It still takes her by surprise to see how good a father Jesse is. How involved he is in his daughter’s life, how everything she does and says matters to him. When she was a baby, she spent most of her waking hours – probably most of the sleeping ones, as well – in his studio with the smell of size and paint and metal. Creativity had always come easily to him, and since circumstances forced him into spending all his time surrounded by work, more work materialized. After a while, Veronica’s gallerist friend seemed to be able to sell anything he made (Celeste’s never bought anything, though, since she still has his art from the years of their marriage, and while his style has changed and evolved since then, she still, from time to time, looks at the swirls of paint and objects in his collages which hang on her walls, and recalls the way they used to be). He used to make jokes about how Ari couldn’t sleep except to the sound of rock music or without the smell of paint lingering, but she thinks it was simpler than that: the baby simply knew that where her father was, that was home. For a long time, Celeste had thought the same, and even though she’s been happily married for nearly eight years to another man, every time she sees him, there’s a little clench of her heart of love.
Celeste was a little surprised – and yet not surprised at all – to have been asked to be Ari’s godmother, and it was fun to be the cool aunt for a while before she and Paul had their own children and she had to be the uncool mom: all moms are uncool: that’s just a law of life, even if their best friends are artists or dancers or former pop stars. Since Ari’s the eldest child of their friend group, the other kids look up to her, only partly because she thinks up way too much mischief for them all to get into.
Jesse still lives in the two-bedroomed single-storey house he bought when he and Veronica split up, though he could afford something much nicer and in a better area by now. He and Ari re-paint it every year, making the chore into an exercise of creativity. Today, the house is hung with lights which illuminate the egg-yolk yellow of this year’s paint job, making it even more noticeable through the trees which edge the street when she drives up. There are already other cars parked outside, so Celeste has to do some manoeuvering so as not to take up too much space. She and Paul unbuckle the kids; she hoists Max to her hip, feels the weight of him, and checks that they’ve got everything they brought. It feels odd to be going out, to be gathering with friends, even if it’s a small group, and they’ve all been vaccinated. This cautious, distanced, new normal is not something even she had foreseen the last time they were all gathered here.
The backyard is still a child’s paradise, full of trees which are currently laden with unripe fruit. The sun is shining, the paint-splattered iron table sits in the shade spread with a variety of drinks and platters of food, the dietary contents of each of which are carefully noted with little paper flags. Jesse’s no longer a vegan – that was more Veronica’s thing – but although he and Ari don’t eat meat, they like to cook, and Celeste rarely finds herself missing meat when she eats with them. Even though it’s Ari’s ninth birthday, and the occasion for their gathering here, she’s self-importantly wearing a big apron over her party dress, and directing her father to get out more chairs and cushions. She’s grown taller, with some of Veronica’s length of limb, and her usually short brown hair has gotten much longer and is braided in a style that she can’t have done herself. Jesse’s grinning in the way that can still sometimes stop Celeste’s heart; that’s not directed at anyone, but merely that he’s so happy it can’t come out any other way.
“Hey Cee, Paul,” he says, spotting them, and coming over to welcome them. “You look great. Hi, kids.” He leans down to kiss Celeste, hugs Paul, kneels to give Benjy a high five, pulls a face at Max which seems to delight him, judging by the absurd wriggle he does, almost overbalancing her. “It’s so good to see you.”
They unload children and their gift and the food and drink they’ve brought. Paul, bless him, pours drinks and goes to talk to Veronica, who’s standing rather stiffly by one of the trees, cradling a glass of white wine. She’d never really fit into their group of friends even when she and Jesse were together: there’d been too much shared history between them and it had excluded her, despite Jesse’s efforts. Celeste finds conversation with her now even more awkward, since the only thing they seem to have in common is Ari – and a shared understanding of having Jesse as an ex.
Beth and Tucker are sitting on a blanket on what little grass there is, a plate of selected bits of food between them. Tucker’s only half-listening to Beth, since his attention seems to be mostly on their kids, who are climbing trees and yelling delightedly to each other. Celeste plumps down on the blanket and steals a sausage, grins at Beth’s mock-affronted expression, and leans over to hug them both. “I know we always say that it feels like ages since we’ve last seen each other,” she says, “but it really has been. Calls aren’t the same.”
Beth is crying, yet smiling. “I know – I practically couldn’t let go of Jesse when we arrived – you know he gives such great hugs – and it felt like I hadn’t hugged anyone apart from Tucker and the kids in years. Years, Celeste.” Knowing what she means, Celeste hugs her friend again, and makes it a long one, inhaling the familiar scents of her shampoo and scent which overlay the essence of Beth. It feels almost like a rediscovery.
