Driving home from work on Tuesday, she decided to pick up the tea the doctor had recommended. It was dark out, well past six on a January night. The doctor’s hippie tea blends were sold from big jars at the coffee shop. She parked in front of the coffee shop and got out of her car distracted by the light-filled building across the street. A concert or something at the Arts Center.
It looked fun, full of people on an otherwise sleepy weeknight. Too late to join in, probably. Preoccupied by this, she walked into the coffee shop and found it dark and empty.
She looked around.
There was no one inside.
Even considering what a quirky, hippie business it was, this seemed a bit much…
And then the alarm went off.
Tiptoeing out of the building, she was met with a guy leaning against his car outside, saying, “They’re closed.”
He said it in in that mellow Northwestwerly way that is chill and friendly, but uncaring.
“I figured that out,” she said. “Hopefully they will, too.”
The doctor had agreed that she was BURNT OUT. She had been prescribed the tea to restore the burn, and was also supposed to go in on Saturday for blood work to confirm.
She had sat down with this doctor, an island doctor, who must be kinder and more patient than most, because she lived here, for more than an hour. They had discussed everything from what kinds of foods she craved to what caused her stress as a child.
Trust in a doctor-patient relationship is not just about discretion. It’s about an investment of time, and of confessing one’s sins.
I drink too much.
Okay, yes, I do smoke.
Sometimes I eat a whole box of donuts.
You tell your doctor, not for forgiveness, but because your imperfections are presumably a factor. In a perfect world, a doctor would see the whole you, so they could diagnose the entire ecosystem of you, mindful of the donuts, but not judging them.
In a perfect world.
She had had a wonderful first date with this doctor. They had covered so much ground. She felt the afterglow of confession, of feeling recognized in the eyes of an extremely educated medical professional. She felt that, surely, this woman would understand her situation and help her fix it.
So she had pills to take and tea to drink and blood work in a few days.
A designer and artist, she felt her ailments in color and texture. Thursday, in the overcast heart of January, she felt as she had for months a craving for red. This red was the color of passion, and not just any red – cabernet. Call it pretentious, but by god, only the deepest, richest red would do.
In her quest for this rich, vivacious, un-burned-out, reddest of reds, she was lured by the corner of a dress folded on a 50% off table. She hadn’t been into this shop, up the street from the doctor’s office, before. It looked so twee from the street. But here she was rummaging through their sale goods.
Carrying two dresses into the shop, one (let us go ahead and call it) cabernet and the other turquoise, she was greeted by a fluffy woman in overalls, arms outspread, offering her dressing room – Behind the curtain, just shove the wrapping paper out of the way.
When she emerged a short time later, she was met with, “You didn’t come out for a twirl!”
She bought both of them and promised to come in next time she was wearing one, to twirl.
On Saturday morning she walked into the doctor’s office to be greeted by the typically calm assistant bursting with explanations and lectures. I was just calling you… so you know… you would be the one to call the lab to check if the blood work was covered…
The doctor emerged. It was that moment, after a date, when you run into someone on the street and they’re suddenly frosty. I said you would need to call them, the doctor said.
She left feeling like an idiot. The labyrinth that is American healthcare had defeated her, once again. She hadn’t read the invisible ink.
There was surely moral enough in the fact that she, personally, diagnosed and treated herself with a dress of a certain color. But that was the thing about this life, an assumption she made, perhaps foolishly – that everyone had a role and could work together. She assumed she could be the one who thought in colors, and that a doctor could be the one who thought in treatments, and so on. She believed in specialization. But it was becoming clear to her that she would need to start educating her specialists. Write it down in more detail, please. Who am I calling, and what do I say?
In the meantime what made her feel better was not the tea she hadn’t been able to buy, or the possibility of this lab work, or even the red of the dress she’d bought.
What made her feel better was remembering that shopkeeper, arms open wide, insisting, You owe me a twirl!
