Authors: Brendan Kiely
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For Jessie, who said
The question is not what am I to believe, but what am I to do?
n 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 houseâeverything was “just wonderful,” as her friends would say. Spirits would soar, or at least appear to. That was Motherâsurvival of the cheeriestâand 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
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 darknessâhis 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 anythingâwhen 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
. 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.
, 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 fumÃ© blanc?” she asked. I couldn't help it: Sometimes when I heard her all twisted up like that, I thought of dolphins chirping. “No fumÃ© 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 fumÃ© blanc.
fumÃ© blanc, I told Elena.
. 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 Attendedâwhich 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
upstairs on the seat of my armchairâthe creature waking, peering up from the table with his jaundiced eyes.