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.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

sixty-five: very surprised

Max is acting funny. He has been for the past few days, but I chalk it up to his excitement of going home and seeing his family for Christmas. It's like he's ready to burst out of his own skin and he can't keep still. More than usual. It's driving me crazy and making me antsy, too.

For the fiftieth time tonight, I survey the kitchen, making sure that everything is set out and is aesthetically pleasing. When Max had told me about the party on Sunday, I couldn't believe he wasn't going to decorate or anything. And everyone knows that you can't just call up a caterer two days before a party and expect them to be able to handle the job. Especially when the party is three days before Christmas, and not even if you're Max Talbot! Then again, I should have known better. Max never thinks things through; he always flies by the seat of his pants, so to speak.

Since Max was very informally throwing this party, he didn't even care about putting up a tree or stringing up lights or doing anything remotely festive. I chastised him and forced him out shopping so we could pick up at least a small tree and some decorations. Maybe a little garland or something. All the stores were packed and the shelves were practically bare, but we found enough to go with the "informal" theme of the party.

I'm not dressed informally. Not like Max, in his untucked dress shirt and loosened tie. It's part of my upbringing, I think, to need to make sure the party's planned out and, well, perfect. It's not even my house, nor is it my party, but since I know Max has put in minimal effort, I feel the need to compensate for his lack of preparation. I glance up at the clock again. "What time is everyone supposed to start showing up?"

"In fifteen minutes. Why are you so anxious?" he asks, and I can tell he's a little frustrated with me.

"I'm not anxious. I just want this little shindig to get underway," I try to explain to him. Once I can see that people are here and enjoying themselves, I'll be able to calm down. I reach out and adjust the plate of brownies I baked. "Do you think there's enough food?"

He groans. "There's a reason I wanted to just get this catered. Don't worry about it."

"But you guys are like human vacuum cleaners. It's not too late for me to run to the store or something." Twenty-plus hockey players, not to mention significant others or dates, and that's not counting if anyone else shows up. They're all going to demolish this spread, and we're going to run out of food. I can feel it. Max surely knows how much they can eat, so he should know this will hardly last.

He opens up his mouth, no doubt to tell me to relax again, but his phone rings, so he gives me a short command instead of the long lecture I'm expecting. "Charlotte, stop worrying. And don't you dare go anywhere." He puts his phone up to his ear and starts speaking in French. "Où êtes-vous? ...D'accord, c'est bien. Parfait. Je vous vois dans dix minutes." He hangs up and begins to explain, "Flower and Véro—"

I cut him off. We've continued our French lessons, and while I'm still a novice, I recognize dix minutes. "Will be here in ten minutes."

He smiles at me. "Oui. Ton français s'améliore."

It takes me a second to translate what he said in my head, how my French is getting better. "Not bad, considering my teacher is horrible," I tease him and stick my tongue out. Truth is, he's been most helpful and patient.

He smirks at me and hooks his arm around my waist, pulling me against him. "Keep that up, and I'll lock the doors and turn everyone away." Then he kisses my neck.

While I'm very tempted by this, I smack his arm and say very sternly between my laughs, "Don't you dare. Not after I spent two days helping you prepare for your party, decorating and baking."

Max rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "I didn't want you to think you need to play hostess. I want you to relax and have fun with everyone."

Distracting myself by reaching out and playing with his tie, I tell myself that once the party starts, I'll be fine. To offset my anticipation, I tease him again. "I will relax and have fun. I may even get drunk and let you take advantage of me once the guys leave." That seems to appease him, so I focus back on the party. Something's missing. "Should we put some Christmas music on?"

A glimmer resembling unease flashes across his face so briefly that for a second, I wonder if I really saw that. "Uh, I'll do that. Why don't you go pick something out from the wine cellar?"

This is Max, being weird again. I'm clueless when it comes to wine, and he loves to show off how much he knows. He likes to make a big production of opening the bottles, making me smell the corks, and then talking about the bouquet or whatever. So why is he telling me to go pick something out? "You know I don't know a thing about wine, Max. I know there's white, which I hate, and there's red, which I like."

"Then go get a bottle of red," he tells me, grabbing my shoulders and gently pushing me toward his pantry. He's acting so oddly. For good measure, as if I need more encouragement, he slaps my butt and yells, "After all, I need to get you drunk!"

