The Christmas Eve Eve Party at Hilldawg’s was a little north of Miami, so Becky and I decided I should spend the night at her place to save her some driving. We left Books & Books, I packed an overnight bag, and headed up. Becky’s sister was in town from Orlando. Her parents, her son, her sister – all of them were waiting on us to go out to dinner.
When I walked through the door, Cleo Jr. smiled up at me and took my hand. He led me upstairs, down the hall, to his bedroom, and through a doorless frame perhaps a third of the size of a standard door. From the bedroom, the finished attic space looks like a picture you can enter. Inside is a little bookshelf, a cot, a lot of levels, and toys. It’s the kidspace you wish you had growing up.
Cleo Jr. and I flipped through a copy of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein too advanced for his reading level. He liked looking at the pictures, though. For my part, I was amazed at how faithful Kenneth Branagh's adaptation was to the original text. Of course, I’ve never read the original, so all my preconceived notions come from the various movies.
Anyhoo, Cleo Jr. wanted me next to him in the car and at dinner. He didn’t want Becky accompanying him to the bathroom, but me. Becky assures me this behavior is unusual, but I find it difficult to believe I have some kind of special connection with children only manifesting itself now (cats, on the other hand…). I think I’m just lucky enough to meet him at an age when he loves most everyone.
The Eve Eve party was great. Shooting the shit with folks who I don’t see nearly enough, all of us loose with drink. That’s a good night for me.
Some of our friends decided not to pick one Christmas party, but instead to attend them all. Festooned with lights and garland, wearing elf hats and painted shirts, carrying sheet music, guitars, and bongos, these folks caroled their merry way from house to house. They’d stop at one party for three or four songs, mingle a bit, then head out for the next stop. To hear them tell it, they will attend fifty different parties this year. They filmed the whole thing. It was all very Fellini.
On the day before Christmas (Christmas Eve morning sounds off to me), Cleo Jr. roused Becky bright and early. I slept until well past eleven. I’d planned on making Ropa Vieja for Noche Buena at home, perfuming the Treehouse with delicious cooking smells and avoiding the watchful eye of Cleo Mater.
I’d seen Cleo Mater hovering over Becky’s sister when she made rum cake. I didn’t want that kind of scrutiny. Unfortunately, being a non-Cuban on a Cuban holiday making a Cuban dish, the idea of my flying below the radar was ridiculous.
Since they’d begun cooking the night before – on the Eve of Noche Buena - there was room on the stove for my Old Clothes. The kitchen is right off the side entrance, which everyone uses because only strangers use the front door. After “nice to meet you,” the phrase, “I hear you’re making Ropa Vieja” immediately followed, again and again.
Imagine a Cuban dating an Irishman and deciding to make bangers and mash on St. Patrick’s Day. Although I’d made the dish dozens of times over the years, I still felt nervous. Maybe I should have done a practice run earlier in the week. Cleo Mater raised an eyebrow at the method I used to prepare the skirt steak, smiled broadly, and left me to my own devices.
Apart from Cleo Mater’s signature black beans and a mojito turkey, mine was the only Cuban dish on the menu. Becky made Cheesy Potatoes and Beef Brisket. Becky’s sister made a green bean casserole. We had tossed salad to start and bread rolls to wipe our plates clean. A delicious meal, with a large family gathered around the table. Clan Cleopatra reminded me very much of my family during Thanksgiving, except it’s only one night and they serve wine.
The Texan at the table pronounced Becky’s brisket the best she’d ever eaten (apparently brisket is big in Texas, so this is high praise indeed). It was the tastiest piece of beef I’ve ever had. While my Ropa Veija turned out perfectly, it may as well have been cardboard next to the brisket.
I was the only one who expressed this sentiment, but I’m sure it was universal. Cleo Mater had seconds, though, which I’m told is a rarity. At least I made a believer out of her.
After dinner, we stepped outside. Cleo Pater had built a landing in the back yard for his grandchildren. Palms and oaks shaded the flagstone paths and firepit he’d built. He’d done all the renovations on the house himself. As if that’s not enough skill, Cleo Pater pulled out his guitar and sang a beautiful rendition of a Bob Dylan song. I can’t remember which one, but his daughters said they always thought he’d written it.
The group of us gathered around a fire in the dark, drinking, thinking, chatting. Again, I was forcibly reminded of my own family. I thanked Becky’s parents for inviting me, but sometimes words can’t encompass the depths of one’s gratitude.
The hiccup came when Becky and I tried to make it to another Christmas Eve party closer to the Treehouse.
After lulling Cleo Jr.’s holiday spirit down with four Christmas stories, Becky’s lack of sleep caught up with her. She looked so peaceful cuddled up next to her son. I knew we’d be late, but I also felt guilty at the extra three hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before. Being pulled back-and-forth between a promise to attend Akimbo’s party on one side and affection for my girlfriend on the other won Becky a half hour of sleep. Being new to the whole child thing, I’d forgotten Santa Claus. There were presents to put under the tree, notes to write, cookies to eat, milk to drink.
It was Akimbo’s first Christmas Eve in the condo she’d just bought. But by the time we began driving back to Miami, Becky was near to nodding off. Exhausted as she was, knowing she had to drive back home and be up early for Christmas with her family, I couldn’t ask Becky to chauffeur me.
Andi was also at the Christmas Eve party. Andi, Akimbo, and I have known each-other since we were nineteen. Andi texted me, asking if she should leave. I didn’t know how to answer. If Becky just dropped me off, wouldn’t that eliminate any awkwardness? But Andi and I haven’t spoken in so long, was a Christmas Eve party the best venue to start? Plus, how would I get home?
In the end, we didn’t go. Becky dropped me off at the Treehouse and drove home. For the first time, I felt terrible not having a car.
A few days later, Akimbo gave me bag of some of my favorite things (Raven’s Wood Zinfandel, Starbucks, dark chocolate peanut M &M’s, and “He’s Just Not That Into You” on DVD) and I took her out to dinner.
Becky said she knew I didn’t have a car going in, and didn’t blame me for anything. Her family dug me.
All in all, my first Noche Buena was a great evening.