Christmas at the Sawyers
Comin’ on Christmas, people decorating their trees. I printed out my newly finished manuscript I had dedicated to Veronica and jammed it into the backpack I wore across midtown Manhattan as I made my way to Port Authority to catch a Greyhound home. One of those slate-grey, nondescript buses down the Jersey Turnpike blur the spindly trees along the side of the highway, all the way back to my hometown by way of connections and cars, at which point I called Veronica to ask if we could meet up, because I had a serious surprise for her. I guess she could hear in my voice how eager I was to see her, and perhaps even that I had specific reasons for being so eager. She told me she didn’t have much free time, but I could attend Christmas Eve mass with her family.
Perhaps that’s the most you need to know about Veronica: not that she is beautiful, though she is; nor what she studied; nor what she’s accomplished since college; nor any other thing, because perhaps nothing will tell you so much as that Veronica Sawyer is the kind of girl for whom you attend Christmas Eve Mass at midnight. It’s the crowded mass, full of not just the fervent but also all the people who go to church solely on Christmas and Easter. I can’t tell you I was among the faithful; by then, I’d swung closer to agnostic, which was a major step in my own spiritual evolution—finally accepting that I didn’t know all the answers was slightly out of character for me. I had grown up attending Catholic schools but had transferred out on the first day of my junior year, after which I’d swung hard enough the other way that other people might call it over-compensating, filling my days and studies with classes about cold, hard, rational science and the kind of philosophical discussions that excluded God in favor of morals and “quality.”
But Veronica told me I could meet her at the mass and then return, with her, to her family’s house, where she and Tom would be up until the wee hours, wrapping presents over hot chocolate and Christmas tree cookies. I wrapped the manuscript folder I’d bought in my mother’s leftover wrapping paper and set it on the front seat of my car as I drove to the church and then, afterward, her house.
“Is this the big surprise?” she asked when she saw it. We were sitting in her family’s living room, her tree to one side, the cream-colored carpet littered with wrapping implements and the sorts of gifts you get from Marshall’s and L.L. Bean.
I offered it to her. “Sure is.”
When she took it, her hands moved like it was heavier than she had expected. She hefted it, considering it, then, “I think I might know what this is.”
“Not for sure until you open it.”
“Should I open it now?”
“I wish you would. I’m dying to find out.”
She chuckled as she tore aside the badly taped paper, which fell away to the floor, leaving nothing but the folder in her hands. It was a clear, plastic, accordion-type number, full of nothing but a bunch of typing paper. If I could have gotten it bound for her, I might have, but technology had not then advanced so far as it has today.
She turned the folder in her hands and read the title, then, “A novel.” When she smiled, there seemed to be at least a little excitement in it, the sort you feel when your favorite musician puts out a new CD or you finally get the ticket to a movie you’ve been looking forward to for months, and I’ll tell you, as feelings go, there’s nothing quite like that one. “Is this what I think it is?”
“That depends. If you think it’s a copy of the next Harry Potter manuscript, unfortunately not. If, on the other hand, you suspect it’s a manuscript of the novel I finished over the past few weeks, mainly because you told me to, well, then, yes, it is.”
Her eyes lit up as she hugged me. “Oh, that’s so awesome! See, I knew you could do it.”
I couldn’t respond, too distracted by the sudden tangibility of her body against mine, not in a sensual way—not in the feeling of her curves against me, though there was that—but rather her weight, her tactility, so close to me I could feel, as I returned her hug, first the soft give of her big, fuzzy sweater and then the warmth and solidity of her body. Fine strands of her hair against my cheek, and she smelled like Christmas cookies, all sugar and vanilla.
I clutched her as I regained my voice, then, “Well, that makes one of us.”
“This is so great,” she said as she pulled back—I gave up that moment in my life with reluctance, like a kitten claw-clinging to a cardigan. “When did you finish?”
I shrugged. “It’s still pretty fresh.”
“So this is a first draft?”
“Pretty much. Which means it’s rough. There are probably spelling mistakes. But I’m still dying to know what you think.”
“Coincidentally, I’m dying to read it.”
“Unfortunately,” I told her, “What with paying rent in advance and not having a job, I wasn’t really able to get you, like, a real present—.” Because really, the damned thing was most of a ream of copy paper jammed into a plastic folder, which is, as we used to say back in college, kind of ghetto fabulous.
“Are you serious? This is awesome—.”
“But there is a surprise for you, on the first page.”
