I never would have opened the door if I had any clue what would be behind it.
But I’ve been expecting a delivery. Band-Aids, courtesy of Amazon. I don’t even recall using any Band-Aids in the last several months, but yesterday I needed one when I slipped with the knife while trying to pry a bagel open, and they were all gone. Whenever I think I’ve finally got the hang of cutting things one-handed, I end up with a nice gash on my hand to prove me wrong. So I ordered Band-Aids. And also, a bagel guillotine.
Most people’s deliveries are left with the doorman, who keeps them stashed in a closet behind his desk. Lucky for me, Luis the super is nice enough to bring packages directly to my door. He does that favor for me and four other people in the building. All of the other tenants who get their packages hand-delivered are over the age of seventy. Certainly none of them are in their early thirties like yours truly.
I’d tell him I’d get the damn packages myself, but who am I kidding? I can’t carry a box while I’m walking. After six years of this, I’ve learned not to let my stupid pride get in the way.
Most of the time.
So when I hear the doorbell ring, I assume it’s Luis. I throw open the door without even checking the peephole. Big mistake. One I will soon pay big time for.
Standing before me are three grade-school-aged girls. Three girls, somewhere between kindergarten and puberty, who look as surprised to see me as I am to see them. I assume these girls are my neighbors from somewhere within the building, but damned if I’ve ever seen them before. That’s the problem with essentially being a shut-in—I don’t know my neighbors. Actually, it’s less of a problem and more of a fringe benefit.
The girls are dressed identically. Identically and impractically. It’s below freezing out today, yet they’re each wearing green velvet dresses with short sleeves and red trim. The girls each have their hair tied into identical pigtail braids with the same red satin bows that trim their dresses. The middle girl is the tallest and blondest of the three. She’s the prettiest too. I can almost see this girl ten years from now, striking down any poor schmuck who dares to approach her. When she sees me, she shoots a look at a tall woman in her early forties standing to the side. The meaning of the look is obvious:
Do we have to do this?
The woman plasters a smile on her face and thrusts a hand in my direction. “Hello!” she says in a fake cheerful voice that grates on my nerves. “My name is Luann Williamson and I live in 8F!”
Shaking hands. So easy for most people. You stick out your right hand, clasp the other hand in front of you, and then it’s over. Bada bing, bada bang. Most people don’t even think about it.
My right arm doesn’t move. At all. Not my hand, not my elbow, not my shoulder. When my right hip started moving again, the doctors were hopeful for my arm, but nothing ever happened. Six months after an aneurysm burst in my brain on Christmas Day, I was told the chances of ever regaining any movement at all in my right arm were “slim to none.”
My right arm is useless. Completely and utterly useless.
I’ve gotten good at doing most things one-handed, albeit with occasional injury. For the first year, I was seething with resentment, but I’ve mellowed since then. So I can’t cut a bagel without nicking a vein. So I can’t tie my shoelaces anymore. Eventually, you get over it and move on.
The truth is, I could deal just fine with my right arm not being around to help me if the goddamn thing weren’t such a liability. That’s what kills me.
For example, at the moment, instead of lying quietly at my side, my right hand is clenched into a tight fist pressed firmly against my chest, my elbow bent as far as it can go, at the mercy of muscles I can’t control. It’s hard to even put a shirt on when my arm is this tight. It looks painful, and trust me—it is.
It’s the cold weather that does it to me. Not that the summer is any picnic, but the winter is always especially awful for my muscles. Yet another reason to dread Christmas.
Since I opened the door, Luann Williamson has been trying desperately to avoid staring at my arm. I could see it all over her face. Yet she still stuck out her right hand for me to shake. And now I have to deal with this situation.
I sigh and let go of the handle of my crutch with my left hand to clasp her hand briefly, just so this awkward moment can be over. Her cheeks color as our hands make contact, and she’s quick to pull away. If I needed a reminder why I haven’t dated in years, there it is.
Christ, why the hell are these people at my door? Are they girl scouts? Are they selling cookies? I don’t want cookies, but I’ll give them a wad of cash to leave immediately.
