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Forgotten a novel, p.11
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       Forgotten: A Novel, p.11

           Catherine McKenzie
 
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  “On Christmas Eve.”

  “I’m really sorry, Dominic.”

  “Thanks. Now, why don’t you clean up while I take a shower?”

  I turn and hang over the edge of the chair, taking in the mess I have wrought. There are streaks of Scotch on the wall and shattered glass on the floor. The kitchen smells like a bar.

  “I have a better idea.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Let’s get drunk.”

  “I’m not sure that’s the best idea.”

  “So? Are you with me or against me?”

  He pauses, but not for long. “Oh, I’m with you.”

  Chapter 10: Silent Night

  I wake up with a start, clutching the Laphroaig bottle to my chest like it’s my childhood dolly. There’s a trail of spittle leading from my mouth to my pillow, and my eyes are so sensitive to light that the small streak of sun that’s seeping through the blind feels like a laser beam.

  I feel like hell. But was it worth it?

  It’s all relative. Dominic and I shared a few laughs when we got to the silly drunk stage, but we were both too caught up in our own dramas to really let go. On the other hand, I now have an excuse to hide under the covers all day.

  Sounds good to me.

  When I wake up again, I still feel disgusting, but other feelings are there too. Hunger mostly, but also sadness. At least, I think that’s why there’s this tight hand around my heart.

  Thanks for that, Craig. I owe you one. And it’s nice to know, in a perverse kind of way, that I can still have my heart broken.

  The first boy to do it was Graham Thorpe. He sat in front of me in math class. I thought he was cute, but I was fifteen and I thought a lot of boys were cute. Then one day, he turned around and asked to borrow my ruler. The way his black hair flopped across his forehead reminded me of Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and he had a crooked smile, which he flashed at me when I handed the ruler over.

  The next day he asked to borrow my eraser. The day after that, a piece of paper. These pretenses to talk to me, to touch my hand as I gave him what he asked for, continued for weeks. I knew he wanted to ask me out, and I couldn’t understand what he was waiting for. Or was I just imagining his interest?

  He finally did it one day after basketball practice. He caught me between the gym and the locker rooms, sweaty, disheveled, embarrassed.

  Did I want to go to the movies with him this weekend? he asked, in the blasé way of teenagers. Yes! I answered back, not quite as I-don’t-give-a-shit as he was.

  We went to the movie—I can’t remember what it was—and as the lights dimmed, he gave me my first real kiss. I still remember the shock of his lips against mine. This was kissing. How had I gone this long without kissing?

  We kissed a lot in the next three months. At recess, at lunch, after school. I don’t remember talking, only kissing. Kissing so much that my mouth took on his taste and my lips felt half bruised. Kissing the way only teenagers can.

  Then he began pulling away, not returning my calls, passing fewer notes. When he finally said the words I’d been dreading, I felt like I was falling. That wretched, pit-of-the-stomach, dream-falling feeling, my body tense, bracing for impact. But I never hit the ground, I just kept falling for what felt like forever. I walked around like that for weeks, feeling like gravity didn’t apply to me anymore.

  And then, one day, it was over. I was okay. I could breathe. I could laugh, even fall in love again. And I did, more than once, and more deeply than I had at fifteen. I’ve even had my heart broken again, but nothing ever hurt that badly.

  Nothing ever does, right?

  I stumble upright and shuffle to the kitchen. After a quick survey of the fridge, I make myself a grilled cheese sandwich and take it, and a large glass of orange juice, back to bed.

  Dominic’s nowhere in sight, though that sound might be him snoring. Or maybe it’s a jackhammer outside?

  I check my phone. Twelve missed calls, all from numbers I don’t recognize. I call into my voice mail with my heart in my throat, but the messages are from journalists looking to do an in-depth interview about my “heartwarming story,” and how I made it “home for the holidays.” I erase them in disgust, mentally cursing Matt for giving them my phone number.

  I pull the covers over my head and hide there for the rest of the day.

  The next morning, Christmas Eve, I find myself at the kitchen table making a list of the things I need to do to start getting my life in order. I’ve spent too much time wallowing and hiding in liquor bottles; it’s time to get some things taken care of.

  My pen scratches against the paper.

  1. Find a new apartment.

  2. Track Sunshine down.

  3. Sue Pedro.

  4. Get in shape. Be strong enough to pin Sophie to the ground if opportunity arises.

  5. Look for my car.

  “Nice list,” Dominic says, reading over my shoulder.

  I turn it over and place my pen on top of it. “You’re a very nosy person, you know that?”

  “Which is why I’m not getting married. Thanks for the reminder.”

  6. Start thinking before speaking.

  “I’m going to let that one lie there.”

  “That’s probably best. Breakfast?”

  “Do you need to ask?”

  Dominic makes us French toast that’s as good as any I’ve ever had. He whistles happily when he’s cooking, but as we trade sections of the paper back and forth, I can tell he’s feeling unsettled. I can’t blame him, really. How else are you supposed to feel on the day you were going to get married? I rack my brain for something to say, something that might make today easier, but nothing comes to mind. Maybe silence is best.

