(Synopsis: We go hard on a holiday special centered around Jasper’s first Winterfest. Shu antagonizes Jo by crashing the J.-E. festivities. Charlie talks about BPD and ants. Set some time aside for this one; I promise it’s worth the read.)
“Jasper! Look over here!”
The youngest Jeong-Espinosa had already made plans to taste the arm of the wooden chair when he was done with his own hand, but decided to humor his mother this time.
“Jasper,” she said, holding her cellphone at a length where the camera minimally distorted his facial features while still being close enough to evoke feelings of intimate connection in the viewer, “do you want to tell Mommy about Winterfest?”
Well, he did, in fact, the problem being it was impossible to properly communicate the depth of his Winterfest knowledge with his limited command of Simlish. And by the same token, he hadn’t noticed most of this knowledge was secondhand from the requester herself. So the prompt may not have been in good faith, itself probably intended to showcase how poor Jasper’s command of Simlish actually was, but in a way that was endearing to its target audience. But he didn’t know that.
“It has, a treeeeeee.” That’s what he did know. Not being able to stop a terminal vowel once it had started was still an issue. The proper separation of clauses in conversational Simlish, he understood, for certain very short clauses, but was forced to insert his own as his mind ping-ponged around for whatever noun best represented what he was trying to convey.
“And what goes on the tree?”
That was just an unfair question in general, given that Jasper’s vocabulary was heavily biased in favor of frequently used words, and of those, the ones restricted to six letters max. ‘Winterfest’ being a notable exception. Here’s one that fit the bill. “A star!”
“And what else?”
As much as he would have liked to help his mother out, this particular query fell outside his realm of expertise. He reverted instead to his original course of action, getting his impermanent-toothed mouth close enough to the chair arm’s terminus to bash his tastebuds against the sweet sweet wood grains.
Jo made an appeal back to something she’d said fifteen minutes ago. “Or…”
Or what? Asked and answered, Mom.
“Ormanents!” Sic. Back to the chair, which would shortly gain some markings longer-lasting than the teeth that created them.
“Do you want to help put them on the tree?”
“Yesssss!” If only to find out what they were.
“Alright, honey, let’s go.” Jo pressed ‘record’ on her camera app, a gesture that did the opposite of what its name suggested, pleased with the real-stinking-cute candid moment she’d set up.
The conifer, handpicked by mother and son (Dr. J.-E.’s off chasing flu patients, but he sends his blessings), made it as far as the front arch before Jo realized her house was too compact for it to actually fit anywhere. A couple hours after banishing Jasper to the bedroom, moving most of the furniture from the family room to the limitless void of the family inventory, placing the tree, unbanishing and filming Jasper as he decorated the bottom two feet of the tree (and maybe halfway at best, since the ornaments all seemed to be clustered in one area), redoing his work while he wasn’t looking, and taking the presents out from under the bed, she was done. It was presentable, if not elegant, or functional as a living room. It was at least what the situation called for.
Charlie came home around sevenish. He hadn’t been informed that the living room was now gone.
“What’s going on in here?”
“I cast a Winterfest spell and, poof!” Jo opened her hands in a whimsical manner. “The furniture turned into a tree. Right, Jasper?”
“Yessss!” And there was his revenge for the flashcard dishonesty earlier.
“Well, it looks great. It looks like Father Winter himself came down from the North Pole and did it.” The North Pole is slightly higher than the other worlds on the selection menu, offscreen.
“No, me and Mommy did it.” Sic. Give the kid a break.
“That’s right, we did! Do you know about Father Winter?”
“He comes in the, the, fire place, and.”
“And what does he bring?”
“Presents!” Two houses over, a flock of birds took off from a tree. There were already some gifts where the partially spit-covered chair had been, but more couldn’t hurt. He chose one and used the palm of his hand to slide a decorative ribbon back and forth over the outer edge.
“Not until tomorrow, buddy.” Charlie was either unaware of the ribbon-sliding loophole or being paranoid.
“Here, let’s all get a picture in front of the tree.” Jo set a tripod up at the front arch, setting the timer just long enough for her to whisk Jasper onto her lap and snuggle up to her husband. This was going on the e-cards.
From his omniscient post, Father Winter watched Jasper wake his parents up just shy of 3 in the morning to inform them it was Winterfest Eve. Or the day before, if you’d prefer having Eve apply only after sundown. Winterfest minus one. Again, his excitement about Winterfest dwarfed his ability to inform other Sims of this verbally, so he was stuck at the basal level of screaming and waving his limbs.
