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“Yeah,” Charlie says. “How are you doing?”

“I’m OK,” I say, nodding my head the way I do. It’s still uncomfortable to be the one in crisis. Charlie is normally in some sort of dramatic trouble. I’m supposed to listen to his problems. Not the other way around.

“OK,” he says. He seems content to let that be it. He may feel just as awkward being supportive as I do feeling supported.

“So how was the flight?” I ask.

Charlie opens the fridge and grabs another beer for himself. He doesn’t really look at me directly. “Fine,” he says, as he twists off the cap and snaps it directly into the trash. Sometimes I worry that he is too good at flinging bottle caps where he wants them to go. It’s something that requires practice, and I worry about how often he practices.

“You’re hiding something,” I say. I pull the ladle out of the punch bowl and put some punch in a clear plastic cup. I’m pretty sure my mom shopped for this party at Party City.

“No, nothing. The flight was good. Did you see the streamers in the dining room?”

“Are you kidding me?” I say, defeated. “Now I owe Rachel five bucks.” I take a sip of the punch. It’s strong. It’s absolutely dreadful. “Oh, my God, you actually spiked this.”

“Of course I did. That’s what I told you.” Charlie pushes his way through the doors of the kitchen and heads back into the living room. I take another sip, and it burns going down. But for some reason, I keep the drink in my hand, as a line of defense against the litany of questions I’m in for. And then I barge through the doors myself.

It begins.

• • •

“So where is Ryan?” asks my mom’s best friend, Tina. I make up something about work.

Then my second cousin Martin chimes in with “How are things with you and Ryan?” I tell him they are fine.

There don’t seem to be many of my friends here. No one invited Mila, for instance. It’s just my mom’s friends and almost our entire family. I spend a half hour deflecting birthday wishes and questions about Ryan’s whereabouts as if they are bullets. But I know that Grandma Lois is the real person to fear. She has the most frightening question to ask me. If all of these well-wishers are evil mushrooms and turtles I must jump over and stomp on, Grandma is King Koopa, waiting for me at the end. What I find comforting about this analogy is that Rachel and Charlie are my Luigis. They will have to go through all of this on their own sometime in the future. Maybe they’ll do it differently from how I have, but most likely, the end will be the same.

Regardless, I figure I’d better get it all over with, so I go looking for Grandma. When I find her, she is sitting on the sofa by herself. I take an extra big gulp of punch before I sit down next to her. It stings on the way down.

“Hi, Grandma,” I say, hugging her. She can barely lift herself off the couch, so I do most of the work. It seems to me, when you get older, your body goes one of two ways: pleasantly plump or spritely skinny. My grandmother went pleasantly plump. Her face is round and gentle. Her eyes still twinkle. If it sounds like I’m describing Santa Claus, that’s because there is a bit of a resemblance. Her hair is wild and bright white. Her belly, however, does not shake when she laughs like a bowl full of jelly. And I think that’s an important distinction.

I sit down a bit too close to her, and the couch starts to sink in the middle. We’re both gravitating toward the center. But it seems rude to move over.

“Honey, move over,” Grandma says to me. “You’re dragging me down off the couch.”

“Oh, sorry, Grandma,” I say, as I slide to the middle. “How are you?”

“Well, the cancer’s coming back, but other than that, I’m fine.” My grandmother always has cancer. I don’t actually know what this means. She’s never really clear on it. She just says she has cancer, and then, when you ask her about it, she won’t pin down what type of cancer or whether she’s actually been diagnosed. It started after my grandfather died six years ago. At first, we would get up in arms every time she said it, but now we just let it go. It’s a weird family quirk that I don’t even notice until there’s another witness to it. A few Thanksgivings ago, we invited Ryan’s friend Shawn to join us, and as we all got into the car on the way home, Shawn said, “Your grandmother has cancer? Is she OK?” And I realized that it probably seemed absurd to him that she had announced she had cancer again and no one batted an eyelash. I get the distinct feeling she is hoping for cancer so that she can be with my grandfather.

“And things are good at home? With Uncle Fletcher?” I ask.

“Things are fine. I’m boring, Lauren. Stop asking about me. What I want to know is—” Here it comes. The moment I have been dreading. Here it comes. “When are you and that handsome grandson-in-law of mine going to give me a great-grandkid?”

“Well, you know how it is, Gram,” I say, sipping the punch to buy myself some time.

“No, honey, I don’t know how it is. You’re thirty years old. You don’t have all day.”

“I know,” I say.

“I’m not trying to be a pain. I just think, you know, I’m not going to be around forever, and I’d like to meet the bundle of joy before I go.”

Whether she has cancer or not, my grandmother is eighty-seven. She may not be around for many more years. It suddenly occurs to me that I am the only way she will ever meet a great-grandchild. Uncle Fletcher doesn’t have any kids. Rachel isn’t going to have one anytime soon. Charlie? Please. And because my marriage is a colossal failure, because I’m so disconnected from my own husband that I don’t even know where he lives, she may never get that chance. Me. I’m the reason she won’t meet the next generation. I could give that to her, if only I’d been good at being married, if only I’d succeeded.

“Well,” I say, drinking the last of the punch in my cup, “I’ll talk to Ryan.”

“You know, your grandfather said he wasn’t ready for kids.”

“Yeah?” I say, relieved that she is talking about anything other than me. “And how did that go?”

“What could he do?” my grandmother says. “It was time to have kids.”

“Just that simple, huh?”

“Yep.” Grandma pats my knee. “Things are a lot simpler than you kids make them out to be. Even your mother. Sometimes, I swear.”

“Mom seems to be doing OK,” I say. I look across the room and see her talking to an older gentleman. He’s tall and handsome in a silver fox sort of way. He’s looking at her as if she has a secret and he wants to know what it is. “That isn’t Bill, is it?”

Grandma squints. “I don’t have my glasses,” she says. “Is it a handsome man?”

“Yeah,” I say. “In an older sort of way.”

“You mean a younger sort of way,” she jokes.

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s what I meant.”

“If he’s looking at her like she’s a hamburger and he’s on a diet, then yes. That’s Bill. I met him earlier today, and he kept staring at your mother like they were teenagers.”

“Oh,” I say. “That’s cute!”

Grandma waves me off. “Your mother is almost sixty years old. She’s no teenager.”

“Do you believe in love, Gram?” Why am I doing this? I’m feeling a bit buzzed, to be honest—that’s probably why I’m doing this.

“Of course I do!” she says. “What do you take me for? Some sort of coldhearted monster?”

“No, I just mean . . .” I look at my mother again. She looks really happy. “Isn’t that great? How in love they seem?”

“It’s farcical,” my grandmother says. “She’s almost eligible for social security benefits.”

“Did you love Grandpa the whole time?” Maybe she didn’t. Maybe I’m just like her. Maybe she’s just like me. Ending up like my Grandma would not be so bad.

“The whole time,” she says. “Every day.” OK, so maybe not.