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An Acceptable Level of Happiness

7

I pull the car up to the curb a few houses down from my mother’s and shut off the engine. Already the street is lined with cars: I recognize Uncle Patrick’s Pontiac, cousin Ryan’s lovingly restored Camero, Charlie’s Suburban, the latest in cousin Julia’s long line of Porsches, not to mention all the rentals.

Mulder looks at me patiently. “Ready?”

“We could still call her and tell her the snow’s too thick to drive. Or that Malcolm’s got a cold. Or that you’ve—”

“Scully,” he says patiently.

I bury my chin in my coat collar. It’s just the family, I remind myself, my family, people I’ve known for as long as I can remember. Uncle Patrick taught me to ride a bike. Aunt Olive sang Irish lullabies to me. Uncle Patrick, Uncle James and my father used to laugh loud enough to wake us up from downstairs, calling each other “boyo” and exaggerating the accents they all lost in their childhood. I love these people.

And today they’re going to meet the love of my life.

“I’m ready,” I tell Mulder, and sling the diaper bag strap over my shoulder. Mulder leans over to kiss me quickly, and then gets out of the car. I gather up the skirt of my dress to keep it out of the snow and get out carefully. My Sorrel-clad feet sink up to the ankles in fresh, powdery snow.

Mulder unstraps Malcolm from his car seat and joins me on the sidewalk. “I feel like a J. Crew ad. We should be heading jauntily across the frozen lake for wassail and roasted chestnuts  at the neighbors’.”

“We could sing,” I say, which is just enough of a non sequitur to make Mulder give me that “was that a joke?” look he’s been using so much lately. I grin and nudge his arm with my elbow. “We could still back out if you forgot your wingtips.”

“They are in the bag, Scully, along with your dainty little shoes. Though I must say the idea of you going through the day in duck boots is highly amusing.”

“I’d rather be barefoot,” I say as we slog up the sidewalk, though I don’t like the idea of runs in my silk stockings, either. The stockings are somewhat of a sore point at the moment. Mulder likes me in garters, so I’m wearing them now. It’s a guy thing, one I can usually handle. Yet somehow I feel that even if my relatives can deal with the illegitimate baby and the scarred lover who is a stay-at-home dad, they won’t be able to deal with me in garters at a family party. And damn it, I’m *cold*.

The snow leading up to my mother’s front door is trampled away by dozens of footsteps, large and small. Mulder scoops some snow from a bush and holds it for Malcolm to touch. Malcolm’s mouth “O’s” with wonder as the cold, wet flakes rapidly melt against his warm fingers. “That’s snow, Mac,” Mulder says, and kisses Malcolm’s hand to warm it up again. Malcolm lies his head on Mulder’s shoulder.

I swallow hard and ring the bell. Even from out here I can hear the sheer noise my family creates—cousins, kids of cousins, grandkids, aunts and uncles of various degrees—and I take a step back. I feel Mulder’s hand on my back, steadying me, and he kisses me quickly.

The door swings open and in an instant my relatives surround us. For the next few minutes I’m overwhelmed by the volume, the many kisses, the exclamations and the hugs. Malcolm hides his face in Mulder’s shoulder as we make our way from the front door to the room where Mom’s putting the coats. I’m glad Mulder is carrying the baby—it gives him an excuse not to shake hands. He’s gone into shy mode as well, just smiling and saying little more than “Hello—yes, I’m Mulder. Say hello, Malcolm.”

Mulder escapes to the coat room first, and I glance at him through the doorway as he takes off his overcoat and helps Malcolm out of his snowsuit. Uncle James stops me to give me a bone-crushing hug: “It’s been too long, Dana!” Aunt Olive gives me a quiet kiss on the cheek. “He’s lovely, dear,” she murmurs, and I smile and say thanks, not sure if she means Mulder or the baby. Charlie’s boys wrap themselves around my knees: “Aunt Dana! Aunt Dana!” and Matthew toddles along behind.

Finally my mother makes everyone move back into the living room, telling them there will be plenty of time to talk later. I shoot her a grateful look and she smiles at me.

I go into the coat room and sit on the edge of the bed beside Mulder. He is dandling Malcolm on his knees, a word I never really understood until I saw Mulder do it. “Okay,” I say. “We’re here. Now what?”

“You take off your coat and wow ’em with your dress.”

“I don’t want to wow my relatives.”

“You could just wow me.” He leers at me and I kiss his nose.

