Pin the Tail on the Donkey and The Limbo ensued, followed by Happy Meals and a sheet cake into which Michaela Landry plunked a finger before her mother, inserting candles, could grab her wrist. Maddie sat calmly between two non-birthday-celebrities (a true sacrifice for her), finished her hamburger, and finally handed over to me her dessert plate, which sported a few leftover peaks of frosting.
“I saved this for you, Mum,” she said.
I smiled at her. “Thanks, Mads.”
As Mrs. DeAngelis announced that we should all head to the living room to meet a special guest, Maddie crisscrossed her little fingers with mine and tugged to delay me. The rest of the girls and boys filed past us, their heads popping up over one another’s shoulders as they strained to see who awaited them two rooms over.
“I don’t want to go in there,” she said.
“We’ll sit in the back,” I said. “Let’s just try it.”
We walked down three or four carpeted stairs to reach a living room where a twenty-foot tree accented with silver bulbs and white garland and lights stood regally in one corner, and St. Nick lounged in an oversized armchair in a nook opposite. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors gave view to a patio and an inground pool. Pop music, mostly club songs, pumped through the house, a welcome change from the trumpets and violins of retro carols that had been streaming through local department store loudspeakers since the day after Halloween. The children knelt on the rug in front of their hero. I sat on one of the carpeted stairs, asserting that at least four rows of little figures dressed in red or green plaid or snowflake-trimmed garb separated me from the big man, and tucked Maddie under my arm.
Santa beckoned each child one by one—“Jason! Where’s Jason? Come on up here, Jason”—and spent two or three minutes discussing with him his hopes for Christmas morning. Barely checking his packet of notes that he kept beside him, Santa would warmly compliment the child on a good deed or admirable behavior, then send him back to his spot on the rug with a small, shiny gift bag from a heaving red sack. I was duly impressed with the smoothness of the operation. But it was a production, and Maddie would have to navigate through a spectating crowd, all gazes turned on her, to reach Santa’s throne.
“I want to go home.” Maddie leaned her forehead against me and pressed closer. As Santa’s list of children carried on, the chances that her name would be next increased, and so did her apprehension. The parents who had dropped off their children hours before had begun to arrive, and the living room and foyer thronged with strangers gabbing to one another and holding up iPhones to film the event.
“Don’t you want to get your present?” I said. I just wished that she could hold on for ten more minutes. An early departure might seem rude—having to interrupt Mrs. DeAngelis’ Flip videoing to ask for our coats, explaining why Maddie was snubbing her goodie bag.
“I want to go home.” Maddie escaped from beneath my arm and swiveled around so that she could hide behind my back.
The muscles in my chest burned. Come on. Call her name. Just get it over with, Santa. Tease her for her fear and make it seem like no big deal…prod her to go up there until she falls apart in front of everyone. Go ahead. I know how this works.
“Emily!” boomed Santa. “How are ya, Emily? Come on up!”
“I want to go home,” Maddie whispered. She had suctioned herself to my body. I tried to pry her hands from my shoulders, but her nails only dug in further.
I could feel the bone of her nose bearing down on my spine and her mouth working against my shirt.
“Madeline? Where’s my Madeline?” Santa’s fluffy beard swished over his chest as he assessed his audience.
I waved meekly. “Over here,” I croaked.
Santa spread his arms. Instantly, dozens of flushed cheeks, some still smeared with chocolate ice cream, rotated towards the stairs. The heat of the other parents’ attention oppressed us from all directions. I zeroed in on Santa, letting my peripheral vision collapse into blurry splotches of color.
“Madeline, sit with Santa! I have something to tell you.”
She wouldn’t budge, of course. I shrugged apologetically. “She’s a bit shy,” I said, and chuckled. But the sound came out flat. Here, our family’s secret issue (every family wrangles with at least one) was finally spotlighted in front of a large sector of Lynnfield’s kindergarten glitterati. Move on, move on…it’s not worth it. I cast these thoughts into the telepathic current that I hoped buzzed between me and Mr. DeAngelis. My sinuses were smarting with the threat of emotional crash.
“Are you sure, Madeline?”
Oh, God…just let it go! I looked down, where the crusty stains of street salt on the cuffs of my jeans suddenly seemed terribly gauche.
“Well, that’s all right, Madeline,” said Santa. “But I want you to know that you’ve been doing beautiful artwork at school lately. You’ve learned so much about how to draw and paint!”
Relief rippled over my shoulders like massaging fingers. Santa understood.
“Mum will come and get your present for you.”
Santa held up a silver gift tote. I unwound Maddie’s arms from my torso and she immediately transferred her affection to the top post of the railing that adorned the stairs.
“Thank you,” I said as I took the tote. I placed my palm on my chest. “I’m sorry. Thank you.”
Santa winked at me. “Now, Madeline, I want you to keep up that incredible artwork. Okay? Can you do that for me?”
I made my way back to Maddie, stepping gingerly between the knees and elbows of children who had begun to rock on their bottoms, pick at the dried ketchup and frosting on their clothes, and rustle the tissue paper from their favors. Their eyes scanned the room for their mothers and fathers. They weren’t even listening.
“Your mom and dad are proud of you, Madeline,” added Santa. “What a good girl you are.”
She was glancing back and forth from my face to the man sitting behind me who could grant her dreams with the clang of a toy factory bell. Yes. She was a good girl. My jaw firmed up in resolution at this very simple yet often underestimated truism about my daughter. So she didn’t want a strange hand, gloved in a disaffected, sterile white, to touch her. So she didn’t want to expose her most vulnerable wishes—for the doll that the other girls in her kindergarten class already had, for the drum set that her parents would undoubtedly banish to the basement, for the camera that could be too expensive—in front of her peers. What if she were asking for the wrong things? What if she choked up with embarrassment and couldn’t speak?
What if she asked for everything she wanted, and Santa said…no?
The birthday party waned to a close. Parents spilled out of the house in a chorus of good-byes and gratitudes. Maddie, wearing the bracelet of rainbow gems that she had pulled from her tote bag and a plastic ring in the shape of a butterfly (one of only five or six that had garnished the cake and that Michaela Landry’s mother had passed to her surreptitiously), skipped outside with a group of her classmates before I could wrestle on her coat. They were on Santa’s trail in a tizzy. Supposedly he had left via the kitchen and out a side door where his sleigh was parked, but now, they couldn’t find him anywhere. He had practically evaporated before their eyes.
Maddie giggled and bumped into the other girls and boys as they swirled over the lawn, in and out of the bushes, around the cul-de-sac, in flabbergasted pursuit. Soon, their inquest became a game with one another. Maddie didn’t push her peers; she didn’t taunt them. She didn’t sulk on the front steps when she had to wait a few minutes for someone to deem her worthy of storming. At one point, she hooked her arm into another girl’s and led her into hiding behind the drainpipe from a boy who was tagging people in the ribs with his big blond head. And when I called her to the car because it was time to go, she came. I buckled her into her booster while three other parents involuntarily joined the sport of chase in the front yard, yelling the names of their children breathlessly into the fading light of the winter evening.
“Did you have fun?” I asked her.
She nodded, spinning her bracelet on her wrist.
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Mrs. DeAngelis phoned me on a Saturday morning. She was wondering whether Maddie might like to come to her house for a playdate with Susannah.