‘Is it time to open presents?’ Jess’s nephew Payton asks again – it has been his refrain for tonight.
‘Yes. It is time,’ Jess’s sister Lillian says finally.
We have all finished the fondue that is a Swiss and Ferndriger tradition. Lillian has kept Payton at bay as long as she can. She watches over the new baby, Xavier, while Payton races past towards the tree. Jess sits next to me and talks to her mother. She is very tired but she has this little bit left. I am in a conversation with her father and Lillian’s husband, Matt. Her father is talking about their travels to Spain and Canada when they were younger and Matt is talking about American football and many other things. I am exhausted from the jetlag and from the new kind of eating and now from trying to make a good impression while following the thread of two conversations.
When we arrived everyone was already there. Lillian had given birth only two days before and she and Matt and Payton had come with the new baby nearly straight from the hospital. It is very curious how so much excitement can surround something that is almost always asleep. Xavier slept eyes tight and soundly beside the sofa and Lillian sat close by. Matt greeted us at the door and helped to bring our luggage in. Jess’s mother was preparing the fondue and at the top of the steps her father came to meet me and shake my hand.
‘He caught me in a bad handshake,’ I say when we are in Jess’s room getting sorted before sitting down to dinner.
‘Who did?’ Jess asks. She is changing into her flannel pajama bottoms because she is practically allergic to wearing outside clothes when she is home in the evening.
‘Your dad did,’ I say.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He sort of, you know, gripped the ends of my fingers instead of my palm.’
‘How did that happen?’ she says.
‘He caught me when I wasn’t ready or at a bad angle or something,’ I say.
‘Well which was it?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘It all happened so fast.’
‘Aww. It’s OK, love,’ she says. ‘I’m sure he didn’t notice.’
‘I’m sure he did notice,’ I say. ‘It’s exactly the kind of thing that a father would notice about the guy who’s dating his daughter.’
At the dinner table Jess eats and talks to her mother and is mostly quiet. She checks in with me occasionally but she is not following the plan.
‘What about the plan?’ I will ask her later. ‘You were supposed to run interference, remember?’
‘I know, I know. I’m awful!’ she says, ‘but I was so tired and I was overwhelmed too, you know.’
For dinner we each have strips of raw beef and pork and chicken on our plates. We have a small skewer each with a different color at the end of the handle.
‘You remember your color or else you might take someone else’s meat,’ Jess’s father explains.
‘It’s my favorite meal,’ Matt says and I see that he has an entire steak in large slices on his plate.
I skewer a strip of beef and I place it in the pot on a stand in the center of the table. The pot is filled with an oily sauce, which is kept at a boil by the fire from the burner beneath it. We leave the skewered meat in the fire for a few minutes while we take appetizers of olives and bread and cheese and other garnishes. After the meat has boiled in the oil for some minutes we check it and if it is not fully cooked we let it sit longer before we eat it. It is a new kind of eating for me and I like it very much. I eat slowly and so I am the one to scrape the sides of the pot at the very end.
During dinner I take a beer and afterwards Jess’s father offers me a glass of Jack Daniel’s. I am very grateful because it is exactly what I like. It tastes good because I am very tired and because my last bottle has finished two weeks before and I am too long without it. I ask if Jess’s father will take one with me but he says that he chooses not to anymore. We converse at the table for a while longer until I hear Lillian give in to Payton: ‘Yes. It is time.’ Then I feel Jess grab me by the arm and pull me away from my chair and down to the ground where we sit on the rug between the sofa and the Christmas tree. It is a moment before I realize that this is the moment that I have been waiting for more eagerly, I am sure, than Payton has.
We each receive and open gifts in a loosely coordinated merry-go-round fashion. My first is the ‘stocking’ and it is a bag of chocolate truffles, and a Toblerone, and a box of Belgian chocolate seashells. My next is tall and heavy and contains a large bottle of Jack Daniel’s. These are from Jess’s parents and I try through tired eyes to show my surprise and gratitude. Next is the box from Amazon that holds the two books on Adventure Motorcycling and a DVD on Dual Sport Riding Techniques. This one is from Jess and me to ourselves but I am sure I will be the one to enjoy it more. Last is the most important one, though of course it comes in the smallest box.
Most everything I own fits into two suitcases and three cardboard boxes, which are in storage back home. Everyday clothing is in one suitcase and winter and formal wear is in another. The cardboard boxes contain camping and sporting goods, books and albums, and yearbooks and other mementos. I have always been tidy and somehow existentially concerned by my material footprint. Your things are an extension of you – I surmised at one point in my early twenties – and, if they are many or untidy, then the same will be true for your mind. But, after Hurricane Katrina, when I shared a cruise ship berth and lived out of a rucksack for six months, my penchant for minimalism became a survivalist instinct.
This doctrine was a shrewd philosophy for a time, but slowly I came to suspect that, the fewer the things I had and the more selectively I acquired them, the more those things become a necessity in themselves. This suspicion became enshrined as law when, six weeks before, my beloved iPhone suddenly died.
It happened when I foolishly plugged it directly into an outlet that was supplied by a Chinese generator. It shut off and, when I turned it back on, it was unable to boot up. This was at Lachlan and Nik’s house and the loss of my iPhone made an already difficult day even more so. When we got home and for several days after, I checked all the forums and scoured the online support and I twice called the Apple hotline. After following all the recommended courses, it was determined that my Mistress 3 (two iPods bore the name previously) could not be resuscitated. After lamenting the loss and further lamenting the cost of DHL, I shipped the corpse home for replacement under the one-year warrantee.
The six weeks since then had been as difficult as any before or since. I borrowed an old Sony Ericsson from Jess to make phone calls. In most ways it was OK except that the microphone was very bad. I would place a call and, after receiving an answer, I would be halfway through my first sentence before I would hear, ‘Hello? Hello? Anybody there?’ For music and audiobooks and podcasts, at first I tried to go without. I decided that it might be Zen-like to reduce the noise, except that, without the noise, you remember how boring most things are. So next I borrowed Jess’s old Chinese-made mp3 player.
‘Boy, we have truly fallen,’ I said when I conceded to try it out.
But it had a very finicky connector so that the slightest disturbance during a transfer and you lost everything. Also, it has a terrible interface and it could not remember your position in a track, which made a 10-plus hour audiobook very difficult to get through. Finally, I borrowed Jess’s newer Sony mp3 player and this worked well enough but it just was not the same.
Somehow the days and weeks passed and now we are in Toronto visiting Jess’s family. We have just arrived and it is Christmas and my new Mistress is here in a box that Jess’s mother has wrapped in holiday paper. I peel off the paper and tear open the box. Inside is my ultimate minimalism. It is new in its case and it turns right on when I press it. I see the glow from the screen and I take a breath and I am comforted.
Then I put it down. I look around the room. Matt is telling a story and there is Payton with his new video game, and there is a new excitement around the baby who has woken up for the first time this evening. I look back at my iPhone and I realize that I have not any excitement left in me. Maybe tomorrow, I think, but right now I am just paid out.
So, I sit back next to Jess against the leg of the sofa. She smiles dully at me, which is the best acknowledgement she can muster, and we stay like that until everyone has left or is gone to bed.