In bed, a few weeks before Christmas, my boyfriend is scrolling through his phone after sex, looking for something to put in his cart. “Have you ever used a weighted blanket?” he asks, stretching out, back-flat on the mattress.
“No.” I lay my head on his chest. “Want to get me one?”
He looks down at me, then makes his screen go dark.
“I love weighted blankets,” he says. “My ex has one.”
My boyfriend has a few exes but I know which one he means. The one he says has the waist-to-hip ratio of an Orangina bottle. The one he still talks to because, “she’s going through a hard time, Jesus Christ.” The one with the weighted blanket they used to stay under all weekend, streaming the movies they like and I only pretend to like. I watch him disappear into the memory. I watch him forget I’m on his chest like you can forget your tongue is in your mouth.
Later, we talk about Christmas. I haven’t been home in six years, since college. I don’t miss the dinner-table jabs about who can’t keep a man, who’s gotten a bit fat, or the presents my family doesn’t care to wrap because, as a therapist once put it, they can’t fully commit.
Usually, I ignore Christmas. I don’t leave my apartment. Or I fly to another country, somewhere that doesn’t celebrate. I get so drunk on the plane that I pass out, and when I wake up, I stumble into a new time zone with the shaky relief that I don’t have to think about Christmas for a whole year.
But this year is different because I’m going to my boyfriend’s family’s house. He’s my first real boyfriend, and now that I have one, no one can say something’s wrong with me. No one can call me desperate or frigid or whisper about what kind of girl I might be. Because this year I’m the kind of girl who goes to her boyfriend’s house on Christmas.
“You have to buy everyone nice gifts,” my boyfriend tells me. Everyone? There will be uncles and aunts and cousins. “Don’t you want them to like you?” he asks.
So, I spend a hurried afternoon buying gifts for people I hardly know. I consult those terrible Styles section guides that suggest electric toothbrushes and hand creams and weighted blankets, which are surprisingly expensive. A good one costs a couple hundred bucks.
“Don’t be cheap,” my boyfriend says when, mid-shopping, I call to ask if his mom likes eucalyptus, if his dad wears funky socks, and if his brother drinks tea. “I thought you’d be better at this,” he says. So, I try to be better. He’s my first real boyfriend and I’ll do anything to keep him.
After the holidays are over, he’ll tell me how fun it was for him to imagine me running around, making all that effort for his family.
His family is not like my family. For one thing they open all their presents on Christmas Eve. “And we wrap everything in newspaper,” my boyfriend says, looking at the pile of gifts I’ve already wrapped in waxy snowflakes and reindeers. I’d spent hours creasing the edges, curling the ribbons. My boyfriend shakes his head. “My family won’t like it if you’re trying this hard.”
So, I unwrap everything. I buy a left-leaning newspaper and re-wrap the gifts that I’ll bring to my boyfriend’s family’s house.
The house is a refurbished barn in the woods with frosty windows and high-beamed ceilings and books in English, German, and French, including some written by my boyfriend’s father, a religion professor. In the living room there’s an upright piano and a stone fireplace the size of my childhood bedroom. The cupboard under the staircase is stacked with chess boards and Scrabble, Catan and Parcheezee.
My boyfriend’s mom asks if my family likes to play games, too.
“Not really,” I tell her, by which I mean, you have no idea.
Once my older sister got whooping cough, but my mom said she was just faking for attention. Eventually, my sister’s cough got so bad the high school teachers called and said she needed a doctor. So, my mom walked into my sister’s school cafeteria and told her–right there in front of the boys’ lacrosse team–that she was taking her to the doctor. I guess some part of my sister died on the cafeteria floor that day because when they got home, she said mom had ruined her life. She was still coughing when mom called her an ungrateful bitch. They fought for hours, slamming doorknobs into walls, stepping on the dogs’ tails. When my dad walked through the door, my sister shrunk behind him. “Cry,” mom yelled. “Keep crying.” She said dad wasn’t so great. Dad was a sleaze. Didn’t we know that? Dad shrunk a little. “Ask him about the fucking hairdresser,” mom said. Then she grabbed her car keys and left. She did that sometimes. A few minutes later, we heard a police siren and saw headlights. The dogs howled.
I’d like to say this was a one-off but it was more like the one thing that brought us together.
Except even then, I knew I didn’t want to be like them. When these fights started, I went upstairs and played jacks, a game you can play by yourself. I scattered the silver and gold pieces across the floor, bounced the bubblegum pink ball, and made bets with the universe. Onesies and they’d stop fighting. My sister stomped into her bedroom. Twosies and the hole in the wall wouldn’t be there tomorrow. Downstairs, my dad promised the officer we’d be quieter and closed the door. Threesies and my mom wouldn’t disappear for days after a fight. From my window, I saw her car pulling back into the driveway. The biggest wish I had was that one day I’d live somewhere that didn’t make me want to run away. Somewhere with a ginger cat and buzzing doorbell and a room overlooking a park where I’d make angels in the snow and skate circles in a long velvet coat under city lights brighter than any Christmas tree. But I’d only get that if I played a perfect game.
