Of course we were thrilled when our friends called us all to say they’d be in town Christmas. We hadn’t seen them for years. When we graduated we all swore we’d get a land share and raise children and vegetables communally, but our friends moved west alone after the rest of us realized we needed more to show. And with life getting as crazy as it does, well, we’d all kind of forgotten to keep in touch, though of course we’d never forgotten them.
We said we’d throw a party just for our old crew. The parties we went to these days, these years, were for children, and we wanted to let go like we used to. We arranged sleepovers for our children or warned the babysitters it would be a late night. We decided to wear things that evoked our younger selves but called each other laughing when we saw how ridiculous we looked and changed back into our regular clothes. Some of us wore a particular hat or pin as a joke.
Everyone came early to set up. We were so excited to see our friends and to laugh with them again, and to put off wrapping presents one more night.
They were late, so the dip was put back in the oven. We said “we shouldn’t” when we finished our drinks because what would they think, showing up to find us like this at 5 o’clock, but then we did, and we almost burned the dip.
We rushed to the door when the bell rang. There was such a happy commotion that it took us a moment to understand they’d brought their children, two boys, Jasper and Jeremiah. We thought we’d said no kids, but maybe we just assumed they’d know not to bring them. We really thought they should have known. But when we got their jackets hung and their boots out of the way, we saw how Jeremiah was splayed in his large and complicated stroller, how he stared, and then we understood.
Jasper, their older son, introduced himself. He was handsome and proud. He looked each of us in the eye as he said hello and shook crumbs into our hands.
Jeremiah was introduced as he was unstrapped. We said, “Hi, Jeremiah!” Some of us waved. Those of us who didn’t wave were embarrassed by those who did because waving was obviously the wrong thing to do. Jeremiah made an H sound as his head lolled back. His father picked him up and said, “Oof,” as a joke, but it was clear the boy was as heavy and manageable as a sack of cats.
Our friends walked in and sat Jeremiah in the corner of the couch and Jasper removed his funny black shoes. Jasper whispered to Jeremiah, who squeaked and turned his arms in impossible ways.
Our friends turned and caught us staring. We wanted them to say something about Jeremiah because we didn’t know how to ask, but all they did was throw up their hands and say, “Can you believe Christmas is only three days away?”
“We can’t!” we cried. “The holiday season is just whizzing by!” We hugged them again and demanded they look at everything we’d prepared in their honor.
“You have to try the homemade beer,” we said. “The Egg Nog is organic!” We showed them the artichoke dip and they asked if it was the artichoke dip and we said it was.
They asked where our children were and we said, “They’re not here,” helplessly. They said, “What a shame, we were so looking forward to seeing our kids play together, just like we always talked about.” “Next time,” we said, and they said, “Of course.”
We tried to remember where we’d left off. “Tell us everything,” we said. They told us about their renovations, parents, and jobs. They didn’t stop smiling. We searched for something we recognized but found very little. It was as if we were entertaining very friendly, foreign strangers.
Jasper appeared and tugged on his mother’s sleeve. “There’s a emergency.” He pointed at little Domino, who was circling the food. One of us said that he shouldn’t worry; Domino was a nice and friendly kitty. Jasper said it didn’t matter; cats made his brother shout. Our friends laughed and said, “Aren’t kids afraid of the funniest things?” We agreed that they were, and someone said their youngest was scared of the toaster. Jasper insisted that Domino be locked in the basement. Once Domino was, Jasper returned to the couch and wiped his brother’s chin with a pillow. He took out some jungle animals from his pockets and marched them over his brother’s legs and watched his brother watch them.
We told our friends that there was a boy’s room upstairs that was full of toys, and that maybe their kids would be happier there. Of course we could leave the door open. We said they should at least take a look. Our friends looked at each other, and then nodded.
It was a bright room with a wall of hockey players. Jasper lingered by the door but Jeremiah made urgent sounds and bucked against his father until he leaned him against the bed. Jasper ran for a truck and placed it in his brother’s lap and placed his brother’s hand on it. Jeremiah made a noise and his family said, “Yes, yes!” They made a show of their laughter so he’d see how happy they were.
We all returned to the living room and tried to get things going but our friends grabbed deviled eggs and went back upstairs. We tried acting as if nothing unusual was happening, but we didn’t buy our act, and this lightened the mood in its own awful way.
When our friends returned we looked for signs of weariness, a way in, but they only gave us cheer. Their questions were relentless. We told them about our jobs, homes, gardens and kids. There was ballet, chess, ceramics, the sax. We shared some unfortunate facts to temper our luck. One child had asthma; another didn’t start walking for the longest time. It had been awful watching her crawl on the playground while younger children ran past. These offerings, made in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie, felt crass the instant we said them, but they just put their hands on their hearts and nodded.
It was a relief when they finally started talking about their children. They said that both kids went to the local elementary school and were crazy about their teachers.
“It’s so nice they go to the same school,” we said.
They said, “It makes the mornings easier.”
“Jasper seems like a great big brother,” we said.
They said, “Having kids a year apart is perfect. We tell all our friends to do it.”
We said, “You seem to be doing really well.”
They said, “Isn’t having children even more fun that you thought it would be?”
We did our best. We talked about the epic Fourth of July party and how much money we spent repairing that house, about professors and strange roommates.
It was inevitable that someone would bring up our friend who died in a bike accident just before graduation. Two of us dated him, and even more of us rowed with him on the crew team. Talking about him made the loss feel sudden and acute, as if he died on his way to the party. We were very stricken, so someone changed the music and put on a band they’d been turned on to by their younger sister.
The crash upstairs came just after we started a half-hearted limbo-line. Our friends were out of the room before we put down our drinks.
From the hall, we saw that Jasper was standing on the bed, crying. Jeremiah was smiling and smearing shit on pieces of a fractured bulldozer.
Our friends soothed Jasper and extracted what was left of the toy from Jeremiah’s hands. We felt bulky and like the police but we didn’t want to leave. We asked what we could do and our friends said “Nothing” over their shoulders.
We went downstairs. The music was still on, and instead of being fun, it rang insipid and cheap, like something only a younger sibling could listen to. We stacked plates with half-eaten snacks and piles of dip and tried not to think about the stuff upstairs.
They came down, a kid in each of their arms, a face buried in their shoulder. Coffee and tea were offered, and also cookies, and they were all refused. “It’s too late,” they said. and they handed us some wet towels.
We looked at our watches and said, “Look at the time!”
“This was so much fun,” they said. They draped coats over the children and wrestled the stroller.
They asked if we remembered how we used to say that we’d never want children. We didn’t remember ever saying that, but we laughed at our selves all the same. When had our lives held the possibility of being different?
They hugged us a little, and walked out the door
“Thank goodness for old friends,” they said over their shoulder, and waved. “Without them you might forget who you really are.”
Anya Yurchyshyn is a frequent contributor to NOON, and her work regularly appears in other publications. Right now she lives in China, but normally she lives in Brooklyn.