…He looked up from The Wall Street Journal. Since the days of white-hot celebrity were behind him he had become increasingly interested in managing his money. The television in the library was always on a channel with a constant scroll across the bottom displaying the financial news. He made frequent calls to his cousin Silvio about investments that Billie assumed were extremely speculative. She had overheard conversations ranging from restaurants to alternative fuel vehicles to ultra light tennis rackets made with unheard of fibers. “Like what?”
“Like a real Vigilia di Natale. Festa dei Sette Pesci, the whole family sitting down at the same table.” Billie said.
“What whole family? You want to bus out the entire East Coast?” Dave gave his paper a shake but he was intrigued.
“No. I mean your whole family. Our whole family; Andrew and Isabel and Gabrielle and you and me and Jake, a real Christmas.”
“Who’s gonna cook?” Dave inquired.
It was only six people, and seven seafood courses. Billie hesitated.
“We’ll have it catered.” Dave raised his paper in front of his… wait for it… reading glasses (!) and grunted. “If they want to come, we’ll have it catered. Or your mom and dad can come. Your mom cooks almost like my mom did.” “Almost like Mama,” coming from Dave Taylor (once Tonnino) that was high praise.
Billie, after a year working with so many and so disparate personalities had honed a fine sense of etiquette. It was about time. She determined the Christmas invitation should be delivered in person, not over the phone. Over the years she and Gabrielle had maintained a very workmanlike relationship. There was a pretty intense hiccup of hellacious rancor, but that had passed. Their relationship was fine, their children shared a common (or uncommon, depends on how you want to parse it) father, but it wasn’t warm. And so the following morning she made the drive to State Street in Santa Barbara and Gabrielle’s catering kitchen.
Gabrielle, for lack of a better phrase, was aging gracefully. Her blonde hair hadn’t greyed – it had turned a silvery white. She wore it loosely pulled up in a French twist. Her features had softened, they looked a little blurred – the most noticeable thing about Gabrielle Klein was she looked relaxed and happy in her skin.
Her kitchen shop was stocked with homemade caramels wrapped in cellophane bags, Madeleines, Langues de Chat, and Pots de Crème. There was a Gateau St. Honore on the counter top along with a bouquet of flowers; it smelled like burnt sugar and roses. There were little café tables to sit at and share a pastry and a coffee, but mostly the shop space was a place for people to meet and leaf through event books while they planned their parties. The space was completely feminine and completely comfortable. Gabrielle had got it right.
Gabrielle and Billie conferred over a marble tabletop. “Haven’t-seen-you-in-a-long-time-you’re-looking-great-you’re-being-kind,” etc., the gist of the conversation was diplomatic accord. Gabrielle appreciated Billie getting Andrew a job and her efforts to keep the kids in touch with their father. Billie also inferred that Gabrielle liked, no, loved being her own woman and being away from the pressures of Hollywood.
Fortunately, the kitchen wasn’t doing an event on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, getting Isabel to her father’s for any kind of evening was going to be a problem, but Gabrielle assured Billie she would prevail. There were two young women behind the counter wearing starched aprons and dealing with customers. Behind them, home for the holidays and peeking around the door to the kitchen was a sullen seventeen year-old Isabel. Billie was aware both Andrew and Isabel felt dispossessed by their father. What she didn’t know was Isabel blamed her entirely and hated her utterly.
IT’S A MARSHMALLOW WORLD
Feast or fiasco – Christmas Eve in the Taylor household tended toward the latter. Billie’s parents flew in for the week. Dave Taylor’s first family showed for the appointed dinner. Billie, who didn’t like to witness people out of control or to or be out of control, remembered that night as a meal of loaves and fishes on some kind of otherworldly plane. She remembered a long conversation with the Virgin Mary, robed in celestial blue and sparkling white, in her kitchen. They chatted about childcare. She remembered Three Kings and piles of gold and incense and a pounding at the front door. She even remembered the knee dropping awesome presence of the Archangel Gabriel, but she couldn’t quite figure out what he/she/it, otherwise known as the Great Winged One, was doing at her house for dinner. All in all she found the experience transcendent and more than a bit mystifying. All would be explained to her in time.
