The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Monday, November 30th, 2015
None of the twenty-eight Christmases of his life have ever seemed this hard. When he'd lived with his mother and Trey in Chino, they'd never been Christmas people. Holidays were something they didn't have money for and never paid attention to. The Cohens had changed that, had given him a little something of the holiday spirit.
For the past two years, though, he hasn't been able to get back into it. He has moved from the sunny OC to the frigidity of upstate New York, and he sees the Cohens for the holidays and only a few other times a year. He has just lost his holiday spirit, period.
A well-meaning neighbor had stopped by the day before—her name was Terri, he was pretty sure. She was in her early forties and surely on her way to becoming one of those neighborhood busybodies in a decade or two more. She arrived on his doorstep with a plate of Christmas cookies, smiling irrepressibly even when he opened it in his pajamas and bathrobe, with a few day's worth of stubble still on his face and a somewhat exhausted frown.
"Hi, Ms. Longenfeld," he said, with a weary air. "Is there anything you needed?"
"No, not at all, Ryan. Thank you, though, for asking. I just wanted to give you these—" she practically thrust the plate into his hands "—and see if you needed any help with decorations. I noticed you have none put up."
She made a gesture to the outside of his house, which was the only bare one on the block. He caught her almost imperceptibly craning her neck, attempting to check the inside—surely no one could be such a Scrooge as to have none of his house decorated? It appeared she would not stand for it. He shifted slightly to block her view, giving her a hollow but somewhat believable smile.
"No, thanks, Mrs. Longenfeld. I'm just not much into the holiday spirit this year."
"Well, if you change your mind, just come on by and I can set you up with some of the extra Christmas lights," said Mrs. Longenfeld cheerily. "Have a nice day, Ryan."
"You too, Mrs. Longenfeld. Thanks."
He spends this day in his living room, which is, as Mrs. Longenfeld suspected, bare of any holiday decorations. He has not mustered up a single ornament or holiday photo. The remnants of his Christmas-celebrating life sit in a box in the attic, one that he should have thrown away two years ago but has somehow hung onto.
It is only the Monday after Thanksgiving, but already the holiday commercials have started. He wishes they would have the courtesy to wait until a few more days, even if December is starting tomorrow. It is always a slap in the face, how suddenly the holiday season comes on; he thought so even before he stopped celebrating.
The phone rings as he flips through channels, trying to find any network that is not running a Christmas commercial. He stops on one showing a mindless game show, and the answering machine does its job. He has no outgoing message; there does not seem to be a need. Anyone calling the number knows that he lives here and lives alone.
"Ryan, it's Kirsten. I'm just calling to say that we missed you at Thanksgiving, and we really wanted to know if you'd be coming out for Chrismukkah dinner." There is a faint laugh behind her words; clearly she still finds the thought of her son's super holiday amusing.
"We know it's been hard for you these past two years, but we'd really like to see you around here again. It would be nice to have the family together. I also wanted to know if you'd thought about restarting your business? I know some people out in your area that would be willing to help you get it up and running again.
"We just want to hear from you again—about anything. Whether or not you're coming for dinner, just give us a call. All right? We love you. Good-bye, Ryan."
He appreciates Kirsten's efforts to reach out. He does. She and Sandy have tried their hardest the past few years. They made him stay over their place for a few weeks afterwards, not wanting him alone. Sandy stops by every once in a while, makes an excuse about seeing friends in New York, but Ryan knows it's a lie. He knows it's a lie the same way he does when Seth comes across the country with the excuse that a band is in town and he is dragging Summer to their concert, and hey, isn't that concert right by Ryan's place?
He looks at the clock, then outside, not having realized how late it has gotten. He has somewhere to be, the same place he has gone twice weekly for the past year, but he doesn't see it helping. It hasn't yet—why would it?
But he still has to go, so he gets up and gets dressed and heads out the door, getting in his car and heading off to the place he is meant to be.
She stands in the shower, under the scalding water, for as long as she can. The water is so hot that her skin feels almost cold—numb, certainly, just like the rest of her.
It has been six months, but it still does not feel any different than it did the day after it happened, a week later, a month. Her things are still here. Her shampoo and conditioner still sit in the plastic bath rack, hanging from the shower head. Her toothbrush and razor still sit on the sink. Her towel still hangs from the back of the door.
The only thing that's missing is her medication. Most of it had been gone anyway, but she'd taken the initiative of flushing it herself the day after it happened. There wasn't a point to it anymore, right?
