Peggy was listening to Bing Crosby’s Christmas carols and grinding pepper over the puré when she heard the front door open. “César?” she called, putting down the pepper mill and turning down the heat slightly before wiping her hands on a nearby dish towel.

Si, cariño.” César strode in clumsily, banging against the kitchen doorframe. His bulky parka made him look stouter than he was, and bags and boxes struggled for freedom against his embrace. Despite this, he veered toward Peggy, smacking her on the butt and, lips puckered, tried to snatch a kiss.

Peggy dodged the kiss. “Cómo eres!” she scolded. “You said you’d be gone a minute and it’s almost nine! My boss will be here in half an hour!”

César hung his head in mock sheepishness, put the bags on a kitchen chair, and finally succeeded in planting a quick kiss on her cheek.

“Uf! You reek of beer. How many did you have?” Peggy waved her hand in front of her nose. She was trying to stay angry, but she was having a hard time suppressing a smile.

Noticing this, César threw his parka on the only other free kitchen chair and was already at the fridge, grabbing a beer.

Lo , Peggy,” he took a swig, “but you know what Lucas is like.”

Peggy, back to stirring the puré, sniffed, “Yup. A lazy mama’s boy.” She liked Lucas, but felt César was not fully capturing the importance of this occasion, and the only way she had of wiping that tipsy smirk off his face was to insult his best friend. “40 years old and still living at home with mommy.”

She had hit the mark. César closed the fridge door, his expression more serious. “For you, los norte americanos, that is the worst thing there is, but you have to admit that he is a very good person.” He reached over to one of the bags on the kitchen chair closer to Peggy. “Like the fact that he gave you a Christmas present.” With the soberest of faces, he handed her the bag, “Toma. Para ti.”

Peggy was speechless. She felt like a silly little girl. “Gracias.” she said meekly, taking the bag and ignoring the puré a minute too long.

César thought he might enjoy this moment of moral superiority just a bit longer. “What do you think of him now?” Then he changed his tune and urged, “Venga! Open it! Let’s see what it is!”

Peggy opened the package carefully, too carefully for César. This was one of their major differences. He reached out impatiently to grab it from her and tear open the paper, but she turned her back instinctively every which way to dodge him. “What a nice gesture! Wrapped in paper from the Prado Museum…el fino. Anda! Mira!”

César looked over her shoulder “¿Qué es?”

“A book about Pablo Picasso.”

Peggy stifled a giggle, then caught his eye, and they both broke out into uncontrollable laughter.

Peggy had liked Picasso years ago in college, when it was all fresh and new to her, when she was studying the language and was a fan of everything Spanish. She became drunk on films by Luis Buñuel and Carlos Saura, steeped herself in the poetry of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Luis Cernuda, Antonio Machado and Miguel Hernandez, and even played one of the sad daughters in Federico García Lorca’s La Casa de Bernarda Alba. She had dreamed of coming to live here in Spain one day, and fed those dreams with sangria, paella, and other recipes she and her classmates discovered. And of course, she admired the works of El Greco, Goya, Velazquez, and Picasso.

But recently, there was just too much Picasso everywhere. Other artists copied his style. Souvenir shops, saturated with the Gustav Klimt and Frida Khalo fads, were up to their rafters with Picasso bags and coasters, teacups and posters, Picasso mousepads and pens, notebooks and fans. It had actually become a running inside joke between them that if one of them didn’t behave, the other would give them a Picasso present the next Christmas. And here it was.

“One of us must have misbehaved!” Peggy laughed, wiping away her tears and turning back to the stove, where she suddenly realized the puré was sputtering.

Ya te digo. He really outdid himself this time. Could have been a bit more original, the bastard! I’ll bet about just as many people have seen a Picasso as have seen that golfa friend of yours naked!”

The burning soup had brought Peggy back to reality, and she was determined to bring Cesár back too.

“Hey,” she snapped, waving a finger at the mess of bags, wrapping paper and parka strewn all over the chairs, indicating that he should clear them up, “Stop picking on my friends. Bethany is…well, she is…una mujer liberal.”