Let’s back up a little and talk about Ketamine. It’s a horse tranquilizer. In humans it can be used as an analgesic, or to relieve asthma or migraine. In emergency situations, like when surgery is required on a person who is trapped under a heavy object and can’t be moved, say as the result of an explosion, a battle surgeon will often use Ketamine instead of other anesthetics because it doesn’t inhibit breathing. The only problem is the dose. It’s tricky. It often causes hallucinations, usually of the godly visitation variety. That’s not to say some people don’t use it recreationally, but…
One would think that at a fine expensive equestrian girl’s boarding school this kind of substance would be under lock and key. Perhaps it was. Perhaps the Ketamine was locked in the vet’s cupboard in the old stone stable along with a lot of other drugs, and perhaps Isabel had heretofore unknown lock-picking skills. Perhaps. What a crying Isabel later confessed to, in the presence of the Beverly Hills police (called to the scene by her furious mother and dismissed with a movie star’s plea not to press charges by her guilt ridden father) was that she had dropped the crushed powder of a horse tablet she had found lying around at school in her stepmother’s champagne. Merry Christmas!
After the three officers had left Gabrielle Klein rounded on her ex. “Best thing in the world for that girl to spend a night in jail! I try to teach her a lesson and — David! Your juvie daughter just slipped Billie a Mickey! Like some wannabe Borgia! Like some other mobster members of your f’ing family that shall remain nameless! How could you? How could you stand there and defend her?”
By this time Isabel was howling, it was her turn next. “And you! You! That’s it! You’re crying? Look at your stepmother!”
Billie was canted over on a couch watching the Archangel beat it’s wings in the air like an angry swan. How those wings swept through the air! Billie could feel the wind against her face.
Isabel zipped it and shuddered.
“That’s it! No more boarding school! Never again! You’ll be lucky if I let you leave home at forty!”
“M-om!” Isabel whined. Gabrielle was implacable.
Billie then saw the Virgin Mary put her robed arm on the haunch of a donkey and lead her away. Later the Virgin, who was wearing a dress remarkably similar to one of Billie’s mother’s, returned to make Billie drink six glasses of glacially cool water and tuck her into a cloud-like bed.
From Billie’s perspective it was the next day — Christmas — that all hell broke loose. She woke in the master bedroom, in the king sized bed, and apparently had slept alone. Jake was sitting on the edge of the bed with a package he had wrapped in his lap. She could hear her mother’s voice and Dave’s in the hallway, subdued in a way meant not to frighten the children. They wanted to kill each other but they were keeping it tight, well below a roar. Jake clambered into Billie’s outstretched arms and laid his head against her breastbone and she hugged him tight. “Merry Christmas, pumpkin! Should we go see what Santa left under the tree?” She was implying motion would be immediate, but damn, she felt like lead.
“I did already. This is for you. I made it.” He presented Billie with his gift. Billie untied a green bow and slipped her finger under the Scotch tape and found a clay hand-painted object that could either have been an ashtray or a Christmas ornament. Billie gave Jake a squeeze.
“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, little bug!” Exclaimed Billie. “What time is it?”
Whatever the hour was, cuddling time was over. Jake extricated himself from Billie’s arms and hopped down from the bed. “Grandma says it’s brunch time. But, it’s really lunchtime. I gotta go,” and he made for the door. He turned briefly with his hand on the doorknob. “Are you feeling better, Mama?”
“I’m fine, honey. Just fine.” After Jake was out of the room Billie hoisted herself out of bed. She went into the bathroom and peered at herself in the mirror. She looked like she’d spent a cycle in the laundry and had been forgotten in the dryer. Gingerly she touched her hair, her scalp was outrageously tender and felt like it was expanding. She remembered the visions of the previous night and tried to put them in perspective, then gave up, as it was an impossible task. It was implausible (completely implausible), keeping company with celestial creatures and feeling part of a greater whole. She thought of an oft-repeated phrase she heard when questioning the faith she was brought up in, accept the mystery, and found it just as tedious now as she had then. She thought she wasn’t hardwired for religion, yet if last night was any indication maybe she was. What the hell had happened, anyway?
Brunch was a largely silent affair. Billie’s mother, Lydia, had covered the table with food. Ed, Billie’s father, ate purposefully and well. Jake ate like a six year-old, a little bite of everything he liked and things he didn’t like he tried to camouflage on his plate. Dave just drank coffee after coffee. He looked pale and bloated under his tan.
Mr. Booker was spending Christmas with relations in Manhattan. In the early afternoon Billie’s father and Dave took Jake to a multiplex in Sherman Oaks to see Hook, an inopportune retelling of Peter Pan. Lydia Price, wearing a beige turtleneck and gabardine slacks put on a hat and sunglasses and instructed her daughter to join her by the pool. Billie did.
Lying side by side on a pair of chaise lounges, Lydia addressed her daughter with disapproval. “So. No more divorce and then this? This is the life you want to lead?”
Billie, still a little strung out, wasn’t taking the long look on her existence. She was just enjoying the feeling of the gentle winter sun on her face.
Lydia continued. “What you call a life, dear one, others would call a charade. A loveless marriage, stepchildren who despise you—”
“Andrew and I get along okay.”
