Stuart didn’t stop pulling me until we reached a door, which turned out to lead to a bathroom with a glass shower stall.
“Here,” he said, pressing me in. “Shower. Now. Warm water.”
The door slammed and I heard him run off. I stripped off what I was wearing immediately, stumbling as I reached for the shower knob. My clothes were frighteningly heavy, full of water and snow and mud.
I stayed in there a long time, slumped against the wall, filling the little room with steam. The water changed temperature once or twice, probably because Stuart was also taking a shower somewhere else in the house.
I turned off the water only when it started to go cold. When I emerged into the thick steam, I saw that my clothes were gone. Someone had extracted them from the bathroom without my noticing. In their place were two large towels, a pair of sweatpants, a sweatshirt, socks, and slippers. The clothes were for a guy, except for the socks and slippers. The socks were thick and pink, and the slippers were white fluffy booties, very worn.
I grabbed for the nearest item, which was a sweatshirt, and held it up to my naked self, even though I was clearly alone in the bathroom now. Someone had come in. Someone had been lurking around, removing my clothes and replacing them with new, dry ones. Had Stuart let himself in while I was showering? Had he seen me in my natural state? Did I even care at this point?
I dressed quickly, putting on every single item that had been left for me. I opened the door a crack and peered out. The kitchen appeared empty. I opened the door wider, and suddenly a woman popped out of nowhere. She was mom-aged, with curly blonde hair that looked like it had been fried by using a home coloring kit. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of two hugging koalas in Santa hats. The only thing I really cared about, though, was the fact that she was holding out a steaming mug.
“You poor thing!” she said. She was really loud, one of those people you can easily hear across entire parking lots. “Stuart’s upstairs. I’m his mom.”
I accepted the mug. It could have been a cup of hot poison, but I would have drunk it anyway.
“Poor thing,” she said again. “Don’t you worry. We’ll get you warm again. Sorry I couldn’t find anything to fit you better. Those are Stuart’s, and the only clean ones I could find in the laundry. I put your clothes in the washer, and your shoes and coat are drying on the heater. If you need to call anyone, you just go right ahead. Don’t worry if it’s long distance.”
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.”
What really caught my eye, though, was what was sitting on top of the piano. It was much smaller, much less technically complex than ours, but it was a Flobie Santa Village nonetheless, framed with a little barrier of garland.
“You must know what these are,” Stuart said, coming down the stairs with a massive load of blankets and pillows, which he dumped on the sofa.
I did, of course. They had five pieces—the Merry Men Café, the gumdrop shop, Festive Frank’s Supply Store, the Elfateria, and the ice-cream parlor.
“I guess you guys have more of these than we do,” he said.
“We have fifty-six pieces.”
He whistled in appreciation, and reached over to switch on the power. Unlike us, they didn’t have a fancy system for switching all the houses on at once. He had to turn the dimmer dial on each one, clicking it to life.
“My mom thinks they’re worth something,” he said. “She treats them like they’re the precious.”
“They all think that,” I said sympathetically.
I looked the pieces over with an expert eye. I don’t usually advertise the fact, but I actually know a lot about the Flobie Santa Village, for obvious reasons. I could hold my own at any dealer’s show.
“Well,” I said, pointing at the Merry Men Café, “this one is kind of worth something. See how it’s brick, with green around the windows? This is a first-generation piece. In the second year, they made the windowsills black.”
I picked it up carefully and checked the bottom.
“It’s not a numbered piece,” I said, examining the base. “But still . . . any first-generation piece with a noticeable difference is good. And they retired the Merry Men Café five years ago, so that makes it worth a bit more. This would go for about four hundred dollars, except that it looks like your chimney was broken off and glued back on.”
“Oh, yeah. My sister did that.”
“You have a sister?”
“Rachel,” Stuart said. “She’s five. Don’t worry. You’ll meet her. And that was kind of amazing.”
“I don’t think amazing is the right word for that. Maybe sad.”
He switched all the houses back off.
“Who plays the piano?” I asked.
“Me. It’s my talent. I guess we all have one.”
Stuart made a kind of ridiculous face, which made me laugh.
“You shouldn’t dismiss it,” I said. “Schools love people who have musical skills.”
God, I sounded so . . . well, so like one of those people who do things only because they think it will make colleges like them. I was shocked when I realized that was a Noah quote. I had never thought of it as being so obnoxious before.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m just tired.”
He waved this away, as if it required no explanation or apology.
“So do mothers,” he said. “And neighbors. I’m sort of the performing monkey of the subdivision. Luckily, I also like to play, so it works out. So . . . the sheets and pillows are for you, and . . . ”
“I’m fine,” I said. “This is great. It’s really nice of you to let me stay.”
“Like I said, it’s no problem.”
He turned to go but stopped halfway up the stairs.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry if I was kind of a dick earlier, when we were walking. It was just . . . ”
“Walking in the storm,” I said. “I know. It was cold; we were grouchy. Don’t worry about it. I’m sorry, too. And thanks.”
He looked like he was about to say something else but simply nodded and started back up the stairs. I heard him reach the top, then back down a few. He peered through the top rails.
“Merry Christmas,” he added, before disappearing.
This is when it really hit me. My eyes filled up. I missed my family. I missed Noah. I missed home. These people had done all they could, but they weren’t my family. Stuart wasn’t my boyfriend. I lay there for a long time, twisting on the sofa, listening to a dog snoring somewhere upstairs (I think it was the dog), watching two hours burn away on the very loud ticky-ticky clock.
I simply couldn’t stand it.
My phone was in my coat pocket, so I went searching for where my clothes had been stashed. I found them in the laundry room. The coat had been hung up over a heating vent. Apparently, my phone hadn’t liked being completely submerged in cold water. The screen was blank. No wonder I hadn’t heard from him.
There was a phone on the kitchen counter. I quietly crept out and took it from the cradle and dialed Noah’s number. It rang four times before he answered. He sounded very confused when he answered. His voice was tired and deep.
“It’s me,” I whispered.
“Lee?” he croaked. “What time is it?”