At about six thirty that evening Dad, Laura and I were sitting around the fire in the living room at the front of the house, just talking. I say talking, but we were really arguing about whether or not we should go to the mall early in the morning the next day (my preference), or at lunchtime the next day (Laura’s preference). It was funny how after only a few hours back together, we would all slip into our old, traditional positions for these holiday arguments. On the face of it, the discussion was about traffic and which stores and facilities would be open, but the undisclosed sub-argument was something about which we would never agree. My sister wanted to go at peak time, because of the likelihood she would bump into people she knew, and I wanted to go when it was ghostly quiet for exactly the same reason. For me the mall was purely utilitarian, I knew what I needed and I just wanted to get in, get it and get out. For my sister it was more of a social occasion, which just happened to take place in a venue where there were shops.
Just as Dad was playing mediator between us, I heard a car arrive. I could tell it was Mom’s car from the noise it made, and from the careful way she used to drive; moving back and forward until she was at exactly the centre of the driveway, and the car was straight. I went out to the door and could see it was snowing again. Even though I had by now only got a light jumper on, I slid on my boots and run out to give Mom a big hug.
“Kim!” Mom said, with a big smile. “You made it all safe?”
“Yes, all fine Mom, what’s all this?” I said looking at the backseat full of brown paper bags.
“Oh, just a few last minute additions for your big party”.
“Gosh Mom, that looks like a lot. Maybe … maybe, don’t put it all out to begin with, just to avoid …”
“Avoid what?” Mom said, as she began handing me two of the bags from the car, and swinging the door closed.
“Well, embarrassment – I mean if not many people turn up”
“Oh crumbs, plenty of people will turn up, did your sister not tell you about who we invited. We’ve had a great response. People are really keen to catch up with you, especially because you’re not on Facebook. Why are you not on Facebook again?”
A shiver went up my spine from the cold, which I tried to shake off. “I just can’t stand it mom. I don’t want to know every time my cousin has a dentist appointment, or every time a girl from school has gone to the gym, or that a guy from college is in a relationship, and that 45 people like that, or at least say they like that. My brain can only process so much information in a day and I don’t want it to be filled with all this inane crap.”
“Oh, I think you’re too serious Kim, people are just living their lives. We can’t all be doing big important things in New York like you.”
I sighed, “But I’m not doing any big important things in New York Mom. Otherwise I might be on Facebook.” I joked, as we walked up the path, trying not to slip in the snow, “No, I think people’s imagination of what I’m doing is better than the reality, so I’d like to keep it that way.”
Mom stopped just short of the front door. “You know I’m on Facebook now. I’m friends with Laura, Auntie Jane, and a bunch of the girls from the office.”
Freezing, I tried to nod congratulations and keep walking inside, but Mom motioned me back. She leant in closer to me, looking over my shoulder, and whispered “Rob Cahill from down the street requested me to be his friend. Sent me a private message. Your father was very unhappy about it. He said he was going to go down and speak to him. So just don’t mention it, ok.”
“Ok” I said, laughing. The Rob Cahill I remembered was a grey (in both the literal and metaphorical sense), married, tax accountant. Birdwatching was his hobby as far as I could recall, and he had always seemed pretty boring to me. About my only interaction with him was when we would play soccer in the street occasionally, in summer. If the ball went near his garden he would come out and stand in his garage, pretending to be working on something, but poking his head out anytime it approached his little hedge, and walking around with his hands behind his back.
“What did he say?” I asked Mom as she brushed her feet in the porch and shouted hello to Dad.
“What’s that?” Mom responded.
“Rob, what did he private message you?”
“Oh” Mom leant in and whispered again, as if revealing some sordid secret. “Garden’s looking real nice at the moment Grace. I like the lavender.”
“Is that it?!” I burst out laughing.
“Yes.” My mom said, looking surprised.
“And Dad was angry about that?”
“He was furious. He said that he always knew Cahill was some kind of pervert; ‘what sort of man goes around privately messaging other men’s wives?’ He said. He said the birdwatching was probably an excuse to go around with binoculars, peeping in people’s windows. Then he said it was my fault for planting that lavender on the drive. He said it was showy, and attracting the wrong type of attention. He said he was going to dig it up.”