She wasn’t sure why she kept carrying around the damn Minion. Just a cheap plastic Christmas ornament she’d meant to hang from her rear view mirror, thinking it would put a smile on her face on dark winter mornings to see the grinning fella with his wreath. But now it was New Year’s Eve, she was leaving a bar, and a man was asking for her number, and more. Fishing through her purse for a pen, she instead found the Minion in her hand…
Ordinarily she hid on the last night of the year, unamused by the ruckus as only a seasoned bar-hopper can be. She hadn’t hopped any bars since moving to this little island, though. She was now a grounded gal in boots with real beach mud on them. So why bother with nylons and strangers, she grumbled to her mother.
But she did anyway.
Driving into town, it was very clear the classy bar was tucking itself in for the night and the party was at the local dive. The twang from a country trio filled the otherwise silent night sky. So she walked in her long skirt into the only establishment in town boasting plate-size pancakes in the mornings and five dollar doubles at night.
Everyone was in jeans and everyone was plastered.
She felt like a princess in the worst possible way, but out of sheer principle she ordered a beer.
The problem with showing up after a football game and four rounds is that everyone around you has partnered up to the degree they’re going to. The buffet is basically empty, and unknowingly, you have become the last drumstick.
A drumstick in a skirt.
She had to keep her wits about her.
A drumstick discovers quickly that nice men move slowly, while weirdos and the very horny have no inhibitions. But it was the retirees who were unnerving her, their eyes locked on her from all corners, like the sight of her cleared the beer from their bleary brains and made room for just one delicious thought:
Exhausted by the military maneuvers before she’d even finished peeling the label from her beer, she gave in to the second guy who approached her, letting him sit with her and pretend to have a conversation through the music and his drunken blur.
He made her laugh, but she couldn’t tell if it was intentional. She mostly felt pleased that his presence protected her from the old men, many still staring.
At midnight, he faltered and kissed her hand. She made him get up and dance, and he did, and kissed her there. And she liked it, in spite of how blurry he was. He was a man, and the song was festive, and she’d made it out of the godforsaken year before, and it was enough to make her laugh.
A little later, as he negotiated with a buddy over a spare cell phone he wanted to buy, it became clear that the kiss to “Brown Eyed Girl” would be as magical as her first New Year’s Eve on the island would get.
She told him she was going to turn into a pumpkin soon, and then had to explain what she meant. Because his cell was broken, and he wanted her number, and giving it to him seemed like the easiest way to leave, she fished through her purse for a pen.
He said something she couldn’t hear. She leaned forward to hear him repeating, “I want to come with you.”
She wanted to say, I know you do, but I don’t, in any way, want to take you with me. Instead she handed him the Minion because it was in her hand. He set it aside, saying it again.
She realized looking at the ornament resting on the bar by his hand that giving it to him had made no sense, and yet had also been the most sincere thing she’d done all night. She felt certain the right guy, the guy she would take home, would have somehow understood that a Minion is significant.
For now all she could do was leave the bar, making her first New Year’s resolution as she pushed the door open: The next man I kiss will take the Minion.
Jon had darkness in his heart. He sighed and rubbed his massive jaw. He weighed 220 or so, these days, and 6’5″ in his boots. Just a young un, once, not so long ago. Now he had kids and couldn’t get laid on Christmas.
He sighed again. That wasn’t a very holy thing to think.
The wind coming off the Sound went right through you, the sky the same color as the water, all of it just waiting to start snowing. His daughter Jackie was waiting on him and he was running late like always. He opened the door of his truck with an accustomed yank, the hinge shrieking and a pencil rolling off the rubber mat onto the gravel drive. Picking it up, he climbed on in and sat on his cold-ass vinyl seat staring at the cracked dashboard and the little Grinch bobblehead his kid had given him.
Jason was eight and he still thought those machines with the claw where you fish something out of the glass cage for a buck was fun. Fuck if he didn’t get stuff, too. Jon fired up the truck, Shania singing Christmas from the AM radio station he always had on because the FM had given up. Shania. God. That was back when they were dating…
Contemplating his (ex) wife the summer “Feel Like a Woman” came out, Jon backed out the drive, almost hit a deer, swore a blue streak, corrected himself with a deep exhale and pulled out onto the main road. Driving up the winding roads into town he alternated between bitterness over how things had gone, and readying himself for Jackie and Mom.
