Gospel of Winter
In order to tell you what really happened, what you don’t know, what the journalists didn’t report, I have to start at Mother’s annual Christmas Eve party. Two nights before, as if the universe were the coproducer of her big show, a snowstorm whitewashed our little corner of Connecticut. Mother was thrilled. Electric candles in the windows, wreaths on the doors, picturesque drifts of snow snuggled up against the house—everything was “just wonderful,” as her friends would say. Spirits would soar, or at least appear to. That was Mother—survival of the cheeriest—and everyone was ready to suck down her holiday cure-all. We were about to welcome more than a hundred and fifty guests into our home and ignore the fact that although the invitations had been mailed out in late October with my father’s name next to hers in embossed script, Old Donovan was in Europe, where he’d spent most of the
year and where he now planned to stay for good.
I’d never been allowed to go in Old Donovan’s office, but precisely because he was no longer home, I’d recently made it mine, lurking among his books and curios from around the world, hoping to find some wisdom to fill this awful emptiness widening inside me. If not for the party, I’d have sat in the office all night reading Frankenstein for Mr. Weinstein’s class, but there was the party and Mother was upstairs getting ready, so I said fuck it. If I was going to survive it, I needed a jump start.
I locked the door to the office and sat in the swivel chair behind his desk. Nothing but the necklaces of white lights hanging on the bushes outside the windows lit up the room. I sat in the semidarkness for a while, listening to the caterers scurry around elsewhere in the house, and then I turned on the small reading lamp, only to see what I was about to do. The day calendar hadn’t been adjusted in weeks, and I left it that way as I dragged it across the desk pad and flipped it facedown. The metal surface glinted in the lamplight. I shook out a couple of pills of Adderall and placed them on the back of the calendar. Using one of Old Donovan’s heavy pens, I ground them down, divided the pile into smaller piles, took the pen apart, and snorted a line up the empty tube.
A scattershot of thoughts and memories exploded in my mind, and I imagined an apparition of Old Donovan nosing out of the darkness—his pale, bald head; two eyes fixed in a scrutinizing glare. He leaned toward me and grumbled one
of his usual disquisitions. Boy, you can be one of two people: someone who makes reality for others or someone who has reality made for him. Old Donovan was a man I read about in the paper, one of those men who gathered in Davos, Beijing, or Mumbai and shook hands in a way that affected the world economy. Think globally, act locally, I wanted to tell him, but he was never home to work on the local part. Besides, when did I ever tell him anything—when did he ask?
I banged another rail. The ghostly Old Donovan dropped into the armchair, and a memory materialized in the room. He was reading an issue of Barron’s. His socks were stuffed into his shoes on the floor nearby, and his bare feet rested on the ottoman. They looked like translucent, white raisins, shriveled up and drying out in front of the fireplace. He sweated, and he scratched at the crown of stubble above his ears. On the table beside him, a pile of newspapers lay folded and stacked beneath a small ashtray with crushed stubs rising from the mound like tombstones. A glass rested on the wide arm of the chair. There was plenty left in it, but he pressed his big nose against the rim and drained it anyway. The usual gluey strand remained lodged in his throat however, and he tried to clear it. Boy, you’ll be lucky if you’re a goddamn footnote in history. Most people live inconsequential and meaningless lives. I’m trying to help you.
I concentrated until there was only one voice left in my head. I guess it sounded like me; at least it sounded familiar. “I’m in the room,” I finally said into the emptiness around me.
“I’m right here.” But it was just me and the silence around me, and in that nothingness, I was afraid. I was terrified of other people and of my own damn self, and my fears were overwhelming, closing in on me like something near and breathing. Without my chemical surges, I didn’t know how I would stay focused and move beyond those fears. I hosed up the last of the Adderall, tidied the desk, slipped out of the office, and finally felt ready to face the night.
Fresh garlands had been wrapped around the banister of the grand staircase from the foyer to the balcony upstairs. In every room, the catering staff fussed with last-minute details. Two tuxedoed waiters fluffed the gauze of fake snow around the base of the tree in the sitting room. In the library, a bartender set up rows of glasses atop a makeshift bar he’d positioned in the doorway to the kitchen. The catering company never sent the same people twice to Mother’s parties, but they all knew how to handle the production. Throughout the party, their silent ensemble would appear on cue and recede again into the scenery. As soon as guests arrived, I’d get my call to enter from the wings, but for now, nobody seemed to notice me.
In the kitchen, I found Elena speaking with a few of the caterers. She winced as she glanced over at the mess they were making, but when she saw me she came right over. She wore the same white-collared shirt she always wore when Mother threw a party. Her hair was fixed up, and when I stooped to hug her I thought I might crush the
delicate ruffles cascading down the button line. “You’re going to have fun tonight?” she asked me in Spanish.
“No, I won’t.”
She straightened my collar. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
“But you’re here,” I said.
“Ah, m’ijo, please,” she grumbled. She never called me that in front of my parents, of course, and we never spoke Spanish in front of them either. I practiced my Spanish with her when we were alone in the house and, by now, after all that time together, I was nearly fluent.
She kissed her fingers and reached them up to my face. Her cheeks made her eyes squint when she smiled. “Please. Be sensible.”