That makes me laugh, thinking that he doesn't need to ply me with alcohol to take advantage of me; I would—and do—give myself to him willingly at every opportunity. I turn on the light and look around me, in what he lovingly calls his wine cellar but is no more than a small room adjacent his kitchen. I don't want to grab something too expensive, but I want something that's going to be good. I grab a red Meritage and hope he won't mind.

I turn off the light and walk back into the kitchen, and Max rejoins me even though there's no Christmas music playing. So strange. I hold out the bottle of wine and say, "I hope this is okay. Will you open it?"

He laughs at me and references the first night we hung together and my ingenious method to open the bottle I thought was a twist-off. "I thought you were the master at opening bottles of wine."

Narrowing my eyes, I tell him, "I cannot spill a drop of red wine on Gina's dress. Although, I don't even know why she doesn't just give it to me, because I wear it more than she does."

A car pulls up in front of the house, and it must be Marc-André and Véro. Max drops the bottle and corkscrew on the counter and rushes off before I get the chance to head into the living room. "Here, can you finish? I'll go get the door."

I let out a snort and roll my eyes. Here I go, back to work. As if I didn't already do enough work for his party. Why not do a little more? Max is the face of party, and I'm the one working in the shadows to make sure it's successful. I try to push the corkscrew down farther into the cork, but I struggle with it as unidentifiable French voices echo in from the other room. I assume that all the Frenchies drove together and think nothing of it. Except that maybe we're going to need more wine.

The bottle of wine is still unopened when Max comes back into the kitchen. My curiosity gets the best of me, so I ask, "So was that, like, Pascal's wife? I don't recognize the voice."

Max steps beside me, and his hand covers mine as I continue using the opener. I wonder what he's doing, so I look at his hand on mine and then up at his face. "Why don't you come see?"

Still puzzled, I question him further. "Don't you want something to drink?"

He clears his throat. "Come on. It's a surprise." A surprise? Is that what this is all about, and why he's been acting so weird lately? I let him guide me toward the living room as my heart begins to pound. He already gave me my gift, my plane ticket home, so I wonder what he has up his sleeve. I feel his breath against my ear as he says, "Pardonne-moi."

My head immediately snaps up so I can look at him. He's asking for forgiveness. I wonder why he would feel the need to ask forgiveness for this surprise or why he would surprise me with something that I would need to forgive him for. This can't be good. "Why?"

Panic begins to set in as I hear the next two words out of his mouth. "Maman, Papa, je veux vous présenter l'amour de ma vie. Voici Charlotte." His parents. Oh shit. I'm meeting his parents. I'm completely unprepared, and any French I've learned over the past month flies out the window. I don't think I'm ready for this. "Charlotte, I'd like you to meet my parents, Lucie and Serge."

My mind is blank, and I can't find the words I had practiced and practiced for this very moment. I'm definitely not ready. My heart is palpitating, and I think I need a paper bag. Max is going to die because I'm going to murder him; I can't believe he just sprung this on me like this! I'm breaking out into a sweat. But all that nervousness instantly disappears as Lucie, Max's mother, steps toward me. Looking at her, I think that Max is just like her—not merely in looks but in demeanor and spirit and presence. This is where Max gets his effervescence and easy smile and sparkling eyes. She's easy going and happy-go-lucky; I can just tell that about her as she wraps her arms around me and pulls me into a long and tight hug. Mrs. Talbot is obviously everything my mother is not, and I find that extremely comforting.

I barely manage to find the sentence I'm looking for, and I hope I say it correctly as I tell them how glad I am to make their acquaintance. "Ça me fait plaisir de vous rencontrer." Lucie then prattles on in French, and even if I had a slight chance of understanding her, there's no way I can now that my brain has left my body.

Max butts in and introduces me again to his father, and I shake his hand. Looking at him, I think that Max is like him—when I look at Lucie, Max looks just like his mother, and when I look at Serge, he looks just like his father. But I can see that this is where Max gets his determination and groundedness and calming effect. As Mr. Talbot silently shakes my hand, his soft eyes and generous smile are reassuring and soothing. I repeat the same line to him, "Ça me fait plaisir de vous rencontrer."

