To be honest, Anne is not sold on Family Dinner Night.
She doesn’t want to say this to Phillip, because she knows he’s excited. Maybe a little nervous, but nervous for Phillip is more of a buzzing sort of energy. He used to start drinking, and not stop until his nerves were drowned; now that he’s trying to kick that habit, he’s found a new vice. He doesn’t stop moving. He goes over everything, from how they’re getting there, when they’ll get back, what the weather’s going to be like, even down to what they might all end up talking about. Anne loves him, and loves seeing him excited, but this is silly.
“Unless you’ve turned into Father Time and can control exactly how this night’s gonna go,” she finally tells him, “sit down before you hurt yourself.”
Phillip sighs and settles into the chair next to her. The way his leg bounces, however, makes it clear that he hasn’t calmed down yet. “Sorry, I know,” he says. “There’s no reason to overthink tonight.”
“There really isn’t. We’ve dined at the Barnum’s before.”
He laughs, placing a hand over his face. “Of course we have. Of course we have.” He echoes his own words, as if he needs to remind himself. Anne bites back a smile, placing a hand on his back instead.
“Everything is going to go great,” she tells him.
If this were a perfect world, he’d be the one saying this to her. If everything was easy and they didn’t have to worry about the rest of humanity -- even good folk like the Barnums -- she would have no reason to be concerned. Tonight would just be another dinner, joining their friends for the evening. They could have a good time. There would be no reason to worry at all.
Then again, they will be visiting the Barnums. When does anything ever go according to plan when P.T. Barnum’s involved, anyway?
At this point, she thinks she’s even more nervous than Phillip -- god forbid she show it. Anne stares at the hand on Phillip’s back, and fights the temptation to get dragged into her own mind. Worrying is ridiculous. Nothing absurd is going to happen, and Family Dinner Night is going to go great.
This night will go exactly according to plan.
Of course, it doesn’t, because this is the Barnums.
The second Anne and Phillip set foot into the Barnum family house (newer, smaller, still on the nice side of town, but without the copious amounts of space that made it seem like the family was drowning in their own home), they are assaulted by a flying, bearded menace.
“Guess what? Guess what?” hollers the projectile as it soars off of the middle of the stairs. Only Phillip’s quick reflexes avoid serious injury to anyone. He catches the bundle of blonde and blue in his arms, holding her in the air. Helen Barnum beams at them both from beneath her favorite Lettie prop beard.
Phillip looks too startled to even ask. Anne, who remembers jumping from places even higher and more dangerous as a child (without anyone to catch her before she hit the ground) just smiles. “What’s going on, little lady?”
“Caroline’s ballet school is doing the nutcracker, and the teacher said I can be an uncle! I get to be a whole uncle!” Somehow she manages to bounce while Phillip still holds her in midair. Anne is impressed.
“You are, huh? Lemme guess, you’re going to wear your beard?”
“I sure am!”
Helen kicks her leg; Phillip, taking the hint, lowers her to the ground. She immediately wraps her arms around his waist, while he ruffles her hair. “That’s great, Helen.”
Helen spares a gap-toothed smile for him, then turns to Anne. Her hug is gentler, but no less enthusiastic. “Anne, Anne, you’re staying for dinner?”
“I sure am.”
“Can you show me how to climb out the window? You promised you’d show me last time, remember?”
Phillip raises his eyebrows. Anne looks up at him, raises her brows in return, and squeezes Helen’s shoulder. “Sure I can,” she replies. “As long as your Mama doesn’t mind.”
“Or doesn’t find out,” a new voice chimes from behind them. Phillip spins on his heels as Anne looks up, just in time to see Charity Barnum striding towards them. Her mint green dress compliments her rosy complexion; she seems like she’s practically glowing. She hugs Phillip first, squeezing him tight enough to make him laugh in surprise, before drawing Anne into her arms. When she gives her a kiss on the cheek, she pauses to murmur in her ear, “I will pretend I heard nothing, as long as you start with the downstairs windows. And use a rope.” She pulls away, offering the couple a wink. “I climbed out a few windows myself, back in my day.”