“Look at me,” I said, pointing to my coat and tie, the ones I knew Mother wanted me to wear. “I’m ready to play my part.” She watched the caterers fiddle with the two wall ovens, and I took her hand. “Can’t we just hide out in your apartment?” I asked. “She won’t even notice we’re gone. Look at all these people she’s hired. She doesn’t need us.”
Elena stared at me. “Are you okay? What’s the matter with your eyes?”
I’m sure my eyes were red rimmed, but she only shook her head and, as usual, didn’t ask anything else about it. She hugged me, then she stepped back and put her hands to my cheeks. “Please. You’ll help too. For your mother. Do
it for her.” She kissed me and hugged me again, wrapping me up in those arms as she so often did.
I would have held on longer if a waiter didn’t knock a bowl off the counter. It crashed, and the glass shattered on the kitchen floor. Elena turned around quickly. “Ay, dios mio.” She glared at him. “They never care,” she muttered as she went to the pantry for a broom.
With a sense of duty hanging over me, I went looking for Mother. I heard her voice call out from the living room. “No fumé blanc?” she asked. I couldn’t help it: Sometimes when I heard her all twisted up like that, I thought of dolphins chirping. “No fumé blanc?” She spoke to a phantom only she could see. The cut of her deep-red evening gown revealed nearly all of her back. “Chardonnay and fumé blanc. Y fumé blanc, I told Elena. Y, Y, Y. This isn’t a charity party we’re hosting. It’s a Christmas party. Choices are part of the elegance.” Mother always found the loose stitch that could reduce a priceless carpet to a pile of threads. There was more wine than anyone could drink and, if it was like any of her other parties, even the caterers would be slugging down the open bottles, stumbling back into their vans at the end of the night.
“She ordered it,” I said. “I saw the bartender chilling some.”
“What are you doing skulking behind the furniture?” she asked. “I thought you were going to help me tonight.”
“Who’s skulking? I’m right here. I’m just saying, you don’t always have to blame her.”
As usual. Her lawyer. Saint Elena.”
She measured her breath through her nose, counting, or turtle breathing, as she called it when she was doing her yoga or tai chi or Pilates or soul stretching or whatever the hell was the regimen du jour. “Okay,” she said in a bright new tone. “Let’s get a smile on your face. It’s a party. You’ll be meeting people.”
“I am smiling.”
“Relax,” she said. She put her hand on her hip. “Try to look a little like your father, not so morose. We’re all friends here, Aidan.” I couldn’t remember Old Donovan grinning like a politician when he’d greeted the guests the year before.
“I’m not him,” I said.
“No,” she said softly. “But fake it, then.” She looked out the windows to the backyard and sighed. “Please.”
I wanted to. For her.
Candles flickered along the windowsills and on end tables. Logs crackled and sparked in the hearth. The ivory walls and furniture picked up an orange glow in the firelight. When she turned back to me, I gave her what she wanted.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“See? That’s better. That’s who everybody wants to see.”
“Let’s party, then,” I said.
She smiled triumphantly.
When the doorbell rang, Mother smoothed her evening dress around her waistline and blinked rapidly. It was time.
One of the hired staff adjusted his bow tie and opened the front door. My hands were in my pockets, and it occurred to me that I should pull them out. But it was only Cindy, one of Mother’s closest friends, and Mother glided into the foyer as if she were back on stage at City Center and twenty years hadn’t passed. They made their way to the bar immediately. Once they had their drinks, Cindy held hers high. “To another one of Gwen’s incredible holiday parties,” she said. “Jack and his Belgian slut be damned.”
Although they’d both grown up in the city, they hadn’t known each other until they were both enthroned in the high social courts of Connecticut. Cindy was even more petite than Mother, but she had an open-mouthed smile that stretched over her entire face. I occasionally saw Cindy’s family at Most Precious Blood, and her son, James, was two years behind me at Country Day Academy. That was the only way to keep track of Mother’s friends: to keep them penned in their various social circles. When the circles overlapped enough, I could begin to remember the faces, the necessary biographies, too, like the statistics on the back of a baseball card. Instead of ERA or RBI, the categories were Personal Wealth, Philanthropic Interests, or Number of Donovan Parties Attended—which in Cindy’s case was “all.”
Before long, the doorbell rang again. I answered, said hello, and began my drift from one quick greeting to the next. I blinked as often as I could to stop my eyes from
feeling like two eggs frying on my face. The guests just flashed their neon smiles back at me and kept walking. “Hello,” I said as another person arrived. “Hello.” I directed guests, smiled grossly, and slowly tuned right out, slipping back into a dull void where I found myself thinking about that paperback edition of Frankenstein upstairs on the seat of my armchair—the creature waking, peering up from the table with his jaundiced eyes.
The party filled quickly, and moving from one spot to another often required bumping people as you passed them. Guests slugged down their drinks so as not to spill them. They pitched toward me, speaking in their won-derful voices. “Top marks,” I’d scream back. “Oh, Yale, definitely Yale.” To really pull off the part, I almost affected one of those weird accents some Americans adopt, where they sound vaguely British but they’re really from the Upper East Side. Instead, I just careened from room to room, strategizing how to disappear amid the sweaty and aggressive laughter.
