“Most monsters are people already in our lives.”
Wednesday evening, 10 December 2008
Celia: Celia feels like Emily that night when she gets back to the dorm and passes out immediately. She’s still groggy the next morning, and a glance in the mirror shows the dark circles beneath her eyes and a paler face than normal. It looks as if she’d never slept at all. She doesn’t dare say the truth to Emily when she asks, just mumbles something about a test she’s worried about, and Emily, busy with her own work, nods knowingly and lets it drop. She’s still tired that afternoon when Stephen swings by the dorm to pick her up for their date, quieter than usual at their early dinner. She lets him talk, telling her about his classes and his friends—one of them is dating a new girl and maybe they’d like to go on a double date sometime?—and she nods her agreement. He wants to take her to see a movie, but their intended show—something about a high school girl and a sparkly boy—is sold out. Celia catches the relieved look on her boyfriend’s face and laughs, telling him that if he doesn’t want to watch dramatic romance movies with her she won’t force him, and next time she’ll drag Emily along.
She nods towards a poster of a girl in a mask and asks if he’d like to see that one instead, and the two purchase tickets for what Celia assumes is going to be a cheap slasher flick. It’s a quintessential date move: picking a horror movie and pretending to be scared while using it as an excuse to cuddle.
As it turns out, there’s less pretending than Celia thought. “Slasher” is not the premise of the movie. It’s more of a slow burn, a psychological horror with decently developed characters in the midst of an emotionally charged situation that are soon beset by three masked assailants and tormented over the course of an evening. The growing dread and tension cause a knot to form in Celia’s belly, and she has Stephen by the hand as events unfold, eyes doing a strange dance between “glued to the screen” and “trying not to watch.” By the end of the movie there’s a somber, subdued mood to the audience, and Celia is caught up in her own private thoughts.
“That’s not quite what I expected,” Celia admits as they walk back toward his car. She hasn’t yet let go of his hand. “They were just… awful."
“D’you think that’s real, though? I mean I know it said ‘based on real events,’ but I mean more like… at the end, when the girl asked why, and the other girl said ‘because you were home.’ Just… because of opportunity…” She trails off, looking up at him.
GM: Celia’s not just tired. Pooping hurts, too. There’s blood over her stool when she looks down.
“Poor Emily,” is all Stephen wryly says when she declares she still wants to see the vampire romance movie.
“I don’t know if it was actually real,” he replies as they exit the theater, giving her hand a squeeze. “Plenty of filmmakers aren’t above exploiting ‘based on real events’ or ‘this is a true story’ taglines. Sometimes they slap those taglines onto movies even when the plots are completely fictional.”
“But could this movie have been real? Some parts feel implausible, but I think so.”
“Serial killers are real. Home invasions are real.”
Celia: “But the random nature of it all? Just that they were home? Aren’t most crimes, um… crimes of passion?” She thinks he’d said something about that before. “Instead of opportunity, I mean.”
GM: “Technically, most murders are crimes of passion or opportunity. They’re just usually committed by people who already knew the victim, who’s frequently a domestic partner.”
“So that’s the less plausible part. Random murders happen, but I feel like they added that line just to be edgy.”
“Most monsters are people already in our lives. I’d have found it more compelling if the movie established some kind of connection between the characters.”
Celia: “Less scary that way, though. The way they have it makes you think it can happen to anyone, which I think is the point.”
“Or… maybe you’re right,” she says after a minute. “I guess it’s worse to imagine people we already know doing that sort of thing to us.”
GM: “Yep.” Stephen unlocks his car and holds the door open for Celia, then closes it and gets in on the other side. “It is scary to think something horrible could happen to you completely at random, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. The world is just that unfair.”
“But it may be even scarier to think that something like that only happens because you’ve made an error in judgement or somehow brought it on yourself.”
He twists the keys.
“The first scenario makes you feel more helpless. But the second one leaves you doubting yourself and the people you know. Very different kinds of horror.”
Celia: Did she bring on Paul herself? She didn’t really know him before that first time she’d gone to his house. She’d met him at various functions at Daddy’s house over the years, but they’d never interacted much. He was always just another one of her dad’s friends.
She pulls the seatbelt across her chest as Stephen starts the car, eyes turning to look out the window.
“I guess there’s some… denial involved with people who get into situations like that with someone they know. People don’t usually just snap, right? There’s always a reason.”
GM: “Usually, yes. People who kill for no reason at all are by definition sociopaths.”
Celia: “And people who terrorize and torment their families?”
GM: Stephen glowers as he pulls the car out of the lot.
“You don’t need to be a sociopath to be a monster.”
“I’m glad your mom is finally seeing a lawyer.”
Celia: “Yeah, me too.” She reaches out to take his hand in hers, rubbing her thumb in tiny circles across the back of it. “Thanks for setting it up.”
GM: He smiles and squeezes her hand back.
“You’re welcome. I was happy to. Dinner was lovely, and you and your family deserve better. That apartment building was so gross. No offense.”
Celia: “It is gross,” Celia agrees. “I guess I just… I don’t know. Wonder how she could have stayed with him for so long when he did that to her. Like, if you just hauled off and decided to hit me one day, I can’t imagine I’d have any compelling reason to stay.”
GM: “I’d certainly hope not. Unfortunately, abusers tend to already have power over their victims, who tend not to be aware they have options. I don’t know when your dad started hitting your mom, but she probably wanted to avoid exactly what happened to her… losing her kids and getting financially cut off, with no apparent way to fix those things.”
Celia: “But she lost it all anyway. Why not fight back at that point?”
GM: “You’d have to ask her. I can’t fathom not doing anything.”
“I’m just glad you’re both doing something now.”
Celia: Celia glances out the window again.
It’s not fair that she’s mad at her mom for not doing anything when she’s in the same situation. Paul isn’t her dad. Or her husband. They don’t have kids together. He doesn’t have any hold over her except for the photo, and the photo is on her phone. Or at least it was on her phone; she’d deleted it the moment she’d left his place. Her “inadequate” acting had kept it from being sent around, thank god.
