Soundtrack Song - Jason Mraz, Plane
I'm nervous as hell. Getting through security doesn't bother me. I don't worry about whether my bag will end up in China rather than Chicago. Finding the gate and making it there on time isn't an issue. And the flying doesn't bother me either. There's some turbulence on the flight, but it's not enough to scare me and think about the possibility of crashing. I'm not even afraid of contracting swine flu.
Ugh, no; the process of traveling home is not what's got me anxious and concerned. It's going home that is under my skin. I wouldn't be looking forward to this for any reason, but especially now that I have this newly acquired precious stone on my finger, I'm worried about how this return trip is going to go. I absentmindedly play with the ring for the duration of the flight as I gnaw on my lip.
I get off the plane and wait patiently at the baggage claim counter for my suitcase. I wouldn't have even checked anything, except I had to bring presents home. Everyone knows it's not Christmas without presents, and I wanted to get them all something from Pittsburgh—even for my mother, who's going to see it as a little bit of a slap to the face or a bitter reminder of how I practically ran away from home.
As I wait, I send Max a quick text message just to let him know that I landed safely. Within a matter of seconds, he calls. "Hey, baby. Back on solid ground?"
Just the sound of his voice eases me. Hundreds of miles away, but it feels like he's right beside me. "Yup. Just waiting for my bag. Wait, aren't you supposed to be getting ready for your game?"
"We're about to go out for warm-ups. I had my phone on and in my stall in case you called."
I smile to myself. How did I ever get so lucky? "All right. Well, go have a good game, and then have a safe flight home. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Sure thing, Charlotte." When he says that, I hear echoes of noises in his background of the locker room: kissing sounds, fake sighs of bliss, and even a couple shouts of congratulations. I can barely hear him over the chaos when he adds, "I love you."
"Love you, too, Max-A-Million." I hang up the phone and feel a little reassured. No matter what happens over Christmas, I know I'm going home to him. That's all that matters.
Finding my suitcase quickly, I grab it and then walk toward the station to pick up the blue line of the El. I purchase a three-day pass and ride the train for forty-five minutes before I get off and haul my bag to my parents' house. Even though I haven't been home in seven or eight months, the city has that familiar feel. Unfortunately, no one else of my family is back home yet. My sister and her husband live in the suburbs, so they'll show up tomorrow, on Christmas Eve. For now, it's just me, Mommie Dearest, and my stepdad.
I knock on the front door and enter without waiting for her to answer. I'm unsure of what the proper etiquette is, because it's my mother's home and it used to be mine, but it isn't anymore. I hear my mother call, "Come in!"
I drag my bag behind me and set it by the stairs in the foyer. If I take it straight upstairs so as not to mar the holiday decor, I'll get a stern, disapproving look; if I don't immediately find her and say hello, I'll probably get worse. Slipping out of my coat and hanging it in the closet, I look around for my mother. She's in the kitchen and in fully glory: pristine, white apron and cooking up a storm.
"Hi, Mom." I perch myself on a stool by the island in the kitchen.
"Merry Christmas, Sweet Pea! What time did your flight come in? I would have sent Terry to come get you. Did you take the EL?" she asked, pursing her lips as if riding on public transportation is a fate worse than death.
"Yeah. It was fine. I didn't want to inconvenience you guys and make you deal with the traffic." That's partially true; if there's anything worse than Pittsburgh drivers, it's Chicago drivers. Plus, driving with my stepfather would be incredibly awkward. He's a nice guy, of course, but he's an awkward stepfather.
"Oh. Well. Why don't you go wash up and help me with all the baking?"
I nod and head back toward the foyer, grabbing my bag and heading up for my old room. The pale pink walls of my old life. I feel like this was all so long ago, but it hasn't even been a year since I graduated and moved back home for a week before I bought that bus ticket to Pittsburgh. Before I turned my old world upside down and left behind everything I knew for a chance at starting over and figuring out what I wanted out of life.
I freshen up quickly and head back down into the kitchen. "Okay, what do you need help with?"
"I'm working on the cookies. I have everything out to make the bread. Can you handle that?"
"Yeah, sure," I tell her, knowing what's expected of me. I've been doing it every year since I was old enough to help out. Everything for Christmas is homemade, because my mother is an impeccable hostess. She always wants to outdo herself every year, so everyone can tell her what a delightful job she did. It's definitely how I learned the need to constantly please.
I pull back my hair and grab an apron. Even though I'm wearing bummy clothes, my mom would insist on it. I remove my watch and then go to take my ring off. As I tug on it, I hesitate. I don't really want to take it off, but I don't want to get it messy and doughy.
"Where'd you get that?"
Looking up at my mother, I see her eying me suspiciously. Do I explain, or do I let it go? "Max gave it to me."
"As a Christmas gift, I hope," she says.
"No, Mom. It's an engagement ring." Here we go. "I'm... engaged."
I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes. Now she's just being ridiculous. "Yes, Mom. I'm engaged to Max. I'm going to marry him. I thought you liked him?"
"Well, as your little excuse to screw around before you finally settled down with John. I get it, Charlotte. You wanted to go out, see the world, and experience new things. You did that. You had your fun. And look where it got you—in Pittsburgh and in the bed of a professional athlete. But it's time you get this out of your system, whatever this is, because it's time to move on. You were always meant to be with John."
"No, Mom. I never should have been with him in the first place. Please, I don't want to do this now. It's the holiday, and I don't want to have this discussion."
"There's nothing to discuss. I'm telling you that you're making a mistake. You should listen to your mother. You always were so stubborn."
"This isn't about being stubborn or trying to be a rebel. Mommy, I love him."