Jo sat down to pen what Charlie’s sister’s acquaintance would later refer to as ‘that bougie shit on the fridge.’ (It was a testament to sibling love that she had it up there at all.) The finished product, paired with a matching-sweaters-type photo and copied 22 times, was snail-mailed out to everyone Jo thought could use the holiday cheer. There were 23 prints of the photo as well—a one-to-one thing, you get it. Her letter read:
How lucky we are as a family this Winterfest season! Yesterday Jasper and I set up the holiday decorations, and it ended up all being so much that we had to clear out almost the entire living room. Charlie came home and he didn’t know what to do! We were laughing so hard!
Jasper is so excited for his first Winterfest. He has been doing wonderfully with his flashcards and can even use the potty. He continues to warm all of our hearts and will almost certainly receive a present from Father Winter. We are so proud of him!
In case no one has told you already, Charlie recently got promoted to Chief of Staff at the hospital where he works. Go Charlie! I also started a venture of my own, and our website Jumping Jasper! is now live. If this letter tickles your curiosity, you can go there to find out what those Jeong-Espinosas are up to this time.
Today is Jasper’s birthday. I’m so excited to find out what the future has in store for this wonderful boy! We are all wishing you and your families a fantastic Winterfest with the ones who are closest to your heart.
Sending lots of love from my family to yours,
Josephine, Charles and Jasper Jeong-Espinosa
So yeah: Jasper’d been dealt a crap hand, birth-timing-wise, and has one of those awful winter solstice birthdays that means he only gets one round of presents. But it’s split into two parts, and he hadn’t yet spent a whole spring/summer/fall present desert waiting around for the days to shorten, so he was grateful at the moment. It meant getting to celebrate a day early.
He occupied himself by chasing the dry ingredients around with a spoon in the medium-sized plastic bowl Jo had given to him. When he lost interest in that task, or Jo was done taking a power mixer to the cake’s fluid components, plus sugar, whichever came first, he was to poke Jo’s tablet at regular intervals to keep the recipe visible, and scroll 4/5 of the way down the post to the recipe if he happened to mis-poke and the browser reset to the top of the page. A couple minutes of quality stirring time passed before his mother reclaimed the bowl. From below, he watched her slow the mixer down to where changes in the glutinous structure of the batter could be tracked by eye, smacking the bowl to release the mostly-flour in small portions the rotating beater could deal with. It was one of those standalone mixers. She fetishized the thing. Jasper had already been pitched to multiple times about how easy it was to make whipped cream and soufflés and other foodstuffs with air as a major ingredient.
She poured the finished batter into a cake pan. “See how easy that was?” Jasper was already sucking on the batter-coated beater.
With the collaborative portion being done and Jasper figuring out how to fit the whole beater into his fun-sized mouth, Jo searched for decorated cakes on her Simstagram feed, particularly fondant-free ones she can replicate. This one seemed elegant, doable, and appropriate. On the blog it goes.
It remained lit until snuffed out by Jasper, surrounded by his parents, his Grandpa, his three blood uncles, two of his non-blood uncles, and the dead ex-spouse of his uncle’s husband. The boy found himself being lifted up by rainbow sparkle magic. By the time he came down, he had a new body. He wiggled his fingers in admiration.
Jo’s brother Maxwell turns to Charlie as Jasper shares his feelings about the aging ritual with other guests. “So, Charlie. What’s your favorite word?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie claimed instinctually before realizing his mistake. “Wait, I actually do have some. But it’s better if you see them written out.”
Charlie pulls a miniature black notebook out of his lab coat pocket, then makes a second excursion into the same pocket to locate a pencil. He flips through several pages of what looks to Maxwell like multiple layers of scribbles. Finding one with no scribbles, he flattens the notebook on the half-wall, clicks the mechanical pencil twice, checks that the lead extrudes at least a couple millimeters from its plastic casing, and ruins the infinite potential of his once-blank medium in two words.
“These,” Charlie said, presenting Maxwell with the notebook. “These are cool because they mean the same thing, but they’re both almost impossible to pronounce unless you’re already familiar with the roots.”
Maxwell read the words ‘haplodiploidy’ and ‘arrhenotoky,’ although Charlie’s handwriting had deteriorated enough during his career advancement to make them look like ‘mploolplady’ and ‘nmhenatoly.’
“How do you pronounce them?”
“‘Haplodiploidy’ and ”arrhenotoky.”
“Uh-huh,” Maxwell hesitated. “And what do they mean?”
“So, in Sims, the father and mother each have two sets of chromosomes, and when the baby is born, it has one set of chromosomes from each parent, right?” Maxwell nods. “That’s ‘diploidy’: two sets of chromosomes. And ‘haploidy’ is when it has one set of chromosomes.” Maxwell nods again. “So ‘haplodiploidy’ suggests an organism can have either one or two sets of chromosomes.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, it determines the sex in some species. Like in bees and ants. In bees and ants, males are haploid because they develop from unfertilized eggs, and females are diploid because they develop from fertilized eggs.”