And she’s seen him four times now. Four times five hundred is two thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money. She doesn’t have to see him anymore. She helped her mom, she’d let her cut back on some of the hours at her various teaching jobs, they’re seeing a lawyer…
Things are fine. She doesn’t need Paul anymore. She’s not going to see him anymore. Ever. She’s never going back.
Celia nods to herself, mind made up. She’s done with him.
“Yeah,” she says to Stephen. “Me too. Hey, can I spend the night? I want to try something…”
Wednesday night, 10 December 2008, PM
GM: Celia and Stephen “try out” a great deal. The heat of one another’s bodies keeps them warm and cozy against the December chill, even mild as it is in the city. They’re lying in bed and talking about nothing in particular when Stephen looks at her and says,
“I want you to meet my family.”
“What would you think about dinner with them sometime?”
Celia: The mention of a family dinner puts her on edge. She can’t help but think to the disaster of the last family meal they’d had, the one with her father where he’d threatened to kill Stephen with his bare hands. Even the dinner with her mom had been awkward once the talk of the fake hymen kit had come up.
She tries not to think about it now. Easy to dismiss thoughts of her parents when she’s curled in a naked heap beneath the blankets on her boyfriend’s bed. Head on his chest, arm slung across his stomach, she barely lifts her head to look up at him.
“Are they as nice as you?”
GM: “Well, neither of them will do this with you,” he smirks, running a hand along her back.
“My dad can seem a little… serious to some people, but if you can stand your grandma he’s nothing you can’t handle.”
Celia: There’s a beat of silence. She can’t imagine his dad his going to call her stupid if she can’t keep up, but the thought still crosses her mind.
“I’d like to meet them.”
GM: “Great,” he smiles. “It’ll go a lot more like the dinner with your mom than your dad. Promise.”
“Minus the, uh, hymen kit discussion.”
Celia: “Will they react in horror when they find out we’re sleeping together?”
GM: “I’m 22. They know I’ve been seeing you for a while.”
“Though maybe Dani will be weirder about it. 16 and all.”
Celia: “Aha, so they know you pick up girls at parties for one-night stands that turn into dates.” Celia grins at him.
GM: “Ha. I haven’t shared that much detail. Just that we met at a party.”
Celia: “Little awkward to share, probably. Can’t imagine it’ll come up at the dinner table.”
GM: “It won’t. My dad might talk about work stuff, so if it goes over your head just smile and nod.”
Celia: “Sounds manageable.”
GM: “We’re pretty boring next to your family dramas, sadly. Most drama with us is a forever-ago divorce.”
Celia: “I could pretend I’m pregnant if you want me to spice things up.”
GM: He smirks. “Suddenly boring doesn’t seem so sad. My sister might freak, but my dad doesn’t do drama. It just makes him shut down, get even more serious, and try to sort everything out as fast as possible. That’s how the divorce basically went.”
Celia: “Was it, ah, bad? The divorce?”
GM: “Well, I can’t say it was fun to go through. But compared to your family’s, it was really tame. Worst that came of it were some angry arguments and broken plates.”
“All from my mom. My dad doesn’t lose his temper like that.”
Celia: “What happened between them?”
GM: “So, I’m not 100% sure about the details. My dad doesn’t like to talk about it and I… can’t really ask my mom.”
“But I think it had to do with his job. As a prosecutor. I think he might have received a death threat.”
“My mom really freaked out about it. I could hear her screaming about how he’d leave her a widow and how he didn’t care about her, or his children.”
“Or I think it might have been part of a sensitive case he was assigned to.”
“I don’t think it was just over the death threat, though. They got into a lot of arguments. Underlying issues, maybe, in the marriage.”
“My dad’s never said this—he refuses to talk badly about her, even when I’ve vented—but I think he has a lot of contempt for how hysterical she was. And really didn’t like it how she kept accusing him of not caring about us. She was just always on his case.”
Celia: “I think it’s pretty normal for someone to get hysterical about a death threat… but… I don’t know, I guess if I knew what I was getting into…” she trails off. She’d like to think she’s made of stronger stuff than that. That if she and Stephen were to get married she could withstand some threats. She’d be proud of him for standing up against it. She doesn’t say it, though.
“About working too much?”
GM: “He did, does, work a lot, yeah. His job just means so much to him. Runs in our family.”
He thinks. “I think she actually accused him, once, of sleeping with his secretary.”
“Which of course he didn’t. That isn’t him at all.”
“She just didn’t get it. And maybe this is a little presumptuous of me, since she knows my dad in ways that I don’t, but she wasn’t born into our family. Wasn’t raised on stories about how important the work we do is.”
Celia: At least she hadn’t tried to cut his leg off for it.
“That’s, ah… yeah. I imagine it’s hard to be a wife to someone like that if you’re not raised in the same sort of environment. It’s different hearing about it versus living it, I bet.”
“Did he, though? Get a death threat? You make it sound like that’s pretty normal.”
GM: “Yeah. I guess it is different living it. She doesn’t see the big picture, or how public service really is meant to be service to the public. All she cared about was whether he’d use it to run for higher office. Talking about his political future was the only time she ever seemed to get excited about his career. I think she loved the idea of being married to an attorney general. All she cared about was us. She can just be so… small.” Stephen doesn’t hide the scorn in his voice.
“As far as death threats… it can happen. It doesn’t all the time, but it can.”
“Most of the time, though, the objective is just to scare you.”
Celia: Celia is quiet for a moment. Personally she thinks it’s good that their mom cares about them, but what does she know. She’s not a mom. Or an attorney. Or a wife. She thinks she understands what he means, though.
“And he didn’t back down.”
GM: “Works on most people. Doesn’t on my dad.” Stephen’s tone is proud.
“Besides, actually killing someone like him would set off a shitstorm.”
Celia: “So they’re a bunch of cowards. Who use death threats and intimidation. And it didn’t work because your dad is a badass. And your mom couldn’t hack it at his side.”
“…sorry, I didn’t, ah, I didn’t mean it to sound like that.”
