He flexes his jaw, nodding at the fire. “Yup.”
Benny frowns quietly at his shoes. Mom and Dad exchange worried glances. Ricky and Lisa, too.
But it’s my turn to pick the next gift. I stand, walking on unsteady legs to the tree, and grab the first box there. It’s for Kennedy, thankfully, and her happiness is a brief distraction.
Presents are opened. Hugs are given. All around me, the room is full of bright voices, excitement, and color. I do my best to be present; to smile when it seems appropriate and respond when someone asks me a question. I ooh and ahh in the right places—at least I think I do. My parents got me a new Apple Watch. Miles got me a giant Snickers bar. My true Secret Santa was Aaron, who got me tickets to see the Lumineers in February. For a few minutes my excitement, as I go through this all again, is genuine.
But then Mom gets up to refill her tea, and I hear the kitchen door open, and the scattery click-click of dog paws on linoleum, and then Mom’s distressed gasp. “Oh. Oh no. Oh, Miso.” She calls out, “Andrew?”
I don’t know if he means to do it, but Andrew’s eyes fly to mine. I think we both know what’s coming, but when Mom comes into the living room with the ruined remnants of Andrew’s ugly Christmas sweater, for just a second I think I’ve been saved.
He’ll believe me.
But that’s the problem. I can see in his eyes that he does believe everything I told him, and it’s somehow worse.
Andrew stands, taking the sweater from Mom’s hands, and leaves the room.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Park City is an intensely stunning old stone-and-wood building set in the middle of a snow-covered field. In the summer, it is surrounded by towering trees of fluffy green, but this time of year, the branches are bare and decorated with the crystalline splendor of winter.
We go to the early Christmas Mass service—Mom, Miles, Lisa, and I—in part so that we don’t lose much time with the rest of the group, but also to avoid the chaos of younger kids later in the morning.
Although I love our church back home, the fact that I come to St. Mary’s only once or twice a year gives it this deeply nostalgic place in my life. Inside, it is beautiful simplicity: softly arched ceilings, crisscrossed pale wood beams, unassuming stone walls. Smooth wooden pews and tall windows that keep the space bright and clear.
And then, unfortunately, there’s the altar—the one thing that demonstrates that I am a terrible Catholic and probably going straight to hell no matter how I spend my Sundays. With arched stone framing an equally arched window, it looks so much like a vagina from where we sit to the side that neither Miles nor I can ever look at it without breaking into suppressed laughter.
Today, though, I stare directly at it for a full five minutes before realizing I am looking into the dark depths of the building’s vaginal canal. What’s wrong with me?
I blink away, focusing down on my hands in my lap. I’m warmly bracketed by my mother on my left and Lisa on my right. Their arms are pressed along mine; such a simple point of contact but so oddly grounding. My two mothers— one by birth and upbringing, one that Mom chose as her closest friend. You’d think things would be weird with Lisa today, after my emotional fiasco with both of her sons over the last couple of days, but it’s not.
Probably because she’s known me longer than anyone aside from my parents. She pulled me aside on the walk to the car this morning and said, “I want you to know that no matter what, I am always—always—here for you.” It wasn’t a long exchange, just a hug and a sad, understanding smile, but it was exactly what I needed to hear to let the air out of that stress steam-pipe. Disappointing the adults in my life is kryptonite to my peace of mind.
Of all of us here, Mom is the most devout, but we each have our own relationship with church. Mine has generally skewed more toward sentimental comfort: I love the songs, the community, the breathtaking beauty of church architecture (minus the vagina). I love the consistency of the rituals. Mom never demanded that we believe everything she believes—after all, Dad has a firm disinterest in all things religion—or do everything the church wants us to do, which is good, because I found that I was never able to accept the Bible as nonfiction. Mom only asks that we come and listen respectfully, and that we work to be good and kind, and live generous lives.
But this is now, and my first time inside a church after having real and irrefutable proof that there is another power, bigger than me, at work in this world. I’m still not sure what exactly that power is, but I guess I have to acknowledge there is way more out there than what I understand. I believe now that the universe delivers random acts of kindness, and it’s on us to decide what to do with them.
It’s on me to figure out how to move on from this past week and find happiness—whether that’s with Andrew, or on some other path in my life.
