[ Chapter 3 ]
Thursday / December 20, 2007
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to the second beginning of my story—the day I was assaulted by Santa Claus.
One of my favorite job perks as a self-employed graphic designer is that I have the ability to make my own schedule. Since I’m a night person by nature, I choose to do most of my work during the hours after the sun’s departure. With the support of my colleagues (Nick at Nite and Diet Coke) I can usually work well into the wee hours of the morning before making the short commute (about five seconds) from the desk to my bed, where I collapse into a deep sleep.
As a consequence, I rarely drag myself out of bed before two or three in the afternoon. That is, unless some inconsiderate soul decides to get my day off to a rotten start by rudely interrupting my beauty sleep—which is exactly what happened on the morning in question.
Just before noon (far too early for my taste) I was forcibly removed from a delicious dream involving myself, Justin Timberlake, and a deserted island by the shrill harmonies of Alvin and the Chipmunks. A few weeks earlier, a friend had sent me the rodents’ ringtone as a joke, poking fun at my overall dislike for the holiday itself. When I listened to it, two things immediately came to mind: (1) the sound makes me want to saw my own ears off with a butter knife and throw them out the window, (2) strangely enough, I feel the same way when I speak to my mother on the phone. Hence, it became her official ring on my cellphone. Like a lighthouse warning sailors of rocks ahead, the song serves to remind me that even on the days when I might feel a little homesick, my life could be at risk if I dare to pick up the phone.
After two choruses, the song clip came to a blissful end and the phone went silent. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried desperately to find my way back to that island. Just as I was starting to make out the chiseled outline of Justin’s broad shoulders against the white sand, Alvin and company started up again. Perturbed and frustrated, I unceremoniously snatched the vile phone off my nightstand, turned it to vibrate, and tossed it into a pile of dirty clothes on the floor.
In a moment of utter futility, I buried my head under the pillows and vainly called out for Justin to return, but it was too late. By then, a thousand tiny tendrils of sunlight had found their way through the makeshift curtains on my windows and had started to pry at the corners of my eyes. Worse, I suddenly realized that the temperature in my apartment was dangerously close to that of Mount Everest at its peak.
With great reluctance, I slid out of bed—taking the covers with me, of course–and begrudgingly crossed all ten feet of the arctic space that sometimes doubles as my tiny, but beloved studio apartment.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I bounced back and forth between two households that were constantly packed to the rafters with other people’s lives. I shared beds, rooms, bathrooms, and most of my personal space in general with a rolodex of people who may or may not have been family members.
In college, I spent my first two years living in a series of tiny dorm rooms with at least one other person, then two more years in a medley of cramped apartments with a wide assortment of roommates. You can therefore imagine how excited I was to find my own place after graduation. I put a deposit down on the very first piece of square footage I could afford on my own and for the first time in my life, discovered this thing other people call privacy.
While I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed getting to lay claim to a space that’s mine and mine alone, it hasn’t exactly been the peaceful, rewarding experience I thought it would be.
For one thing, my entire apartment is roughly the size of your average walk-in closet, but with half the charm. It is home to all six pieces of my used (and abused) furniture, a tiny kitchenette (slightly smaller than the Little Tykes kitchen playset I had as a kid), and the world’s loudest (and most unreliable) radiator. But it has two saving graces that made me fall in love with it in the first place–even if they are the traitors who also allowed the sun to invade my space so early in the morning.
In April, when I first looked at the place, the pair of six-foot, east-facing casement windows took my breath away. On that clear, spring morning I could just make out the broad expanse of the Charles River in the gaps between a few neighboring buildings. When the landlord told me I could open my windows in the summer and hear the announcer at Fenway, I started digging through my purse for my checkbook.
Of course, the landlord failed to mention how easily the frigid winter air would seep through the single-paned windows, or how much light the rising sun would cast into my cave at the break of dawn. You try finding cheap curtains or blinds that will fit windows that size. I don’t have the proper tools to put a curtain rod on a brick wall, so I had to resort to duck-taping a couple tablecloths to the top of the wood moldings instead. It’s not pretty, but it helps.
After making it across the icy wooden floorboards that morning, I gave the radiator a few swift kicks for posterity’s sake before digging my phone out of the dirty clothes pile and calling my super, Larry. He answered groggily on the third ring (Larry’s not much of a morning person either) and said he’d be up to fix the radiator later (which in Larry-speak means sometime next week). I hung up on him and turned my grumpy attitude on my unwitting coffee maker. When the necessary components were in place, I turned the machine on and started the detailed process of getting myself ready for a shower.
