Sunday, January 6, 2019

Dear Miss Moreau: Gift

Edie watched James take in the scene on the first floor of the Moreau home. Most of the day’s guests hadn’t even arrived yet, but the shift from the tranquility of Edie's room upstairs to the chaos downstairs was a dramatic one. The food on the countertops and the pots simmering on the stove were a sideshow to her mother who was on a continual loop wrapping, stirring, and offering everyone endless coffee refills. 
“You okay,” she whispered as they settled themselves on the couch. 
He leaned into her before speaking. “When I make it back to Amherst for Christmas, it’s a quiet affair that usually involves sipping a lot of wine and carefully unwrapping gifts. All of this is followed by my mother ridding the living room of any evidence of torn wrapping paper while my father, slightly drunk at this point, makes a handful of inappropriate comments before falling asleep in his recliner.”
“So, is that a Yes, Edie, I'm good?”
“I'm fine. Wonderful, actually. I always wanted a big family Christmas.”
As they were finishing their mid-morning breakfast, the doorbell began to ring with frequency. Charlotte and John arrived first, the latter bearing many gifts. A woman whose past James knew something of, Edie’s Aunt Leah, arrived a few minutes later with her husband, Jack, and a beautiful young girl who curtseyed and introduced herself to James as Michelle. 
Edie and James were momentarily separated by prying relatives after breakfast, giving Edie's grandfather an opening of which he took full advantage. Edie silently prayed for a brief and amicable encounter. 
“So, you’re the boyfriend?”
James's inquisitor settled beside him on the couch, the couch where Edie knew James had hoped to disappear and observe, rather than participate in, the merriment. His ability to command a classroom did not translate to this intimate, nonacademic setting, unless of course instead of a reading of the Christmas story Edie’s relatives were interested in a rousing discussion of common themes in nineteenth century American literature.
“Yes, I suppose I am the boyfriend,” James answered as he extended his hand. 
“Thomas Theriot. I’m Louise’s father. I’m the last one left standing.”
“I’m sorry?”
“All the others are dead.”
“Oh, you mean Edie’s other grandparents?”
“Yes indeed, yes sir.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Mr. Theriot. Your daughter is an exceptional hostess,” James offered. 
“That she is, young man, that she is. But you’re not here to see her, now are you?”
“Well, no I guess I’m not.”
“Edie doesn’t date much, you know. Louise tells me everything. She’s been buzzing about you for weeks now.”
“All good I hope?”
“Well,” the elderly gentleman said as he looked over his shoulder, “mostly good. She worries about Edie, you know, being so far away in Colorado, and then she went and busted her leg.”
“That was unfortunate.”
Edie gave James a wide smile from her perch in a nearby chair. She was certain her grandfather had no idea she could hear every word the men were exchanging. 
“Yes, well, when Louise got her back home, she was singing your praises to me, young man. She told me you have several fancy degrees."
“I see.”
“You are the English professor, right?”
“I am, yes, but please just call me James.”
“Did you meet Charlotte’s father-in-law? He teaches something or other at the university.”
“No, we haven’t been introduced. When you say the university, you mean­­—”
“Louisiana State, of course. Go Tigers!” Thomas Theriot's fist jovially connected with James's right bicep.
“Of course. Well, I’ll have to find him and we can compare notes.”
“So, James, do they just let you date your students?”
Edie's eyes widened as she pretended to pay attention to a conversation her sister and Aunt Leah were having. James slowly took another sip of the post-breakfast coffee he was finishing and answered Mr. Theriot.
