To read Part 1 of this two-part story, click here.
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, DEC. 24, 1977
His mother’s voice wafted from upstairs, where she was putting her face on.
“Sweetie, could you take the wine glasses out to the drink cart in the living room?”
For the last hour, he’d been scurrying about his boyhood home, helping his mother get ready for her annual Christmas Eve open house. Vacuum the carpet, fluff the couch pillows, organize the wine and liquor bottles in a seductive array. And, oh yeah, when you’re done with that, dash out to Alesci’s to pick up the cold cuts.
He was glad for the task list. Busy-ness was a breakwall against the blackness.
This would be their fifth Christmas without his father. Four years before, surrounded but defiant inside a prison of tubes, lines and beeping machines, he’d succumbed to metastatic cancer at the age of 53, on his younger son’s 20th birthday.
That his absence at the holidays was now routine did not make it easy to bear.
To make the moment harder, this was the first time his brother and sister-in-law were not making the trip back from the Big Apple to keep Mom company on the holiday.
It would be just her and him, in the old brick house with the Tudor trim on a leafy side street in Cleveland’s second-most-elegant suburb.
At the prospect, his psyche teetered on the precipice.
If only the young woman he loved had replied to the 20-times-rewritten note he’d folded carefully and left on her desk at work two days ago, before he’d climbed inside his grimy Gremlin and set off for Ohio. If only she’d called to say one simple, electric word: Yes.
But she hadn’t. She had not, thrusting before his eyes the stark fact that he’d squandered the most glorious lightning bolt of luck ever.
Welcome to the nightmare before Christmas.
He’d always loved everything about the season, the bustle, the shopping, the carols, the crowded church pews, the tingle of football playoffs on the horizon.
As a kid, he’d adored meticulously placing tinsel on their (always real) tree, shifting and re-shifting ornaments to get the color balance just right. As he grew up, the Lake Effect had meant that most of his Christmases had been white, perfecting for testing out that new sled or football or hockey stick on a sparkling Christmas afternoon.
Long ago, to make the festive morning last, he’d cultivated their family tradition of turning gift-opening into a guessing game, with rhyming clues on each package, scavenger hunts with multiple stops in different rooms of the house, misleading packaging.
But no matter how cleverly he might try to elongate the ritual tomorrow, it would still be just two stranded people, feigning jolly, leaning on each other as they tried to ignore swooping demons.
But first, he had to get through this evening of forced conviviality that meant so much to his mom. It was her brave gambit to fend off the emptiness and he should support her.
The doorbell rang. He opened the door. It was First Shirley, his mother’s oldest friend, plumper than ever, wobbly on swollen ankles, thankful for his courtly aid in peeling off her woolen coat. Along with the cloak, she handed him a bottle. Peppermint Schnapps.
“So wonderful to see you, dear girl. You look absolutely fabulous.” His mother, raised just a few miles outside of London, a GI’s war bride, could still put on the plummy British accent for effect.
More rings, more guests – the Wishneks, the Shapiros, the Clemmons, the Brodskys, then finally sweeping in ahead of a trail of Chanel, Second Shirley, his mother’s elegant work colleague, so precise and regal.
Yes, the guests were mostly Jewish, with a smattering of his mother’s black co-workers from the hospital. Their suburb, at whose center sat the grand Conservative Temple on the Heights, had at one time been mostly Jewish. In many of his classes at the high school, goys had been a distinct minority. The High Holy Days and the first day of Passover were days off on the school calendar.
When it came to filling your house with noise and clinking glasses on Christmas Eve – particularly when you were estranged from what little extended family you had in town – Jewish friends came in mighty handy. Where else did they have to be on Dec. 24?
The guests sat in a loose semi-circle in the big living room, which he’d finished painting in his Mom’s chosen pale green in the dark weeks after his father’s death. His dad had been diagnosed with the tumor in his colon just as they’d finally begun the interior renovation for which his mother had lobbied fiercely for years.