“My daughter Katie and her friends Liz and Brianna are singing carols for the holiday,” Luann Williamson explains to me. She’s not meeting my eyes anymore.
“Oh,” I say. “That’s nice.”
And then we stand there in uncomfortable silence. It takes fifteen minutes of silence before I get it.
These girls want to sing for me. Christmas songs.
Is she kidding me?
“Luis suggested you might enjoy it,” Luann Williamson adds.
Oh. Okay, I get it now. Luis gave her the names of me and the other building shut-ins who were likely to be home at four in the afternoon on a Monday. He didn’t do it to be a jerk. He probably thought we all needed a bright spot in our day. A little Christmas cheer.
Except I’m in the middle of working, and I really really don’t have time to listen to Christmas carols. I’m about to explain that when the chubby little brunette on the end says to me, “What’s your favorite Christmas song, Mister?”
I stare at her. “I don’t like Christmas songs.”
The dark-haired girl’s eyes widen. “You don’t?”
She couldn’t have looked more horrified if I admitted to her that I’m ninety-five percent sure the Santa at the department store down the block is the homeless man I’ve seen sleeping on our corner.
“No,” I say in a voice that I hope does not invite further exploration of the topic. I glance at Luann Williamson. “I’m sure there are other people in the building who would really enjoy this, but I’m working now. I’m very busy.”
“Yeah, let’s go,” the blond girl, Future Destroyer of Men, mutters under her breath.
Go, please go. I can’t stand here while these three kids sing songs for me because they feel sorry for me. And about my least favorite holiday.
Christmas. Taylor used to love Christmas.
That tree we had six years ago was the last one that’s ever been in my home.
I wonder if Taylor’s got a new tree. I wonder if she’s got presents stacked under the tree for her new husband. I wonder if they’re going to have sex on Christmas morning.
“My favorite is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” the dark-haired girl tells me.
“Ugh!” the blond girl huffs. “I hate that stupid song, Katie!”
“It’s funny,” the brunette, Katie, insists. “You have to do it with the funny lyrics.” She looks at me, her brown eyes wide and earnest. Somehow she reminds me of Taylor—what Taylor might have been like when she was a little girl. “So after the lyrics, ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer had a very shiny nose,’ someone else would say—”
“Like a lightbulb,” I finish, without meaning to. I spent a good year of my childhood singing that song. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history—like George Washington! When I was nine, that was the height of comedy. I wish anything could make me as happy now as that song made me when I was a kid.
Katie beams at me. “Yeah! You know it?”
I didn’t mean to encourage her. But now it’s too late. This little girl is singing—singing her heart out. She’s off-key but what she lacks in pitch, she makes up in enthusiasm. She’s belting out the most boisterous version of Rudolph I’ve ever heard while her friends reluctantly sing along. It’s cute—I’m not going to say it’s not cute. But I’m not in the mood for this shit. I’ve got a lot of work to do.
And even if I didn’t have anything to do, I’m still not in the mood.
When they finish the song, Katie does jazz hands. She looks really proud of herself. The corners of my lips twitch, almost smiling but not quite. It’s possible I’ve forgotten how.
“Thanks,” I mutter. “Okay, well, goodbye—”
“What song would you like next?” Katie asks me.
I look over at the blond girl, who is twirling one of her braids around her finger, her blue eyes lifted skyward. “God, Katie,” the girl says, “he doesn’t want any more songs. Let’s just go.”
“But…” Katie juts out her little chin. “We’re supposed to do three.”
I shake my head. “I’ve got work to do, so…”
“We’re supposed to do three,” Katie insists.
“Look, I don’t—”
Her eyes brighten. “What about The Twelve Days of Christmas?”
No. No. “I really don’t—”
“Katie, honey,” Luann says through her teeth, “this man says he doesn’t want any more songs.”
