It’s the night before Christmas Eve and I’m lying underneath the lit tree feeling like I’m looking up a girl’s skirt. It makes me snicker. I’ve always loved looking up through the branches, seeing the twinkle lights and the decorations poking through. I can only do it at night when it’s quiet, though, otherwise I don’t feel the magic. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel the warmth and color of the tree lights against my eyelids. I hear sleigh bells. I feel Santa’s smile. And I feel loved.
Which is the feeling I’m after now, but it’s not the same. It’s not coming like it usually does once I close my eyes. I try deep, slow breaths and sing Silent Night in my head. I imagine a star in the sky brighter than any other, and a winged angel hovering over where I’m lying. I think of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life and how he was reborn when he learned of the kind of impact he had on other’s lives.
My stomach growls. I officially suck at capturing the Christmas Spirit this year. Like everything else, it makes me want to cry. I haven’t believed in Santa Claus for years, but the idea-slash-magic of him has never deserted me before. And if this is what growing up feels like, I don’t want any part of it.
I made Mom a memory book for Christmas—an album of photos that I arranged just so, with little captions to go with each picture. It included her and Dad’s wedding photo, various little kid photos of Edward and me in embarrassing poses, the night we all stuck our tongues out together at one of Mom’s cooking experiments, the year we went to the Grand Canyon, me in my Wildcats uniform and Edward in his fencing gear. Mr. Meyer was beside himself when I brought the idea up, and happily let me work on that project instead of the assigned paper mache fish of The Great Barrier Reef. Thank God.
She’s been back for almost two months, but the only thing I want for Christmas this year is to have my mom truly back.
“Hey.” Edward’s sitting beside me with his legs crossed. His hair is light enough that the tree lights shade it every color of the rainbow, and he looks quite … magical.
“What are you doing up?”
“Had to go to the bathroom. I noticed the tree lights were on and thought maybe Dad had forgot to turn them off. What are you doing up?”
I look back up into the tree. “Searching for Santa’s elves. They’re shy, though. I haven’t found one yet.”
“What?” I can hear the smile in his voice.
“I found one in my jacket pocket today,” I continue. “A little guy wearing a striped, long stocking cap and he had red hair like yours. He sat in the palm of my hand and told me he was looking for his brothers and sisters, and that they were hiding in our tree. So … I’m looking for them.”
Edward stretches out beside me and then we’re shoulder-to-shoulder. It feels nice. “Maybe they only peek out when you turn your head away,” he says, playing along.
“That red-headed elf was a tricky one. He made me close my eyes and make a wish and when I opened them, he was gone.”
“What did you wish for?”
“Can’t tell you that,” I sigh. “But I think he was lying because I haven’t found one single elf.”
Edward sits up and before I know what he’s doing, he’s grabbed one of the ornaments off the tree and is pressing it into my hand. As he lies back down with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen on his face, I raise my hand and see that it’s a little wooden elf. It’s the only elf ornament we have and he found it just like that?
I turn on my side to face him and my smile is as big as his. Now … now, it feels like Christmas. And I can tell by the look in his eyes that he feels the same way.
. . .
Rose and I have a sleep-over at Alice’s place the day after Christmas. We’re all wearing the footy pajamas that the McCarty’s got us. Rose’s is red with white polar bears, Alice’s is a pink leopard print, and mine is dark blue with light blue snowflakes. Mrs. McCarty knows us well. Definitely better than my mom seems to know me lately.
Alice has the neatest bedroom—the walls are painted a light gold and there are two huge, ornate gold-framed mirrors that face each other from opposite walls. They are draped with heavy purple velvet and made to look like windows with the curtains open. Her bed is a four poster hung with more of the thick purple velvet and lavender sheers. It makes me think of the inside of a jewelry box. Plus, she’s got one of those curved TVs, a new Christmas gift.
It’s extravagant, but I guess that’s what you get when your dad is a bank VP and your mom is a Financial Director of a clothing chain. Mine and Edward’s gifts were more along the lines of iTunes gift cards and sweaters. Which I don’t mind, but it’s not the reason for my bad mood this year.
Mom didn’t react like I thought she would at my gift. Her face as she looked at the album in her hands was almost one of surprise. She cried a little, she said she loved it, but she put it down and never picked it up again. Edward held me as I cried about it later that night and told me if she couldn’t see just yet that I’d put my heart and soul into that album, that she would soon. I just had to give her time.
But we both wondered how much time was going to be enough.
“How was the soap making class with your mom?” Alice asks as she pops a chocolate Santa head into her mouth.
“Fine,” I say. All three bathrooms at home have dishes of the soap we made in the last two weeks. Dad winces every time he has to use it, but they won’t last as long as a regular bar of soap. I caught Edward throwing away a couple of bars of it yesterday and gave him hell.
So I gave some of the soap to Alice and Rose. A pink, lavender scented bar for Alice, and a pink, rose scented bar for Rose. They love them.
“Oh!” Rose gasps. “How’d your mom like the scrapbook?”
“I bet she loved it,” Alice says. “It’s so cool. I want to make one for my mom. She’ll just die!”
I try to gather my thoughts. “Um, well, she didn’t die, but she liked it,” I say.
In the long pauses that follow, I’m afraid to look up at them. I don’t want them to see how hurt I feel. It’s bad enough they hear it.
“Bitch,” Alice breathes.
“Alice!” Rose says.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I tell them. “It’ll just make me upset, okay? Let’s just watch a movie or something, okay?”
They both squeeze the stuffing out of me, and then we watch A Christmas Story and race to be the first to shout the movie’s lines to each other. Fra-geee-lay.
. . .
Mom comes home one day in the spring with her hair all chopped off. I’m horrified. It’s shorter than Edward’s.