With great bravery, I put my life on the line in exchange for comfort by setting up my small space heater in the corner of the bathroom (keep in mind that my entire bathroom is smaller than most handicap stalls in public restrooms). I turned on the water and waited impatiently for it to get hot. Knowing how fickle the water temperature can be, I swiftly jumped into and out of the stream like a skilled double-dutch participant before it could turn me to ice.
As I faced myself in the mirror, a loosely wrapped towel tucked under my arms, I made my daily assessment of all the ways in which I could not genetically disassociate myself from my family. I have my mother’s hair (her natural hair, I should say), which is something between a dark blond and a light brown color. It has a shape that could be called wavy on a good day and wildlife habitat on a bad one. My father’s eyes, a dark hazel with tiny flecks of gold, are set beneath Nana Jane’s eyebrows–high-arched and medium thick. My small, rounded nose with its slightly up-turned tip belongs to Judge (though mine is thankfully a miniature version of his). My lips, naturally a dark pink and closer to full than thin are Paula’s (but minus the coral lipstick she’s so fond of). The tiny cleft and low profile of my chin is a mirror of my Grandpa James.
Every time I wonder if I could be so lucky as to have been separated from my real parents (some blissfully normal, sane couple with no other children) at birth, I look at my reflection and reluctantly see the map of my own family history played out on my very own face.
That settled, I assembled a small army of hair products and tools on my bathroom counter. Like a lion tamer wielding a chair and a whip, I managed to corral my shoulder-length mane into something acceptable for going out in public.
Thirty minutes after I went in, I emerged from the bathroom feeling like a new woman—albeit a new woman who was still wearing last night’s pajamas and wrapped up in a queen-size IKEA bedspread.
Back in the kitchen, I poured myself a fresh mug of coffee and plugged my last frozen waffle into the toaster. Unfortunately, the toaster decided my morning (or early afternoon) was going too smoothly, and therefore decided to turn my waffle into a piece of worn leather. Instead, I had to settle for Apple Jacks and water (I made a mental note to pick up some milk, more waffles, and a new toaster at the store). With breakfast finally under control, I stepped from the kitchen into the living room (separated by three wooden floor boards) and gave a cheery greeting to my roommate, Fred.
Just to be clear, Fred is a soccer ball-sized stain on the arm of my Goodwill couch that, in a certain light, sort of looks like a smiley face. He’s kind of like my little man in the moon, only his expressions are captured in a brown circle of indiscriminate substance and unknown origin on my faux-leather surface.
Fred also happens to be my best friend.
I turned the TV on, checked the clock, and felt my heart flutter when I realized Fred and I were up just in time for Lifetime’s lunchtime showing of mine and Fred’s favorite show, The Golden Girls. It was, of course, one of the Very Special Christmas episodes that always relays the same message about love and peace over presents and candy. There were funny parts filled with laughter, as well as touching moments when Fred and I both found ourselves in tears.
Just as the episode ended and I started to hand Fred a tissue, I realized that I hadn’t been out of my apartment in almost a week. Since I work from home, I have no daily motivation to exit my apartment, which might just be the best perk of my job.
But every few weeks I am blindsided by the sudden fear that I might be turning into an agoraphobic. In all fairness though, I must say that it is very easy to convince yourself that staying inside for days (and sometimes weeks) at a time is totally acceptable in a busy city with an average winter high temperature in the teens. Why face the bitter strangers and bitter cold if you don’t have to?
I glanced over at Fred for moral support, but he just smiled at me in that hapless, hopeless way he always does. Usually, I know I’ve been inside too long when Fred starts to talk back to me. On the morning in question, Fred was still maintaining his admirably monastic silence, however I felt I was close enough to the edge that I needed to get myself out of my apartment before things took a turn toward padded walls and heavy medication.
Besides that, I was up before three o’clock, had breakfast, coffee, a shower, and had even blow-dried my hair! How could I waste such accomplishments on Fred and my indoor plumbing?
Jeans, a jacket, three pairs of socks, two sweaters, a scarf and a knit cap later, I shuffled out of my apartment and into the icy streets of Boston. I briefly debated my transportation options—walk, take the bus, ride the T—and chose the bus. The stop was nearer to my apartment building than the T and generally less crowded, especially in the middle of the day.
Of course, waiting for a bus in the cold is not very pleasurable. I’ve lived in Boston for five years, but I still can’t get away from my sandy, flip-flops roots. By the time a bus finally came up Commonwealth headed in my direction, I had started to develop icicles on the end of my nose (which was one of several extremities that I could no longer feel). In a largely ungraceful manner, I shuffled up the steps into the warm bus and assessed my seating choices in a quick fashion. There were two open chairs–one in the back, next to someone who could have passed for Charles Manson’s long-lost cousin and one closer to the front, next to a blue-haired lady in a purple, knit hat and matching sweater set.
