“So, I know how much you were looking forward to our own quiet Christmas,” Colin starts when Ally comes in after dark from people watching at the Public Gardens. She’s been trying to find some inspiration for her next project, even though it’s already been too cold for it. On today’s hunt for suspects, she only saw a trio of girls in Catholic school uniforms waiting for the bus and an old woman pushing a stroller with a blanket thrown over it. And now her hopes for the 25th seem like they’re looking to get dashed as well.
“No. What? No!” she says, continuously unwinding the longest scarf from around her neck.
At the stove, Colin is making something heavy with garlic, moving the spatula with intent. Ally notices he’s looking down more at the pan than at her. “Well, Daisy called and...”
“Oh Daisy called!” She toys with her boots, trying to untie the knots with numb fingers. “Your best friend Daisy.”
Colin shrugs, and Ally knows they’re both bored and home during the day, but the dynamic is still incredibly bizarre. Plus Ally is still slightly resentful herself that she’s needed to start teaching kid’s art classes and hosting after school birthday parties where second graders paint a unicorn to hang on their wall after the management company raised their rent. Again. It’s been better than marketing or waitressing, and obviously than panicking about how she’s going to pay her bills, but part of her still misses the summer she was unemployed and doing whatever she felt like at any moment. “What did she want? And how did we get dragged into it?”
“Well, you know how Eddie’s parents were supposed to be taking the whole family on a cruise for the holidays?”
“Don’t tell me you agreed for us to join them,” Ally gripes, thinking of seasickness and formal dinners at the captain’s table, and the cost of a room even if it didn’t come with a window to the outside world.
“What kind of monster do you think I am?” He reaches for the pepper shaker shaped like a film canister they picked up at the flea market in October. “But Eddie’s mother broke her ankle up at the ski lodge last night.”
“Oh my God, is she alright?” Ally pauses, half in her sweater she was trying to pull over her head, feeling like a monster.
“Well, they think she might need surgery. But there’s no way she could fly down to Florida to meet the boat or host right now even if she's only in a cast until January.”
“And Daisy’s house was having the floors redone while they were supposed to be gone,” Ally remembers, from some conversation that made her wonder how she as the older sister was listening to discussion of contractors and types of wood grain in her not even rent controlled apartment.
“So not that your mom is happy that Mrs. Vogel’s hurt...”
“She’s just really excited to get to be the Grandma who saved Christmas.” Ally sighs. Part of her was a little sad that she wasn’t going to get to see Bailey for the holiday. Her niece can blow kisses now and eat avocados and likes to sit on Ally’s lap and suck her thumb while she twirls her aunt’s hair. But Bailey doesn’t know that it’s Christmas, and Daisy assured her that Ally and Colin could come over and have the whole experience of her tearing open gifts as soon as they were back from the islands. Which, after hosting both of her parents for Thanksgiving as well as Eddie’s family, and spending the last eight months with a baby, she said she was owed a vacation.
And yet there still was the allure of Ally’s own plans. “What about watching Home Alone in our underwear? And having cinnamon buns in bed for breakfast?”
“We can do that when we get back.” He turns off the burner, and starts serving whatever green thing he’s made into a bowl. He’s been considering culinary school for the past few months, another piece in the her working more hours puzzle. “As a reward. I mean we will probably need it.” Colin smirks at her and he always goes with the flow in a way she wishes she could understand.
“You’re not mad?”
“Come sit,” he says, the kitchen and table looking lit up and warm. She will never admit it out loud, but she was so happy his lease was up first and they decided to keep her apartment instead of his. “It’s not as good as if I could get fresh basil, but imagine having this in the summer if it helps.”
“What is it?”
“Pesto chicken tortellini,” he tells her as he places it in front of her and she loves him, in his ancient Red Sox t-shirt and boxer shorts and house slippers. “I felt like my Italian repertoire needed work.”
He’s wrong. The pasta is delicious when she takes a bite of it and she moans a little because it’s good and it’ll make him laugh. “You made this? Like, in this kitchen, you turned ingredients into one of the best things I’ve ever eaten?”
“I’ll put this one into a more regular rotation, I guess,” Colin says, kissing her on the forehead and smoothing down her hair that she’s sure has gone staticky in the dry winter air before sitting down.
She nods and tells him, “I liked stories about moms getting hurt more when they were fictional and we were using them to get girls out of your apartment.”
“Simpler times.” He reaches over and squeezes her free hand.
