“Val!” Sandra squeals as she comes in the door, nearly falling over as she runs to me in her snow-crusted high heels.
“Careful!” Angie cries out, but Sandra just wobbles her way over to me, collapsing beside me on the couch in a fit of drunken giggles. She manages to drape her arms around me and starts swaying us back and forth.
“I’ve missed you soooo much.”
I pat her arms which are covered in some sort of shimmery lotion that sticks to me. “I missed you too. Last time you were in New York you didn’t even call me,” I point out.
“I know, I’m so sorry,” she says, burying her face in my hair and turning into dead weight. I think she’s fallen asleep for a second but suddenly she perks right up, staring at me with glassy eyes. “But I only had a few days and I had meetings the whole time. I know you understand.”
I do understand. Even though she’s got a supporting role on a crime TV show as one of the main character’s girlfriends, she’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal every day, which means she’s traveling all over the world for meetings. Most of the time those meetings are just networking in bars and restaurants, but I totally get that her awkward younger sister wouldn’t be allowed.
“Don’t take it personally,” Angie says to me. “She’s come to Chicago twice and didn’t see me either.”
“Which is why we’re going to Ireland,” Sandra says, pointing at her. “In, like, four days. You’ll be so sick of me, I promise.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Angie says, smiling as she sips her wine.
“Why aren’t you coming again?” Sandra asks as she elbows me in the side.
“Ow, Jesus, those are weapons, Sandra.” I swear she’s gotten even skinnier now but that’s what Hollywood does to you. That or my mother.
“Seriously, you should come,” she goes on, leaning forward to pluck the bottle of wine off the coffee table.
“I can’t,” I tell her.
“Actually, the reason you couldn’t before is because Cole didn’t want you to. Isn’t that right?” Angie asks.
I sigh and take the wine from Sandra and pour myself another glass before she has a chance to chug it straight from the bottle. “It doesn’t matter.”
The truth is, Cole had invited me to his parents’ estate on Martha’s Vineyard for Christmas and New Year’s, and I had been extremely excited to go. He comes from a big, massively wealthy family. Now, my parents are well-off but his are old money, the kind you only read about in like The Great Gatsby.
Cole also said if I went to Ireland instead, he’d miss me too much and that I’d fall in love with some Irishman. And he pointed out how badly his family wanted to meet me.
So naturally I had to turn my sisters down.
Which I’m now regretting.
I mean, on one hand, there’s the magic of Ireland, or the other where I’m woken up by Brielle’s cat farting in my face every day.
“But you can work from anywhere, right?” Sandra says, snatching the wine bottle back. “Like, you don’t really have an office.”
I wince as she proceeds to drink from the bottle. That’s all hers now. I don’t know where she’s been.
“We do have an office,” I point out. “You just don’t have to go. You can work from home if you want. Of course, now I don’t really have a home so I’ll probably start going to the office after all. Maybe they’ll let me sleep under the desk.”
“Jeez, you youngins are so hip these days with your open concept, show up if you want to, offices,” Angie comments. “Is that the future of journalism?”
I wish I had some comeback to that but she’s kind of right. Though, at least she’s recognising what I do as journalism for once.
See, I went to school at Columbia for journalism, and after navigating the very stressful freelance waters for a few years and hunting ceaselessly for something full-time and dependable, I finally got a job as the arts and entertainment writer for the online news site, Upward, shortly after I met Cole.
It’s pretty much my dream job. The pay isn’t the greatest but I do get health benefits, and it’s fun and exciting and I feel like I’m finally doing something with my life. Like I’m someone important, someone who stands out, someone my parents can be proud of. Someone I can be proud of.
Of course, I’m still freelancing on the side because I’m always needing the extra cash but at least it’s something I love and I can pay the bills.
A sharp snoring sound cuts into my thoughts and I look over to see Angie with her head back in her chair, fast asleep. When she’s out, she’s out.
Sandra snickers. “Man, she can’t handle her wine anymore.”
“To be fair, we had at least a bottle each,” I point out. “And she’s been chasing Tabby around all day.”
She sighs and stares at me from under her heavy false lashes, looking both drunk and sincere. “I’m really sorry I didn’t call you last time I was in New York.”