“Don’t interrupt. And, your own child being raised by a, a, butler.”
“I thought you liked Mr. Booker.”
“Mr. Booker is one of the most competent people I know. That’s not the point. The point is personal engagement. The point is how you prioritize.” Mrs. Price was exasperated. “You, a two time college dropout, spend your days promoting make believe, other peoples fantasies. What kind of life is that?”
Billie thought it was the kind of life she liked. She said, however, “The film industry is a driving force in L.A.’s economy. Movies keep people working.”
“And your job, you schmooze and people pay you. You think that’s a worthy career?”
Billie didn’t feel like explaining her mother’s error. “I do.” She just wanted Lydia to be quiet.
“What about the example you’re setting?” Inquired Mrs. Price.
“I’m not following you, Ma. Family, engagement, priorities, you said so yourself. Jake is not growing up in a broken home.”
“No, Jake isn’t. But Isabel and Andrew have. And Isabel is clearly broken.” Lydia asserted.
“Isabel is a teenager. She’ll get over it. We all do.”
“We all do what? Drug our stepparents? Act out in ways that can cause irrevocable harm? I have spent a lifetime observing children and this is not normal.”
“She’s just a rebellious teenager. I pissed her off. We’ll work it out.”
Billie’s mother shook her head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
Billie inhaled deeply and closed her eyes and announced she was going to take a nap.
“Go inside then. You’ll get a sunburn if you stay out,” said Mrs. Price. Billie went inside and straight back to bed. It was no longer cloud-like; it felt like she was trying to doze on a monolith.
Gabrielle and Andrew and Isabel returned at dinnertime with an elaborate hamper stuffed with the makings of a French ham dinner. Gabrielle and Lydia and Billie arranged a buffet in the kitchen while Mr. Price sat contentedly and watched. Andrew carried Jake around the house on his shoulders and Isabel watched a video, Tootsie, with her father in the library. Billie, when she ventured into the paneled room to tell them dinner was ready, was heartened to overhear laughter interspersed with their conversation. Maybe Isabel wasn’t as thoughtless as Billie had assumed.
“See that,” said Dave. “Dustin Hoffman. He’s still working. Ten years ago that, and this year Hook.”
“He’s a character actor, Daddy. You’re a leading man!”
Dave ruffled Isabel’s hair. Her statement had made him happy. It showed a certain level of empathy, at least for her father. What she hadn’t said — and what was perfectly true — was that Dave had been a leading man until he started developing a spare tire around his middle.
They ate their Christmas dinner informally at a table in the kitchen. The kids pulled sodas from the refrigerator and the adults stuck to bottled water or beer. They talked. Everyone was on his or her best behavior. They avoided the topic of the previous evening and when Isabel looked as if she were about to ask her father a question, probably about going back to boarding school, Gabrielle stared her down. At that Dave coughed until he turned red in the face, but he wasn’t choking, and he excused it with, “I just had a little pepper at the back of my throat. Now this is what I call a nice quiet evening at home. Thank you. Thank you everybody.”
Afterwards, as they were saying their goodnights Gabrielle kissed Billie’s cheek and said almost as if an afterthought, “Keep your eye on Dave. He looks a little under the weather to me.” Billie smiled and nodded and gave Gabrielle a warm hug and promptly forgot precisely what Gabrielle had said, lost in a newfound feeling of sisterhood with her previous boss. It had taken something major, some might call it a criminal offense, but for once in her life Billie felt like she had Gabrielle’s approval and or absolution – having the family reunited for Christmas turned out to be a good idea after all.
Andrew too was demonstrative in parting. He gave Billie a huge hug and said to all listening, “Sweet!” Which translated to: thank you for the lovely evening I had a delightful time.
Billie clung to Andrew and said emotionally, “Thank you, Andy. Thank you for being such a good big brother.”
Dave had his arm around Isabel’s shoulders. He gave her a gentle shove in Billie’s direction. Isabel stumbled forward looking sheepish. She gave her stepmother an anemic peck on the cheek and mid-gesture seemed to change her mind. She clamped her arms a little too tight around Billie and whispered in her ear, “Next time I won’t screw up.”
Billie’s immediate thought while she patted Isabel’s back was, does she mean she won’t screw up DOSING me again, or does she mean she won’t DO it again? With Isabel it was hard to say. Isabel had not inherited her father’s expressive eyes…
Christmas Eve snuggle up for a book at bedtime (or anytime you can catch a half hour for yourself), the first chapter of, #itsinhiskissbyvickielester, read to you by Pippa Rathborne, our serialized gift to you, from the first published volume of Vickie Lester’s Hollywood trilogy.