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“How?”

“How?”

“Yes, how?”

Now my mother and Rachel are not pretending to do anything else. They are listening intently, their ears and eyes aimed toward me.

“Well, I have missed him far more than I ever realized I would. When he left, I thought I wasn’t in love with him anymore, but I didn’t realize just how much I did still love him. I do still love him. The minute he left, I felt the hole in my life that he filled. I couldn’t have done that without missing him, without losing him.”

“One might argue that you can get that kind of perspective from a long weekend away. You got anything else?”

I want to prove to her that I know what I’m doing. “I mean, I don’t know if it’s anything to talk about here,” I say.

“Oh, please, Lauren. Let’s hear it.”

I’m exasperated. “Fine. Fine. I can see now, now that he is gone, and I have real worries that he might be with someone else, I mean, I think he is with someone else. I know he is. And I’m jealous. At first, I got seethingly jealous. I realized that I had stopped seeing him as someone who, you know, was attractive, I guess. I was taking him for granted in that way. And now that I know that he is dating, it’s very clear to me what I had when I had it.”

“So what you’re saying is that you forgot your husband was desirable, and now that you can see another woman desiring him, you remember?”

“Sure,” I say. “You can say that.”

“Do you have cocktail parties?”

“Grandma, what are you talking about?” Rachel says, finally interjecting. I know my grandmother loves me. I know she wants what’s best for me. I know she has very specific ideas of what that is. So while I do feel defensive, I don’t entirely feel attacked.

“I’m asking her a serious question. Lauren, do you have cocktail parties?”

“No.”

“Well, if you did, and you invited some young women, and you left your husband’s arm for a minute, you’d notice that he’d end up talking to a number of very pretty young ladies, who would be glad to take him off your hands. And you’d go home to have the best sex of your life.” She puts up her hand to wave us off before we ever start. “Excuse me for being vulgar. We’re all ladies here.”

“That’s what worked for you, Grandma,” I say, pushing the image of my late grandfather flirting with young women and then having sex with my grandmother out of my mind. “Don’t you respect that something else might work for me?”

My grandmother considers me. My mom looks at me, impressed. Rachel is staring at us, desperate to see what happens next. My grandmother grabs my hand. “Make no mistake, I respect you. But this is stupid. Marriage is about commitment. It’s about loyalty. It’s not about happiness. Happiness is secondary. And ultimately, marriage is about children.” She gives me a knowing look. “If you had a baby, no matter how unhappy you were together, you’d have stayed together. Children bind you. They connect you. That’s what marriage is about.”

Everyone just sort of looks at her. Not saying anything. She can see that no one is going to agree with her. So she eats a cookie and wipes the crumbs off her fingers.

“But you know, you kids these days. You do what you do. I can’t live your life for you. All I can do is love you.”

That’s as much of a victory as anyone gets from Lois Spencer. I’ll take it.

“You’re sure you still love me?” I ask, teasing. I have always, always, always already known the answer to that one.

She smiles at me and kisses my cheek. “Yes, I most certainly do. And I admire your spirit. Always have.”

I blush. I love my grandmother so much. She’s so cranky and such a know-it-all, but she loves me, and that love may be fierce and opinionated. But it is love.

“One thing,” she says. “And this goes for all of you, actually.”

“You’ve got our attention, Mom,” my mother says.

“I’m old. And maybe I’m a traditionalist. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“We know, Grandma,” Rachel says.

“What I’m saying is, I can try to respect the way you do things, but don’t forget that the old way works, too.”

“What do you mean?” I ask her.

“I mean, if you had hosted a cocktail party, and you had left him to his own devices, and you had flirted with other men and he’d seen it, or he had flirted with other women and you’d seen it, if you had spent a few weekends apart from each other sometimes, given each other some space now and again, maybe you wouldn’t need a whole year apart now. That’s all I’m saying.”

The doorbell rings, and it ends the conversation. In mere moments, Charlie will be walking through the door with the mysterious Natalie. But long after my grandmother and I are done talking, her words stay in my mind. She might very well be right.

• • •

Natalie is gorgeous. She’s not gorgeous in a hot, sultry way. Or even a skinny, supermodel sort of way. She’s gorgeous in that way where she just looks healthy and happy, with a beautiful smile, in a pretty dress. She looks like she works out, eats well, and knows what clothes look good on her. Her laugh is bright and loud. She listens to you; she really looks at you when you’re speaking. And she’s thoughtful and well mannered, judging from the poinsettia she gives my mother. I know she had sex with my little brother in the bathroom of an airplane, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the person I see in front of me. The person in front of me brought Rocky Road fudge to Christmas.

“I made it this morning,” she says.

“Is it sugar-free, sweetheart?” my grandmother says, and Natalie is understandably confused.

“Oh, no, I’m sorry,” she says. “I . . . didn’t know that that was . . .”

“It’s fine,” my mom says. “My mother is being absurd.”

“It’s not absurd to want to ward off any further cancer,” my grandmother says. “But thank you so much, dear, for bringing it. We can give it to the dog.”

Everyone stares at one another; even Charlie is at a loss for words. My mom doesn’t even have a dog.

“I was joking!” Grandma says. “You all are so thick it’s farcical. Natalie, thank you for bringing the fudge. Sorry that this family can’t take a joke.”

When Grandma turns her head, Charlie mouths “Sorry” to Natalie. It’s sweet. I think he may be trying to impress her. I’ve never seen Charlie try to impress anyone.

“It’s so nice to meet you all,” Natalie says.

“Come,” my mom says. “Let’s put the presents down by the tree. Can I get you two anything? Charlie, I know you probably want a beer. Natalie, I have some mulled wine?”

“Oh.” Natalie shakes her head casually. “Water is fine.”

Eventually, we all sit down by the tree.

“So Natalie, tell us about yourself,” Rachel says.

And Natalie, kind, sweet, naive Natalie, tries to answer, but Charlie steps in.

“That’s such an annoying question, Rachel. What does that mean?”

“Sorry,” Rachel says, shrugging defensively, as if she’s been falsely accused of a heinous crime. “I’ll try to be more specific next time.”

The doorbell rings again, and my mother stands up to get it. She comes back in with Bill by her side.

“Merry Christmas!” Bill announces to the room. He has gifts in his hands, and he puts them down at the tree. Everyone gets up and hugs. Mom gets him a beer.

The small talk begins. People start asking one another questions. None of them is interesting. I learn that Natalie works in television casting. She’s from Idaho. In her spare time, she likes to pickle things. When she asks me if I’m married, Charlie interrupts.

“Awkward topic,” he says, immediately sipping his beer. The entire family hears, and each one of them laughs. Every one of the sons of bitches laughs. And then I laugh, too. Because it’s funny, isn’t it? And when things are funny, it means they are no longer only sad.

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