Thomm Quackenbush, author

" Year and a Day | 2007 | The Breakup "

12.25.07 10:05 p.m.

Family is just accident.... They don't mean to get on your nerves. They don't even mean to be your family, they just are.  

-Marsha Norman

 


Merry Christmas From The Family

By nine in the morning, I should have been awake for hours. By ten, I should be knee deep in shredded wrapping paper and surrounded by gifts whose use I can barely conceive of. For the world to provide me (the product of the secular, commercialized Christmas) anything less is blasphemy.

My younger brother, who went to an expensive private college to earn his degree in Speech Language Pathology, is a Patient Care Technician at a local hospital. While the title sounds impressive, it apparently translates as the person in the hospital who does what grunt work the nurses assign him. This involves wiping geriatric asses, taking blood, and working holidays. (In no Christmas carol does it suggest that hospitals can shut down for a day. Heck, I'm certain the grandma that got run over by a reindeer could have used Bryan's help.) Despite this, I can't really imagine this role until I scan through the hospital shows I've watched for context and decide he is like Abraham Benrubi's character on ER.

Bryan left my parents' house - the only abode he can remotely afford after his paycheck meets his student loan payments every month - well before dawn, well before I have willingly woken up in years. He was not due back until eight at night, though he implied he could be home as early as four. We knew that this was almost definitely a lie meant to either imply that he had clout enough to leave early (unlikely) or to assuage some measure of his guilt that we were going to wait until he returned home to open our presents (more likely). There was simply no way we would begin opening presents without him.
Emily  
Little Purple

Emily and I arrived to my parents' house bit before noon on Christmas day, just as my mother sped away out of frustration with my father and obligation to my grandmother. Emily and I were promised of a good breakfast to compensate us for having rented a hotel room the prior night under the assumption that we would be opening our presents early. Instead, we got to sit at the edge of this mound of red and green boxes, passively wondering at their contents. Were I younger, this would be cause for cholericness, but I am well past the age where I require immediate gratification. Given where I am in my life, I have begun to make an art out of delaying the hope for satisfaction. Also, I can stand to wait to formally take these new objects into my possession, secure in the knowledge that no seasonal elf is going to snatch them away depending on my level of naughtiness - a term which has ceased to associate itself with anything wholesome thanks to the mewling ads of the porn industry.

Despite realizing in time to cancel my reservation, I kept the room as a combination Christmas present to Emily and me. She mentioned more than once how much Anemia sucks her soul away by degrees (any below 32 Fahrenheit, especially). If I can decrease even by one the number of times she must make the drive back there, I will. That our presence in the hotel would also give me ample opportunity to unwrap my favorite present early did not exactly hurt my decision.

Ever since Emily broke off our engagement, I have become all the more keen to get her naked, a yielding yet concrete demonstration that we still belong to one another, that we will keep each other's company. A few days after the disengagement (for want of a better term), I told her that I would keep loving and fawning on her so that there could be no doubt in her mind that she had been utterly cherished should things go badly. This made her fall into desperate tears, her body wracking with sobs. It was not about me, not entirely. I was just one of many catalysts that night. I am almost horrified to admit that I relished her initial outpouring. When she cracks enough to allow some tears to flow, I can hold her and soothe her, I can kiss her tears away with impunity. Prior to this leak in her crumbling fašade, I felt a distance between us, a cloak of her uncertainty that seems to want to keep her from being loved by me. Once I could hold her as she snuffled that this is the part where everyone leaves, the distance only reappears when I ask a question as to our status. Like the electron, I can either observe this relationship or know where it is going, but not both. I don't know whether I am standing in a desert, on a beach, in quicksand. I know that, if I exist totally in the moment, realizing I have a brilliant and affectionate girlfriend, I am happy. As long as I don't probe into whether we are still handfasted, I can just hold her and be in love. I try to make this enough without worrying about the future, but my head involuntarily plans for that as well.

Since that wrenching night, things between us have been more or less normal. I try to avoid the traps and pitfalls. Having spent so much time inside books and inside my own head, I know every horrid little situation that could add stress and pain to what we are going through, and I am sharp enough to spot the foreshadowing before it can darken our lives. After the initial shock to my system, this awareness dulled and it was so easy to hear the defeatist words echoing in my ears, to just give up, to end it now before I got hurt one iota more. But the panacea has always been simply to talk to Emily. When my mother said that she thought she overheard Emily whisper something untoward about me to Zack when I went to the bathroom during my birthday party, Emily corrects that she likely called me a dork (which I incontestably am) and I know instantly that this is true because it totally fits within her character and this story line. Nothing in her would cast aspersions about me to one of my best friends at my birthday; the Divine Architect of our lives writes a better class of script than idle melodrama. (I hope.)