As I slid past a knot of people beside the piano, trying to make a break for the office, one of Old Donovan’s former colleagues, Mike Kowolski, saw me and waved. He shuffled across the foyer, balancing the weight of his belly on his legs. Mark, his son, followed behind. If Mark hadn’t had his father’s strong, hammerhead jaw, it would’ve been hard to believe they were related. He strode around CDA with a cool, confident distance I always imagined was boredom. We met at the foot of the grand staircase, and Mike slapped
down hard on my shoulder. “Look at you working the party like a solicitor. My God, Aidan, it’s been a while. You’re as tall as I am, and since when did your old man let you run around with hair like that? A man shouldn’t hide his eyes.” He wagged his finger between us. “You’ll introduce Mark to a few men tonight, won’t you? Can’t have you grabbing all the internship opportunities before your friend here, right?”
“What’s up, Donovan?” Mark said. We were both sophomores at CDA, but the last time he had said hello to me was at the mandatory swim test at the beginning of the year. To call us friends was a joke. He was already a cocaptain of the swim team, and he’d had to greet all of us, one by one, before we dove into the water and proved we could make it across the pool and back without drowning. Mostly, I thought of him as the Bronze Man because his skin was naturally amber all year round, and the tight curls against his head never seemed to grow or get trimmed. We’d been in Sunday school together, but by middle school the only time we really talked was when our fathers had made our families get together for dinner, and, of course, the last time had been years ago, before my father had left the firm to start his own.
“Mark’s got to talk to some of the men,” Mike said. “There’s no way around it. This isn’t a party, it’s a job fair, right?” He nodded to his son.
“I know, Dad.”
“It’s all in the way you look at things, boys. Make it an opportunity.” Mike poked me in the chest.
Mark glanced back and forth between his father and me. “Well, maybe Aidan should show me around, then.”
Mike took Mark by the arm.
“Carpe diem,” Mark said. “Look, I got it. But I can just hang with Aidan right now. It’s cool.”
“I’ll tour him around,” I said, trying to sound as cool as possible.
Mark tried to pull out of his father’s grip, but Mike wouldn’t let go. He leaned toward us. “It’s about focus, boys. It’s not a game. Focus, focus, focus. When you see something you want, you’ve got to go after it and fucking nail it.” He smiled at us and pulled me in close too, so we were locked tightly together. There was a whiff of shrimp in his breath. “Right?” he asked.
“You said it,” I responded.
Mark gave me a thanks-a-lot smile, and Mike pushed his son toward a circle of men by the fireplace in the sitting room. Although they made space for them, Mark looked through the space between shoulders to me. His startlingly light blue eyes landed on me with only a glance, and stuck. Get me the hell out of here, he intimated. I wasn’t used to anyone looking to me for help. Soon enough, though, Mark was doing the drill I was accustomed to doing at Mother’s parties—rolling out the résumé—and he was beyond saving for the moment.
Go take your face off, I wanted to say to Mike. It’s what I wanted to say to many of the kids at CDA too. Take off
those big, plastic faces that bulldoze their way into rooms with their fucking grins. I hung out with kids occasionally—sometimes the debate club or the chess club would have dinner at someone’s house, or I’d go sit in the stands with other kids to watch the field hockey team or the football team—but I’d sit there listening to everyone talk to one another as if confidence had come to them as a birthright. Nobody ever said I don’t know or I’m afraid, and they acted like the masks they wore were their real faces and that they could sustain themselves forever on their own self-assurance—like they really believed they didn’t need anybody else. What was that John Donne poem we’d read in Weinstein’s class, “No Man Is An Island”? Not here. We were a goddamn social archipelago that called itself a community. Why did I feel like I was the only one who lived in a nightmare?
What was worse was that I knew people did have fears. I’d seen it briefly on the faces of everyone at CDA earlier that fall, when, on a bright, clear Tuesday morning, we all became afraid of airplanes and the word jihad. After that day, fear had become our way of life—kids, adults, it didn’t matter. I’d heard the guidance counselors talking about it: “I don’t know what to say to these kids. I’m afraid too!” So why did I feel like I was the only one looking for some kind of stability, some kind of normalcy, someone who could hold back the vast tide of bullshit and tell me everything is going to be okay?
I did a loop down the side hall to the library, leaving Mark to fend for himself, and I took a seat at the foot of the small staircase near the makeshift bar. Take your face off, I wanted to say to all of Mother’s guests. They weren’t any better than the kids at CDA. Mother had declared that this year’s Christmas Eve party would be the biggest and most extravagant ever. We need it, she had said, all of us, and her guests seemed to agree. Like the movies I’d seen about Mexico’s Day of the Dead or of Carnival, everyone at Mother’s party had their faces painted with too much makeup or the flush of alcohol.
After a while, Mother found me. I was surprised she’d been able to locate me in the packed room, but she was determined. When she squeezed through a group of men in line for the bar, she pulled along two more of my classmates from CDA. It was obvious from the way she beamed as she brought them toward me that she had invited these two in particular. She just hadn’t told me.
I fixed my posture immediately. Every idiot with a beating heart knew Josie Fenton and Sophie Harrington. So many of us at CDA thought of them as celebrities, as if life would be glamorous if you carried yourself the right way. For a brief stint that fall, Josie had dated a senior, but she had called it off after only a month. I was used to looking at Josie and talking to her with my eyes. She sat in front of me in Honors English 10. I imagined combing my hand through her long brown hair. She cocked her head while she wrote at her desk, making her hair fall to one side. It would
expose the smooth, cool slope of her neck, the spot where there was no better place to kiss a girl, I thought. Sophie had a different reputation, which too many guys were too eager to brag about—and since guys were always looking at her, she had developed the confidence to stare back with her dark eyes and thin-lipped smirk that made her look older than the rest of us, or at least more cynical.
