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.