Twelve tiny doves are what you buy for the very first Christmas tree on your own. Your college tree, in the apartment that looks out over the sea on the street named for roses. Their wings are brushed gold and they are white and immaculate and you are stringing cranberries and popcorn for garlands.
Your roommate smiles as you bring the tree in.
He wanted to get it with you, Your lover from Los Angeles. He tells you that he strings lights around a cactus at his house. But at yours you will have Christmas. You will set this up so that he can be happy, or that he can be warm and what you really are is an escape hatch for him. Nothing more.
You don’t realize this, though. Until later, because you thought he meant everything he ever said and he didn’t.
You are in love and he photographs the Christmas tree in black and white, like a record. Like everything he shoots that way. Making documents of things. People and experiences are nothing but glassine packets to him. Strip after strip after strip of film, encased and preserved.
For three years he will use his camera like a sort of recording device.
“I always photograph the things I am most afraid of.” he says.
Years later you wonder if he was afraid of love, or attachment, or whatever it was that spun out between the two of you on that little mattress covered in a velvet crazy quit. He’d come up for the afternoon, and he’d bring a bottle of wine or the two of you would go down to the sea and eat fried shrimp in baskets together. Before.
He brings you some doves that he found for the tree. They are tiny and clay like yours and they came from Olvera Street in Los Angeles. Pure white with little pink beaks. You still have them. You carry them for years, as the collection of ornaments builds up over time.
Years later you think about ways to let things go.
You think about what it would be like to move away from the house and the marriage where you have lived for years and what it would feel like to throw away the past, and those doves and start fresh all over again. You realize you can do this, too. There is a door, and you can walk through it.
“I always thought you’d have children,” he says to you. It’s many years later, and you have talked briefly.
You talk without opening up too much of the past. Doing so would force you to look at it clearly.
* * *
Years later you take a tree to a man who has healed you with his love, and his hands. He lives alone in a white Victorian house and he’s a writer. You begin to realize that these are the only people you can know anymore. Writers. It’s probably because they have hearts, and most people don’t.
You take white icicle lights and the tree and some candy canes and some cranberries that you strung and you built the whole thing like a surprise, so that he would be surprised when he came home and saw it. And he weeps and pulls you into his arms and says “Baby, this is so beautiful.”
And you know that every Christmas is different, and that each erases the past and the ghosts and the happiness or sadness and that it is up to you to keep Christmas in your heart, no matter what.
* * *
“What does she think she is doing?” your mother says, shooting you a look.
“She has no right.”
Your husband’s mother is rearranging the entire table. She pushes your centerpiece off to the side. She sets up her cakes in the center. It’s one of those cakes that took a year to create. You say nothing. You are trying to be polite. You are trying to pull the whole thing together and keep everyone happy and he’s floating around serving champagne and this is the first year you are married.
Your mother begins to get angry. This is an anger she is going to hold onto for years.
You look at the fruitcake and the various things that your mother in law has brought and decorated your table with. The style doesn’t match your family’s. It doesn’t fit.
“It’s okay, mom,” you say. “It’s okay.”
But you know what is going to happen, because she is opening more bottles of champagne and she is going to start in. And so you wait, silently, cooking away. It’s easier in the kitchen where you can control things in the pots and pans. The scent of the cranberry sauce perfumes the room. It’s yours, and it is American, and it has nothing to do with cakes that look like hers do or the fact that you made a very elegant little dessert already and that your mother in law doesn’t have the manners to know that what she has done is wrong and you know all of this and you sense the impending storm.
Your mother like a lion. Leo. Leonine. Nothing is going to stop her from roaring out her discontent.
In the calm of the kitchen you stir the berries, over and over and over. They glisten, popping gently, like rubies.
Years later you will ache for the man that you took the tree to.
You will ache for the calm, looking out to sea, and the way that he wrapped his arms around you, and for the fact that because he was another writer you felt safe. Safe for the very first time in your whole life.
“palomitas” copyright 2010 ~ by Valentine Bonnaire ~ all rights reserved