Apparently it started when one of their friends commented that Aaron’s hair was mostly gray but looks good for a guy his age. Kyle swears it was said with the best of intentions, but Aaron didn’t care; his hair is now dyed so black it looks like a hole in whatever room he’s in. He’s spent most of this trip working out like a madman and frowning into mirrors. Aaron’s not suffering from a hangover; he can barely lift a cup to his mouth because he did so many push-ups yesterday.
Now Kyle turns and surveys the room. “What’s with the weird vibe?” he asks, taking his usual seat.
“Well, I’ve got an idea,” Andrew says with a wide grin at his brother, and I almost choke on my coffee. Benny flicks his ear.
Finally, Theo’s eyes swing to mine and then guiltily away.
That’s right, jackass, I’m right here.
Ricky clears his throat before taking Lisa’s hand. Oh my God. Do they know, too? If Lisa tells my parents, my mom will be naming her grandchildren before we’re even out of the driveway.
“Maybe it’s us,” Ricky says slowly. “Lisa and I have some news.”
It’s the small, nervous quiver in his voice that catches my frayed pulse and sends it hammering in a different direction. Is Lisa’s melanoma back?
Suddenly, a bad mudroom hookup feels like very small potatoes.
Ricky picks up the platter of bacon and gets it moving around the table. Lisa does the same with the casserole. But no one takes anything. Instead, we all vacantly pass the dishes around, unwilling to commit to eating until we know what level of devastation we’re facing.
“Business is fine,” Ricky reassures us, looking at each of our faces. “And no one is sick. So it isn’t that, don’t worry.”
We exhale collectively, but then I see Dad instinctively place his hand over Mom’s, and that’s when I know. There’s only one thing we value as much as we value each other’s health.
“But this cabin, see, it’s old,” Ricky says. “It’s old and seems to need something new each month.”
A hot tangle forms in my chest.
“We wanted to let you know that we sure do hope we can continue spending the holidays together, just like we have for the last thirty years or so.” He takes the full bacon platter as it comes back to him and gently sets it down, untouched. We all remain still, even Aaron and Kyle’s five-year-old twins—Kennedy with her legs tucked to her chest, a dirty Care Bears Band-Aid still clinging valiantly to her scabbed knee, and Zachary clutching his sister’s arm— dreading what we all know is coming next: “But we’ll have to figure out a new plan. Lisa and I have decided that we’re selling the cabin.”
Cue the most depressing music ever. I’d prefer that, actually, to the morbid silence in the rental car as Mom, Dad, Miles, and I make our way down the snow-dusted gravel driveway to the main road.
Mom cries quietly in the passenger seat. Dad’s hands fidget on the steering wheel like he’s not sure where to put them. I think he wants to comfort her, but he looks like he could use some comfort of his own. If it feels like the cabin means everything to me, it’s nothing compared to the memories they must have. They came here as newlyweds, brought me and Miles as babies.
“Mom.” I lean forward, putting my hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll still see everyone next year.”
Her quiet sobs turn into a wail, and Dad grinds the steering wheel in his grip. They divorced after nearly a quarter century of marriage; the cabin is the only place they get along anymore. It’s the only place they’ve ever gotten along, really. Lisa is Mom’s closest friend; Ricky, Aaron, and Benny are Dad’s only friends outside of the hospital. Dad was willing to forfeit the house, primary custody of Miles, and a chunk of his income every month, but he was unwilling to give up Christmas at the cabin. Mom held her ground, too. Victor’s daughters were thrilled to be able to keep their time with their dad, and we’ve somehow managed to maintain a fragile peace. Is that going to last if we have to go somewhere new, without any happy memories or nostalgic anchors?
I glance at my brother and wonder what it must be like to float through life so happily oblivious. He’s got his headphones on and is mildly bopping along to something perky and optimistic.
“I didn’t want to fall apart in front of Lisa,” Mom hiccups, digging in her purse for a Kleenex. “She was so devastated, couldn’t you see it, Dan?”
“I—well, yes,” he hedges, “but she was probably also relieved to have made the hard decision.”
“No, no. This is awful.” Mom blows her nose. “Oh, my poor friend.”
I reach over and flick Miles’s ear.
He flinches away from me. “What the hell?”
I tilt my head toward our mother, as in, Give her some support, you idiot.
“Hey, Mom. It’s okay.” He blandly pats her shoulder once but doesn’t even turn down his music. He barely looks up from his phone screen to give me a look in return that says, Happy now?