“And where does the other word come from?”
“It’s a shorter version of ‘arrhenotokous parthenogenesis.’ It refers to—“
“Ok, buddy, you lost me,” explained Maxwell. He turns to Jasper. “And what’s your favorite word?”
Maxwell shoots Jasper with a single finger gun. “Kid’s got a point.”
Winterfest morning, the post-birthday boy avoids waking his parents up too soon in the A.M. by scrolling through picture-based subreddits on his favorite birthday gift, a smartphone. He began to suspect he’d been shorted in toddlerhood now that his picture books seemed so flat and unimaginative compared to the real world. The stunts, more impressive; the dialogue, less wooden; the messages, truer; the cats, cattier; the villains, also cattier. And the top comments, always so clever! Jasper fantasized himself being insightful enough to write a top comment, and having it become one of the most upvoted comments on the site, and coming up with another perfect riff on the next post, etc. Or better yet, becoming one of those instantly recognizable posters known for churning out quality OC at a preposterous rate.
But the main obstacle to Jasper’s ambition (aside from lack of ideas) was his ignorance of pop culture: the world was designed for and run by people several decades ahead of himself, an effect everyone seemed to have forgotten by the time their fine motor skills kicked in and their height enabled them to reach the cabinet where Mom was hiding chocolate truffles and the customs of their predecessors were replaced, or at least expanded upon, by the top minds of their own generation. The anonymous posters Jasper looked up to all had the experience of knowing the state of the world before something existed, and when it did, of watching it progress from conception to novelty to ubiquity. Everything they talked about was already in the final state by the time he entered the scene. The solution being, despite falling outside the hotly contested birth year range of the 90’s kid, he could get the resources to mimic the 90’s kid experience, inferring from the references what was important to Sims his age at the time. I’m saying he’s going to watch a bunch of cartoons.
First he’s going to sneak downstairs on Winterfest morning, through a home gym lit by the now-frosted panes of glass that are functionally more wall than window, into the living room/lobby/foyer again notable for its relative lack of walls, this time in a manner suggesting his parents would be constantly dealing with wet terra cotta if the arches didn’t count as impenetrable boundaries. No physical changes had occurred overnight, but Jasper’s heightened senses felt in the room a feeling of divine energy. Today was going to be special.
Jasper didn’t realize how long ago he’d eaten until the shock of the general solstice-festive aura wore off enough for him to notice the smell of bacon and eggs. He looked past the five inches of non-arch wall to find his father was already awake, hadn’t gotten dressed yet, and was using a plastic spatula to push something around in a skillet. He snuck closer.
“Hi Dad,” Jasper said.
“Hmm? Oh, good morning, buddy. You’re up early.”
“When are you gonna be done cooking?” Charlie’s buddy asked. He was dangling off the half-wall with both hands, pushing just enough into his palms to rotate back and forth around its corner.
“One sec,” he said, inverting the contents of the skillet onto a large platter, a motion that organized said contents in a self-sorting and aesthetically pleasing manner. “Now. Your mom will be up soon, but I’m sure she’ll be alright if we start without her.”
Both took a serving, one after removing himself from the wall first. Jasper had gotten as far as selecting the oiliest piece of bacon and opening his mouth before he was interrupted.
“What do we say?”
“Thank you for breakfast, Daaaaaad,” Jasper drew out, less from a sense of entitlement than because he thought the gratitude was obvious, and didn’t realize it wasn’t. Only then was he allowed to take the first bite. The winter-festivity magic applied to food as well; he milked the first-bite experience by savoring one forkful of each of the meal’s components, swaying in approval of each new flavor. He sorted the foods in order from least to most favorite and vowed to stick to that order for the whole meal. So did the older J.-E., who would have normally eaten in order of decreasing healthiness, given the body’s tendency to absorb nutrients more efficiently on an empty stomach, but was taking the holiday off.
“You excited for Winterfest?” Charlie asked at about the point where he’d finished his eggs and Jasper had eaten maybe half of his mushrooms and was now doing some twirling with one he had impaled in the divot of its stem with a fork tine.
Charlie realized it was up to him to produce enough momentum to keep the conversation going. “What are you most excited about?”
“I wanna meet Father Winter!”
“You think you earned a spot on the nice list?”
“Yeah!” Jasper said with confidence. He’d spent his toddlerhood learning the maximum possible amount of information, and, credit to Jo, knew four times as many words as necessary. Half of those were really more symbolic given that he’d already surpassed Charlie’s understanding of the non-Simlish languages associated with his ancestry. Also he didn’t punch anyone. Hence, nice list.
“How about going to see Grandpa and Abuela?”
Jasper paused to focus on procrastinatory fungus-twirling before declaring “I don’t know.” Tough luck, it was mandatory. He gave up on the mushrooms and the ordering went downhill from there.