GM: “Well, it’s accurate enough,” Stephen smiles. “The Mafia aren’t badasses. Forget pop culture. They’re just bullies. They’re happy to use dog pack intimidation, to go after already desperate people when they have numbers on their side, but it’s insane how easily they ‘flip’ and rat out their fellows once law enforcement busts them. All that talk about ‘omerta’ is just talk. Like all bullies, they’re just cowards deep down. People too stupid and brutish to actually hack a socially contributive job.”
Celia: “What’s ‘omerta’?”
GM: “Their code of honor. Code of silence. It means never talking to authorities, handling your own problems like a ‘real man,’ and being a ‘stand-up guy’ who’ll do his time in prison and not cooperate with authorities if he ever gets caught. It ties into a bunch of machismo bullshit.”
“It’s also a complete joke. The best weapon law enforcement has against the mob is mobsters willing to cooperate with us against other mobsters. Whether that’s wearing wires, providing witness testimony at trials, or just information. There’s a lot they can do for us. In return, they get reduced sentences and sometimes enrolled in the federal witness protection program.”
“It’d be massively harder to take them down if they followed their own code. If every guy we arrested just stonewalled and refused to talk.”
Celia: “I don’t understand,” Celia admits. “If you grow up like that, around that family, why sell out your own? I can’t imagine selling out my family like that, just to suit my own needs.”
GM: “It’s sell out or spend a good chunk of your life behind bars. Maybe all your life.”
“Prison isn’t a fun place. Most people will try to avoid spending time there.”
“Plenty mobsters are older men, family men, or both. 30 years behind bars can mean a death sentence.”
“It’s a lot of your family’s lives to miss out on. So it can be less clear-cut than choosing your own skin or your family’s, too.”
Celia: “I thought their whole thing is family loyalty. But I guess that makes sense. When push comes to shove people choose their own skin.”
“Except your dad, because he knows they’re bluffing. And you, because you wouldn’t let someone push you around like that.” Celia smiles at him.
GM: Stephen smiles back. “Exactly.”
“But family loyalty for them is more true in theory than practice. And like all people, they also care most about their immediate families. Say a mobster has a 10-year-old kid when he’s arrested. 20 plus years behind bars means missing a huge portion of that kid’s life. It also means not being able to provide for your family, either. Don’t forget many mobsters are chauvinistic doucehbags who prefer their women to be good little housewives and trophy wives.”
“So it’s really more like a choice between their immediate families and a ‘family business’ where their other relatives happen to work.”
“They aren’t all related, either.”
Celia: “Oh. So they don’t all have the same last name like in all the movies you told me not to watch that I definitely didn’t watch?”
GM: “Ha. They don’t. Plenty ‘families’ are run by mobsters who aren’t actually related to the ‘mob family’s’ name.”
Celia: “Makes sense, I guess, since they only have so many kids.”
GM: “That’s a romantic thought and makes for better movies, but succession in real-life mob families tends to be messier than the son always taking over from the father.”
Celia: “Can I ask a silly question?”
GM: “Only silly question is one you don’t ask.”
Celia: “Does, um… I mean, New Orleans has a family, right?”
GM: “Yeah, it does.”
Celia: “And that’s who your dad wants to take down? Is it just one family that runs a whole city?”
GM: “As in, one biological family?”
Celia: “Well like one Mafia family, I guess. I don’t know how it works.”
GM: “So maybe it’d be easier if we refer to ‘mob family’ as ‘criminal organization’, which can include multiple biological families. Plus individuals with no biological relation to any of those families.”
“The criminal organization in our city has been led by the Agnellos, the Machecas, the Matrangas, the Carollas, and the Marcellos at various times. Leadership inevitably changes over 150 years.”
“Lots of those family’s descendants are still around. Lots of them have intermarried, too.”
Celia: “But it’s all the same organization?”
GM: “Yes. There’s only one Mafia criminal organization in the city. That’s true in basically every city except New York, which has the Five Families. But it’s an exception. Even Chicago just has the Chicago Outfit.”
“Organizations from different cities frequently work together, though. Or get into fights.”
“For instance, Al Capone once visited New Orleans in the ‘20s. The local mob broke his bodyguards’ fingers and sent him back to Chicago.”
Celia: “They didn’t want his bootleg whiskey?”
GM: “The reverse, actually. He wanted theirs and demanded that Carollo supply the Chicago Outfit with imported alcohol, rather than his rivals the Gennas.”
“That’s one of the exceptions to cities having just one Italian-American crime organization. Chicago had two in the ’20s.”
Celia: “But Capone won, didn’t he? Took out the other family?”
GM: “Yep. They had a pretty bloody war. The Outfit won and absorbed the Gennas.”
Celia: “You know how I knew that?”
“‘Cause I’ve never heard of the Gennas.”
GM: “Ha. I was about to say, ‘Because Al Capon had a larger than life public image and reputation as the ultimate gangster despite not actually being Chicago’s most successful gangster.’”
Celia: “Right, see, but he brought them whiskey, and that’s all people really care about in the end.”
GM: “Case in point, we busted him for tax evasion, sent him to prison, and when he got out he died with syphilis as a broken man.”
Celia: “Oh. That’s, uh… huh. Terrible ending.”
GM: “You don’t hear about that as much. He spent his last days in Florida as a half-senile shell of his former self.”
“It’s Tony Accardo, one of his successors, who was Chicago’s most successful gangster.”
Celia: “What did he do?”
GM: “He never got caught.”
“Case in point, how you’re asking what he did. He kept a lower public profile. You haven’t heard of him, and that’s just how he’d have liked it.”
Celia: Of course not. That’s why she asked.
GM: “He died in the early ‘90s at the ripe old age of 82. Over his whole life, he only spent a single night inside a jail cell. Another mobster once said, ’Accardo had more brains for breakfast than Capone had in a lifetime.’”
“He stepped down as Chicago’s mob boss in ‘57 to take less heat. He’d made enough money that he was able to ‘go legit’ and invest in a variety of legal commercial holdings. He died a rich man.”
“And that’s a travesty.”
Celia: “But that won’t happen here, with the family you mentioned. Because you and your dad are going to lock them all away.”
