My parents always get the Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving, which still feels too early to me, even after all these years. When I was a little kid, time was always blurry around the holidays, and all the early setup of Christmas decorations meant was more time to agonize over what presents I was going to get that year. My mom called just before I got on the plane yesterday, making sure everything was okay and the flight was leaving on time (there was bad weather). I could hear the sound of newspaper being shuffled around in a cardboard box, and I knew she was taking out her ornaments.
Right, of course, it’s the holidays again.
You and I met in winter, but after the holidays, when the freezing temperatures and dead trees are no longer building up to something. Winter always takes a sharp turn for the bleak right after we’ve rung in the new year, and I was settling in for my vague January depression when you talked to me at that party. I had almost not gone to that party, ready to stay in and cover myself with blankets and waste away my weekend in peace. I’m glad I went, even after all these years.
Things were very different then. We were both still in school and though we imagined that homework and exams and taking trips to our parents’ over break were real problems, we were as free as we’d ever be. We could take off the whole day Tuesday and lie in bed together, or drive across the state to go try a hot dog stand we’d seen on the Food Network, or tell each other every secret we’d ever kept because it was the first time we felt like someone would understand. Now we have jobs, and bills, and real responsibilities that make all of that feel like some kind of fever dream.
When you left me, I was at a restaurant. We had been together nearly two years, and I had gotten to the stage of comfort where the relationship is a baseline to everything else you will do in your life. “Where will I be after graduation? With him, and then we’ll see.” But I alone felt that comfort, that certainty. When you called me, I was waiting for the waitress to bring my BLT and fries, sipping on my peach iced tea and talking to my friend about where she was planning to move. I picked up the phone and your voice sounded so low and strange that when you said “If this isn’t a good time, I can call back later,” I immediately got up and walked outside to talk.
You had been accepted into graduate school in Europe, and you were going. Just like that. There was no real discussion, although you did your best to pretend like there was. And on some level, I know how hard you worked for it, and I know that you might have resented me if you stayed back to be with me, but I couldn’t help but hate you. You were going to do something wonderful, so wonderful that we couldn’t do it together. “We’ll make it work long-distance,” I said, feebly.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” you said.
We only ever had one Thanksgiving together, but it was a good one. You came to my house and my parents fawned over you — this smart boy with such a bright future and such incredible manners — while you helped my mother unwrap her fragile Christmas ornaments. I looked at you over my glass of wine and thought that it was the first Thanksgiving in a long line of them, that eventually we would host them at our house, and then with our own children. (I never told you that, because it would have scared you, but it’s what I thought.)
You are going to be engaged soon, I can feel it. I’ve seen her pictures and heard about what she does and I know it’s only a matter of time before one of my friends calls and tells me so I don’t stumble across it when I’m alone. I hope that she knows how wonderful you are, but she knows an entirely different you than I ever did. I knew you when you were free and unafraid and cared about the wrong things, she knows you as a real man ready to build a real life.
I wonder if you’re at her house for Thanksgiving this year, helping her mom take out the Christmas ornaments. But I guess that a girl as perfect as her comes from a family who sets up their tree in mid-December.