“That’s hilarious. Did he dig it up?”
“No, but like I say, for god’s sake don’t mention it, because he never said he had changed his mind either. Laura said it’s because he isn’t on Facebook and doesn’t really understand these things. She talked about it with her problems-shared group at school. Eh, don’t tell your Dad that either!”
Mom, being of English and Irish heritage, had always accused my father of having what she called a ‘fiery Mediterranean temperament’. His family, the Livornos, were from northern Italy, and although they had lived in America for generations, they maintained a passion for all things Italian. This included a tendency towards strong opinions across a range of subjects. Normally Dad was, of course, incredibly calm and in public we were always amazed, as a family, at how he kept his composure when things went wrong. But his ability to completely suppress his emotions came with one interesting side effect; when he did eventually crack, he went from 0 to 10 on the anger scale, without stopping in between. Over the years, the range of subject matter which could incite such a crack had diminished, mom assured me. Dad had largely retired from business and Laura was apparently a much easier teenager to manage than I had been. But obviously, jealousy towards other men’s advances on his wife, however horticultural in nature, remained a trigger.
I didn’t mention Cahill or the Lavender of course, and it was really nice for us all to stand around the kitchen preparing the food for the evening as a family. At about six thirty I said I would just take five minutes to go and get changed, and half an hour later Mom called me back from my room to say the first car had arrived. This sent me into a panic because, despite having tried on every dress I had taken with me, including a number of old favourites left at my parent’s house, I had decided none were appropriate. I quickly went back to the first one I had tried on and had a final look in the mirror, before dashing out to the open-plan kitchen so I could pretend to be chopping carrot sticks, that were already chopped.
Adele, an old friend from school, was the first there. Laura opened the door to her and she patted her on the shoulder, saying thank you as she looked past her into the room, and rushed straight for me, gushing with excitement. She squeezed my shoulders together and looked at me saying “so good to see you Kit, how are you keeping? I heard you were still in New York, how’s the career going? It all sounds so exciting!”
I remembered her keenness, and how it was applied to everything indiscriminately.
“That right, thanks Adele, and thanks for coming. It’s all going really well, I just wish I had had more time to keep in touch with friends back home.“
“Oh, don’t worry, were all just busy, busy nowadays, it’s the way of life.” Adele said. “ … And how’s the love life. Still single I hear”.
It was only a matter of time I thought.
“Well, I was seeing someone, a few people actually… not like that … but, eh, I just haven’t met the guy for me yet I suppose.”
“Well then, this is the year Kit, this is the year you’ll find yourself a man, I can feel it”.
She clearly thought she was being a good friend, but it was laced with a familiar, holier-than-thou preachiness. She had clearly found her man, and until I had done so, however successful my career in New York may be, I would be a failure in life. That was the message.
“Well, you know, I’m not just searching for any man. I only want to settle down if I find the right man for me, but you know at the moment I’m so busy with work I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Well I know, it always really makes me think how lucky I was to meet Tom. We were just 27 when we met, and I was just like ‘this is my dream man; handsome, smart and with a great job’”.
“Well, he sounds great Adele, I’d love to meet him some time” I said, conjuring all my maturity.
“Oh, you will, he’s just parking up the … ”. Suddenly Adele began to gush again with excitement, turning to say “Oh, here he is. This is Tom!”.
She looked at him coming through the door and glided her hand through the air tracing him across the room, as if he were a canape. Tom looked at her as if he was as puzzled by this strange gesture as I was, and as he got closer I thought, if he were a canape, he would not be one I would have picked. He was thin, strangely thin, and had a thin little beard which wrapped around his chin. He was wearing a shirt that was probably two sizes too large for him, with purple and black stripes. The purple stripes had a slight gloss, a veneer, to them; presumably to make the shirt look more expensive. Of course it had exactly the opposite effect. I imagined it had come with a matching tie and I could picture Tom holding it up before he came out – “tie, no tie?”. He didn’t look like a bad man, just incredibly boring.
“Hey” said Tom, looking at me, with a little nod. “Hey” he said to Adele, with the same head movement and smile – “I got her all parked up a little further down the road. I thought you might be expecting quite a few people so didn’t want to hog the driveway”.