GM: Stephen nods. “Maybe not in our lifetimes. But we’ll put away as many as we can, and make things easier for the next generation. Maybe my son or grandson will finish the job.”
“That’s why people like my dad can’t get intimidated by death threats, though. Evil wins. Monsters like Accardo get to die rich in their own beds.”
Celia: “Not your daughter, though?”
GM: “Well, I suppose it’s 2008. I wouldn’t rule that out. But the legal profession can be pretty female-unfriendly in a lot of ways.”
Celia: Celia uses her hand to prop up her chin, lifting her head so she can raise her brows at him.
GM: “Lot more men than women serve as prosecutors. That’s just how it is.”
Celia: “That doesn’t mean it’s unfriendly.”
“What’re you gonna do if you only have girls, then?”
GM: “I’ve talked to female lawyers who say it 100% is unfriendly,” answers Stephen. “Law schools enroll roughly the same number of men as women, but the latter are still a minority in the trial room. Especially when it comes to the high-profile role of first chair.”
“The female lawyers I know say they get way more scrutinized over their clothes and mannerisms. They apologize and say ‘thank you’ a lot more often in court transcripts. They can’t use the same ‘bare knuckle’ arguing style that male attorneys can. They have to be ‘fencers’ instead or they get seen as bitches, unhinged, hysterical, etc. They say everyone from judges to juries to clients can be sexist in a million little ways.”
Celia: “That’s kind of any female, though. Get angry and someone asks if you’re on your period because you aren’t allowed to show emotions. Be assertive and you’re a bitch. It’s a bunch of… BS, really.”
GM: “It is, and it isn’t fair.”
“In private practice, women also tend to make lower salaries, and vastly fewer rise to a firm’s inner circle. Big law is very much a male-dominated industry.”
“I’d honestly rather have a lawyer son than a lawyer daughter.”
Celia: “So obviously if you have daughters you’ll push them to do the same things you’d expect of your sons.”
GM: “Well, two reasons I might not.”
“First, I’d rather they just not have to go through that. There’s tons more women-friendlier jobs out there.”
“Second, they’d be less effective in the courtroom. 100%, it’s sexism and would be nothing to do with their own skill as lawyers. But that’s just how it is.”
Celia: “That’s terrible.”
GM: “The Mafia, especially, holds women in contempt.”
Celia: “You mentioned that. That they’re abusive and cheat on their wives and stuff.”
GM: “Yep. On top of flat-out not allowing women to actually join the Mafia. They wouldn’t be as intimidated by female prosecutors.”
Celia: “My dad told me to pick a major that would attract a husband.”
GM: “Your dad’s one of the worst human beings I’ve ever met.”
Celia: “I guess it just kind of… I don’t know, I thought other people would be more open-minded. It’s 2008. Who cares if I have a vagina.”
GM: “The legal field’s a pretty conservative institution. Slow to change.”
“And the Mafia’s even more backwards.”
Celia: Celia sighs at him, as if it’s his fault.
GM: “So, yeah. Isn’t politically correct, but I’d rather have sons carry on the Garrison family legacy than daughters.”
Celia: “Are you going to be like that king who killed his wife for giving him daughters?”
GM: “Ha. I’d think it was too bad if she only gave me girls. But I’d draw the line there.”
He pauses. “That sounds really sexist.”
Celia: “It does.”
GM: “Look, if women didn’t face the same obstacles as men, I’d be happy to have lawyer daughters.”
Celia: “It’s fine,” Celia says after a minute, “I guess I get it. You want good things for your daughters, don’t want them to struggle twice as hard to get half as much.”
GM: “It’s not just that.” Stephen looks like he’s trying to explain. “Look, it’s like they were weightlifters, and got weights that were 100 pounds heavier than their male competitors’. Purely because they were female. The system is unfair and is specifically designed to make women less successful than men, but that’s the system we have. We can’t afford to be anything but completely successful in destroying the Mob. More people will die or have their lives destroyed if we don’t.”
Celia: Well, she’d been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.
She nods, though, as if she gets it.
As if she agrees.
GM: “Every court decision that goes even a little bit more in a mobster’s favor because the prosecutor was female means he could cause that much more misery in the world.”
“Trial outcomes and plea deals aren’t just a matter of ‘busted’ or ‘not busted,’ either. There’s a sliding scale of outcomes and being female tilts the scale against the good guys, as unfortunate as that is.”
Celia: “Well, who knows, maybe your future wife will only pop out sons, anyway. And if you do have a daughter you can tell her to pursue dance so she can meet a lawyer of her own.”
Celia smirks at him.
GM: “Ha.” He smirks back and strokes her thigh.
“Dance is pretty great at keeping that lawyer, too…”
Celia: Celia takes the invitation for what it is. She shifts, rolling her body across his so that her thighs part to either side of his waist. The blankets pool around her hips, but the top of her is bare.
“Because I’m so flexible?” she asks him.
“Although…” she twists again, moving off of him in a fluid motion that he couldn’t even dream of replicating, “I guess I can’t take top since women are, you know, beneath you and all.”
“Shame, too. I know how eager you are to have me try it.”
GM: He smiles. “The courtroom’s sexist and unfair. My bed isn’t.”
“How about I go down on you, and then you take top?”
Celia: “Yes, sir, Mr. Lawyer, sir.”
Saturday evening, 13 December 2008
GM: Stephen’s family lives at an old-looking Queen Anne house in the Uptown neighborhood. It’s got an iron fence around the perimeter, a few palm trees around the expansive yard, and a tall set of stairs leading up to the front porch. Like many homes in New Orleans, the ‘basement’ is actually the first story and the ground floor is the second floor. It’s not a true mansion like the ones in Audubon Place, but it’s a large and nice-looking house. Federal prosecutor looks like it pays pretty well.
The property is surrounded by an eight-foot iron gate and requires a private code to enter, which Stephen shows Celia as he inputs. Security cameras are visible around the property. Stephen also mentions that a private security company patrols the neighborhood.
“For some of our neighbors it’s honestly just a vanity thing, but my dad would rather be safe than sorry.”
