by Matthew Di Paoli

The cupcakes smelled like oppression. That's how I knew I was home. My father baked when he was anxious and rearranged his sport coats when he'd lost money. He was in that wardrobe a lot lately. He always told me he was alphabetizing them, but by what? Had he named all his sport coats? Had he imagined their affairs and wakes?

It made me sad to think of his tiny eggshell closet swollen with anxiety-ridden suits or maybe the cupcakes were taking effect.

He'd brought home this small Asian woman whom he called his "friend." She hadn't emerged from the kitchen yet and I was waiting in the living room as if she were being served soon. I think he was still embarrassed since Mom only died two years back. Really, I was more disturbed by the thought that he believed his 30-year-old son didn't know a fuck buddy when he saw one. I'd had many myself: Russian, Danish, Armenian, never Chinese though.

He had described her as "not traditionally beautiful." This was his way of skirting my judgment because he knew my knowledge of beauty only extended to traditional and very slightly into hipster. That was something I'd only recently taken an interest in.

The rest of the family would show up for Christmas dinner around five, but for now I was stuck with the two of them. She couldn't have been much older than I was.

The living room was a large white space sectioned off by wooden beams on the ceiling and paneling around the fireplace. The Christmas tree burned white where it had always been full of color, and there were these irritating bells chiming holiday jingles that my mother had previously disallowed. If she had one posthumous wish it might have been to destroy those bells.

The girl walked into the room. She was no great beauty, as my father had suggested, and for whatever reason I took comfort in this. She smelled like strained peas—the stale scent when someone hasn't washed her hair. It was impressive to smell anything over the ginger and garlic that permeated the room.

She ran up and gave me a tight hug, pressing her small breasts into my ribs. "Your father told me you are a photograph."

"Not that I know of," I said.

My father rushed in with oven mitts on. "I told you not to do this yet," he said to her. She looked back timidly. "You know what she means," my father scolded me. "He takes pictures."

"I take pictures," I said.

"Very exciting. May I see?"

I stared into the white tree lights and remembered lying beneath them with my mother. We'd set out a blanket and look straight up into the dangling ornaments and the many evergreen and rum-colored bulbs. It was there that the wishes of my childhood materialized, and I could say nearly anything because it was safe and warm, and it was Christmas.

"You wouldn't like them," I said. I imagined that she only liked photos in front of landmarks while not smiling. In any event, I wasn't about to show this woman something that I'd made. At this point, I was just happy she wasn't younger or prettier than my own girlfriend. Young, yes, but she definitely wasn't prettier.

A great fear took hold at the thought of my father bringing home a Russian blonde in her mid-thirties, a girl I would have to drink a few drinks before talking to. Someone who reminded me of Yulya, the most beautiful and unstable girl I'd ever had the pleasure of knowing. Someone who would make me ashamed.

My father brought out gingerbread men for each of us. He served a cheap wine someone had given him for the holidays and told him was good. We each took small sips and pretended to be captivated by our glasses. She ate some of her cookie.

"Very delicious," she said, slowly enunciating.

I felt burdened to ask them something. "So how did you meet?"

"Together?" She made an intertwining motion with her fingers and I nodded. "I have umbrella in the sun. Your father, he walks up and say: 'Why do you have this?" She glanced over at him and smiled. "I say I don't know."

"It was a red umbrella," my father took over, chuckling to himself. "She was just sitting in the Queens Botanical Gardens with this umbrella on an overcast day or mostly overcast but not threatening rain or anything and I just walked right up and asked her why."

"And she said she didn't know," I said.

"Yeah, can you believe that? She had no godly reason for holding this umbrella. She was just doing it like somebody had told her it might rain at some point during the next week." He snickered to himself looking up to see if I was laughing too. I smiled politely and nodded.

They hadn't touched at all. I noticed that. They sat distinctly apart from each other, and my father suddenly seemed like the least sexual object in the room. The light fixtures and the paint seemed to have more voracity in them.

