He plans on flying in for Christmas simply because that’s the only day he has off. On Christmas there’s no expectations that he should be answering emails or field emergency calls. He wants more than anything else a clear window of time to negotiate his freedom once and for all.
His co-workers at the office Christmas party point out the evident flaws of his plan not the least of which is that he works too hard to deny himself this one day off. He declines the numerous and generous invitations to Christmas dinner. Instead he continues to perfect “the speech” that he’s been working since late October, probably since Halloween when daylight retreats and kids taunt the encroaching darkness.
Each day he fine-tunes the speech on his drive to work. He turns off the radio when he’s working particularly hard on it. There’s been roadwork on his way in. He’s used that extra time to sculpt his argument and the particular set of words he’ll employ like arrows to initiate the sale of their co-op, housing market be damned.
He imagines that they’ll sort through the books, the silly VHS film collection, the color-coded knick-knacks. Probably they’ll have great break-up sex as they polish off the Scotch they purchased together in Oban.
He wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s looking forward to Christmas, but he is hungry for resolution and a chance to vent.
Nothing goes as planned.
First off she offers to pick him up at the airport, saying it’s the least she can do. Naturally, all the weight she packed on during the last stormy year of their marriage is gone. Melted away. And she’s done something to her hair that he instantly recognizes as wonderful. She looks like the girl he fell in love with across the quad on that spring day.
They meet by the baggage claim. He bends down to retrieve his fairly empty oversized suitcase that he’s planning on using to transport all his goodies back to Atlanta when she swoops out of nowhere and kisses him lightly on his cheek. Right away she recognizes her mistake. His glare telegraphs his discomfort. She winces. Pulls back and gestures for him to follow her as she guides him to the short-term parking lot at O’Hare.
The sparks between them throws him off guard. Not for a moment does she believe that they’ll get back together nor is she angling for reconciliation. The kiss is simply her way of removing the sting, the bite of their break-up, as if to say — let’s pretend we’re good friends, old college chums who shared a rich past and have come together because we knew each other when we were younger.
She read a poem somewhere that it’s important to maintain the bonds of friendship from when you were young as those friends remind you of what you were like back then. She wants to explain this to him so that their holiday weekend together isn’t ruined by crossed signals, but instead he insists on paying the twelve-dollar fee for short-term parking and the moment is lost.
She pops her iPhone into the cradle and cranks up the music thinking he’ll enjoy the playlist she’s made just for him, for picking him up at the airport. They used to go to concerts together, it was one of the things they did back when they were a couple. They avoided the blues and jazz bars, zeroing in on the scarcer venues featuring indy rock. They discovered Phoenix, Radiohead and My Morning Jacket together before any of their songs hit the airwaves. They liked to think of themselves as trend-setters, taste-makers, the couple who are in the know in a city all about the blues.
Her ambitious kinda show-offy playlist reminds him that since they’ve broken up he’s stopped searching for new music. A crust has formed over his musical taste like snow icing in the sun. Seeing himself through the vantage point of his earlier self he recoils. The image is hardly flattering. By his former standards he is the essence of someone who’s given up, his zeal in music evaporated. His taste in vests and snappy shirts gone without a trace. They drive without talking. He’s listening to all the new tunes sounding vaguely familiar, building on a riff that he almost forgot.
At dinner they both drink too much. The food which she fretted over until she opted for a menu designed to underwhelm serves as the perfect neutral backdrop for the first round of negotiations. The food is essentially invisible. Not taking up too much psychic space but not insulting his refined tastes either.
He sleeps on the couch.
The next day, Christmas Eve they do the rounds and visit all his favorite places — the gallery where he had his one, count it, one show in the city…the coffee place where the baristas execute this exquisite ballet with the crème. They lose then find each other in his favorite bookstore and then wander over to the one place they both knew they would visit together — the jewelry shop.
It seems that every time they visit the shop, they’re interrupting the owner mid-meal. A short-waisted Indian woman, she wipes her lips, chews and swallows in quick small gestures as she waves hello with an air of familiarity. She walks them to the ring.
Points to it.
It’s still there.
Then she looks up and smiles, nearly the same smile each time. Saying, maybe almost promising them that she knows them better than anyone else. If she were American she might shoot them a thumbs up.
Seeing “their ring” still on display leaves him feeling disappointed. Clearly no one else has noticed the bright promise, the rough beauty of this vintage diamond with its ornate patterns. What if all the years they spent together can similarly be dismissed as a mistake, something that no one else considers valuable or beautiful?
He’s leaving tomorrow, Christmas Day, so they decide they really should “get to it”. Back at the co-op, the co-op under dispute, she cracks open the Oban and serves it on the rocks. They sip and circle around the living room marveling at what a fine and handsome life they led. She made reservations for two at a new foodie place a few blocks away. Quickly she adds, so that there won’t be any misunderstanding, they could grab a slice or something if eating dinner out will take up too much time.
I completely understand.
He’s intrigued. Great food is his soft spot. Above music, above the cool trendy outfits, he has a palate as verbal and exact as food engineer. He likes the place. Begins to relax and simply tell stories. Stories without an agenda, a point. He just tells the story for the pleasure of telling it.