“You’re goofy. I like that about you.”

“And I like that you like that,” he says, leaning closer to me. Malcolm grabs the buttons on my coat and pulls himself upright.

“Hi, you.” I kiss his warm forehead. “Are you ready to play with your cousins some more?” He bounces against my thighs and babbles happily, tugging on my buttons. I take him into my lap and kiss him, while Mulder sits on the floor and takes our shoes and the Tupperware containers out of the diaper bag. He pulls off his snow boots and slips into his formal shoes. He unties my snow boots, laces snapping everywhere, and places my shoes on my feet. He is very careful as he winds the straps around my ankles and closes the tiny buckles. He slides his hand up my calf, then smiles at me and shrugs. “Anyway. Gonna gives these to Maggie.” He picks up the Tupperware containers and stands.

“Mulder,” I say, though I have no idea what I’m going to follow it with. I stand too and straighten his bow tie, holding the baby on one arm. “Play nice, okay?”

“I will. Don’t hide long.”

“I’ll be right out.”

He kisses my forehead and goes to join the party.

Slowly I unbutton my coat and lay it with the others on the bed. I undo all but the topmost button of my cardigan. It’s the same midnight blue as the dress, cashmere, with small flowers embroidered in silk ribbon on the placket.

I know I look fine today. I know this color brings out the bloom in my skin and makes my eyes look bottomlessly blue, as Mulder puts it.

I also know that today I am a diversion, like Mulder’s mouse ears last night. Redirection and distraction like a magician. If it keeps people from asking Mulder questions he doesn’t want to answer, I am content with my role today.

I straighten my shoulders and pick up Malcolm, put on a smile and go out to the party.

***

Having Malcolm in my arms provides an excellent source for small talk. My aunts divide his features between families; my sisters-in-law compare weaning, teething and sleeping stories; my uncles test his grip and pronounce him strong as an ox; my nephews ask to hold him and get scared when he doesn’t lie passively in their arms like a doll.

Malcolm clings to me at first, hiding his face and then peeking out and smiling before hiding his face again. He hasn’t had much interaction with other children, and I’m glad to see his cousins don’t frighten him for long.

I finally see Mulder, who is sitting on the stairs and talking to Charlie and his wife Josie. Mulder sees me looking and holds up his glass. “Juice,” he mouths, pointing to it.

I nod, excuse myself from Uncle Frank and Aunt Dee, and make my way to the stairs. Mulder gives me a kiss when I reach him, and I sit on the stairs a few risers below him so I can lean against his chest. He rubs my neck with one hand. “How are you?” he asks, his voice low.

“Holding up. You?”

“Fine. Just fine.” Malcolm starts climbing up me to reach Mulder, and Mulder gives me his glass, lifts the baby from my lap and sets him on his knee. Malcolm notices the infant in Josie’s lap and leans over for a closer look.

“So tell me something,” Josie says, holding up their new daughter Georgia so Malcolm can see her. “Why Malcolm?”

I just smile, and Mulder says, “Scu—Dana wanted a unusual name.”

“A Celtic one,” I add. Aunt Dee just spent ten minutes telling me that Malcolm is a Scottish name, not an Irish one, w
hich I knew. I like it anyway.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like it,” Josie says. “You won’t believe the grief my mother gave me over Georgia.”

“I like the old names,” Charlie says. “They’re solid. They’ve got history.”

“It’s taken some getting used to,” Mulder admits, which is an understatement. His exact words, when I suggested the name Malcolm, were, “You want to relegate him to a life of wimpitude?” He says, “I was thinking something like John. Nice and basic.”

“Malcolm was a king,” I say, not for the first time.

“Malcolm is a sitcom,” Mulder says, as our own Malcolm wriggles in Mulder’s lap and pulls on Mulder’s bow tie. “But he’s cute. We’ll keep him.”

“I’m sure he’s grateful,” I say dryly and lean my head against Mulder’s chest. I feel more content than I thought I would today. It’s been less painful than I feared. No one has asked uncomfortable questions, and as far as I can tell even the children haven’t commented on Mulder’s scars. This might be okay.

A wave of small children run down the stairs, squeezing themselves around us, and Charlie perks up enough to tell them, “No running in the house!”

“Yes, Daddy!” “Yes, Uncle Charlie!” They disappear around the corner, towards the living room where the hors d’oeuvres are.