Sure enough Mom and Dad had all the plastic Christmas shit out, the snowmen and the deer, like they needed fake ones, and a snow machine and the LED snowflakes that flickered bright enough to give you autism or whatever that problem with flashing lights was. He got out of the truck and walked in on the smell of sugar and cinnamon and pine and his dad’s gut in front of the TV.
They grunted in greeting at each other and Jon tromped into the kitchen, feeling the usual grim delight at wearing his boots inside his mother’s house. Jackie, fourteen or somewhere in there, was covered in flour making cookies while Mom talked along with Paula Dean on her iPad.
“You got books with recipes in them,” he said crossly, watching the dough rolling out under the yammering on the tablet.
“Paula always got it just right,” Mom said, “Even if she was a racist, the woman just knew cooking. Thinner, honey, we’re not making a cake.”
“Thought you were gonna get Jason first,” Jackie said.
“He’s staying with his friends till supper,” Jon said.
“So what are we doing?”
“I’ll take you over to your mother’s now,” he said, inwardly hating the defensiveness in his voice.
“But I’m not ready. I thought you were getting him and then coming over.”
Jon rubbed his face. His mother put a hand on his shoulder, a foot higher than her own, and said, “Watch the game. Relax, there’s no rush.”
But the idea of sitting with the old man staring at the TV just made him want to howl.
“I’ll come back,” he muttered, and without saying much of anything in the way of a goodbye or anything else, he left.
He got back in his truck and sighed, closing his eyes. When he opened them, for a moment he thought the plastic deer was blinking at him. Muttering, he turned on the car and backed out.
Down the bottom of the road his folks lived on, was the park, the one park on this godforsaken island. He pulled over in the gravel lot, near the only other person dumb enough to come to a chilly, rainy park on Christmas Eve, a little old lady in her sedan watching the seagulls. He got out and walked over to Big Foot’s Tracks, which were getting bigger.
“Yep, they’re bigger alright,” he could hear his buddy Bill say, two days before. They’d argued for an hour whether those dumb holes in the parking lot were bigger or not. Didn’t really matter what either of them thought though because the boss said they were a hazard and they had to figure out some way to fill them in or cover them up before some little kid tripped in them and broke his neck.
Jon stood there gazing at the holes, three or four of them each about a yard across and probably close to a foot deep in spots. Full of water now and if the weatherman was right they’d be ice by New Year’s. Damned if he knew how to deal with them when he couldn’t drain them out right. He’d have to think of something though, one more foot across and the little old ladies wouldn’t get their Subarus down here.
He got back in his truck and drove back up the hill. It wasn’t time enough to go back to get either of his rotten kids so he drove into town, figuring he’d wander the IGA a minute. Maybe get some booze. Or flowers for Mom. He hadn’t gotten anyone anything for Christmas.
In the IGA parking lot he noticed Bill had called like a hundred times and he hadn’t heard any of it. He idly thought he should turn up his ringer but instead he left the phone in the truck and went in the grocery store. It was sort of like Christmas in hell, with Bing Crosby playing from one old speaker in back, and hams rattling around in the yellowed cold case and bottles of Martinelli’s gathering dust on a shelf. He asked the kid working the one open register to get him a bottle of Beam and he went in back to dig up some kind of mixer.
He stood there a long time contemplating drinking by himself on Christmas Eve. Maybe he should go all the way and just drink it straight. Or he could try to be festive and get that nog… or do you drink nog with rum… he couldn’t remember, he kinda hated the stuff. After a long time he came back up to the register with a poinsettia, now on sale, a six pack of Yule something, damn hipster craft beers taken over, and a pack of hot dogs. He gestured to forget the Beam and the kid set it behind the register like maybe he’d just start working on it himself.
Back in his truck he told himself to take the beer back to Mom and Dad’s and have one with the old man and the game and the cookies and his daughter. Right? Christmas is family. That’s what you do. You go back home to the folks with your beer and you watch a ball flying around.
Instead he remembered to check out that other job, the road going out to the clinic, there was a turnaround for ambulances and it was all broken out on one side.
