Annie sat on her kitchen stool and sipped from a glass of white wine. It was her reward and her last quiet moment before Danielle, the kids, and Danielle's husband Michael descended on her. The turkey –organic, free range – was perfect. She'd even sewn the turkey up, enclosing the stuffing. Even her stitches were even, decorative. Perfect. The stuffing – chestnuts and candied tangerine peel and non-GMO cornbread. Perfect, in the fridge under plastic wrap and ready to pop in the oven. She had hors d'oeuvres ready to bake to piping hotness on the other shelf of the oven, which she would put in when her guests arrived, and she had a "children's version" which perhaps was not that imaginative – decorated Chicken Nuggets on popsicle sticks instead of toothpicks the girls might choke on. Bravo, Annie. You really can cook Christmas dinner. Finally.
No one needed to know that she'd already cooked it three times before in the last month, just to Make Sure. She was so sick of turkey she could hardly bear to look at her latest creation, and the second and third test turkeys had been donated still warm to a homeless shelter, but at least she was absolutely confident that this turkey would be perfect.
Of course, it would be nice if she weren't such a turkey-obsessed Maiden Aunt at this get-together , but that was okay – she so rarely got to see her sister and nieces, it was a fair tradeoff even if she'd had to endure Danielle at her most pleasant and gentle - "Are you seeing anyone? No? Oh – but that's fine. We'll have all your attention then!" But she might be seeing more of them. They were only back on this coast because of a job interview for Danielle's husband scheduled for next week . Such sisterly solicitousness might become the annoying norm all too soon. She'd have to push Joan for more international assignments to get a break. Or get a boyfriend …
Her doorbell rang. She turned on the oven to cook the turkey – it was precisely the right size for their little group and would take about three hours. Possibly she should have put it on already, so the house would be fragrant with the aroma of the cooking turkey. Well, next year for that refinement. She swung open the door. Daniielle's family swarmed in, carrying packages, taking pictures, looking adorable in matching holiday gear, though Annie suspected Danielle's husband Michael wasn't look too happy about his matching sweater, scarf and cap, probably all hand-knit by Danielle. Uh-oh. Definitely hand-knit by Danielle, because that was what was in the gift bag being pressed into Annie's hands.
Annie gave in to the experience, put on her own matching sweater, cap, and scarf, and lost herself in the joy of sister talk, assembling toys, and playing with her nieces. Danielle's husband took some photos, then clicked on the TV and let them indulge themselves in chatter and play. He was not such a bad guy. Annie thought at moments that Danielle's life was unbearably dull, but she seemed to be thriving and happy … two words that might not be used to describe Annie herself. When her husband was briefly out of the room, Danielle whispered to Annie. "I've got news but it's still a secret," and patted her belly.
"Oh Danielle, that's wonderful!" The two sisters embraced happily.
"Danielle, can I see you for a minute in the kitchen?" her husband asked. The sisters froze. His tone was odd. Had he heard the secret?
"Sure! Be right there!" Danielle made eyes at Annie, an 'I-don't-know-what's-going-on' sort of look. Annie forced a smile and put one of the dolls she'd given Chloe into the super duper Doll Elevator of the Pretty Princess Penthouse.
"Um, Annie, can we see you for a minute in the kitchen?" It was Danielle this time. With a feeling of dread, Annie excused herself to her nieces.
"You know I don't want to criticize … but shouldn't the oven be on?"
"What are you talking about? It is on." Annie went forward, to the control. It was set exactly right. She touched the top of the oven. Absolutely cold. "The dial – must not be working…."
"Is it plugged in?" Danielle's husband asked, simultaneously shifting things around and making sure her electric oven was, in fact, plugged in. More tests and waits to see if the oven started heating. Michael checked the circuit breaker- it was fine. Annie's heart sank. On this day of all days, her oven was broken. She hated the fact that she could briefly feel tears welling up in her eyes as Danielle and her husband looked at her with such loving pity in their eyes. Annie and her pathetic cooking skills, they were thinking. Never used her oven and didn't know it didn't work. She wanted to blurt out the truth about the triple test turkeys but knew she couldn't – they probably wouldn't even believe her and it would hardly add to her cooking reputation at this moment. She fiddled with the dial a few more times, but nothing. Even the stovetop burners were not heating up – and the turkey, while on the small side, was still much too big for the microwave. Unless maybe she hacked it up into individual pieces? No. She would not serve a microwaved dismembered turkey.
