I scan the sandwich boards in the lobby and I find John’s name under General Assembly. He’s representing the People’s Republic of China.
The General Assembly is meeting in the auditorium. There are desks set up for each delegate, and onstage there is a podium where a girl in a black suit is making a speech about nuclear nonproliferation. I’m thinking I’ll just slip in the back and sit and watch but there’s nowhere to sit, so I just stand at the back of the room with my arms crossed and look for John. There are so many people here, and everybody’s facing the front, so it’s hard to tell what’s what.
A kid in a navy suit turns around and looks at me and whispers, “Are you a page?” He’s holding up a folded piece of paper.
“Um . . .” I’m not sure what a page is, and then I see a girl hustling around the room delivering notes to people.
The boy thrusts the piece of paper at me and turns back around and scribbles in his notebook. The note is addressed to Brazil, from France. So I guess I’m a page.
The tables aren’t in alphabetical order, so I just start wandering around trying to find Brazil. I finally find Brazil, a guy in a bow tie, and other people are raising their hands with notes for me to deliver. Before long I’m hustling too.
From behind I see a boy’s hand raised for me to pick up his note, so I hurry forward, and then he turns his head just slightly. And oh my God, it’s John Ambrose McClaren, delegate from the People’s Republic of China, a few feet away from me.
He has sandy hair, clean-cut. His cheeks are rosy, just the way I remember. They still have that fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness that makes him look young. He’s wearing khakis and a light blue button-down with a navy crew-neck sweater. He looks serious, focused, like he’s a real delegate and this isn’t pretend.
Honestly, he looks just the way I imagined he’d grow up to look.
John’s holding the piece of paper out for me as he takes notes with his head down. I reach for it; my fingers close around the paper, and then he looks up and does a double take.
“Hi,” I whisper. We’re both still holding on to the note.
“Hi,” he says back. He blinks, and then he lets go of the paper, and I hurry away, my heart pounding in my ears. I hear him call out my name in a loud whisper, but I don’t slow down.
I look down at the paper. His handwriting is neat, precise. I go deliver his note to the USA, and then I ignore Great Britain, who is waving a note at me, and I walk right out the auditorium double doors and into the afternoon light.
I just saw John McClaren. After all these years, I finally saw him. And he knew me. Right away he knew who I was.
I get a text from Peter around lunchtime.
Did you see McClaren?
I type back yes, but then I delete it before I hit send. I write back no instead. I’m not sure why I do it. I think maybe I just want to keep it for myself, and be happy just knowing that John remembered me, and have that be enough.
WE ALL GO TO PICK up margot from the airport. Kitty’s made a sign that says Welcome Home Gogo. I keep my eyes peeled for her, and when she comes out I almost don’t recognize her for a second—her hair is short! It’s cut in a bob! When Margot sees us, she waves, and Kitty drops her sign and runs toward her. Then we’re all hugging and Daddy has tears in his eyes. “What do you think?” Margot says to me, and I know she means her hair.
“It makes you look older,” I lie, and Margot beams. If anything it makes her look younger, but I knew she wouldn’t want to hear that.
On the way home, Margot makes Daddy pull over at Clouds for a cheeseburger, even though she says she isn’t hungry. “I’ve missed this so much,” she says, but she only has a few bites and Kitty has the rest.
I’m excited to show Margot all the cookies we made, but when I take her into the dining room and show her all the tins, she frowns. “You guys did the Christmas Cookie Bonanza without me?”
I feel a little bit guilty, but I honestly didn’t think Margot would mind. I mean, she was in Scotland, doing way more fun stuff than baking cookies, for Pete’s sake. “Well, yeah. We kind of had to. School ends tomorrow. If we’d waited for you, we wouldn’t have had time. We saved half the dough in the freezer, though, so you can still help us bake the rest for the neighbors.” I open the big blue tin so she can see the cookies layered and lined up in rows. I’m proud of how they are the same size and height. “We did some new cookies this year. Try an orange Creamsicle; it’s really good.”
Margot picks through the tin and frowns. “You didn’t do molasses cookies?”
“Not this year . . . We decided to do orange Creamsicle cookies in their place.” She picks one up and I watch her bite into it. “Good, right?”
She nods. “Mm-hmm.”
“Those were Kitty’s pick.”
Margot glances toward the living room. “When did you guys do the tree?”
“Kitty couldn’t wait,” I say, and it sounds like an excuse, but it’s true. I try not to sound defensive as I add, “I think it’ll be nice to enjoy the tree for as long as we can.”
“So when did you put it up?”
Slowly I say, “A couple of weeks ago . . .” Why is she in such a bad mood?
“That’s so long ago. It’ll probably be dried out by Christmas Day.” Margot walks over to the tree and moves the wooden owl ornament to a different branch.
“I’ve been watering it every day and putting in Sprite like Grandma taught us.”
Somehow this feels like a fight, and we never fight.
But then Margot yawns and says, “I’m really jet-lagged. I think I’m going to take a nap.”
When someone’s been gone a long time, at first you save up all the things you want to tell them. You try to keep track of everything in your head. But it’s like trying to hold on to a fistful of sand: all the little bits slip out of your hands, and then you’re just clutching air and grit. That’s why you can’t save it all up like that.
Because by the time you finally see each other, you’re catching up only on the big things, because it’s too much bother to tell about the little things. But the little things are what make up life. Like a month ago when Daddy slipped on a banana peel, a literal banana peel that Kitty had dropped on the kitchen floor. Kitty and I laughed for ages. I should have e-mailed Margot about it right away; I should have taken a picture of the banana peel. Now everything feels like you had to be there and oh never mind, I guess it’s not that funny.