Mother was obviously delusional enough to think the girls talked to me at school because they were her friends’ daughters, and she wore one of those smiles I wasn’t supposed to let fall as she dragged them through the room toward me. “Be a good host now,” she said as she withdrew herself. “You have guests tonight too.”
Josie and Sophie stood beside me, peering through the crowd as if they were looking for someone. In their high heels and close-fitting skirts, they looked like the adults in the room. I got up and wiped my palms on my legs. “I didn’t know you were coming tonight,” I said, and knew I’d lost the only moment I had to offer up some wit or charm.
“Last-minute kind of thing, I guess,” Sophie said. The lone freckle on her pale cheek rose up her face as she smiled.
“Hope it didn’t ruin any other plans?”
“No. Whatever,” Sophie said. Josie flashed a quick smile. She wore silver earrings with blue beads that matched her eyes.
“I hope they didn’t bribe you to come here.”
“Come on,” Josie said, rolling her eyes. She sounded tired. “
Everyone knows your mother throws great parties. No one turns down an invitation, right?” She glanced toward the bar. “Look at all that alcohol.”
Even if she didn’t mean it, I appreciated it. “Can I offer you a drink?” I asked her.
She was still gazing at something back in the foyer and remained quiet. Sophie looked at her. “Maybe a couple of Diet Cokes?”
“No,” I said. “I mean a real drink.”
“What?” Josie asked quickly. “Really?”
“It’s a party, right?”
“That’d be cool,” Sophie said. “My mother will be smashed, anyway.”
“Mine would probably encourage it,” I said. “Especially if she saw me hanging out with the two of you all night.” They shot tight-lipped glances at each other, and so I quickly, added, “And Mark’s here.”
“Mark Kowolski?” Josie asked.
“See if you can drag him away from his father. He’s got Mark leashed to a pack of guys in the living room, last I saw.”
“Oooh, a rescue,” Sophie said. “We can handle that. Where do we meet you with the drinks?”
I gave them directions across the foyer to Old Donovan’s study. They threaded their arms and moved away as one unit, squeezing through the crowd in the library. It looked like a dance and, probably because they were in my house, I thought maybe I could join them.
I convinced the bartender to give me a couple of unopened bottles of soda water and some wineglasses, and I marched through the party as quickly as I could. When I got to Old Donovan’s study, they were all there. Josie and Sophie walked alongside one wall of books. They weren’t scowling. They didn’t hush up as I approached. In fact, I was surprised: They looked like they were having a good time. Mark stood by the giant sepia-toned globe that stood between two leather chairs.
“Your dad likes to read, huh?” Josie asked. “He has this office and the library out there?”
“What’s a dad?” I said as I put the bottles on the desk. Sophie turned and gave me a sympathetic look. Josie nodded.
“The boss,” Mark said. “Results! That’s my dad. Results, results, results.”
“Maybe he’ll have a breakdown,” Josie said. “That’s what happened to my dad. Now he’s, like, Ayurveda-vinyasa Dad.”
“Maybe,” Mark said.
“Well, if Old Donovan were here, we couldn’t use his room,” I continued. “Check this out.” I unlatched the lock on the globe in front of Mark, lifted its top half, and revealed the bar within it. “Vodka sodas?” I asked, lifting the bottle from its slot. “We can toast to our fathers, whether they’re already gone or we wish they were.”
“Seriously,” Josie said.
“Dudes,” Mark said. “Think about this clearly. We’ll
get caught drinking. They’ll smell it on us. Last time I got caught, my dad nearly strangled me. I was, like, chained up at the house for a month. Don’t we have anything else?” Mark asked. He jabbed at me. “You got to have something else, man. Got any herb? We all poke smot. I never get caught when I’m poking.”
I smiled at him; I was happy to dish out the pills, too. “Let’s start with a drink, though. We won’t get caught. I never do.” They took seats beside the globe, and I set to work fixing the drinks. It was good to have a task, something to keep me in motion, because my heart raced as if I’d done another bump. I had no idea what to say to Josie, Sophie, or Mark. Conversation required spontaneity, and spontaneity made me nervous. I didn’t want to say anything stupid, or anything I’d regret.
“Take a sip,” I said as I handed them their glasses.
“Belvedere, right?” Josie asked after she tasted it. “Smooth.”
“I thought you only liked Ketel One.” Sophie laughed and then took a sip. “Remember that at Dustin’s? Oh my God, we got so wasted.”
I raised my glass the way I’d seen some of the adults do out in the party, holding it by the base and not the stem. “Cheers, I guess.”
We clinked glasses and laughed about the rest of the party getting drunker. I tried not to smile too much, but I couldn’t help it. I didn’t like my smile. I liked what my face
looked like when I listened, or when I smoked a cigarette—I’d looked in the mirror as I’d done both, and I could live with it—but when I smiled, I was someone severely deranged.
I was surprised every time I made them laugh, and I hoped I wouldn’t run out of things to say. I was more than halfway through my drink when I realized they still had nearly full glasses. Especially Mark. He had put his down on Old Donovan’s desk. There was a pause in the conversation. Sophie stared at her feet. Josie got up and walked to the window that looked across the yard to the hedgerow along the Fieldings’ property.