She gets out of the shower after turning off the water, standing in the cold for few seconds before she wraps herself in one towel and her hair in another. She waits for the steamy mirror to clear before she begins brushing out her hair. The motions of it are simple, and she doesn't have to think. She doesn't feel like thinking anymore.
She doesn't even know why she agreed to go out tonight, when she doesn't think it will help. Talking never really did. When she'd been at the recovery center (airquote, airquote) in San Diego, that had been all they'd ever wanted her to do. Talk, talk, talk. She never had, and eventually they'd given up on her, letting her out as soon as they could.
She'd never gone back to Newport. She'd gone to a private school in San Diego and then on to Pepperdine University. Julie had never wanted her to come back to Newport, anyway—wanted to keep her away from Ryan, Summer, her father, any of the people that really meant something to her. Never had she once considered that it would probably have helped her.
She doubts this support group will. It was one of those places where you got together to talk and cry and bond over losing a loved one, because that wasn't almost as depressing as the loss itself, was it? It was supposed to be uplifting, having people to share your grief with. She honestly thought it was bullshit, but a neighbor had very kindly recommended it and offered—with little room for refusal—to drive her. Marissa had said thank you, and maybe she would. She couldn't really back out now that it was the day of.
After she dries off, she gets dressed in a white sweater and a worn-out pair of jeans, throwing her coat on over that. She has never gotten used to how frigid New York can get in the winter. It used to be fifty degrees on Christmas in Newport. In upstate New York, it's fifty below.
Her neighbor is waiting on her porch, bundled against the cold. She is in her early thirties, not much older than Marissa, but she is married with two small boys and a dog, that perfect suburban housewife. Her name is Janet. She smiles as Marissa comes out onto the porch and locks the door behind her.
"I was hoping you hadn't changed your mind. Well, we'd better get going; wouldn't want you showing up late to your first meeting," she says cheerily, leading Marissa carefully down the slightly iced-over walkway. "How have you been doing lately?"
"Better," Marissa lies, the words coming off her lips without thought, and, she thinks, sounding almost believable. She wonders if the people in the support group will do the same thing, this effortless lying, or if they will all be the sobbing, hysterical types she'd seen in the recovery center. And some recovery center it had been—she didn't think she'd ever seen any of those girls stop crying.
The support group is held in one room of the community center. She has been here before once or twice, for town dances or for food drives. Either way, she recognizes it—just as she thinks she recognizes the man leaning against a telephone pole, lighting a cigarette, as they pull into the driveway.
A familiar feeling stirs in her veins. It is not the craving for nicotine, but the craving for something else entirely. She wonders if he recognizes her, if he remembers. She gets out of the car almost as soon as Janet stops and gives her a quick thank you. And she slowly walks over to the man she's sure she knows.
"Who are you?"
He looks up, like he is about to answer, before she sees the recognition set in and his eyes widen. She has chosen her words deliberately in the few seconds she had to think it over.
"Who are you?"
"Whoever you want me to be."
He takes the cigarette out from between his lips, stunned. "Marissa?"
"Ryan." She smiles faintly, and even that small action feels as if she hasn't done it in years. It's funny how quickly she has forgotten.
"It's been… what, twelve years?"
"Yeah." She flicks her hair back behind her ear and motions to the pack of cigarettes in his hand. "Can I bum one off you?"
He hands it to her just as he did that day, lighting it with his own lit one rather than the lighter. The action is strangely intimate. She inhales, taking in the scent of the smoke and the scent of him as it reaches her on the wind. He smells like soap and a faint, spicy aftershave.
"When did you come to New York?" she asks, noticing that he is even more silent than he was that first day in Newport.
"About a year and a half ago. You?"
"After college. Pepperdine."
"UC Berkeley. Cold enough for you?"
"Yeah, I think so." She laughs a little, and that, too, feels foreign. She wonders what he is here for, and asks.
"Support group." She looks up in surprise, in time to catch the eye roll that accompanies the words. He catches her surprise and starts to say that it isn't normally his thing, but she stops him.
"No. That's not why I was surprised… well, it sort of was. That's… what I'm here for."
It is his turn to look surprised, and he does. There is a moment of shared hesitation as they wonder—should they ask? Do they want to be the nosy people they always hate, the people who wonder how, when, why it happened? Do they open that sore now or do they rip off the band aid later?
The decision is made for them when Ryan looks at his watch—time to go in. He ashes his cigarette on the sidewalk and waits for her to do the same. Now or never, his expression says, and she feels a strange sense of something beginning as she leaves the ashes on the sidewalk and follows him inside.