He’s going to be spending Christmas alone.
He knows this, has known it for weeks. He has no interest in getting involved with whatever mess (or cleaned-up mess, he’s lost track of where they are in the cycle) Derek and Meredith are currently making of their lives, Lexie isn’t speaking to or even looking at him (unless there’s medical terminology involved), and Callie and Arizona have taken the baby to visit one family or the other (he wasn’t paying attention when they finalized their travel plans, though flight information is stuck to his fridge so he can pick them up on time).
Spending Christmas alone, and making it sound like he’d intended for this to be the end result all along, is the elegant solution.
He has enough vacation built up that when he leaves the hospital at three in the afternoon on December 23rd, he won’t need to walk through its doors again until January 4th.
In years past he’d worked on the days when everyone else begged for someone to cover their surgeries and shifts and he’d enjoyed the calm, quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s when it was only people like him – people without family or unattached friends – who were around. They could commiserate together by not commiserating (or by getting unabashedly drunk at the end of each day and nod in understanding the next morning when dark circles and fists full of ibuprofen and omnipresent water bottles were the only indications of the past night’s revelries) and there was precisely no one around who would talk about family and warmth and love and this hilarious-only-to-other-family-members (but-I’ll-tell-you-anyway) anecdote about Great Aunt Hazel and her reading glasses.
But this year, at the end of this hell of a year, he’s opted for a break. A real break, one without any hope of someone reading between the lines of “don’t call me unless it’s an emergency” to interpret his words as “call me if anything – and I mean anything – goes wrong”, one without thoughts of the hospital or the people who walk through the halls of the hospital. One with – he plans – a lot of booze, pizza, and video games.
The passing attempts at decorating his apartment for the holiday are the sole blame of Arizona and Callie. There’s a small, fake tree on an end table by the couch and he plugs it in every night only because the ambient light it gives off is just the right amount to argue that he is not, actually, sitting in the dark. He takes the wreath off the door – he’s not a wreath guy, never has been, and wonders what vibe he gave off to make one of them think that he’d like the thing hanging on his apartment door – and sets it on the table underneath the coat rack. He’ll put it down in storage later; by the time Callie and Arizona get back, it will be a reasonable date at which Christmas decorations are no longer visible and the lack of wreath won’t be something they ask about.
He calls in an order for Chinese food, ignores the calendar on the wall (with its scribblings in Callie’s handwriting of vacation dates and a post-it over December 25th reminding him to at least please go for a walk so he sees another human being on that particular day), and heads for the shower.
He’s going to be spending Christmas alone.
Even his neighbors are gone.
She’s going to be spending Christmas with Sam.
She knows this, has known it for weeks. It’s an extraordinary understatement to call her family “kind of a disaster” this year, but that’s what she’s sticking with because it’s fewer words than “unbearable explosion of emotional turmoil I don’t want to deal with,” so going home is completely out of the question. She makes that clear to everyone by Thanksgiving and meets some resistance from her brother, but she tells him where to shove it and he shuts up; he has a new girlfriend anyway so it’s not like he needs his sister as a buffer.
They have plans, she and Sam, about the two of them and the beach and a small tree and no company until dinner (which someone else will cook) and it all sounds completely wonderful for the weeks running up until Christmas. And then stores start advertising their Two Days Left sales, in which everything nobody in her life ever wanted is discounted an insane amount, and she finds herself wandering the mall with a pretzel in one hand and a smoothie in the other just trying to get some time alone.
Amelia’s back and living in her guest room and trying her damndest to be sober and happy (because after rehab that’s what’s expected), Naomi’s called a few times in the past three days (which she’s either purposely let go to voicemail or genuinely missed and just decided not to call back), she’s received a beautiful Christmas card from Callie (hung proudly on the fridge, and she can’t quite explain to Sam just how much her friend means to her), and she’s even gotten an email from Derek (she’s pretty sure he was drunk when he sent it and she deleted it without responding, not at all eager to get involved in that, even from afar).
But she just wants to get away from everything. Her cell phone rings almost every ten minutes while she’s out pretending that she’s finishing some last-minute shopping and she ignores it each time. People can wait and they know enough about her to follow up any phone calls about real emergencies with a text stating something to the effect of “get your procrastinating ass back here.” She picks up a few small things, just so she doesn’t return empty handed (which would encourage more questions than her original outing itself), and leaves just as the mall closes.
She’s spent almost every Christmas she can remember with people. Her parents, her family, her friends, Derek, Mark, Callie. She wonders if it’s selfish to want a breather from it all, to take one holiday out of her life that she doesn’t have to enjoy in the company of others. She spent one Christmas alone abroad during college, opting to stay in Vienna for the holiday rather than flying home for a week and being jetlagged for most of it, and she remembers it being magical and beautiful; walking through the snowy, lit streets without obligation to be home for dinner or church and going for a long run the next morning without worries of returning in time for presents or required hours of sitting in a room with family not actually acknowledging each other. The time difference had even prevented a phone call.