He was the youngest in the room by 30 years, easy.
“So, I just loved this card,” his mother was telling her guests. “On the front is a birdcage, and inside it says, now that you have the cage, next year I’ll give you the bird.”
One or two people tittered; one couple looked with mild alarm at the woman who’d brought him into the world.
“I just thought that was so cute.”
Dear God, she doesn’t know what giving the bird means. Kill me now.
“So, Chris has just been writing the most amazing pieces for that paper he works for; there was one that had something to do with … what was it, sweetie?”
“I’m not sure, Mom, which one you mean.”
“Oh, the one about that thing the government did, you know what one I mean.”
Pretty much everything he wrote for a local paper of record had to do with something government did.
So just pick one and get it over with.
So he told them about his series delving into a fight over where to put a new reservoir to supply water to a new nuclear power plant.
Some of his mom’s friends feigned interest up to the point he diligently explained the term “pumped storage.” Others quietly got up to check out the spread of hors d’oeuvres on the dining room table.
“I’m sure that will absolutely be an award-winner.”
His mother loved to brag about him in public, with more panache than accuracy; it was excruciating.
His reservoir tale having completed its work of numbing the room, he got up, walked to the drink cart, purloined a fifth of Jack Daniels, and crept out with it tucked unobtrusively along his left forearm, a highball glass in his right hand.
Must. Flee. Now.
Out through the kitchen, past the breakfast nook he went, until his hand found the knob to the basement door.
Down the wooden steps, he plopped onto to the old couch that had been banished downstairs in the renovation. The basement was not finished; it had none of the knotty pine “rec room” paneling that was the Sixties fashion. He could look up at joists and pipes running along the ceiling, or down to a concrete floor, or across the room to the Ping Pong table that held such complex memories.
His father had been a hyperactive union leader and political activist, who was often on campaign footing. There was always an election to win or a social issue for which to fight. That Ping Pong table had often doubled as campaign central, with the house’s younger son as support staff: folding campaign literature, stuffing and licking envelopes that he’d already run through the old Addressograph machine that now sat gathering dust in a basement corner.
But campaigns were not forever; the table had seen a lot of Ping Pong, too, noisy, sweaty round robins among his dad, his two sons and their friends, punctuated with trash talk and pealing laughter.
The only other place in the house where he felt his dad as equally, eerily present, if also poignantly absent, was the little office on the second floor, where the old man would sit for hours in the evening, pounding out broadsides and strategy memos on his Underwood.
He drained his first glass of Jack and poured another, his left hand still clutching the bottle as he sipped.
He let his thoughts move to another person whose absence cut keenly.
What had made him think she’d reply on his timetable to that folded note he’d left on her desk? What made him think she’d reply at all? But if she didn’t reply, he didn’t know if he could get through the next 24 hours.
His mind riffed through a mental calendar of this now-dying year of living and loving dim-wittedly. It had been a year of tumult both for him and the republic in which he stood.
In January, as the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were founding a company they called Apple, as the Raiders won a Super Bowl and Gary Gilmore his bid to be executed, as “Roots” became a TV sensation and Jimmy Carter did his humble-brag inauguration walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, he and she had taken the first tentative, sweet steps to becoming a couple. “Date” dates such as dinner at the Peke Inn across the bridge in Jersey, a trip to the cineplex to see a rom-com she fancied.
In February, as the East Coast dug out from the Great Blizzard of ’77 and the daily challenge in the newsroom was to find new ways to ask people “Are you cold?”, the two of them shared cozy dinners at her apartment on College Hill, as he delighted to discover this Irish girl made a mean pasta sauce.