César bent to collect an armful of the stuff from the chairs. “But you can pick on my friends, right?”

“It would be much more elegant if you used that Spanish expression I love. Picasso ya está hasta en la sopa. Picasso is even in your soup!” she shrieked, delighting in the absurdity of it.

César left the kitchen to hang up his parka in the hall closet. “Oye y tu jefa? Is she pretty or ugly?” he called to her, a smirk on his face as he knew the question would annoy her.

“Oh, don’t get all hot and bothered!” Peggy shouted from the kitchen. “No te pones!”

“Pongas! Pongas! Subjunctive, remember.” He entered the kitchen to find her presenting him with a stack of plates to set the dining room table with. She always screwed up her subjunctive tenses when she got stressed, so he figured it was not the moment to tease her about it. Obediently, he carried the dishes off into the other room, whistling along with Bing as he went.

That was another great opportunity he decided to pass up; teasing her about her Christmas music. What was it about North Americans and that kitschy Christmas crap? He had finally relented and let her string up the cards her family and friends sent her. There they were, alongside the candles and the nativity scene she told her friends she had set up without his noticing. (He had noticed! Well, maybe not right away. And when he did, it was too late to make a fuss about it.) Nevertheless, it was one of the reasons he preferred to meet with Lucas in a bar.

Peggy was dropping things in the kitchen, looking frantically up at the clock. It was almost 9:30. Her grammar mistake had also flustered her. She hated to think that after having studied the language in university and lived in Madrid these five years with her Spanish husband, she still made these stupid mistakes. Frustrated with herself, she seized this last bone César had offered her to pick and shouted, “Siempre con lo mismo. Just so you know, she is a very stately older lady.”

Ya, ya, hija. Dios, you have no sense of humor,” César called back, avoiding the battle zone, and calmly placing a wine glass by each plate.

Peggy tried to continue the conversation calmly from the kitchen. “Speaking of age…oh my God!” she shrieked.

“¿Qué pasa?” César ran towards the kitchen door, expecting to find a cockroach or a mouse.

“Last week was her birthday! Oh César! ¿Qué hacemos?”

Pues nada. We can’t do anything now. What difference does it make?”

“What difference does it make? Damn it! She is my boss! ¡Mi jefa! ¿No lo entiendes? I just started my new job at the university and I have to make a good impression. Maybe she expects something … a present. Algo.”

She paced the kitchen in circles, holding her head in her hands and moaning, “Oh, of course. It probably seemed strange, inviting her like this out of the blue. She must have assumed it was to celebrate her birthday. And now that I think about it, the other day, some of my colleagues gave her a lovely wine-red table cloth with matching napkins. Oh my God! Date prisa, César! Go and buy flowers…or something!”

César raised his eyebrows and took her in his arms “Cálmate, Peggy. Relax. She’ll be here any minute. Nothing is open around here at this hour. Forget about it. We’ll wish her feliz cumpleaños and that’s it.”

But Peggy would not be calmed. She extricated herself from his grasp and continued to pace until her eyes landed on something. “That’s it!”

César’s eyes followed her outstretched arm. She was pointing at the still-wrapped Picasso book. “That’s it! Susan loves Picasso. She’s got a huge print of his in her office!”

César, relieved the crisis was over, hugged her. “Problem solved!”

Their embrace was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. As Peggy scurried off to the door, César began lifting pot lids and peeling Saran wrap off bowls, sniffing the contents and grimacing. Ensalada, espinacas, pisto de verdures, soja, lentejas…tofu! He banged the last pot lid down in disgust as he stepped back to contemplate the prospect of dinner.

“César! César!” Peggy called out of breath towards the kitchen. “Susan’s here!”

César stepped out into the hall with a gracious smile.

“Susan, this is my husband. You can speak to him in English. He understands almost everything.”