As if that wasn't overwhelming enough, next I'm introduced to his older brother William and his wife Sylvie, continuing to shake hands, smile, and make use of that particular French sentence again. Before things can calm down, the front door opens again and more people enter; this time, his oldest brother and his wife walk in with a car seat. My first thought it: holy shit, there are three of them! Max, Will, and Frank look like the same person, just at different ages. I silently pray that their personalities aren't as identical as their appearances. Three Maxes in the same room may cause a black hole in the universe or rip in the time-space continuum or something. My mind is still racing and I don't think I've caught my breath yet as Max says, "Charlotte, this is my oldest brother—"

"Francis, but Max calls me Frank," he interrupts. For a second, it doesn't register that he's speaking my language. "I speak some English."

"Thank God," I sigh with a laugh. I'm ridiculously excited that he at least knows enough English to introduce himself. It makes my feel a bit more at ease. "My French sucks!"

Frank scrunches up his face in confusion. I guess sucks is too much slang for him. He continues, "This is my wife, Juliette," he says as she and I shake hands. "She does not speak English. And this is our new baby, Paul. He doesn't speak English either. Then again, he can't speak at all." Francis is beaming like the proud papa he is as he holds him and shows him off.

I chuckle at that, and Max adds, "It's only a matter of time before he's talking like his namesake. He's named after our grandfather."

Somehow, I manage to pick out a couple of words and string them together, hoping that they make sense. "C'est beau." I take it that they do, because everyone's grins seem to widen.

Francis takes a step in my direction. "You wanna hold him?"

The question is just a formality; he's already handing him over. "I'm not sure that's a good—" I have no choice but to hold my arms out, otherwise the baby's going to fall to the floor. I'm pretty sure that letting that happen would mean a definite bad impression. "Or not," I laugh. I'm surprised at how easily Francis hands Paul over to a stranger. It's like this is my invitation and initiation into the Talbot family, and now I'm a part of it. The maternal instinct takes over and I begin to sway back and forth, peering down at baby Paul. "How old is he?"

Max says at the same as Frank, "Three weeks." As much as Francis is the proud father, Max seems just as excited. It almost makes me wonder how Max will be as a father and just how much more happy he would be over his own child.

I inhale the inherent baby smell that all infants have. "So tiny. He looks like an honest-to-goodness Cabbage Patch doll." Max is confused by my expression, so I try to clarify. "He looks like a doll."

Juliette kisses the top of Paul's head, but not in a way that makes me feel like she needs to be protective or wants him back. Suddenly, Lucie, Sylvie, and Véro surround me, and we move like a swarm to the couch. I'm just swept away in the current, trying to go with the flow. I sit and cross my legs, continuing to rock the baby, and Lucie sits on my right and Véro on my left. Juliette and Sylvie pull up chairs so we're sitting in a small circle.

Lucie starts talking in French, and it all goes right after my head. She stops and looks at me expectantly, and I search for my staple comment, "Je désolée. Je parle petit peu français."

I smile gratefully at Véro, who steps in and explains that I'm American and trying to learn French. She answers their questions and translates for me. I don't know what I would do if she weren't here. I don't even miss Max due to all the buzzing activity around me. Even though these ladies don't understand me, the Talbot women all look at me when I speak English, like they're hanging off my every word as if I'm preaching the Gospel. I try to pepper as much French into my answers as possible, because I want them to see that I'm trying. I want to fit into their family. Now I kind of know how Max felt when he met my mother, wanting to make a good impression and have them accept me.

They want to know more about me, they want to know how I met Max, and they want to know how I feel about him. I'm so overwhelmed and anxious, but I'm also caught up in their excitement. They talk over each other even as they talk to each other, and I have no idea how they're paying attention to what the others are saying. All of them are so warm and friendly and inviting, welcoming me into their little group.

The men are in the kitchen, their occasional laughter and shouts echoing in, but it doesn't disturb us. The whole floor of the house is raucous and loud, but I'm having a blast despite the insanity. At some point in our confusing bilingual conversation, Mrs. Talbot takes Paul and the men join us. Max hands me a glass of wine. I gladly accept it and down it.

"Slow down, baby. It can't be that bad," he laughs.

I stand with my empty glass and head for the kitchen and say, "Excuse-moi," while promptly grabbing Max's necktie and pulling him with me. I need a break from the noise for just a moment, and Max and I need to talk.

Everyone chuckles, but Frank gives a voice to their collective thought. "Looks like Maxime is in trouble!"

Once we're alone, he's the first to speak. "Listen, baby, before you get mad and yell at me," he starts, waiting for my reaction, "I knew that by the Olympic break, you would have been a mess of nerves. You would have been worried about meeting my family, self-conscious about your French, and I just thought that this would kind of solve that problem."

