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The smell of pancakes wafting through the house wakes JJ up this chilly Saturday morning, Rocco is in the kitchen presumably, with the girls still in their PJs watching cartoons on the kitchen flatscreen whilst he makes their pancakes of choice, blueberry for Roma and chocolate chip for Bella. She stretches like a cat that caught the cream, extending her muscles before curling up and sinking further beneath the duvet. Yesterday, they had a large order for the New York City Ballet which took up most of her day. She is counting down the days to Tuscany, even starting to look forward to it with excitement, it will be a welcome break even if she has a million and one things to do before then.
Her cell phones rings on the bureaux, Tommy boy, flashes on the caller ID, her second oldest brother Thomas. Tommy boy was his nickname growing up. They all had nicknames given by their parents except JJ so Jason coined one for her, JJ unoriginal but it stuck.
‘Stranger? I talked to you yesterday.’ Thomas protests.
‘Ah, two days ago when you said you’d ring me back and you did not.’ JJ chastises affectionately.
Thomas, Fenmore and Jason, are the siblings to whom she is closest; they talk nearly every day, but Thomas is notorious for hardly ever returning calls or responding to texts. He should not have access to any communicatory device.
‘Well better late than never. How are you?’
‘Can’t a big brother call his little sister?’
‘You’re being mysterious, and I hate it. Is everyone okay?’
‘Yes, everyone is fine, but your mother would like to know why you are not answering any of her phone calls.’
‘Let me guess, you drew the short straw.’
‘Something like that.’
In the background, JJ can hear children’s laughter and chatter, so she guesses, Thomas and his family are at the farmer’s market to get their Christmas tree, he was probably bullied into it by Fen, because Thomas is also the grinch of the family.
‘Melia come on, play nice with your brother.’ Thomas says to his oldest daughter who is probably trying to push her brother high on the swing or something. The lovely little cheek.
‘Where are you?’
‘The fucking farmer’s market to pick up the tree.’
‘Thomas!’ Penelope, his wife, chastises having heard him swear within the children’s ear shot.
‘JJ says hi.’ Thomas says to his wife.
‘Hey lovely, we are looking forward to Tuscany.’
JJ can hear the excitement in Penelope’s voice, she and Aretha, Jason’s wife are two of her favourite people, and what good people they are. They care deeply for her and always make time to see her as often as possible when they are in New York. Her childhood might not have been ideal, but there were people in her life who made and continue to make up for it in their own ways.
‘So why are you not picking up you mother’s phone calls.’ Thomas has probably abandoned his family to speak to his sister at a safe distance where he can swear in peace.
‘Because I don’t want to. Because I’m busy. Because, because, because.’
‘JJ…’ Hard nut as he can be to the outside world, Thomas really is a big softie. ‘I know how things are between the both of you, I do know, and it doesn’t make it easy with Cleo but she’s trying.’
‘I know, but I am not inclined to really care about the fact that she is trying.’
‘I know but can you at least give her a pass during the holidays?’
‘I’ll think about it. Is this why you called?’
‘What? I hate the fact that you only called me because of her.’
‘What can I say, I’m trying to be less of a grinch.’
‘You are a good son and a wonderful husband and a lovely brother.’
‘Cheque’s in the mail.’
That gets him a laugh from his sister.
‘I know how busy you are during the holidays, I know how intense this will be for you, dad is coming and that is its own level of headache especially, but you know we are here for you.’ We implies, himself, Jason and Fen. They never talk about Cleo. Almost never. But JJ can hear what her brother is not asking her.
‘Are you going to ask me why I did not invite Cleo?’
‘I know why Jorja, and I don’t blame you at all.’
‘But nothing, we were there, we witnessed her appalling treatment of you and this is your holiday, you and your husband are footing the bill and believe me I know it cost a pretty penny so you should get to have it as drama free as possible but yes she is pissed, rages to Jason and Fen, not to me because the last time she did we got into a fight. She complained to dad about not being invited and you just know she is complaining to mum as well.’
‘Good for her. I’m glad she has a committee of sounding boards to whom she can air her grievances, I couldn’t give a fuck.’
