On Christmas Eve I wandered around my mother’s house looking for things to wrap. For the last three days I’d been slamming doors and doing cocaine and forgetting that it was the season of giving, nominally because my girlfriend, Melanie, had left me hours before our trip north to visit our respective families. If I was being fair—which I wasn’t—Melanie’s decision made sense: Why wait until after the holiday disasters? It was one less thing to hold against each other forever. Downstairs, my sister Patricia hollered for scissors.
I opened the game closet and tried to find something without too many pieces missing. First Down! NFL Challenge was unopened but twenty years old. Warren Moon was an Oiler. The Oilers existed. Was it nostalgic kitsch yet? It went in the “maybe” pile. I heard Patricia pound up the back steps with Yoshi’s little dog claws clicking behind her.
“You’re wrapping, yeah?” she said. “I need paper, tape, and scissors.”
“Everyone’s got problems,” I said.
She looked over at my gift pile: a VHS copy of Con Air, a dusty martini shaker, a ceramic pig.
“Maybe some of your presents can be from both of us,” I said.
“Somehow that doesn’t seem fair,” Patricia said. My sister was in recovery and therefore disapproved of my selfish, histrionic drug binge.
“I’m doing my best,” I said. Yoshi nuzzled my leg because she loved me and wanted me to be happy.
“Give me the wrapping stuff and I won’t call you out on how full of shit you are,” Patricia said.
When I finally came back with the things she’d asked for, Patricia was examining the underside of a massive pink conch shell that I’d found in my closet.
“Souvenir of a lifetime, St. Kitts ’96,” she read. “Do you remember that trip?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” she said. “Those vacations all blur together. I guess we were probably fucked up.”
“We were, like, children in 1996,” I said.
I followed her downstairs but took a detour to the back deck to smoke a cigarette. There was some new snow out there that crunched under my feet in a not-hostile way. Someone had put cows in the field behind the woods, and I could hear them moaning. This was New Jersey, Princeton, for Christ’s sake. The cows knew they were far from home.
The last night I’d spent with Melanie had been in her little house outside Durham. That night it had rained so hard I thought the roof was going to come down on us, and when we had sex, Melanie wouldn’t make a sound no matter what I did. In the morning, over pancakes, she told me she was unhappy, that she needed time to think. Then, half an hour later, while I sat drinking coffee in a diner down the street, she called and told me that, actually, she’d thought about it enough. The rain turned to snow near the fourth tollbooth in Delaware and kept at it for the next two days.
My mother opened the porch door.
“I don’t care that you’re smoking,” she said. “As long as it’s just for now.”
My mother didn’t actually care. If I caught my kid smoking, I’d make him smoke a whole pack or hang a burning cigarette around his neck for twenty-four hours like a dog that’s killed a chicken.
“It’s just for now,” I said.
My mother sighed. “You know, if you don’t go to bed, Santa won’t come.”
“Ma, it’s only nine thirty.”
“Not in the North Pole it isn’t,” she said. “How does Patricia seem to you?”
“A little on edge,” I said. “But straight.”
“And you?” my mother said.
I flicked my cigarette toward the trees. It landed, still lit despite the snow, in the middle of the yard. “Similar.”