“But . . . what did Andrew say?” Benny asks. “About your feelings?”
“Not much, actually.” I frown. “It wasn’t exactly awkward, but it wasn’t like he blew out a big relieved breath and told me he’s always felt the same, either.”
My brain seems to be calming incrementally the longer I’m here and not bolting awake on the plane. It’s a relief to let these things out in the open, but embarrassment sends a shiver through me. “Ugh. Actually, now that I think about it, it was a little awkward.”
“Andrew is a laid-back dude,” Benny reminds me. “Hard to rattle.”
True, but . . . “He didn’t say much.”
“He’s an American with an Aussie soul,” he says, laughing. “He tends to chew on things. Doesn’t overreact in the moment.”
I pull out a kitchen chair and sit down at the table. Benny does the same. “Maybe, but even if he never mentions it again, it’s okay.” I give him a resolved nod. “If I’m going to do this vacation over and over, I might as well just put everything out there at least once.”
“You don’t necessarily know that you’re going to do this over and over,” Benny reasons.
I’ve been thinking about this myself. “I’ve almost made it through two whole days.”
He reaches for a high five, but I leave him hanging, before tapping a single finger to the middle of his palm.
“Oi,” he protests.
Down the hallway, a commotion erupts when Kyle and Mom are caught under the mistletoe, which has apparently been transferred somewhere in the living room. Benny and I take a beat to grin at the sound of my mother laughing hysterically as Kyle plants one on her.
But back to business: “Tomorrow is December twenty-second,” I say. “Day three.”
“Isn’t that good?”
“Well, I’m thinking there might be a pattern here.” I tick off on my fingers: “The first time, I was sent back to the plane on the first night. The second time, I only made it to the second morning. There’s a really good chance I’ll make it to the third day—tomorrow—but then have to start all over again.” Seriously, could anything sound more terrible? Having to live in a time loop over and over, and each time you add just one new day at the end?
“I’m not sure that’s the only possibility,” Benny says, and takes my hands in his. “You always hold back so much. Maybe it’s not about making the right choices exactly, but making the right choices because you’re finally being you. Maybe that’s what you needed.”
“Or maybe it has nothing to do with me? I don’t know,” I tell him honestly. “I’m just tired of being so careful all the time.”
He leans back with a bright smile, pointing at me. “Exactly.”
• • •
With these words echoing in my thoughts, I follow Benny back into the living room, where the twins are directing the tree decoration. Kyle is mixing new drinks for whoever wants them, Aaron is on the couch in a fitted tracksuit, Dad is on his stomach under the tree, futzing with the stand, and Theo approaches, handing me a tumbler with a clear, sparkling liquid—very little ice—and a slice of lime. His expression is tentative and guilty, like he feels the wedge between us but obviously has no idea what’s causing it.
I haven’t given myself a second to mourn the change in our relationship, and how I know that even if everyone else has the luxury of ignorance, I don’t. Our mistake—and Theo’s reaction the next day—would have created a fracture in this weird, wonderful group. There’s no question about that now.
Friends our whole lives, and Theo couldn’t put on a brave face over his denied boner for a single morning? This group survived the awkwardness of my parents’ divorce, so I trust that it can handle something infinitely less dramatic than that, but I never want to take these friendships for granted.
I bend, smelling the drink.
“It’s just sparkling water,” he says, mildly offended.
“Wanna hang later?”
I take a sip. “Hang where?”
“Downstairs? Miles and I were talking about playing some games after dinner.”
That sounds decidedly more wholesome than I was expecting. “Board or video?”
I can tell he’s getting annoyed. “Whichever gets you to play. I’ve barely seen you since you got here.”
Are we really only grounded in such childhood habits? In order to spend time together, do we have to find a game to play? It feels so obvious.
Before I can answer, Aaron speaks up from where he’s now squeezing in between Lisa and Mom hanging ornaments. “Interesting choice here.” He’s definitely been working out because he winces as he tries to hang an ornament and finally just . . . weakly tosses it in the direction of his target, hoping it hooks on the landing. “Were they all out of normal trees?”
“It’s the one Mae wanted,” Andrew says from out of sight on the other side of the pine. “I like it.”
My chest fills with warm, glowing embers.
Mom comes up behind me, putting her arms around my waist and her chin on my shoulder. “I agree with Andrew.”
