“If you bring this same energy to building snow creatures this morning,” Aaron says, letting the meat platter pass him by, “it could be either very good or very bad for your chances of winning.” He’s still in his pajamas, and I feel like I should warn him about the wardrobe malfunction he’ll experience in a few hours, but I’m not sure there’s a way to sanely explain how I know that.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask instead.
“I think what he’s saying,” Kyle says, taking the platter from his husband, “is that your vibe this year feels a little . . .”
“Unpredictable,” Dad finishes, carefully.
“He means ‘nuts,’ ” Miles corrects.
“That is not what I meant, actually.”
Kennedy smashes her pancakes with a fork. “What kind of nuts?”
Miles looks up from his phone. “The crazy kind.”
Zachary stands up on his chair. “I don’t like walnuts.”
“Miles,” Mom chides.
“It’s Christmas. Be nice to your sister,” she says.
Kyle wrestles Zachary into his seat. “When I was a backup dancer for Janet Jackson,” he continues, “we called this sort of mood ‘frizzly.’ ”
Andrew meets my eyes as if to say Please note Janet Jackson backup dancer mention, number one.
“‘Frizzly’ is a good description for how I’m feeling.” I don’t add that even though I’m the one whose vibe is unpredictable, everyone but Aaron has taken twice as much food as they usually do, too.
Kyle hands the empty platter to Theo, who complains that he has to go refill it.
“Mae.” I look up to see Theo standing back from the table, giving me the boy chin lift to indicate that I should come with him. To help him open the oven? To hold the platter while he fills it?
Instead, I gesture how busy I am, thwack a giant dollop of jam on my blintzes, mumble, “Why the hell not?” and follow with an enormous spoonful of applesauce.
But with this masterpiece in front of me, it is easy to ignore the gaping stares around the table.
“Honey,” Mom says gently, “are you sure you want to eat all that?”
I never argue with my mother, but since none of this matters anyway—
“My eyes say yes,” I tell her. “My stomach says probably not. But these are the best blintzes I’ll have all year, and who knows when I’ll get them again?” I look at Benny and wink. “Well, except me. For sure I’ll get them again.” I nosedive my fork, spearing a bite of food.
Benny gives me a gentle warning look. “Take it easy, kiddo. Why don’t you keep the condiments moving?”
With a frown, I hand them to Andrew, who gamely smothers his own breakfast.
“Mae,” Kennedy says from the far end of the table, “if you eat all of that, you will throw up.”
“I ate four chocolate chip pancakes once and threw up in Papa’s car,” Zachary says.
Kennedy closes her eyes. “It smelled bad for a long time.”
“Like the subway,” Zachary adds enthusiastically.
“Kennedy, Zachary,” Aaron begins, “no vomit talk at the table.”
“That’s right,” Ricky says, helpfully redirecting. “Let’s talk about building. Everyone know what they’re making this year?”
Andrew leans in, whispering in my ear. “I was thinking we could do a panda.”
I shake my head and turn my face to his. We’re only a few inches apart. He has a tiny dot of applesauce just below his lip. In my head, I lick it off, and a voice inside me purrs, Just do it. He won’t remember anyway.
“We’re going to build a snow monkey,” I tell him. “Her name is going to be Thea, and we’re going to win.”
• • •
Andrew bends, carefully sculpting Thea’s face. All around us, everyone works in focused silence. Not a snowball in sight.
“So, we never really talked about this stuff, but you’re still in Berkeley, right? Not back in LA?”
I look over at him, surprised by the question. I mean, I’m not surprised that he asked it—it’s an obvious thing to talk about with someone you only see a few times a year. What surprises me is how Real Life Mae feels like someone who existed a long, long time ago. I am now Cabin Mae. Time Loop Utah Mae. Apparently she spends all her time with Cabin Andrew. For all I know, I might never go back home again. If this time jump keeps happening, I might never leave Utah, and the real world will never know I ever left.
Exhaling slowly, I say, “Yeah, LA wasn’t really working.” In truth, LA didn’t work because I shouldn’t have taken the job to begin with. I was fresh out of college and it was a graphic designer job at a tiny startup that could barely pay me a living wage in one of the most expensive and least accessible cities in the country. The shame of moving back in with my mother—and her new husband—was immediately outweighed by the relief of not having to use a credit card to pay my bills. But two years later, I feel less money-smart and more failure-to-launch.
