Chapter 18: The Ninth Circle
Zoya appeared at the foot of the stairs carrying a bottle of wine. “Sweetie,” she said, “I need your help with this.”We followed her into the dining room.
Winter darkness turned the windows into mirrors, multiplying a thousand-fold the chilly light of red and silver candles. Pelmets and chandelier festooned with holly; mistletoe and evergreen looped with golden ribbon. High backed chairs sat before complex place settings of multiple plates; amethyst crystal and violet chintz-patterned china. Under a glass dome sat a white coconut cake decorated with careful icing flowers; lilies rioting with orchids, because sugar has no season. Absence is not presence. The emptiness made me shiver.
“You look lovely in Cyanne’s clothes, by the way,” Zoya told me, her eyes moistening as if Cyanne had gone forever and would never come back. “You remind me of her, though your coloring’s so different. Snow White and Rose Red. Did you see the scrapbooks? I’m the scrapbooker; I put them together. That’s why we need such a big house, because I save everything. I’d love showing you those books; maybe tomorrow afternoon. They’re all in Cyanne’s room. We can have tea and a good cry. ”
“God, Mom, not the scrapbooks, please,” moaned Chase, as he deployed a silver and ebony handled wine opener.
“Looking forward to it,” I promised. I would have pinched Chase if I’d been close enough. Zoya and I would cry and Chase would wear the bear costume! That would be better than cake for me, but one must honor the steps of the hostess’ dance. Rely on Jazz to change the subject.
“Are you the pastry chef?” I asked Zoya.
“I make everything,” she said. “I embroidered this tablecloth. And the napkins.”
Loaded with lace. They were exquisite.
“Mom was raised by nuns,” said Chase, popping opening the wine. Christmas wine from Lebanon, I noticed. “They beat her into submission.”
His mother squared her shoulders and rapped him lightly with a tinseled and berried silver cake knife.
“No blasphemy, you heretic. The past is past, and it’s my birthday. Bring in the wine,” she commanded, “Unless you think it should breathe.”
She put a hand to her own throat. Self-choking? “My yoga teacher has to always remind me to breathe.” She ran back toward the kitchen, like a convict under electronic monitoring who’d strayed too far.
Chase captured me in the doorway beneath the mistletoe and we felt each other’s heat, skin flushed from a bubble bath, from love, perhaps also from some nebulous but contagious fear. Rose Red. My next archetype?
Chase was in no hurry to join his mother.
“I want this moment to last forever,” he muttered huskily. That’s what I thought. Sacred moments.
“Isn’t it unlucky to bake your own cake?” I murmured to Chase.
“That’s a rumor started by people who hate to cook,” he told me. “She’s making her own birthday dinner, too.”
Extra obligation to enjoy it? Anticipatory shudder, at the mounting pressure.
“She loves to cook,” Chase reminisced. “Not that she eats. My Dad hates her lumps and bulges – though he likes them enough on other women. She loves bringing people together. And nourishing them.“
What would Chase make of my amiable but haunted mother, my over-eager sister and our cramped apartment? Let’s admit it, families are impossible. No one plays by anyone else’s rules. We were of the tribe that didn’t cook, venturing out on celebration days to one of those horrible sneeze guard factories where uncontrolled children throw meatballs at each other.
Granting the birthday wish for togetherness, we joined Zoya in the kitchen. The kitchen was welcoming and warm; not threatening like her dining room with its fish forks and demitasses. This obviously was where people would relax if given a choice. The comfortably padded barstools had backs and brass rails and the ceiling offered hanging copper pans like low-hanging fruit. There were enough knife racks, cherry cabinets and gleaming granite for “chef’s delight”.
At the center of a ring of gas burners, wearing a black apron dotted with pink hearts, the fire priestess herself officiated over a quintet of bubbling pots. Seeing us, she rattled a pair of wine glasses from an overhead rack. This brought up to five – I counted — the total stemware for which I would be personally responsible this evening.
“I hope you like Welsh rarebit and Coquille Saint-Jacques,” she said, flushed with an outer heat and an inner excitement that made her rouge stand out in patches. “It’s so hard to keep the rarebit from separating.”
“Yum,” said Chase, bellying up to a barstool. “If you don’t mind, we’d like to start eating now.”
“Of course,” said his mother, pushing a mighty trough of fruit, cheese and pâté directly beneath our noses. “I hope you like this wine, Jasmyn. We could have champagne, if you’d rather.” She used her foot to open the wood-paneled refrigerator behind her, revealing a wine bin.
“Jasmyn is nineteen,” I said, trying to make a joke of it.
Zoya stared at me uncomprehendingly. In her world people never turned down booze. “But surely you’ll toast with us?”
So they were one of those families, people over whom the nation’s alcohol laws hold no power. Friends of mine had parents like these, who thought nothing of putting a keg key in a kid’s Christmas stocking. In such families age and time are blurry concepts. Nothing a man ensconced in his castle should have to bother about, anyway.
Churlish to refuse.
“Is it rude to ask for ice?” I queried, operating on the theory that less is more. I would have added seven-up if they’d let me.
“Yes,” said Chase.“Oh, give the girl some ice,” Zoya told her son irritably. “Don’t be so
doctrinaire. This is a party. People can have what they want.”
Why is that never, ever true? Chase the negotiator said, “At least try it without,” so I surrendered to his ministrations while he poured me a dram. They watched like a pair of cats as I sipped. Not bad. It smelled like cinnamon and tasted like berries.
“Wow,” I said, feeling the magical flush radiate throughout. Off to the races. “More please. It’s delicious.”
Chase poured out for both of us.
“To life!” cried Zoya, lifting a full highball glass full of what I could only hope was iced tea. She was standing right next to open flame. I looked around helplessly for a fire extinguisher. On the other hand it was her birthday. And she was the fire priestess.
“To life!” we echoed and drank. I was ready to toss my glass over my shoulder like people in the movies, but I would have been the only one. The others refilled theirs. Remedial again. Jazz was already falling behind.
While we picked at the cheeses, Zoya made salad.
“I usually pick my own watercress,” said Zoya, “There’s a wonderful patch in a brook right down the hill. Too bad it’s not in season. Now we must rely on South America. It’s so dangerous, don’t you think, all this Third World dependency.”
OK, whose mother isn’t strange? I liked her. I felt Chase’s pain evanesce rippling me. “I think lately all the worlds have mixed together,” said Dreamweaver Jazz. “You know, now geisha makeup comes from China? Think how that must upset the Japanese.”
“They deserve it,” said Zoya. “So what have you two been up to? What have you been doing at school that’s so important?”
Chase and I looked at each other with wild surmise. What version of our activities could be socially acceptable?
“We’ve been busy with a research project,” said Chase finally. Guardedly.
“My,” his mother encouraged, “That sounds exciting.”
Apparently that was all she needed to hear. Formalities dispensed with she turned to me and unleashed her pent-up question.
“So, Jasmyn, where did you go to high school?”
Chase made a warning noise in his throat, presumably directed at his mother, but I saw no reason not to answer. I chose to assume she meant the place I’d graduated from.
“Archbishop Cavanaugh.” I knew she’d like that.
Zoya brightened visibly. “You’re Catholic?”
“Er, no,” I admitted awkwardly. Maybe I should have taken Chase up on his offer of a mendacity tutorial. Can inability to lie render me socially impossible?