“How about the presents?” Ahead, Jo dragged her half-conscious body into the bathroom, sans obeisance.
Charlie dropped his act of coming up with more stuff to talk about. They weren’t expecting anyone to drop by this early, or at all, so he was perplexed as to why his oldest friend would be walking through the front arch and heading towards the study. He decided to make an appeal from the kitchen instead of getting up. “Shu. Shu. Dude. You can come in. You don’t—” The study door closed. A round of virtuosic knocking echoed through its panels, threatening to continue until a resident came around to reopen it. Charlie tried to hide his annoyance while he navigated the redecorated family room, with its presents, thematic flora, and lack of furniture, until he reached the study door having collected at least a half-dozen pine needles with his slippers. He opened the door. “Yeah, get in here.”
“Cha-cha-charles!” said the visitor, greeting his friend with a brief hug. “Happy Winterfest! And happy Winterfest to you, too, Jasper! Ho ho ho!”
“Dad, who’s this?” He’d apparently been too overstimulated at his birthday party to keep track of the adults, memorable or otherwise.
“You don’t remember me? Oof!” He feigned being knocked back at the offense. “I knew you when you were just this small,” demonstrated by holding the palms of his hands a chestnut-sized distance apart. “This small.”
“No you didn’t. That’s too small.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It was more of a this-small type of deal,” he corrected, moving his hands to baby-or-keyboard distance. “But look at you now, you’re like,” he thrust his hands apart with some explosion sound effects that became increasingly unconvincing as they drew out, culminating in a gagging noise. That got a laugh out of Jasper.
“Jasper, this is my friend Shu,” Charlie answered, glad his extravert was here to drive things forward so he could resume jumping in occasionally with relevant information.
“Hey Jasi, we’re gonna turn this Winterfest out.” They fistbumped across the counter.
Jo emerged from the bathroom to find an obstacle between her and the food. She made eye contact with her husband across the hallway, hard to do with all the talking the obstruction’s hands were doing, and gave him a look that suggested Jasper would spend his second Winterfest contemplating the anniversary of his father’s death. For this degenerate to be here on a day meant for family—but why wasn’t he with his own family? The circumstances had to be dire if he was showing up on a family friend’s doorstep, and since he was already inside, it would go against the Winterfest spirit to send him back alone. She’d let Charlie deal with this. First she had to lay down the rules.
Jo tapped Shu on the back to get his attention, taking a deep inhale before delivering her prepared message. “I don’t know what you’re doing here,” she told him, “and this is going to be very hard for you, but I have to ask you to please refrain from using any form of profanity around my child. He is very impressionable and I don’t want him being exposed to that kind of language this early in his development. And stay out of the photos.”
“‘Kay. Hold on, Chantel sent me like eight texts.” Averaging almost one per hour today, which was impressive given the circumstances.
Jasper had already learned the seven dirty words (plus others. He’s also restricting himself to Simlish here) by getting past the parental controls 30 minutes after he aged up. For someone who was just beginning to develop his own system of ethics, the concept of certain words being powerful enough to send his mother into a fit of disproportionate rage was the most compelling idea he’d been exposed to in his 20 hours of childhood. That those seven words had such emotional gravitas compared to, say, Mom’s suggestions of cat/gato/猫/고양이 or dog/perro/狗/개, e.g., elevated them to the position of highest importance in his growing mind. And now, from overhearing her warning, he knew to correctly view Shu as a modern-day Shakespeare in that his written work singlehandedly extended the vulgar lexicon by several increasingly elaborate and obscene turns of phrase. Jasper at last felt his thirst for knowledge outweigh his desire for material goods; the universe had sent his guru in the mountains, his Brahmachari. There would be rumors a century later that Jasi received his side-splitting neologisms from on high, Moses-style, but you can’t see the evidence because one of his acolytes let it get, I don’t know, eaten by ants or something.
If Jo had trusted Shu’s intuition on what is child-appropriate, or further clarified that Jasper lacked the context to grasp the vast majority of Shu’s œuvre (something she couldn’t do without exposing him to said context at a point NooBoo Corner agreed was five point nine years too early), her son might have ignored the man in favor of catching up on Fortnite dances. Instead her tiebreaker had deflected to the opposite camp regarding Shu’s presence at this or any other event.
She pulled Charlie into the corner by the card table, considerable bulk and all. “What do you think you’re doing,” she whispered. “This is a family holiday.“
“Yeah, and it didn’t occur to you that he might have a reason for not wanting to be with his family today?”
“Of course that occurred to me,” she hissed.
The intruder, the one with a negligible no-no square, stepped outside to make a call. “Hi babe. Yeah, since I couldn’t be there, I left a surprise in your purse.” Jasper was listening through the invisible arch walls while pretending to be on his phone.