“What are we doing at this old-person party?” Mark asked. Sophie rolled her eyes in agreement. “I mean, no offense, Donovan, but this would be cooler if we weren’t ten feet away from our parents.”
“Doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “Here’s how I get through it.” I pulled the bottle of Adderall out of my inside pocket and shook it. “I’m already zooming.”
Sophie squinted. “You just pop these like vitamins or whatever?”
“No,” Josie said. “You snort them, right?” She walked back toward me and smiled deviously. “Is that what you’re doing every day?”
“Not every day.” I grinned. She laughed. It wasn’t exactly a lie. I’d done it at school before, when I hadn’t slept all night and I was nodding off.
“Should we go for it?” I asked.
“That’s not my thing, dudes,” Mark said. “Not tonight. Man. I sound like a downer tonight. You know I’m not.”
“Fine,” Sophie said. “I’m game. I’m always game.” She raised her glass. “Let’s finish these first.”
I raised my glass with her and took a big swallow, but I gulped too many ice cubes at once. One lodged in my throat, and the passage clamped shut. My mouth was full and airless. The soda burned into my nose. I seized up.
“Oh my God, are you okay?” Sophie asked, leaning forward.
I inhaled deeply through my nose but couldn’t take anything in, or if I did, I couldn’t feel it. I snorted violently after air. Soda fizzed in my mouth and nose, and my eyes burned. There was a belt going around my neck and chest, cinching one notch tighter at a time. Fear floated up from within me, because I could feel my head going light like it had when I’d tried that game where you make yourself black out for the hell of it and just before the darkness you wonder, Shit, what if I’ve gone too far? What if I can’t come back?
“Jesus, you sound like you’re hyperventilating,” Josie said.
“He’s choking,” Sophie said. “Is he choking?”
I tried to shake my head and leaned forward to spit something back into my glass, but the whole frothing mouthful came rushing out, and I sprayed Sophie on her blouse and skirt.
“Holy shit!” she yelled.
My eyes were so full of tears, I could barely see. “I’m sorry,” I managed. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shut up!” Josie said. “Pull yourselves together. Don’t make a scene or we will get caught.”
“I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Did he ruin my skirt?” Sophie demanded. “Look at my blouse? What the hell?”
“Shut up! Seriously.”
Mark moved to the door and listened closely to the noises in the hall. I wiped my eyes. The burn still crackled in my throat, so instinctively I took another sip, then without good reason slurped down the rest of the drink, using my teeth as a dam against the ice. It chilled me to my toes, but it felt good, the fat syrup of vodka sliding beneath the soda. I put the glass down and grabbed tissues from a box on the desk. I handed them to Sophie, but they were useless. The music was loud in the other rooms, and people shouted over it and over one another. Nobody could hear us.
Josie pulled Sophie out of the chair, and they surveyed the dark spots scattered across the green skirt. “What am I going to tell my mother?” Sophie asked. “What’s wrong with you?” she snapped in a hushed voice.
Josie grabbed my arm. “Do something! Get us to a bathroom a-sap.”
With my face burning, I led the girls out into the hallway.
Mark followed behind them. A group of Mother’s willowy friends huddling in the foyer saw us. “Barbara. Barbara. Here he is,” one of the women sang. I was a step ahead of Josie and Sophie, but I could picture them scowling behind me as they heard the woman. I tried to ignore what she said, but that sinking feeling opened up within me again. I waved the girls on, and we went down the hall, away from the party and toward one of the spare bedrooms, the one Old Donovan had slept in for a few months, before he was finally gone.
I held open the door to the en suite bathroom. “This’ll be private,” I told them. Josie brushed past me, and I stepped out of the way so Sophie could follow her.
“Why don’t we just meet you out in the party later?” Josie suggested. “I’ll clean her up.” She had carried the drinks with her, and she set them on the counter next to the sink.
“I’ll make sure they’re okay,” Mark said. They shut the door, and I could hear them whispering before the faucet ran. Eventually, they turned the water off but didn’t open the door. They giggled. Glasses clinked. I wanted to break something. Take your faces off, assholes. I should have just said it, even if it was through a goddamn door. Aidan’s a fuckhead was scratched into the back of a stall door in a boys’ restroom at CDA, and I was sure they were saying something similar right then.
There was more giggling, but it came from the hallway. One of the women who’d seen us come out of Old Donovan’s office stood in the doorway and blocked the light
coming into the dark bedroom. She beckoned those behind her. “Yup,” she said, “they’re in here.” She leaned against the door frame. I couldn’t see her face. She was only a silhouette of a woman speaking to me through the shadows. “Why are you hiding in the dark, Aidan?”
There was something cold and straightforward in her voice that instantly held me. Even though she could barely see me, I felt as if she’d caught me naked, and the emptiness within me was spilling everywhere, running out into the room and staining the carpet and the bedsheets and the wicker furniture. Another woman joined her, and then another, and again, one of them asked me, “What are you doing?”
One of the women pushed through the others and snapped on the overhead light. Barbara Kowolski, Mark’s mother, marched forward. She glared at me over her round and flushed cheeks. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.
