Keeping the Tradition
Tami tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and leaned on her elbows on the kitchen bar. "I think you and I should go to a New Year's Eve party this year. I've found a responsible teenager who goes to Pemberton. She doesn't have plans, and she's willing to babysit."
Eric, who was standing on the opposite side of the counter, glanced up from the sports section of the newspaper he had been skimming. He eyed her suspiciously and raised his coffee cup to his lips. His recently launder undershirt made a bright white contrast to his dark hair. As he lowered his cup again, he asked, "Why?"
"Because it might be fun to actually go out on New Year's Eve for a change."
"Fun?" He took another sip of his coffee. His wary expression did not falter.
"Yeah. Some of the faculty at Braemore are having a party at the library, after hours, from seven to midnight. Tickets are $50 to get in- "
"Tickets? To a party?"
"It's to raise money for the library. And that includes a glass of champagne at midnight. You have to buy the rest of your drinks."
"You have to buy drinks?" Eric asked. "At a party?"
"It's to raise money for the library," she repeated, more slowly this time, as though she were talking to a half deaf man.
"Doesn't the college already have a library?"
"To expand it, Eric!"
"$50 for a glass of champagne?" Eric set his coffee cup down on the counter. "You know, if we just stayed home, I could buy you a really nice bottle of champagne."
Tami shrugged and tilted her head. "I just think it would be fun to go to a party is all."
"But…" He smiled and leaned on the counter and kissed the corner of her lips teasingly. "We always have our own party at home. Don't you like to party with me?"
"I see," Tami said with a smile. "So that's why you don't want to go. You think if we get home after midnight, you're probably not getting laid."
Eric stood up. "No. I don't want to go because I don't like being at cocktail parties with a bunch of snooty college professors. And you know what, I don't think you really like those things much more than I do. You just have to go for work. And I do go with you about once a month, don't I? I do my duty. But this is New Year's Eve we're talking about. We have our own New Year's Eve tradition."
She nodded. "We do. But can't we change it just once?"
"Come on, Tami, you aren't that into parties. I mean, you're great with people. You can turn on the charm" – he snapped his fingers - "like that. But usually you'd rather just be at home with your family, wouldn't you?"
"Yes, usually, but not always. I want to go out for New Year's Eve for a change. Come on, now!"
"You're going to make me drive, like you always do, and I'm not even going to be able to - "
"We can take a cab," she said. "Or I bet I can get Eden to drive." Eden was a college professor at Braemore, and her husband Dan was Eric's best friend in Philadelphia. "She doesn't drink much. Dan will be there. So he'll help you survive."
"You know I like hanging out with Dan, but you and I have a tradition, baby. We already have our own New Year's Eve tradition. You're not supposed to change tradition."
Their tradition most years (though it had altered when Julie was in the tween years, because she was then too young to go out on her own but too old to go to bed early) had been to ring in the New Year with the little one (be it Julie or Gracie at the time) around 9:30 with sparkling cider, put her to bed, and then settled into a pile of blankets on the floor in front of the fireplace and the not-yet-tossed Christmas tree. There would be cuddling and kissing and eventually, inevitably, lovemaking, and at midnight they'd open the champagne and toast the new year and, with plenty of laughter, split the bottle before heading to sleep at half past midnight.
Tami put a hand over his. "Please?" She batted her eyelashes.
He sighed. "Okay. I guess if the only way I can make you happy is to throw tradition to the curb, then that's what I have to do."
She reached out and put a finger on his folded-over, pouting mouth. "Do you want me to sit on that lip?" she asked.
"That's what my mother used to say."
He looked off absently into a corner on the other side of Tami. "You know, I still miss her sometimes. Isn't that weird? She died over thirty years ago."
"It's not weird," Tami replied, squeezing his hand hard. "You know, I still sometimes randomly burst into tears on the fourth of July. You've seen that a dozen times at least." When she was in junior high, her father had left their family on the 4th of July. She'd rarely heard from him since then. He hadn't died until fifteen years later, but that had been the first death.
"Hey, c'mere," Eric half whispered, and jerked his head to beckon her. "Come 'round."
She slid off her stool and walked around the bar into the kitchen. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "I love you, Tami. I love you and I'm always going to be here for you."
"I know." She settled her head against his shoulder. "That's why I married you."
"Well," he said, "that and the fantastic sex, right?"
She laughed and raised her head to accept his kiss.
"But I want to go too!" Gracie insisted, her hands on her hips.
"No," her father answered. "It's not a kid-friendly party. We have a babysitter coming soon." Eden had agreed to drive, but none of them wanted to be among the first ones there. If Eden and Dan swung by the Taylors' at 7:30, they'd all arrive an hour after the official start time.
"Who is it?" Gracie asked, or rather whined. "Not the one that brings the maaaaath worksheets!"