In March, as Jay Leno did his first gig on the Tonight Show and Elvis Costello released his first album, he partook of his first dinner at her parents’ house, and survived. He began to learn her idiosyncratic vocabulary. For her “abound” was a multipurpose, omnipresent verb: “Hunger abounds.” “Confusion abounds.” “Yucksy-mosh” designated something unappetizing. “Baa-ooh” indicated consternation, a feeling that whatever was happening was a bit too much. Sometimes “baa-ooh-itude” would “abound.”
In April, as a cultural trifecta was playing out on two coasts – the premiers of both Annie and Annie Hall in New York, plus the first ever West Coast Computer Faire by the Bay – the two of them celebrated winning a journalism prize for a series they’d done together.
In May, as Patty Hearst went to prison and Richard Nixon apologized to David Frost on air, a chill began to descend on his idyll. She grew exasperated. He was “pushing too hard,” ignoring her when she said she “needed some time.”
In June, as casinos were legalized in Atlantic City and John Mitchell went to jail, he flung a set of car keys across her apartment; they weren’t aimed at her, but the anger was scary, still.
In July, the Big Apple suffered a hellish blackout, and so did they.
In August, Elvis Presley died. But for the two of them came a little rebirth of hope. A day trip to the Shore became an overnight stay, once his loyal Gremlin conveniently refused to start. Before crashing at his college roommate’s place, they spent a blissful sunset hour sitting on a jetty in Long Branch, talking deeply about what each of them hoped to become.
In September, the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air and they went back on hiatus. She needed “to see other people.” The Klaxon of doom that sounded in his brain at those words proved accurate: “Other people” included his good pal Jim. He’d drive down to Jim’s place down by the river and see her blue VW parked outside. He’d stare at the car for long minutes, drive back up the hill to his tiny apartment, go inside and throw up.
In early October, as “Love Boat” debuted, Jim took him out for a beer and resigned from the competition. Jim was interested in someone else, someone new. The field was clear. The two guys told her how they’d worked out her fate for her. Incredulous, she told them both to get out of her sight. On Oct. 18, the Yankees won the World Series as Reggie Jackson launched three homers. She was there, in the upper deck. On a date. With someone who wasn’t either of them.
In November, Anwar Sadat went to Israel and he went on a date with another woman. Less than an hour in, he wished he hadn’t. To keep his mind off how he’d blown it, he worked 30 days straight. It didn’t work. He threw up 30 days straight, too.
In December, Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two” debuted on Broadway. And somehow they ended up at the same table during a night out with the gang at the College Hill Tavern (or, as they all called it, the “CHT”), got to talking and ended up recalling why it was they’d liked one another so much in the first place.
Which had lent him the courage to put the note on her desk before he’d left for Cleveland. He typed it on a red Selectric onto one of those little half-sheets of newsprint which were the currency of communication in that newsroom, back in the days when e-mail was still just a geek’s dream.
Hope you have a wonderful Christmas. I’m off to Cleveland now. I know I’ve got no right to ask this and I’ll understand totally if you don’t want to, but … Rachel and Sam are going out to dinner at some fancy restaurant on South Mountain for New Year’s and they asked if you and I wanted to go. They don’t know apparently that we’re not .. well, you know … anymore. And that got me thinking about last New Year’s Eve. And that made we want to tell you that, no matter what’s gone wrong lately and no matter what happens in my life from here on in, last Dec. 31 was hand’s down the best New Year’s Eve of my existence. And I expect it will retain that ranking for a long time. So, even though I know I’ve been a jerk and I know you have every right to scratch me off your list, I wondered whether maybe, somehow you might be willing to spend another New Year’s Eve with me. With chaperones! No pressure, no expectations. Just me asking, humbly, like the miserable wretch I am. Your pal, Chris
When he’d finished typing, he didn’t know whether the note was good, dumb, sad or icky, or some hybrid of all four. He put it down on her desk and picked up it again three times.
Finally, he said to himself: You gotta go for the gusto. Schlitz beer, as life coach.
He set the note down a final time, patted it twice and headed out to his Gremlin and the ribbon of highway that would carry him back in time to Ohio.