I remained silent, still fixed in the fear from the moment before. The other women laughed and began speaking with each other in the hallway, but Barbara put her hands on her hips. “Where’s Mark? Where are the girls?” She glanced at the bathroom door and pointed. The bangles on her arms clanked as she gestured. “Are they in there? Is Mark in the bathroom with the girls?” I tried to say no, but she pushed past me and tried the door. It was locked. She glanced toward the doorway to the hall. The other women were gone. “Mark?” she said softly.
The faucet ran briefly, and then the toilet flushed. Josie opened the door and stepped out first. “Hi, Mrs. Kowolski.” Her cheeks were red. Sophie followed, holding an empty glass in her hands, and Mark followed her with his hands in his pockets. Hunched over like that, he looked much younger, like a dog cowering before a raised hand.
“Young man,” Barbara said to him.
None of them would look at me. “Mrs. Kowolski,” Josie said, “we’re just hanging out. What’s up? How’s it going?”
Barbara frowned. Her skin was so permatanned and taut that her lips folded her face like an accordion. “Don’t play nice with me right now.” She turned back to Mark. “Your father was looking for you. There’s someone he wants you to meet. But like this?” Barbara glanced at the doorway again and then turned back to us. “This is what is going to happen,” she said. “We’re not going to speak about any of this. We’re not going to say anything to any of your parents. We’re not going to mention any of this to Mike. Not any of it. Do you all understand me?”
“It’s not their fault,” I finally said. “It’s my booze.”
Barbara turned and pointed her bloodred fingernail at my face. “I know exactly whose fault it is, Aidan.”
“Don’t take it out on him,” Mark said. Although he’d had the least to drink of all of us, his eyes still had a glassy look. I thought tears might have pooled in his lids. “It’s not Aidan’s fault.”
“It certainly is,” Barbara shot back. “Enough’s enough.
I’m taking you home.” She swung her finger around to the whole group of us. “I’m taking you all home.”
“Ma,” Mark said. “Come on.”
“Enough,” Barbara said. “This is what’s best for you. I’m taking care of this.” She pulled Mark in for a quick, lifeless hug. “You know your father, honey. Don’t be stupid.” She pushed Mark and the girls into the hall as he was trying to say good-bye to me. “Just because your father’s not here doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want,” she said to me. “Somebody should explain that to you.”
She left, and I flipped the light off in the bathroom and then the overhead in the bedroom and sat on the bed in the darkness for a while as the party stormed through the rest of the house. Eventually, I got up, wandered to the window, and looked out to the backyard. The moonlight made the crust of snow look moonlike—a gray, noiseless landscape, something like what I imagined death to be—a landscape where you would inevitably arrive, permanently alone.
I wished I could disappear, maybe even out there, but people were in the hall and on the stairs up to the second floor; they were everywhere. The party filled the whole house, pushing into room after room. All those bodies and no one to really talk to, I thought, until I heard a familiar laugh come rolling down the hall from the foyer. I’d known his laugh since he’d first arrived at Most Precious Blood, taking over the Mass from Father Dooley and turning the homily into a stand-up story hour. His voice, thick and low and
constant, like a foghorn chanting through the night, had begun to sound like home to me. With relief, then, I steered toward his voice in the party.
Nobody had a laugh like Father Greg, one that bubbled up and gained volume as it stretched out. He stood near the foot of the grand staircase, his ruddy face and silvery goatee shining in the glow from the foyer’s chandelier. He palmed a thick rocks glass and swirled the scotch in it as he spoke to the crowd around him. Most of them had to look up at Father Greg as they listened, because it wasn’t only Father Greg’s voice that commanded attention. I think if you put him in the ring with Coach Randolf over at CDA, Coach would actually have a hard time finding the courage to lace up the gloves. Father Greg looked like a man who had played football in a time before helmets and shoulder pads and had come through it all without a scratch.
He laughed at his own story, and when he noticed me he beckoned me with a nod. I followed immediately. He was a regular on the party circuit, and everyone loved Father Greg. He didn’t bother with any of that dancing-is-the-devil’s-work kind of ministry. He understood very well that our Catholic town liked Mardi Gras and Easter brunch and preferred to skip the Lent in between. He never missed a party, either.
“But it isn’t only about the money,” Father Greg was saying as I walked up to him. “Do you know what’s hard work? Love. Love is hard work, maybe the hardest, but it’s
what counts in the end. That’s what our work is about with these kids. Teach a man to fish? Ha.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Teach a man to love, Richard. Teach a kid to love, to love learning, to love others. Then watch what happens.” Father Greg dropped a hand onto my shoulder. “Right, Aidan?” He was the real solicitor at the party—at every party. I was his assistant, and only had been for the six months I’d been working for him.
“Yeah, I know. The kids,” Richard said with a hard smile. “That’s who I’m thinking of when I write my check every year.” Then he aimed that nose at me. “I haven’t gotten the call yet this year. Aidan, you going to start making those calls soon? Father, going to put Aidan in charge now?”
Father Greg smiled at me. “Oh, that wouldn’t be so terrible. Aidan’s not so young anymore. How would I do it without him?” Father Greg put his hand out and I slapped it automatically, as if we were teammates on the field. “Aidan’s a guy who knows you need coal in the fire to keep the train running.”
I nodded in agreement. I was helping him raise funds for Catholic schools down in the city. It was a stretch to call my organizing Excel spreadsheets and Crystal Reports “coal in the fire,” but even by opening envelopes and entering gift amounts in the database, I was a part of his vital endeavor.
