Editors Note: This is an excerpt from an in-progress novel. It is dark and was selected to convey a range of emotions. This was done in a single take, and has received only a cursory edit.
Somewhere in life I developed a habit of running. I don’t mean going out with sneakers on and catching the wind as I make my way alone on a trail, but the habit of just running out the door when things start to hurt. I’d felt all the pain I wanted to ever feel by fourteen. As a teen and even as an adult, when friendships got too painful, I simply walked away. Relationships were harder – nothing is harder than sleeping alone when you’ve grown used to arms around you– but even then, I somewhere subconsciously (and I knew wrongly) decided that running away is easier than working through solvable human problems.
I don’t want to walk away from Bryan. But I don’t want to go home to him either.
So I drive.
Racing through the White Mountains in a smart car I share time on with others, I wonder what has possessed this visitor to reach out to me. The part of me that has been taught to fear strangers worries that maybe I am walking into rape or murder or both, but then decides, in the depressive way it sometimes deals with things, that it doesn’t really care about those probabilities.
I want to live dangerously tonight. I wanted to feel fully alive, and to feel something other than hurt.
But probably not.
I am terrified to be alone again. But Christine is right, and I hate her for it right now. I can’t marry Bryan.
But I also can’t afford to be unstable right now. It takes energy to look at my email, to see the too-many messages, and tell myself, “You’re just depressed. Life is good. Just work through it.” It takes energy to put on a smile, and be the leader I need to be, when all I want to do is stop. Just stop and hide from the world.
All my life there has been this pressure – to be someone – and I know how to be the person I need to be academically, but I have no role model for how to be a friend, for how to be a lover; I have no understanding of how to let myself be loved.
And I know this.
But knowing does not make the problem easier to solve.
I feel sometimes like two people: my body knows its role in this dance and it feels and it flows, and it forms connections that touch my heart to the heart of another. I know how to rest in the arms of friendship and in the embrace of more than friendship. But my mind; it never learned how to relax, to turn off, and to simply be. It fires in rapid succession its hopes and fears, both locking me behind walls and releasing my heart to get hurt as it sits too much exposed.
Luckily, I have a career that asks me to think, to create, to write, to make, and to always always be on. The worse I feel inside the more focused I can be on my work, up until the point when I break. Then, for a few months I disappear inside myself, and I simply go through the motions of what is required. It’s been a long time since I broke, but I feel the early warning signs. I need to find something to latch on to – something to captivate me and distract me from my parents and from Bryan and from even myself.
I don’t know where I’m going. I didn’t bother to see where the directions ended. I just set the cell phone with its vocal GPS on the seat beside me and listened as it told me to turn left in 100, 50, 10 feet.
I don’t know where I’m going as I drive away from St. Peters and from Bryan and from a dinner that I know would have lead to discussions of the upcoming weekend in Vermont – the meeting of parents where I’m sure he hoped to say…
I can’t accept that future. As I wind up the mountains, I realize I can love him, and that I may always love him, but all I will ever do is hurt him as he slowly stifles me.
Its Christmas in just 10 days.
I hate Christmas.
I sometimes think the earliest signs of my mother’s insanity began to emerge with Christmas Eve the year I turned 5. In the high pressure month of December she took on the world cooking frenetically, trying to be some angel of Christmas Giving as she bestowed baked goods and packages of pastries on any who came too near. The paperboy, the building super, the men at the firehouse down the street – they all got their gifts of goodies in a moment orchestrated to endear.
When I was five, she filled the house with ginger people, dressed in their holiday best. It was like Sesame Street’s “The People that you meet in the neighborhood” had taken on cookie form. Loading up her painted village of frosty goodness onto a platter, she sent me from the stoop to the firehouse, but I couldn’t quite balance the load. I tried to walk, to carry them, to balance them, and to somehow move forward all at once. I can still see in my mind, as I carefully tried to be good. I can still see how the doggie cookie fell, shattering on the sidewalk. I remember looking back at her as she just shook her head at me. I kept walking. I, at 5, already wanted to make her proud. That was the mistake. I kept making that mistake. I still make that mistake with others. I walked with my too heavy, too unwieldy load, and then the Flower Lady followed the dog to the sidewalk. Then my mother was on me, taking the plate from me and asking me why I just couldn’t behave – why I had to be so careless instead of concentrating on a simple task.
But I was five.
And now I’m thirty and that moment still hurts.
And I didn’t believe in Santa, not even then, but I did fear the Christmas tree.