It’s too late now, she thinks, waiting in LA’s omnipresent traffic that she no longer particularly minds. Plans are made, food is purchased and shoved into her fridge, presents have been wrapped and stacked neatly under the tree. She stares at a billboard on the right, advertising super low fares to everywhere for Christmas, even for booking late.
She’s going to be spending Christmas with Sam.
Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
He’s too busy staring at the text message to hear the knock on the door alerting him to the arrival of his dinner. The delivery boy knocks louder and he blinks at the door for half a second before remembering that he ordered dinner and the appropriate thing to do is open the door and pay the poor guy. He does, and overtips, and goes back to staring at the text.
Tell me why I shouldn’t buy this plane ticket.
He doesn’t have a good answer for her; he doesn’t even know where she’s going or when or why. They haven’t had much contact lately, scattered emails the only communication beyond a Facebook poke war they’ve had going on uninterrupted for the past three years.
Go for it.
He sends the response, always in favor of impulsive decisions over rational thought, and turns half of his container of orange chicken out onto a plate, following it up with vegetable fried rice and a crab rangoon. He sits down in front of the television and turns on a DVRed episode of Boardwalk Empire, having learned the hard way that food and his Xbox controller don’t go together that well.
It’s only after the second episode, a beer and a half, and the entire container of crab rangoon, that he wonders what made her text him about the plane ticket. He wipes his hands on a paper towel and grabs his phone.
The answer is no, not at all, and it hasn’t been for about eight months now, but she’s too busy cursing the Las Vegas airport and trying to find gate C14 (she should know better than to book a flight with less than an hour for a connection, plus she’s already annoyed at the inconvenience of flying east to go north) to answer him right away. She finally finds the gate with a whopping seven minutes to spare before they start boarding and she uses the time to pee.
Not really. Long story.
She settles for a very brief summary of the truth and slips her phone back into her bag before she reaches for the toilet paper; hand sanitizer and touch screens aren’t the greatest of friends, she’s learned.
She notices that she has not one, not two, but eight missed calls (four from Sam, two from Amelia, one from Pete, and one from Sheldon) and she has no interest in listening whatever messages they might have left. If she could choose what order to listen to them, she might (Amelia would probably be more the understanding one of the bunch, though Sheldon’s proved to be a welcome voice of reason), but she can’t so it’s a moot point and the flight attendant’s calling for everyone to turn off anything with a power switch.
Her phone vibrates just as her thumb hovers over the button.
Send me your flight number, I’ll pick you up.
She smiles, a real smile for the first time in weeks. She quickly sends him the information – and an apology for the 12:20am landing time – and turns off her phone before the flight attendant gets to her row and can glare.
Landed. Heading out now. Didn’t check anything.
He turns on his car and leaves the cell phone lot, flipping on his wipers to clear the windshield. He drives past not an insignificant amount of families and couples hugging behind hastily-parked cars with blinking hazard lights, and she isn’t difficult to pick out among the crowd. She looks tired, mostly, and he’s about to get out of the car and give her a hug when she tosses her bag in the back and climbs into the passenger seat without any fanfare.
He surreptitiously glances over to read the contents of the text she’s sending – landed safely, see you after Christmas – and who she’s sending it to (Sam, Amelia), while waiting for the cars in front of him to move. He hears the quiet beep of a smartphone powering down and she shoves the thing into a side pocket of her purse, not intending for it to see the light of day for a while. At least she’s responsible in her abandonment; he’s not sure he could say the same about himself if he pulled this kind of trick at the last minute.
“You okay?” He asks after a while and passes a van with a Rudolph nose stuck on the front and reindeer antlers on the side. It’s a family from Iowa and he thinks that it’s an awfully long way to drive just for a holiday. He would text her the question so she doesn’t actually have to talk – he’s become a master of texting while driving, his autocorrect is almost telepathic – but her phone’s off.
She sighs and slides down in her seat. She isn’t dressed for Seattle – she didn’t go home after the mall, booked her flight over the phone and drove straight to the airport with only her overnight bag as luggage – and she pulls her jacket a little tighter around her shoulders. He reaches over and turns up the heat for her. She exhales deeply and looks out the window at the skyline. “Been a long year.”
“I know,” he says.
She blinks and wonders how before remembering that parts of her family still talk to parts of Derek’s family and that Derek still talks to him. “I couldn’t do it,” she says and hopes that he knows, somehow, what she means.
Silence falls on them again, the only noise traffic from outside and the rhythmic thump of his windshield wipers.
His hand covers hers, a sudden warmth in the car that’s still a bit too cold. She turns her hand over to lace her fingers with his.
They spend Christmas alone, but together.