The turnaround was on the far side of Brent Garfield’s field, which had been flooding the past couple years because he wouldn’t get the irrigation worked on, and the pavement here on this side was just collapsing. The little ambulance wouldn’t have too tough a time avoiding it but on the other hand who wanted those two gals who drove it dealing with that when they were trying to get to some old person on the other side of the island.
He decided this job was more urgent than Big Foot’s Tracks and he and Bill could start working on it after Christmas. Course he had to wait for Bill to get back from vacation, he’d gone to Hawaii with his wife.
Jon suddenly became aware of the heaviness inside him. It was like for a split second he could really feel it, a physical weight, kinda right there around his heart, just weighing him down. Turning a smile into a frown, that’s what his mom would have said, and heck, it was true. It dragged him down and everything he said and everything he did. It just made him feel like poop all the time.
Walking back to his truck, he tried to remember when the last time was he’d felt normal. Inside the truck the phone was vibrating; photos of Bill and Sandra on a beach. Hating them, he tossed the phone to the other side of the seat. He sat there thinking, I hate my friend. It’s Christmas and I hate my folks and I hate my best bud and I think maybe most of all I hate myself.
The last time he’d come to this clinic, one of those gals who drove the ambulance was inside talking to the nurses at the counter. She was a big busty black woman with those long skinny braids pulled into a big ponytail. There were beads in them. She lived off island, and was showing photos of her kids to the nurses. She had a laugh with bells in it. It made him want to smile, but he never smiled anymore, so he didn’t. He just stood there, waiting his turn to check in for his appointment.
The doctor told him he needed to lose weight and should keep an eye on his blood sugar and maybe his blood pressure too. He asked how much beer he drank, and Jon told him, and he asked whether he was sexually active, and Jon said no, and he asked if he got any other kind of exercise, and Jon said his work was exercise, and the doctor said, well, you’d better get some fun in your life soon because I hardly recognize you, Jon. Weren’t you the one who used to string up every Christmas light on the island around your house?
That was when the kids were little, Jon said, buttoning his shirt. But what he meant was, it was before she gave up on him, and before he realized he didn’t know how to start over with anyone.
Now in front of the empty clinic Jon thought about that gal who drove the ambulance. She was pretty cool. But she’d looked right through him. He fired up the truck and pulled out.
Two Christmasses ago he’d asked his ex about starting over. He’d put on his good Christmas sweater, the blue one that Jackie said made him look distinguished, and he’d bought a poinsettia even before it went on sale, and he’d brought it over and made her a little speech about love never dying and a man growing up that learns lessons and knows where his true happiness is.
It had been a pretty damn good speech. He’d run bits of it by Bill when they’d poured the concrete for the high school basketball court, and he’d run other bits of it by Lisa who worked the bar at Salty’s, and he’d even run one really tricky bit by the dog. Everyone seemed to think it was pretty damn good. Except her. She just looked him up and down and said, “Is that why you’re wearing that sweater?”
That was like her, and it made him wonder, the next Christmas, if the worst part of his story was that he loved a first class bitch.
“You don’t love her,” Bill said after that. “You miss her. She’s comfortable. You know where… all the hard parts are.”
Now, driving down the hill toward the east side of the island, Jon wondered if that was what love was: knowing the worst parts of someone so you didn’t have to be scared of what was around the bend.
In a good Christmas story, Jon would pull over to get gas, and the woman of his dreams would be filling her SUV at the next pump. Or he’d drive back to his folks’ and his daughter would give some adolescent piece of wisdom that would knock some sense into him. Or he’d decide to give Tamara, that woman who drove the ambulance, a smile the next time he saw her. But real life isn’t like that and Christmas, as much as we’d like it to be, is definitely not like that.
Christmas, whatever you believe in, is just another day.
What Jon did was pull over and call Bill. He stood leaning on his truck staring out over the ocean and he listened to his buddy go on about the high prices of the Mai Tais and how Sandra had a tan already and wow won’t it be hard coming back to the shit weather of the Northwest! and while they talked, Jon watched himself get back in his truck, and drive back to his folks, and pick up his daughter, and then across the island to pick up his son, and take them to his ex wife’s, and drop them off, and drive home, to turn on the TV, alone, and heat up a couple hot dogs, and drink some hipster beer, and eventually, go to bed.
