I don’t know what I was expecting.
My only certainty, as I spent my first post-semester week alone in my apartment with an unringing phone, a constantly muttering television, and a mounting reluctance to leave the house–even for food–was that I shouldn’t spend the holidays there by myself.
I thought I could, though at this point, I’m not sure why. I do spend a lot of time alone; I always have. I value quiet. I grow irritable when there’s too much artificial light and noise in a room or when people interrupt my reading or thinking or television-watching with loud, dissonant conversation.
This is one of the minor things that worries me about having a child, how dogged I can be about preserving an atmosphere of quiet.
Once, when I was about fifteen, I babysat a one-and-a-half-year-old with separation anxiety who wailed incessantly for four hours after his parents’ departure. I only tried once to comfort him. When he wrenched himself away from the front door (which he’d slid down in agony, planting himself at its base for a while), he trudged past me up a small flight of stairs and into the master bedroom.
I followed him–out of curiosity, more than concern. As an only child with no concept or memory of being this distraught over a parent’s night on the town without me, I really just wanted to see what would happen next.
“Are you okay?” I asked impassively, standing in the frame of the bedroom door.
He looked at me like I’d been stricken with lunacy. “Noooooo!” he warbled, hurling the old pager he’d found on the nightstand and barely missing me.
“Do you want to eat?”
“Can I get you anything?”
Getting out was the first part of this exchange that made any sense to me. Yes, I thought to myself. We’ll both feel better if we’re left alone.
“You sure?” I stupidly offered, even though I was already in the hallway.
He flung himself into his parents’ perfumed pillows and let his snot and tears soak into their 600-thread count. I shrugged and went down to the basement, where their only television was, flicked on some cable program and tuned the distraught toddler out.
This isn’t the only time I’ve done this. I have this occasional capacity for dulling undesirable noise until it’s no longer audible. It isn’t selective hearing, so much as very deliberate oblivion. For seconds at a time, I can also do this with pain, training my mind in a direction opposite the throb or the ache. I suppose we all can.
Eventually, the toddler exhausted himself and fell asleep. When his parents came home and asked how things had gone, I told them he’d cried for quite a while, but things were fine.
Ever since then, I’ve wondered if I’m some kind of selective sociopath, at least as it relates to children.
But none of that was the point of this essay.
This was about my decision not to be alone during winter break. I don’t know what I hoped to achieve. Though my mother, grandmother, and I always celebrate Christmas together (I’ve never missed one with them; this would’ve been my first.), we haven’t been particularly festive about it for several years now. We vary between having no tree or holiday markers at all, to one or two decorations–a glittering snowman lantern here, a greeting card tree on the far wall there. Sometimes, we don’t even wrap each other’s gifts, just deliver them matter-of-factly in their original store bag (receipt withheld, of course).
This year, Nana, Mom, and I went to the mall on the 23rd. Before we went, I wrote Mom a check.
“Merry Christmas,” I deadpanned.
When we got there, Nana fished two folds of bills out of her purse and handed five twenties to Mom and five twenties to me. “Buy yourselves something useful with this,” she implored.
It was a scary mandate. I was grateful, of course, for the gift, but teeming with anxiety about what I should produce. It was obvious she wanted to see the manifestation of our shopping at the end of the two hours we’d spend milling through the mall apart. I haven’t told her I’m pregnant yet. And I didn’t want to break it to her by returning with a bag from A Pea in the Pod.
It’s an unspoken rule that when Nana gives you money as a gift and asks you to buy something “useful,” you’re supposed to purchase a minimum of one clothing item. And you’re supposed to wear it–at least once–in her presence, so that she can give you a head-to-toe appraisal, then pass sartorial judgment. A small smile and an, “Mm-hmm” meant you chose well; an “Umph” and pursed lips meant she didn’t approve.
The second thing I did when the three of us split up, after a brief stop in Baby Gap* (which I never realized also housed their in-store maternity section, because I never had to), was head to the food court. I’ve had no pregnancy symptoms so far, except occasional pelvic pain and a voracious appetite. Hiding the latter has been tricky during this visit; I don’t really eat much when I’m home, lest someone semi-jokingly admonish me about how fat I’m going to get in my 30s.
I grabbed a slice of pizza from Sbarro and, upon finishing it, realized it had barely taken the edge off. Then I dashed off to Five Guys for handcut fries and a Minute Maid Light Lemonade. The food court was bedlam: clusters of unsupervised kids standing in long lines, trying to figure out if their parents had given them enough money for every sibling to Super-Size; teenage couples trying to conceal their last-minute gifts to each other, by stuffing small bags into larger ones.
And then there were the mothers: a West Indian couple with twin little girls, pushing a complicated double-stroller, overflowing with bags; a single mother, every two minutes, hefting a child on her hip and using the stroller seat for additional purchase-storage; the woman with the seven-year-old boy she’s half-ignoring, who keeps pressing into her leg and hip and lifting his face up to her, hoping for attention.
By the time a teen girl with no arms below the elbows stopped in front of my table to talk to a friend she hadn’t seen in a while, my eyes were veiled in water.