"Look, it's too late to try and get a repairman . I'll take everybody to a restaurant. There are some Christmas buffets…."
"Annie, are you crazy? Those are booked solid weeks ahead," Danielle pointed out. Annie could feel her slipping into super-competent Big Sister Mode. Annie's shoulders slumped
"Um, Chinese?" Danielleand her family gathered up their matching caps and the group headed out. Actually, the scarf and cap were not such bad ideas after all.
After driving through a light but steady snow, it was obvious that even most of the Chinese restaurants were closed. A search turned up an open one in a neighborhood she rarely visited, in a strip mall crammed between a Jewish deli , also closed or there might have at least been a turkey sandwich option, and a bagel shop. But Wo Fat's Cantonese Cuisine was going to be their salvation. Wo Fat's was busy but they slid into the last vacant round table with a lazy Susan in the center. "Whatever you want," Annie said, trying to seize back the role of hostess. "Peking Duck for everybody if you want it!" A passing waiter advised, "Sorry, all outa duck!"
Annie, you are an international spy. You will not have an emotional breakdown over a bad Christmas dinner, she told herself firmly. She couldn't bear to look at Danielle in case she would be greeted by another kind smile so she stared off into the middle distance as if the Chinese landscape painting on the opposite wall was of great interest.
And found a pair of dark eyes staring back at her, with an expression that was surprised, delighted, cautious and uncertain all at once. Annie's face had to be an equally complicated mix of feelings which it took Danielle only about a millisecond to notice.
"What is it? You look like you've seen a ghost!"
"Oh,yes, no, no, not a ghost, I think it's a guy I know from work…." She thought he could just hear their table's conversation through the buzz of the crowded dining room. Danielle of course turned around to look.
"You mean that incredibly good looking guy too tall to fit into that dinky half-booth for two – which he is occupying alone?"
"Ah, yeah, yeah, that guy. In that booth."
"Well, ask him to join us! It's Christmas! Nobody likes to eat alone. His plans probably fell through just like ours did."
"I'm not …"
"Annie, this is why you don't have anyone in your life right now. You're blowing this opportunity. If you won't ask him to join us, I will." Danielle was up on her feet
"Danielle…" There was just time to broadcast a slight shrug of her shoulders across the room to Eyal. Do what you think best, she hoped she was radiating. Eyal was demurring. Danielle was insisting. Danielle triumphed, bringing him back to the table, her face, concealed from their new companion, sending numerous messages to Annie with widening eyes, a raised eyebrow, and exaggerated mouthing of the words "He's gorgeous! What are you thinking!"
Daniielle perked along. "Honey, this is Mr. Eyal Lavin, and these are our kids, Chloe and Katia – and of course, you work with Annie!
"I don't mean to barge in on your Christmas dinner," he was saying.
"We're delighted to have you. This wasn't quite what we planned either, but no one should eat alone at Christmas!" Danielle popped in, sending a look to her husband.
"Yes, please join us," Michael said on cue, rising slightly to greet "their" new guest.
"Eyal's Jewish," Annie blurted out, nervously, immediately wishing she had kept quiet. "So, he,uh, doesn't have Christmas…" Eyal , sitting down just opposite her, looked at her as if she had lost her mind, and at that moment, she thought she had.
"What's Jewish? Why don't you have Christmas?" Chloe asked. "Does that mean you don't get any presents?"
Annie, desperate to back out of this, dug herself in deeper. "You still get presents, actually, you get them earlier…." Another dumb thing to say.
"Is that right Mom? Can we be Jewish next year?"
Danielle was nothing if not a trouper and a gracious hostess. "We'll see, honey. Oh, look, they have pork dumplings – I mean, they have sweet and sour chicken wings. We'll start with some of those. Oh! Pork chow mein – actually, shrimp I think – or –or " Danielle was relying on dimly remembered kosher food restrictions "No, I'm in the mood for beef chow mein… and I think we all are in the mood for some poultry – "
"Aunt Annie couldn't cook the turkey," Chloe piped up helpfully to their new companion. Annie hoped to melt into her chair and slide under the table in a gelatinous mass and then somehow ooze unseen into the parking lot, anything to get out of this conversation.
