By Regina Peters
Mairi's long golden hair rippled down her shoulders like a waterfall, glinting in the soft flickering light of dozens of candles. Her blue silk gown swirled around her as she spun, her shoes clicking on the smooth polished wood of the ballroom floor. Her partner held her in a perfect waltz position, framing her like a precious painting as they whirled around in perfect unison. Glistening white snowflakes – or was it confetti? – drifted softly around them as if joining in the dance...
I fell out of my daydream and into my desk chair with a hard bump, or at least that's what it felt like. I shook the little snowglobe with the dancing figurines one last time, put it away on my bookshelf, and jerked the chair around to face the person who had called. She was small and slim, with a smooth knot of silver-blond hair and a beige coat. It was Vera Block Stahlbaum, my mother, and as soon as she caught sight of me, she threw up her hands and sighed.
"Get up, get dressed," she said crisply. "We're late."
She was wearing her pearl eardrops and pink lipstick, and my nose caught a distinctive whiff of Paloma Picasso perfume. I flipped my phone open; it read 6:27 pm.
Already? Oh, no.
"Sorry," I said, pulling myself up out of the chair and heading towards the closet doors. I was dressed, technically – but then, frayed jeans and my sloppiest black hoodie are not the sort of thing you wear to the Stahlbaum Family Christmas Reunion.
I yanked a white cashmere cardigan and blue skirt out of my closet and changed into them, with Mother hovering by the doorway all the while and giving terse reminders: "You're putting that on back to front...watch those buttons. And you'd better do something with your hair; it looks like you haven't combed it for days..."
By the time I was presentable, the frown line between her eyebrows looked permanently stuck. She click-clacked away in her high-heeled black boots; I shuffled along after her, darted back at the last minute to get my backpack, and slipped The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe inside while she wasn't looking. If I could snatch some quiet time to read, the evening wouldn't be a total waste.
The hallway was narrow and tiled in gray, with a big rubber plant next to my door I was afraid to trip over. The closet doors were mirrored, showing me my own face like a pale, spiritless reflection of my mother: where she had sharply elegant bone structure, I was round and unformed like a full moon. While her eyes were bright, glittering blue, mine were gray as November skies. My hair was dishwater blonde and much too short to be worn as a ballerina bun; I had to have it cut after someone stuck a wad of gum in my hat at school.
She waited as I struggled into my black down coat and pushed my feet into a pair of heavy-duty black winter boots.
"Are you sure you want to wear those?" she asked, wrinkling her nose. "Your feet are going to smell like..."
It was minus ten degrees and snowing outside, and no way was I getting out of the car in party shoes.
"I've got other shoes to change into," I said, patting my little navy blue backpack. I carried it everywhere, somewhat to Mother's disgust, because it was bigger and more practical than a regular purse; it could carry the entire Twilight series at once and still be comfortable.
The long beige apartment hallway punctuated by shiny black doors, the wood-and-steel stuffiness and stomach-lurching drop of the elevator, and the brown leather armchairs and outdated fashion magazines in the lobby were as familiar to me as my own name. I exchanged the usual smile and nod with Phyllis, the old lady who lounges on the sofa all day; she waved her cigarette in our direction and croaked out a "Merry Christmas".
"Doesn't she have anything better to do?" my mother hissed as we went through the spinning glass doors. When I was little, I used to run around these doors until I got dizzy; now, I followed directly behind her and shivered as a blast of stinging snow hit me in the face.
Maybe she doesn't, I thought. That's sad.
It had never occurred to me to wonder what Phyllis did when she wasn't greeting people in the lobby; she was as much a fixture there as the furniture. If she had a family, they were probably all gone.
It was already dark outside and the sidewalk was icy, with a fresh coat of snow on top of it.
"Watch your step," said my mother.
I looked down - and the feet I had been placing so carefully jumped out from under me. I landed sprawling on my bottom, with my legs spread out like a spider's. I picked myself up carefully, trying not to put too much weight on my hands, which were burning and stinging with cold. Once I was upright again, I took out my red wool mittens, jammed my hands into them and then deep into my pockets. That helped a bit; at least my fingers weren't threatening to fall off.
The squat brown apartment blocks lining both sides of the street looked nicer than usual in the warm yellow light from the streetlamps; the snowflakes sparkled like white confetti or fairy dust. I only caught a glimpse of the street, however, before the wind blew so much snow into my face that my glasses became spattered with water drops. Seeing through them diffused the lamplight into golden clouds of crystal; I could have stood watching that for ages, but my mother linked arms with me and towed me away at the highest possible speed the ice allowed.
"Always dawdling," she muttered. "Just like your father."
I made a face when she wasn't watching. My father, Mathis Stahlbaum, moved out when I was seven.
Mother's silver Volvo was parked on the curb and covered in snow; she yanked the door open and fished out a brush to clear the windshield while I watched awkwardly. Should I wipe off the snow with my coat or just stand here?
Inside it was even chillier than I expected; the seatbelt buckles were almost too cold to touch. I sat with my backpack on my lap as we drove, absently looking out at the houses. Neither of us spoke; instead Mother turned on the radio to a classical music station. I leaned my head against the head rest; the purring of the motor was making me sleepy. Dad used to take me out for a drive when I had trouble sleeping as a child.
I watched the apartment blocks zip past, replaced by a small shopping district – I recognized Folio, my favorite secondhand bookstore, with its bespectacled owl sign on the door. There was Antonelli's, its menu-of-the-day chalkboard framed by a red and green light string. The little white Town Hall had a huge inflatable snowman in front of it, grinning like a zombie and wearing a red and green scarf. Even the street lamps were hung with pine branches and red ribbons. Good God, we've had two months of Christmas kitsch! Enough already!
The little pubs, depanneurs and thrift stores gave way to suburbia: a series of gray or brown McMansions with three stories and big garages, punctuated by the occasional smaller house with personality. My favorites were the blue-and-white one with the fleur-de-lys shutters, the one made of really old-looking stone and the one with a musical eighth-note made of white lights on the wall. Just behind the latter, however, was a very familiar house that made me want to jump out of the car and run. It was five years old, big and gray, with a little round tower on the left – a suburban house trying to imitate a medieval castle. There were rainbow-colored lights flashing – in and out, in and out – on the enormous pine next to the house and on the hedge surrounding it on three sides. There was a plastic Santa, a plastic sleigh, and four plastic reindeer on the snow-covered lawn, the leading one with a fluorescent red nose. The gravel-covered driveway in front of the three-door garage was packed with cars: the usual silver, black, white or beige, with one exception: a rusty, banged-up, mint-green one parked closest to the front door. That thing belonged to my dad; I'd know it anywhere.
My watch read 6:58. Mother could relax now; we were perfectly on time after all.
As she parked the car opposite Aunt Miranda and Uncle Bert's festively lit abode, she shot me a glance to make sure I wasn't looking too dismayed. It was a party after all.
She sighed and scrunched up her face exactly as I had half an hour ago. "It's just a few hours," she muttered, as if to herself. "Okay. Let's go."