I gave up and lay on the couch looking at the still-lit tree. In the half-darkness, I could just make out the ornaments that adorned the artificial tree. When we first got married, we'd agreed to always have live trees, but she developed allergies, so we opted for a nice fake one. One thing, though, that had been true from year one: although we opened all our other presents on Christmas morning, every year we exchanged one gift the night before--a new ornament. We alternated, each giving the other an ornament that was appropriate to some milestone from the previous year. She started the tradition the December after our summer wedding with a "First Christmas" ornament from a local gift shop. The next year, I gave her one from the same store honoring our first year in the house we had just bought. She gave me a perfect replica of Eddie the year we adopted him. I could see each one, remember exactly the year it was given and by whom. The most recent had a place of honor high on a front limb. It was a clear ball filled with sand and tiny seashells she had picked out on the sly during our trip with my family to the Outer Banks. A part of me, way back in the back of my heart, a part I didn't want to admit even existed, worried that it would be the last ornament we would exchange. The thought nauseated me, but after both of us being shot and me nearly dying--twice--this felt like the one thing we may not be able to get past. Our pain was so great that it wasn't allowing us to do the one thing that made us such a bullet-proof couple--lean on each other. Or, more accurately, she couldn't lean on me and I, who draw nearly all of my meaning in life from having her lean on me, felt utterly vacuous, as if all that made me me had been sucked out and discarded. And, worst of all, I couldn't say any of this to her. Partly I couldn't because I am male. Though I'm more in touch with my sensitive side than some gun-toting thugs, I still have male pride that keeps me from wanting to seem vulnerable--even when the choice is between vulnerability and being without my she. And when I finally broke down and tried, it came out all wrong; she took it as an attack, locked herself in her room again. Her room. Which had, just a few weeks ago, been our room.
I was snapped from my dark contemplation by movement in my line of sight. Eddie had basically become the fur baby of the Hillmans, so it wasn't him. She stood in front of me, a blanket wrapped around her, but still dressed in her church clothes from the night before. Her makeup was smeared.
"Yes." I didn't know what else to say.
"We have to open presents so we can go to your parents' house."
"Are you up to that?"
"Make coffee. I'll get cleaned up." And with that, she was in the bathroom. I automatically got up to follow her orders. I heard the shower come on as I scooped out the beans. I ground them, put a filter in the basket, filled it with the coffee, added water to the carafe from the filter pitcher in the refrigerator, put the water into the reservoir, closed the lid, and hit the brew button. I heard the shower shut off and knew I wouldn't scald her, so I went to the sink with the water filter and filled it twice before putting it back in the refrigerator. I did all this from sense memory and expended no thought in the act, but it took every ounce of energy I had left in me. As I collapsed back onto the couch, the bathroom door opened. She came out, her hair wet and face washed. She had worked quickly, but the part that took me aback was the fact that she had the towel wrapped around her. It wasn't because it was cold. Between the furnace I had neglected to turn down the previous night and the heat coming from the tree lights, it was almost uncomfortably hot. And hot or cold, she'd never left the shower and walked to the bedroom with so much as pair of panties on in all the years we'd been married. We spent whole days in the apartment in which she never put on a single piece of clothing without even a second's thought. I could only conclude that she didn't want me to see her naked.
She sat in beside me on the couch, up on the edge, her feet together and her back straight. For perhaps thirty seconds, she said nothing. Finally, I couldn't stand the silence.
"I'm sorry," she said before I could continue. "I love you."
"I love you too," I said, a catch in my throat. I tried to reach out to her, but she got up before I could. As she passed the tree, she paused, knelt down for a second, got up, paused again, and went on into the room, shutting the door behind her. I couldn't see what she had been doing.
She still loved me! For the first time in two weeks, I felt a tiny flicker of hope. With renewed energy, I got undressed and showered as the coffee finished brewing. I had no clothes to change into, but my robe hung on the back of the bathroom door, so I put that on and went out to get some coffee. But when I opened the door, I was startled to find her standing just outside it, a wild-eyed look on her tear-streaked face. She was panting as if she'd just been running. She had something in her hand that I couldn't make out at first, but slowly it dawned on me what she had picked up from under the tree. It had been my turn to get the ornament. My heart stopped. Or at least I would have preferred that it had stopped.