And the darkness and the heaviness filled him while his buddy talked. And Jon just let it. He just let it sink down from his heart all the way into his toes in his boots, and blow up through his lungs into his throat and his eyes, coloring his sight with a gray cloud, and up into his head, so that it pounded with the awful dumb life that he had been living. And he just stood there and listened while this happened.
He realized it was suddenly silent, and for a minute he wasn’t sure where he was or what he had been doing, and then he heard Bill say in his ear, “Jon? You there?”
And after a beat Bill said, “You okay, man?”
“Not really,” Jon found himself saying.
There was a pause.
“I’m a mess.”
“You know what?” Jon asked his friend.
“I don’t want it to be like this, anymore. I want it to be better.”
“It will, man. It will. It always gets better. You’ll see.”
“I think I need to date.”
“I think so too.”
“Maybe I need to, like, get a better place. My place is kinda depressing.”
“And a new truck.”
“I need a new truck,” Jon agreed. “I could afford a new truck.”
Behind him, a deer crossed the highway. No one saw it, no one hit it, no one felt anything about this deer in this moment as it walked across the asphalt. But it happened. And in Jon’s heart, something like that happened too. Something changed.
Just a little.
But it was enough.
It begins with an angry woman in a city gone mad. It begins with Amazon and poverty colliding, with immigrants driving for the first time in their lives alongside homeless people migrating across the city in dilapidated trailers. It begins with your mother calling, asking, “Were you caught in the shooting?” and you saying, “Probably not, since I’m afraid to leave the house and am not bleeding anywhere.”
It starts with you pulling over on the side of the road on your birthday because one too many cars have honked in one too many ambiguous traffic conflicts.
You pull over
You do not go out, on your birthday, or try to have fun. You do not get shots with friends, you do not enjoy a slice of cheesecake at a restaurant with a view, you do not put on a red top. You just wipe the mascara-stained tears from your face and you drive home and Netflix it because what is the fucking point.
And in the midst of all this, what is left of your beating heart is asking itself, in a desperate tone Captain Kirk might have used during the climactic scene of an old Star Trek episode, Think, Scotty, think. There has to be some reason you were put on this earth and crying on your birthday is not it.
Try to remember.
Remember what keeps your heart beating.
They tell you, doctors and biology teachers and boring health articles tell you that your heartbeat is an automatic function. Your body just does certain things without you having to think about it. But you get high enough some night and on a bad trip you will know that your heart does not beat on its own and your lungs do not expel air on their own and your blood does not circulate on its own.
They do these things because there is a piece of you, albeit a very quiet, not-yet-discovered-by-doctors piece, that wills them to. That says, Keep going fellas. We’re still in this thing.
And sometimes that little biological memo doesn’t come through as often, or it comes through wrinkled or copied on old neon paper no one can read. What is this and why is it lime green? You start to forget why you’re here, and start asking a terrible question: Why bother?
“Why bother” was the question on my mind when I answered an ad on Craigslist for a two bedroom apartment on an island you can only reach by ferry. I answered the ad and made an appointment to go see it, but that night there was a storm. The woman showing the unit called and said, “Don’t come.”
I took that as an omen that I shouldn’t pursue it further, after all, who would knowingly move someplace where a little wind and rain can make it hard to get home to your bed?
But that night I went to sleep in my bed, in my cement tower, that overlooked a park where people gathered to yell at each other, because yelling at one another at home would be too boring, so let’s go to the park and yell there. When the woman with the island rental called again the next day, I agreed to give it another try, and I got on the ferry. I drove out in the dark over winding roads. The sky was big and blank over trees and fields and little houses on large pieces of property.
Sometimes you have to go mad to forget what everyone else wants, or thinks you should want. You go mad to remember what you want, even if, especially if, what you want is very, very inconvenient. And when you do, when you’re done crying and driving and eating cheesecake alone and listening to shots fired in the street, when all the unhappiness finally just bores you to hell..
You wind up standing under that big blank silent sky, listening to your heartbeat.