It was a dark, windy, and cold night in Chicago when I returned home from work four days before Christmas. My phone had been buzzing in my pocket every ten minutes for the last hour, but I couldn't bring myself to look at it. I knew who it was.
I walked in the door to my crummy, one-bedroom apartment. I could afford a house, but that means commitment. Commitment scares me. I sit on the couch, and the phone's steady buzzing returns. Then, it stops and is quickly followed by one final buzz. "A text. I can handle a text." Even the text brought a wave of anxiety, but I could manage.
5 missed calls-Stan(3) Jessica(3)
My brother and his wife; they'd interchanged calls, and who would be stuck talking to me. His wife doesn't like me, at least, I think she doesn't. I'm flakey and rarely make it to the family functions she's tried and failed to get me to over the last decade. Her invitations had tapered off this year. "Finally, given up on me? Content on a customary Christmas invitation?" I couldn't blame her. The phone buzzed again and drug me back.
"Hey, Teddybear," I rolled my eyes at my childhood nickname that hadn’t dropped at nearly thirty. "Haven't heard from you in a minute! Give one of us a call so we can plan Christmas!" The exclamations seem overly excited. “Wouldn’t be Christmas without ya!” It would be.
"Yeah, the kids miss you," I rubbed my scruffy face, my anxiety briefly overpowered by my guilt. The KIDS miss me... But not her... I paused to imagine them in their kitchen, perhaps arguing over the futility of their efforts.
“He’s my brother!” Stan might even argue.
I hadn't seen my niece and nephew in six months; a trip to the beach in June when the weather was better, and so was I.
“Hey! Yeah, sorry, thing’s have been a little crazy for me-” That’s a lie. “I miss you guys, too. I’m sorry I’ve just been-” No, I couldn’t write all that. Erase and restart. Then erase and restart again. Then again, and again after that. “I know. I’m sorry,” I settled on. The wait for a reply was agonizing, even if it only took my sister-in-law one minute.
The reply was from Jess. “Everything okay?” She asked.
“Yeah, fine,” Another lie, but not one I minded telling. It was just the Christmas Blues, nothing I hadn't dealt with before. “Mind if I text you guys and talk tomorrow? Kinda tired,” That was true; I was tired, but not for any real reason. This wait is less agonizing.
“Of course!” Stan responded
“We’ll be looking forward to it :)”
Alone in my living room, I tried to steel my resolve. “You WILL text them tomorrow Teddy!” I yelled at myself inside my head.
I climbed into my bed, despite it being just after six o’clock, and beneath my mountain of comforters to sleep.
A heavy knock at my front door woke me up fifteen hours later, three days before Christmas. The knock came again, and I finally managed to get myself out of bed.
I was still half asleep when I opened the door. “Told you he was off!” A voice gloats.
“Good morning, sleepyhead!” The voice was faux-sweet, concealing an underlying annoyance. My friends, Valentina and Taylor, were standing in the grey morning light. “Been trying to get ahold of you all week,” Valentina spoke again, and I pretended to try and blink the sleep from my eyes. Valentina was annoyed with me, which she was trying to hide. “Mind letting us in? It’s fucking cold out here, man,” My apology was quiet, and I doubt they heard it.
Taylor deposited a cup of coffee in my hand with her usual bubbly smile. We sat silently for a few moments, and I was suddenly aware of how terrible the inside of my apartment was. I hadn’t cleaned it in weeks. I couldn’t be bothered. But now… I just felt like a pig.
“So, what’s going on?” Taylor finally started as I sipped my coffee and pretended not to know what she was referring to.
“Liar,” Taylor said.
“And a bad one at that,” Valentina added quickly. “You ignored our calls for a reason.” There was a level of accusation in her voice. “C’mon, kid, spill it.” She used our age gap and the involuntary mother-son dynamic we’d always had against me.
Taylor let out a sigh I’d heard a thousand times. “You can talk to us…!” Taylor urged me to open up with her brown eyes silently pleading with me.
I felt myself getting agitated. “Nothings wrong!” I said, eyes fixed on the Christmas-themed cup before taking a long pull of the hot drink in my hand. The room was silent for a long time, and we all awkwardly sipped our coffees. “Look, I’m just… down….” I couldn’t help but shake my head. "Just the Christmas Blues..." I thought. “I’m fine, really.”