She turned the folder over and nearly tore it open, pulled it close to her as she withdrew a page, turning it over. “Looks like a pretty plain first page to me.”
“That’s the title page. The next page is the first one.”
She smiled. “Right. Title page. The one with the title. Which I like, by the way.”
“Really? I’m not thrilled with it. I just stuck it on for the time being until something better comes along. I mean, ‘All Our Yesterdays’? Sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it?”
“They’ve lighted fools the ways to dusty death—.”
I laughed, surprised she’d picked up that it was a phrase from The Tragedy of Macbeth—
Tomorrow and tomorrow
creeps at its petty pace from day to day
until the last syllable of recorded time,
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way
to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player
who struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.—
and I told her so.
“Are you kidding? It’s one of my favorite plays. I came this close to doing my thesis on Shakespeare, rather than Ionesco. Still, I can see what you mean about its sounding like a soap opera title, at least if you don’t have the context for it.”
“Exactly. I was just thinking about seeing it on the shelf, and ‘All Our Yesterdays’ just didn’t have to it the ring that I’d want, you know? But regardless, next page.”
She pulled that one out, too, eyes scanning down the page, until they squinted with the sort of familiarity that crosses with recognition of one’s own name, and when she saw it, her finger traced along the page, in her gesture nearly a reverence.
Having been raised Catholic but then diverging from religion to favor science like a cane to support the favored leg of my faith, I’ve wondered, often, about the nature of Heaven. I learned for many years the world of saints and sinners and pearly gates, Saints Peter and Francis and Gabriel, even a Purgatory in which waited desperate souls who hoped for fervent prayers in their own names, the accumulation of enough of which would get them past those aforementioned Gates, where the aforementioned Peter was the bouncer. Over the years, however, that became less believable to me, especially when I read a theory that Heaven is merely an instant that comes at final moment of one’s life, so close to the end that sense of time and space would have already been irrevocably lost, which makes that instant technically last forever. I don’t know if I believe that one, either, but if it is the case, I would have given anything to have Veronica’s slender finger tracing reverently along that white page I’d dedicated to her be my eternity.
She read and then looked at me, smiling, reflections of the fire and the tiny bulbs on the Christmas tree flickering in her deep green-brown eyes, and I took my last thought right back. Forget those fingers on that page; if my Heaven wasn’t Veronica’s eyes, I didn’t want to go.
“To me?” she asked. “But I don’t—.”
“You helped me out more than I might ever really be able to tell you, Veronica. Between getting me to start writing again in the first place, and then supporting me when I did—I don’t think I could have finished it without you. You didn’t need to say or do anything for me to know you were there, and it made all the difference.”
She looked at the page again, smiling still with recognition and (I like to think) some small degree of honor, and then she hugged me again. “It truly was my pleasure,” and then she pulled back, turned and pulled a package from her sofa. “And now I’ve got one for you,” she told me, handing it to me. “It’s not much—.”
But I was already tearing into it. I’m not good about presents; I want to know what they are yesterday, and the excitement always gets to me. I know some people who can open a gift so carefully they can reuse the paper, and I just don’t get it. Tearing the paper away revealed a plain white box with a tape-secured lid, and I slid my fingernail along the lip to sever it, then opened it to reveal tissue paper, under which I found nestled a picture frame of plain wood. Within that frame: a black pictogram of the word “dream” in Japanese.
Dead in my tracks would be one thing, so how about this: consider again the night I got my tattoo in the Village—the neon subway blur of Scotch-Sprite and hot mustard grease, enough movement and verve to make your eyes feel as gritty as the City itself and your teeth feel like asphalt, the sort of night that spins you right round so hard you haven’t any other choice besides holding on for dear life for as long as you can until finally you find your way to that glorious orange seat, where you sit in a daze as the night sprints sideways toward onrushing dawn—and now imagine mainlining all those hours in the span of a single breath. Imagine smoking that night like a cigarette, quick burn cut through clear air, or perhaps even better, imagine touching that night like a livewire, that sudden, nearly eviscerating shock through your whole system that you just know is going to leave you tingling for hours afterward.
“Do you like it?” she asked. “I know it’s not much, but I saw it in the window of this shop in the mall, and it made me think of you, so I just had to get it. I hope you like it.”
“It’s—,” I said, but I stopped, because I didn’t know how to tell her what it was without relaying the whole Scotch-tinted story, beginning to end, and so I did, and then I opened two buttons on my shirt to show her my tattoo.
“No way,” she said. “And when was this?”
“Like a week ago?”