Celia: Compared to the gun-toting Blackwatch security with their snarling Dobermans, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds, the security around Stephen’s dad’s house is downright pedestrian. She just smiles at him, though, because she gets it. She lives in Audubon, after all.
“It makes sense,” she says as the gate swings open. “I’d probably want the same for my family if I had his job.”
GM: “Yeah. We haven’t really needed it but I’m glad we have it.”
Stephen rings the doorbell. It’s promptly answered by the man who must be his father. Henry Garrison is a middle-aged man with a squarer jaw, larger nose, and stockier build than his son, but the same brown eyes and hair (if receding in the senior Garrison’s case). Stephen seems like he’s inherited his best looks from his mother’s side of the family.
Mr. Garrison is wearing a button-up and slacks as he greets his son and shares a hug with him, who then turns to introduce his girlfriend.
“…and this is Celia, Dad.”
Celia: Celia will never tell Stephen how much anxiety she’d felt today while she waited for him to pick her up at the dorm. She’d driven Emily mad with the way she’d paced around the room, until her roommate had finally snapped at her that she was trying to study and by god if she changed one more time she’d slap her silly. Celia had ceased her pacing after that. Even the days leading up to the dinner had been fraught with worry: what if his dad doesn’t like her? What if his sister doesn’t like her? What if they’re mean? What if she says the wrong thing or they think she’s stupid? Daddy had always said she’s slow.
She’d gone through seven different outfits before she’d settled for a tea-length pink dress and moderate heels, and even now she second-guesses her decision as she takes in Stephen’s dad. She should have dressed up more, maybe. Or less. Or something.
Daddy says that women don’t shake hands. Celia hadn’t known if Mr. Garrison would feel the same way, so she’d made the choice early to keep her hands full to avoid the difficult situation. Mom always told her not to show up empty-handed to an event, anyway, so she’s got a freshly-made pie in her hands.
She smiles up at Stephen’s dad as he introduces her.
“Hello, Mr. Garrison. It’s wonderful to meet you. Thank you so much for having me over for dinner.”
GM: Celia’s mother adored the dress. “It’s very cute, sweetie. Very wholesome look to meet your beau’s dad in.”
Emily didn’t have an opinion beyond, “Go naked with a friggin’ wooden barrel over your tits if you want to, so long as it’s the last outfit you try on.”
Stephen’s father smiles at her. It’s a shorter, tighter-feeling smile than Stephen’s which reminds Celia of her grandmother. And of how the woman doesn’t often smile, so upgrade there, at least.
“It’s our pleasure, Celia. Stephen’s said a lot about you.”
“All good things,” her boyfriend adds.
“That pie looks wonderful. Let me take it for you,” Mr. Garrison offers, reaching out with his hands. His son gets a not-so-subtle reproachful look.
Unwarranted, too. Stephen had volunteered to carry it.
Celia: She hadn’t explained to Stephen why she wanted to carry it. It felt silly even to her. But she passes it off to Mr. Garrison with a smile to cover what might be a slightly awkward moment for the two.
“I thought I couldn’t go wrong with chocolate,” Celia says as she hands it over. “I wasn’t sure if y’all had a sweet tooth or not, but ’tis the season.”
‘Tis the season, indeed, though it doesn’t quite feel like it here in the Big Easy. The rest of the world might be covered with snow, but here, at least, it’s warm enough out to let her get away with wearing the dress.
Emily’s patience might have been a little short with Celia because she’s been debating what she should get Stephen for Christmas, too. If anything. “What if it’s too soon?” she’d asked her roommate multiple times.
GM: “Then I guess you’ll break up and he’ll hate you forever. Better stress yourself out for days deciding the date,” Emily had answered after the third+ time.
Celia: Emily gets coal, Celia had decided.
GM: “I’m sure we’ll all enjoy it,” Mr. Garrison answers as they head inside. Celia’s greeted by a large black doberman pinscher that sniffs her knees. “This is Ajax,” Stephen says, patting its muzzle.
Celia: “Oh!” Celia hadn’t been warned about a dog. She’s intimidated by its size at first—she’s seen the Dobermans around Audubon and knows how aggressive they can get—but after a moment of it simply sniffing at her she offers it a hand to sniff and finally pets its back. She’s delighted by the way it wags its tail at her.
“He’s adorable,” Celia says with a fond smile, looking to Stephen. “I didn’t know you had a dog.”
GM: The large dog licks Celia’s hand.
“Only people without love in their hearts aren’t pet people,” Stephen smiles.
The home’s interior is neat and well-kept. There’s a Christmas tree with presents stacked around the bottom. It’s a smaller Christmas display than at her dad’s house, but larger than the mini-tree Celia’s mother keeps in a pot on the dining room table. Three stockings hang by the fireplace.
Celia: “Dad won’t let us get one,” Celia sighs, scratching behind the dog’s ears. Daddy had told her that she isn’t responsible enough for another pet after what happened to Sugar Cube.
GM: “Well, not everyone can. But only people without love don’t want one.”
Celia’s mom really wanted cats, but ‘no pets’ is the policy in her cheap apartment.
Celia: “He’s a cutie, yes he is,” Celia says while she pets the dog. Forget Stephen, she’ll take Ajax home with her and call it a day. She can feed him bacon and buy him tennis balls for Christmas. She smiles up at her boyfriend once the dog gets tired of her petting him, though.
“Did you grow up here?”
GM: Stephen’s father tells the pair that he and Dani are “almost finished” with dinner as he carries the pie into the kitchen. Celia’s boyfriend is left to entertain her for the few minutes until then.
He nods at her question. “Yep. Parents got this place when I was pretty young.”
Celia: “Can I help?” she asks Stephen. “Set the table or anything?”
GM: “Oh no, that’s all done. Dad doesn’t like to make guests work.”
Celia: “Does your family decorate the tree together?” Celia nods toward the Christmas tree.
Daddy has “people” for that. They come in and stage the whole house. There isn’t a lot of personal holiday cheer in their house since Mom left. They’d used to do it all together, make a big day of it with cookies and stringing popcorn, but since the divorce… well, it’s not the same, even if the amount of presents has grown.