I detest strollers, from the doll-sized cloth ones that sag under the weight of a child who’s outgrown them to the $500 designer ones with two cupholders and a mesh basket on every side. I don’t want my seven-year-old son to be clingy; I also don’t want him to ever feel ignored. I don’t want my seventeen-year-old to be out here two days before Christmas spending his hard-earned McDonald’s salary on a Kay Jeweler pendant for a fast little girl who plans to dump him right after New Year’s. Will I build the arm strength to carry a two-year-old, so I don’t have to shove her into a pushing contraption her legs are too long for? Do I have the patience to let my child walk with me, without wanting to rush on without him? What if she’s super-materialistic and, despite my best efforts, I can’t break her of it? What if she has no arms? Can I afford the assistance we’ll need to prepare ourselves for managing a lifelong disability? What will I tell her about Christmas? Do I even want to celebrate this frenetic, grossly commercial, emotionally isolating holiday with my child? Can’t she learn to revere the birth of Jesus some other time of year? Will she hate me for bringing her into a family that doesn’t even bother with a tree or wrapping paper? ARE WE GOING TO HATE EACH OTHER?!
By the time my heart began to palpitate, I threw away what was left of the fries, headed into Sears, and purchased the digital photo frame I knew my grandmother wanted.
Just before meeting back up with her, I found a Nine West sweater dress in extra large that cost exactly half of the cash she’d given me. I had no idea how relieved that would make me feel until I bought it. I felt oddly accomplished. I’d talked myself down from yet another of what have become my semi-regular fear-of-the-future attacks. I could put off thoughts of outgrown ugly, pre-fab maternity wear a while longer and I wouldn’t have to endure a guilt-evoking speech about not buying a Christmas gift under two hours of pressure at the mall.
Maybe this was why I had come home for the holidays. For all my love of quiet and the bravado that worked to convince me I could handle a family-less Christmas, I know well that people are welcome distractions from the tireless churnings of my mind.
There’s something primal about coming home to this apartment three times a year. My grandmother has lived here since I was six. It’s a crumbling empire. The plaster is unsealed at several intersections of ceiling and wall. In the room my mother and I share, with its parallel twin beds, twenty feet apart, there are large brown water stains blooming on the eggshell paint overhead. Every fixture shows signs of decades’ wear.
But when I’m here, and I can hear my mother and grandmother tromping around with purpose, from kitchen to bathroom to piano to computer, I feel like a lioness safe in her cave.
Christmas itself was brutal. The day before, my mother had spent most of the evening out with her new boyfriend (a subject for its own essay, to be sure). But on the holiday proper, the three of us stayed here all day, ceaselessly together. I was characteristically quiet, working on a convoluted blog entry I decided not to publish and trying to stave off the expectation of a ringing phone.
Despite all signs to the contrary, I fully expected my ex to call me yesterday. For all our breaking up, we’ve never been on silent terms for holidays. Even when we’re feuding, one of us caves and calls the other, just to see how we’re faring, just to see where in time and space we are. The past few Christmases, I’ve baked his family tins of these cookies they love (a “Ranger Cookie” variant) and a day or two after receiving them, his mother calls me with a new story about how she, my ex, and his father fought over equal division of the confections and surreptitiously cheated each other out of one or two treats from their rightful share. We laugh and I say something geeky about being glad I was able to facilitate such mischief. We wish each other a great new year.
My mother’s phone rang practically nonstop yesterday, extended family from Michigan or her boyfriend on the other line. She laughed all day. Nana confined herself to the kitchen from sunup to sundown, taking her share of family and friend calls, too, while producing very little food for all her effort and none of her usual, hotly anticipated baked goods.
Around 10 pm, my mother asked to use my laptop and I responded passive-aggressively, even though I told her she could. She muttered once she’d taken it to the other side of the room, “… Funny-actin’ self.”
I lost it.
I’ve been here a week. I’ve another week yet to survive. The whole time, I’ve been managing my ex’s rejection. The whole time, I’ve been weighing the best time to break the news to my grandmother (whose years of mortifying bragging to extended family about my talents and degrees will finally prove as ill-advised as it always was and for her embarrassment at having to renege on her claims about how “responsible” and “mistake-proof” I seem to be, I’ll have to absorb criticism and blame). The whole time, I’ve been reading Mama, PhD and The Complete Illustrated Pregnancy Companion in abject terror.
And with just three hours left on the clock before I have to concede just how crappy a choice of partner I chose (… and chose and chose), my mother decides to mutter that I’m “funny-acting,” after taking away one of my few instruments of distraction, on a day where every elapsed hour has reinforced the loneliness of the path I’m selecting.
That did it. I flopped on my side, pulled the covers over my head and cried.
I try not to cry in front of my mother. Neither of us cry in front of Nana, if we can help it. We were raised in minimally touchy, minimally emotive environments. We are allowed our notable exceptions. But for the most part, decorum or the appearance thereof has always been a priority in this family.
Mom tried to coax me out of the covers with laughter and light teasing. She didn’t get it. I just tugged at the comforter tighter and tried to catch my breath. Nana, on the phone in another room, called out, “What are y’all doing in there?” And Mom quickly brisked, “Nothing. Nothing,” and and returned the seat where she’d taken my laptop. Luckily, my sobs weren’t audible. I was back to myself within the hour.
In retrospect, I realize how diametrically that moment mirrors my babysitting experience: all I could do in the face of inadequate comfort was pull myself into a cocoon of sheets and cry, while the person I’d hoped would know what to do in this situation decided the best recourse was to wait it out, while otherwise occupying herself.
Eventually, I fell asleep.
*There are few things in retail more annoying than Baby Gap, especially when you’re pregnant and haven’t quite found a way to be grateful or joyous about it yet.