Alexandra’s eyes turn sympathetic. “This is tonight. At this very moment. These are the memories you won’t be a part of.”
We go into the family room, where all the familiar faces are congregated. There’s my father, in a black suit and red tie, with a ridiculous Santa hat on his head, talking to Frank Fisher—my father’s lifelong friend and business partner—at the wet bar. He pours apple cider into a shot glass for Mackenzie, who’s perched on a stool between the two men. A small smile comes to my lips as I gaze at my mom, who looks a couple of decades older than her earlier incarnation, but every bit as beautiful—this time in a simple red dress and black pumps. She’s chatting with my sister on the couch. On the far side of the room is my brother-in-law, Steven, his blue eyes sparkling with pride behind his dark-rimmed glasses as he bends his head to hear what his son, Thomas, tells him. They stand in front of the Ping-Pong table—our latest family get-together pastime. They’re getting ready to play my best friend, Matthew Fisher, and his five-year-old son, Michael, as they stand on the other side of the table, looking a little like twins with their short light brown hair and similar button-down green shirts.
Adjacent to the table is a love seat, where Matthew’s wife and Kate’s best friend, Delores “Dee-Dee” Warren, is seated, surprisingly wearing one of her lower-key outfits—a short red leather skirt, a snug white striped sweater, and glowing, dangly Santa Claus earrings.
Next to Dee is Kate, and I can’t take my eyes off of her.
An elegant long-sleeved black velvet dress hugs her in all the right places, her dark, shiny hair falls over her shoulder in waves, and open-toe green heels encase her feet. Three-carat diamond earrings—earrings I gave her for our second wedding anniversary—glitter on her ears. She’s flawless. And so gorgeous I actually feel my chest tighten with a mixture of pride and ever-present desire.
It’s the perfect family gathering. Evergreens and bows add a holiday flair to the decor, Christmas music plays cheerfully in the background, and dozens of delicious-smelling dishes rest on a buffet table, waiting to be uncovered. It’s a modernized version of an idyllic Norman Rockwell image—the entire room is alive with laughter and joyful chatter. Everyone’s happy to be there, everyone’s having a good time.
Everyone except my son, James.
He’s unusually quiet, sitting on the recliner next to the love seat. His dark brown eyes alternate between watching the Ping-Pong match and glancing down the hall toward the front door.
Steven, who’s always been attuned to how others are feeling, nudges James with his elbow. “What do you say, buddy? You want to be on Thomas’s and my team? We could use another man.”
My five-year-old son smiles genuinely and glances down at the two Ping-Pong paddles in his hands. “That’s okay, Uncle Steven—I’m gonna wait for my daddy. I’ll be on his team.”
And doesn’t that just make me feel like two cents’ worth of shit. Because he’s completely unaware that I have no intention of showing up.
James’s words immediately grab Kate’s attention, and she crouches down in front of him. “Honey, remember I told you Daddy had to work tonight? He didn’t want to, but he had to. I don’t think he’s going to be here to play Ping-Pong.”
James smiles at her reassuringly. “Yeah, I remember, but he’ll come after he’s done working. I know he will. He’ll make it in time.”
Kate’s eyes cloud with worry, because she doesn’t want our little boy disappointed. Not on Christmas Eve. And sure as hell not because of his father.
“Can I play with you?” she offers. “I play a mean game of Ping-Pong.”
James giggles. “Thanks, Mommy, but I want to wait for Daddy.”
Kate tries again. “But what if he can’t come, honey?”
James gazes back at her calmly, confidently, because he believes every word he’s saying. “Daddy told me that ‘can’t’ isn’t a real word. That anything someone wants to do badly enough—they’ll do. He said ‘can’t just means they won’t,’ or that they don’t want to. So that’s how I know he’s coming. Because it’s Christmas Eve, and there’s nowhere Daddy wants to be more than here with us. So he’ll be here.”
Guilty pain lances my heart, and I cover it with my hand. I think I might actually fucking cry.
“Ouch,” my spirit sister says beside me. “That’s gotta hurt. And you thought the mother guilt was bad.”
I shake my head. “I’m such a dick. How can I be such a giant asshole and not know it?”
Christmas Alexandra takes pity on me. She pats my shoulder. “You’re not really that bad. You’re just a little self-absorbed sometimes. You don’t see things from others’ perspectives—how your actions may affect them.”
Back in the apartment, Kate brushes back the locks of James’s hair that have fallen over his forehead. “You are the smartest, sweetest little boy ever, you know that?”