César stepped forward to greet the tall, elderly Englishwoman. She had blondish grey, shoulder-length hair and looked to be in her early sixties. “Hello, hello. Welcome to Spain.” He smiled, grabbing her to give her the customary two kisses. “In Spain, two kisses.”

This made them all chuckle nervously as Peggy took Susan’s coat.

“Yes, I know. I have lived here now for 20 years.”

César was so friendly, so hospitable, yet he always managed to put his foot in it somehow. This made Peggy’s cheeks burn, but their guests were always charmed. But Susan had that tittery laugh, and Peggy could never decide if it was kind or condescending.

Once in the dining room, César smiled apologetically to Susan and ran into the kitchen after Peggy. “Oye…” he extended his arm out to encompass the clutter of pots and bowls full of food, “Y esta mierda?”

Es vegetariana. I told you that. Here, take this bowl. I’ll go get the wine.”


20 minutes later, César and Peggy were standing by Susan’s chair singing “Happy birthday to you. !Cumpleaños feliz! Happy birthday, dear Susan…!Cumpleaños feliz! Cheers! ¡Chin chin!” Peggy and César were visibly more relaxed now after several glasses of wine.

“And now, ‘For She’s the Jolly Good Fellow!’ That’s what they sing in Britain, isn’t it?” Peggy raised her glass and opened her mouth to continue singing.

“Um, yes, but it’s quite alright. Not necessary, really. Really not,” Susan tittered.

They clinked glasses.

Susan gushed, “Oh, you dears. How did you know? What a delicious dinner. And you didn’t have to make everything vegetarian just for my sake!”

Peggy was removing some plates from the table. “Oh, no problem at all. We love vegetables; don’t we, César?”

“Oh yes! Love the vegetable. My father always says, ‘Fruta y verdura todos los días,’ you understand? ‘Fruta y verdura…’”

“Yes, yes, I understand. Well, that’s wonderful,” Susan tittered.

Peggy appeared like a triumphant little girl with the present. “We got you a little something, Susan.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have! Picasso! My favorite. How did you know?”

Both Peggy and César laughed with false modesty. “Oh, you have to be observant. César and I were on one of our weekly visits to the Prado Museum…I can’t get enough of the Prado, you know…and when I saw the book in the gift shop, I thought…” Suddenly, Peggy felt her face grow hot. Was she laying it on too thick? It was good to sound cultured, wasn’t it?

Susan was flipping through the pages as Peggy spoke, and César was looking over her shoulder. Suddenly, he looked up at Peggy in a panic and motioned for her to go to the kitchen.

“Umm. Let me just get the dessert, Susan. I’ll be right back.”

Once in the kitchen, Peggy snarled at her husband. “What is the matter with you? ¿Que te pasa?”

She had never seen César so nervous before. “Es el libro…su puta madre! The book…Lucas wrote a dedication on one of the first pages. I saw it just after she opened it.”

Peggy felt like someone had kicked her in the stomach and all the air had gone out. “Oh no. Oh no,” she wheezed, gasping for breath and reaching out for a chair to hang on to. “And you are sure she saw it too?”

César looked down at the floor “No lo sé. Maybe. Or maybe not.”

“Can I be of any help?” came Susan’s voice from the dining room.

“No. No, Susan. Everything’s under control,” replied Peggy the best she could.

Turning to César, she lowered her voice. This time, she was taking control of the situation. “Okay. Okay. Vamos a calmarnos. Let’s distract her. You take out the dessert, and…and I’ll try to snatch the book without her noticing. And then…and then…I’ll…I’ll tear out the page. That’s what I’ll do!” She finished with a determined sweep of her arm.

Bien. Voy.” Cesar obeyed, more demurely than usual.

“Here Susan! Dessert! I hope you like…”

Peggy stepped behind Susan, trying to get closer to the book. “It’s César’s mother’s recipe. Really madrileño.” She snatched up the gift and winked at her accomplice, but just then, Susan looked over.

“Oh, umm…I thought I’d put this over by your bag, so it doesn’t get stained.”

“Yes. Very good idea.” Titter, titter.