Mulder strokes my cheek. He says nothing but I can guess what he’s thinking. I still don’t have an answer for him but I am thinking about it—I am thinking hard. The prospect terrifies me and exhilarates me at once. Another child. We could have another child.

“Whoops,” Mulder says, “somebody smells.” Malcolm grabs at his nose and Mulder noisily kisses his hand.

“You noticed it first, you get to change him.” I sip Mulder’s juice. Mm, apple.

He sighs. “Thanks, honeybunny.”

“You’re welcome, poopyhead.” I smile into the glass as Mulder stands and climbs down the stairs, our smelly baby tucked in his arm. Malcolm waves at me and I wave back.

“You call him poopyhead,” Charlie says in amazement, shaking his head.

“Usually to keep from calling him something else.” They both laugh at that, and I smile again. “Can I hold Georgia?”

“Sure.” Josie hands me the baby carefully.

Georgia is three months old. She is my mother’s first granddaughter—my family tends towards boys—and Charlie and Josie’s fifth child. Personally I can’t imagine having five children, but they handle it with the same mellow grace with which they’ve done everything in their marriage. She’s very pretty, little Georgia, with Charlie’s crystal-blue eyes and today wearing a velveteen party dress and a lace bow around her head. She is serene as I hold her, looking about with the slightly-unfocused eyes of a tiny baby.

“You’re so good,” I whisper to her. “You’re just a plump little Buddha, aren’t you?” She coos at me and I laugh.

“Do you ever think about having another?” Josie says, and Charlie squeezes her hand.

It takes me a moment to answer, and finally I just say, “Yes.” Neither of them answer, and I go on quietly, watching Georgia watch me, “Malcolm was a blessing and a miracle. Asking for that twice seems like asking for the moon and the stars.”

Charlie just nods and Josie put her other hand over mine.

***

At dinner Mulder is seated across from me, with Malcolm in his carrier at my side. Mulder’s been very good with my relatives all day, listening to their stories and talking sometimes. Still, I know his mind isn’t on them. He has a way of looking at me that makes my toes curl inside my shoes. He’ll be talking innocently to my cousin Ryan and feel my eyes on him, and with one slow blink he fixes his eyes on me. His gaze is piercing, hot as a candle flame, and makes me wish we were home.

It’s always like this for us: feast or famine. I sigh and poke my mashed potatoes with my fork.

There’s a lull in the conversation, and Uncle Frank decides to fill it with, “So, Fox, you work at the FBI with Dana, right?”

Mulder swallows what’s in his mouth and says, “I used to. I don’t anymore.”

“Oh? So what are you doing now?”

Mom breaks in, “Mulder takes care of Malcolm while Dana’s at work.”

“And that’s it?”

Mulder eats another bite of yams, nodding. “That’s it.”

Uncle Frank, however, isn’t satisfied. “Are you going back to chasing aliens when you’re tired of housekeeping?”

Silence falls over the entire table. Mulder’s eyes meet mine again, with despair this time instead of promises. I open my mouth but before I can say anything Mulder says, “No. I won’t be doing that anymore. There’s no mystery left there.” He stands up abruptly and walks out of the dining room.

Aunt Dee begins, “Frank, you are the most—”

I can’t listen anymore, and stand up too. “Excuse me.” I follow Mulder, then see he’s gone out on the back porch. I get our coats from the coat room, put on my own, and join him outside.

Mulder sits on the back steps, his hands clenched together. He squints up at me. “Maybe I should have sat at the kids’ table.”

I drape his coat over his shoulders and sit down beside him. “Mulder,” I whisper. “Mulder.” I rub his shoulders and he turns his head away from me. He starts to rock back and forth, shivering inside his coat.

“Does it ever stop, Scully? Do you ever stop thinking, ‘My God, the things they did to me’? Does it ever stop hurting, Scully? Just hurting all over? God, I hurt everywhere.”

I pull his head to my shoulder and kiss his hair. “It stops. I promise. It stops. Sometimes days pass and you don’t even think about it.”

“Sometimes I can’t breathe for thinking about it.”

It’s going to snow again. The sky is iron-grey, and the air is still and bitter cold. I hold onto Mulder tight. “When you can’t breathe,” I say, and then pause to get the tremor out of my voice. “When you can’t breathe you get me and I’ll breathe for you. I’ll breathe for you, okay, Mulder? I’ll breathe for you.”

“Scully,” he whispers. My name is his mantra, his prayer, his all-encompassing word. “Scully, Scully.”

“I know.” I stroke his face with my palm. “I know.”

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