“You, Mama?” Helen looks thrilled. “Did you ever get caught?”
“‘Did I ever get hurt’ is the better question — and no, I didn’t, because I only climbed out of windows responsibly.” Charity gives her daughter a look that makes it clear she expects the same from her. Helen nods seriously, like an obedient little general.
“But that can be for later,” Charity says. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to show Phillip?”
Again, Helen lights up like the arena at showtime. “Right! Phillip, you’ve gotta come see my dollhouse! Daddy bought me a new set of furniture for one of the bedrooms, and now Miss Lillian can’t find all her old stuff, so she thinks she was robbed, and is looking for the crook in the house — you can play the crook, I’ll be Miss Lillian since she’s my favorite doll — and when she finds him, she’s gonna lock him in the basement dungeon…”
Helen’s chatter does away as she leads Phillip upstairs. Anne is left staring after them, shaking her head in amusement. (She always loves seeing Phillip get to play Big Brother, and his closeness to the Barnum girls is the sweetest thing.)
Now that the ladies are left alone, Charity turns to Anne. She looks her over and hums. “Something… something seems different about you. Did you do anything new with your hair?”
A smile tugs at Anne’s lips. “No, ma’am.”
“Something. Your dress, maybe? It’s something new.” Charity’s eyes sparkle as she smiles, secretive and delighted. “It looks lovely on you.”
Anne grins back. She can’t help the way her hand moves up, brushing back a stray curl (and showing off a little bit more). “Thank you.”
Charity leads her into the kitchen, where preparations for dinner are already well underway. “Normally I wouldn’t bring guests behind the curtain,” she says to Anne as she pushes the door open, “but someone else has been waiting to see you.”
The Barnums have several maids that helps with cleaning, a cook, and a chauffeur — but Charity enjoys doing much of the cooking herself. With a little help, of course.
“Hi, Anne!” Caroline exclaims from her place by the window. She’s busy mixing a large bowl of what can only be cookie dough. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come say hi — we’re very busy back here.”
“I can see that,” Anne nods, peering into the bowl. “What cookies are you making?”
“Chocolate chip peanut butter,” Caroline proclaims proudly. “For dessert. Daddy said it was your favorite.”
Anne turns a raised eyebrow on P.T., who is sitting at the kitchen table with flour in his hair. He is busy trying to roll out the dough for another batch of cookies; it doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing. He offers her a shameless grins. “I remembered the way you’d hoard peanuts for yourself after the show,” he explains. “And Phillip reminded me of your love for everything sweet.”
“Of course he did.” Anne shakes her head, chuckling. “Well, Caroline, chocolate chip peanut butter is my favorite. Thank you for making them for me.” She turns to Charity then, standing straighter. “If you need any help —“
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Charity scoffs, passing her a drink before beginning to usher her out of the kitchen. “Now, come on. The roast still has a while to bake, and I believe you and I have a lot to talk about.” As the door swings shut behind them, she leans in. A wry smile dances on her face. “Tell me everything.”
Dinner ends up being standard fare for what Anne expected. There’s a lot of rowdy conversation, jokes and stories to go around. P.T. adds an extra flair to any tale, which makes his recitation of the day he met Charity awfully exciting. (“That’s when I looked up, and saw a pair of stockinged legs dangling out of the window —“ “That isn’t how it went!”) Phillip and the girls bounce off one another easily. Some of Phillip’s favorite jokes (“Why are elephants so wrinkled? ... Have you ever tried to iron one?”) make the girls laugh so hard that the table shakes. Dinner is also excellent, a meal of pot roast and veggies, with a little wine that leaves Anne feeling warm by the time the meal is finished.
The girls are eager to serve dessert. As they scamper off, all the adults at the table exchange wary glances. They recognize that this will probably go wrong; they just don’t know how, and are afraid to find out.
“No,” exclaims a shrill voice from the kitchen. “You can’t put a candle there! It’ll fall and you’ll set the table on fire!”