I bite my lip to prevent my smile. I want to make him squirm a bit, so I avoid looking at him and instead refill my glass. "So you thought orchestrating this meeting in December was going to be a good idea? When I can barely form a complete sentence to talk to them? When did you get this bright idea?"

"Um, Saturday. And then I told you about the 'party' on Sunday."

"The party which isn't happening? Meaning I wasted all that time and energy for no reason."

He pauses, and I know it's killing him. "So?"

I raise the glass to my lips to hide the grin. "So what?"

"Are you mad at me?"

There's no hiding it anymore. A loud laugh escapes from my mouth. "Oh, Max. I wish you would have told me, but no, I'm not mad. Surprised, yes, but not mad. Your family is great. All the French lessons in the world couldn't have prepared me for this, because I don't have a chance to understand them when they're all talking at once." He chuckles and nods, understanding completely. "But they already have made me feel like I belong."

Max lets out a deep breath and kisses my cheek. "Well, they love you already. And I'm glad you're not mad. I was worried about how you were going to react."

That makes me laugh. "And yet you did it anyway."

He shrugs, takes my glass from me, and takes a sip. "Of course. My plan was brilliant. Except that you had to meddle and pull a Martha Stewart on me."

I laugh. "If you would have told me—"

"I know, I know. What do you say, are you ready to go back in there?"

"Oui," I tell him, lacing my fingers through his as we walk back into the living room.

Friday, November 20, 2009

sixty-four: surprise!

Can a lie ever not be a lie?

If you ask me if I'm lying, then technically yes, I am. I'm not being truthful and honest. But I don't have any malicious intent. Au contraire, I think I have great motives for a festive Christmas surprise for Charlotte. However, that means I have to be purposely misleading about what's going on in the days before the big holiday.

So does that still count as lying?

I'd be a little less concerned about the blurring of lines if I knew she'd like it. I know she will, but at first she'll either be feverishly mad or incredibly surprised. Or a deadly combination of both. And when I say deadly, I mean that she may kill me. If I'm acutely aware of this, then maybe I should just call the whole thing off, but it's already December 22—making it impossible to pull the plug. Everything's already underway.

Besides, it's been planned to a T, perfectly and strategically orchestrated. Charlotte very well knows that I'm not known for my subtlety and discretion.

The "lie" I told her was that I was going to host a team get-together at my house before everyone left for the short break we got for the holiday. There isn't a game on this particular Tuesday, and it's the day before her flight back to Chicago. I bought the plane ticket for her as her Christmas gift; I told her that if she had to go back to spend the holiday with her atrocious family, that she should at least go in first class. Initially, she refused it, but I can be persuasive. The flight departs from the Pittsburgh airport around six tomorrow, so Gina is driving her to the airport when she's finished with work. I have a game tomorrow, so I couldn't be the one to see her off. Which is why this is happening today, and why I got her here under false pretenses.

Charlotte's dressed in that little black dress I like so much, with the addition of a red cardigan for the spirit of the holiday as well as to combat the slight chill in the air. Her hair is swept up away from her face, except for a few deliberately curled tresses which frame her face. She looks gorgeous in the way that only she can.

"What time is everyone supposed to start showing up?" she asks me as she arranges the plates of food in the kitchen. She eyes the clock, which reads quarter after five.

"In fifteen minutes. Why are you so anxious?"

"I'm not anxious. I just want this little shindig to get underway. Do you think there's enough food?"

I look at all the food we have: the kitchen counter lined with trays, as well as two additional tables' worth. There's no way all this is going to get eaten tonight, and most of it will end up going to waste. I sigh, "There's a reason I wanted to just get this catered. Don't worry about it."

"But you guys are like human vacuum cleaners. It's not too late for me to run to the store or something."

I open my mouth to tell her, yet again, that everything is going to be fine, but my phone rings before I can reassure her. It's Flower, and I need to take this call. "Charlotte, stop worrying. And don't you dare go anywhere," I tell her as I put a few more feet of distance between us and answer my cell. "Où êtes-vous?"

"Presqu'arrivés. Nous sommes à peu près à dix minutes de chez toi," he responds.

"D'accord, c'est bien. Parfait. Je vous vois dans dix minutes." I hang up and look back at Charlotte. "Flower and Véro—"

"Will be here in ten minutes," she gladly informs me with a smile.