I could feel Valentina’s eye roll without seeing it. “Well, a fuckin’ text wouldn’t have killed-”
“Val, it’s hard for me!” My green eyes snap up to meet her brown ones, and my voice raised slightly. “You know that….” My voice is barely a whisper. One hand rubbed at my thigh beneath the jeans I’d slept in.
Again, the room was silent, and I again focused on my cup, trying to ignore their staring. “Are you doing anything on Christmas eve?” Taylor finally asked. I knew she wanted to extend an invitation to spend Christmas eve with her and her family. Her family was large, tight-knit, and welcoming. Everything mine was not.
“I’m gonna spend it with my brother. But, I appreciate it.” Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I would, even if I wanted to.
The three of us said quick goodbyes. They needed to get to work, and I was eager to return to bed.
Taylor stopped me before I closed the door. Again it felt as if she was pleading with me. “If anything changes, just remember you’re more than welcome with me,” I smiled genuinely and thanked her.
I didn’t text my brother that day, and he didn’t text me. Which hurt, even if I knew it shouldn’t. “The phone works both ways…” I thought to myself as I lay in bed, wallowing in my own misery. “Yeah, and he ALWAYS tries, which is more than you can say!”
I managed to make my way out of bed just after noon the next day, two days before Christmas. Sunlight streamed in through the cracks in my blinds. I couldn’t remember the last time the sun broke through thick grey clouds. But my mind was elsewhere.
“It’s too late to go Christmas shopping now; the stores will be packed, and you know you hate crowds,” I thought as I sat chewing my nails, another terrible habit I couldn’t seem to break. The imagined argument between my brother and sister-in-law played on repeat inside my head.
“I told you he wouldn’t come. He NEVER comes!” I pictured her saying. “If he wanted to be a part of your life, he would be here,” And then I imagined my brother, the only family I had left, sighing and conceding the point.
Almost on cue, my phone buzzed on the coffee table. “So I take it you’re not coming?” It felt as if I could feel the disappointment through the screen.
I typed out a dozen replies but couldn't send them, growing more frustrated with each attempt before I finally settled with a non-committed. “I’m gonna try.” I waited for a response that never came. “Now or never, Teddy,” I thought, finally forcing myself to get off the couch.
The mall was packed with hundreds of people who were last-minute shopping like me. The sea of people nearly sent me scurrying back to my car.
I pushed my way through the crowd and felt almost vindicated by how much everyone else seemed to loathe being there as much as me. The first stop was a toy store for my niece. “Natalie likes Frozen. Well, at least she did when I saw her last,” I thought as I grabbed one Anna and Elsa doll off the shelf. Kids' interests tend to change rapidly at four years old.
Next stop, a sporting goods store. Frankie had been on a baseball kick when I saw him last. A Dodgers fan and wouldn’t be swayed despite my pleading. “I hope you know it broke my heart to buy you this jersey.” I planned my joke.
Shopping for Stan and Jess proved far more difficult. After nearly two hours of wandering through the crowds, I settled on a bottle of scotch and a few bottles of wine for Jess. It felt impersonal, but not as impersonal as gift cards would have.
I returned home just as the sun was setting on Chicago. It was the first sunset I’d seen in weeks, and I stopped to try and admire it before I went inside.
Christmas Eve arrived, and with it, another day of freezing wind off Lake Michigan. As did another text, this one came from Jess. “Dinners at Six, if you’re coming. We didn’t tell the kids. We don’t want them to be disappointed.” There felt like there should have been an ‘again’ at the end of that message.
My eyes went back to the window. Freezing rain pelted the glass. I hated driving in general, even more so in the rain. A deep involuntary sigh left my mouth before I responded. “I’ll be there!” I spent the rest of my day wrapping presents, shaving, showering, and cleaning. The first time I’d done all three of those since October.
I arrived at their home in Northbrook, a suburb just outside Chicago, just before six. The rain had let up, but the wind had not, still blowing in hard off the water. Ice clung to every surface; their home's golden Christmas lights reflected off the surface.
I knocked twice and waited anxiously for the door to open. “Please be the kids! Please be the kids! Please-” The door opened, and I was greeted by Jess. She gave me a wide smile, and I couldn’t help but notice the new streaks of grey in her brown hair.
“There you are!” Jess seemed genuinely surprised… and happy as she opened the door for me to come in. “Guys? Your Uncle Teddy’s here!” She shouted into the house.