“Edie is the only student I've ever dated. She’s the only student I’ve ever considered dating. As for they, they don't explicitly prohibit relationships in which inherit power differentials exist, but I . . . James stopped mid-sentence. There was a quizzical look on Mr. Theriot’s face. 
“In English please, professor?”
“Yes, what I should’ve said is that I won’t do anything to jeopardize Edie’s education. By power differential, I simply mean that, as a faculty member who grades her work, I have power over Edie that some might claim makes an equal relationship between us impossible.”
“I see, I see. So you’re not technically breaking any rules.”
 “No, sir. We’re not breaking any rules. Graduate students are adults. Certainly Edie is an adult,” he added, finding her eyes. “She’s an adult with a mind of her own.”
Mr. Theriot laughed. “That she is, son, that she is.”
Edie watched her grandfather roughly pat James’s knee and lean in to issue his parting words in a loud whisper-voice she knew he assumed, due to his significant hearing loss, only James could hear.
“Louise is a fan, son. That’s the biggest hurdle. David will follow suit, just be patient.” The elderly gentleman stood and walked away before James had a chance to reply. 
Before anyone else joined him, James abandoned the couch and moved toward Edie and her sister and her aunt. The ladies’ hushed conversation had clearly revolved around him until his arrival; once he was within earshot their previously animated faces melted into sly grins. 
“James, hi. You met Leah, right?” 
“I did.”
“Here, take a seat,” Leah offered, standing from her spot next to Edie. “I need to see what Michelle is up to anyway.”
“Thank you,” he said as he took Leah’s place. 
“Well, I’m going to go see what mom might need,” Charlotte said, pointing toward the kitchen.
“You don’t have to leave on my account.”
“Oh, not on your account. I suspect my husband is in the kitchen pilfering turkey and angering my mother.”
          “Your grandfather is a character,” he said as he took her hand in his. 
          “That he is. Are we doing this in here with all these witnesses?” she asked, squeezing his hand.
          “Well, your grandfather says your mom is on board the Dr. Foster train, so yeah, yeah we are.
The day unfolded as a dream does, details soon forgotten but the feelings elicited lingering long after the last gift was opened and the relatives dispersed.
“It’s only nine o’clock. We could watch a movie or something,” she suggested that night as he was unmaking her bed. 
“Here, this first.” He handed her a gift-wrapped box he pulled from under her bed.
“I said no gifts. You know I don’t have anything for you.”
“I told you what I want,” he said, sitting beside her and smoothing her hair with his hand. “I’m serious.”
“You’re going to wash my hair?”
“How does your mom do it?”
“Props me on pillows on the bathroom floor and puts my head over the tub.”
“Sounds perfect. I mean we can wait until your dad’s out of the house if you want.” 
He winked and nodded at her unopened gift.
The wrapping paper revealed a plain brown box, the flaps of which were held together
by two thin pieces of masking tape. She could tell from the weight and shift of the contents there was a book, possibly two, inside. She broke the tape easily, peered inside, and immediately recognized the original cover art of A Farewell to Arms
            “It’s not a first edition, but pretty close.”
            “James! James?”
            “Open it up.”
            A slip of paper was tucked inside. Edie smiled at him and unfolded her note. 
            “I couldn’t bear to ink up the book, but you know me, I had to mark the occasion with a few words.”

