- After I Do
So Merry Christmas to me.
• • •
I’ve eaten far too much. Too much ham. Too much bread. Too many spoonfuls of sweet potatoes. When the sugar-free sugar cookies get passed around, I squeeze a few into the nooks and crannies of my stomach, and then I’m ready to pass out.
My mother has had enough glasses of mulled wine to stain her teeth a faint purple. She’s getting a bit snuggly with Bill at the table. My grandmother is on her second piece of pie, sneaking her spoon into the sugar-laden whipped cream when she thinks we aren’t looking. Charlie, meanwhile, appears stoic and sober. Natalie is smiling. Rachel is accepting compliment after compliment on her cookies, with a false modesty rivaled only by Miss Piggy. Charlie stands up.
So here we go, here it is. Oh boy oh boy oh boy.
“So . . .” he starts. “Natalie and I have some news.”
That’s all my mom needs. That’s it. She’s crying. I don’t think she even knows why she’s crying, what she thinks Charlie is going to say, or whether she’s happy or sad.
Rachel looks up at Charlie as if he’s a mental patient and she’s not sure which way he’s going to veer today.
Natalie is still smiling, but it’s starting to buckle at the corners.
“We are going to be having a baby together.”
Waterfalls. My mother’s eyes are like two waterfalls. And not the kind that trickle from a little stream, either. These are the kind that gush, the kind that were I white-water rafting, I would see up ahead and go, “Oh, shit.”
Rachel’s jaw has dropped. Bill isn’t sure which way this is all going. And then my grandmother starts clapping.
She starts clapping! And then she stands up and she walks over to Charlie and Natalie, and she gives them huge, wet kisses on their cheeks, which has to be so very weird for Natalie, and she says, “Finally! Someone’s giving me a great-grandchild!”
Charlie thanks her for being so great about it, but all attention is on Mom.
“Do you two have a plan?” she asks.
“Yep.” Charlie nods. “I’m moving back here to L.A., in with Natalie. We’re raising the baby together. I feel like the luckiest man in the world, Mom. I really do.”
“And what about a job?”
“I have a few interviews lined up next month.”
That’s all she needs to know, I guess. Because the tears that could have been from joy or sadness only a few seconds ago now only make their way to her chin if they can get past her giant smile. She runs to Charlie and hugs him. She holds on to him, clinging to him. She is sloppy in her movements, operating from gut, moving out of emotion. She hugs Natalie.
Natalie stands up, clearly overwhelmed but doing her best, and hugs my mom back, squeezing her tight. “I’m so glad you’re happy,” Natalie says.
“Are you kidding me? I’m going to be a grandmother!”
“It’s a nice club to be in,” Grandma says, and she winks at me. It’s a sweet moment. I have forgotten how special a wink can make you feel.
When the commotion has died down, attention falls to Rachel. “I’M GONNA BE A FUCKING AUNT?” she yells, running toward them and hugging them so hard that she rocks them from side to side.
“Rachel!” Grandma says.
“Sorry, Grams. Sorry.” She turns to Natalie, putting her hands on Natalie’s upper arms. “Natalie, welcome to the Spencer family! We are so, so, so excited to have you!”
When everyone looks at me, I realize that I’m supposed to react, too. “Oh!” I say, “AHHHHHH!” and then hug them both. We all stand there, around them, suffocating them, overwhelming them, wanting to take part in their joy. It’s then that I realize this is really happening. Our lives are changing. One of us is growing up. Everyone thought it would be me. And it’s not. It’s Charlie.
The truth is, it makes me feel like a failure, in some small way. It makes me feel as if I’ve veered off the path, as if I’ve been treading water while Charlie swam the race. But that’s a tiny piece of me. The rest of me can’t believe my baby brother is growing up to be a strong, solid man. The rest of me can’t believe I’m going to have a little baby in my life to shower with presents. The rest of me can’t believe that my grandmother is finally going to get that great-grandchild she’s been asking for, that she has gotten news so great it has silenced her usual judgments.
It’s a good day. And it’s a wonderful Christmas. And I wish Ryan were here to see it. I wish he and I were going home to the same place. I wish we were going to get into bed tonight and gossip about the rest of them, the way we used to. It’s at moments like this that I remember how much a part of all this he was.
The five of us—Rachel, Mom, Grandma, Natalie, and myself—surround Charlie, and maybe he’s looking for an escape. Maybe he needs a breath of fresh air. He looks at Bill, and Bill stands up and puts out his hand. Charlie breaks away from us to shake it.
“Congratulations, young man,” Bill says. “Best decision you’ll ever make.”
Charlie looks down at the floor, ever so briefly, and then he looks Bill in the eye and says, “Thanks.” I think maybe every man wants to get a pat on the back when he shares the news that he’s becoming a father. I’m just glad Bill is here to give it to him.
• • •
“So when are you getting married?” Grandma asks, as Natalie helps Mom and me with the dishes. Rachel, Charlie, and Bill are still at the table. Natalie and I are stacking plates. Grandma and Mom are loading the dishwasher.
“Oh,” my mom says. “Lay off her, Mom. They don’t have to get married just because they are having a baby.”
“Well,” Natalie says, “probably July, actually.”
“July? I thought you said the baby was due in June,” my mom says.
“For the wedding,” Natalie says. “The baby will be born by then. It seems easier than trying to fit into a wedding dress.”
“After the baby is born?” my grandmother asks.
But at the same time, my mother is using the exact same tone and inflection to say, “Wait, you’re getting married?”
“Yeah.” Natalie catches herself. “Wait, did we not say that?”
“You said nothing about a wedding,” I say, as Rachel comes into the kitchen with a few empty serving bowls.
“Whose wedding?” Rachel asks.
“You said you were living together,” my mom says. She says it slowly, approaching the sentence as if it’s a bomb that might detonate at any second.
“We are getting married,” Natalie says. “I’m sorry we didn’t mention that part! Charlie!” she calls out. She’s right to call in the reserves.
Charlie pops in through the door, and we all stare at him. All five of us. His sisters. His mother. His grandmother. His . . . fiancée?
“You’re getting married?” I ask him.
“Yeah,” says Charlie, as if I asked him if he likes chicken. “Of course. We’re having a baby.”
“Finally, someone makes sense in this family!” my grandmother says.
“Mom, will you go into the dining room and keep Bill company?” my mom asks her.
Grandma must be feeling charitable, because she puts down the dish in her hand and walks out.
“Having a baby doesn’t mean you have to get married,” Mom says.
Natalie inches toward Charlie. I think, perhaps, we are no longer doing a very good job of making her feel welcome. My mom notices the shift in her body language.
“I mean, it’s great news,” my mom says. “We’re just surprised is all.”
“How is marrying the mother of my child a surprise?” Charlie asks. Charlie really should learn to leave well enough alone.
“No, you’re right,” my mother says, backing off. This backing off is entirely for Natalie’s benefit. Once Natalie is out of earshot, she’ll say how she really feels. That’s how you know that Natalie isn’t really family just yet. “It shouldn’t have been a surprise. You’re absolutely right.”
“It will be an awesome wedding,” Rachel adds lamely.