It’s discordant for the vibe to be so dark. Normally we’re all crammed in the kitchen together. Music is blasting, we’re dancing and tasting as we cook, telling stories, teasing each other. Not this time; it’s lifeless in here. Not even Aaron’s fitted metallic joggers and giant Gucci belt bag are absurd enough to lift the mood.
The only sound is the wet, squishy squelch of Mom stirring her homemade macaroni and cheese. All I can think is how much it sounds like the zombies eating on The Walking Dead. I can’t even laugh at this. It’s like a laugh has dried up in my chest, turned dusty.
No one says anything to me directly, but the weight of the silence seems to drift steadily my way, landing squarely on my shoulders.
Ricky walks in from outside, where he’d been shoveling the back walkway. “Heard the 4Runner start up. Where’d Drew go?”
We all make vague sounds, and he walks into the living room to ask Lisa. In the kitchen, we fall silent again, leaning slightly to eavesdrop on her answer.
“I don’t know,” her voice filters down the hall. “Just said he wanted to get out of the house for a bit.”
The volume of everyone’s silent question What the hell is going on? turns shrill. I collect a few dirty dishes to be washed and move to the sink.
Benny follows. “Hey, you.”
Turning on the faucet to warm water, I mutter, “I am the human equivalent of a fart that clears a room.”
Unfortunately, I’ve said it loud enough for others to hear, and Benny unsuccessfully fights a laugh. With relieved exhales, they all take the burst of levity to come over to me, hug me, assure me in overlapping voices that everything is going to be okay, that they’re sure I did nothing wrong. I know they don’t know the specifics of what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter to them. They love me, they love Andrew. Whatever is happening is a blip, just like Ricky said.
To them, it’s something we’ll get past, and come out the other side stronger for it.
I guess I’ll have to figure out what that looks like for me, getting over the feelings that have lived inside me every day for more than half my life.
Mom’s voice rises above the others and I know that my respite is over, which is fine. I probably deserve whatever she’s going to say. “Mae.” I feel her turning me, finding my hand, and pulling me out of the fray. “Come here, honey.”
She leads me out of the kitchen and down the hall. Once we’re alone, she runs her hands through my hair, gazing back and forth between my eyes. Shame washes over me, hot, like warm water on a burn.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks.
“Not really.” I close my eyes, swallowing back nausea. “I’m sorry. I don’t even know what to say other than I messed up.”
“What on earth are you sorry about?” she asks, cupping my chin so I’ll look at her again. “You’re twenty-six. This is when you’re supposed to do crazy things and mess up a little.”
I’m surprised she’s not more upset. Mom doesn’t shy away from big feelings; unlike Dad, she lets it all out as soon as it courses through her. Dad is a thinker; he bottles everything up until—out of nowhere—it comes out in a pressurized stream. Only twice in my life have I heard him raise his voice. But I expect it from Mom. I expected her to really let me have it.
“That’s it?” I ask.
She laughs. “I mean, if you really want me to, I can probably work up to something, but it’s Christmas. Consider it my gift to you.”
“Well, in that case,” I say, wincing, “I should also let you know that I quit my job. Now you can let me have it.”
Fire flashes in her eyes for the duration of her long, controlled inhale and then, with a weary laugh, she pulls me toward her. “Come here.” She kisses my temple. “You look like you want to crawl out of your own skin.”
“I do.” I want to crawl out of my skin and then dive into the snow outside.
“Listen up,” she says, “because I’m going to tell you a secret not everyone knows: Everything is going to be okay. I mean it. I realize everyone around you being messy might make you feel like you can’t ever be, but that isn’t true. It’s okay to be messy sometimes, honey.”
When I wrap my arms around her waist and tuck my head under her chin, I feel rooted here for the first time in more days than I can count.
• • •
Andrew isn’t around for the rest of the afternoon when we’re ready to start sorting and opening presents, so we bake. A lot. Peppermint meltaways, Mexican wedding cakes, gingerbread, Santa’s Whiskers—the same cookies we’ve made every year I can remember. With a plate stacked for Santa and the sky growing dark, we start setting the table.
The candlesticks we use belonged to Aaron’s mom and serve as a reminder of how this whole thing started. I set the flowers in the center and the wine bottles are evenly spaced along the length of the table. The twins decorate those—and Miso, and each other—with a bag of bows they find in the living room.
Andrew slides unobtrusively into the kitchen just as the rest of the dishes are being brought out, and he chooses a seat as far away from me as he possibly could, in the distant corner, where Aaron usually sits.