Dearest Edie,
       For weeks I overthought what to get you for Christmas. I was resolute about a gift despite your insistence on my crossing time zones and traveling hundreds of miles empty-handed. I was roaming the Internet one night when I should have been reading or sleeping. I found myself on eBay, and there it was. I felt foolish for not thinking of it sooner. 
       Don’t be angry with me, dear. No one has a better excuse for not doing any Christmas shopping than you, immobile as you are. Words, while they are so useful and versatile at times, are inadequate to explain the gift you are to me, the most unexpected gift.
       I love you. I love that you love Hemingway as much as I do. I’ll forever be grateful to him for bringing us together, grateful for his words, his few but perfectly chosen words, that filled our conversations until we were comfortable moving beyond fiction. 
       We’ll reread it together soon. The end will be bearable with you by my side. I suppose that is true of Frederic’s story and mine as well. 

Merry Christmas, Edie. I don’t want to spend another one without you.

All my love, 

“Thank you. For the book, for your words. I love them equally.”
“Don’t equate my words with his.”
“Yours affect me in the same way.”
“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“It is so, nerd. Have you ever taught that one?”
“Not yet, but I believe I might soon . . . matter of fact,” he said, reaching in the box and pulling out a second book, “you can get started on your summer reading now.” 
He gently placed a beautiful hardback copy of The Sun Also Rises in her lap. 
“You’ve done too much. But I love them. Thank you.”
“I’m serious about this one. I originally thought we’d stick to short stories this summer, but The Sun Also Rises is a short novel. I think I’ll assign it as soon as summer registration is finalized. You guys could have it read before we ever meet.”
“Oh. This summer.”
“I can’t wait. I feign interest in the other literature I teach, but goodness, nothing but Hemingway. And you, of course. You, me, and Jake Barnes. What a summer.” 
“You know there’ll be others in the class, right? You recall how this works? It’s not like a month-long date for which the university will give me graduate credit.”
“Oh but isn’t that a nice idea? I’m thinking of possible names for that course.”
“I’ve got to earn some hours this spring first. Can we talk about the spring?”
 “I assume you don’t mean the general season.”
“Well, you know it’s not my favorite.”
“I know. The green grass. The flowers. The fresh air. It’s the worst.”
“I’m serious. The pollen. The heat. All the shaving.”
“Spring in Boulder is a thing to behold.”
“Not this year. Not for me.”
“It’s just a few months, Edie.”
“I really need to speak to you in an official capacity please.”
“Oh, okay. Should I get off of the bed?”
She finally smiled her genuine smile. “No, no you’re good. Emily texted me today to say Merry Christmas, and she asked about my spring schedule. She’s registered already but is thinking of dropping one of her classes that meets at night and taking something online. She needs her nights free to work. Anyway, she wanted to know which online classes I’m taking. That’s where you come in.”
“You know I’m not teaching anything online this semester. Plus I’m only teaching undergraduate stuff this spring.”
“I know. But help me, please. I hate the schedule I agreed to in Boulder. No one should've let me make decisions while I was in the hospital. I was basically high most of the time. Here,” she said, lunging for her laptop on her nightstand. “The schedule is minimized. Pull it up and look. I don’t really have many choices.”
He grinned as he read the online options for the spring.
“Well, at least you’ll have your thesis. You’ll receive credit hours for that.”
“Yeah, and what, Victorian Gender and Sexuality?”
“It won’t be so bad. Tennyson, the Brontes, the Brownings, Oscar Wilde. Have you read any George Eliot? I think you’d like her.”
“I haven’t. I don’t want to take an online class about Oscar Wilde’s sexuality.”
“You’d prefer to discuss the matter in person?”
“You know what I mean.”                    
“Baby, I doubt there will be much focus on the sexuality of the authors. My guess is your instructor will likely focus on gender and sexuality as they’re represented in the texts.”
               “Well, that makes more sense, I guess.
     “You're overthinking things. You'll love the guarded, repressed Victorians.” He snickered and gestured to the plaid pajamas covering every inch of her. 
          “You're pushing your luck. I should send you to Charlotte's room. 
          “Neither of us want that.
          She didn't immediately reply. She lifted the copy of A Farewell to Arms he'd just given her. She fanned the pages under her nose and inhaled deeply. He was alive when this copy was printed. Weird, huh?
          “I guess. Maybe we're his happy ending, you know? Maybe he finally brought two people together who are genuinely happy.
          “What?” She mumbled the word sleepily as she wiggled her way toward him.
         “I don't know. Just a thought. My guess is he was too busy wrestling his personal demons and drinking to ever truly be happy. I think he thought his writing would be cathartic, and surely it was to some extent, but his suicide suggests he never found much peace. He couldn't give any of his characters lasting happiness. They experience moments of love, of elation, of some sort of temporary victory, but something comes for them . . . war, death, unrequited love. 
          “Are you optimistic enough to assume nothing is coming for us?
          He stared at her for a long moment before speaking. “Will you run away if it does?
          “No.” Her answer was immediate. 
          “Okay then. That's why I'm optimistic, dear.
           “Is it okay if we sleep?” She was visibly struggling to continue their conversation. 
          “Of course. Merry Christmas, baby.
          “Merry Christmas. 
          He turned off her bedside lamp. They mumbled I love yous and groped for each other in the darkness while he pulled the covers up to their shoulders. Sleep came easily for the intwined pair, and their deep, rhythmic breathing signaled the closing curtain on the first of many happy Christmases together. 


1 comment:

  1. The perfect gift indeed! I loved reading these additional chapters because I’m a sucker for all things Christmas (even predictable Hallmark movies). But you were definitely right that the book needed to end in the Denver airport.

    Can’t wait for your next book!