I grin back at her. "Oui. Ton français s'améliore."

"Not bad, considering my teacher is horrible," she teases, her eyes sparkling. I feign offense, and she sticks her tongue out at me.

I grab her and pull her toward me. "Keep that up, and I'll lock the doors and turn everyone away."

"Don't you dare," she laughs as I kiss her neck, gently slapping my arm. "Not after I spent two days helping you prepare for your party, decorating and baking."

I roll my eyes, thinking about how that was the one fluke with my plan. Charlotte insisted on helping with the planning and preparation for this huge party, which wasn't even going to happen. She won't be happy when she figures out how much of her effort is going to waste. I told her repeatedly that I was just going to get it catered, and that it was pointless to decorate since I was going home to Montréal for Christmas, but she very stubbornly wouldn't listen. But if I wanted to keep up the charade, I had to play along.

"I didn't want you to think you need to play hostess. I want you to relax and have fun with everyone."

Charlotte shrugs and purses her lips. She reaches out and straightens my tie, which I left loose around my neck. The top button of my shirt is undone, and I'm wearing jeans. She fusses over my appearance for a moment more before she goes back to teasing me. "I will relax and have fun. I may even get drunk and let you take advantage of me once the guys leave." She switches out of her playful mode and turns serious again. "Should we put some Christmas music on?" she asks, pulling away from my grasp and heading for the living room.

"Uh, I'll do that," I say, cutting her off. I don't want her to look outside yet—not until they get here. "Why don't you go pick something out from the wine cellar?"

"You know I don't know a thing about wine, Max. I know there's white, which I hate, and there's red, which I like."

"Then go get a bottle of red," I suggest, pointing her in the right direction and giving her a tap on the ass. She jumps a little and gives me a pointed look, but she heads into the makeshift wine cellar, my pantry. "After all, I need to get you drunk!" I rush into the living room to close the curtains. I don't want the surprise to be ruined. I don't want to see what will happen if Charlotte figures out what's going on beforehand. Perhaps a little alcohol will make this easier.

I walk back in the kitchen as she reenters, too, a bottle of something in her hand. "I hope this is okay. Will you open it?" She holds it out in front of her.

"I thought you were the master at opening bottles of wine," I laugh at her, thinking about the time she used screws and the claw of a hammer in lieu of a corkscrew one night way back when.

Charlotte squints at me. "I cannot spill a drop of red wine on Gina's dress. Although, I don't even know why she doesn't just give it to me, because I wear it more than she does."

I grab the bottle from her and find the corkscrew. As I work at the cork, I hear Flower's SUV pull into the driveway. I see that Charlotte notices too, so I jump into action before she can. "Here, can you finish? I'll go get the door." Before she responds, I leave the bottle on the counter and leave the kitchen.

Flower knocks on the door but opens it without waiting for me to greet him. He lugs a suitcase in behind him into the living room, and my parents are right on his tail. "Allo!" he calls out, not noticing that I'm approaching.

"Maxime! On est là!" My mother announces into the house, then rushes up to hug and kiss me.

I keep my voice low but still greet them warmly. "Maman! Papa! C'est tellement bon de vous revoir. Comment était votre vol? Je suis désolé de ne pas être allé vous chercher."

My dad steps up next and we embrace. "On sait que tu es occupé, mon gars."

I respond, "Je ne suis jamais trop occupé pour ma famille." Véro, Will, and Will's wife Sylvie file in right behind them with their bags, adding to our little group, but a few people are still missing until the Talbot family is complete. "Où est Frank?"

My mother answers, "Juliette et lui ont décidé de louer une auto puisqu'ils ont le bébé avec eux."

I was hoping they would all show up at once, so I could do this in one fell swoop. Oh well. "Mais j'ai une surprise pour vous!" I gesture to them to make themselves at home, which they are already doing. They've visited me often enough to be comfortable here, and even if they hadn't, it's not like they're shy.

Quickly, I run back into the kitchen, where Charlotte's still struggling with the corkscrew. Apparently, she's better at opening bottles with a hammer than doing it the proper way. "So was that, like, Pascal's wife? I don't recognize the voice."

I wrap my hand around hers, stopping her progress on uncorking the bottle. "Why don't you come see?"

"Don't you want something to drink?"

