidly as if searching for the right thing to say. The polite words to tell me no. In English or French, the rejection is going to sound exactly the same.

I drag my eyes away from her face and wait for it. For the "but..." that's inevitably coming. Waiting for her to say "I love you, but I can't marry you." Or "I love you, but it's too soon." I was so sure that she was going to say yes. I can't believe she's about to turn me down.