The burble from the open house upstairs marred the sepulchral quiet he sought down below.
He set the black-labeled Jack on the concrete floor, then jabbed the bottoms of his palms into his eye sockets, pressing hard. He studied sadly the kaleidoscopic bursts and swirls of color the gesture produced inside his eyes.
Jesus, what a moron he was. Why had he been so impatient, so needy, so volatile? So dumb.
She couldn’t have been clearer: She felt something, too, but she had her own past romantic disillusionments to work through. And she’d just escaped daily life lived according to the dictates of her Irish Catholic parents, with their anxieties spawned of dogma, Depression and world war. She wanted to breathe free air, test how high her wings could fly — under her own power. Why wouldn’t she want that?
Why couldn’t he just have accepted that? Why couldn’t he have slowed his roll, curbed his tongue, quelled his temper? After all, he knew …. knew to the innermost strand of his marrow that she was the one, that this was meant to be. Why had he not just sat calmly within that faith and waited? Why had he instead screwed the pooch, as they called it in that book about the Mercury astronauts he’d just read? For sure, he’d done that and got the T-shirt; he’d scrubbed the mission, drowned the capsule, destroyed the …
“Sweetie …..” his mother’s voice from the top of the stairs. “Are you down there? Phone call for you.”
“Phone call? Who is it?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, dear. Why don’t you come up and take this phone that I’m holding and find out?”
His mother stood in the breakfast nook near the top of the stairs, the pale cord stretched to its limit, her hand cupped primly over the speaking part of the receiver as she extended it to him.
“So you left me a note.”
“So … yes.”
“In your note, you asked me a question. I’m giving you my answer. My answer is yes.”
“Would I dig up your mother’s phone number and call you from my mother’s kitchen on Christmas Eve to lie to you?”
“No, no, I know. I’m just a little caught off guard and, honestly, I’m a little drunk. Trust me, you would be, too, if you had to be in this house right now. But wait … y-you’re saying you’ll go to dinner with me next week at the Inn of the Unicorn?
”Yes, that would be what I’m saying.”
“Omigod, that’s great, that’s wonderful. Thank you. … Just, thank you.”
“Now, there’s a few rules here.”
“Yes, sure, whatever you say.”
“OK, listen: Yes, this is sort of a date date. But it doesn’t mean we’re back together the way we were.”
“Got it. Sure. Yes.”
“But it does mean I’m willing to try. But you have to behave. You have to promise me you’ll never get crazy on me like you did before.”
“Promise. Never. No more crazy.”
She laughed. It was like silver.
“OK, we’ll talk details when you get back. Right now my mom is giving me the hairy eyeball. We’ve got to get to church.”
“Sure, sure. Say hi to God for me.”
She laughed. “I’ll let you know what He says. Merry Christmas.”
“You, too. Bye.”
He hung up. A sweet fire surged through his limbs. He went down to the basement, picked up Jack, took a long swig, sat on the couch, looked at the Ping Pong table.
“So, Pop, yeah, that was her. The One. Good Lord in heaven, she is totally The One. Merry Christmas, Pop. And if you had anything to do with that phone call … hey, thanks.”
The Inn of the Unicorn isn’t there anymore on South Mountain; it’s an accounting office now.
But the memory of my one night there with the woman I love still gleams like Waterford crystal.
It’s been 40 years since that reuniting “date” date at the Inn.
Forty years, as well as two children, one grandchild, four homes, much laughter, and more than enough sadness and tears later.
Yes, it’s a lot later. It’s graying hair and creaking bones and “say that again, please” later.
But here’s something that’s still as clear and sweet and fresh as it was the night she and I had escargots at the Inn of the Unicorn.
She is still, most definitely, The One. Which is why my Christmas story this year had to be this one, looking back, from the vantage of 40 glorious years on.
I love you, Eileen Kenna. Merry Christmas.