I opened my mouth to speak, but two sets of footsteps followed by indistinguishable shouting stopped me. “Hey, guys!” Jess quickly took the gifts from me as I was slammed into full speed by my niece and nephew. Instantly I was bombarded with dozens of questions, which I did my best to answer. But one stood out above the others. “How come you weren’t at Thanksgiving, Uncle Teddy?” Frankie asked, and I couldn’t help the sigh that came out as I thought about what to say.
“Your Uncle Teddy was working. I told you guys that already.” Stan’s voice came, instantly grabbing everyone’s attention. That was a lie; I hadn't been working. He, like Jess, gave me a wide smile. “How ya been?” Stan asked as he pulled me into a hug, one hand clapping my back.
I returned the embrace but lied to him all the same. “Pretty good,” When we released, he gave me a wry smile telling me he knew I was lying.
“C’mon guys, almost time to eat,”
Dinner was a blur of stories about school, work, and arguments about sports between Frankie and me. “Nu-uh! The Packers made the playoffs last year!” He argued in defense of his team.
“Yeah, but they got spanked on their own field,” I countered and was met with a half-eaten roll. Eventually, we worked our way to the living room, Natalie half asleep on my chest as I reclined on their loveseat near the fireplace.
“Alright, kiddos, bedtime! Or Santa will skip us!” Their mother urged them to bed.
Natalie climbed off of me and rubbed at the green eyes she shared with her father and me. “Will you be here tomorrow, Uncle Teddy?” My eyes slid off her and to the window, where snow was beginning to fall outside. And then to Stan, who smiled and shrugged before heading to the kitchen.
“I’m not sure yet, sweetpea,” I brushed her reddish-brown hair away from her face.
“I want you to be,” She yawned, and my heart swelled. I gave her one last hug and sent her off to bed.
Stan returned with two glasses of the scotch I’d bought and the bottle. Rarely, if ever, have we stopped after a single drink. “Gotta hand it to you; you have good taste in scotch.” I accepted the compliment with a chuckle and poured us another.
Jess joined us not long after, sipping her own glass of wine. We sat and drank in the light of the fire and the Christmas tree. It was quiet but not awkward, and I silently worked up the courage to open up.
“I’m sorry,” I said suddenly after downing my fifth drink. “I’m sorry I’m not around more and that I ignore your calls,” They stared at me as I spoke, and I heaved a sigh. “I know you guys are mad at me, and I deserve it-”
“We’re not mad at ya, Teddybear,” He cut me off, the words coming out with a sigh of his own. “I just-we just-” He rubbed his eyes, frustrated that he couldn’t find the words.
“We just want you to be here and to be there for you. But it’s hard when you won’t tell us how to do that, you know? And we worry,” Jess spoke softly, and I could feel her trying to catch my eyes, but I kept them fixed on my empty glass. I didn’t want them to worry, but I wasn’t sure how to express that.
Silence followed for a few more moments as I again worked up the courage to say what I felt. “I WANT to be here… But I just… I feel like a burden.” I spoke over the lump that had begun to form in my throat. “And I don’t want that.”
“You’re NOT a burden, though,” Stan assured me as he leaned his large frame forward.
“I can’t help what my head is telling me, Stan. I just-” A tear fell out onto my cheek, and I brushed it away quickly. I wasn’t sure if the tears were from being drunk or not. “I’m sorry… I’m trying,”
“We know,” Jess said.
Stan moved to sit next to me, the small seat comically small for the two of us. “You’re my baby brother, my best friend, and the best Uncle to my kids.” He into my shoulder. “And we just want you to be okay,” I swallowed hard and nodded my head. The conversation, mixed with the drinking, and a long anxious, had left me exhausted.
“You’re not driving tonight,” Jess told me suddenly as she plucked the glass from my hands. “Babe? You wanna go ahead and give him his present now while I grab some blankets?” Stan returned with a small package.
I opened the colorful wrapping paper and was greeted with a small picture frame. Stan and I as kids on the Lake Michigan shoreline with our Dad, a spitting image of my brother now. Tears again stung the corner of my eyes, but I fought to hold them back.
“Merry Christmas, Teddybear, I love you,”
“Merry Christ-” I cleared my throat and shook my head. I was never any good at expressing my feelings outwardly. “Merry Christmas, Stan… I love you, too” I slipped off to sleep on their couch with a little less weight on my shoulders. Feeling a little less alone. I reminded myself that they were trying too.