Clearing my throat, I say, "Come on. It's a surprise." She looks interested yet suspicious. Taking her hand in mine, I nudge and pull her toward the other room. I lean down and whisper in her ear, begging forgiveness for what I'm about to do. "Pardonne-moi."

"Why?" she asks, looking up at me inquisitively and not noticing our guests until she hears me address them.

"Maman, Papa, je veux vous présenter l'amour de ma vie. Voici Charlotte. Charlotte, I'd like you to meet my parents, Lucie and Serge."

Charlotte's pretty mouth falls open in wordless shock, but my mother doesn't notice because she's too busy enveloping her in a hug. I can see as Charlotte searches for her tiny French vocabulary, lost somewhere in her brain due to her surprise. I know that if we had waited until February to do this, she would have made herself so nervous and worked up about it that she would have psyched herself out of it. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and invite my family down for Wednesday's game against the Senators, and introduce everyone to each other. It's a flawless plan, except for the fact that she still doesn't know a whole lot of French.

"Ça me fait plaisir de vous rencontrer," she finally ekes out. I smile, knowing how hard and how often we practiced that particular line, because Charlotte was so concerned about the initial impression she was going to be making in my parents.

Before my mother smothers my girlfriend, I gently pry them apart. My mother's chatting away, gushing about how it's so nice that I'm finally introducing a girl to the family, and I'm glad that Charlotte doesn't understand. I continue with the introductions, and Charlotte shakes my father's hand and repeats the same sentence to him, too. Next, I move to introduce her to William and Sylvie.

Francis and Juliette bust through the door and join our happy little group, and with their bags they bring in their brand new bundle of joy. The Talbot Clan is back together, and things are about to get loud and confusing. I begin that set of introductions, "Charlotte, this is my oldest brother—"

"Francis, but Max calls me Frank," he cuts me off. He notices Charlotte's relieved expression. "I speak some English."

"Thank God," she chuckles with a smile. "My French sucks!"

Frank looks up at me, slightly confused, and I just laugh and shake my head. "This is my wife, Juliette," he continues, gesturing to his wife. They shake hands, both smiling politely. "She does not speak English. And this is our new baby, Paul," he adds, scooping him up from his seat and holding him up so we can see him better. "He doesn't speak English either. Then again, he can't speak at all."

"It's only a matter of time before he's talking like his namesake. He's named after our grandfather," I laugh and explain to Charlotte. It's the first time I've seen my nephew other than in a picture.

"C'est beau," Charlotte whispers, smiling broadly. I think her big grin is partly from seeing the my nephew as well as coming up with a French expression on her own.

"You wanna hold him?" Frank asks her, not waiting for her response.

She shakes her head quickly. "I'm not sure that's a good—" Frank doesn't give her a say in the matter. He steps in front of her and holds Paul out to her so she's forced to raise her arms and accept the baby. "Or not," she adds with a giggle, looking down at Paul. "How old is he?"

"Three weeks," Frank and I reply at the same time.

"So tiny," Charlotte mumbles, bringing one hand up to his face and lightly brushing her index finger against his cheek. "He looks like an honest-to-goodness Cabbage Patch doll." She looks up at me and smiles, and then laughs at my expression. "He looks like a doll."

Juliette steps beside Charlotte and leans down to plant a kiss on Paul's forehead, and my mother swarms around those two and begins chatting away. Véro steps in and translates as needed as Charlotte sits down on the couch, still holding Paul, with the rest of the Talbot women and Véro surrounding her. Even though she barely speaks the language and can't follow along with the conversation, she somehow looks like she fits right in. She does look overwhelmed—which my family is very good at doing—but she's smiling.

As the women chatter and talk over each other, my dad, Will, Frank, and Flower gather around me. Frank smiles at me and claps his hand against my back, and I know what's coming. The oldest brother has to have his fun, and I think that maybe that dress was a bad idea after all. It shows off all her fleshy curves, which I love. Which all Talbot men love. "C'est une nana. Une fille chaude!"

I groan and wait for it, for him to ask what she sees in me. He's going to razz me about her, all in good-natured fun. My dad stops him, also aware of where this conversation's about to head. "Arrête!"

That stops Frank, for now, but I know that he'll only come at me later and rib me even more, especially since Dad butted in and stuck up for me, the baby brother. Sure, Frank's going to do it playfully and not mean-spirited, but I'm still not looking forward to it. I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. I walk into the kitchen and reach for the bottle of wine still on the counter. I have a feeling that both Charlotte and I are going to need this.