GM: Stephen smiles. “Don’t all families? That’s one of the best moments of the holiday.”
Celia: Celia gives him a vague smile and a nod that might be assent.
GM: Celia’s mom did decorate the tree together with her. It didn’t take very long, given how the tree was small enough to fit on top of her dining room table. “But it is nice to be doin’ this again together, now isn’t it, sweetie?” she’d smiled.
Celia: It had taken no time at all. Mom’s tiny tree only took a dozen ornaments before it was full, and even the smallest light strand had been too much. They’d had fun with the tinsel, though. To be fair, most of it had ended up in their hair when they’d started tossing it at each other rather than draping it across the baby pine’s boughs.
They do have plans to make cookies for Santa in a few days, though.
“What’re you hoping for from Santa this year?” she asks, in what she thinks passes for a sly, subtle question.
GM: It’s been a modest Christmas thus far.
But a more joyful one than her dad’s.
“Subtle,” Stephen smirks. “But I’m hop…”
He’s cut off by a crashing sound from the kitchen.
Celia: Well damn. Now she’s back to square one.
“Uh oh. Should we investigate?”
They hear voices on their way over.
“…maybe we can just rinse them off?”
“We’re not going to serve a guest food off the floor, Danielle.”
“It’s fine. I’ll make another side.”
Celia: Celia pokes her head into the kitchen. She can’t help but notice the differences between households. Mr. Garrison doesn’t even sound mad; she doesn’t think too hard on what would happen if she were to do the same thing at her father’s house.
“Five second rule,” she chimes in. “I’ll pretend I didn’t see it, if you like.”
GM: Mr. Garrison looks up. He’s picking up roasted baby potatoes from the floor, alongside a teenage girl with neck-length brownish-blonde hair and hazel eyes who must be Stephen’s younger sister. She’s dressed a little more casually than Celia in a blue top and darker skirt, but she’s more dressed up than in jeans too.
“That’s kind of you to offer, Celia, but it still happened,” Mr. Garrison replies as he drops potatoes into the trash. “This is Stephen’s sister Danielle, by the way.”
“Hi,” she offers a little lamely.
Celia: Celia smiles at the girl.
“Hi, Danielle. It’s great to meet you. I dropped a salad the other day when I was at home with my dad. It went splat, all over the floor.” Celia gives a kind of what-can-you-do shrug and grin. “The dressing was a nightmare to get up. Oil and water, you know. Anything I can help with? Chopping or sweeping…?”
GM: Dani smiles back. She looks a little less embarrassed at the story.
“You’re a guest here. We’ll do the housework,” Mr. Garrison says. “Stephen, can you help me make a replacement side while Danielle entertains Celia?”
“Sure, Dad.” He looks at his girlfriend. “We’ll try not to take too long.”
Celia: “Oh, no, take as long as you want. Now I’ve got the inside scoop on you.” Celia takes Dani by the arm to lead her from the kitchen, already leaning in to stage whisper, “Tell me everything.”
GM: The younger teenager gives a slightly nervous laugh. “Okay, about Stephen…?”
Celia: “Every embarrassing story you can think of,” Celia confirms, winking at her boyfriend over her shoulder as she and Dani take their exit.
GM: Stephen just draws a finger over his throat with an exaggerated expression.
Dani stifles a giggle at that and rolls her eyes.
Celia: She waits until they’re out of earshot to giggle.
“No, no, that’s okay. Unless you’ve got something super juicy about him.” Celia wiggles her brows. “I talk to him enough, though. Tell me about you.”
GM: Dani pauses for a moment at Celia’s question and answers, “Oh, well… I’m a junior at McGehee. I think I’m going to go to Tulane.”
“I think I know your grandma, too? We have a judge, Payton Underwood, who sometimes volunteers with the debate team.”
Celia: “I went to McGehee,” Celia tells her. “My mom actually… ah, yeah! I didn’t know Grandma was still involved.”
“Are you on the team? I bet you can really hold your own in a debate, family like this.”
GM: “Well, I try. Stephen has a lot more trophies than me.” Dani smiles self-deprecatingly.
“But yeah, I am! I’m not the captain or anything but I’m in varsity.”
Celia: “Stephen is an overachiever. And he’s got, what, six years on you? Plenty of time to beat his record.”
GM: Dani smiles faintly. “He really is, yeah. But you were saying something about your mom?”
Celia: “Just that she teaches at McGehee. The dance classes. Mrs. Flores.”
GM: Dani smiles widely. “Oh, I have your mom as a teacher! For Ballroom Dance.”
“I didn’t know she was your mom. Or Judge Underwood’s daughter. Those different last names, I guess.”
Celia: Celia beams at her.
“Yeah, she is. She loves teaching dance. I took ballet lessons all through childhood from her, actually. She really likes it there.”
GM: “Oh, you’re lucky. She’s really, really nice,” Dani gushes. “There’s just so much pressure at McGehee to do well, but when you come in to her class all you have to do is dance and unwind and listen to music, and know you’ll get an ‘A’ so long as you show up. She makes it a really positive space. I bet you already know, but her class is really popular.”
Celia: “She’s the best,” Celia confirms. “We’re making cookies later this week. For, um, for ‘Santa.’ She’s a mean hand at decorating, I tell you. I think she could do pretty much anything she puts her mind to.”
GM: “Oh I bet,” smiles Dani. “She decorated the classroom for Christmas, too. And Halloween and other holidays. I guess she likes to liven the place up. She also lets us change out of the uniforms on Fridays.”
Celia: “Ha, sounds like her. That must be a nice treat.”
“Those blouses,” Celia says with a shake of her head, “are so… y’know. Ugh.”
GM: “Oh, I thought you took ballet lessons with her?”
“And, yeah. Those blouses.” Dani makes a face. “I guess they’re whatever in most classes, but she says it adds a lot for us to wear actual dance clothes for practice.”
“Even if we can’t actually dance with any guys, ha ha.”