Aside from this remark, revealed at dinner a week after my party, my family has been otherwise as genial as can be expected toward her. I told Emily then and I echoed before we went to meet them for a dinner of pizza on Christmas Eve that my family is not likely to be confrontational or change their behavior toward her unless it is excessively necessary or funny. Certainly, while she is my partner, she is a member of the family and is due all rights and privileges thereto. They are aware that she is going through some personal issues that, while they influence her interactions with me, have nothing to do with me and they seem to respect that. She has previously spent seven Christmases with them, she has huddled with me in my childhood bedroom as my father yelled at my brother as Bryan walked out of the house in only socks, she has witnessed my father driving away just as we are about to open presents because my mother has wounded his soul with an offhanded remark, and she has always seen things patched up in the end so we could have a proper holiday. Cancelling our wedding ceremony won't be the thing that sets my family off this year.

Even through the dissolution of our engagement, Emily and I are doing things together as a couple. She sighs that the idea of selling her wedding dress and ring on eBay - the only chance she would have to recoup a fraction of what she spent - makes her feel like white trash. I laugh too, keenly aware of how that must look from an outside perspective, how this alters the perception of herself Emily tries to maintain. I can see how all of this is funny, with enough distance. How some talentless hack kicked out of the Writer's Guild would find in this situation the fodder for at least one half-hour sitcom to follow "Two and a Half Men". I am chagrined to admit that I am loosely basing a future story or novella on this, coupled with a situation involving a friend I only encounter by phone, not because it is funny but because it is therapy.

I supported her when she told me that she had an interview for a job with Amnesty International, even when she informed me that she would have to move to the city should she get this opportunity. "We'll deal with that together," I told her then and I meant it. It was too wonderful a chance to pass up and I certainly would not keep her locked in the lowest tower in Anemia when her destiny lies on the other end of the train tracks. She gave a marvelous interview, repeating clips of the conversation back to me that startled me with being scholarly, lucid, and passionate. Emily can and does rattle on about the plight of Tibetan children as though it were the plot of an episode of CSI, effortlessly drawing in the socioeconomic and political antecedents. I can frankly think of few people more passionate and well versed in whatever Amnesty International could want. I cannot conceive of a solitary subject I know as much about as Emily does international education and program development. She didn't get the job, though I honestly feel this was a mistake on the part of Amnesty International, but I was prepared.
Emily  
"Why does Santa hate me?"

For the entirety of this semester, as I dealt with the pampered spawn of kings of industry, I looked forward to this Christmas break with her. So much in our lives seems to force us to spend time apart - and rarely particularly happy time - and I was eager to start reconnecting. On my birthday, we went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with tickets I bought her for her birthday. The show was sweet enough to honestly make us both cry with childhood's tears, and it was perfect to be sharing it with her. It was my first day of break and auspicious, as I spent it with Emily enjoying a small portion of her daily world and her favorite holiday. And there were Rockettes, which is always a bonus.

By the time Bryan returns home Christmas night, my family is stuffed with tacos and chili (the festive dinner of champions) and we are all slightly irritable. Were this a normal Christmas, we would all be on our ways to our individual homes and exhausted by the season, ready to stuff it in the basement until next December. Instead, we are fidgeting as he tries to prolong the moment by telling us about his day or asking if he can have food. We love him but, unless he would otherwise die, I doubt we would happily even provide him access to the bathroom. The nieces begin crawling over the presents and stockpiling so they can reduce the magic of opening them to the blink of an eye. Speaking of eyes, my sister-in-law Becky wears a patch over one of hers, as well as being lightly drugged, because her one-year-old playfully slashed open her cornea with a fingernail earlier in the day. She is pained and half blind, but putting on a brave face to slog through this. My allergies kick up, along with the dust and dander, making me an inwardly surly human being trying his damnedest not to be the bastard who comes closest to ruining Christmas this year. I try not to take it out on anybody, though breathing gets increasingly difficult. Emily says I confined my annoyance to the nieces and their typical exuberance, which is regrettable but not surprising.

Emily finally finds the gift she got me and stuffs the small metal box into my hands. She was worried that I won't absolutely love her present, though I assure her that it doesn't matter, that she didn't need to get me anything. But I understand that she needs me to adore the present. What she doesn't know is that she has already given me the only gift I really wanted when, while on our way down to my parents', she tells me that she will love me forever and always. She has been no miser about saying it or showing it, but this situation has makes me far from secure. I want that level of commitment, to be loved forever and always, and so nothing material is possibly going to compare. Of course, I did not realize what an awesome Fossil watch she got me when I decided love was enough. What is earthly love next to a timepiece with flickering gears?

Greeting cards talk a good game about the holidays being a time for family, but it's true. No matter how imperfect the arrangement is, what draws us together at this time of year is not the threat of a plethora of gifts, but spending time with loved ones who, either through biology's choice or your own, have become family. When Emily broke off our engagement, what hurt me was not that she didn't want to have a massive, overpriced prom with me, but that I thought she was telling me that she no longer wanted to be a member of my family, let alone the member to whom I devote the lion's share of my effort. But no matter how much they hurt you, either an infant scratching your eye or a lover bruising your heart, nothing ceases the kinship. They might not seem perfect, but I couldn't ask for anything more than their love. That is the gift I desired and got.

Though, again, a nice watch is a close second.

Soon in Xenology: Old acquaintance.

last watched: Juno
reading: The Great Gatsby
listening: The Moldy Peaches

" Year and a Day | 2007 | The Breakup "

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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