On Christmas Eve, all the aunts and cousins and grandparents show up. We eat old cheeses and fresh bread and a lemon-braised fish, with an eye as panicked as I feel trying to be the perfect guest, perfect girlfriend. After dinner, there’s so much food and no room in the fridge, but my boyfriend’s parents don’t throw it out like my family would. They stash the leftovers on the porch where the cold night keeps everything fresh. Then we build a fire and decorate the tree – chopped down from the woods right behind the house – with yellow candlelights and wooden figurines that dangled over the pile of newspaper-wrapped gifts.
When my boyfriend opens his present from me, he looks at it but doesn’t say thanks. I got him books — the classics — because I don’t really know him. I just know I like having a boyfriend.
His gift to me is in a box, newspaper-wrapped with a picture of Osama Bin Laden’s face. I try not to read into that. I try not to think about how the box is far too small to hold a weighted blanket. I shake it, and it jingles like something tiny and shiny that a grown-up woman might get from her boyfriend on Christmas. I’m giddy when I tear open Osama’s face, but I freeze once I see what’s inside. It’s a colorful cardboard box inked with the price of $5.99. A game for ages six and up. The game of jacks.
Everyone is watching my reaction so I try to make it a good one. I thank my boyfriend and try to mean it. I tell myself it was thoughtful he remembered what I told him about being a child. What I said about playing jacks all the time, even if what I meant was that I never wanted to play jacks again. But maybe he didn’t understand. Maybe he was confused. Or maybe the jacks were an early present. Maybe he would still give me the weighted blanket. Maybe it was lost in the mail. And maybe and maybe–
The next day is real Christmas but we don’t open presents. I think about my own family coming downstairs, not unwrapping their gifts. Somebody’s disappointed. Somebody’s misunderstood. Somebody’s saying something just to be sure somebody else feels even worse. I distract myself by being extra helpful. I set the table. I wash plates. I sweep the floor in measured, deliberate strokes. Pick me. Pick me.
That night, after my boyfriend’s family goes to sleep, we close the door to the room where his mother slept as a child. We each get under our own quilt because my boyfriend says I hog the blanket and that’s why he’s in a bad mood after he sleeps over. He starts reading a book — not a classic — and I try very hard not to bring up the weighted blanket. But I can’t help it.
“Oh.” He looks up from his book, half smiling. “I didn’t know you wanted one.” He bought the blanket for his ex. “She’s going through a hard time,” he says. “I told you that, remember?”
I remember. The way I remember him saying she was probably his best friend. Or how he told me he could tell I was lacking in some way; he just hadn’t figured out how exactly. He’d let me know soon. I could think of at least one thing I was lacking, but I don’t bring that up.
“I thought she already had a weighted blanket.” I say, trying to keep my voice steady.
“It wasn’t a very good one.” He doesn’t look up from his book this time.
So, he’d gotten her one of the good ones. One of the couple hundred dollar ones.
I thought about his ex under her blankets, feeling the soft satisfaction of still getting chosen but weighed down by the fear of what she was missing. People always worry about what they’re missing. And usually, it’s nothing special. But that doesn’t make them stop wanting it.
“Do you love her?” I ask, surprising myself. He looks up from his book and stares me down like I’m some bug he’s ready to squash.
“We’re not at that phase now.” He goes back to his book, reading or pretending to read.
Now is the keyword. By summer it would be another story. Another phase.
But now, I bite my tongue hard and turn over. I wait for him to ask what’s wrong. To pull me close. But he doesn’t. I’m in bed with my boyfriend at his family’s house on Christmas Eve, but none of it feels like what I’ve always wanted. Eventually, he turns out the light. A few minutes later I whisper his name, but he doesn’t answer, heavy with sleep. I would nudge him awake, but I know he’s already gone.
And I’m left staring into the midnight dark, alone with myself, whoever that is. I see one part of me with my head still on my boyfriend’s chest, pretending not to hear what he’s telling me. And another part, rushing around the city for his family’s gifts, thinking that if I can just do this one thing right, I can make him love me for real. I see the drunk me on the plane, spilling red wine on my seatmate. Then another me, at my family’s house with our unwrapped gifts on Christmas Day. And maybe I should just go back there, where I always know what I’m getting.
But then there’s the young me in the upstairs bedroom, playing onesies, twosies, and she’s the only one I still want to be. The one who doesn’t care about boyfriends. Who wants to wrap every present in bright waxy paper and catch snowflakes in the park and twirl across the lake, a dream on ice. And I can give it all to her, next Christmas and the one after that, and she’ll always believe she can have more. I believe it, too, when I see her, stretching out to catch that rubber pink ball. A perfect game is almost in reach.
Artwork by Nidhi Chhimwal