I overslept the next day and by the time I got to the Café, there were already a number of people there. Even though I couldn’t talk to Emily as easily when the café was busy, I was always glad when there were customers because I knew Emily needed the business. After her comment yesterday, I was especially worried about the café’s financial situation. My worry only increased when I found Emily and Jerome talking in hushed tones behind the counter when the café quieted down a few hours later. They were looking through a notebook on the back counter, and neither one of them looked happy.
If they want me to know, they’ll let me know, I thought. Besides, I don’t have any way to help financially – but I wish I could! I turned my attention back to my computer. I had given myself a deadline for finishing pieces for the soiree, and that deadline was the next day, and I still had a lot of work to do. My mind had been so full of other things since break started that I hadn’t had the time or energy to work on them. But they had to be done so Clara and I could practice and make any changes we thought necessary. I was confident we were capable of playing anything I wrote, but I didn’t know that it would always sound the best the way I wrote it.
In the afternoon, I took Ema for a walk in Central Park to watch the ice skaters and browse the Christmas Market, even though we had made plans to go back that evening to see the lights and Christmas tree. For the next few hours, we endured the cold as we watched graceful skaters, wishing we could do the same. When Ema started shivering, I fished out some change and bought hot chocolate for both of us. After a while, Ema asked if we could go look at “Christmas presents,” so we headed over to the market.
“We aren’t buying anything,” I said as we walked to the vendor booths. “So it’s just looking.”
The market was bustling, but the unique and whimsical treasures were well worth the crowds.
“Let’s have a contest,” I said after a few minutes. I was afraid Ema didn’t really understand not buying anything and that it would be hard for her to leave so many pretty things behind. “Let’s see who can find the silliest thing,” I said.
“No, the prettiest.”
“How about one of each?”
“Deal!” Ema said.
We searched high and low. I found a tapestry of Central Park decked out for Christmas.
“How’s that for prettiest?”
“It’s okay,” Ema said. She turned around, looking from booth to booth trying to find something else. “There,” she said after a moment and ran across the pathway to stand in front of a doll.
The doll was a lot prettier than the tapestry. She looked like she’d stepped out of the 1700s, complete with a curly wig and a dark green gown that laced up in the front.
“You’re winning right now,” I said. “But we still have most of the market to get through!”
We kept going. There weren’t many silly things for sale so in the end we had to make do with a jack-in-the-box that in most stores could have been in the running for prettiest. But no matter what pretty things we found, Ema would not be swayed.
“How about that painting?” I would ask. “Or that dress? What about that ornament?”
“No, the doll,” Ema said every time.
When we got to the end of the rows of booths, Ema still refused to budge and to be honest, I did have to agree with her, especially considering the tastes of four year old girls.
When we got back, Jerome was working the counter and Emily was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s mama?” Ema asked.
“She’s in the back,” Jerome said, “but I think you should leave her alone for a little longer.”
“What’s going on?” I asked, lowering my voice and moving closer to Jerome so Ema couldn’t hear.
“Kate stopped by, on her way back from the clinic.”
“Clinic?” I said, but could guess what he meant.
“She went through with the abortion.”
I sank into the nearest chair. “And after all that Emily did for her…”
“I don’t think Emily takes it personally,” Jerome said. “She knows it’s bigger than Kate not listening to her, and that’s why it hurts her so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“She knows Kate has to answer to God for what she’s done. I don’t know how clearly she knows that, but she’s aware that it’s not just between Kate and the baby, or Kate and Jake, or Kate and Emily. Life comes from outside of us and isn’t ours to do what we please with. That’s why Emily knew she had to keep Ema.”
I sat in silence.
After a while, Ema spoke. “Does this mean we’re not going to see the lights tonight?”
“We’ll see,” I said. I was sure it would do Emily good to get out, but wasn’t so sure tonight was the night to do it, and the lights would be up for a long time. I did hope the sky was still clear, because I did know that Emily would want some stars that evening.
She came out at closing time, wiping tears from her eyes.
“We don’t have to go to the park tonight,” I said. “It’s up to you.”
“I want to go,” she said. “I need to get my mind off of this. It’s done; it’s past. I’m upset, but I need to be ready to help Kate if she comes back.”
Oh, Emily, I thought, always looking out for others first.
We tidied the café and put things away for the night and then bundled up. Emily grabbed a thermos and some mugs.
“Hot chocolate,” she said. “We’re going to need it, and I’m not getting ripped off by some vendor in Central Park.”
I looked at Ema, and Ema giggled. I put a finger to my lips and she nodded.