Thomas laughs, JJ is no push over, the baby of the family she might be, but she has been through some tough knocks that framed her. ‘Well, we have your back always. I love you and I am so looking forward to the holidays with you guys, we all are. I can’t thank you and Rocco enough for the invitation. I’ve been trying to take Penelope there for the get away and it is always sold out so thank you sis, this means a lot. That Rocco would want to endure our father for the holidays when he knows how he feels about him, that speaks volumes of who he is.’
‘So why aren’t you married to him?’
JJ slapped her palm on her forehead, she walked right into that one. ‘I hate you.’
Thomas laughs deeply on the other end. ‘JJ, talk to me, I’m your brother and with me there will be no judgements. He asked you twice didn’t he?’
‘What’s hold up sis?’
‘I’m worried I’ll be like mum, that I would do the exact same thing she did, that one day he may come to resent me for not going all in being a baseball wife and living that part of his life.’
‘He loves you.’
‘I love him too.’
‘I know that. Why would you think you are anything like mum other than looks of course.’
JJ is her mother’s twin, beautiful brown skin girl, arrogantly high cheek bones, a sveltely athletic physique with legs for days, legs that power her gruelling runs in the mornings, the same almond shaped brown eyes, shrouded by long luscious lashes, encased in a face so painfully beautiful it had pushed men, and women, to sin.
‘Because I just worry I am going to turn out like her and I’d much rather not. And I feel bad about Barnaby.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He gave up his life for me and still I broke up with him.’
‘You talked to him about it and from what I know, he’s not mad at you. He took it well, better than dad. You did something that mum couldn’t do, I think its safe to say, you are nothing like her.’
‘He moved across the ocean to be with me-‘
‘That was his choice.’
‘He made it because of me.’
‘Sweetheart he’s not mad at you, I’ve met him up for drinks a few times, he is moving on.’
JJ sighs, too many troubles, too many secrets, she wonders if its too late to call the holiday plans off.
‘You deserve to be happy, Rocco makes you happier than I have ever known you to be. That’s all I’m saying.’
He is saying a hell of a lot.
‘Fuck.’ Exasperation peppered his voice.
‘What?’ JJ asks.
‘The damn tree is twice my height. Penelope come on! That’s too big.’
‘The children picked it out.’
JJ can picture her pout, the one she puts on to wrap her husband around her little finger, not that he is not already whipped.
‘Daddy please.’ Both children chorus.
‘Bloody hell. Bye sis.’
Thomas hangs up before JJ can say her goodbyes, he’d managed to scramble her brain this morning with all he’d said.
‘Good morning Mama.’ Roma jumps into the bed to lie next to her mother, ‘daddy made pancakes.’
Bella helps her father with the trolley of breakfast, ‘and French toast and waffles.’
‘Aren’t you going to train?’ JJ asks Rocco who is making a fuss with her breakfast service. She knows what he is doing, and she wishes he wouldn’t.
Rocco shrugs, their shared look confirms JJ’s suspicions.
‘We have to go to the Rose Farms for the holiday hampers remember.’
‘I was going to do that with the girls.’
‘So, we’ll do it together.’ Rocco says.
With the girls distracted by the TV she tugs him into his walk-in closet. ‘You need to go train babe.’ He doesn’t really, his body is permanent perfection of an elite athlete, contoured to perfection with an endurance most prayed for.
‘I’m fine, coach understands-’
‘My darling, it’s been six months, I’m fine. I promise you I’m fine.’
‘I know you are J, but I want to be here with you as much as I can. It’s the end of the season and we only have three games left.’
‘I know that, but you should go train, be with your teammates, I am fine. I’ve been fine.’
Rocco sighs, he is being overbearing, he knows, but with good reason and a dollop of guilt.
In the summer JJ suffered a miscarriage four months pregnant and it rocked their world on its axis. Everything was fine with the baby one day, and the next she was in the hospital having miscarried. Rocco was at an away game when it happened and he’s never forgiven himself for leaving her to go through that alone, as if it would have changed the outcome. This was the reason he really wanted them to go away for the holidays, surrounded by family and hopefully heal the rift in her family. They were alone in their loss, her more so than him. They hadn’t even told the girls the news, they’d planned on doing it when he got back from his game that weekend. They’d been so excited, but in an instant that joy was snuffed out like a candlelight and their world shrouded in darkness.