"That's a shame. Dinner with your aunt is always such a treat , you must be very disappointed," Eyal said smoothly, without missing a beat. "She's wonderful in the kitchen," he added. Annie felt her heart swell with gratitude and, at least at that moment, love for the Israeli rescuing her.
"What?" Danielle asked, stunned into rudeness. "Our Annie?"
"We've shared several very lovely dinners," he continued, slightly more honestly.
"Oh, so you know each other – well?" Danielle shot her a look. You kept *this one* a secret?
"My oven broke," Annie said, starting to feel herself come back to normal. "It wouldn't turn on."
"Those things happen with electric ranges. Gas ranges are much better." The conversation stayed with the merits of gas vs electric ranges and Eyal, with a question or two on the menu directed to Annie, somehow seized back the duties of hosting from Danielle and Michael and restored it firmly to Annie's hands. Then he played the part of charming guest to the hilt.
Annie got up to pay the bill. Eyal was at her side in seconds, ostensibly to throw in his share. "How much do I owe?"
"No way. This one is definitely on me. " The owner was perturbed with something on the bill and went to find the waiter. "So, you'll lie for me to my sister?"
"We have a long history of rescuing each other, neshema. Body or soul, it's equally important. And strictly speaking, I didn't lie. I happen to think you are wonderful in the kitchen. And in the living room. And in the dining room. And in all other rooms, I am sure, as well," he added, smiling.
"You know, of all the times you've saved me, I think I may be most grateful for this one." He patted her hand.
"Well, you saved me today from a very quiet dinner. My "Christmas Tradition" when I'm abroad during the holidays is Chinese food since almost nothing else is ever open. Happy to share it with you. And your big sister seems charming and must drive you crazy nearly as much now as when you were children."
"You have that right. It was sweet to be defended by you."
"My pleasure. He smiled. "It's been a very satisfying dinner all around. I've met your family, we've settled the religious question… wise of you to cut to the chase earlier…"
"I'm sorry about that. I didn't know what I was saying, I was so embarrassed that you'd hear the story about my turkey failure. But settled?"
"Your sister did not rule out conversion merely for the sake of earlier presents . I'm assuming you would be equally open-minded."
The owner returned and rang up the bill.
"That is a great temptation," she responded lightly, handing over her cash.
"Only the great temptations matter," he said quietly. She felt his fingers rest lightly on the small of her back. "Merry Christmas, Annie," he added, with the briefest of kisses on her cheek and a squeeze. Danielle and her husband and the kids came up, balancing to-go containers of leftovers. Eyal was making his goodbyes to them, against a mild protest of Danielle's to come back with them for eggnog. He slipped out the door ahead of them, and with his usual magic, by the time they reached the parking lot, he was nowhere to be seen. Danielle looked at Annie in amazement.
"Where did he go so fast? Did you say something that offended him?" Danielle demanded.
Irritated at Danielle and immensely grateful to Eyal once again, Annie responded by smiling her best mysterious smile. Let her sister make of it what she would. "Oh, he's never gone for long," she answered, as if his mysterious comings and goings were quite commonplace. "He'll turn up again before you know it." As they were, she thought. For a brief moment, she frowned but cleared that from her forehead before even Danielle could catch it. This was a coincidence, one of many, but no more than that. He could not have possibly, oh, rigged her oven, hacked her cell phone app so it showed only a single Chinese restaurant open anywhere near them, the one he would be at … No. They could have ordered pizza or any number of things other than going out for Chinese food. Unless he had her apartment bugged…
Danielle hung back with Annie as they started to get into the car. "Do you mean we're in the way?" she whispered. "Are you getting … um, together later?"
"Let's just concentrate on our own eggnog, shall we?" Annie replied gaily.