As the priest delivers his tranquil homily about the Gospel of Luke, I close my eyes and try to blur out all sound and images. I try to be present in this quiet moment, to soak up the warmth of my mom at my side and the solid shape of the pew at my back. I’m trying as hard as I can to not silently wish for more—for Andrew’s forgiveness, or for a job I look forward to doing each day. I’ve spent years not trusting my ability to make decisions and quietly letting life just happen to me. It can’t be a coincidence that the moment I stopped being passive and followed my instincts, everything seemed to fall into place. I know what makes me happy—trusting myself. What a gift, right? I found happiness.
Now I just have to figure out if there’s any way I can get it back.
Mom leans over and stretches to reach my ear. “Are you okay?”
My mother never speaks during service—especially not Christmas Mass—unless it’s to hiss at us to be quiet. But she would rather cut off her own arm than let her kids struggle through something alone.
“Just thinking,” I whisper back. “I want you to be proud of me. I want to be proud of myself.”
“I am always proud of you.” She wraps her hand around mine. “I trust you. The only person whose expectations you have to live up to is yourself.” She lifts my hand to her mouth and kisses it. “I want you to find what makes you happy.”
She sits back up, staring straight ahead, oblivious to the way her words just delivered a glowing ember into my heart. This is real. I have so many things to work on, but it’s like my boulder moment all over again, like watching a puzzle slot into place.
The only person whose expectations you have to live up to is yourself.
When I thought it didn’t matter and no one would remember, I finally started living authentically. I quit my job. I was honest about my feelings. I went after what I wanted without fear.
My feet feel the floor; my back feels the pew.
I am aware of the fresh, clear air inside, of the hum and vibration of hundreds of bodies all around me. With Mom echoing my wish back to me, I have an idea.
• • •
Miles shoulders up to me as we crunch our way back up the driveway toward the cabin. “You good?”
It’s the first time we’ve talked, really, since that morning on the porch, and there’s no doubt in my mind that my seventeen-year-old brother is super confused about what the hell has happened to his boring, levelheaded sister.
“I’m okay.” I blow out a controlled breath. “Had a weird week.”
“Sounds like it.”
I stop a few feet from the base of the porch steps, looking up at the cabin. With a conspiratorial little nod to me, Mom follows Lisa up the steps, stomping her boots on the porch and disappearing into the warm indoors. But even though I know that part of my fix-it plan for the day is set in motion, dismay slides coolly from my throat into my gut. Today is our last full day here.
Miles drags his shiny shoes across the wet path to the house. Mom won’t be happy about the slush and salt that’s soaking into the hems of his best church pants, but I’m not ready to go in yet, either. If my brother wants to dawdle, so be it.
“Theo said he wishes he didn’t lose it with you the other day,” he says.
His words pull my attention away from the cabin and back to him. Miles is already taller than Dad. It’s so easy to see him as an eternal kid, but in only a few months he’s going to leave home for college. He’ll launch, and he will be just fine.
I squint from the sun reflecting off the snow-covered yard. “Theo said that?”
He nods. “Last night. Sort of out of the blue. What happened between you guys?”
“That’s between me and Theo.”
He blinks past me, shifting on his feet.
“What else is bugging you, cutie?” I ask.
“Is it true Ricky and Lisa are selling the cabin?”
I chew on this, unsure how much to say before they can tell us all themselves. “I think so. That’s the rumor, at least. Who’d you hear it from?”
“Dad said something.” He stares up at the cabin, frowning. “Sucks. I wish Mom or Dad would buy it.”
There’s a creak in my mind, the slow opening of a treasure chest. I kiss my brother again and jog up the stairs, chasing after my second good idea in a single morning.
• • •
“Benito Mussolini,” I say, sweeping into the blessedly quiet living room. “Fancy meeting you here.”
The Christmas tree glimmers like a display of jewels in the corner; the fireplace cracks and pops nearby. Upstairs I can hear the twins racing around, probably still in their pajamas and high on all of the sugar they found in their stockings.
“Well.” Benny looks up from his book and tucks his thumb in to hold his spot. “What an unexpectedly chipper greeting.”
“I am in an unexpectedly chipper mood. It is Christmas, after all.” I point to the hallway. “Come talk to me?”
He stands, following me, and we make our way upstairs, and then upstairs again into the attic. I don’t see Theo anywhere along the way, and Andrew is probably out in the Boathouse with his guitar and regret. But it’s for the best: I can’t have this conversation if he’s around.