Jo continued. “But that doesn’t mean you should put me in this situation where I have to tell him he’s not staying. “
“Jo, I’m sorry. Shu’s basically family, so I didn’t even realize.”
“You found it? Yaaaay. Yay. Yay. I love you too.”
“We’re not even visiting your actual family until later. This is supposed to be time for us and our son.”
“So let’s not waste time arguing about it. Look, Jasper’s alone over there.”
“<I don’t know.> Wear one of your other tailcoats.” Presumably he was speaking to someone else now.
“That’s not fair. You’re trying to end the conversation early so you don’t have to deal with this.”
“Could you please give him a chance? He’s good with Jasper, and he’s behaving himself. Please? This is very important to me.”
“<Yeah.> … <Yeah.> Bye, Dad.”
The three adults reconvened in the family room. “Okay Jasper, come over here. We’re going to sing some songs,” his mom said, ushering the others around the tree.
They settle in for a round of Fwingle Zibbs, etc., Shu occasionally breaking his harmony with Charlie to improvise a descant, Jasper overpowering everyone else as he hunts for the right notes. Damned if he wasn’t going for it with conviction. Note also that Jo isn’t taking her camcorder out.
Charlie checked the time. “Oh, it’s about time to head to my parents’.”
“Why?” asked Jasper.
“You have to visit the grandparents on Winterfest. It’s in the social contract.”
“My existence. Your existence. Their existence.” Charlie felt his phone buzz and checked his messages. “Gosh darn it, Kendra’s not coming.”
“Why?” It was Jo’s turn to ask.
“She’s going to a Winter Solstice celebration with one of my girlfriends.” Shu displayed a text from Kendra stating just that, sandwiched between two illustrations of Krampus in different stages of problematic child discipline (the discipline is problematic, i.e.; not the child).
Charlie stopped himself from asking if he remembered which one. “Everybody, do me a favor and don’t remind Mom. She’s probably not too happy about that.” He got a couple understanding nods. The family headed in different directions to pick up their jackets.
Shu waited until the others were out of earshot to make one last call. “Hi! So, I know you told me not to come over today. I’m gonna be right across the street with the J.-E.s. … But it’s right across the street. … You’re sure? Okay bye Mom, love you.”
“Well, well, well.” Mike had moved a swivel chair from the office to the entrance for the sole purpose of swiveling one hundred eighty degrees to address Charlie and co. “It looks like the doctor is in.”
“My darlings! Come say hi, I’m in the kitchen,” Claudia said, surprisingly clearly given that she was competing with the radio, the oven timer, the exhaust hood, the aromatics sizzling in at least two saucepans, and Mona and Perry barking slightly out of phase at the four interlopers. Charlie glanced toward his mother; she wasn’t even facing in the right direction to project her voice like that. The dogs skipped back into the kitchen to answer the pressing questions of what those smells were and whether their sources were going to be dropped on the floor.
“Hey Claudia, Shu’s here too,” said Mike.
“Hi Shuuuu!” Claudia always welcomed his presence because there was no limit to how long she could draw out his name. This instance lasted at least a couple seconds.
“We don’t need stockings when we’ve got a Shu!” Good lord, Mike’s also a fan of the name. He turned to Charlie’s wife, placing his hands on his midsection à la Father Winter. “Jo Jo Jo!”
The unique instance of laughter came from Hector. He’d previously been multitasking, staring at them while eating a piece of cake.
Jasper felt a nudge from his mom. “Hello Grandpa. Hello Abuela. Hello Uncle Hector.” He received polite murmurs in return, except it was more of a polite yell in Claudia’s case. Then he got right to the meat of it. “Can we open presents?”
“One. Then wait four hours before opening the next one,” said Jo, speeding up the final words as her son was already darting toward the gift pile. Mike voiced his approval of the bluntness and claimed it had a genetic component for which he was responsible.
“Hector, could you please help me with the roast?” was the request heard from the kitchen. He went running to comply.
Shreds of the paper that had once concealed Jasper’s first gift lay on the floor. Mona had one in her mouth. “An airplane! Cool!” It was thrust in the air as high as his hands could reach. “Nyyyeeeeeeooooown!”
The airplane did a few laps around the living room before Jasper decided to test its ability to fly unassisted. He lobbed the thing right into the kitchen, hitting the stool from which his mother was spectating the head and sous chefs.
“Jasper, be nice to your toys,” Jo warned. “Remember what happened to the mean kid in Toy Story?”
“Sorry, Mom. Sorry, plane.” It didn’t have a name yet. Its owner performed a brief inspection and tune-up before resuming its cross-living-room schedule. Jo turned back to Claudia.