I turn back to the window and let out a controlled breath, working to keep it from being audible.
Before we left, Lisa took what will probably be our last group photo on the porch—somehow managing to cut the tops off the back row of heads—and then there were tears and hugs, promises that nothing would change. But we all know that’s a lie. Even though we’ve pledged to still spend the holiday together, where will we go? To Aaron and Kyle’s two-bedroom Manhattan apartment? To Andrew’s Denver condo? To Mom and Victor’s house, which used to be Mom and Dad’s house? Awkward! Or maybe we’ll all squeeze into Benny’s camper in Portland?
My brain takes off on a hysterical tear.
So we’ll rent a house somewhere, and we’ll all arrive with suitcases and smiles but everything will feel different. There won’t be enough snow, or the yard won’t be big enough, or there won’t even be a yard. Will we decorate a tree? Will we go sledding? Will we even all sleep in the same house? I imagined my childhood would end gradually, not with this full sprint into a brick wall starkly labeled End of an Era.
Mom sucks in a breath and quickly swivels to face us, interrupting my mental spiral. She places a hand on Miles’s leg, gives him an affectionate pat. “Thank you, baby.” And then mine. Her nails are painted fuchsia; her wedding ring glints in the midmorning light. “Mae, I’m sorry. I’m fine. You don’t have to take care of me.”
I know she’s trying to be more conscious of how much of her emotional burden I tend to take on, but her vulnerability lances my chest. “I know, Mom, but it’s okay to be sad.”
“I know you’re sad, too.”
“I’m sad as well,” Dad mumbles, “in case anyone was wondering.”
The silence that follows this statement is the size of a crater on the moon.
Mom’s eyes spring fresh tears. “So many years we spent there.”
Dad echoes hollowly, “So many years.”
“To think we’ll never be back.” Mom presses a hand to her heart and looks over her shoulder at me. “Whatever happens, happens.” She reaches for my hand, and I feel like a traitor to Dad if I take it, and a traitor to Mom if I don’t. So I take it, but briefly meet his eyes in the rearview mirror. “Mae, I see the wheels turning up there, and I want you to know it’s not your job to make sure that we are all happy next year and the transition is smooth.”
I know she believes that, but it’s easier said than done. I’ve lived my entire life trying to keep every tenuous peace we can find.
I squeeze her hand and release it so she can turn back around.
“Life is good,” Mom reassures herself aloud. “Victor is well, his girls are grown, with kids of their own. Look at our friends.” She spreads her hands. “Thriving. My two children—thriving.” Is that what I’m doing? Thriving? Wow, a mother’s love really is blind. “And you’re doing fine, right, Dan?”
Dad shrugs, but she isn’t looking at him.
Beside me, Miles nods in time to the music.
“Maybe it’s time to try something new,” Dad says carefully. I meet his eyes in the rearview mirror again. “Change can be good.”
What? Change is never good. Change is Dad switching medical practices when I was five and never being home again during daylight. Change is my best friend moving away in eighth grade. Change is a terribly advised pixie cut sophomore year. Change is relocating to LA, realizing I couldn’t afford it, and having to move back home. Change is kissing one of my oldest friends when I was drunk.
“It’s all about perspective, right?” he says. “Yes, the holidays may look different, but the important parts will stay the same.”
The cabin is the important part, I think, and then take a deep breath.
Perspective. Right. We have our health. We have each other. We are comfortable financially. Perspective is a good thing.
But perspective is slippery and wiggles out of my grip. The cabin! It’s being sold! I made out with Theo but I want Andrew! I hate my job! I’m twenty-six and had to move home! Miles applied to schools all over the country, and will probably be a homeowner before I’ve moved out of my childhood bedroom!
If I died today, what would be written about me? That I’m an obsessive peacekeeper? That I put together a serviceable spreadsheet? That I also loved art? That I couldn’t ever figure out what it was that I truly wanted?
Tuning out the sounds of Judy Garland on the radio, I close my eyes and make a silent plea: Universe. What am I doing with my life? Please. I want . . .
I’m not even sure how to finish the sentence. I want to be happy, and I’m petrified that the path I’m on now is going to leave me bored and alone.
So I ask the universe, simply: Can you show me what will make me happy?
I lean my head against the window, my breath fogging up the glass. When I reach up to clear it away with my sleeve, I’m startled to see a grimy Christmas wreath decorated with an equally grimy bow. A blaring horn, a blur of shaggy green hurtling toward our car.