“I haven’t even said hello to my host yet,” Father Greg said.
“She’s around here somewhere,” I said, looking toward the library.
Father Greg laughed. “No, I meant you.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”
He excused us from the group and steered me a few feet away, closer to the coat closet. It felt good to get a little direction. He smiled, then took on that serious expression he got before he found the right words to set the world straight.
“How are you holding up?”
It was the first goddamn honest question I’d been asked all night. I wanted to be somewhere quieter. I wanted to be somewhere we could take ourselves seriously, close the door on all the gibbering nonsense and speak as two people who cared about meaningful things. It was about time.
“Look,” Father Greg said, “I’m heading outside. I need a break, a little fresh air.” He fished out his coat-check tag and handed it to the doorman. “Why don’t we step out for a minute?” Father Greg asked me. He took his coat and wore it like a cloak, without sticking his arms through the sleeves. He dug into the breast pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He always smelled like them. “Join me. Only if you want to, of course.” His coat billowed and flowed behind him as he walked onto the stoop. I found my ski parka and followed him outside.
He stood beyond the curve of the white stone semicircular drive outside the front door and looked down the
slope of the snowy front yard. “We have to find a way for you to enjoy your party,” he said.
I watched my breath mist and disappear in the cold air. “It’s not really my party,” I said. I zipped up my parka. “I don’t know what I’m doing tonight.”
Father Greg stepped closer and put his foot on the stoop. He exhaled from the corner of his mouth and blew the smoke away from me. “Yes you do. You’re doing what you always do. You’re trying to help. Don’t beat yourself up, Aidan.” He always said my name a lot, and although at first it had sounded strange to hear myself referred to so often, I actually grew to like it. It made me feel real, as if he genuinely wanted to speak with me, as if I actually meant something to him—as if he might have needed me a little too.
I stared out at the island of manicured shrubs in the front drive. He offered me his cigarette, and I looked away from him as I took a drag. The nicotine went right to my head, and I leaned back against the column. “I’d rather be upstairs, reading for school,” I finally said.
“That’s my boy, ever the hard worker.” I shrugged. “I understand, though. I know how you feel.” He gave me another drag. “We’ve talked about this before,” he said softly. “Hard to have meaningful conversations at these kinds of parties. Conversations that people like you and me are accustomed to having. I rarely see many of these people anymore, except at parties like this one. I don’t know when I’d see your parents if they didn’t invite me to their parties.”
“Yeah, and then one of them doesn’t even show up.”
“There you go,” Father Greg said, nodding slowly as he always did when he listened to me. Father Greg rolled the filter of his cigarette gently between his forefinger and thumb, until the cherry dropped to the ground. He tucked the filter into his pocket and glanced toward the front door. “But you’re not alone,” he said. Father Greg often explained that the presence of God in my life was an assurance, the real stability. God was with me, and yet God had to work through people like him sometimes, he had said, in order to remind me of His presence. God wasn’t firmly placed in my mind, but Father Greg was actually there, and something tangible and definite was what I needed most. Certainty.
He blew air into his fist to warm it. “You are doing very well, Aidan, for your father not being here. Nobody wants to feel abandoned. We’ve talked about this. You know how I worry for you.” He breathed softly through his nose and drew that concerned smile again. He sighed. “You’re growing up in awfully frightening times, Aidan.” He spoke with the knowing tone of a newspaper article and put his hand on my shoulder. It steadied me against the column. “We can’t pretend otherwise. And the last thing we should do in times like these is abandon one another.” He paused and leaned closer. “But God hasn’t abandoned you, Aidan. The Church hasn’t. I haven’t.”
He stepped back. He rubbed at his chin and glanced at the house. “We’ve been doing a damn good job together,
haven’t we? This campaign work. You like it, right? You’re not bored?”
“No. I love it.”
“That’s what I thought.” Father Greg nodded and turned me back toward the front door. “Strange, then, how your father hasn’t given his check yet, Aidan. He usually sends in his gift by now. I’m surprised.”
“He’s been in Europe all fall.”
“I know, Aidan my boy. I know.”
He led us back inside and, as we turned in our coats, Father Greg gave an across-the-room nod to one of the men near the library. With a hand on my back, he walked us past the crowd by the center table in the foyer. “Maybe it’s not him I need to speak with these days?” Father Greg said. He pushed us back into the thick of the party, to the sitting room. “Let’s go find your mother, Aidan.” He couldn’t see my face because I was in front of him, but he didn’t have to. He spoke down to me, over my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerily. “We’ll have time to talk more soon. You’re scheduled sometime over the break, aren’t you? We’ll catch up. I know it’s been a while. I know you need to talk.”
I stopped and turned back to him. He smiled but looked around the room. “We’ll catch up over your break,” he said. “Don’t worry.” There was a pause for a second or two in which I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I thought he might have been waiting for me, but his eyes rolled up over my head, and he waved to someone behind me.
Farther back in the sitting room, Mother had her own crowd of admirers huddled around her, friends like Cindy, but also other men and women I didn’t know. Mother stood on a footstool and drew her arms up in second arabesque, mirroring an image of a portrait of herself that hung on the wall by the narrow staircase in the library. She stretched her arms as she spoke, and looked around the room. I thought she saw me, but she didn’t.