I’m not sure if I ever thought Santa was real. The juxtaposition of the birth of Jesus and some fat guy from the north pole never seemed quite right, and the church of magic of my childhood seemed more real than any Rudolph. I’d play at believing, as I dutifully hung Christmas ornaments on the part of the tree I could reach. I’d play at believing as I left cookies on the hearth in front of Jesus’s manager, as I was told Santa would pray before the Holy Mother and Blessed Baby before leaving his gifts for me. I’d played at believing when I was five. And then, after mid-night mass, I went to bed and listened as my Father, loud and a bit drunk, ate the cookies and wrapped my gifts, and asked my mother how much longer she thought I’d believe. In Santa or in Jesus, I’d wondered. I knew the word Atheist. But what was the word that said I didn’t believe in Santa?
On Christmas morning, I was bound by tradition to stay in my room until someone came to get me. On fear of punishment I made not a peep, as I waited for them and their artistic hangover to rise and face the day. From 5 to 15, the years each ticked away the same. There we would be, we three and the tree, and the cold harsh truth of morning. For reasons I never understood, my Bohemian parents installed a sacred order to this sacred day. While bed times were fluid, and playtime involved free association of ideas and freethinking, this particular day that was so steeped in make-believe was regimented to the moment. I’d be tasked with handing out the gifts, asking for help reading the names that were written in handwriting while my mother made breakfast. If I finished before she did, we’d open our stockings (typically as the baked goods burned). After a brunch designed to treat the yearly holiday hangovers, my father would designate who got to open something, and that person would carefully pick a present to set the tone of the day.
We’d open gifts, and with each package he would take a photo, and she would write a name, and when we were done, she’d tally the list and proclaim a winner for Christmas Day. And then I’d flee, and he would flee, and she would fight the turkey in silence as gifts were hidden, removing the evidence that this had been anything other than an ordinary day.
But there was a tree, not letting us forget.
There were just two ways in which our flat would be decorated. There was the nativity scene on the hearth of our three-family walk-up. There was also the tree, always the same 12 ft fake fir that bent to fit itself into its not quit 12 ft high space. It dominated our living room, standing in its plastic strangled state, showing the signs of its age and the summers it spent in the basement. Some of its limbs were threadbare and some places on its metal stalk showed the shiny metal that should have be covered in flat green paint. It had been grandma’s tree, and now it was ours, and for 9 days a year it ate our living room. From Christmas Eve to New Years day it haunted us.
The tree would be decorated with lights; seven strands haphazardly hung in horizontal rows of color and transparency. They would blink on and blink off in erratic rhythms, like the tell tale heart had taken over the top top top of the tree tree tree, leaving me to try and block it out as I stared at the single solid bottom bunch of white unchanging lights. Always there was this mix – blinking and non blinking, color and no color – and always it made me think it was a monster, risen from its bitter cell in the basement, sent to ruin this break in the year. Even now, blinking Christmas lights give me the creeps.
We covered that horrible tree in strands of popcorn and cranberries, and the bugs we thought we’d gotten rid of for good would return each year by Boxing Day. By December 28 there would be roach traps taking the place of presents on the white sheet that masqueraded as a tree skirt. By New Year’s Eve my father and I were ready for it to be gone, and would avoid the living room as we waited for the Rose Parade to mark the moment tree removal could begin. Late night or not, the tree would be down by New Year’s lunch, packed away for the next season of dismay.
Christmas outside the house was all about giving gifts and good cheer. Externally we were the happy family with smiles and laughter. We’d go ice-skating on the Common, and get chocolates in Harvard Square. There were ruckus traditions for who we were outside our house. And things really weren’t that bad when I was small. There would be the art shows and fund raisers, and I would be the child among wine sipping adults, always encouraged to play.
But in our home, from the day daycare or classes closed until they re-opened, our life would be nothing but quiet. This was a time when my father never traveled, and when no friends were allowed. It was a time for family, and for no one else.
Like actors in a silent film, we’d go through the motions of our roles. Cards on the kitchen table and puzzles in my play area were the past times open to me as a small child. My father, he used the time to sculpt. Everyday he’d disappear to the garage we paid too much to rent away from the super. Everyday he’d come in cold with his hands crusted in clay. Everyday he’d draw more and more into himself as my mom painted, and cooked, and fought to find the perfect holiday gesture for the girl who did her hair.
On January second the embargo on the phone and on friends and on everything else would lift and life would resume. As a child, I always counted the days until school restarted on January second; never the days until school ended on December twenty third.
And now, as an adult, I find myself still dreading the holidays, still dreading the attempts at good cheer. I don’t know how I’ll face Bryan’s family; his normal apparently happy family. I dread the moment they ask, “What are your family’s traditions? What are your parents up to this year?” I don’t want to discuss it. I don’t even want to think about it.
But I can’t stop thinking about it. So I run.