“But life is good?”
“I mean,” I say, “I don’t have to pay rent, and I get to hang out with Miles whenever he’ll have me. But I also sleep in my childhood twin bed and know what it sounds like when my mother and her new husband have sex, so . . . define ‘good.’ ”
He winces deeply, groaning, “Why?”
“Listen, if I suffer, you suffer.”
“How’s work, then?”
I pack a bit more snow onto Thea’s abdomen. “It’s okay.”
“Easy,” he says, and his deep voice vibrates down my spine, “don’t get overexcited on me.”
This makes me laugh. “Sorry. It’s just that when I took the job, I thought I’d be doing more of the fun stuff and less of the soul-sucking computer stuff.”
“I thought you were doing something with kids?”
I shrug, oddly detached. “The program didn’t turn out exactly how I expected.”
An understatement if I’ve ever made one. When I moved home, I applied for a job at a Berkeley-based nonprofit whose goal is to bring free, innovative programs to disadvantaged and low-income kids. Having double majored in graphic arts (Mom told me to chase my dreams) and finance (Dad told me to be practical), I proposed building free afternoon programs in downtown Berkeley where kids could learn graphic art and design. In a perfect world, I’d teach the classes, and the kids would build their résumés and earn money for college by offering low-cost graphic design services to local businesses.
“Your boss didn’t go for your plan?” he asks, and uses his thumb to carefully swipe away a line of loose snow.
“Oh, she loved the idea,” I tell him. “We spent over a year mapping out how it could work, determining what funds would need to be raised and how to raise them, working out the licensing, and debating how to staff the site.”
“Right, okay, I remember that bit.”
“And she did. Staff the site, that is. This past summer she hired a friend of hers to teach the course.”
He lets out a low, sympathetic groan. “Wait, so after all that setup, you’re not even running it?”
I shake my head. “Neda—my boss—figured with my accounting degree, it would be better for ‘the team’ if I managed the books.”
“You’re doing the accounting?”
“I do some of the website stuff, too, but yeah. The accounting takes up most of my time.” I crouch near Thea’s legs and pack in a bit more snow at her haunches. “I’ve never even met one of the students, because the way we—or I should say I—carefully worded the licensing, we protect the kids by not having adults in the classroom who aren’t part of the curriculum. I love what we do, I just don’t love my part in it.”
“This may be overstepping, but what if you quit? The great thing about being at home is you have a safety net if you need it.”
He isn’t the first person to suggest it. My closest friend from college, Mira, has been trying to convince me to leave this job for months now. I’m notoriously terrible at jumping without a parachute, so I face the interminable chicken-and-egg problem: if I found another job, I could quit, but finding another job means admitting that I’m going to quit. The entire loop is paralyzing.
“Eh,” I say, eloquently.
Andrew frowns sympathetically. “That sucks, Maisie. I’m sorry.”
It does, but my attention is suddenly drawn to what’s happening elsewhere. Or, rather, to what’s not happening. Everyone is still so focused, so silent. Andrew and I are the only two people talking. I’m not seeing any of the open-mouthed laughs or hearing any of the excited screams of the snowball fight. I can tell how hard we’re all working on our projects, but we’re doing it because that’s what we do. That’s the routine. But no one—not even Ricky—is relishing it.
The snowball fight was spontaneous, it was hilarious. It made everyone laugh and feel connected. I shouldn’t have ever tried to stop it.
“This isn’t right,” I say.
Andrew looks at me, and then out at our families. “What isn’t right?”
“They’re all moving like cyborgs. What are we even doing this for?”
“Because it’s tradition,” Andrew says, like it’s obvious— and it is—but how many of us really care anymore? He follows my attention to the other groups, working with grim determination.
I stand, grinning over at him, before bending to scoop up a big ball of snow. Packing it tight in my palms, I scan my eyes across the potential victims. “The question is who deserves this.”
Without hesitation, Andrew bends, packing his own snowball. “Theo.”
“Maybe your dad.”
“Definitely my dad,” I agree.