“I’m not staying, Duncan,” Miss Dina called. “Just walked these cookies over, but you send Elliot home whenever you two are ready to eat, okay?”
“Dinner is almost ready,” Dad said in reply, his calm voice hiding any outward reaction to anyone who didn’t know him as well as I did.
I walked to the kitchen and slid the plate of cookies beside him on the island. A peace offering.
“We’re going to read,” I told him. “Okay?”
Dad looked at me, and then down at the cookies, and relented. “Thirty minutes.”
Elliot came willingly, following me past the hulking tree and up the stairs.
Christmas music filtered up the open landing from the kitchen, but it vanished as we stepped into the closet. In the time since we’d bought the house, Dad had lined the walls with shelves and added a beanbag chair in the corner, facing the small futon couch against the front wall. Pillows from home were scattered around, and it was starting to feel cozy, like the inside of a genie’s bottle.
I closed the door behind us.
“So what’s with the new hardware?” I asked, motioning to his face. He shrugged but said nothing. “Do you have to wear the mask all the time?”
“It’s headgear, Macy. Usually only when I sleep, but I decided I want these braces off sooner.”
He stared back blankly at me, and, yeah, I got it.
“Are they annoying?” I asked.
His face twisted into a sardonic grin. “Do they look comfortable?”
“No. They look painful and nerdy.”
“You’re painful and nerdy,” he teased.
I flopped down onto the beanbag chair with a book and watched him peruse the shelves.
“You’ve got all of the Anne of Green Gables books,” he said.
“I’ve never read them.” He pulled one from the lineup and curled onto the futon. “Favorite word?”
Already this ritual seemed to roll out of him and into the room. It didn’t even catch me off guard this time. Looking down at my book, I thought for a second before offering, “Hushed. You?”
Without further conversation, we began to read.
“Is it hard?” Elliot asked suddenly, and I looked up to meet his eyes: amber and deep and anxious. He cleared his throat awkwardly, clarifying, “Holidays without your mom?”
I was so startled by the question that I quickly blinked away. Inside, I begged him not to ask more. Even three years after her death, my mom’s face swam continuously in my thoughts: dancing gray eyes, thick black hair, deep brown skin, her lopsided smile waking me up every morning until that first one she missed. Every time I looked in the mirror I saw her reflected back at me. So yeah, hard didn’t cover it. Hard was like describing a mountain as a lump, like describing the ocean as a puddle.
And neither of those things could contain my feelings about Christmas without her.
He watched me in the careful way he had. “If my mom died, holidays would be rough.”
I felt my stomach clench, my throat burn, asking, “Why?” even though I didn’t need to.
“Because she makes a big deal out of them. Isn’t that what moms do?”
I swallowed back a sob and nodded tightly.
“What would your mom do?”
“You can’t just ask stuff like that.” I flipped onto my back and stared up at the ceiling.
His apology came out in an immediate burst: “I’m sorry!”
Now I felt like the jerk. “Besides, you know I’m okay.” Even just saying it backed up the emotional eighteen-wheeler. I felt the tears retreat down my throat. “It’s been almost four years. We don’t have to talk about it.”
“But we can.”
I swallowed again and then stared at the wall, hard. “She started Christmas the same every year. She made blueberry muffins and fresh orange juice.” The words came out in a woodpecker staccato. “We would eat in front of the fireplace, opening stockings while she and Dad told me stories from their childhood until eventually we started making up crazy stories together. We would all start cooking the duck, and then open gifts. And after dinner, we would curl up in front of the fireplace and read.”
His voice was barely audible. “Sounds perfect.”
“It was,” I agreed, more softly now, lost in the memory. “Mom loved books, too. Every gift was a book, or a journal, or cool pens, or paper. And she read everything. Like, every book I saw on the tables at the bookstore, she had already read.”
“It sounds like I would really like your mom.”
“Everyone loved her,” I told him. “She didn’t have much family – her parents died when she was young, too – but I swear everyone she met claimed her as their own.”
And they all floundered like fish out of water now without her, unsure what to do for us, unsure how to navigate Dad’s quiet reserve.
“Did she work?” Elliot asked.
“She was a buyer for Books Inc.”
“Wow. Really?” He sounded impressed that she was part of such a large Bay Area retailer, but inside I knew she’d grown tired of it. She always wanted her own store. It was only when she started getting sick that she and Dad were in a position to afford it. “Is that why your dad is building this closet for you?”
I shook my head, but the idea hadn’t even occurred to me until he said it. “I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“Maybe he wanted a place you could feel close to her.”
I was still shaking my head. Dad knew I couldn’t possibly think of Mom more. And he wouldn’t try to help me think of her less, either. It wouldn’t help. Just like holding your breath doesn’t change your body’s need for oxygen.
And as if I’d said that aloud, he asked, “But do you think of her more when you’re in here?”
Of course, I thought, but I ignored him, fidgeting instead with the edge of the quilt hanging over the side of the beanbag. I think of her everywhere. She is everywhere, in every moment, and also she’s in no one moment. She misses every single one of my moments and I’m not sure who that is harder for: me surviving here without her, or her without me, existing wherever she is.
“Do you think of her in here? Is that why you love this room?”
“I love the room because I love reading.”
And because when I find that book that makes me lose myself for just one hour, maybe more, I forget.
And because my dad thinks of Mom every time he buys me a book.
And because you’re here and I feel about a thousand times less lonely with you.
“Please stop.” I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my palms sweat, heart race, stomach curl into a knot around itself and all the feelings that sometimes felt too big for my body.
“Do you ever cry about her?”
“Are you kidding?” I gasped, and his eyes widened but he didn’t back down.
“It’s just that it’s Christmas,” he said quietly. “And when my mom was baking cookies earlier, I realized how familiar it was. It must be weird for you, that’s all.”
He leaned in, trying to get me to look at him. “I just want you to know you can talk to me.”
“I don’t need to talk about it.”
He sat up, watching me for a few more breaths of silence, and then returned to his book.
wednesday, october 4
I leave the warm comfort of bed and shuffle into the kitchen, kissing the top of a head of brown tangles. Sean should know by now that we can’t be sneaky in the morning: Phoebe is always up before us anyway.
Phoebs is a dream kid. She’s six, clever and affectionate, and boisterous in a way that tells me a little bit about her mom, because her dad is all mellow containment. Who the hell knows where Ashley, her deadbeat mother, is, but it stabs something in me to see Phoebe growing up without her. At least I had ten years with Mom, and her disappearance from my life doesn’t feel like a betrayal. Phoebe only got three before Ashley went to a weekend retreat for her investment banking job and came home with a taste for cocaine that turned into a hankering for crack, which eventually led to her giving up everything for speedballs. At what point will Sean be forced to tell his perfect kid that her mom loved drugs more than she loved them?