Danielle's family left, laden with their presents. Annie went to her kitchen. She'd put the turkey and other food back in the fridge before they had gone out. Now she was faced with still cooking her fourth turkey in as many weeks,and she thought she'd like to get it over with. She fiddled with her oven dial one more time. Nothing. So if Eyal had disabled her oven for his own nefarious purposes, he had not slipped in ahead of them to fix it. So it probably had been a coincidence – she couldn't imagine him leaving her in the lurch with a broken oven if he had caused it. He valued good food too much.
Yet she still was not totally surprised to hear a soft knock on her door, a called-out "It's me!' She went to the door, smiling, and opened it to find Eyal, a small neat toolbox in one hand. "I got to thinking, it would be days before you could get a repairman in. How will you cook your morning crepes and madelines? "
"I was just wondering that myself, actually."
"I was undercover as a chef a few times – most of those professional ranges are gas, of course, but I might be able to make an adjustment or two and see if we can get you to heat back up…your oven, that is…."
With a sigh, she led him into her kitchen, let him loose on her oven, and got out the eggnog, spiking it liberally as he almost immediately found "the problem". "Just as I suspected, a loose connection…. It's warming up already…." She handed him a glass.
'About three hours till a full turkey dinner, if you think you'll be hungry at midnight."
"I do prefer dining late, in the European fashion."
"I bet you do." Annie went to her refrigerator and quite proudly handed him her neatly sewn-turkey. He raised his sharp eyebrows and gave her a little nod. "I am impressed."
"So you see, there wasn't going to be a culinary disaster. There was no need for you to pre-emptively disable my oven."
"Annie! I'm hurt. You think I would do such a thing to you on an important holiday just to potentially save you face in front of your sister?"
With a look and a shrug he acknowledged her suspicions of him might be warranted and smiled his most melting smile. "So maybe I would. But I didn't. "
" 'I didn't do it, nobody saw me do it, you can't prove anything? ' "
"Very funny, and all correct, but wrongly applied."
"I spiked that eggnog with truth serum. Sure you don't want to change your story?"
"This is how you treat me? I'm an innocent friend sharing my oven-repair skills in a gift of Christmas charity!"
"But you don't celebrate Christmas."
"No, but I celebrate our friendship, every day, holidays of course included." He looked at her so sweetly she couldn't resist rewarding him with a brief kiss of her own before she whispered, "Disable any bugging device you've planted here and you can stay for dinner."
"For that, if there were any, I would need a promise of those crepes and madelines in the morning."
She pulled away and raised her hands. "So my turkey dinner that I slaved over for hours, working my fingers to the bone, not good enough for you? You need that I should make crepes and madelines in the morning?"
His face fell. "That's frightening."
"You're the one who was talking conversion!"
"Perhaps we can continue along more ecumenically."
"The bugs, Eyal. Or that glass of eggnog is that last thing you're getting under this roof tonight, tomorrow, or any other time."
"Annie, I'm sure you sweep this apartment regularly. Tell me where these "bugs" of yours are and though I didn't plant them, I will remove them. All part of my repair service."
He was looking all too open and innocent. She was sure a sweep of her apartment right now would turn up absolutely nothing. Her eyes fell on his toolbox. Of course. The bug had been in her oven, and she was sure that it now lay disassembled in the bottom of his tool box, probably unrecognizable. "I think the service call portion of this evening is over. " She sat on her couch and picked up a trio of DVDs from earlier. "'Holiday Inn', 'Nightmare Before Christmas', or'It's a Wonderful Life'". He sighed, set down the tool box – she would still try to get a peek inside that later – and chose. "Holiday Inn."
"For the dancing." He nodded . She popped in the DVD, hit "Play", and then went to settle in beside him, sipping on her own eggnog.
"Careful, Annie, you're hitting that "truth serum" pretty hard. Who knows what you may reveal before the evening is out."
"You seemed to fight it off pretty well. But maybe I do feel a "truth" coming on."
"I'm actually pretty happy with the way my Christmas dinner is turning out. Thank you, Eyal."
"That truth serum must be having a delayed effect on me … I confess I agree." She let her head fall onto his shoulder. His arm slipped around her shoulder., and the aroma of the cooking turkey began to drift into the room.
Merry Christmas, Everyone!