She checked the time again and glanced out the window at her driveway. The leafless trees were dusted with snow and the street was as lifeless as a winter postcard. Her fluffy orange feline perched up in her lap with slight concern but then decided she wasn’t that interested. They both sighed in synchrony.
It was almost time to pick up the children from school and she was never late. Placing the cat down in her pile of blankets, she sighed again unable to control her disappointment. Had she said something wrong? Maybe she shouldn’t have gotten him a gift. She checked to see that it was still securely snug under the tree (as if it could have grown feet and left) and then made her way out the door.
“Mama, look at the ornament I made!” her daughter said, lifting the craft up to her face.
“Its lovely, dear. Very sparkly indeed,” she said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster, wiping the glitter from her leggings.
Her son was already opening the candy cane he received from his teacher, “can I have this now, mom? Thanks!” and popped it into his mouth.
She closed the blinds on the front windows just as her mother pulled up the driveway and her heart gave a small flutter.
“Grandma’s here!” the children sang as they ran to open the door. The cat fled upstairs. Christmas suddenly felt resurrected.
They had kissed on this very couch, she thought, as she watched her little ones with her mother; talking and tickling and laughing. They had binge-watched shows and ate food and drank wine here. Even the cat had cuddled with him.
“Why is your mommy so quiet today?” she heard her mother say, breaking her reverie. They were all looking at her now, her mother’s eyebrows raised.
“Don’t know, grandma, she’s being weird!” the children concluded.
“Who wants hot chocolate?” she asked, getting up from the couch without waiting for an answer.
As she added marshmallows to the mugs and a sprinkling of peppermint shavings, she thought about the last time she had seen him. How tightly they embraced one another, the tender kisses, the exchange of hopes to see each other again soon. She remembered their hike through a forest at the end of the summer, how he carried her on his back and held her hand as she climbed over rocks. And when they finally made it to the waterfall, they just sat together taking in all its beauty. She thought about his eyes. How they changed from a cool sky blue to a warm hazel green.
“Bringing those hot chocolates?” said a voice from behind her.
Startled, she spilled some of the sweet drink on the counter and said, “just cooling them off a bit, mum. Don’t want the kids burning their tongues!”
“Right, here, let me,” her mother said, taking the mugs, “maybe you and I should have some tea and cookies, hmm?”
There was nothing she could hide from her mother. She knew. She always knew. And having tea and cookies meant talking about it. But she didn’t want to talk about this. She had a Christmas to execute. There was no time to dwell about the possibility of another holiday alone. Without a partner. A companion. A friend. A love. The children needed her. And she would not fail them.
The letter from Santa had been printed and perfectly placed next to the plate of cookie crumbs and empty milk glass. The gifts were all placed around the tree. Everyone was asleep. Except for her. She sat in her reading chair by the fireplace, flipping through the pages of a book.
“While pretty flowers are instantly plucked, few people pay attention to plants with thorns and prickles. But the truth is, great medicines are often made from these.”
She stared at the words and recalled when they had exchanged novels by Elif Shafak; she had given him The Bastard of Istanbul and he gave her his favourite book, The Forty Rules of Love. The one she now held in her hands.
He too, was a single parent, which she assumed was the perfect fit for the both of them. She had fantasized about their children playing together, becoming great friends. One big family.
But then, the doubts resurfaced, the ones she had tried to suppress. This was not the first time he had left her in the dark. On Thanksgiving she had posted on her social media about colonization and violence towards Indigenous communities. He replied immediately stating that he “hates guilt culture.” She didn’t hear from him again until four weeks later. And for four weeks she told herself it was for the best.
The memories of the way he looked at her, his kisses, his morning text messages are what kept her from hating him. And what made her chase him even after he cut her off.
Maybe it was because she made him laugh. Or because they both shared an interest in mental health. Because they both liked reading. Maybe it was because he told her she was heartbreakingly beautiful. Being intimate with someone didn’t just mean physically. It was being vulnerable and raw with emotion.
She closed her eyes trying to shut out the thoughts coming in.
Maybe she was just so broken that she would accept attention from anyone, even if it was abusive. That she would even buy them a Christmas gift. A perfectly wrapped Elif Shafak book titled, Honor, tied with gold ribbon and a shiny bow on top.
She opened her eyes again and looked down at the book in her lap, still open to the same page:
“As long as I knew myself, I would be alright.”
Setting the book aside, she leapt from her chair toward the tree. Moving the piles of gifts in front, she got down on all fours and reached back to find the one sitting on its own. She carefully removed the tag and placed the gift back.
The cat purred in her new bed as the children tried on their new winter jackets. The floor was covered in shredded wrapping paper, toys, books and clothes.
Her mother looked on, smiling at her grandchildren, her face aglow, bringing out a light radiating from within her.
“Mum. This one is for you,” she said, handing her mother the last gift under the tree.
“A new book! Wow!” her mother said after opening it. “Thank you.”
With her mind a little less foggy, her vision clearer, her heart fuller, she replied, “no, mum. Thank you.”
She looked out the window, the snow glittering under the sun, and decided that she hadn’t done or said anything wrong. She was a good person who met the wrong guy. Maybe she was a little broken. But that’s what made her beautiful.