"God no," Eric muttered. In a pinch, three or four months ago, when he'd had a babysitter cancel at the last minute on a game night, they'd called on a neighbor two houses down. The next morning Gracie had awoken him at the crack of dawn and muttered in his ear, "Never again! No, daddy! Never again!" Dazed and confused, he'd finally been able to elicit from her an explanation for her strange morning greeting. Gracie had led him to her bedroom and shown him the stack of addition and subtraction sheets the babysitter had made her complete. "This one's a teenager over at the school where your mama and I work. She's real nice, Gracie. Trust me. She might even play Uno with you."
Gracie let her arms fall from her hips. "Okay, but you have to take me for ice cream tomorrow."
Eric flopped down into his recliner. "I have to? Is that a fact?"
"What's a fact?"
"You know what a fact is." He hated when she asked for the meanings of words that ought to be obvious. She would use a word correctly in a sentence and then a second later ask him what it meant.
Gracie came and sat on the arm of his recliner and put her feet down into his lap. He caught them quickly and positioned them safely. He also hated when she didn't watch where she was jumping, kicking, or otherwise planting limbs of her body. He tickled her toes and she giggled and slid backwards over the arm of the chair. Startled, he tried to catch her, but there was no need. She caught herself on her hands and did a sort of backward somersault. "You're a little monkey," he said. "That's a fact."
"No, Julie's monkey noodle," she said, standing up from the ground. "What am I?"
"Your father's pride and joy. And bane."
She titled her head to the side, the way her Aunt Shelley did when she was confused. "What's a bane?" she asked.
"Nothing, sweetie. Nothing at all."
Professor Laroche pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. "And thus we see again the phallic symbol in a typical ritual of the modern American Neanderthal man. I'm sure you agree with me don't you, Dean Taylor?"
Eric tugged on his maroon tie. Tami was looking at Professor Laroche warily, standing stiffly beside Eric. She answered, "I really don't think the football resembles a phallus at all. It isn't the correct shape."
"We're speaking metaphorically," Professor Laroche explained smugly. He lifted his wine glass to his nose and inhaled deeply. The party was underway in the large, open lobby of the library.
"I'm well aware you're speaking metaphorically," Tami said, her smile a little tight, "but my husband is not training young men to make those kinds of goals. If anything, the way he molds the characters of those boys – I think he's probably teaching them to be more respectful of women than they would otherwise be."
Eric's hands were still on his tie and his back teeth were gritted together, but a part of him was smiling inside at his wife's compliment. A hand clamped down on his shoulder. He turned and saw with relief that it was only Dan. Dan leaned in. "I found us a spot," he whispered. "Bundle up."
Dan's wife Eden drew up beside him, looking glamorous as usual, her black sequin gown just a shade darker than her own skin, her tall, slender frame nearly equal in height with her husband's. "Dr. Laroche," Eden said.
"Dr. Harris." Professor Laroche nodded stiffly in return.
"Are you telling Dan his firearms are mere phallic extensions again?" Eden asked. Dan coached a rifle team at one of the Philadelphia high schools. It was a part-time volunteer position, and his main profession was that of stay-at-home Dad.
"No," Dan said, "He was telling Coach Taylor that the game of football is a primitive mating ritual."
Eden's dark red lips curled into a smile. "Maybe you should introduce a little Shakespeare into your Phallus in Literature class, professor."
Professor Laroche swiveled his wine glass. "Leave it you, Dr. Harris, to care about the continued propagation of the canon of dead white males. Of course, you married one."
Dan let out a great laugh. "Oh, that's a good one, Dr. Laroche. Have you been working on that one ever since the last cocktail party? Have you?"
Dr. Laroche turned his eyes languidly from Dan to Eden. "I don't know why you insist on teaching entire classes on the material of a single conventionally selected playwright of the…"
Eric felt himself being pushed away by Dan. The two men sneaked out of the back of the library to a covered porch and drew their overcoats tight. Dan drained the glass of scotch he'd brought and set it in the center of the table to serve as an ash tray before handing Eric a cigar. "Do you think they really enjoy these parties any more than we do?" he asked Eric as they each slid down into a chair.
"I don't know." Eric cut his cigar. "Tami really seemed to want to go. Not just for the whole fundraiser , show-your-face aspect." He lit it and puffed it started.
"Well, I guess if they don't get cornered by Dr. Laroche the whole evening, they'll end up discussing subjects of interest to them." Dan got his cigar going as well. "Have you seen the course catalogue for the spring session?"
Eric shook his head. "No. Let's play the game." It was cold out here, but Coach Taylor didn't care. He knew he was permitted forty minutes with Dan before he was expected to rejoin his wife's side and play the handsome husband, who could nod dumbly and smile equally well whether it were college politics or literary theory being discussed.
Dan smiled broadly and leaned forward. "Okay, two out of three this time."