“You said we’re bringing Christmas cheer to people who don’t have friends and family,” Katie says pointedly. Well, she’s got my number. No friends, no family. Just me, my computer, a plant I keep forgetting to water, and soon a bagel guillotine. “You said three songs, Mommy.”
Luann lets out a strangled laugh. “Katie…”
“On the first day of Christmas,” Katie begins, her clear voice ringing out through the hallway, “my true love gave to me…”
Why is everything this week straining the very limits of my patience? I could have listened to one more quick song, but doesn’t this song have like a million verses? Or at least… you know, twelve verses? Which is a lot.
I don’t have time for this. And what’s more, my right leg is tightening up to the point where I’m worried I won’t be able to stand much longer. I don’t want to face-plant in front of these girls.
“I’m sorry,” I say, even as Katie is still belting out the lyrics, “I really don’t have time to—”
“…a partridge in a pair tree…”
She’s not stopping. For Christ’s sake…
“I’m sorry,” I say again.
And then? I shut the door in her face.
Yes, I slam the door in the face of a little girl. Who is trying to sing me Christmas carols because I apparently have no friends or family. Two weeks before Christmas.
I’m worse than Mr. Wilson. I’m Scrooge.
But in my defense, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a really fucking long song.
“Henry! Stop fiddling with your jacket!”
Walking home with my child from his school five blocks away is an exercise in learning to control my temper. When I picked him up, he insisted he didn’t want to wear his winter coat because it was “so hot.” After spending five minutes trying to persuade him he couldn’t go out in a T-shirt in sub-freezing temperatures, I decided to just go with it. I assumed within one minute, Henry would crack and put the damn thing on.
After two blocks, Henry was still happily walking along next to me in his T-shirt. My iPhone was reporting the temperature to be twenty-nine degrees, but my child was somehow perfectly comfortable with no coat or even sweater. Does he have some problem with his temperature regulation? Is his internal thermometer broken? Is that a thing?
People were starting to give me some serious dirty looks. One woman barked at me that she was going to report me to Child Protective Services. Finally, I was the one who cracked. I shook Henry’s blue Cars-themed jacket in his face and barked, “You need to put this on! It’s too cold!”
“I’m not cold!”
“I don’t care!”
Not my best parenting moment, that’s for sure. And then once Henry put the damn coat on, he couldn’t figure out the zipper. The cold wind slapped me in the face as I got down on my knees to inspect the little zipper on Henry’s coat. I don’t understand why all the zippers on children’s coats are dysfunctional. Is that too much to ask for? A working zipper?
Of course, two minutes after I got it zipped, Henry had unzipped it because it was “so hot!”
By the time I get to our building, I’m ready to climb into bed and hide under the covers for the next week. My job as the manager of a busy restaurant is stressful enough, especially since one of the waitresses no-showed and I had to sub in for her shift. I’m just lucky they let me adjust my hours so I’d be able to leave early enough to pick up Henry when his afterschool program ended.
At least the lobby is warm. The heat fills my cheeks and my fingers tingle as the circulation starts back up. Also, they’ve put up a Christmas tree in the lobby, which fills my chest with a warm, good feeling. I love Christmas. I mean, you pretty much have to if you have a name like “Noelle.” We only have space in our tiny apartment for a half-sized tree, but this one is full-sized or even plus-sized, lit with multicolored bulbs and ornaments hanging off every branch. Unfortunately, they’ve pushed it all the way to the side of the lobby so you can barely see it.
“Katie, honey, I’m sure he was just really busy…”
I look over at the plush red couches at the far end of the lobby, where there’s a little dark-haired girl in a pretty green velvet dress, who is sobbing loudly while a woman attempts to comfort her. Henry nudges me when he sees them, “Mom, that’s Katie from school!” He raises his hand at her. “Hi, Katie!”
Before I can tell my son to leave the poor girl alone, I’ve made eye contact with the woman comforting her. She shoots me a pained look, and I feel obligated to go over there. After all, I don’t know many people in the building yet. I should probably try to make some friends. It seems like Greg got all our old friends in the divorce.
“Is everything okay?” I ask. “Anything I can do to help?”