“No, it’s not. I’m sorry that I don’t get to see you or Angie much anymore. Only when we’re here for Christmas or birthdays or whatever. That’s why I wanted you to come to Ireland. It should be a sisters’ trip. The Stephens sisters take on the Irish. I mean, it’s our grandmother’s homeland after all and you still look like you’d fit right in with the country.” She picks up a long strand of my hair, dyed dark red, and tugs at it. “Just come. I’ll pay for everything.”
I give her a steady look. “You are not paying for anything. I’ve saved up enough as it is, and anyway, I have to work. Right after New Year’s is when everything starts up again. In fact, I’m supposed to turn in an article tomorrow and the day after that.”
She squints as she studies me, leaning in close until I smell her booze breath, and pulls harder at my hair. “I can tell you want to come. Don’t lie about it.”
“I’m not lying,” I tell her, prying her fingers off my hair. “I want to come. I just can’t.”
She shakes her head. “That’s not it. You just can’t be spontaneous.”
“I can be spontaneous,” I practically yell.
“No you can’t. You’re always trying to follow the straight and narrow. You’re too afraid.”
“I am not afraid,” I tell her, feeling the wine fuel my defensiveness. “How am I afraid?”
“You worry too much about doing the wrong thing,” she says. “You worry too much about what people think. Especially what Mom thinks. You work harder than anyone I know, yes even harder than Angie, and you’re harder on yourself than you should be. You just need to … let go. Throw caution to the wind for once and live a little.”
I open my mouth but she raises her finger to shut me up. “And before you tell me that you live in New York and throw all sorts of caution to the wind and that you and Cole were wild, no. That boy was not wild. He was a total sleezeball slimebucket, the kind that knows he’s got the world at his fingertips, the type that pretended to work for everything he has when in fact it was all bought for already. Val, when I heard you dumped his ass, I couldn’t have been more proud of you. I think it was the biggest bravest thing you’ve ever done.”
“Technically he’s the one who broke off the engagement,” I mumble. And seriously, if breaking up with Cole was the bravest thing I’ve ever done, I’ve got to reevaluate my life.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “If you were spineless you would have stayed with him, especially since it meant losing your home. But you kicked him to the curb. And I think, just by doing that, you’re opening yourself up to a world of opportunities … including coming to Ireland.”
“I’m going to bed, not Ireland,” I tell her, not wanting to talk about it anymore. I get to my feet unsteadily and hold my hand out to help Sandra up but she waves me away.
“I’m going to hang out with Angie for a bit,” she says, sipping her wine. “Maybe draw a mustache on her.”
I glance at Angie who is snoring with her mouth open and drooling.
“Okay, but remember Santa is still coming tonight and that might put you on his shit list,” I tell her.
“Oh honey, I’ve been on his shit list for years,” she says, slurring her words in a way that makes me think she’s going to spend the night on the couch. “Goodnight.”
“Night,” I say, pausing to admire the sight of my sisters and the gorgeous Christmas tree in the background, both happy and heart-warmed to be at home with family and insanely scared at the same time.
Because even though I don’t want to believe it or think about it, what Sandra said unnerved me a little, like it exposed a hidden nerve until it was raw and beating.
Have I been too afraid?
Do I really care that much what other people think? I mean, I know I do, I can’t help it. But I didn’t think it was holding me back in life.
And what exactly is all of this holding me back from?
Christmas blazes on in a mix of nostalgia, good cheer, and total frustration.
Let’s face it, unless you’ve been blessed with one of those perfectly functioning families that never fight or have complications, Christmas can be a major fucking mess. Everyone is striving to be kind and nice and loving and giving, but that can only go on for so long. Sooner or later the masks slip and the tongue-lashings begin.
This year, my family made it until Christmas dinner when my mother had a little too much wine and my father was a little too critical of the turkey and Tabby decided cranberry sauce made pretty watercolor art when applied to her brand new dress she’d only unwrapped that morning.
Then the claws came out. My mother let it slip that I should have tried harder with Cole. I knew she was disappointed that it didn’t work out with him, not because she felt bad for me but because she thought Cole would be my ticket to a better, more respectable life. Naturally, it made me cry (the excess alcohol over the last twenty-four hours didn’t help either), which is something I usually do when I’m frustrated, and, well, I can’t help but be broken-hearted at the same time.