I’m sure the food is delicious—it’s my favorite meal all year and smells like heaven—but I can’t taste a thing. I chew absently, and swallow, trying to look like I’m following the flow of conversation. I feel like I have a frozen block of ice in my stomach. Andrew won’t even look at me, and I’m so miserable, I’m not sure how I’m still here, at the dining room table, and not back in seat 19B. Maybe I haven’t finished thoroughly ruining everything yet, and the universe is waiting for me to really go all in. I pick up my wineglass, full almost to the brim. I’m sure I won’t disappoint.
“We thought we’d wait to open presents until you got home,” Ricky tells Andrew.
Andrew chews and swallows a bite quickly, guilt coloring his cheeks. “Thank you. Sorry. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Of course, baby,” Lisa says. “We wanted to be all together.”
The twins have been so patient all day, and with the prospect of gift opening finally spoken, it’s like a switch has been flipped. Kennedy and Zachary explode in excitement and noise. I remember that feeling, remember wanting to rush through the meal so that we could tear into our gifts, and then afterward always being so grateful that we paced ourselves, otherwise the day would go by too fast. But this time, I want to skip it all and head to the basement. I want to climb into bed and succumb to blackness. It’s dramatic, but I wonder how terrible it would be to disappear once everyone is asleep and simply fly home to Berkeley early and have a quiet Christmas Day alone tomorrow. Maybe my scarf will get caught in the escalator at the airport, and I’ll wind up back at the start again. And would that be so bad? Honestly it doesn’t sound any worse than what’s happening now.
After cleaning up, we slowly make our way into the living room. All around me, my loved ones chatter happily about their excitement for their Secret Santa recipient to open their gift. Mom brings in an enormous platter of cookies, and Ricky follows with a pitcher of milk and some glasses stacked on a tray. Cocktails are poured, music is put on, the fire roars. It is everything I love in life, but I can’t enjoy it. What a good life lesson: be careful what you wish for. I wanted to undo the damage done with Theo, but that was intro level life-ruining. What happened with Andrew feels like getting a PhD in idiocy.
• • •
Across the room, Andrew sits in a chair, staring quietly into the fire, so different from his usual chatty self. I wonder where he was all day, what he was doing. How he can look so sad after the end of a two-day-old relationship. I’m mourning something I wanted for half my life. What’s his excuse?
Maybe he’s deciding how to tell everyone that he won’t be back next year—if we ever actually get around to next year—which, frankly, is exactly what I deserve.
When I turn back to the room, I see Kyle wearing a Santa hat, which means it’s his turn to choose the first gift to be opened. Although we each draw a name, the idea that each person will get only one gift from one other person is sort of a joke. The pile under the tree is mammoth. Gifts from parents to children, from children to parents, little things that we see throughout the year and have to buy for each other. Kyle gets random things with tacos on them. Aaron loves cool socks. Dad gets a lot of joke gifts—Whoopee Cushions, gum disguised as Juicy Fruit that tastes like skunk, handshake buzzers. He loves to play pranks on his office staff, and somewhere along the line we all agreed to be in on it. The pile of gifts under the tree is a hilarious display of adoration, capitalism at work, and our complete inability to moderate ourselves in any way.
When Kyle brings me a small box, and I look at the tag and see Andrew’s name in the From line, I feel like I’ve swallowed a basketball. This didn’t happen the first time around. I know enough has changed in this version of reality that it might not mean something. It could be something benign he bought on a random trip to the 7-Eleven. It could be a box of Snickers—my favorite candy bar—or a can of Clamato, a literal gag gift.
But the tiny groan he lets out—like he forgot it was there and wants to somehow take it back, undo it—tells me this isn’t a joke gift. It’s tender.
Under the press of attention from everyone in the room, I remove the light green striped ribbon and peel away the thick red paper. The box has the name of the store we were in together, and my stomach drops. Inside is a T-shirt with a picture of Christopher Walken that reads I’M WALKEN ON SUNSHINE.
Ouch. He must have found this in the little boutique yesterday after I ran off.
The present is so perfect that it almost pulls a sound of pain from me, but I look up, arranging my features into a smile. Odds are good that I’ll never manage the emotional fortitude I’d need to pull this shirt over my head. More likely I’ll just sleep with it nearby. That is, until I’m eighty and it’s dissolved into a pile of threads from my heartbroken stroking, and then I’ll have to cuddle with one of my seven hundred cats instead.