Celia: “I did. Growing up. My parents split when I was a teenager, and Dad got kind of sad when I brought up continuing to dance in her class, so I just take private lessons now.” Celia kind of shrugs. ‘Sad’ is hardly the word she’d use.
“Ha, but that’s what those mixers are for. Don’t they have the Snowflake Ball coming up soon?”
GM: “Oh. I’m sorry, divorces aren’t much fun. Stephen didn’t say.” Dani looks sad for her, but goes on, “But yeah, they do. Your mom only mentions it, like… every single class.”
Celia: “Sounds like Mom.”
GM: “But I guess she does have a point. Why learn to dance in her class if you aren’t going to a real one.”
Celia: “Are you going with anyone?”
GM: “Uh, I’m shopping around, guess you could say. Schoolwork just takes up so much time, plus extracurriculars.”
Celia: Celia nods her head. She’s been there. She gets it.
“What do you do, besides debate team?”
GM: “I do lacrosse too. Plus the school newspaper and some volunteer work. Little bit of everything, I guess. Anything to make the college app look good.”
Celia: “That is a little bit of everything.”
GM: “I dunno if Stephen’s told you much about LD debate, or if you ever did that, but I once made the mistake of writing my cases at the tournament. Figured that’d give me more time to relax at home.” She gives a mild laugh. “Definitely never again, there.”
Celia: Celia makes a sympathetic noise. “Yeesh. That is definitely brave of you, though. I think I’d have a panic attack even thinking about trying something like that.”
“D’you know what you want to do, so far as Tulane? I’m sure you get that question a lot, sorry.”
GM: “I mean, they said you had hours sitting around between rounds. And you do. Just hours sitting around with a bunch of teens in semiformal clothes eating junk food.”
“But I guess I should’ve listened to Stephen, he kept telling me it was a horrible idea.”
Celia: “Ah, well, we need to learn things for ourselves sometimes.”
“Plus, y’know, older brothers are supposed to worry and all that.”
“I hope he didn’t say, ‘I told you so.’”
GM: “It was, uh, more like a wince.” Dani gives a partly sheepish look. “I lost every single one of my cases.”
Celia: “Oh no.”
GM: “I was at least too sugar-bombed to notice a lot, though. I actually got sick the day after from all the junk food I ate at the tournament. Plus nerves, I guess.”
Celia: “I had a friend once who played a competitive card game, and he told me that he liked to throw the first round. Lose on purpose. So his opponents underestimated him and thought they’d have an easy win, and he smashed them.”
“So, really, you could just say you were lulling them into a false sense of security.”
GM: “Oh, that is good strategy. Maybe a little hard to replicate with LD, though. Since you usually go up against different people. And you’re in a closed room with them and the judges. So.”
“I wasn’t on the debate team,” Celia admits.
GM: “Oh, well, you have to be crazy into it if you want to do really well at it. It takes a lot of ‘homework.’ Stephen would spend hours and hours writing his cases and practicing with our dad.”
Celia: “I bet. You must be really smart to be able to pull it off on top of everything else you do.”
GM: “Welll, Stephen still picked up a lot more trophies than me. But I try.”
“He actually went to nationals.”
Celia: Of course he did.
“Stephen told me it was good practice for law.”
GM: “Yeah, he’s right. He and our dad say you have to love LD debate if you want to love law. Or at least trial law.”
“Enough about me, anyway. He said you’re a dance major, like your mom?”
Celia: “I am, yeah. Dance major. I’m also… well, I’m also going to school for esthetics, which is skincare, so I’m kind of pulling double duty.”
GM: “Oh, you are? That’s interesting! Are you going to be a dermatologist, or…?”
Celia: “Oh, um… maybe. It’s a separate degree, but I’ve thought about it.”
“Are you going into law, too?”
GM: “Oh, uh, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about it, but Stephen’s sort of got that base already covered. Plus he’ll be a way better lawyer than I’d be anyway.”
She chuckles. “Like I said, you should see all the debate trophies we have in the house.”
Celia: Celia huffs a laugh. She waves a hand, though, to dismiss the claim that Dani won’t be as good.
“What do you want to do, then?”
GM: “I’m, ah, I guess leaving my options open. I’m not totally sure yet. Figure I’ll just major in something broad like English I can use for a lot, you know? I mean, Stephen’s majoring in philosophy. He says your undergrad is basically whatever you want to have fun with, if it’s not STEM.”
Celia: “He told me the same thing when we met,” Celia confirms. “That he thought it was interesting and it doesn’t matter. And he’s right. You’re also super young, so you definitely have time to play around and change your mind.”
“I told him I was majoring in dance and then going to law school since it ’doesn’t matter,’ but I don’t think he thought it was funny.”
She grins, though.
GM: Dani laughs. “Well, I guess you could pull it off, if it doesn’t matter. You said you were thinking about dermatology, or did you want to dance professionally…?”
Celia: “Oh, I doubt I’ll ever be as graceful as my mother. I’ll stick to the skincare, I think. My dad wanted me to get the college experience, though, so here I am.”
“If I were serious about dance I’d have looked into a performing arts college, maybe even high school.”
GM: “True. But I’m sure a dance degree is still worth a lot, for them to offer it. Though I’m surprised you’re not doing a STEM major, if you’re going into skincare…?”
“Dermatologists are doctors, right?”
Celia: “They are. I’m doing esthetics. It’s a little different. Trade school.”
GM: “Oh. And you’re still going to Tulane?” Dani sounds surprised.
Celia: “Well, dance isn’t a super demanding major. Just the gen eds.”
GM: “Oh, I guess that makes sense. I mean, you have to try not to get a good grade in dance classes.”
Celia: “You really, really do.”
GM: “At least at your mom’s, anyway, I dunno if it’s harder in college?”
Celia: “There was this girl in my class who was, um, kind of rude to the instructor, and said something about how being a cheerleader made her really good at dance, and then started kind of making fun of some of the other dancers, so that was awkward. She didn’t last long.”
GM: “Oh, wow. That is really arrogant.”
Celia: “Little bit, yeah.”