“That’s when I saw this in the mall. That’s so funny!”
I nodded. Funny was certainly one word for it, I supposed. I couldn’t think of any others, but I was reasonably certain they were there.
“Anyway, if you’ll excuse me a minute,” she hoisted that folder into the crook of her hip as she rose, “I’m going to put your book away before it gets crazy around here. Don’t want anything happening to it. Be right back.”
With that, she left me to sit dumbstruck in her living room, still staring down at the frame she had given me, at the Japanese character on that parchment paper the color of cigarette-stained teeth. I thought again of the character over my heart, and I thought of synchronicity. Many people believe in signs and ascribe higher meanings to events either largely coincidental or completely random, movements of stars and the positions of cards in decks, but standing there, in Veronica’s living room, staring down at her gift to me, I understood that position if only because I wanted to give it more meaning than it probably held. I wanted it to mean that our destiny was shared, that we were meant for each other in the way of soul mates, and mostly that she had greater, deeper, and more romantic feelings for me than she ever really let on. So absorbed, in fact, was I in those couple of characters and my own thoughts, as if I might will them real, that I didn’t look up until I heard Tom bumble into the room, arms laden with packages he could just barely see over, which is saying something considering that Tom is a tall guy with long arms.
“’Sup, bro,” he asked as he brought his packages to the tree, where he set them down, pulling a medium-sized giftbag from the top as he stood. He offered it to me.
I blinked, clearing my head, and took the giftbag automatically. “What’s this?”
“Funny thing. Apparently, a small but dedicated population of individuals has begun a tradition of exchanging with each other small tokens of material appreciation aroundabouts this time of year. They even have this weird name for said tokens, which they call ‘gifts.’”
“You—you got me a Christmas present?”
“Christmas! That’s the name those people gave their quirky tradition! So you’ve heard of it.”
I wanted to laugh but: “I—I didn’t have a chance to—.”
Tom waved his hand in dismissal. “Ah, but it is in giving that we receive, so why don’t you just shut your damned mouth and open the damned thing?”
I set Veronica’s present on the couch and opened the bag, which was stuffed with enough black tissue paper to choke a Goth. I found a CD, its cover a child’s crayon-scribble of a band on stage—with tiny notes dancing out of each instrument—on which was scrawled what I assumed was the title. “Music we done played?” I asked as I turned the case over, scanning the back, but there was only a crayon-scrawled track listing. “Never heard of them.”
“It,” Tom said.
He nodded. “It’s a CD.”
“Yes, thank you, Captain Obvious. So that’s the title? Or is that the band?”
“They didn’t put their name on it?”
I turned the CD over again. “No, Tom, it doesn’t appear that they did.”
“Well, that seems rather foolish of them.”
“Only if they want people to know who done played their music, but yeah, a bit foolish, I’d say.”
“Only a bit foolish? I’d say a lot foolish.”
“Okay, a lot foolish.”
“Totally foolish, in fact.”
“Okay, totally f—,” I started to say, before finally I got his meaning. Which just goes to show: hey, me? Not the sharpest knife in the drawer sometimes, right? Because the CD? “Are you serious?” I asked, unable to keep the happy-for-him out of my voice.
“But also foolish,” he said.
“That—that’s awesome. When did—how did you—?”
“We just thought the gigs have been going well enough, and enough people have been showing up and actually dropping our name at the door, and Lord knows we had enough songs together already. So we all sat down, put our heads together, and Glen knows a guy who knows a guy whose sister cuts some other guy’s hair, you know how these things work, and suddenly we’re all sitting down in the studio, and in the general parlance of the classic rockstar vernacular, we start what they apparently call ‘laying down some tracks,’ and our schedules worked well enough around themselves that we had all the work done way more quickly than we really expected. We had a good time and made something we like, which is why that’s more an invitation than a present.”
“An invitation to some super-secret live show?”
“We’ve never done one before, but we heard bands like to call them ‘launch parties,’ so we thought we’d have one, too, and no, ain’t nothin’ super-secret about it. It’s going to be a week from last night, coinciding New Year’s Eve, because, we figure, what better way to celebrate a new CD and a new year than by getting a little foolish? Copyright and registered trademark Foolish the band, all rights reserved, et cetera but only ad nauseum if you drink too much at the gig.”
“Dude,” I said, because sometimes I’m so totally eloquent it’s jaw-dropping. I hugged him congratulations.
“Thanks,” he said. “So, you gonna crash here tonight, or—?”