The woman rubs the little girl’s back. “We had a caroling mishap.”
“I was just trying to do three songs!” Katie bursts out.
The woman sighs and tucks her blond hair behind her ear. “The girls were trying to sing for this man on the fifth floor who… well, he was busy, I guess. He shut the door in our face in the middle of Katie singing.”
I gasp. “How awful!”
“We live on the fifth floor!” Henry volunteers. He looks up at me, his eyes widening. “Mom, I bet it was the mean guy in 5B!”
“It was!” Katie exclaims, wiping tears from her eyes. “It was 5B! He didn’t like our songs at all.”
“I hate that guy!” Henry exclaims.
“Henry,” I say sternly. “We don’t say ‘hate.’ That’s not a nice word.”
“Yeah, but he’s really mean!” My son juts out his lower lip. “He slammed the door on Katie while she was singing. That’s rude, right, Mom? And he was mean to me too!”
“Still,” I say.
The woman’s eyebrows are scrunched together, so I tell her, “This guy heard Henry playing with his ball in the hallway and threatened to take it away.”
“Oh wow!” She shakes her head. “That’s terrible. I’ve seen that guy around, and if I knew it was his apartment… well, I certainly wouldn’t have knocked. He’s not very friendly. I’ve shared an elevator with him, and he doesn’t even say hello. He just grunts if you talk to him.”
“Probably better to stay out of his way.” I offer a smile. “By the way, I’m Noelle. My son and I just moved in to 5H.”
I reach out my hand and the woman clasps it in her own as she smiles at me. She seems nice. I want to make some new friends. I don’t want to admit how desperately lonely I’ve been in the last year.
“I’m Luann,” she says. “Katie is my youngest—I’ve got an older son too. We live in 8F. Welcome to the building.” Her smile widens. “A few grouches aside, it’s a nice place to live.”
“I love the Christmas tree.” My eyes go back to the large tree at the far end of the lobby. It’s really beautiful. It reminds me of the trees we used to have when I was growing up, before I was relegated to tiny apartments in the city. “Why does it have to be all tucked away back there though?”
“I know!” Luann cries. “I was thinking the same thing!”
The doorman, Joe, is flipping through a magazine at his desk. Joe is always reading or fiddling with his phone or dozing off. I feel like at the price we’re paying to live here, he should be constantly at attention like those guards in front of Buckingham Palace. I stride over to the desk and clear my throat until he looks up.
“Oh, hi, Ms. Moore,” he says. “What’s up?”
“That tree.” I point to it with my embarrassingly bitten fingernails. My bad habit is really getting out of control. I hope Luann doesn’t see. “Is there any way we could have it moved so that it’s where people can actually see it?”
“I can see it,” Joe says.
Helpful. Very helpful.
Katie has stopped crying and joined my son to admire the tree up close. Just looking at that tree makes me tear up. Honestly, this holiday has been rough for me—it’s the first Christmas since my divorce. But it’s funny how something simple like a beautiful Christmas tree could make me remember there are still things I enjoy in life, even if my ex is a total wanker.
I’m going to enjoy this holiday. In spite of Greg.
“You could move it right there,” Luann suggests, pointing to a spot more central in the lobby. “That would be a much better spot.”
“There’s no outlet there.” Joe shrugs. “Gotta plug the tree in, right?”
Luann raises her eyebrows. “You don’t have an extension cord?”
I have to hand it to Luann. She doesn’t let up until Joe digs out a huge extension cord that traverses the length of the lobby and repositions the tree in a more central location. Luann steps back to admire it.
“That’s so much better!” she exclaims.
Joe looks doubtfully at the tree, then down at the extension cord. “Someone could trip on this cord.”
Luann snorts. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just a tiny little extension cord.”
I’m not so sure. It does seem possible someone could trip on that cord, but Joe finally shrugs and leaves it as it is. I suppose if he thinks it’s okay and so does Luann, it’s probably fine.
To be continued next time, when Jeremy and Noelle finally meet.....