They were all excited to see me, particularly Hada. I heard her yell, “Deb!” from the kitchen before running down the hall to hug me, her three-year-old mouth open wide. It made me so happy I laughed, throwing back my head as I lifted her off the ground. Kathryn hugged me next, then Chad, then Kathryn's dad. Kathryn’s mom offered me Jeremiah, the smaller of the six-month-old twins and I held his head in one hand, his diaper plush butt in the other, blowing raspberries on his tummy as he giggled gutturally. I took selfies of Jeremiah, Hada and me while Kathryn breastfed Silas, the barrel chested introvert twin with the high pitched squeal. We talked about men's body types in the 60’s, how Silas was shaped like a young Marlon Brando, and Kathryn repeated how glad she was I was there.
At first, it was just parents, children, grandparents, and me, until the first couple arrived. And then another couple with their three kids, and another with their four. We were gathering at Chad and Kathryn’s to read through a version of The Christmas Carol shortened and divided into sections meant to be read aloud at parties, a yearly tradition in Kathryn's family. I had never read the novel was surprised by Dickens quick wit, by the accuracy of my favorite Christmas movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol and by my excitement to show off my best Miss Piggy impression. I was equally surprised when, a few minutes before the reading began, a single man without a wedding ring, a member of Chad and Kathryn’s church, joined the party. As the story began he held the smallest of the toddlers with an ease that made my heart ache. I wondered if he had children, or wanted them, and would he have them with me? These thoughts were so sudden and terrifying I couldn't speak to him for the rest of the evening.
Three months earlier I had become convinced my dear friend Crissy was setting me up with someone. In October she sent me an email that read, "Have you ever seen a movie called The Room? It is hilarious and amazing. I am thinking of hosting a small viewing party and I think you would LOVE it. What do you say?” I agreed immediately, knowing that anything done with Crissy, her husband Merrick, and her married roommates Bill and Heidi tended to include excess amounts of alcohol, easy discussion of taboo topics, and laughing until I almost peed myself. We went back and forth about dates, and I had the inkling this evening was somehow being planned around my schedule. The day of the get-together I texted Crissy, asking her if we were still on and if I knew any of the other guests. She responded, "A few people are coming around 7 for nibbles, and then movie viewing around 8 or 8:30. And I don’t think so, but you will enjoy them for sure!” Her limited details were, in my mind, purposefully withholding. Of course, she didn’t want me to be nervous. Of course, she didn’t want this to be a big deal. Of course she wanted me to feel natural. I arrived 30 minutes late and was still the first person there. Soon after one of Crissy's coworkers and her French husband showed up. And then another couple, coworkers of Merricks. After a third couple ascended the stairs to the apartment Crissy declared everyone present; time to start the film. I read these emails and texts now as completely normal, as simple communications from one friend to another, but there, at yet another party composed of couples, I felt in her vagueness only pity. We went on to have an incredibly fun night. I (as predicted) laughed until I peed, and Crissy kept telling me how glad she was I had come. A part of me knew she meant it only as I am glad you came, only as I love you, but another part of me couldn't help seeing myself as they all must have seen me: Deb at parties, Deb driving home, Deb in bed, Deb out in the world, alone.
After we finished the reading I wrestled with Simeon, a wild, earthy six-year-old and chatted with Micah, Simeon’s eight-year-old big sister, who told me about her recent birthday party. I taught them how to balance on my hands like Olympic Rings, and they would try, eventually falling forward into my arms where I would get a brief smell of their hair, sweet and dirty. At one point Simeon chewed tortilla chips open-mouthed right in my face, his nose touching mine, while I held his body close to my chest which was so full of love I thought it would burst. After most of the other couples and children had left, Hada and I built cities with old wooden blocks (every structure was the door to a church or a hospital) while Kathryn and Chad talked with Heather and Scott, also friends of mine and the remaining (currently childless) couple. Hada eventually went to bed and Kathryn brought one of the twins downstairs to eat. When he was done, Kathyn gave him to Heather, who held him close to her chest while he stared ahead sleepily. I crossed my arms in front of my chest, holding myself.
Earlier in the evening while driving to Jamaica Plain, I had thought my throat was closing. That morning the hives spotting the backs of my hands and knees, my calves and shins, had still not gone away despite taking two Zyrtec the previous night. Before crawling into bed that night I had spent 30 minutes staring at my calendar thinking about the splinter in my foot that took me and my roommate a half hour to extract, the lidocaine injected into my mouth so the cavities could be filled, the mushrooms on the pizza, the two consecutive nights in the homes of cat owners, wondering what could’ve caused such a reaction. The backs of my knees had started itching two nights ago after the first cat interaction. That must be it, I thought, trying to let it be. But the hives never sank back into my skin, and in the car, I became convinced my throat was shutting itself, and that I would soon lose consciousness, crash my best friend's car, and die. I felt an expanding sphere at the back of my throat. I will ask Kathryn for a Benadryl when I get there, I said out loud. I gratefully parked the car, climbed out, locked it. And when I opened the front door forgot my throat in Hada’s excitement.
They were discussing legalistic Christians who don’t believe in drinking, notably both Scott and Chad’s respective mothers. The topic changed from one thing to another, and someone (me probably) made a sex joke, which, as they tend to, turned into a series of sex jokes. I looked around me, everyone's face tired and alight and realized suddenly these were all people who had sex, frequently, with their spouse, with the person seated so close to them. These were not just jokes but realities: they held and touched each other at night and in the early mornings, a human beacon, helping the other keep bearings, having or trying to have children a solid reality, infertility a fear long past for one, long future for the other.
As it neared 11:30 Heather said "I need to get him home," referring of course to her husband, not to the baby she had been holding for the past hour. I had watched her hold him wondering what she thought of his little chubby body, wondering if she would turn to Scott, a question in her eyes to which she already knew the answer: not tomorrow but someday. God willing.
We all left soon after, hugging in our puffy coats, wishing each other Happy Holidays. I got in the car, backed out of the driveway and started down Centre Street. I brought a hand to my blissfully open throat and a small sob escaped, a quiet moan. As I stopped at a red light I hoped the other drivers couldn’t see me cry and if they could, hoped they would pray I wouldn’t die alone in a borrowed car.