After a while, he stopped laughing completely and just said, "It's pretty funny." For his age, almost sixty, he still looked pretty good. He'd always had that dark Italian complexion that I didn't inherit and long eyelashes. He kept himself clean-shaven and often told me that I'd have steadier work if I'd just tidy up. "No one wants to get their pictures taken by a mountaineer," he'd say.

The new dog slunk downstairs and went straight for my father. It was wearing little fuzzy antlers, which I thought was degrading—some kind of sheep dog mix. My dog was dead. She died shortly after my mother, and he took it hard because he was there and I was in the city. Still, she was my dog, and this wasn't. My father picked it up and cradled it like an infant in his arms. A staggering tranquility overtook it.

"How do you get her to do this?" the girl asked.

"She just likes it," said my father. "I don't know when it started but we do it all the time now. She's very meditative."

I thought of this Zen swordplay master that my mother had gotten me involved with when I first started out. She used to take lessons from him, and I'd tease her that she was literally the last person in the world who would ever benefit from knowing how to use a long, sharp blade. Still, she continued with her lessons and got me a gig taking portraits of him with his shirt off making fencing poses in Central Park. I remember it as being the most homoerotic experience of my young life and I had to keep telling him to move out of the sun because his nipples had this frightening sheen when the light hit them wrong. Still, it was work.

The girl finished her gingerbread man, saving the face for last and smiled at me. "I must pay confession. Your father showed me some of your photograph and I enjoyed very much."

Normally I would just say thank you to someone who wasn't a colleague, but I decided to push a little. "What did you like about them?"

My father tried to kick me under the table but he ended up hitting one of the oak legs and the table rumbled for a moment. He went back to rubbing the sheep dog.

"I like the people's faces in them," she said.

"That's really more their achievement. I don't have any control over their faces."

"I like how you make them all look sad."

I wondered if that were true. Had I made everyone into an object of grief? I felt compelled to flip through my portfolio, find photos of my models smiling or curious or mischievous, prove her wrong; but I knew there weren't any. This stranger, in my old house, sitting next to a Buddhist dog, using broken English, had stumbled upon something resembling truth.

I sat for a moment in silence thinking over the past. An image of a young woman came to mind. Something I revered. "There was a Man Ray exhibit showing his early work I saw some time ago. He did a lot of portraits and there was this one of his mistress, Lee Miller, where you can see he's in love. It's really flooring because it's of her, but you can feel him through the lens. It was beautiful. I can't do that."

She met my eyes, took a sip of her wine and placed her hand on my father's knee. "I like your photograph."

The doorbell rang. Probably someone who'd beat the traffic. My father set down the dog, and her hand slipped away as he got up.

"Thank you," I said.

My vision drifted over the blue spruce and how the bulbs combined with the walls so that there was no longer space for the color that had once lived there. Even the chimes sounded monochrome and this girl and this dog and this ringing house were now Christmas. The uncles came and went, their mustaches and overly firm handshakes; the aunts with their ever-expanding figures, hiding their bubbling resentments in the wine until the car ride home. The small and the young, fragile, not yet wise enough to fear the flan that always found its way to the dessert table. Their perfumes, and sweat, and colognes mixed with the faint echo of evergreen spreading a thin dim film over the evening, until my father finally yawned, cueing an exodus.

That night, when everyone else had gone home, I snuck downstairs, pushed aside the presents and lay flat under the tree. Past the sagging branches, porcelain snowflakes, the cherry-stained baubles and brittle snowmen, I gazed up and saw nothing. Nothing left of her, only white.

BIO: Matthew Di Paoli received his BA at Boston College where he won the Dever Fellowship and the Cardinal Cushing Award for Creative Writing. He has also been nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize and won the 2015 Prism Review Short Story Contest. He completed his MFA at Columbia University in Fiction. He has been published in CURA, Litro, Neon, Squalorly, Carte Blanche, Blue Penny Quarterly, FictionWeek, and Post Road literary magazines among others. He published Killstanbul with El Balazo Books and shopping his recently completed novel Holliday. Matthew teaches Writing and Literature at Monroe College.