Friday, November 14, 2008

Chapter Three

Thursday / December 20, 2007

So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the second beginning of my story. Five days before I got myself into a bind (literally and figuratively speaking) at the Jacksonville International Airport, I was rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 2:00 p.m. by Alvin and the Chipmunks’ infamous Christmas song. Although I was a huge fan of the group as a child, nowadays the shrill harmonies of the Chipmunks make me want to scoop out my eyeballs with a spork and eat them for breakfast. Ironically, I feel the same way about my mother--hence the reason I made that song her ring tone on my cell.

After two choruses, the phone went silent only to start up again just as I was about to return to the peaceful land of dreams. I unceremoniously whisked the phone off my nightstand, turned it to vibrate, and tossed it into a pile of dirty clothes on the floor.

I buried my own head under my pillows in a vain attempt to go back to sleep, but it was too late. My brain was awake enough to recognize that it was both really, really cold and really, really bright in my apartment, neither of which was conducive to sleep.

With great reluctance, I slid out of bed--taking the covers with me of course--and trudged into the ice cave that sometimes masquerades as the world’s smallest living room and kitchenette. Although I knew that my poorly insulated walls and windows would release the hot air faster than my heater could generate it, I cranked the thermostat up, put on a pot of coffee, and headed for the shower.

I bravely put my life on the line in exchange for comfort by setting up my space heater in the corner of the bathroom. Like I was playing double-dutch, I swiftly hopped into and out of the hot water before it ran out. Though I didn‘t want to, I wrestled my hair dryer out from under the sink and exchanged it for the little space heater (I have learned from experience that I can’t run both without shorting the circuits to my entire floor). Normally, I hate drying my hair (it requires way too much effort) but it just so happens that I hate hypothermia just a little bit more.

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 an IKEA bedspread. Back in the kitchen, I prepared my waffles and coffee, then took both to the couch and said good morning to my roommate, Fred.

Just to be clear, Fred is a soccer ball-sized stain on the arm of my Goodwill couch that sort of looks like a smiley face. He’s kind of like my 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 afternoon showing of our 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 and touching moments when Fred and I both found ourselves in tears.

Just as the episode ended and I slurped up the last bit of syrup from my plate, it occurred to me that I hadn’t been out of my apartment in almost a week. As a freelance graphic designer, I do most of my work from the desk in the corner of my living room. It has its perks, I have to admit that most days it feels good to roll out of bed in the early afternoon and make the five second commute to my desk without even having to take a shower or get dressed.

But every few weeks I am blindsided by the sudden fear that I might be turning into an agoraphobic. In all fairness, it is very easy to convince yourself that staying inside a lot is totally acceptable in Boston in the winter time. I mean it’s been gray and cold out there for months now--who wants to get involved in all that when the Internet can bring you anything you want?

I looked over at Fred, who 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. Although Fred was still maintaining his monastic silence that Thursday morning, I felt that I was close enough to hearing from him that I needed to get myself out of my apartment before things took a turn toward padded walls.

Besides, 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. It was less than a block to my nearest bus stop where I stood anxiously at the edge of the city’s motley crew of public transportation travelers waiting for my chariot to arrive.

By the time a bus headed in my desired direction finally came up the street, I had started to develop icicles on the end of my nose, which was one of several extremities that I no longer felt connected to. Somehow I still managed to climb the steps and assess my seat choices in a quick fashion. There were exactly two open chairs--one in the back next to someone who could have passed for Charles Manson’s long lost sister (or brother, I couldn’t be sure) and one closer to the front, next to a little blue-haired lady.

As I plopped down in the chair beside her, the old woman gave me a bright smile framed neatly in wrinkled skin. Her emerald eyes sparkled as she offered me an exceptionally cheery Merry Christmas greeting. I returned the sentiment with true sincerity. 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?” She asked me. Her warm smile melted all the ice on my nose.

“To the mall,” I replied. “I’m going to do a little last minute Christmas shopping. How about you?”

“I’m going to my grandson’s house,” she replied happily.

“That’s great.” I settled back in my seat, content with our succinct, casual conversation. She apparently was not feeling the same.

“I have seventeen grandchildren,” she said proudly. “And I can name every one of them in order of when they were born.”

“That’s…great,” I said again, silently praying she wouldn’t think I was calling her bluff.
Unfortunately she was already reaching for a billfold tucked away in her purse that I just knew was filled with pictures. I glanced back longingly at Charles Manson’s gender confused sibling.

“First there’s Eric,” the blue-haired lady began with a gnarled finger pointed 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….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 might 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 paused just long enough for me to think she was done, but then it turned out she was just catching her breath.

“It’s colder where my second grandson, Joshua, lives though. He’s in Colorado...or is it Costa Rica?” The billfold came back to life and she flipped ahead a few pages to a girl with crimped hair that was affixed to the side of her head by an enormous bow. “Then there’s Penny…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 purse. I was so excited to drown out the babbling of the old lady I didn’t even glance at the caller ID before I whipped my phone open.

“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. “I know why you’re calling me.”

“Well Merry Christmas to you too,” she quipped. “Can’t a mother just want to catch up with her favorite daughter who she never, ever hears from? Not even an e-mail or a text 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 second generation spawn was fading quickly.

“Alright, have it your way,” my mother said defiantly. “I’ll get right to it.”

“Please do.”

“I want you to come home for Christmas.”

“Oh gee, let me think about that one,” I tapped my finger on the tip of my nose as though I was thinking. “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 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. You know exactly why! That’s just a stupid question.”

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 I was probably going to spend my Christmas Eve with my two favorite companions: 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 with you people, would you pay for the therapy I would need when I left?”

“Bailey, please.” As she said it, I could just see her standing in the immaculate, unused kitchen in her oceanfront estate with one palm pressed against her forehead to fend off the coming headache.

“I’ve already said my peace, what more do you want?”

“I want to see my daughter!” She slammed her spare hand down on the granite counter top. I heard it. “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 chubby, brown-haired kid with 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. Not to mention the fact that poor Fred would certainly lose his illustrious smile in Florida.

“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 approached 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, voice mails, text messages and Facebook posts went unanswered. Elizabeth Bailey Hamilton Danforth is known for a lot of things, but she is famous for only one.

“You know,” she began softly, “Your little brothers and sisters really miss you. Eli was just asking about you this morning. He’s almost eight years-old now.”

My mother is a licensed travel agent for guilt trips.

“I know how old he is, Mother.”

“But you haven’t seen him since he was four,” she added. “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 clear up any confusion here, 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 eight years 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.

Last but not least, 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 has 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. Here it comes. “I hate to bring this up, but you know your grandparents are getting a lot older. Who knows how much longer they’re going to be around…this could be their last Christmas.”

My feet hit the sidewalk and stopped moving so suddenly 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 I couldn’t get it around the new rotten apple my mother had thrown out.

The bus started to pull away and I found myself staring at the blue haired lady in the window as she slipped away.

“That’s really low,” I said quietly. “Really, really low.”

“It’s the truth, honey. You never know about these things.”

“Goodbye, Mom--”

“Bailey wait! I can write you a check!”

“--Merry Christmas.”