“Don’t you like it?” she asks me with a tremulous smile.
“I-I-I like it,” I say weakly. “But not as much as the way you had it. Oh, God, Mom. Why?”
“I needed a change, that’s all. It will grow back, don’t worry, Bella. And meanwhile, I have this totally new look and won’t have to spend so much time in the bathroom. Your Dad should be thrilled.”
I didn’t think Dad was going to be thrilled.
In April, Mom began going to Yoga, after she was encouraged to do so by her psychiatrist. Already thin to begin with, she lost weight rapidly and Dad accused her of not eating enough.
May saw her give up Yoga in favor of making jewelry, and soon I had a bracelet for every top I chose to wear. That lasted until the end of the month, when she decided she wanted to try Edward’s sport, fencing. She wasn’t very good at that—Edward said she didn’t have the patience or focus to keep the steps straight. When June rolled around, she was into origami. There wasn’t a scrap of paper in the house that wasn’t folded into a 3-D shape. She even folded the ends of the toilet paper.
All the while, she kept Edward at a distance. He let her, though. It’s like he expected it. I wouldn’t allow it, though. I forced my time onto her, made myself into the carefree and loving daughter who didn’t ask questions – the daughter I thought she wanted me to be.
In June, Mom and Dad had a fight in the kitchen right in front of Edward and me. Usually they fought behind doors, but this time there were no holds barred.
“You’re seeing him again,” Dad growled.
“I work with him, Charlie! Of course I see him.”
“Don’t be dense. I won’t be the fool again. This time, you either tell him goodbye, or-or—”
“Or what? What, Charlie?”
“I’ll leave you. I’ll take the kids and I’ll leave you.”
And there it was. The roof of our little house was caving in and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it.
Only Dad isn’t the one who asks for the divorce. Not a month later, Mom has papers served to him at the police station. By the time we get home, she’s gone. Just … gone.
I tear the note she left me into little pieces, then keep them in a baggie beside my bed.
. . .
“I want you to go to your Mom’s for the summer,” Dad says.
No way! I’m not leaving him! Or Edward, Rose, Alice, Jasper or Emmett. “But—”
“Bella, I’m worried about her. She needs some kind of calming, steady influence. And that’s you, honey. Please. Just think about it.”
“But she lives in Florida,” I gasp. The divorce isn’t even final yet and Mom’s living in Florida with some guy she used to work with named Phil. I’d rather eat a can of lima beans without anything to drink, or have to get a tooth filled at the dentist, or most anything really, than to have to see Mom with another man who isn’t Dad.
He nods. “I think you’d like Orlando.”
But he doesn’t get it. I don’t want to be anywhere without my family. And right now, he and Edward and Rose and Alice are more my family than my Mom is.
Edward, of course, agrees. He’s the one that said I should go with Mom in the first place. “It’s just for the summer,” he says. “That’s not so bad.”
“What about the Wildcats?” I cry.
He grins and pulls me into a hug. “Ohhhhh, how will they ever manage without you?”
Mom doesn’t press me about it, doesn’t ask me to come to Florida, but I can tell she wants me to come. It’s in the things she doesn’t say, in the heavy silences between words. I don’t know why she wants me to come, I don’t think she needs me like Dad thinks she does, but in the end, I cave. I do what everyone wants and forget what I want.
As a going-away gift, I finally get my own phone. It’s a small consolation.
At the airport, I can’t seem to let go of Edward.
“You see me where I never was and where I cannot be,” I say. “And yet that’s where you always see my face. What am I?”
“I promise I’ll call and text often,” he says. He hides it well, but I hear the tears in his voice.
. . .
Orlando is sticky, hot and clean as the Pope’s toothpick. I’ve never seen such tidy looking streets, or such neatly trimmed trees and grass. It’s almost Stepford-like.
Mom is almost bursting at the seams, she’s so excited I’m here. “We’ll have to go to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, and Phil has a sailboat so we can go sailing. Did you know that we live right on a lake?”
It seems odd for her to have this level of excitement when I consider how down she was on the phone just hours ago. Dad told us that she’s been diagnosed as a manic depressive, which means she can be very energetic and happy one minute, and totally in the dumps the next.
And it’s hereditary. Every mood swing I have makes me afraid that I’m one step away from being hospitalized.
I text Edward on my new iPhone. I’m here. It’s so hot, my sweat has sweat.
Then I text Rose and Alice. Mom’s boyfriend lives on a lake and has a sailboat.
Edward’s answer makes me smile. You must really smell then. Make sure you give Phil a big hug.
Phil isn’t what I expect at all. He’s taller than Dad, blond and about ten years younger than Mom. I hate him on the spot.
“So I hear you’re on a Wildcat softball team,” he says.
“Phil plays in a summer baseball league,” Mom says all proud, like Phil is a pet or something.
I shake my head. “Not anymore. I’m interested in ice skating.” Which is a total lie, but he doesn’t have to know that.
“Since when?” Mom asks.
“Since August,” I say. She wasn’t around then. She doesn’t know anything.
“Oh, well maybe we can play catch anyway,” Phil says. “Maybe hit some balls at the park?”
I shrug. I feel like a brat, but I’m not going to make this easy for him.
They show me to my room like I’m a guest in a hotel. It’s a nice enough room with high ceilings, a walk-in bathroom and huge windows that look out on the water.
I feel gross because my sweat soaked into my clothes, which are now damp against my skin.
“I’m going to take a shower,” I say.
“Um, okay,” Mom says. “Whatever you want, honey. We’ll be downstairs. Maybe later we can all go down to the restaurant at the dock?”
“I’m not really hungry.”
The tight knot in my throat would never let me swallow.
. . .
Answer to Bella’s question for Edward: a reflection.