By now we know a few things about my family: My mother is of no help when a cat is stuck in a gift bag. My father thinks that “oakring” is an acceptable Scrabble word. And my grandmother stopped putting any effort into Christmas shopping a long time ago.
And my brother? Well he really likes his cat, Dr. Socks, who has been making the trip with him to our parents’ house in Nanticoke for the holidays for quite a few years now.
Of course, getting him there is something of a production because, like most cats, Dr. Socks doesn’t like the car or strange new houses or lots of extra people who are always blaring Christmas carols. I’m on the cat’s side: who really wants to sit in a cage for several hours only to arrive at a place where no one lets you climb the Christmas tree and the people try to feed you ham? Certainly not Socksy.
But I wouldn’t dare say that to my brother, who on this particular Dec. 23 was in his kitchen lining the cat carrier with several layers of newspaper.
“Just in case,” he told me nonchalantly.
But that was a lie. Because within minutes of merging onto the highway, the cat very obviously got sick.
“I think the cat got sick,” I said, as Socks howled from the backseat.
“I know,” my brother sighed. “He does that when we take him in the car.”
This is information I could have used yesterday – when I still had the option of taking the bus, where, I might add, the worst thing that has ever happened to me was have someone attempt to sell me a baby turtle out of a garbage bag.
“We cannot sit for two hours with that smell,” I complained. “Do something!”
So my brother pulled over on the shoulder of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and then, seriously, asked me, “Would you rather hold Socks or clean the carrier?”
I picked the cat, naturally, and while I was trying to make sure his little paws weren’t dipped in his own filth, my brother said to me, “Would you please hold him better so that he doesn’t run onto the highway and get squashed?”
I wanted to ask him if he could please take his sick cat back to his house and leave him there with a food dish timer for the next 72 hours like a normal pet owner, but I didn’t, because it was the holidays. And also because I had no other way to get home.
The rest of the trip went better, which isn’t really saying much when you consider that the first fifteen minutes involved diarrhea and an argument on the side of a major highway. But the tone was set and when I finally walked through the back door of my parents’ house, I said, “Please don’t ask.” Followed quickly by, “Where is the Baileys?”
“Well you have a package,” my mother said as she danced through the kitchen. “It’s from Seattle.”
This meant nothing to me until I opened it and realized that it was a very thoughtful gift from a very thoughtful friend – an extra dose of holiday cheer delivered right when and where I’d need it most. Just in case, it seemed.
It was a book. The serial graphic novel, Building Stories, that was so popular that year.
“What is it?” my mother asked.
“A graphic novel,” I told her. “I mean, a comic book.”
“Do you even like those?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter if she likes it!” my father yelled. “You just say thank you, Nova. That was a nice thing he did.”
“Right,” my mother agreed. “It’s the thought that counts. But seriously. What is it?”
So I read from the box: A protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage… Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle- and upper-class literary public.
“Wow,” my mom said. “Are you sure he likes you?”
He did, of course. And if I was paying closer attention, I would have realized much sooner that he actually loved me. Because no one else sent a care package as a distraction. Or checked on me during the hurricane two months prior. Or offered to sit on hold with United Airways when my flight to Miami got canceled a few weeks prior.
“Who is he anyway?” my mom asked. “Is he nice?”
“He must be an intellectual,” my dad said. “Good luck with that.”
Good luck, indeed. Leave it to my dad to get right to the point. This man was an intellectual and as much as he seemed to like my stories about stealing sugar bowls from a Le Pain Quotidien and appreciate my simplistic vocabulary and revel in my uncanny ability to push all the doors that should be pulled and vice versa, I didn’t believe he would ever want to be with someone like me. Even a month later when he told me that he did, and that he had loved me for a long time, all I could say was “Are you sure? I don’t think so.”
As if to prove it, the waitress came to take our order for the third time and I blurted out the first thing my eyes could focus on. Something called the Rock-N-Roll, which turned out to be an ordinary sushi roll dipped in Pop Rocks. No one was to leave the table that night with their dignity intact – I saw to that.
“Do you see this?” I asked him as my mouth popped and fizzled. “Do you? Because this is me.”
Me: A person who was not at all surprised to have to hold a dirty cat on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A person who steals condiments for kicks. A person who earlier that day asked him to explain for the second time the difference between “formidable” and “formative” – and then used one incorrectly anyway. Someone who cannot even manage to order dinner without causing a scene. In other words, not an intellectual. Not an equal.
Don’t walk – run. That’s the advice I gave him.
I’d love to tell you that he didn’t listen. That eventually I came to my senses and we had a good chat and then lived happily ever after. That he was able to convince me that all I needed was a good dictionary and maybe a couple of trips to a nice psychiatrist. But it didn’t happen that way. Not exactly, at least.
There’s much more to the story. But I’ll leave you with this – every year when I go home, there’s a tiny part of me that hopes there’s a package waiting. And there’s a bigger part of me that’s disappointed that there’s not.
It’s a shame because I’m ready for it now. Finally.