Peggy slipped into the kitchen and started flipping frantically through the pages. She could hear César offering Susan more wine in the other room. She flipped back and forth. Her heart was thumping inside her head. César and Susan’s voices sounded like they were underwater.

She moved toward the door, “César! Can you give me a hand with something here, cariño?”

César excused himself and scurried off with relief, “¿Ya? Did you do it?”

Peggy was almost in tears. “!No está! I can’t find it! Damn it! Búscalo .”

Cesar rifled through the pages with no success. They looked at each other in horror.

Peggy whispered hoarsely, “Are you sure you saw it?”

Cesar stammered, “Hombre…creo que sí. I saw some handwriting in ink…it looked like a dedication.

“Oh no…” Peggy raised her hands to her head, as she so often did in similar circumstances, and her voice squeaked. “What if she saw it and ripped the page out herself while we were both in here? She’s very discrete, sabes. She would do something like that.”

Cesar sucked in his breath. “Joder.”

Susan cleared her throat audibly in the other room. Peggy quickly picked up the book and returned to the table, slipping it unseen into Susan’s coat pocket.

“Well, I must say this was a delicious surprise …”

César and Peggy looked down at their plates like repentant children.

“What? Oh, yes…I’m glad you liked it.” Peggy stammered.

“Well, my dears. I have a little surprise for you, too.”

They looked at each other. “Oh?”

“Yes, I understand that you moved into this apartment not very long ago. So, please, take this as a little housewarming/Christmas gift.”

“Oh, Susan, you shouldn’t have!” Peggy grabbed the package before César could destroy the wrapping and opened it. She turned to César, wide eyes fighting to contain tears of laughter.

It was a wine-red tablecloth with matching napkins.

César tried to repress a look of disgust and they both chorused, “Oh, it is beautiful. Thank you!”

Just then, César`s cell phone rang. He excused himself and went to the kitchen. “Peggy! Can you come in for a minute?”

Peggy ran in.

“Es Lucas.”

As Peggy took the device, César hissed in her ear, “How cutre that vieja is! How cheap! That is the tablecloth your colleagues gave her! Do you know the old Spanish saying, ¡Quien regala lo regalado merece ser ahorcado!? That’s right, hanged!”

He stormed out of the kitchen.

“Lucas? Sí muchísimas gracias. I love it. I have always loved Picasso! What a lovely gesture. You shouldn’t have. Mira Lucas…I have to go. Tenemos visita. Un beso!”

When Peggy returned to the dining room, Susan was getting ready to leave.

“Well, my dears, I have had such a jolly good time. Thank you so much for the book. And thank you to your cousin as well.”

“Cousin?” both Peggy and César asked in unison.

“Yes, your primo. Thank you to him for the book.”

Peggy felt the world fall in around her, and her face was in flames. She had known they would never get away with it. Something had happened that she couldn’t understand, but she knew that somehow it was a punishment for what they had done. Poor, generous, thoughtful, unsuspecting Lucas had given her a Christmas gift, and she, ungrateful cow that she was, had gone and given it to her boss, bragging about how she had picked it out especially for her, but not without having laughed and complained about it in the kitchen together with César before.

Somewhere off in the distance, she heard César sticking his foot ever deeper into his mouth. It was in these situations when he played the no entiendo inglés card. “Cousin? What is cousin?”

“Lucas! It’s Lucas!” Peggy heard herself say.

“Pero Lucas no es mi primo. ¿Qué está diciendo?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Susan! You see, the stores were all closed, and it was getting late and I forgot it was your birthday, and Lucas gave us this book, and I know you like Picasso and…”

“Lucas?” Susan puckered her brow. “No, I’m sure it didn’t say Lucas. It was a much stranger name.” She pulled a neatly folded page from her pocket and handed it to them.

César took the page and read aloud, “Para mi querido primo. Felicidades, Chechu.”

Peggy stared at César, “Chechu?”

César’s shoulders began shaking, then he burst out in uncontrollable laughter. “Chechu is Lucas’s cousin!”