“That’s how I had to hold myself,” Mother said. “Otherwise it would have been sloppy.”
“Determination. Stamina,” Cindy said. “That’s what class is all about.”
“Class?” Father Greg said to the group as we approached. “Gwen teaches us about class every year.” Mother stepped off the stool, and he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Every year, you set a higher bar. What a party. Only you can outdo yourself.”
“It’s true,” Cindy said. “You should plan my parties. I’m serious. Maybe you could consult for my next opening?”
“You make it look effortless,” Father Greg said. “It’s more than skill, it’s art. I’m sure your admirers would agree.” Mother bowed in plié. “Some of whom I’d very much like to be introduced to, if you’d be so kind,” Father Greg continued.
“The ones you need to meet are in the sunroom,” Mother said. She and Cindy laughed, and Father Greg mocked a
guilty expression. It made me sick the way they played this game together—as if to be earnest means you lose.
Mother offered to lead the way, and Father Greg took her arm in his and followed her into the sunroom. The doors split open and revealed the men slumped in armchairs, smoking their cigars. Father Greg waved as he descended the couple of stairs, and the men roared their greetings to him. Mother pulled the doors closed. A rich tobacco stink lingered in the air, and Father Greg left behind him that charged negative space an animal creates when it flees into the brush with a snap of sticks and rustle of leaves.
Cindy and I were left standing beside each other, and she looked around the room quickly. “I’ve heard how much you enjoy working for Father Greg,” she said. “I think it’s great. James has started working at Most Precious Blood too. He loves it. He’s an altar boy now.”
I hadn’t seen James working there yet, but it again made me realize how many fewer afternoons I’d been scheduled for at Most Precious Blood recently. Of course Father Greg made time for others. Of course he needed assistance with other tasks besides fund-raising. He was our priest. But my stomach dropped as I thought of Father Greg consoling James. Wasn’t it okay that I thought I was the one who needed Father Greg the most? He was the only one who didn’t speak to me through bars of gritted teeth, as Cindy was speaking to me now—smiling at me in a way that said, I don’t want to be anywhere near you.
I cut through the dining room to the pantry. When I came into the kitchen, I saw Elena arguing with two of the chefs by the wall ovens. She waved a wooden spoon that looked like it had been charred. She glanced at me but continued her tirade. The chefs weren’t listening, though, and she yelled at their backs as they worked. “Elena,” I said, but I was too quiet. The room was roaring with commotion. I bumped into one of the waiters coming back into the kitchen and upset the tray of shrimp ends he carried. “Shit,” he spat, and I weaved away around the island. I stole an opened bottle of fumé blanc from the ice bucket behind the bartender and ducked out the back door of the kitchen. The noise from inside the house followed me into the backyard, and once I was beyond the circumference of the spotlight over the path, I shouted up into the sky. Nothing responded, and it felt like my voice just disappeared in the darkness.
I made my way across the lawn toward the second garage and walked up the stairs to Elena’s apartment. I tried the door. It was locked, but I could still see through the window. Her room was simple and small, like a well-furnished monk’s cell: a bookshelf, an armchair, a wardrobe closet, and a crisply made bed. Two frames with pictures of her daughter, Teresa, and her son, Mateo, leaned against the base of the lamp on the bedside table. In the first photograph, her husband, Candido, had his arm around Teresa.
I slumped down, leaned against her door, and drank, staring up into the dark night. I stayed there for a while, and
it wasn’t until I saw Elena shuffling down the path behind the kitchen and coming up the stairs that I realized how much I was shivering. I hid the bottle of wine behind the flowerpot on her tiny stoop. I was sure she saw it anyway, but it wasn’t in my hands so she didn’t have to say anything. Instead, she pulled me up into her arms. “M’ijo,” she said. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” she repeated as she held me.
She let me in, sat me down on her little bed, and continued to hold me. She mumbled in Spanish and, after a little bit, I realized it was the Hail Mary—Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. I don’t know how many times she repeated it, but I joined her, in Spanish, although it hurt to pray with a fist-tight throat. “Do not cry anymore,” Elena said. “Please.” Eventually, she got up and moved her packed suitcase toward the door. She pulled out a toiletry bag from underneath the sink in her little bathroom and packed it with what she needed.
“Why can’t you stay the night?” I asked. I hated saying it. It was Christmas Eve for God’s sake, and her own family was waiting for her in the Bronx. She was already leaving later than she should have. I knew she wanted to make it to the midnight Mass at her church.
When she had finished in the bathroom, she turned out the light. Only the light outside her apartment door lit up the room. “You can sleep here tonight,” she said. “I don’t mind. Just please take care of yourself.” She stood by the door, and I couldn’t see her face. She was only a silhouette in front
of the lamplight from the tiny porch beyond. “Please,” she said again, and then, without saying any more, she picked up her bag and hustled downstairs to the garage, to get in her car and finally begin her vacation.
A crucifix hung on the wall above Elena’s bed, and it focused me for a while as I sat and drank without a glass. Forgiveness, I’d been taught, was the road to peace, but for now, I thought the quiet would do. I felt my tongue go limp and fatten as I lost control. When you drink alone over a long period of time, you’re not deluding yourself into thinking you’re clearheaded and bright. You’re falling apart, you know it, and you just want to slip away, numb as a snowman, melting until you’re gone.