P.T. stands up quickly. “I’ll help with dessert.”
“Mrs. Barnum,” Anne says as the door swings shut behind him, “all due respect, but I’m amazed your house is still standing.”
Charity grins. “Sometimes I’m amazed too.”
The cookies come out on silver platters, arranged in rings with a gleaming red candle in the middle. (The candle seems like it was Caroline’s touch, because she’s beaming as her father sets the plate down.) The girls go around offering milk to everyone before bouncing into their seats.
“Daddy and I made the cookies all on our own,” Caroline informs Phillip. He eyed the dessert — cut in tiny shapes of hearts and stars — appreciatively. “The funny looking ones are the ones he cut.”
“It’s harder than it looks,” P.T. protests, swiping a cookie off the plate.
During dessert, conversation falls to Anne. Both girls have always been fascinated by her acrobatics. When they ask her how she got into flying in the first place, she can’t help launching into a story. It’s long, a little amusing, and involves giving her poor parents enough near-heart attacks that she’s surprised they never strapped her feet to the ground with lead shoes. When she’s finished, the girls are giggling uproariously again, and P.T. and Charity are grinning. Phillip — who’s heard the story before, with even more details — takes a long sip from his milk glass and raises his eyebrows at her.
Once again, Anne raises her eyebrows back. She’s ready for this.
Or maybe she isn’t, she thinks as Phillip rises from his seat. Suddenly her heart is racing, her hands are clammy, and she wants nothing more than to just sink back down to the table once more. Every insecurity she had before coming here tonight floods back to her like a tidal wave. She feels like the breath is being squeezed from her lungs.
“As a matter of fact,” says Phillip, and reaches over, “Anne and I have an announcement of our own.”
The moment his hand slips into hers, Anne can breathe again. Phillip always has a remarkable way of grounding her. Remembering that he’s right by her side helps her recall where they are — among friends. The Barnum’s, in fact, are the closest thing to a conventional family either of them have. This news isn’t earth-shattering. They’re going to take it well.
“After a lot of thought —“
“And a lot of convincing,” Anne adds, offering Phillip a crooked smile. “We have decided…” She trails off, letting Phillip take the lead. (Saying the words out loud still feels surreal.)
“To get married!”
Anne holds up the hand that she’s been preoccupied with all day. The flint of her ring catches the chandelier — a real diamond, set in silver plating. Rainbow fractals of light glimmer against the tablecloth as the room erupts.
Both little girls shriek, leaping from their seats to throw their arms at the happy couple. “You’re getting married?” “Congratulations!” “Can we be flower girls? Please, please?”
Charity has a hand pressed to her lips, not hiding her beaming smile. Next to her, P.T. has leaned back in his seat, clapping. His grin lights up his entire face.
Once the girls have slowed their assault, P.T. and Charity both stand. Charity pulls Anne into another warm embrace that Anne can’t help returning. Tears blur her vision. She feels overwhelmed and warm, all at once.
P.T. grasps Phillip’s hand in his own, shaking it firmly. “Congratulations, Phil,” he tells him. “You couldn’t be luckier.”
“Neither could I,” Anne pipes up (she’s embarrassed the hear her voice waver a little). “I’ve got the best man in the world.”
“Second best,” Charity counters, stepping towards her husband. “But it’s a very close race.”
“And sometimes Phillip’s winning.” P.T. reaches out and grasps Anne’s shoulder, squeezing it. His eyes are brimming with all the pride her own father isn’t around to feel. It makes her feel like the breath has been stolen from her lungs.
“Thank you,” she breathes to him — the man who took her into the circus, who brought her Phillip, who made all of this happiness possible. “Thank you.”
When Barnum takes a step back, it’s Phillip’s turn. He reaches out to her, looping an arm around her waist, and pulls her tight. As the little girls continue to chatter about the wedding, Anne leans against him and blinks back her tears. In this moment, surrounded by a family who loves her, the doubts from earlier are no more than a distant memory. She’s not sure she’s ever been happier in her life.