As I plopped down in the chair beside her, the old woman’s wrinkled face broke into a bright smile. Beneath the lip of the cap, her emerald eyes sparkled as she offered me an exceptionally cheery Merry Christmas greeting. I returned the sentiment with equal zest and sincerity, thinking maybe my day wasn’t doomed after all. It’s rare to find someone who is both kind and sane on the city bus (which is another reason I prefer staying indoors) so I felt quite grateful.
“Where are you headed?” The old lady asked me. Her warm smile melted away all the ice on my nose.
“To the mall,” I replied. “I’m going to brave the crowds and do a little last-minute Christmas shopping. And you?”
“I’m going to my grandson’s house,” she said cheerfully.
“That’s great.” I settled back in my seat and turned my eyes ahead, content with our succinct, casual conversation. My new friend, apparently, was not feeling the same.
“I have seventeen grandchildren,” she announced. “And I can name every one of them in order of when they were born!”
“That’s…great,” I said again, with less enthusiasm. I prayed she wouldn’t think I was calling her bluff. Unfortunately, she was already fumbling for her purse, trapped beneath the heavy overcoat in her lap. She extracted a billfold stuffed with pictures as I gazed longingly back at the Manson cousin.
“First, there’s Eric,” said the blue-haired lady. She directed a gloved pointer finger at the photo of a teenager in a members only jacket. “He was born in August of nineteen seventy-one and he lives in California….” she paused, “…or is it Connecticut?”
I decided to change my strategy.
“It sure is cold today isn’t it?” I rubbed my hands together for emphasis. At least if I couldn’t get her to shut up, I thought I might be able to get her off track.
“Yes, it is.” She nodded and let the billfold sink into her lap. Relief passed over me as though she’d just lowered a gun from my head. She stayed quiet just long enough for me to think she was done, but it turned out she was just catching her breath.
“It’s colder where my second grandson, Joshua, lives. He’s in Colorado…” she paused again “…or is it Costa Rica?” The billfold came back to life as she flipped ahead a few pages to a girl with crimped hair affixed to the side of her head by an enormous bow. “Then there’s Penny…” (pause) “…or is that Jill? I think it’s Penny. She lives in…well, it’s right by…hold on, I’ll think of it in a minute…”
I sat up straighter in the chair and silently cursed myself for not bringing my iPod. (of all the roles the iPod can play, social barrier is my personal favorite). Fortunately, right at that moment, I felt the gentle vibration of my cell phone from inside my coat pocket. I was so excited to drown out the babbling of the old lady I didn’t even glance at the caller ID before answering it. Big mistake.
“It’s about time!” My mother shouted in my ear. “I was starting to think you were avoiding me!”
“I was,” I told her with a heavy sigh.
“Well, Merry Christmas to you, too,” she quipped. “Can’t a mother just want to catch up with her favorite daughter whom she never, ever hears from? Not even an e-mail or a text message or anything?”
“We both know that’s not why you’ve been trying to hunt me down,” I muttered. My elation at being relieved of my duty to listen to the old woman’s list of third generation spawn was fading quickly.
“Alright, have it your way,” my mother said defiantly. “I’ll get right to it.”
“I want you to come home for Christmas.”
“Oh, gee, let me think about that one,” I counted out five seconds in my head, as though I were actually contemplating the offer. “I’m going to have to go with…no! Now aren’t you glad we got that out of the way? What else is new?”
“Bailey, please,” my mother insisted, her voice softening. “This is getting ridiculous. It’s been four years.”
“So?” I asked her. “Is there a law that says you can’t spend more than three Christmases away from your family?”
“Maybe there’s a rule in this family that you can’t,” she snapped. “You know all of your brothers and sisters are coming home for the holidays. It’s the only time of year that everyone gets together!”
“Good for them.”
“Bailey! Why does this have to be such a touchy subject?”
“Oh, please, Mother,” I said. “You know exactly why!”
We both paused to break the tension and allow the words that we couldn’t say to peter out in the sound waves somewhere between Florida and Massachusetts.
“Honey,” she continued in an almost whisper, “we would really love for you to come be with us for Christmas.”
“I appreciate that, but I have plans here with my friends, okay?”
That wasn’t exactly true. Two weeks ago I’d bumped into a girl I used to work with at Starbucks who extended me an invitation to her Pimps & Ho’s Christmas party. I politely told her I’d see if I could make it, even though I knew my only Christmas Eve plans involved Fred and a bottle of wine.
“You can see your friends anytime,” my mother insisted. “This is the time of year for visiting with your family.” She emphasized the last word like it was special.
“Right. And if I came to visit you people, would you pay for the therapy I would need when I left?”
