Nancy had never felt more awkward in her life. She blinked and looked from the closed living room door, to the bedroom door, and then back to the living room door again.
Slowly she felt her senses turn back on. Her hands felt wet. She looked down and saw that she was still holding a freshly peeled potato under the kitchen faucet. She tasted the stale gum in her mouth smashed paper-thin between her clenched teeth. Relaxing her jaw, she forced herself to take a deep breath. Five minutes ago, the kitchen was full of Christmas cheer as she chatted amiably to Julie, Chad’s arm around her waist, with Fred interjecting something silly with every armful of firewood he brought in from the garage. Now the house felt like a funeral home. Even the CD of classic Christmas songs had gone silent, as if Bing and Frank found it too awkward to make any noise.
Nancy felt angry, embarrassed, and confused. A moment ago, she was telling herself how smoothly things were going with both Julie and Fred giving her thumbs up behind Chad’s back. Now here she was, alone with her boyfriend in the kitchen, wondering what would happen. What did he think? She’d never worried about Julie and Fred being a problem, but now she felt desperate. How could Chad keep liking her if his only encounter with her sister and brother-in-law was a sudden fight ending in two slammed doors?
Eventually she looked over at Chad who looked like he was coming out of his own stupor. He looked around, made brief eye contact, and then slowly started peeling another potato.
“What was that all about?”
Nancy shrugged. “I–I don’t know. I’ve never seen them fight like that.” She turned off the faucet and grabbed a towel to dry her hands.
Chad kept peeling his potato without saying anything, and she just stood there looking at him. Flick, flick, flick. He was peeling the same spot on the potato over and over, his brow deeply furrowed. Flick, flick, flick. She crept a few feet toward the living room door. She couldn’t hear Fred. Flick, flick, flick. She saw Chad rotate his potato, but his face was still clouded over. Nancy crept over to the bedroom door. No sound from Julie. She lifted her hand to knock but withdrew it. Hands at her sides, she walked back to the kitchen.
Flick, flick, flick.
She felt like crying. She wanted Chad to hold her, but what was he thinking? Maybe he wanted out of this crazy family before he even entered it.
She walked over to the CD player and restarted the music. Ella’s voice filled the room. The sound of “Silent Night” dampened the beat of Chad’s peeler, but the house still felt terribly empty and still.
“My parents argued like this a lot before the divorce,” Chad said without looking up. He put his potato in the pan and started on another.
Nancy walked closer to him, her hands jammed in her pockets. “Yeah. What did you do?”
Chad stopped peeling and a small grin spread across his face. “One time I ran around the house yelling ‘Fire! Fire!'”
Nancy looked at him. “How did that work out?”
Chad went back to peeling. “Not well, they took turns blaming each other for my delinquency.”
Nancy sat down next to Chad and started on her own potato. She chanced a glance at the two guilty doors but they remained closed. “It’s Christmas Eve, they have to forgive each other, right?”
Chad shrugged. “They sure took the Christmas cheer with them, didn’t they?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, I didn’t think this would happen. They’ve only been married for a couple of years, and they’ve always been fine when I’m around them.”
Chad stopped peeling. “What’s that supposed to mean? Only a couple of years? Do you mean it’s okay for couples to fight if they’ve been married for, what, five years? Ten?”
Nancy looked over at him. His face looked strange. She’d never seen him looked so steeled.
She looked back down quickly and felt hot tears swell in her eyes. “No, no, that’s not what I meant. I’m just surprised and–and embarrassed. I wanted this visit to be about them getting to know you, not,” she gestured at the closed front room door, “this.”
Chad was silent for a minute and she heard the flick, flick, flick of his peeler again. They’d never made mashed potatoes together before, and she was impressed at how well he was doing. It made her feel even worse that he was angry.
Flick, flick, flick. Soon there was only one potato left. Nancy grabbed the cutting board and started chopping the pile of potatoes while Chad started peeling the last one. She wondered how long Julie and Fred would stay in their respective fortresses. Maybe they did this all the time; maybe they would stay in there all night.
Nancy watched Chad put the last potato in her pile and then slink off to look at the pile of unlit wood in the fireplace. “We used to have a fireplace when we lived in Colorado,” he said, almost to himself. Nancy stopped chopping. “I used to lie on my stomach, watching the sparks float up the chimney and wonder where they went. One time Dad told me they turned into fireflies.”
Nancy got up and took a furtive step toward him. “I love the fire, too,” she said. “Every Christmas I’ve stayed at school that’s what I’ve missed the most. I was really glad when Julie invited me over because I knew we’d have a crackling fire.”
Chad glanced over at the living room door. “Yeah, I guess we will if they ever come out.”
Nancy took another step closer, and then another, until she was only a foot away from him. “I bet I could find the matches. Dad kept them above the mantle before he died. I bet that’s where Fred keeps them.”
Chad looked over at her. “I wouldn’t know how to start it. After the divorce, Mom moved into an apartment. The few times I saw Dad we never went camping or anything. Can you start it?”
“No, Dad always did it. Then Mom couldn’t handle the smoke once she got sick.”
They stared at the stack of wood. Nancy tried to think of something to say, but she didn’t know what. Maybe this was the end, maybe not. Chad had mentioned how much he hated couples fighting one time, but she didn’t know he would be this sensitive.
A creaking noise made them both look up. Julie’s tear-stained face poked around the corner. Nancy ran over to her and gave her a hug. She heard Julie mutter something but couldn’t understand it. She glanced over at Chad but he was staring at the fireplace again.
“I’m sorry about all this,” Julie finally said, and Nancy released her grip. They walked into the kitchen. Julie blew her nose and picked up the knife. “I guess we’d better finish making dinner.”
“I’ll get another knife,” Nancy said and started rummaging through drawers. She looked over at Chad again to see if he would join them, but he stood there with his back to them, still staring at the fireplace.
They finished chopping the potatoes and put them in the pot of water. It had just started bubbling when Fred’s face appeared in the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Julie burst into tears, ran to him, and threw her arms around him. He staggered backward under this sudden attack but soon regained his balance. He put one hand around her back and started stroking her hair with the other. After a moment, they both straightened up and looked at Nancy and Chad.
“Sorry about that,” Fred said, “I guess I lost my temper.”
“It’s okay,” Nancy said, feeling the words tumble out too quickly.
“You can light the fire if you want, Chad,” Fred said after taking a deep breath. “The lighter’s just above the mantle.” He looked down at Julie. “Julie’s Dad always kept the matches there, and I wanted to keep up the tradition, you know.”
“I’ve never lit a fire before,” Chad said. “I guess I’ve always been afraid I’d get burned.”
“Can’t say I’ve never been burned,” Fred shrugged, “but an unlit fire won’t keep you warm. Here, let me show you.” Fred pulled the lighter off the top of the mantle and held it out to him.
“Okay,” Chad said with a quick glance at Nancy, “I’ll give it a shot.”