We had already opened the rest of our presents: books, clothes, flannel, candy, ornaments. After the four of us--Ty, his mom, his grandfather, and I--settled down a bit, Ty's mom handed him a how-to-play-the-banjo manual.
"Did you get a banjo?" his grandfather asked from his fireside seat.
"No," Ty said, "But I have a feeling that I'm going to get one." He sounded curious, both surprised and doubtful.
"Go look behind the chair!" Ty's mom encouraged.
Ty curiously nodded toward the chair. "I can see the headstock."
And so, just as Ralphie pulled his Red Ryder BB Gun from behind the desk, so appeared the banjo from behind the over-stuffed, forest-green
"You got a banjo!"
"I got a banjo." Ty sat down, next to the various jackets and coats, and fiddled and tweaked. He strummed and picked. He tuned. He admired. The banjo's finish was a warm mahogany. It looked shiny. It looked expensive.
And for a split second, for a heartbeat, I was jealous.
It wasn't that I was jealous of the banjo itself. It wasn't that I was jealous of Ty's "Santa present." No, I was jealous that this happy moment, this surprise, belonged to Ty and his family. By default, I just happened to be there. And with that realization came a crash of emotions--genuine happiness for Ty, gratitude for those who insisted on bestowing unnecessary gifts, and homesickness. Aching, painful, nostalgic homesickness.
This was it, I thought. This was Christmas.
And then I hated myself. Hated myself for not being able to wholly appreciate that I had someplace to go for the holidays, that I had someone to spend it with. Hated myself for letting my heart overtake all that I did and felt. Hated myself for the tears that I had shed over the past two days, over the long-distance phone calls and emailed sentiments.
I had underestimated how hard it would be, how difficult it would be for me to be away from my family. True, I had been away from home before, for months at a time. I had spent other holidays in Indiana, in the company of those to whom I'm not related. But this was the first year I did not spend Christmas in Iowa. I was admittedly emotional on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but I survived. I still laughed, I still had fun. I shared some of my tacky, holiday-themed earrings with Ty's mom. I helped wrap presents. I listened to Ty's grandfather tell stories over eggs and hash browns. In my free time, I spoke to my dad. My mom. My brother and sister-in-law. My mom. My aunts. My grandmother. My mom. I ranted about suburbs to Ty's cousin, cursed Carmel and consumerism before Ty explained to him, "Dawn writes for Historic Indianapolis." I smirked. Giggled. Drank some wine. I sat next to the fire, my reptilian skin basking in its warmth. And on the couch, curled up next to Ty, I watched The Birdcage for what was probably the one-hundredth-and-forty-second time.
"Don't use that tone with me!"
"Tone? What tone?"
"That sarcastic, contemptuous tone that means you know everything because you're a man, and I know nothing because I'm a woman."
"But you're not a woman."
"Oh, you bastard!"
So there was, of course, laughter. At Ty's aunt and uncle's home, I shared with his family stories about mine. We opened a few more gifts, a few more cards, and laughed as Ty and his cousins modeled hideously grotesque fake teeth. We ate dinner, and I topped off the meal with about fifteen Christmas cookies.
"There's sugar, and your aunt and uncle have a cat," I told Ty. "I'm made in the shade for the next four hours."
It was evening when we got back to the house and Ty, without even pausing to remove his coat, sat down once more and played the banjo. He was familiarizing himself with the five strings, and I recognized the beginning of a Beatles tune.
But I couldn't look at him. I couldn't do it.
Because if I did, I knew I'd want to brush the hair back from eyes, run my thumb over his brow, and meet his steel blue eyes--the same ones I had always tried to keep myself from falling for.
I interrupted his playing. "We never went to the park and looked at the lights," I said.
"We-ll," he said, with his usual intonation, "do you want to go?"
"Yes, please," I whispered, our foreheads touching.
We went to the park, and then drove through the more affluent areas of town. He took me into the hills, too, to a place where we could look down at both the city and the river.
"Whoa," I said mid-sentence, my story halted by the view. "This is ... this is nice." The view and the company. And in the hills, with "Little Saint Nick" in the background and camera in hand, I remembered something that Ty had told me when I had first arrived: "You'll probably be thinking of warm memories and traditions past, but I hope we can create some memories of our own."
... Judging by what we did Christmas Day, our memories include looking at lights, braying carols, and repeating Jenny Lawson's over-analyses of Christmas songs.
"In the meadow, we will build a snowmaaaan ... and pretend that he is Parson Broowwwn. He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, maaaaaan ...'"
"Why are we letting a snowman ask us really personal questions like that anyway?"
"He'll say, 'Are you married?' We'll say, 'No, man.' Next line should be: 'Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?'"
And so, like always, we had some laughs. I'm not entirely sure, five days later, what we all talked about and joked about during our drive around Evansville. But I do know that, at the time, it mattered. It meant everything. Because, no, I wasn't at home this year. And, yes, it was hard. I had my moments of catatonia, my tearful afternoons. But, damn it, I had a place to be for the holidays. I had people to spend it with. I had presents to open that I hadn't even asked for. I had cousins and an aunt and uncle and a mom who all gave me unexpected hugs goodbye (and hello, for that matter). It was nice. Different, yes, but nice. And as it turned out, the greatest gift that I received this year was time spent in the company of others.