“Bailey, please.” She said again, like “please” was my middle name. In my mind, I could picture her sitting at the glass table on the back deck of her oceanfront estate, probably sipping on a mid-afternoon cocktail and sucking on a cigarette. After the last “Bailey, please” she would have put the cigarette down and raised her hand to rub her temples. I have that effect on her.
“I’ve already said my peace, what more do you want?” I asked her.
“I want to see my daughter!” She released her temple and slammed her open palm against the glass table. I heard the tinkle of the ice in her glass as it jumped off the surface. “I want to catch up on what’s going on in your life! I want to know if you still like your job! I want to find out if you have a boyfriend or…or a girlfriend–”
“Mother!” I hissed.
“Well, I don’t know! How can I know these things when you keep all of us in the dark down here?”
“Okay, fine. Consider this my Christmas present to you: My life involves working from home all day and occasionally going out to dinner with friends. I still like my job just fine. And yes, I have a boyfriend. His name is Fred.”
Beside me, the old lady flipped ahead a few pages in her billfold and pointed at a chubby, brown-haired kid with dark-rimmed glasses and a tuba.
“That’s Fred,“ she said. “He lives in New York…or is it New Hampshire?” “Fred?” My mother asked incredulously. “What kind of name is that? Is he cute? What does he look like?”
“He’s kind of brown…maybe a little yellow. But he has a great smile.”
“Brown? Yellow? Is he biracial?”
“Well, why don’t you bring him down and introduce him to the whole family!”
“I don’t think they’d let me bring him on the plane,” I told her honestly. Not to mention the fact that poor Fred would certainly lose his illustrious smile if I dared to expose him to my family.
“He’s fat isn’t he? One of those people who’d have to buy two seats or else spill over on somebody else, right?”
“Look, Mom, as delightful as this conversation has been, I’m really ready for it to be over.” I started to gather my things as the bus drew close to my stop. “I really appreciate the offer, but I’m not coming home for Christmas. End of story.”
With my purse on my shoulder, I sat and waited for the final blow. Our holiday ritual wouldn’t be complete without the closing argument. It was the very reason the rest of my family turned to my mother after all of their e-mails, voicemails, text messages and Facebook posts went unanswered. Elizabeth Jane Bailey Hamilton Danforth is known for a lot of things, but she is famous for only one.
“You know,” she began softly, pausing to take a puff of her cigarette, “Your little brothers and sisters really miss you. Eli was just asking about you this morning. He’s almost eight years-old now.”
And there it is. My mother is a licensed travel agent for guilt trips.
“I know how old he is, Mother. Time passes the same in Boston as it does in St. Augustine.”
“But you haven’t seen him since he was four!” She added, trying to build her momentum. “He’s grown up so much you probably wouldn’t even recognize him! And you know, Taylor came over the other day. She and Maggie spent the whole afternoon talking about how much they wish their big sister would come home for Christmas.”
Just to be clear, Taylor is my half-sister on my dad’s side and Maggie is my half-sister on my mother’s side. By a weird twist of small town fate, they wound up in the same kindergarten class and have not been separated since. They are fifteen now and though it has been nearly a decade since I was that age, I seriously doubt that when the two of them get together they spend a whole lot of time talking about me.
“Look, you can lay that stuff on me all you want, Mom,” I told her confidently. “It’s not going to change my mind. Besides, I’ve already put their presents in the mail and we both know that’s the only thing they really want from me.”
I stood up as the bus pulled to a stop in front of the mall.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, please, I’ve got to go.”
“Hold on, Bailey,” she pleaded again. The ice tinkled once more, this time louder. She was taking a drink, garnering her final bit of gusto for the icing on the cake. This was the moment when my mom usually slipped from subtle guilt to flagrant bribes. It’s like our own little version of “Deal or No Deal.” Over the last three years, the banker’s offer had gone up from a diamond bracelet to a seven-day cruise to a brand new car. This year I was hoping for cold hard cash, possibly in the high five-digit range.
“There is one other thing…” she said softly. I tried not to think about the kind of apartment I could get with a hefty chunk of tax-free change. “I really hate to bring this up, but you know your grandparents are getting very old and frail. Who knows how much longer they’re going to be around…for all we know, this could be their last Christmas.”
My feet hit the sidewalk and stopped moving so suddenly that the guy behind me nearly knocked us both to the ground. As I stepped out of his way, I tried to close my mouth, but just couldn’t get it around the new rotten apple my mother had thrown out.
Beside me, the bus pulled away from the curb. I turned my gaze up and found myself staring at the blue-haired lady in the window as she slid out of sight.
“That’s really low,” I said quietly. “Really, really low.”
“It’s the truth, honey. You never know about these things.”
“Bailey, wait! I can write you a check!”