“Jo, I loved the beautiful letter you sent us.” This was sincere. Mike woke up that morning to find Claudia snoozing at the dining room table over a tear-stained summary of her son’s family’s life, the photo safely out of range. Kind of odd how something like that could set her off. “I felt like I was right there with you. It was the best gift I could have received, hearing about your family.”
“That’s sweet, Claudia. I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” Jo said.
“No, really, it means a lot. You have to come by more often.”
Jo’s fridge held enough empanadas from her last visit for them to eat three meals a day and still have leftovers for Jasper’s kids. Empanada overload. Empanada central. “Why don’t we go out to eat instead?”
“Nnnnneeeeyyyooowwwnn!” J.E. Airlines’ only vessel had returned for its regular stop at the kitchen counter. It picked up a cookie, which cargo had to be manually held on top of the aircraft’s body, much like how a Winterfest tree would be transported on top of an SUV, but without the security provided by bungee cords. They’d break the cookie.
Its destination, Charlie, had moved further down the hallway, taking with him the elephant in the room. Shu, that is. Not anyone’s internal conflict. “Thanks, buddy,” he said to the plane. The uneaten cookie was transferred to his jacket pocket as soon as the pilot had turned around. “So,” he addressed his childhood friend, “is everything okay? Why aren’t you with your family?”
He shrugged. “I celebrated with my dads a couple days ago, and Mom said she wants to be alone, so I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.” He gestured towards Jasper, still running around like a beheaded chicken. “Plus it’s this one’s first Winterfest. Cuuuute.”
“What about Chantel, or one of your other girlfriends?”
“Ah, not that again. I show up at the Lucases’ place, they’re gonna expect me to pull out a ring by the end of the day. Other than that, there’s Shannon’s parents, her dad hates me, and I don’t know any of my other girlfriends’ families.” He paused in thought. “Unless—“
“—No, no. Nope.” Charlie punctuated his triple combo by repeatedly crossing his open hands over one another in a gesture clearly conveying he didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. But given the tone of the conversation, he figured it was safe to ask more personal questions. “Come to think of it, haven’t you and Chantel been promised to each other since before Jo and I even met?” Shu’s left eye twitched. “It’s been a couple weeks. What are you waiting for?”
“I’m planning on doing it sometime, I just get the sense that,” he shook his head, “she doesn’t know who she is yet. Apart from me.” He broke eye contact to fidget with the highest toggle on his sweater. “It’s not healthy. I guess I’m trying to help her get to where the proposal is just a nice thing that happens and not something she’s focused on day in and day out.”
Underdeveloped sense of self, Charlie translated. “Wasn’t she, like, stalking you in high school?” Idealization. Clear pattern of obsession in close relationships.
“Yeah, she’s intense, but I’m also kind of a lot to handle. What with my line of work and all. I actually like that about her. It keeps things interesting.”
“And she’s just waiting patiently?”
“Oh, she’s pissed. She’s also accusing me of wanting to leave and stuff like that. But clearly it’s been a while and I’m not going anywhere.”
“And you have to—“
“Keep reminding her of that constantly, yeah. Also how talented she is. That’s what I’m trying to do, keep her focused on her music so she can develop her own voice. But she’s so upset about making mistakes, she breaks down crying almost every time.” Basically their song is “Issues” by Julia Michaels. “I have to keep telling her it’s going to be okay.”
Charlie winced at the final datum. “I hope I’m wrong about this, but if what you’re saying is true, you might want to read up on Borderline Personality Disorder.” His DSM-5 retained the classification system of its extra-worldly counterpart, but offered little insight on treatment beyond sadness hotlines and basketball. He wasn’t about to recommend Chantel drink some fucking OJ, either.
“Meaning there’s a chance things are going to get worse before they get better. There’s a chance,” he took a moment to decide if this were something he really wanted to say, “there’s a chance she’s always going to be like this.” Another beat. “Look, I’m only bringing this up because it might be the safest course of action, but have you considered calling the whole thing off?”
“Charlie. What. No. It’s Chantel.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I don’t understand why you want to stay with her if things are so difficult.”
Shu had been facing away from his conversational partner, but now directed at him a glare that had started fights in less festive settings. “Does everything have to have a reason with you? Do you think love is something that can be broken down to a formula? Do you really think that if the girl of my dreams just fell from the sky one day, I would just throw away everything Chantel and I have, like that?” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the word ‘that,’ and, while we’re on the subject, had earlier raised his open hands toward the sky and climactically arced them downward in an approximation of the dream girl’s trajectory. “I feel closer to her than anyone else in the world, and I always have, and I always will, and I’m not gonna try to explain why so you can argue with it.”