The air smells of cold and salt when Ally cracks the window of their rental car. They’d only had a bright red Chevy Spark left when she went to pick it up, this comically tiny vehicle that looks like it should be housing clowns. But it was large enough for all of Bailey’s gifts, a case of Sam Adams, six bottles of cheap wine, and the nine varieties of Christmas desserts Colin had tried his hands at this week.
“Thank you for coming with me,” she says, as he turns the volume up on The Pogues.
“It’s not Christmas if it’s not with you.”
It still feels strange when he says things like that, when she realizes he loves her back and isn’t going anywhere. No matter how greasy her hair may get or how many times her mother asks him what his plans for life are or how much herself she is. Colin will be there with commentary about The Real Housewives of New York, a cream cheese based dip, and maybe wearing some of her moisturizing eye patches. He’s her number twenty, and she’s his number they still don’t really talk about that, but he makes her feel like number one, as cheesy as that is.
Colin sings about the bells ringing out for Christmas Day and she’s thinking about getting a dog with him and building a life where one day they’ll reminisce about this moment, driving along by the water on one of the last days of the year just as the sun begins to set.
“Ally and Colin just pulled up!” Daisy calls loudly into her mother’s house, leaning in to kiss Ally and whisper in her ear, “She’s been insufferable even for her.”
“So happy to be here!” Ally yells back, even though her mother is going to comment on her insincerity.
Which she does as soon as she walks out of the living room in her ivory cashmere sweater. “No one insisted that you come, Ally, if you didn’t want to.”
“Of course we wanted to come,” she answers, readjusting her hair and turning back to the stairs. “Colin was just saying how nice it’ll be to be with the baby for her first Christmas.”
He’s still out at the car, trying to balance what she thinks is the music activity table, with both of their duffle bags. “And you, Ava, obviously,” he yells.
Ava smiles with her closed mouth and like she knows they’re both full of bullshit. “Well come in, come in, you’re letting all the heat out.” She ushers at them with her hands until a timer of some sort beckons from the kitchen. “Oh, it’s been a mad house, excuse me.”
“She’s cooking?” Ally asks, putting down the box of cannolis from Mike’s Pastry that Daisy demands every time they visit from the city.
“No, of course not. But it must be time to put something from the caterer into the oven. Don’t ask her how difficult it was to get this all together so last minute because she’ll definitely tell you.”
“Where’s Bailey?” Colin asks on trip number two with the wine and the excessively large stuffed brontosaurus he’d found online.
“I can’t believe you bought all of this stuff! I told you how many times on the phone, she doesn’t need anything, she can’t even walk yet!”
“Well, we did what we did, so where’s our baby?”
Daisy pulls on her necklace, Bailey’s birthstone as a push present. “She’s asleep in the pack and play in the living room. Eddie’s hiding out in there claiming he’s finishing up some work but I think he’s just texting about sports with the guys from his firm.”
Colin nods, and heads back to the car, hopefully for the last time, while the sisters head for the stairs. “When are his parents getting here?” Ally asks, carrying their bags up to her bedroom.
“They’ll come for lunch tomorrow. After we do gifts in the morning.”
“How’s his mom?”
“We’re just hoping she doesn’t develop a pill addiction.” Daisy fingers the overly floral comforter. “But I haven’t even told you. Dad is considering dropping by tomorrow too.”
“I thought he was banned from the premises?” She starts putting her belongings into the top drawer of the dresser, just in case her mother assumes she wouldn’t take the time to.
“He pulled the she’s also my granddaughter card.”
“No wonder Mom is in such great spirits.”
Daisy sits on the bed. “How’s work been?”
“The kids have been wild for weeks about Christmas. I had to supervise so many crappy craft gifts for them to give to their parents.”
“No, not your job. The art.”
Ally shrugs. “About as good as things are going here.”
“Thank you for coming. Honestly.” Daisy looks at her earnestly, and it’s been hard for Ally sometimes, having her sister live a life she has absolutely no frame of reference for. She feels more often than not that she never really knows what to do to be helpful.
“You owe me. Because her asking when Colin and I are going to stop embarrassing her by having no careers or engagement date on the calendar for two days was not how I wanted to spend the holidays.”
“She’ll pepper in how she thought I would have lost more of the baby weight by now for variety.”
“You look great,” Ally tells her sister, and then “You do!” when Daisy shoots her a glare. “And we will take the baby for the day, whenever. I know you were looking forward to a break.”
“How’s December 26th sound for you?”
Ally laughs, even though she knows Daisy is only sort of kidding.