Like finding the place in Chinatown that served rice casseroles. Tucked away from the wild traffic of the street, you enter a small storefront. To him this is a promising sign. But the food is a disappointment, a big bowl of rice with little grace notes of fat and protein. He tells her about these great t-shirts worn by the wait staff.
And there in the middle of the foodie restaurant he gives her the t-shirt. And it is great. The typeface is pure.
She’s feeling drunk and a little confused.
Back home in the dimly lit apartment, they make love. Falling into each other’s arms like old friends.
They open their hearts to each other. They are at their most vulnerable and tragic.
Neither says a word.
The next morning they woke up feeling shitty. Hung over. The blue light streaming in through her high windows is harsh. Too bright. Very unforgiving.
He glances at the time and knows he’ll have to do a fast slash and burn if he is going to make his flight. As he scans the bookshelves filled with his hefty art books, a flood of self-pity trips him up. What a way to spend Christmas Day.
While she makes coffee, he makes piles. Of books. Videos. Mementos of their life together. His favorite candlesticks. Cloth napkins, not the best ones but he doesn’t have any. It’s only fair.
With twenty minutes to go they sit down for “the talk”. He does most of the talking. He delivers a mediocre unfocused version of the speech. It doesn’t include the sweet set up he’s worked on while sitting in traffic. Nor the take-no-prisoners options designed to position his suggestions as reasonable.
They’re so engrossed in negotiating the piles of stuff and timelines that neither registers the severe storm brewing outside. Their glances are guarded and exact, moving like a metronome between each other’s eyes and the face of the clock inching around the circle.
He has to leave.
She said I’ll take you. But he declines. He has his exit line and he doesn’t want to confuse things by sticking around.
The exit line is something you don’t mess around with.
You’ve got to respect the exit line.
His line is “We had some great years together but now we’re both ready for something new. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see you from time to time. But for the love of God please sell the place. Without delay.” He kisses her on the cheek and rolls his considerable suitcase through the door.
At the corner the snow is so heavy that a car nearly slides right into him. There are no taxis on the street. No footprints leading to the subway. He rubs his blue fingers together, works his smartphone until he confirms his suspicions. Yes, the airports are closed. Yes, all flights cancelled.
Now what? The closest hotel is he doesn’t have a clue. There is no way to get to the airport. The corner diner is closed.
The weight of what he needs to do leaves him feeling a bit breathless. He has to ring on her door. Ask for shelter from the storm. What if she’s playing loud music and jumping on the couch with wild joy? She might just as easily open the door with red-rimmed eyes fighting back tears.
He doesn’t have a snappy line of dialogue or even a hint about what he’ll say. There is a brief moment where he considers just sitting in the lobby. It is after all away from the cold. He does happen to have a good book. Several actually. He could knock on the Super’s door if he needs a bathroom.
He presses her apartment buzzer. A voice crackling on the line asks “who is it?” When he tells her, the heavy front door unclicks and he swings it open.
Despite a momentary sense of defiance, his heart hammers loudly as the elevator takes him up to the ninth floor. It shudders between the third and forth. He prays for some kind of miracle, an electric outage, something that will stall the cabin and leave him with a great excuse for not making it all the way up to her to continue the awkward conversation post the exit line.
Conversation isn’t really the right word. The flaw in his plan is that he failed to factor in her response. The fact that she’d be sitting across from him, stirring sugar in her coffee. (when did she start putting sugar in her coffee?) Her feet tucked inside her fraying red slippers, the slippers he gave her three Christmas ago when he should have given her the ring.
He knocks on the door, a shave and haircut beat. Trying to sound jaunty, casual as if to imply a last minute, off the cuff visit.
She opens the door. Her eyes don’t give away much. She bows her head and steps aside to give him the space he needs to peel out of his winter coat and park the ample suitcase by the door.
She’s already in the kitchen reheating her coffee. He wanders into what is now her living room, the details he sees with sudden clarity. With his books gone, his keepsakes packed away, the place is clearly hers. What if what she is feeling now is relief?
The possibility is so vivid that the floor of his stomach drops away. He asks her if he can use her bathroom. It’s her bathroom now. He’s a guest. An outsider. Someone you hang up clean hand towels for in anticipation of their visit. She laughs telling him he doesn’t have to ask.
But he does. The boundaries are crisper now, at least to him. What if while he was rehearsing the speech all these months, his mind filling with the intimate details of how the sides of her mouth curl in a half-smile in response to bad news, she hadn’t given him more than a secondary thought? As he dries his hands on the moist bath towel he used this morning, he’s struck by how little he knows about her life. Is she in love with someone new? He never asked. Didn’t ask because he really didn’t want to know.
Feeling better, a bit calmer, he emerges from the bathroom. She’s on the phone with a friend. He watches her toy with her hair, finger the dusty houseplants her back to him. He hears her making plans for later, tonight maybe when she assumes he’ll either be gone or content with watching TV on his own.
She hangs up the phone. Turns to face him. Her expression still motoring somewhere near neutral, ready to offer him more coffee, a bowl of hot soup.
Surprising himself he retracts the exit line and tells her that she should hang onto the co-op until prices come back up.
He doesn’t need the money, really. It was never about the money.