“Look, I never said you didn’t love her. But that kind of love-conquers-all attitude isn’t going to fix everything. I’m being dead serious here, Shu. If it’s really this hard for you, there’s no way to solve this that doesn’t involve you removing yourself as the source of her obviously destructive obsession. By staying, you’re slowing everything down, running the risk of becoming codependent, or worse.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t even talked to her enough to make a real diagnosis.” Which Charlie knew, but was hoping his warning would catalyze the couple’s efforts to seek a second opinion. “Even with one, she could still get over it enough for us to be together.”
“Or not, given your history. You can’t predict the future either.”
He clenched his fists in an attempt to redirect his building tension to the sensation of nails digging into his palm.
“What are you going to do if she doesn’t?”
Father Winter burst through the chimney in a puff of good cheer and combustion byproducts, the former being more hazardous to the house’s inhabitants in that it could provoke one into becoming Hysterical, while carcinogens are a nonissue for these guys. All but the duo in the kitchen looked toward the fireplace. Jo pressed record on her offspring-directed camcorder.
“Father Winter!” Jasper screamed with an intensity that set off both dogs.
“Fuck,” said Shu.
The purported-mythical figure rose to his feet with an air suggesting a personality cozier than his Fair Isle mittens. A statement coat with a heroic amount of white fur trim, given how visibly it would be ruined after a single round of his preferred hammy method of entry, expanded on the effect of general snugness he was going for. (Ask if that’s real fur, Jo thought to herself.) Later, the emotions Jasper felt in that moment would be portrayed pretty accurately by the slow-mo Ken Burns effect Mom planned on applying to her footage.
Father Winter announced his presence. “Ho ho ho!” Jo put down her camera to admonish the fourth one for swearing, only to realize he’d autodefenestrated.
The embodiment of Winterfest spirit himself made a big show of shading his eyes with his right hand, looking high and low for something. “I heard from a little bird that in this house, there’s a little boy who just had his birthday.”
“Me! That’s me!” said boy clarified, jumping and waving his arms a couple yards from Father Winter’s avoidant face in case the message wasn’t clear enough. It landed; the patriarch finally searched the area directly in front of him and reeled back in astonishment.
“Oh! Oh, ho ho ho! There’s the fella!” Jasper was vibrating almost audibly with anticipation. “Why don’t we sit down here and have a chat? Is that something you would like?” Jasper nodded so enthusiastically, Jo’s most recently searched term became ‘whiplash,’ displacing ‘those hoodies everyone has what are they called.’
The pair sat down on Grandpa & Abuela’s caramel-colored leather couch, a pre-Jasper and even pre-Kendra piece of furniture whose aroma only became more complex with the passage of time. Father Winter started the seated portion of the conversation with his most anticipated question. “Have you been good all year?”
“Do you listen to your mommy and daddy?”
“Have you been doing your homework?”
Panic set in. “I just grew up yesterday,” Jasper explained. “They didn’t give me any homework.”
“Well, I’m looking at your grades, young mister, and you know what they say?” Jasper may have grown up yesterday, but even he could tell that the folksiness was thinly masking what was in fact extreme condescension. “It says right here on this piece of paper that someone doesn’t like to do his homework.”
“You know, son,” he said, placing his arm around Jasper’s shoulders to comfort the lad, “things might not always turn out how you want, but good boys and girls are good at accepting things the way they are. You want to be a good boy, right?” Jasper nodded in an attempt to end the first of many lectures he would sit through where the lecturer grossly underestimates his competence based on his demographics, in this case his age. “You have to let this go and do better next year. Life is complicated that way. Someday you’ll be old enough to understand.”
Leaving the family’s youngest with an encouraging pat and wise smile, cherry nose and all, Father Winter removed himself from the couch with some difficulty and headed eastward. Jasper waited until he was out of earshot to tear up.
Cut to the J.E. master bedroom half a second into Jasper’s first wail of the day, where his father decided to check out the exercise equipment to help relieve the stress headache he got from being surrounded by loved ones.
“Dr. Charles Jeong-Espinosa,” Father Winter drew out in an entrance that mostly served to annoy the sentence’s subject, “now that’s a name I know well. You’re near the very top of my list! Ho ho ho!” He actually grabbed his belly when he laughed. Charlie thought the gesture of bringing both hands to the gut during a Father-Winter-inspired belly laugh might have been to suggest excess adiposity, but no, he actually did that. “Let me tell you what it says here. A straight-A student, lover of the earth, dedicated pursuer of knowledge, selfless healer, devoted husband and father, and, oh! Stay away from that one,” he said, following the last statement with a wink that would have been appropriately lecherous had he been literally anyone else. “I saved something special for you.”
He placed a VR set on the ground and followed up with his best Vanna White impression. The recipient acted out an appropriate display of surprise and gratitude, though he was left wondering where on that list it was suggested that he played videogames with any regularity, and where in his house the list recommended clearing space to put that shit.
“Now where’s that mother of yours?” Could be like two places. Three if you count the other bar.