  After breakfast, Dominic tells me that he’s going to take some shots around town. I bundle myself into my new winter coat, don my new hat and boots, and set out on my mission.

  Since most of the tasks on my list seem too big for the day before Christmas, I decide to tackle the one I should’ve done days ago—retrieve my car from the impound lot where it was sent after spending too many weeks at the airport.

  I’ve always had a soft spot for my car, the one my mother gave me for my high school graduation. It’s not the car itself—a white convertible Rabbit that screams 1982—but what it represented. My mother didn’t want me to leave our safe suburb for the wilds of the big city. When I was applying to universities, she always put the brochures for those located in small towns on the top of the pile.

  I didn’t apply to any of those safe-seeming places. The brochures looked pretty, but I wanted a city, the bigger the better. And that’s what I got. My mom hid her disappointment well, but I still knew. It was hard disappointing her on purpose for the first time, but not so hard that I didn’t do it.

  She gave me the car right before we left for my high school graduation ceremony. It was a bright June day, and she handed me the keys and suggested we drive with the top down. I didn’t know what she meant until I noticed the Rabbit sitting in the driveway.

  “Whose car is that?” I asked, my toes tingling with excitement.

  She linked her arm through mine. “It’s yours, my darling.”

  “But, Mom, you can’t afford to give me a car.”

  “Don’t you worry about that.”

  “Are you sure?”

  Her face crinkled under the weight of her smile. “Of course I am. I’m extremely proud of you, Emma. And this way, you can come home on the weekends.”

  I enveloped her in black polyester fabric. “Thank you, Mom. I’ll never forget this.”

  I’ve never replaced it. At first because I couldn’t afford to, and later because it felt like a part of me, a part of us, the unit my mother and I made. So many drives home to see her on weekends. The road trip we took once with no specific destination in mind. Eve
n the last drive home before she died felt less horrible somehow because I was driving in something that came from her love and support for me.

  According to the airport security website, my car was taken to the central impound lot near the river. And that’s where I direct the cab I hail at the bottom of my street. I watch the neighborhoods flash by through the windows. My own is full of neat brown brick buildings and well-manicured trees. Next comes a poorer area, where the brick is darkened by years of grime and there’s not enough space between the houses and sidewalks for trees. Shoes hang from the power lines, and house after house is decked out with Christmas lights. It must be beautiful at night.

  The cab stops at the corner of a street that runs parallel to the river. The bright winter sun glints off the gray water. Clouds of misty vapor hover above the choppy waves. Between the road and the river is a huge lot full of cars, surrounded by a rusty chain-link fence. A long line of people huddled in their winter coats meanders away from the entrance.

  I wrap my scarf around my face. As I walk along the row of dispirited-looking people, I become concerned about the length of the line. It goes on and on; there must be three hundred people waiting to retrieve their cars instead of shopping for last-minute gifts.

  I take my place behind a gruff-looking man in his late forties who’s wearing a black leather coat that’s not warm enough for this weather. He has a red-and-green snake tattoo on the back of his neck. Its menacing face snarls at me with yellow eyes.

  Two more people join the line behind me, jostling for position. One of them bumps into me; I lose my footing and tip toward the snake.

  Its owner turns toward me with anger in his round, ruddy face. “Watch it, lady, will ya?”

  “Sorry.”

  “Pushing won’t getcha there faster.”

  I glare at the young people behind me. “I know. It won’t happen again.”

  “You see, that’s what’s wrong with society today. No patience. You think the Russians waiting in line for toilet paper were using their elbows to get a better place in line?”

  “I have no idea.”

  “Well, they weren’t, I can tell ya. Good people, the Russians. Patient.” He grins, and I notice that he’s missing a couple of teeth. “You ever been to Russia?”

  “No.”

  “Me neither. But I will. I’m saving up, you see.”

  The wistful glint in his eye reminds me of my mother whenever she talked about Africa.

  “That’s great.”

  “Think you’re too good to talk to me, do ya?”

  “What? No. Of course not. I just don’t normally talk to strangers.”

  “Sure enough. No one does these days. That’s another problem with society.”

  I have a feeling I’m going to get the complete list of society’s problems by the time I see the inside of this fence.

  “Do you know why this line’s so long?”

  He leans toward me conspiratorially. “’Twas the night before Christmas.”

  Is this guy completely cracked?

  “Right.”

  “The lot’s closed tomorrow.”

  “I’d imagine.”

  He gives me a look like he’s talking to an idiot. “This is the last day the lot is open this year. And on January second, they auction off the unclaimed cars.”

  “You mean, if you don’t get your car today, then—”

  “You have to buy it if you want it back.”

  “But that’s ridiculous.”

  “I don’t make the rules, lady.”

  “No wonder about the line.”

  He shrugs his broad shoulders. “That’s what I was saying. Took me three hours to get through last year.”

  “Last year?”

  “I get a little careless with my car sometimes.” He extends his hand. “My name’s Bill, by the way.”

  I shake his hand. It feels rough, even through my glove. “Emma.”

  He squints at me. “You sure look familiar.”