Bailey’s been attached to Colin since she woke up, whimpering in her footie elf pajamas, although she thinks that may be Colin’s choice more than Bailey’s. He’s currently holding her on his lap at the dinner table, where she’s working diligently on turning a Melba toast to mush in her mouth.
Colin had worn a dark hunter green sweater and gotten his hair cut earlier this week and he looks good. It might just be the degree of love she currently has for him, but she honestly feels like she ended up with the hottest guy she’s ever dated. The suspicion is only further cemented when he wipes at Bailey’s spitty chin with his thumb, relocating the crumbs that were stuck there onto his cloth napkin.
“The prime rib was really good, Mom,” Daisy says. “Whatever the rub was was fantastic.”
“It was a little too tough I thought.”
Colin says, “My piece was perfect,” and Ally nods her agreement. Not that she would even say anything if it was bad. They’ve been eating only chicken thighs and beans it feels like for ages.
“Yes, well, maybe I’m more particular than the rest of you are,” Ava answers, her tone implying she thinks they’re all wrong. “I would have preferred to use Jean-Carlo’s for the food, but well...”
“Yes, Mother, we know that there wasn’t time to book Jean-Carlo, how many times do I need to apologize for it?” Daisy snaps a little.
“I didn’t ask you to apologize at all,” Ava plays it off like she’s a victim and has no idea where this could have come from. “In fact, I told you that I was happy to do it.”
“If you’re happy to do something, you don’t complain about it constantly.”
“Who’s complaining? I just said I thought the meat could have been more tender was all.”
“And that you didn’t like the outfit we picked out for the baby or how the cleaning lady is going to have to come twice this month and how you thought you’d have a tan for New Years. Should I continue?”
Eddie reaches over, delicately placing his hand on Daisy’s forearm. “We so appreciate you having us. And my parents appreciate it too. We know how stressful the past few weeks have been.”
Ava nods, placated, but Daisy looks like she might commit a murder. “So you’re just going to let her gaslight me like this?”
Eddie says, “I don’t want to get between you and your mother,” at the same time that Ava is asking them all, “What do you mean by gaslighting?”
“Of course you don’t, Eddie. You never want to get involved with anything.” Daisy pushes back her chair, and scoops Bailey off of Colin’s lap in a way that immediately startles her to tears. “Please let me walk out of the room before you start saying this is my fault too and that I’m a terrible mother.”
Ally can tell from the wobble in her voice that she’s on the cusp of crying as much as her daughter is. Daisy climbs the stairs, and Bailey’s frustration gets drowned out by the thick walls of the house. Ally wants to go after her sister, but knows she’d prefer the space to either fully let go or calm down. Plus Colin looks suddenly out of place without the baby on his lap and maybe that should be Eddie’s job as her husband. But he is just sighing and moving his few remaining peas around on his plate.
“I don’t know why you girls are always so prone to dramatics,” Ava says as she removes the crisp white napkin from her lap and crumples it onto the table. “I just tried to make a nice holiday for all of you, and this is the thanks that I get.”
Ally fights the urge to correct her while Colin says, “Let us clear the table and wash up. You just go have a nightcap by the fire and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“Thank you, Colin,” she says, looking at him like he’s the only sensible one here all of a sudden. Ally almost can’t believe it, even knowing how much her mother loves an after dinner drink and not doing housework. Ava pats Colin’s shoulder on her way towards the living room, and Ally feels her affection towards him soar.
“And Eddie, man, take your wife at least one cannoli, come on.”
Eddie nods, like he needed that specific instruction, heading towards the kitchen.
“You wash, I’ll dry?” Colin suggests. Ally salutes him, a goofy mannerism choice, already thinking of all the ways she wants to thank him.
Daisy had come back down for dessert, and they were all able to sit civilly around the table to watch Bailey have her first taste of whipped cream.
After, Colin had put on his sweats and gloves and the fleece headband he uses to keep his ears warm to go on a run. “I want to go look for the luminaries,” he’d said, and Ally readily let him go.
He usually does at least three miles, even when it’s this cold, which gives her the time to officially wrap his gift. They had promised to do something small this year, but when she’d seen a leather knife roll open on his computer, she felt completely compelled to buy it. She’s already prepared to tell him that it’s an investment. That if she kept track of all the time he gave to her, this would still be a bargain. She runs her fingers over the monogram, the CS in a bold black against the soft leather.
When he comes back inside, the gift already wrapped and placed under the tree, he picks her up and twirls her around like she’s weightless, kisses her with his chilled lips and says, “I just had to do that even before I showered.” He winks and heads for the en suite, the sound of him imitating the little drummer boy just barely coming through as he turns on the water.