We stepped outside and Jerome locked the door. I put a hand on Emily’s arm.
“What is it?”
I pointed up.
She looked, blowing puffs of moisture into the air as she raised her head. “Oh,” she said, and then was still and silent.
It was a clear night, and from our quiet corner in the city, the stars were everywhere, clear and bright above us, stretched out all the way to the tops of the buildings. The faint lines of the milky way were ever so slightly noticeable to the trained eye, looking like the frost that decorated the windows every morning.
We all stood there in silence, looking up, hardly breathing. It was one of those nights where I was content to just look and not try to find constellations.
Time always seems to cease existing in those beautiful moments of life, at least for me. But for one little four year old, it was still going on and after a while she yawned, stamped her feet because of the cold, and spoke.
“I thought we were going to see Christmas lights,” Ema said.
“These are Christmas lights,” Emily said, “and the best ones. But we’re going to the park, too.”
Jerome picked Ema up and carried her, and away we went, laughing and singing Christmas carols to our hearts’ content.
When we got to the park, our noise was swallowed up in the hubbub of Christmas festivities. But Emily pulled me aside.
“Thank you,” she said. “I really needed to see that tonight.”
“But I also need to ask you – was there anything Ema fell in love with at the market today? I can’t afford much but do want to get her something for Christmas.”
I nodded again. “One of the things we were ‘looking’ for was the most beautiful thing in the market. She saw a doll early on and whenever I saw anything else that I thought was most beautiful, she shook her head and said, ‘no, the doll.’ It may be out of your price range, but I’ll show it to you.”
We left Ema and Jerome watching a street performer and went to find the doll.
“It is beautiful,” Emily said.
“Do you want to know why I think Ema thought so?” I asked.
“She looks a lot like you,” I said, “only you from the 1700s.”
“Me in doll form?” Emily said. “Maybe. I can’t really see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“I’ll let you do your shopping now.”
I watched as Emily picked the doll up and looked at every inch of it, including the price tag. It wasn’t a china doll so I didn’t think it would be too expensive, but this was the Central Park Christmas Market.
“It’s just barely too much,” Emily said, coming back to me.
“How much is barely?” I asked.
“Fifteen dollars.” She shook her head. “I know that sounds silly because fifteen dollars is like nothing… but every penny counts right now.”
I reached into my pocket. “I can’t do anything ‘big’ monetarily with the café,” I said, “but I can spare fifteen dollars for Ema.”
Emily shook her head. “You don’t need to do that.”
“For Ema,” I said, “for Christmas,” and pushed the money into her hand.
“Okay, but free breakfast tomorrow.”
“Nope. Early Merry Christmas, Emily.”
“Fine, but I will get you back,” she said.
We walked away a few minutes later, the doll wrapped in brown paper and put in a box and then a bag.
“Thank you,” Emily said.
I stopped walking. “Emily, I don’t want you to feel indebted to me, for this or anything else. You and Ema have done so much for me.”
Emily didn’t say anything, but neither did she bring up free meals again.
We found Ema and Jerome still watching street performers.
“Shall we go see the lights?” Emily asked.
“Where’d you go?” Ema wanted to know.
“It’s a secret,” Emily said.
“Do I get to find out?”
We walked off, caroling again, and drinking Emily’s hot chocolate, until we found the Central Park Christmas tree.
“It’s giant!” Ema said. “That wouldn’t fit in our house, would it, mama?”
“No, it wouldn’t.”
“It wouldn’t fit in my school,” I said. “I’ve never seen a Christmas tree as big as this one.”
“Is it real?” Ema asked.
Jerome laughed. “No.”
“It’s still pretty,” Ema said.
We stayed at Central Park until late, sharing Christmas memories and traditions, looking at lights, laughing, and singing more. Ema started complaining about being tired, so I picked her up and carried her and before long she fell asleep on my shoulder.
“I should get back,” Emily said eventually. “You may be on break, Walter, but there’s no break for me.” She looked up at the stars, now mostly blanketed by clouds, and sighed. “But it has been a perfect night.”
We went back to the Café and then all went our separate ways. Before bed, I checked my phone and found a message from Clara.
“Hi Walter, this is Clara. I’m free tomorrow and can stop by the café. If it works for you, please give me a call in the morning and we’ll figure out the best time.”
“Yes!” I said, and then turned the lights out, but it was a long while before I was able to fall asleep – the magic of a Winter’s night in Central Park and anticipation of time with Clara the next day kept me tossing and turning, unable to settle down until the wee hours of the morning.