The winter of the year 2000 is the first one that I choose not to spend with my family on the West Coast. Apart from making the decision what not to do, I had laid down no other plans. I am working at a bar called Otis in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City. I live in a small studio in the East Village, I have a tiny living Christmas tree that I have decorated with tiny tree sized ornaments purchased at the Urban Outfitters down the street. I also have splurged on a faux antique set of small ornaments from a boutique on my block, they are beautiful crystal, painted, and delicately nestled in their red cloth lined box. It is almost a shame to take them out, I consider propping them up next to the tree so they can sparkle in the glow from my one Christmas light string that wraps around the tree twice. At work I have a red felt stocking with my name in silver glue glitter and as the days get shorter and closer to Christmas it becomes more and more full with presents from my co-workers and regulars.
One evening at work my friend and co-worker Ellen says, “What are you doing for Christmas this year?” I’ve kept the staying in New York quiet, though I am not sure why.
“Nothing” I reply.
“What do you mean nothing? You aren’t going back to Seattle?” Ellen asks.
“No, I can’t.” I reply. And even though I haven’t explained more than that, she knows that I mean I can’t go home for reasons other than money. Even to myself it’s not entirely clear, I just don’t belong there anymore, there is something wrong in that house, but I don’t know what it is, yet.
“You should come home with me,” Ellen offers easily.
“You might want to ask your parents,” I reply. Even though Ellen and I are good friends I feel that sharing the holidays with someone is a big moment and the idea scares me a little.
“Oh, trust me, with my mother the more the merrier, but I will call and ask if that will make you feel better,” says Ellen.
Ellen calls and it seems that Mom is happy to have a Christmas orphan. Ellen and I find cheap tickets to Portland Maine and quicker than seems possible we are deplaning into a snowy wonderland that looks very much like something out of story books. Portland is quaint in every sense of the word, complete with twisting streets, store front shingles and snow on roofs that are no higher than 3 stories. We get into her parents car and drive another hour north along the coast. Brunswick, Maine is even more stunning than Portland. Brick houses on tree-lined streets, yards twinkling with decorations and I see an actual tire swing. It all seems surreal. I’m in shock that places like this exist outside of my imagination or the movies. It’s the early evening of the 23rd and once we get to Ellen’s house I find out that the entire town is on a schedule. Tonight there is the Erickson party that they have every year, on Christmas Eve itself is the Miller party and church, then Christmas day is presents in the morning and dinner in the afternoon at home. There is no debate about attending these events, the events themselves are part of the definition of Christmas for Ellen’s family. We go to the Erickson party, which is in their beautiful, huge home. All the attendees look like they just got back from an L.L. Bean shoot. Everyone’s manners are impeccable and I am made to feel welcome but I don’t know these people and there isn’t for me the cathartic warmth that comes from catching up with old High School friends. I grow bored and restless and am glad when it is time to go home.
“Are you alright?” Ellen asks me.
“Why?” I ask, fearful that I have offended.
“No reason, you just seem a little off.”
“Tired I guess.”
We go to bed, Ellen and I are sleeping in twin beds next to each other under dormers and I watch the stars twinkle and fade until I fall asleep. I wake up the next morning, Ellen is not in her bed and I know instantly that I have strep throat. I have had it chronically since I was five, when I got strep and bronchitis missing both my fifth birthday and Christmas. I am mortified. I go down to the kitchen and announce the embarrassing fact that I need to go to a doctor. Everyone springs into action, my fever is getting worse and I’m trying not to vomit. Out of the corner of my eye I see my standard fever hallucination of a man dressed like a depression era clown getting short and fat and then tall and skinny over and over again. Once we get to the ER, the doctor tells me that I’m the 4th person he’s seen that day with strep, clearly someone had it on the plane and infected us all. He gives me the shot instead of pills and tells me that I should be back on my feet by Christmas, but that I should stay in bed for the next 24 hours. So I do. From my cocoon of blankets and memories I hear Ellen’s family leaving for church and I hear them coming back from the Miller party. They are happy, full and at ease with each other, it is the sound of a foreign language. I slip back into fevered dreams feeling like a bear hibernating and waiting for spring.
In the morning I am better. We open presents, cook dinner, eat and drift to couches and chairs to crack open newly given books. The next day I fly back to New York, Ellen is staying for a couple more days. I am aware that I have visited a foreign land, one that I am not likely to see again.
As my plane flies into New York a sense of relief and comfort wash over me, it is this feeling that lets me know that New York is my home. I open the door to my studio and my tiny tree is waiting, doing her best to fill me with cheer. I plug the lights in so she can revel in all her glory. Once Christmas is over and the spring comes I will plant her in the community garden or so goes the plan.
Now, it is winter of 2010 and every year on my birthday, December 12th, we get the Christmas tree and have a trimming/birthday get together. We look for a tree that no one else is going to take home, one that is flat, or has broken branches or is missing a top. We bring it home, prop it up, get out the lights and on it we hang among other things some ornaments originally bought for a tiny sized tree.