"I remember you saying the same thing about John. And look at what you did to him: you left him devastated. He went after you, and it landed him in the hospital. That wouldn't have happened if you hadn't played games with him. So what are you going to do to Max?"
"Wait," I say, holding up my hand in the air. "Are you saying it's my fault that John got into a car accident? That's insane!" My chest feels so hollow, and I can't believe she's just implied that.
"He wouldn't've had to be in Pittsburgh if you would have stayed here and stayed with him, now would he? No Pittsburgh, no car accident."
"No, Mom. It's his fault. If he hadn't have turned out to be such a dick, I wouldn't have had to leave him. Then he wouldn't have needed to follow me. You're my mother. You're supposed to be on my side—"
"I am on your side, Charlotte—"
"No, you're not! Stop defending him. He didn't treat me right."
"And do you think your father and I always got along perfectly? Do you think Terry and I always get along perfectly? No. All relationships have their ups and downs."
"I'm not talking about typical ups and downs, Mother. I'm saying that my relationship with John was one deep depression. There were no ups, ever. It started well, and it was all downhill after that. He tricked us both, and he fooled his own sister. He's got some kind of personality disorder, and he's manipulative and controlling. He's fooled you, and now I feel like I'm being gaslighted. But I'm not going to let you make me feel bad. Now, you can either be my mother and we can agree to disagree but you can let me live my life the way I want to, or I can go grab my suitcase, turn around, and fly right back to Pittsburgh. Or better yet, catch a flight to Montréal and spend the holiday with Max's family instead. They like me."
Mommie Dearest clucks her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She looks at me for a moment and says nothing. Eventually, she turns around and faces her plates of cookies and ignores the issue. "Can you hand me the green food coloring?"
It's rude, for sure, but it means I've won. When she pretends the argument never happened, it means that she wants to forget about it, but she of course refuses to apologize. It's only rarely happened in our confusing mother-daughter relationship. I let out the breath I had been holding, slip off my gorgeous engagement ring and stash it away in my pocket, and then begin mixing the bread dough for tomorrow's big Christmas Eve dinner.
The following day, on Christmas Eve, everyone comes over to spend the day. I wear my ring, but I pass on sharing the news with everyone. It's bad enough that my grandparents are both asking me where John is. I guess my mom hasn't told anyone about our break-up or Max. It's the first Christmas in three years that I've spent it alone, i.e. without a boyfriend by my side. I don't mind it, because I know I'm not truly alone. That fact makes their looks of pity a little easier to endure.
When I go into the kitchen to snag a few appetizers before dinner, Caroline steps beside me at the counter and looks down at my hand. "So, what's the deal with that rock? I'd assume it means you're engaged, but you haven't broken the news." She grabs a gingerbread cookie and watches me, waiting for my answer. When I don't speak up right away, she continues, "We all know John's history. And thank God, because you know I didn't like him."
I smirk. "Yeah, well, that was nothing against John. You just don't like anyone. You barely get along with Derek, your own husband. I think you only talk to me because I'm your sister, and no one else is capable of understanding our upbringing, so there's no one else to commiserate with."
She snorts and smiles. "You have a point, there. But you're avoiding the question. Are you, or aren't you? And if you are, then where's the lucky guy?"
"What? Bring him here and let our family run him off? Give Uncle Tim any more reason to poke fun at me?" I joke with her. Uncle Tim's already four drinks in, and it's not even time for dinner yet. Aunt Georgia, my mother's sister, can't do anything to cut him off, so he's loud and obnoxious at 5:30 in the evening. It's a joke because I know that it wouldn't even scare Max off. He's put up with much worse in our short relationship.
"Hey. Derek had to go through it, so what's his name should, too. But you still haven't said...."
"Yes. I'm engaged," I say, but I tell her nothing more. My sister and I aren't close and never have been. You'd think we'd be allies against our mother, but that's not the case. We talk sometimes, mostly on-line, but when I say we talk I mostly mean she finds something to complain about and I pretend to listen and/or care.
"Thanks," I say, hoping she means it. "He's celebrating with his family, and Mom insisted that I come home. She met him, you know. Of course, she doesn't like him."
"Oh, fuck Mommie Dearest. You know she's never happy."
I nod. I know that very well, but it still doesn't mean that I don't want her to be happy with the choices I've made and my life. I'm still her daughter, and I want to make her proud. "When Mommie Dearest isn't happy, no one's happy," I laugh with a roll of my eyes.
"Yeah, but we only have to put up with it during major holidays. Derek's parents are both alcoholics, so actually, putting up with her and Terry isn't so bad. It could be worse."
I shrug and say, "I guess." That saying is supposed to offer me some sort of consolation, but it doesn't really.
"You know she tried to invite him for Christmas? John, I mean."
My eyes widen. "No, she didn't. Please tell me she didn't. Oh God, please tell me he's not coming."
Caroline laughs. "No, he's not. Apparently, he's still up in Toronto, but he's supposed to be coming back to Chicago after the new year. Something about having better mobility by then or whatever."
"I can't believe she'd invite him. After what happened over Thanksgiving...."
She gives me a sad look. "I can't believe that you can't believe she'd try something like that. She's our mother. Of course she would. Don't be a fool." Caroline finishes her cookie, grabs another, and leaves me in the kitchen with my thoughts.
As the rest of the night progresses, I try to stay in the background and keep the conversations on topics other than myself. Luckily, my family is full of the types of people that enjoy talking about themselves. As long as I ask questions about them, I never have to talk about what I'm doing in Pittsburgh or who I'm doing in Pittsburgh. And no one notices the ring, because I keep my hand shoved in my left pocket. A cop out? Maybe, but I don't care.