By Lisa Florence
The girl was conscientiously working at her table in the library. Piling up around her were books written in several languages. Mostly English, but a significant proportion were in French, and a few in Spanish. It was a cold December day, but she didn't pay attention to it. When most of her schoolmates would be home preparing for Christmas, she preferred the quiet and reassuring atmosphere of the University library. There was no one waiting for her at home, her father travelling with his wife, her little stepsisters at their father's. And she had learnt that there was nothing so painful that a good book or studying couldn't make you forget or feel better about. Deirdre was born in Quebec, where her American father had met and married a French-speaking woman, then she had moved to New York after the divorce. Occasionally, she would still go back to Montreal when her mother had no man in her life and felt lonely, but she didn't like it very much. In the Big Apple, at least the seven- and five-year-old girls brought life to the two-level apartment, and she didn't have to account for each and every one of her moves to her father. As for her stepmother, well, they didn't seem to be talking the same language, but Linda wasn't that bad.
Beyond the glass ceiling above her clouds were growing thicker, and the room grew darker. Deirdre automatically reached for her schoolbag and took out her reading glasses. In the process, the book she was studying closed shut, so she had to look for her page again. The word slipped from her lips before she could stop it, and it caught the attention of the woman who was about to leave the room. She was wearing a wool sweater and dark gray trousers; her bright eyes and pink cheeks indicating she hadn't been inside for long. She had hurried to return her books before the library closed. Acknowledging the familiar face, she stopped on her way out.
"This is Christmas, Deirdre." She said with affection. "You should go home and enjoy."
The girl started. "Oh, Dr. Olivet! I was just checking a few things on French grammar."
"I didn't know you studied French."
"I took it as a minor. My mother's from Montreal."
"I've been there a couple of times, for conferences. That's a nice town."
Deirdre disagreed but she didn't dare say so. The only thing she liked about being up there was that her mother had shelves filled with books on many different subjects. That was supposed to give her insight into her lovers' hobbies.
"Your family must be waiting for you."
"I don't think so. I have the apartment all for myself."
"You're alone for Christmas?" Deirdre nodded without emotion. Elizabeth frowned. That the girl should be alone for Christmas was sad, and shocking for someone who had always been surrounded by a large family. But it was disturbing to hear that she was used to it, and didn't seem troubled by it. "Come," she decided. "Let's have a drink together." Confusion showed on her student's face as she pondered whether this was appropriate or not. "Take it as a Christmas gift."
After a short talk over a cup of hot chocolate, Deirdre reluctantly told her story. She liked Dr. Olivet all right because the Advanced Psychology class was one of her favorite, and the teacher made herself available to her students despite many professional obligations, but Deirdre didn't like the feeling that she was complaining. "I was supposed to spend Christmas up there with my mother, but she called three days ago to say that it wasn't possible." (Two's a company, three's a crowd, she thought.) "Since my father had already gone leaving no address, there it is. I mean, it's okay. I enjoy being on my own. At least no one will be arguing with me!" She forced a smile onto her lips. Gosh, that sounded dreadful. But why on Earth did her teacher care about that?
She didn't. Elizabeth was quick to make up her mind. She hated the idea that one of her students, a smart and interesting young woman, would spend Christmas on her own, reading books or watching TV. Christmas meant something, to her at least, and someone had to show Deirdre what it was. Most people thought their family life was the only kind that existed until they were shown otherwise. "Wouldn't you like to do something else?"
"Like what?" Retorted Deirdre somewhat bitterly.
"Meet new people, find out how they understand Christmas, and share this experience with them."
The girl looked her in the eye, trying to figure out what she meant. "Are you inviting me?" Her tone was not exactly cheerful. She feared she had got it wrong, and if she hadn't, was it really worth so much trouble? Was she really worth so much trouble?
"I am, if you want to come."
"Don't feel obliged, Miss. I'll be okay. That's not the first weekend I spend on my own."
"I am inviting you, Deirdre. I mean I'd be happy if you accepted to be our guest for Christmas."
"I don't want to intrude."
"You're not intruding. My mother will be happy to meet you, and so will my brothers and sisters. Last year Ann came with a friend of hers, and we lost count of the guys who spent a weekend with our family because they were away from home or just visiting New England. You are welcome."
While she talked, Elizabeth realized that mentioning so many people could scare the girl off. But when she was finished, a light in the tense brown eyes watching her told her she had eventually got through Deirdre's defensive barriers.
They reached the Olivets' family house, in the quiet suburban area of Long Branch, a little after six o'clock. It snowed almost every night for five days, and a white crispy carpet was covering the pavement. The night was already stepping in. Lights were on in all the houses. Many had been Christmas-decorated, and green and red garlands of light were flashing around door and window frames. Elizabeth's family house looked very much like a typical American house on Christmas Eve. A wreath hung on the front door, and a cheerful atmosphere about it. There were cars in the driveway, and Elizabeth parked right behind them.
"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" asked Deirdre in a small, frightened voice.
"Two sisters and three brothers. Mary just moved to Arizona, so she said she wouldn't make it this year, but Ann still lives here and will be with us. As for the boys, Matthew is coming with his wife Karen, Luke is at the university in Boston and came back for the holidays, and Mark... well, if he's fine he'll come."
"Guess, if you had a fourth brother he'd be called John," she remarked with an amused expression that removed all signs of anxiety from her face. During the journey Deirdre had expressed her embarrassment several times, but each time, the psychologist would dismiss it. The girl was now in turn feeling apprehension and child-like excitement. As they were walking up to the front door she felt like running away, but she knew it was too late. She was wondering what the weekend would be like. Hopefully, there might be some books in there. I don't belong here, she thought. I don't want to meet those people. I don't... The door suddenly opened and a tall, handsome young man with blond hair and striking blue eyes stood in front of her. Maybe it's not going to be so bad...
"You're the last, Liz. Everybody else is already here." He affectionately hugged his sister.
"This is Deirdre."
"Sounds Arabic..." he commented playfully. The penny didn't seem to drop so he went on. "Welcome to the Away-from-home Family Xmas Celebration Center." He ended his speech kissing her on both cheeks, and she blushed. "Come on in. It's freezing outside." He slammed the door and shouted. "Liz and Deirdre are here."
A friendly-looking small woman, wearing an "I am the Chef" apron, appeared at the kitchen door. She seemed to be in her late fifties and much resembled her eldest daughter, except for her dark eyes that glittered with genuine motherly love. "Welcome, Deirdre, welcome. You're just in time for dinner. Now sweetie give me that coat of yours." Sarah Olivet had six grown-up children and knew uneasiness when she saw it. There was no need for Elizabeth to speak. The child was lost. "Luke, take Deirdre with you and go help your sister." As the two students walked away she turned to her daughter and nodded in approval. "You did the right thing... Now come and tell me what you think of this trimming." "By the way," she suddenly remembered, "one Ben Stone called. He said it was okay for New Year's Eve and wished everyone a merry Christmas."