This was my introduction to Stuart’s mom (“Call me Debbie”). I’d known her for all of twenty seconds, and already she had seen my underwear and was offering me her son’s clothes. She immediately planted me at the kitchen table and started pulling out endless Saran-wrapped plates from the refrigerator.
“We had Christmas Eve dinner while Stuart was at work, but I made plenty! Plenty! Eat up!”
There was a lot of food: turkey and mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, the works. She brought all of it out and insisted on making me a big plateful, with a hot cup of chicken-dumpling soup on the side. By this point, I was hungry—maybe hungrier than I’d ever been in my life.
Stuart reappeared in the doorway. Like me, he was dressed for warmth. He was wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a stretched-out cable sweater. I don’t know . . . maybe it was the sense of gratitude, my general happiness at being alive, the absence of a bag on his head . . . but he was kind of good-looking. And any of my former annoyance with him was gone.
“You’ll set Julie up for the night?” she asked. “Make sure to turn off the tree so it doesn’t keep her awake.”
“I’m sorry . . . ” I said. It was only now that I realized that I had just crashed into their lives on Christmas.
“Don’t you apologize! I’m glad you had the sense to come here! We’ll take care of you. Make sure she has enough blankets, Stuart.”
“There will be blankets,” he assured her.
“She needs one now. Look. She’s freezing. So do you. Sit here.”
She hustled into the living room. Stuart raised his eyebrows as if to say, This may go on for a while. She returned with two fleece throws. I was wrapped in a deep blue one. She swaddled me in it, like I was a baby, to the point where it was kind of hard to move my arms.
“You need more hot chocolate,” she said. “Or tea? We have all kinds.”
“I’ve got it, Mom,” Stuart said.
“More soup? Eat the soup. That’s homemade, and chicken soup is like natural penicillin. After the chill you’ve both had—”
“I’ve got it, Mom.”
Debbie took my half-empty soup cup, refilled it to the top, and put it in the microwave.
“Make sure she knows where everything is, Stuart. If you want anything during the night, you just get it. You make yourself at home. You’re one of ours now, Julie.”
I appreciated the sentiment, but I thought that was a strange way of putting it.
Stuart and I spent several quiet moments contentedly stuffing our faces once Debbie was gone. Except, I got the feeling that she wasn’t really gone—I never heard her walk away. I think Stuart felt this, too, because he kept turning around.
“This soup really is amazing,” I said, because that sounded like a good remark to have overheard. “I’ve never had anything like it. It’s the dumplings . . . ”
“You’re probably not Jewish, that’s why,” he said, getting up and shutting the accordion kitchen door. “Those are matzo balls.”
Stuart held up a finger, indicating I should wait. He rattled the door a little, and there was a series of rapid, creaking steps, like someone trying to hurry quietly up the stairs.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought we had company. Must have been mice. Yeah, my mom is, so technically, yes. But she has this thing about Christmas. I think she does it to fit in. She goes kind of overboard, though.”
The kitchen had been completely converted for the season. The hand towels, the toaster cover, the fridge magnets, the curtains, the tablecloth, the centerpiece . . . the more I looked, the more Christmasy it got.
“Did you note the fake electric holly on the way in?” Stuart asked. “Our house is never going to be on the cover of Southern Jew at this rate.”
“So, why . . . ”
“Because it’s what people do,” he said, picking up another piece of turkey, folding it, and shoving it in his mouth. “Especially around here. There isn’t exactly what you would call a thriving Jewish community. My Hebrew-school class was just me and one other girl.”
Something passed over his face, a rapid wave of forehead wrinkling and mouth twitching that I suspected was a suppressed laugh.
“Just because there’s only two of us doesn’t mean we have to pair-bond,” he said. “It’s not like someone says, ‘Okay—you two Jews! Dance!’ No, she’s not my girlfriend.”
“Sorry,” I said quickly. This was the second time I had mentioned his girlfriend—trying to show off my observational skill—and again, he just deflected. That was it. No more mentioning it. He obviously didn’t want to talk about her. Which was a little odd . . . he seemed like the type who would happily rattle on about his girlfriend for about seven hours. He just gave that vibe.
“It’s okay.” He reached for more turkey, looking like he had already forgotten how dumb I could be sometimes. “I tend to think that people like having us around. Like we add something to the neighborhood. We have a playground, an efficient recycling setup, and two Jewish families.”
“But isn’t it weird?” I asked, picking up the snowman salt shaker. “All these Christmas decorations?”
“Maybe. But it’s just a big holiday, you know? It all feels so fake that it seems okay. My mom just likes to celebrate anything, really. Our relatives in other places think it’s strange that we have a tree, but trees are nice. It’s not like a tree is religious.”
“True,” I said. “What does your dad think?”
“No idea. He doesn’t live here.”
Stuart didn’t seem very troubled by this fact. He beat another little rhythm on the table to brush the subject away, and stood.
“I’ll get you set up for the night,” he said. “Be right back.”
I got up to have a look around. There were two Christmas trees: a tiny one in the picture window, and a massive one—easily eight feet high—in the corner. It was practically bent over from the weight of all the handmade ornaments, the multiple strings of lights, and what must have been ten boxes of silver tinsel.
There was a piano in the living room that was loaded down with opened pages of music, some with comments written on the pages in pen. I don’t play any instruments, so all music looks complicated to me—but this looked even more complicated than normal. Someone here knew what they were doing. This wasn’t just “piano as furniture.”