  “I have one of those faces.”

  “No, that’s not it. You been on TV recently or something?”

  Oh God. Not again. How do celebrities stand it?

  “Um, well . . .”

  He snaps his fingers. “Got it! You’re that Africa girl, ain’t you?”

  “I guess.”

  “Imagine that. Right here in the line like an ordinary person and everything. That gives me faith, that does.”

  “Why wouldn’t I be in line like everyone else?”

  “Well, after all you’ve been through and everything. Now that I think on it . . .” He gets a determined look on his face and grabs my hand. “Come on.”

  I try to pull my hand away. “What are you doing?”

  “Just trust me.”

  That feels like the last thing I should be doing, but at the same time, I don’t feel scared. Maybe it’s because we’re surrounded by hundreds of people, but all I am is mildly curious as I slip along in Bill’s wake.

  We get to the head of the line and he drops my hand. “Wait here.”

  I catch an angry stare from the woman who’s next in line. Her eyes are red and phlegmy. I turn away and watch Bill as he talks emphatically to the large, muscled man guarding the entrance. The swirling wind keeps me from hearing anything but a few snippets of their conversation. “Africa . . . wrong with society . . . you owe me . . .” These last words are open sesame. The guard grits his teeth and nods slowly, once. Bill lets out a whoop and barrels his way toward me.

  “You’re in.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You don’t have to wait. They’ll let you take your car now.”

  “What? No, Bill, thank you very much for trying to help me, but . . . I can’t, I really can’t.”

  “Sure you can.”

  “No, it wouldn’t be right.”

  “Of course it ain’t right, but a lot of things ain’t been right for you lately, seems to me. You should take this.”

  “Why do you care? You don’t even know me.”

  The muscled man crosses his arms. “Offer expires in ten seconds, Bill, owe or no owe.”

  “What’s it going to be?” Bill asks me.

  I can feel the hard stare of some very cold people boring into the back of my head, but what the hell. I do deserve a break.

  I mouth “Sorry” to the line and give Bill a quick peck on the cheek.

  “Geez, lady, what was that for?”

  “Merry Christmas.”

  Turns out that getting in the front door was only the half of it, and it’s another hour of lines and paperwork before I’m sitting behind the wheel. And then, of course, my car won’t start because the battery’s dead, and the tires are flat. But they have the apparatus to deal with this! I am not the first person to have this problem! Many of the people waiting outside, braving the cold, cursing me for jumping the line (though they do not know my name, I hope) will face this too! For once, my problems aren’t unusual. They don’t make me stand out.

  After yet another hour, I’m putting the car in gear and driving through the open chain-link gates. The line seems no smaller than when I left it hours ago. I slow as I pass Bill and give him a friendly wave. He nods, barely pausing in his conversation with the jostling couple who were standing behind me.

  The roads are full of Christmas traffic. A city full of last-minute shoppers. I skip through the stations on the radio. I didn’t know there were that many different recorded versions of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Seems like just the one would do.

  I get back to the apartment as the sun is setting. A quiet sunset, one of inches, forgoing spectacle. It doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve, but it is. My first Christmas without my mother. Will I be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, or will I have to lump it on my own?

&nbs
p; I’m guessing the safe bet is on the latter.

  I hear sounds coming from the kitchen, and I feel a moment of fright. Then I realize it must be Dominic. At least I hope it is. But why is he here on Christmas Eve?

  “Dominic?”

  “I’m in the kitchen.”

  The kitchen smells wonderfully of browning pork and onions and . . .

  “Do I smell thyme?”

  Dominic’s pushing dough into a bright-red pie plate. His jeans and black sweater are covered with flour fingerprints. “No, it’s sage.”

  “Whatcha making?”

  “Tourtière.”

  “Did you say torture?”

  “No, tourtière. It’s a French word for meat pie.”

  “I thought you were Irish, Irish, Irish.”

  He smiles. “My grandmother was French Canadian.”

  “Well, whatever it is, it smells wonderful.”

  “It’ll taste better with a nice salad.”

  “Okay, okay, I can take a hint.”

  I get the salad stuff out of the fridge and start putting together a mixed green salad with cut-up cherry tomatoes.

  “How come you’re here? I mean, it’s Christmas Eve, right? You didn’t want to be with your family?” I ask.

  Dominic shoots me a look but answers me anyway.

  “I’ll be going to Mahoney Central tomorrow.”

  “But how come you’re not there tonight?” I persist, kind of annoying myself really, but old habits die hard.

  He hesitates. “I thought . . . well, with everything that’s going on, I didn’t think I could take more than one night there, to be honest.”

  “Big family?”

  “You could say that. I’m the youngest of twelve.”

  “You’re making that up, right?”

  “Nope.”

  “Your parents really had twelve children?”

  “The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for.”

  “I’ll say.”

  Dominic slips the pie into the oven, and I make a vinaigrette out of oil, balsamic vinegar, grain mustard, shredded basil, and lots of freshly ground salt and pepper.

  “Hold off dressing that,” Dominic says. “The pie will take about forty-five minutes.”

 
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