"I'm so sorry--I forgot--I got that two months ago--"
"A baby rattle? You got a baby rattle?! What is wrong with you?"
"I told you, I--"
“Just get out! I can't even look at you right now!"
"Can I at least get dressed?"
"Fine!" She threw the rattle ornament at me. I had found it in a gift shop way back in early November. It was pink and said, "Baby's First Christmas" on one side and I had had them paint, "Emma Grace" on the other side. But so much had happened since that, even after looking at all of the previous years' ornaments overnight, I hadn't remembered that I'd gotten it. I had the gift shop wrap it and I put it under the tree way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving, right after we'd finished decorating. Dee had insisted we put up the tree despite our getting ready to move into the house. We would put it back up when we got there, she said, but she refused to have no tree until the week before Christmas, our favorite time of year. How ironic that we may look back on it in the future as the beginning of our end. I honestly wanted to just curl up on the couch and die. It had to be such a soul-crushing blow for her, because it definitely was for me. And the guilt of having done what I'd done, even if unintentionally, compounded the pain exponentially. I had to leave, I knew and wasn't going to argue, but I couldn't go out in my bathrobe. I didn't know what else to do, so I put on the clothes I'd had on the night before. In my distracted state, I forgot to take a cup of coffee or even put on a coat. It was probably cold as I staggered in a sleep-deprived stupor to the car, but I took no note. Ellie fired up and I pulled out. It being 7:00am on Christmas day, there was no traffic, which was lucky for me because I didn't even check.
Paying no attention to where I was going, I just drove. I suppose I could have gone to my parents' house. In fact that would have been the logical thing to do, since we were expected there in a couple hours anyway. But logic didn't enter into it. Pure instinct is all that kept me on the road. As the heater slowly kicked in, I was aware of becoming warm, which told me I must have been cold. The rising temperature seemed to thaw my brain, if only slightly, as I became cognizant for the first time of exactly where I was--Route 47, well past WVU-Parkersburg. Having little to no higher mental functions, my body must have put me on course for my old college, Glenville State.
It also eventually registered that it was snowing pretty hard. Actually pretty hard may be a bit of an understatement. It was the big-flaked sideways snow that was wet and promised to accumulate massively in a short time. These were all facts that registered, but their ramifications were absolutely lost on me. I kept driving, barely aware that I was barreling at over 60 miles an hour over a snow-covered road that would have been unsafe to travel at 60 on a clear, sunny day. The good news is that the danger did become apparent. The bad news is that this happened as I lost control on a sharp curve. Ellie's rear end lost traction halfway through the turn, causing me to start running off the road and into a sheer limestone wall. I mashed on the brake and clutch and turned away from the skid--all the exact things I shouldn't have done. Somehow, the skid corrected just enough that I didn't hit the wall head on, but instead, with the screaming crunch of metal on stone, she caromed off it like a giant red pinball. It was enough of a head-on that the airbag deployed, knocking me even sillier. I thought for a split second that I had averted complete disaster, but an instant later the news got worse. I wasn't slowing down no matter how hard I hit the brakes and was hurtling toward the empty space of a sheer-sided and deep gulley at the bottom of which was the Hughes River. The space was interrupted only by several trees of varying sizes, but almost all of which could prove fatal if I hit one head on, especially since the airbag was a one off.
The next several seconds are a blur of shattering glass, crashing into trees, pirouetting in mid-air, and a spine-crushing impact with the side of the hill, followed by I don't know how many full rolls before Ellie came to a creaking halt on her now smashed convertible top. I was confused by the fact that I was hanging from my seatbelt looking down at the roof, which was way closer to me than it should have been. At a pace close to glacial, my head wrapped itself around what I had just done and exactly how big a predicament I had put myself into. Then another thing confused me. As I looked down at the roof, I could see my reflection, just barely, as if I were looking at myself in a highly polished crimson surface. I thought maybe my mind, shocked by the trauma, was playing tricks on me. Then it dawned on me. Blood. My blood. So much of my blood that it was pooling on the inside of the roof and making a reflective surface. I touched my head; the gash was pretty deep. I had been thrown forward to the limit of the seat belt at the same time the windshield had bowed inward on impact with the first tree at the top of the hill, and we must have met in the middle.
So there you go. Harry and Dee's worst Christmas. Stay tuned next week for another episode in Christmas With The Shalans.