“Oh, nah—is it—?” I hadn’t realized it had gotten so late, but I looked at my watch to see it was getting on near three in the morning. “Wow. It is late, isn’t it? Yeah, I should get going.”
“Dude, it wasn’t a hint. You can totally stay.”
“Nah,” I told him as I shrugged on my leather coat. “Big day tomorrow.”
“Well. Today, technically.”
“You know, one year I was in college, I had this roommate who always said it wasn’t tomorrow until everyone had gone to sleep and woken up again, so it wasn’t Christmas until you woke up to presents under the tree. Which I think is kind of true, in a way.”
“Well, sure, if by true you mean factually inaccurate,” Tom said. “Come on, I’ll walk you out to your car.”
Cold outside, deep and dark and quick like a thief. The Sawyers lived on a cul-de-sac, and all the other houses were dark and still as Tom and I crossed his lawn, bone-grey in the light of the moon, to my car. Which was when I felt compelled to say: “I have to tell you, I think I might be falling in love with your sister.” I don’t know what compelled me to say it, to be honest: bro-code, perhaps, but either way I thought I should tell him before I pursued it any further—if, in fact, I intended to, and I wasn’t yet sure I did.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “I gathered. Congrats on the novel, by the way.”
“I’m just realizing it myself, and you gathered?”
“Don’t beat yourself up. You always were a bit slow on the uptake.”
“You think she knows?”
“I wasn’t sure you did.”
Tom shrugged. “Ronnie’s my sister, and you’re my best friend, and you’re both adults, so you’ll both work whatever’s going on between you out without my helping you along, and truth be told, given that she’s my sister and you’re my best friend, I’d rather it be that way. I really would rather have little to do with it.”
We’d arrived at my father’s car, which I was driving while in town as I no longer owned one, and I unlocked the door. “Fair enough,” I admitted, my breath a steam-plume in the air in front of me. “So you’re not going to say anything?”
“I’m fucking Switzerland here,” Tom said.
“Except without the knives and cuckoo clocks,” I said as I opened my car door.
“Don’t make me cut you.”
“I’ll see you next week. Merry Christmas,” I told him as I slunk down into my seat. I started the car, wincing at the squeal of a belt protesting so much effort demanded in such cold darkness.
“Awesome. See you then. Drive safe,” he pushed my door closed, slapped the roof of the car as punctuation as he walked away, back to his house. I considered honking but then realized I shouldn’t, given the late hour, and so I pulled away from the curb and started home.
Christmas morning 2006, a night long into sleep and still hours before dawn, dark so deep presents seemed a long way off. I turned on the radio to hear Robert Downey, Jr. gravel over Joni Mitchell’s “The River,” which is not really a song you expect to hear on Christmas, but it seemed to fit that car ride through a hometown that no longer seemed quite so familiar as it always had. I’d gotten used to the underground trains, rush hour like time-lapse in realtime, to a world that was always on, where the lights were always lit and the trains always ran and people always rode them; darkness that clear and deep can make you dwell on thoughts you otherwise might not even have. The street lights cast everything in paler shades of orange, and I didn’t pass anyone as I drove; there, in the darkness, the world didn’t seem to expect to wake up to presents and breakfasts and family. It seemed liked the world expected just another day to live and love and cry and die, just another day when life goes on like it always does, and the main reason that seemed so sad a thought was that it was so true.
Which I realize may sound melodramatic, but then again, I remember that car ride, wishing along with Robert for a river so long I would teach myself to fly. I remember thinking about Veronica, wondering if she might ever actually love me or if fraternal respect and admiration were the most I’d ever receive from her, and I also remember wondering if there was any way I could tip the scales in my favor. I wondered if there was anything I could do that would make her suddenly see me differently, if there were any way I could send her chocolates or save a cat or change the world that would make her stop and think that I was not only not the man she had thought but also a viable romantic prospect. I remember thinking of her hair and how I wanted to run my fingers through it, the thought of staring into her eyes while brushing my fingertips down her cheek or grazing them across the back of her neck just before I pulled her close to kiss her delirious lips. I remember thinking of the way she had smiled when she had opened my novel and wondering if there was any chance whatsoever I might one day kiss that smile.
I wondered what she would say if I told her. I remember thinking I had, once, but I also remember thinking that revelation had come what felt like ages before that Christmas morning, and there’s always a chance for things to change, isn’t there? I remember recalling that awkward conversation with her mother, the words of rejection and consolation, but I also remember wondering if those words might be different, those several years later.