She hums happily, and at the sound of her voice, my stomach drops to my feet with a daughter’s instinctive uneasiness: somehow, in the past hour, I managed to keep from pondering how I’ll tell my mother that I quit my job, that I did it impulsively, and that I have no idea what I’m doing next.
It doesn’t matter, I remind myself. None of this is going to stick.
She kisses me, saying, “Love you, Noodle,” against my cheek.
I’ll tell her later. If and when I have to.
Despite the jokes about this wacky, knobby tree, I can tell from their expressions that everyone sort of digs it. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation plays on the TV in the background, and while we watch Clark Griswold attempt to bring his mammoth tree inside, we do our best to fill this tiny one with lights, and ornaments, and the popcorn garland the twins and Mom spent the evening making. By the time we’re done decorating, the room is bursting with joy. It’s nearly impossible to see any bit of actual tree underneath all the everything, but it is, oddly, perfect.
However, it takes almost a half hour to get a reasonably acceptable group photo in front of it. With this many people, of course it’s expected there will be a few closed eyes, or a handful of awkward expressions. If only we were that lucky. Lisa sets up a tripod but can’t get the timer right. In two photos Zachary is picking his nose, in one he’s trying to feed the treasure to Miso. We catch Miles midsneeze; Mom can’t get her Rudolph earrings to flash in sync with the camera. Theo is looking at his phone in one, and checking to see if his zipper is down in the next. (It was.) For the next, Miso jumps in front of the camera. Then Miso jumps on Kennedy and it takes a little while to calm her down. Ricky’s kissing Lisa in one and can’t manage a casual smile in the others. The more we point it out, the worse it gets.
I remind myself that change is also not crying out “But—tradition!” when Theo impatiently steps in for Lisa and resets the tripod with his phone.
Good news: now we’re all in frame. Bad news: Kyle’s highlighter is so on point and in focus that he looks like a disco ball.
“Fuck it,” he says just as the oven timer goes off for dinner. “Good enough.”
• • •
After we’ve stuffed ourselves, we scatter around the living room, falling into a comfortable quiet.
The living room is a majestic place—I mean, it is massive—with vaulted log ceilings and old wood floors covered in wide woven rugs. Along one long wall, the fire crackles and snaps, heating the room to just below too warm. It’s wood from town and nothing smells like it. I want to find a candle of this, incense, room spray. I want every living room in every house I live in for the rest of time to smell like the Hollis cabin does on December evenings.
The hearth is expansive; when we were about seven, and our chore was sweeping out the fireplace at the end of the holiday, Theo and I could almost stand up inside it. The flames actually roar to life. Even once they mellow into a rumbling, crackling simmer, the blaze still feels like a living, breathing creature in here with us.
A plate of cookies sits on the coffee table. Mom and Dad occupy opposite sides of the love seat, reading their respective books. Benny, Kyle, and Aaron are doing a puzzle on the floor with Kennedy while Zachary sits on Benny’s back and pretends he’s a motorcycle. Christmas music plays quietly in the background, and Lisa futzes around, adjusting the lights, poking the fire, fetching throw blankets for us. Ricky is on a call in the kitchen, and Theo slumps on the couch, scrolling through his phone.
Seeing him sparks a memory in me: this night, the first time around, I was sitting next to him and we spent the evening going down various Instagram rabbit holes together, totally oblivious to other people around us. Which was such a teenage-y thing to do, now that I think about it. Why didn’t we hang with the others, and how often were we like that? Is that why Andrew thought that Theo and I . . . ?
Maybe if I had spent this evening just enjoying the ritual and the sheer bliss that comes from being in a room full of people I adore, things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.
I shuffle over to the tree, sliding beneath it and lying on my back so I can look up through the gnarled branches. It’s a kaleidoscope of color and texture: the smooth light bulbs, the prickly pine needles. Ornaments of glass, and silk, and spiky metallic stars. A little wooden drummer Theo gave Ricky nearly twenty years ago. Laminated paper ornaments of our handprints from preschool, handmade ceramic blobs that were supposed to be pigs, or cows, or dogs. Nothing matches; there’s no theme. But there is so much love in this tree, so much history.
Beside me, a shadow blocks the heat and light of the fire, before sliding beneath the tree. I turn my head, coming eye to twinkling eye with Andrew.