GM: “But, yeah. Dance is a fun class. Or major, I bet. It’s an easy ‘A’, you don’t have to study anything, and you get to move around after all that sitting and lecturing.”
Celia: “We have performances to do and shows to see, but it’s nothing like writing essays and taking tests. Definitely an easy ‘A’.”
GM: “And I bet your mom’s always asking about it or wanting to practice dance moves with you, so that must be a lot of fun to get to do together.”
“That’s how it is here. Stephen isn’t even in law school yet and he and Dad are just talking about law-related stuff all the time. Constantly.”
Celia: “That sounds like it might be a little… exclusive.”
GM: “Well, he knows what he wants to do. Dad’s thrilled over it. Really proud of him. We’ve had a lawyer in the family every generation going back forever.”
Celia: “Sure, but there’s more to life than law.”
GM: “Oh, sure. He talks about you a lot, too.”
Celia: “Does he?” Celia finds herself blushing.
GM: “He’s really sweet! It’s nothing bad,” Dani assures.
“Lot of good things. He’s really… just really into you.”
Celia: “I’m really into him, too.”
She can’t quite keep the smile off her face.
GM: Speak of the devil, and he’ll appear.
“All right, dinner’s ready,” Stephen tells the two.
Celia: Uh oh. She hopes he didn’t hear what she’d just said about him.
GM: Her boyfriend just smiles at her.
Maybe she should.
“We’re having chicken and dumplings,” he starts as they walk back to the dining room. “We’d actually made dessert, too, so I guess with your pie we’ll have two.”
Perhaps it’s premature to already call this dinner a success, but at least hymen kits haven’t come up.
Monday evening, 15 December 2008
Celia: Celia hadn’t known what to wear.
It’s a weird question to ask the Internet, isn’t it, ‘what do I wear to meet my dad who I’ve never spoken to also he raped my mom and he’s apparently a little sleazy.’ She hadn’t asked Emily, either, since Emily had threatened to lock her out of the room in just her underwear if she ever asked what to wear again. Also Emily doesn’t know, and Celia doesn’t plan on telling her. A girl’s relationship with her dad is between her and her dad.
She’d settled for the sort of thing she’d wear to see her grandmother, though. Long skirt, tights, a sweater over the top of it. A pair of cute ankle booties complete the look—it’s December, even if it’s December in New Orleans—and she pulls a coat on over that as well for her trek into the French Quarter.
His address had been easy to find. That’s the trouble with being famous, really: people are always able to track you down. Her mom has the car this week, so Celia takes the bus to the proper stop, which gives her plenty of time to figure out what to say to him.
None of which is still sounds right when she lifts a hand to knock on his door.
GM: ‘His’ door, in this case, is the one to the building.
There’s a buzzer that Celia hits, scrolls through a list of units/residents, and finally calls.
“Yeah, what?” crackles a fat-sounding older man’s voice from the machine.
Celia: Well this is hardly what she’d been expecting when she’d pictured the first time speaking to him.
“Hi, Mr. Landreneau? My name is Celia.”
She pauses. She’s not sure what to say after that. ’I’m your kid’ doesn’t quite seem like the appropriate thing to say to the box.
GM: “Celia who?” asks the box.
GM: “Dunno who that is, but you have a sexy voice. Come on up.”
The door unlocks.
Celia: Oh boy.
Celia pushes the door open and steps inside, looking for the elevator. His apartment number had, conveniently, been on the callbox outside, so she can at least get to the right place.
GM: She takes the elevator up. The door opens after she knocks. Ronnie “Ron” Landreneau is a wide-nosed, mustached man in his middle years with a receding hairline and expanding paunch that speaks to a life of comfortable self-indulgence. He’s dressed in a bathrobe, slippers, and maybe nothing underneath.
He looks her up and down.
“All right, kid, these days I’m not into the chase, so I’ll cut to the point. If you’re as good in bed as you’re pretty, I’ll get you a movie part, take you out, pay for your meals, yada yada, and we’ll probably be done in a couple months.”
Celia: Celia stares up at him. Her eyes widen at the implication that he wants to sleep with her. Even if he weren’t her biological father, the very thought of sleeping with him for a part in a movie is… well, she’s not sure what it is. Is this how it works, getting a movie deal? Getting anything else? You just sleep with someone and get what you want?
She tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear at the same time she tucks the thought away for later.
“Um, actually, sir… I’m not here for that.”
GM: “Then what is a young pair of tits like you here for?”
“If you’re selling anything besides your body, I’m not interested.”
Celia: Celia flushes. This isn’t how she expected things to go. Are all men like this?
“I think you might be my dad.”
GM: “Oh, okay,” he says casually. “Wait a sec.”
He walks back into the condo. The décor is quirkishly tasteful falling just short of tacky, and includes a painting with ‘I play so much zydeco—make your feet hurt’ lettering and a Saints flag with the team’s chant.
Ron comes back a few moments later with a cotton swab and a small plastic vial that’s partly filled with liquid.
“Open your mouth.”
Celia: Celia stares after him as he walks away, studying the apartment. She doesn’t mean to, but she’s curious about this man who her mom said is her father. She pretends like she wasn’t when he walks back toward her.
Open your mouth. Well, at least he hadn’t asked her to get on her knees first. She’s seen those swabs before at the doctor’s office, anyway. She hesitates for only a second before she opens her mouth.
GM: Ron gets the inside of her cheek with the swab, uncorks the vial, drops the swab in, and re-corks it.
“Okay, if the genetics lab says you’re mine, we’ll talk.”
“Until then, we got nothing else to talk about.”
Celia: “Oh. I thought we could… okay.”
There’s an awkward beat of silence.
GM: “Could what?”
Celia: “Should I leave my number?”
Celia: Celia scrawls her cell number on a spare bit of paper she pulls out of her purse. She offers it to him. The whole thing leaves her feeling kind of grimy, like she did something wrong in coming here. She swallows.
“Sorry to bother you, then.”
GM: He grunts, takes it, and closes the door.
Celia: She stares at the door for half a moment when it closes in her face, but doesn’t linger overmuch before taking her leave.
So much for happy family reunion.