"One," Dan announced. "Selected Topics in Transgendered Australian Religion."
Eric pulled his cigar from his lips and blew out. In the late December air, his breath was a mirror reflection of the smoke. This was the about the only time Coach Taylor indulged in the pleasure of cigars – when he was escaping with Dan, and, occasionally, after an away game with his fellow coaches. Tami typically wouldn't let the things near the house. "I don't think transgendered people have their own religion in Australia," Eric said. "That might be made up. On the other hand…it's just too bizarre not to be a real course title."
"Two," Dan continued, "Quantitative Methods in the Seduction of the Feminine Other: A Study of Male Patriarchy."
Eric tilted his cigar to see Dan better. "That sounds like a class Professor Laroche might teach."
"And three," Dan concluded, "The Indirect Consequences Of Native American Paintings On 21st Century Legal Theories: A Presentation Of Marxism In The Modern World."
Coach Taylor mused. "They're all so good. It's hard to tell."
"Only one is made up. Only one is not in the catalog of summer offerings. Which is it? Bottle of scotch if you win."
"And if I lose?"
"You watch O and Cory for a weekend so Eden and I can get away." O was short for Othello, and Cory for Coriolanus. Dan had not resisted his Shakespearian professor of a wife when she'd selected the names.
"An entire weekend?" Coach Taylor asked. "Doesn't seem a fair exchange for one bottle of scotch." Especially not given the energy level of Dan's boys, and the variety of sound-making toys they carried with them – and fought over - everywhere they went.
"It's a very good bottle of scotch."
"Fair enough." Eric rubbed his chin and thought. "What was the last one again?"
"The Indirect Consequences of Native American Paintings" - Eric held up his fingers one by one as Dan said the title - "On 21st Century Legal Theories: A Presentation Of Marxism In The Real World."
"That one," Eric said decisively. "That's twenty words. That's a record. That's too long, even for Braemore."
Dan smiled and shook his head. "Alas, no, my friend. No. That's a real course title. I made up the one about Quantitate Methods in the Seduction of the Feminine Other."
Eric shook his head. "Damn. I couldn't tell. Doesn't it sound like a class Professor Laroche would teach?"
"Absolutely. And to make it more realistic, I based it on another course title, which Dr. Johnson really is teaching - Quantitative Methods In Cardplaying: Ideas In Conflict."
"That actually sounds vaguely interesting," Eric said.
"Well, as spouses of faculty members, we can audit it for free. Part of the trophy husband benefits package. The other benefit being that we both have extremely hot wives who appreciate non-metaphorical phalluses. Phalli?
"We never did figure out the plural, did we?"
Dan shook his head.
"So really, I have to watch your boys for an entire weekend?"
"Tell you what. Eden and I will reciprocate sometime so you and Tami can get away too."
Eric glanced at his watch.
"What's the countdown until we have to adorn the arms of our wives again?" Dan asked.
"We have thirty minutes still. But no more scotch."
"Think we can sneak in and get some more without being caught up?"
Eric shook his head. "We better lay low while we can."
During the ride home, in the backseat of Dan and Eden's car, with Eden driving, Tami snuggled giggling against Eric's shoulder. Eric clutched the cash for the babysitter in his hand and prayed that everything would go according to plan. Gracie would be asleep and stay asleep. The babysitter would gather her things and leave quickly. Tami would not insist on crawling into bed the second the front door closed. The tradition would continue.
"Eden kicked Professor Laroche's ass in that debate over the literary cannon," Tami muttered.
"What?" Eric asked, laughing and looking down at her. It wasn't her usual mode of expression.
"She mopped the floor with him," Tami giggled. "Wish you could have seen it."
"Wish I could have seen it," Dan said from the front seat. "Although I enjoyed playing the catalog game with Eric."
"What?" Eden asked.
"Never mind," Dan said. "That's our little secret."
Eric was glad they'd left the party early. Eden had received a call from the babysitter that Othello had begun vomiting, and so the four of them had headed for the car at 11:15.
Tami wound her arms around Eric's left arm and continued to rest her head on his shoulder as the car bumped over potholes in the streets of Philadelphia. The glow of the lingering Christmas lights made white lines on the window. Tami glanced down at the cash in his hands and the way he was clutching it.
Eric smiled at her. "I just want to be prepared," he explained.
"Tami, you're relaxed, babe. How much wine did you have?"
"It wasn't the wine," Eden said. "It was the martini you bought her when you boys came back from your little retreat that put her over the edge."
Tami grabbed Eric's tie and loosened it. "Were you trying to get me drunk, hon?" She lowered her voice. "Are you trying to get in my pants?"
Coach Taylor glanced uncomfortably toward the front of the car and then lowered his head and whispered, "No, ma'am. You aren't wearing pants."