Charlie waited until Father W. was heading in the direction of potential cookies to sneak a peek at the list he was holding. It was blank.
“It’s alright, honey. There’s always next year,” Jo consoled her son as they approached her house’s front arch, the mixture of tears and snot beginning to freeze slightly on the boy’s face. Hearing an echo of Father Winter’s words only set him off more, enough to leave his mom with the tail end of yet another squeal and run off towards his second-story room, careening around six corners on the way. “Don’t slip!” she yelled.
Charlie put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I don’t know where we went wrong,” she admitted.
“No, Jo, there was nothing we could have done. You were great today.” He tried to come up with something that would cheer her up. “Someday we’re going to be able to look back on this and laugh.” He hoped.
Jo’s eyes widened in an expression of shock not unlike that of someone who realized they forgot to turn the stove off before leaving the house. “Charlie, that’s it! My footage!” She turned towards her husband, placing her hand on his chest. “We can take the footage, cut out all the parts with Father Winter, and show Jasper how much fun he was having!” Heck, maybe she’d leave Shu in some shots.
“Sounds good, dear.” He was paying enough attention to nod each time she asked him whether it was a good idea.
Above the gym, Jasper’s pillow was alternating between being a punching bag and a tissue. Jo slowly poked her head over the staircase railing so as to not startle him. Her son, not the pillow.
“What if I made you some burgers for dinner?” she offered. “Would that make it better?”
He nodded so she would go downstairs. It wasn’t going to work. Fuck the self-fellating old coot.
Jo found her husband sitting cross-legged in the garden, picking up handfuls of powdery snow and opening his palm to let the wind carry it away. “Hey, Charlie. If I made burgers, would you eat some?”
“I mean, if you’re going to make them, sure,” he muttered, watching the powder slip over the webbing between his fingers.
She sighed almost inaudibly. If he was going to be in one of those moods, it was best not to engage. It was best to focus on the task at hand and give him some space to play with the snow or whatever. But to the outsider, it looks like she’s too preoccupied with applying her personal spice mix to see her husband being carried away in a beam of light.
Jo turned around fifteen minutes later with a plate of burgers that bunned themselves.
There’s nothing to her right but the marks he made in the snow. Maybe he went inside. She checked the kitchen.
He’s not in the bedroom, living room, gym, bathroom, or study, either. It figures he’d left without telling her again. She picked up a hamburger and stormed off towards her son’s room.
Winterfest ended an hour ago and Charlie’s side of the bed was still empty. Jo decided this would be the part she would want to edit out of her mind, lying down on her side and staring at the indentation left in his pillow, not knowing whether he was five or a million miles away. He wasn’t answering his phone, either. She moved to his side so she at least wouldn’t have to look at it. The night sky was visible overhead. Maybe I should try it, she thought, telling her thoughts to some tiny speck of light in the distance instead of the person next to her. And after sending her doubts upward and watching them dissipate in the air like so many flecks of powdery snow, she finally closed her eyes.
She slept through the beam of light that appeared outside her window and gently lowered her husband back to earth. The beam grew dimmer. Charlie dropped to his knees. He felt his forehead with the back of his hand. The mental fog that had bothered him so much during his first abduction was now undetectable, blending in with all the other buzzing and tightness in his head he was feeling constantly.
And the worst part was he didn’t know why he was doing any of these things that made his head buzz. And that’s what he had to show for it, this list of achievements. Five, maybe six concrete items that identified who he was as a person. He was left to wonder what the difference was between Charlie Jeong-Espinosa and another man with an identical list. Just like, he could see another hypothetical person being happy with what he has: the job, grades, etc. So if it distinguishes him from the other guy, the one who accepts his responsibilities wholesale and can carry them out indefinitely in kind of a proud-complacent manner, then Charlie Jeong-Espinosa is an ungrateful bastard with no real goddamn purpose other than to not question why he was checking off items on some imaginary list before it took over his life.
The stupid oversized VR thing was a reminder of the praise he was getting for not letting his doubts get in the way of success. He found a spot where it couldn’t taunt him, a spot next to his sleeping son. The son Father Winter had tacked onto that list of achievements like yet another goal. Putting it here at least made sense. Tomorrow Jo would get to tell him Father Winter changed his mind.
Charlie managed to get under the covers without waking up his wife. He crossed his forearms over his head and adjusted the alignment of his neck into the most comfortable position for stargazing. He imagined a small green dot, like a laser, swooshing along the Big Dipper, gaining enough momentum from the net downward action of the first four edges to break from the bowl of the constellation and shoot off towards the North Star. Your holiday’s over, buddy, he informed it, on the off-chance it understood its role in Winterfest lore, could read his thoughts, and wasn’t currently too busy with something else to do so.
The North Star twinkled at him.
No, he replied, you’re the one who’s in too deep.