Adele began rubbing his shoulder adoringly and said “he’s so thoughtful, always thinking of others”.
“Hi Tom, I’m Kimberley” I said, reaching out my hand to him. “Adele and I went to school together, so she probably referred to me as Kit”.
In New York, safe from the school register and namebadge on my clothes, I had remained Kimberley Livorno. But at school I was not spared the exposure of the middle-name dumping ground, and teachers often used my full name when calling roll – Kimberley Ivy Taggart Livorno. As was the fashion at the time, my books and clothes were accordingly stamped KIT Livorno, which had kind of stuck. I think in part my insistence on the use of Kimberley in New York was to give life to the new character I wanted to develop when I moved there, so hearing ‘Kit’ when I was home always gave rise to a strange emotional mix of feeling in me; a sort of homely, claustrophobic familiarity.
“Oh, hey Kit, sorry I was’t sure who… I mean I didn’t realise you were the … ”, Tom them switched into a high pitched comedy voice to say ”Birthday Girl.” He signalled blowing a trumpet and then seemed to take on the persona of a news reporter, pretending to hold out a microphone “So, how’s it feel to hit the big three zero?”.
“Oh, ask me in a year’s time….” I said, in as exaggeratedly natural and relaxed a voice I could, in an attempt to snap Tom of of his one-man comedy show, as I could see the lights of other cars arriving.
“I didn’t catch what do you do for a living Tom” I said.
Of course I hadn’t caught it because he hadn’t said it. But, in New York, eliciting maximum material information from men in the shortest space of time had become something of an art form.
“Oh, well I sort of write science fiction novels.”
“Sort of?” I said.
“One is 220,000 words long.” Tom replied – as if that was an answer to my question.
“Oh yeah, it’s quite a work. It takes a certain kind of person to get into my novels … but my proofreader loves them. Raves about them in fact. Keeps asking me when the next Chapter is going to be available.”
“So does the publisher pay for all that?” I asked somewhat distractedly, feeling cruel immediately after the words left my lips. My eyes looked back from the door towards the fragility of Tom’s frame.
“Well, eventually. I mean, hopefully. I’m on the third work at the moment and it’s looking like I will self publish that one too, at the moment. But if the quality is there, you’re ripe to be picked up by one of the big houses. It’s just a matter of time and persistence. Actually Adele mentioned you were down in New York.”
“Yes, nearly 10 years now.”
“Oh cool, yeah last year I went to a big seminar down there which was all about getting spotted. You know, how to make yourself stand out in a crowded market.”
“Sounds interesting, was it a big event?”
“Oh, couple of hundred at least; they hold it once a year, and it just gets bigger and bigger”.
I think Adele sensed Tom was not doing himself justice and interrupted “Yes, yes, but that is more of a hobby Tom.”
She turned to me, shaking her head, and whispered, “Tom runs his own software company with friends from college. It’s very successful”.
“Oh wow, what type of software?” I asked.
Adele smiled at Tom, as if to give him a visual kick.
“Yes” Tom said, “MAPS. Maine Automated Payroll Solutions. You’ve probably heard about us. We were in a lot of newspapers when the business came runner up in the Bangor Young Enterprise of the Year Award last year.”
Of course I’d never heard of them, but Tom was suffering from a common delusion that whatever is of interest to him, must also be of interest to everyone else. I feigned knowledge of course, as you do in such situations, After countless industry events in New York, I had learned that, however wildly unrealistic the expectation of your knowledge, a little nodding through acknowledging eyes will get you through any amount of smalltalk, however dreary. The deployment of a few bland stock phrases will also pay dividends.
“Yes, I think I might recall reading something about that – the judges were very impressed with the company”.
“Right!” Tom said, looking delighted and pointing at me. “We took all the work out of keeping IRS records for small employers in Maine. We visit them to install the software and give some basic training, and from there they just plug in the big numbers and we can do everything else remotely. And it’s more secure.”
So far, this was not the party I was hoping for. The gin and tonic Laura had handed to me was slightly flat and had no lime in it, I’d been reminded of just how single I was, and my only male contact involved talking to an IT guy about ‘payroll solutions’.