Soon enough, the atmosphere mellows, adults catching up with the news of each other they’d missed in social media posts and Zoom or Facetime calls, children stuffing themselves with cake and running around (making their parents wonder how they’re not going to be sick soon). Ari opens her gifts and thanks everyone, and even she gets emotional about the fact that they’re all here, together, after so long, and has to hide her tears in Jesse’s shirt. Celeste notices that Ari and her mother have very little to say to each other; there’s a sort of wistfulness in Veronica’s expression as though she’s recognizing that distance, or else preparing herself for it.
Celeste is returning to the party from the bathroom when she sees the door to Jesse’s studio open. She takes a swift look. Lockdown and the pandemic appear to have been good for him – there’s so much good work here. She looks with more attention: although the technicalities of art are a mystery to her, she is well-versed in spotting what the market likes, and these are things that buyers are going to like. In the corner of the room there’s the futon he sleeps on – Ari has a proper bed in her own bedroom – and it looks so much like college days that she wonders if Jesse has ever really grown up, despite fatherhood and a measure of artistic success.
There are sudden voices outside, lowered, but furious. “No, you can’t do that to her. Or me.” It’s Jesse, and he so seldom gets angry that she stays stock still in the room, listening.
“It’s no use, Jesse. This year has shown me that. I don’t think Ari even missed me.”
“She misses you,” he says.
Celeste can imagine Veronica shaking her head sadly. “We saw each other three times this year. And yes, it was under such strange circumstances as to make the experiences bizarre. I was stuck here. In the States. And I realized that I did not want to stay, even for our daughter.”
“You mean you’re just going to leave, and not take her with you?”
There’s a long silence, so long that Celeste thinks they’ve gone, and she edges to the door. Through the gap between the frame and the door she sees Veronica in Jesse’s arms: but she’s crying quietly into his shoulder, and he’s gently rubbing her back and not looking at her, but wearing an expression Celeste has never seen on his face. At last, they part and Veronica wipes her eyes. She kisses his cheek briefly, brushes away a tear with her thumb, and turns away.
Jesse lets her get out of the house before he turns towards the studio and says wryly, “You can come out now, you creeper.”
Celeste emerges sheepishly. “How did you know I was there?”
“Shadows and scent,” he says, shortly, as if it should be obvious. “So that’s a fun thing to drop on Ari on her birthday.”
Celeste shrugs. “These things happen, Jess. She has you.” She grins, wryly. “When I think how unsure you were about parenthood, before she was born... I don’t know what I’m doing, you wailed. And maybe you aren’t good at romantical relationships, but you are a damned good dad.”
“Why, danke schön, meine Frau,” he says, dropping into the German accent he still occasionally uses when he’s trying to pretend there are no awkward emotions in the room, and drawing out the ‘er’ sound of ‘schön’ with comic over-statement.
They smile at each other. Then she’s in his arms, and she’s holding him tight, and he’s holding her. “I miss you,” they say together, and it’s always true, but this time more than any other.
They return to the yard, picking up more food from the kitchen (“How many days were you cooking for this little get-together?” she asks, amazed) and as the shadows lengthen and the lights brighten in the dusk, and the kids get quiet and sleepy, they all sit together and talk and laugh and merely enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. Finally, Paul’s the one to break things up, holding Max on his shoulder who’s fast asleep, and they collect their kids and cope with the resulting wails of tiredness and being disturbed, pack them into cars and drive away, after hasty hugs and goodbye kisses.
Jesse and Ari survey the disaster zone that is the kitchen. “So that was fun,” he says, rolling up his sleeves. “How about you pack up all the food while I do the dishes?”
They work steadily, singing along to a playlist of music Ari likes (heavily weighted towards K-pop groups and leavened with occasional hard rock, or so Jesse likes to think of it), and it’s only afterwards, when he’s slumped on the couch and thinking about smoking some weed, that Ari emerges from her room in her pyjamas and sits down heavily beside him. “Dad,” she says, seriously, “did Mom tell you she’s going back to Antwerp?”
He looks at her and puts his arm round her. It delights him when she cuddles up to him like this, like he’s still her favorite person in the world. “She did. You okay with that?”
“I mean, I’d like it if she stayed, but I prefer living here. This,” she gestures with her free hand encompassing him, the whole house, and maybe the neighborhood as well, “is home. Not Mom or her place.”
“Okay. Good.” She flings herself onto him, hugs him with the peculiarly strangling grip that, weirdly, he enjoys, and they settle down to watch TV together.
Later still, when Ari’s in bed fast asleep with her plush penguin cuddled up beneath her chin, he goes outside to switch off all the lights. In the sudden dark, he reflects that he knows three things about himself: that he is a loving father; a good artist; and that he will always miss Celeste.