“The Thurlow family New Year’s Eve party is certainly at full boil,” Will said to his little sister.”When is any Thurlow family party not at full boil?” Laura asked.”Want to escape for a while?”
“I’ll go out first. Meet me at my Toyota in five minutes. Don’t grab your coat; it’ll be too obvious. I’ll turn on the heater.”
There had not been the slightest chance anyone in the rented Knights of Columbus hall had overheard them. The hall was filled with Thurlows and their children and those who married into the Thurlow clan and their children and those who were good friends of the family and their children. Will and Laura’s mother, Catherine, and their older sister, Ingrid, had spent hours directing the decorating of the hall.
As he edged casually toward the door, Will stopped at the drinks table and got a couple of bottles of ginger ale. His son and daughter were on the dance floor with innumerable first and second cousins and aunts and uncles and their grandparents. He slipped out the door and went to his car. The Toyota was getting warm when Laura opened the door and flung herself into the empty front seat.”I love my family. I love my family. It’s too damn cold. I love my family,” she intoned.
“It’ll warm up quickly,” Will promised. “As for the rest of your mantra, how long?”
“Twelve minutes, eight seconds. You?”
“Seventeen minutes, forty-three seconds. You would think that Dad, at least – you know, being a doctor and all – would understand that if a child sneezes in your face on Christmas you might be sick on New Year’s Eve. But I spent nearly eighteen minutes in which I halfway convinced them Michi isn’t ducking the family tonight.”
“Do they still think she’s holding out to celebrate Chinese New Year?” Laura asked with a little smile.
“Probably.” Will sighed. “They can’t seem to grasp that the Japanese don’t party with the Chinese. Remember the family motto.”
” ‘I’m a Thurlow; don’t confuse me with the facts,’ ” she quoted. “I think I finally convinced them that fire captains expect a busy night on New Year’s Eve and that’s why Thomas couldn’t come. There are more than two hundred fifty people in there, but anyone who doesn’t show up is a traitor to the family.”
“If Thomas was here he’d have to close the party down for violating the fire code. We’ve got to be over the legal limit of people in there.”
“Mmmmm. You make it awfully tempting for me to call him.”
They were quiet for just a moment, then they looked at each other and repeated together: “We love our family. We love our family. We love our family.” They laughed and Laura reached out and turned the heater down a notch.
Will took a pack of cigarettes out of the door panel’s cubbyhole. “Smoke?” he offered.
“You know I quit during the summer,” she said.
“Give me one.” She lit the cigarette and sucked its vapors in greedily. She held the smoke as long as she could and exhaled slowly.
“You’re treating that like a doobie,” he accused.
“Pot never made me feel as good as a simple, old-fashioned coffin nail,” she said, relaxing in the car seat.
Will handed over a ginger ale and she thanked him.
“You were looking pretty meditative there earlier,” he said.
“Suppose I was. It’s not easy to lose yourself in thought in that crowd, but I did it.”
“Dare I ask?”
Laura didn’t answer.
“Guess I don’t need to.”
“I know,” she sighed. “The statute of limitations ran out a long time ago on Chet. He got married, I got married –”
“Twelve years later,” Will annotated.
“Fine. Twelve years later. But I married a good man, a man I love. I’ve got two children, a dog, and a mortgage with Thomas.”
“But you’re still thinking about Chet.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “But I’m not pining over him anymore.”
“When did that stop?”
She glared at him and then looked at her feet again. “A couple of years ago, if you must know. One day I just … realized that he’d been gone from my life for a long time and that it was okay for me to go on. That … it was okay to not hang on to the pain of losing him anymore, even though that’s all I had left.”
“That’s good,” Will said. “And tonight? When Thomas isn’t around to kiss at midnight?”
“Don’t be a putz. It started out I was just thinking about that song. The one everyone sings at the stroke of midnight. I got to thinking about … auld acquaintance. And how it should be forgot.”
She tipped her head at him. “What do you mean, ‘wrong’? That’s what I was thinking.”
“I mean you’re wrong about the song. Maybe lots of people interpret it the way you do, because no one understands the old Scottish in the lyrics. It comes out in modern English as:
“ ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And days of old long ago?’
“That’s a question. The poet is asking if we should forget our old acquaintances and the old times, not telling us we should forget them. So … you don’t have to forget him.”
She looked down. “Some days it would be easier if I did.”
“I loved him,” she said. “My first one true love. And when he left me for that other woman, he took a big chunk of me with him. Maybe I’m just not tough like a Thurlow is supposed to be, but it’s taken me twenty years to get over losing him.” She sat quietly for a moment. “I loved him, Will. And I know he loved me. If he hadn’t taken that out-of-state job and met her, we’d be together.”
“You were supposed to go be with him after you finished college,” Will said, remembering.
Laura laughed, a bit bitterly. “I guess I should have done a semester of summer courses. That last spring semester is when he met her. And suddenly I was out of the picture.”
“Have you ever been angry with him over that?” Will asked.
“No. ‘Time and chance’ and all that. I’ve never been angry with him. I hope he’s having a great life. Even if it’s a life without me.”
Will thought for a moment.
“One of Burns’s verses goes:
“ ‘We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.’ “
“Once more,” she said. “This time in the king’s English.”
“ ‘We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;’ – until dinnertime, he means –
‘But seas between us broad have roared
since old long ago.'”
“ ‘Seas between us broad have roared,'” she repeated, nodding.
“That’s you and Chet,” Will said. “Even if you saw him tonight, he wouldn’t be the same person you knew, and you’re not the same person he knew. The man you’re still thinking about is lost in time, two decades ago. And the part of you that’s still thinking about him is trapped in time with him. That part of you has remained static even while the rest of you has gone on and built a great life.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But I can’t help wondering – even though I’m really, truly over him and in love with Thomas – if Chet has had even one moment of regret in twenty years.”
Will stubbed out his cigarette and lit another one. Laura was still working on hers.
“Would it make you happy if he had?” Will asked.
Laura turned to look at her brother and a slow smile grew on her face. “Oh, yeah.”
And they laughed.
“So … did the poet Burns answer the question about whether to remember or forget the old days?” Laura asked.
“The last verse goes … well, I’ll just give you the modern version:
“ ‘And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand of thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for old long ago.'”
Laura finished her cigarette and took a swig of her ginger ale. “It’s good,” she said at last, “to have an older brother who teaches English lit at a college. Useful sometimes, I mean.” She smiled a little mischievously. “Almost as good as my eldest brother the banker and my next eldest brother the lawyer and my elder sister the veterinarian.”
“ ‘Almost,'” Will repeated, nodding in agreement. They sat quietly for a moment. Then Will pointed at the dashboard clock. “Nearly midnight. You want to go in?”
“Not yet. Let them do the song first. Then we can go in.”