Ally had sworn to herself before this trip that she wasn’t going to sleep with him in her childhood bedroom, but that was before he held her niece and rolled up his sleeves to rinse her grandmother’s fine china, and reminded her of how truly lucky she is.
She locks the door and uses her hip to slide her dresser just slightly in front of it, a second line of defense she used to adopt in high school even though most of the rest of the room is unrecognizable. Ally still has no idea where the artwork she had hung went when Ava tore down the wallpaper and decided to redo the carpet.
Colin comes out of the bathroom, his hair still dripping, flannel bottoms hung low on his hips. “How early do you think we have to sit around the tree tomorrow morning?”
“We’ve got time,” Ally says, coming in to run her fingers over his chest. She looks up at him, an invitation.
He gasps, mock scandalized. “While your mother is down the hall? On the eve of baby Jesus’ birthday?”
“You picked a girl who lives on the edge,” Ally says with a glint in her eyes. “And you love it.”
“You’re right, I do. I do love it.” And then he’s kissing her and leading her back towards the bed she already took the seven decorative pillows off of. “But you still have to be quiet.”
She nods, even though there’s a 50/50 chance she’ll be able to pull it off, or maybe a 40/60, when he cups her breast and slots their bodies more perfectly together. Ally sighs and arches up, just slightly, not trying to rush this, but just still certainly enjoying it.
Colin pulls back, gives her this big grin and then leans in to whisper in her ear, “You’re thinking about Gerry Perry, aren’t you?”
She squawks out a laugh he manages to catch almost immediately with his palm over her mouth. He has the most playful eyes and a body a sculptor would love to replicate and he wants nothing more than to make her happy.
When he moves his hand, she tells him, “I’m going to make you come so hard you’ll not only forget his name, but you’ll forget yours too.”
“This is working out perfectly then,” he says, flipping onto his back, and when she goes to straddle him, through the window she can see that it is just beginning to snow.
In the morning there’s just a dusting on the ground, enough to coat the branches of the trees and get caught in the evergreens. Colin is still asleep, one arm thrown over his head as Ally pulls his discarded sweater over her head.
She’d made him move the dresser back last night when she went to pee before bed, so she can escape down the stairs with nearly no sound.
In the living room, Daisy is sitting on the sofa watching the tree while Bailey sucks at her bottle with her eyes closed. “It’s pretty with the lights, right?”
“Yeah,” Ally agrees, tucking her bare legs up into a blanket on the chair that her mother definitely bought for aesthetics instead of comfort. “How you feeling this morning?”
“Like I overreacted. But also like I was right.”
Daisy brushes the baby’s curls back. “I just...I think we were this little once, you know? And if Bailey ever speaks to me the way I speak to Mom, I will literally die.”
“Make sure you have no regrets then,” Ava says, having somehow snuck up without any of her jewelry rattling. “Even though that seems a little over the top, don’t you think?”
“Mom...” Daisy starts, the embarrassment evident on her face.
“No, I know you girls like to think you have it all figured out.” Ava looks calm about the whole thing. “Now if you’ll give me my granddaughter, I’ll put it out of my mind entirely.”
Daisy kisses Bailey’s forehead before passing her over. “I’ll make coffee.”
Ava just nods, walking the baby over to look at the ornaments on the tree. “How have things been with you and Colin?” she asks without looking over at Ally.
It still makes her sit up a little straighter. “Good. Why?” she answers, trying to quickly sort through whether her mother heard them having sex, or can sense that Ally feels like she wants more for both of them than she and Colin currently have, or if she’s going to bring up all the reasons Ally should be doing something differently than she has chosen to.
“You complement each other very well,” is all that Ava says though, instead of claiming to miss Jake Adams. She murmurs to the baby, pointing at her reflection in one of the red baubles. Ally takes this all as a Christmas miracle.
It’s when she gets back home that Ally finally breaks through her creative block.
There probably isn’t a market for the project, but she’ll have a gift for next year sorted for Ava if it comes to that.
The whole family, in the Darling living room, with wrapping paper and empty egg nog glasses all around. Bailey on her grandfather’s lap, Eddie and Daisy curled up together on the sofa, Ava admiring her new designer handbag.
And down in the corner, is Colin with his knife set and the lease to the tiny loft space he’s rented for her to use as a studio for the next six months.
He’d said they had each bought the other the future and made her tear up and kiss him in front of everyone. It was better than cinnamon bun icing and 90s classics and wearing only their underwear. It was better than anything.