I also remember knowing I wasn’t going to tell her. Not right then. Not yet. Because so long as I didn’t tell her, there was some hope. So long as I didn’t tell her I had fallen in love with her all over again, our relationship could exist in a state of the sort of quantum and romantic uncertainty that would have made Schrodinger bury his safe simply so that no one could ever open it—
(Erwin Schrodinger was a quantum physicist best known for a thought experiment involving a cat in a safe, a vial of poison, and a single atom with a known but unpredictable rate of decay, which would, upon decay, release the poison that would kill the cat. So long, he argued, as the safe remained closed, so long as the outcome remained unobserved, the cat existed in a state of uncertainty, observedly neither alive nor dead. I remember thinking, that night, that so long as I didn’t tell Veronica how I felt, our relationship could exist in that similar sort of uncertainty, neither actually romantic nor completely platonic, emotionally involved and intimately connected even if never physically consummated, and now I’m intruding on a parenthetical aside, so I’m going to take you back to that car ride)—
with Robert Downey, Jr., on the stereo and the world so dark and cold but yet so clear, knowing that I was falling in love and trying to enjoy the moment of it rather than worry about the consequences it might bring. I was trying to simultaneously avoid the thought that I should tell her how I felt and how much even just having that thought made me feel like a coward.
I didn’t know how she would react if I told her. I was fairly certain she wouldn’t tell me she never wanted to speak to me again for fear of the complications to our relationship my romantic feelings might have caused, but then again, I was also fairly certain she didn’t reciprocate those feelings I had. Which may sound diffident, but then again that’s just one of those things you just sort of know, isn’t it? Romance and attraction may both be nebulous enough that science and psychology still bend over backwards in their efforts to explain them, but that’s only because things like love and chemistry can’t be confined to either the laboratory or the classroom; half the fun is in the chaos, in barroom Brownian motion and the particle-wave of lust. We dismiss reason and logic for those calloused fingertips, that brilliant smile in an otherwise dim dive, those sweet eyes that tug you like you just don’t expect and can’t ever really fight. You know that moment—you’ve felt it mid-slug of lite beer, bottle raised to your lips and bubbles halfway down your throat, when the whole world has stopped on account of her laugh or his voice (or, let’s be honest, her butt or his chest, or vice-versa). You just sort of know those things, and I just sort of knew Veronica and I had the bright, clear warmth of sunshine on a beach, not the hot, slow burn of embers in the darkness.
So what was I to do?
Well, right then, I was to drive home. I was to park at my parents’ house and carry inside Veronica’s present tucked beneath my arm, if only because I have always felt that it’s better to concentrate on what is concrete in front of you than to expend too much effort on speculation.
I’m no longer exactly certain of that, but it’s what I told myself as I slipped my key in the door and let myself into the house in which I’d grown up. Comin’ home Christmas, so very different from comin’ home New York: the different scents, for one, mom’s homemade cooking and sugar cookies as opposed to the oddly neutral, gritty fragrance of the subway, but also . . . the home where you grew up always feels different from the home you make, even if you sometimes only realize it on Christmas morning long after the rest of the world has gone to sleep. It’s not just the scent, not just the different warmth, but trying to decide exactly why—is it the knowledge of your mother’s soft snoring a few bedrooms over? That you fall asleep in the same bed you slept in when you were a sophomore in high school?—is difficult at best. Sometimes, in fact, all you can really do is pull the blanket up knowing that Christmas morning is only a few hours away, and thinking all the while that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be in love, even if you’re not exactly sure how she would feel if she knew.
Laying there, in that same old bed, I thought again of D.H. Lawrence, he of perfect letters to particular someones, and something else he said: that desire is holy. Which it is, and which makes longing a state of grace.
And then I slept.
Well, that was better! A full-on chapter! But seriously, will our young narrator ever cheer up? And seriously, how great is RDJ?
Really, though, the big question is how badly do you want to meet Angus?
Come by next week. When Foolish launches “Music We Done Played,” and our young narrator meets the man–if that is what Angus is–who is going to change the story. And our young narrator’s life.
Of course, if you can’t wait that long, you can always pick up a copy for Kindle over at Amazon. Kindle is compatible with just about every device you can think of. Some people are reading Meets Girl on their phones.
While you’re over at Amazon, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Sparks, the Kindle-exclusive collection from Simon Smithson and me that’s currently burning up the Amazon short story bestsellers charts!
December 21, 2010 at 3:36 pm
Hi Will – could you email me when you have a chance? Thank you.