Eric hustled when they pulled into the driveway, saying goodbye quickly to Dan and Eden and then walking Tami to the door. She kicked her high heels off in the hallway and lingered to the side, trying to hide the fact that she was inebriated from the student Eric would no doubt see in school the day after tomorrow. Eric exchanged a few words with the babysitter about Gracie's behavior, which had apparently been angelic (more likely, he reasoned, the babysitter simply wanted to be hired again), and Tami disappeared into the bedroom.
After locking the front door, he peered in after her. "You're not going to bed, are you?" he asked, the disappointment clear in his tone.
"No. I'm taking a shower to wake myself up, and then getting in that lingerie I bought you for Christmas. Is that okay?"
He smiled. "I'll set up in the living room. Can I take off my suit?"
She looked him over. "Okay," she said reluctantly. "But leave on your boxers. Are you wearing the naughty Santa ones I put in your stocking?"
"I will be if that's what you want." They were red and felt velvety to the touch, and they had what appeared to be a black belt extending across the top. She had bought them as a pure joke, and he figured he'd wear them once to amuse her - if he couldn't get sex, he could at least get a laugh - and then he would bury them in the back of the drawer. Yet when he put them on, he discovered that, although she did indeed laugh, she also rather liked the way they fit him.
As he hung up his suit in the bedroom closet, he heard the spray of the shower begin to strike the porcelain of the tub. He grabbed some pillows from the bed, retrieved some blankets from the hall closet, and started the fire in the living room. The Christmas tree was already plugged in. He went down the hall and into the small laundry room and dug through the dryer until he found the boxers, by now cool to the touch.
When he returned to the living room, he made a soft nest out of the blankets and turned on some even softer music, and finally, carefully, quietly, he draped a circular ring of jingle bells over the handle of Gracie's door so that, if she should wake up and open it, the noise would warn them to cover up quickly. The jingle bells were tradition too. The only part of his preparations that deviated from the usual tradition was the small bottle he retrieved from a drawer in his night stand and set down by the nest of blankets. When Tami joined him and eased under the top blanket, she lifted the bottle and laughed. "Flavored massage oil?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "That's new."
"It's strawberries and champagne," he said, sliding in next to her. "Seemed New Year's Evey."
"Where did you get that?"
"Off the internet."
"Of course. Silly me. I was trying to imagine you buying it in an actual store." She began to laugh harder.
He pulled her back against him, kissed her shoulder, and slid a hand underneath the skirt of her lingerie.
"You're in a hurry," she said, turning in his arms to face him. "What about my traditional two hours of cuddling?"
"Babe, you're the one who made me deviate from tradition. Normally we start this at 9:45. It's 11:50. Cut me some slack."
He leaned in to kiss her and she preempted him by raising the bottle of oil in front of her face. "I at least want a massage," she demanded.
Tami dug her hands into Eric's thick, dark hair and, laughing, pushed his head away. She was already satisfied and now his continued ministrations were becoming ticklish and torturous. He kissed his way up over her stomach and to her shoulder. He looked down at her with a self-satisfied smile and asked, "Did you like that?"
"You know I did."
"I like having our own private party." She stroked his cheek with the back of her hand. "I like the tradition. And I like the innovations to the tradition."
"So I take it you didn't mind coming home early and missing out on your $50 glass of champagne?"
"Baby," he said, "I didn't spend $50 on that massage oil, and that was by far the best champagne I've ever tasted."
She laughed and reached to her side to grab the massage oil. "Well, I haven't had a chance to taste it yet." She pushed against his bare chest and he took the hint, turning and lying on his back. She loved the way his smile grew in anticipation. She dribbled the oil directly on his chest and he winced from the sudden chill, but she was soon warming it with her touch. She slid her slick hands over his chest and downward beneath the blanket, watched his eyes fall shut, and listened to his eager gasp. She reveled in the power she knew she wielded over him, and after she had teased him to pleading, she began to make her way down his body with her lips.
They missed their traditional New Year's toast. By the time he cracked open the champagne, it was already half past midnight. "C'mon now," Tami said. "I just got over my buzz from the martini. Maybe I shouldn't drink half this bottle with you."
"It's okay. No school tomorrow. And I got a new movie for Gracie. I also got us a box of Krispy Creams for breakfast. We'll just plop her in front of the TV in the morning and cuddle on the couch for a couple hours."
She raised her champagne flute to his and they clanged their glasses together. "You've thought of everything, haven't you, hon?"
"Hey, I can be thoughtful."
"You can?" she asked in mock disbelief. "Really? In twenty-plus years of marriage, I hadn't noticed that. I was just sticking with you for your teacher's salary."
He sneered. "I think you've used that line before."
"Maybe, but after a couple of decades, a person starts running out of new material."
He licked the lingering champagne from his lips and lowered them toward hers. "Good thing for you," he murmured just before kissing her, "I like reruns."