This is chapter seven of a story entitled The Other One. To start at the beginning, click here.
Sleeping til the afternoon wasn’t supposed to be a habit during this visit, but I apparently wasn’t trying to fight it. Of course, you don’t really have much of a choice when the night before involves concerts going late into the night and visits to Waffle House that last hours longer than you planned. And as my eyes started to slowly creep open and I thought back on the entire evening, there wasn’t a single exhausting moment I honestly regretted.
The walk down the stairs was much more difficult than I expected, though, particularly when there was little sleep and great need of caffeine. The world I discovered at the bottom of those steps greatly rivaled the sleepy world up above, and the only thing I wanted out of my day was an opportunity to relax and recover. The final step was filled with an overwhelming feeling that I should have stayed in bed.
“Well THERE you are!” Ashley would have been this excited at five in the morning. “You’re already late. Come on, hurry up and get ready.”
“Yeah, good to see you too. Late for what?”
“Christmas shopping! Come on, I need to pick up a few gifts and you are helping me.”
I paused for a moment. I know I hadn’t been good at time management the past few days, but surely my sister didn’t just say we were going Christmas shopping.
“Ash, uh….shopping? It’s already Christmas Eve’s Eve. Aren’t you running a little behind?”
“Why do you think I’ve got helping with me, silly?” Ashley was somehow making me feel like the idiot in this situation. “I only need to grab some stuff for the other men in the family. You’re easy to take care of.”
“Cool.” It was good to be so well understood.
“Alright, well time’s wasting! Let’s gooooooooo!” The last word continued down the hallway and around the corner as Ashley ran off to grab whatever it is she needed and left me scratching my head and worrying I was missing something.
“Here,” came my mom’s voice from behind me, “I’ve got you covered.”
She had a thermos in her outstretched hand, filled with the ground goodness I desperately needed to prepare me for what would surely be an exhausting day.
“Oh, wonderful. Thanks, mom. Good to have somebody on my side here.”
“Don’t be so quick to speak,” she said, as she walked to grab her coat. “I’m coming with you, and I want to hear all about your night. Now put on something respectable. Your sister is in the car.”
I stared at the thermos in my hand. I guess this day wasn’t going to be as relaxing as I hoped.
The mall was packed, which was always odd to me with it being so very close to Christmas, but I felt a little bit better about my sister being so behind on things. What didn’t make me feel better was the amount of time we spent in extremely effeminate stores considering Ashley was supposedly shopping for Alex and my dad.
While the females with me looked for excuses to get off track, I was often able to sneak away to hat or video game stores to kill some time. Occasionally I was able to give mild feedback on things that I assumed other people in my family wanted, but for the most part, I think my involvement in this excursion was nothing more than getting a free food court meal.
I was browsing through pants I didn’t need to purchase during one of these escapes from mom and Ashley when my pocket started shaking. I expected it to be a text from them looking for me, but I was caught off guard by what I got:
“Sleep well? :)” It was Jenn.
I’ve never been so confused by a virtual smile. Not that I’m highly fluent in texting etiquette, but I feel as though the question is enough. Did I sleep well? I was out late, so of course not. But she knows that’s the truth. It’s like asking somebody who was in a car wreck the day beforehand if they’re sore or something. You know they’re sore. You’re just checking on them because you want them to know you’re checking on them.
But the useless little smile. What did it mean? Did it mean anything? Was the question to let me know she was checking on me, and the smile to let me know she really already knew the answer? Because part of me believed more than just that. Maybe it was a hidden message for me to crack. “Did you sleep well? Because I didn’t because I was up all night thinking about YOU.” Part of my brain wanted to want that.
Ah, what am I thinking? It’s a harmless smile. She’s being friendly, and the smile means nothing more than that. She was being friendly. If it was a wink or something, then I’m sure I’d have a bigger mystery on my hands. Oh gosh, I’m thankful it wasn’t a wink. My day would then be wasted on the quest to figure out the secret meaning hidden behind a semi-colon and a closed parenthesis. A wonderful day ruined by my idiot brain.
My mother’s voice startled me and I nearly dropped my phone.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Yeah,” said Ashley, practically beaming next to her. “WHO?”
Oh please let this be the last store.
“You should get this one,” mom said as she held up an overpriced shirt she picked out. “I think you’d look very handsome in it.”
“Thanks, mom. I’ll write down that suggestion or something.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll get it for you. I never get to buy things for you anymore.”
I had learned long ago that no matter how much arguing I did, I couldn’t convince mom to not buy stuff for me. My independence always felt a little slighted when my parents were buying things for me, but I had to come to an understanding that my independence wasn’t as important to them as that I was taken care of. Plus, I lived far away, so they felt it was their responsibility to spoil me when they visited.
“Alright, alright. I’ll wear it just for you. Hey, I just got some movie for dad. Is that okay? I never know what that man wants.”
“Oh, Aaron, you know all he really wants is just to have his big family prayer with all of us at dinner Christmas night. It’s all he really ever wants.”
“I know that….but really, like a tie or something? They’ve got good ties over there. I could just grab one. What do you think?”
“I think whatever you have is fine.”
My parents were almost infuriating at Christmas. One year, I had fully planned on buying them plain white socks from Wal-Mart because I knew they would react exactly the same as if I had bought them a BMW. My plans were only thwarted by the fact that I actually badly needed those socks myself.
“Aaron, are you happy?”
I stopped. Did I hear her correctly? Did I miss a sentence between the tie and now?
“Are you happy? Where you live. With your job. You’ve just seemed a bit restless this whole week.”
“Well, yeah. I guess so. That’s kind of a general term to use, mom. I can eat a great pizza and be happy about it.”
“But the pizza doesn’t make your life better.”
“I don’t know, have you had New York pizza?”
“Good point, but I’m serious, though. I’m your mother, and I just wanted to make sure you’re happy.”
I had a choice at this moment to either nod and go along with it or bear my entire soul in a department store. I tried to find middle ground.
“Well….maybe not totally. I mean, work is work and it pays me money and then I buy pizza and it makes my life better.”
“Of course.” She had just accepted it as fact.
“But, well, I’m not sure. I mean, things aren’t bad. But things don’t feel great. I don’t wake up in the morning and feel like I’m about to solve world hunger or anything. So maybe I am restless. But it’s not just cause I’m here and I haven’t been in a while. I’m not uncomfortable here, so I guess I am just restless.”
“So you’re not happy in general? Not just with being in Manchester? Because I was worried you would think about Ethan the whole time and we would never see you.”
My mom understood me better than I remembered. “I guess I’ve done some of that, sure. But I’m not sure what you mean when you say ‘happy’. Because when I picture being happy, I think about….well, Christmas, for example. A kid wakes up on Christmas and is ecstatic. He opens his gifts and is thrilled. By the afternoon, the thrill of those new gifts is gone. His happiness has disappeared almost as quickly as it got there, because the excitement of it being Christmas is gone. So being happy doesn’t seem all that important to me, mom.”
“You want more than just Christmas?”
I paused for a moment because my heart rate was picking up for whatever reason. “Yeah. I do. Being happy doesn’t matter, because it just goes away again.”
She started walking towards me. “You’re blessed, Aaron. You know that, right?”
“I guess so.”
“You are. You have been so blessed. So many gifts you’ve been given. You have this wonderful mind that looks at the world in such a unique way. You can fix a computer faster than it takes for me to break it. And I know you don’t see us all that often, but I hope your family is a blessing to you as well. Those things? They don’t go away. You’re blessed.”
At this point, she had reached out and grabbed both my arms, as if she was trying to stop me from running.
“Aaron,” she continued, “all I want is for you to be blessed and happy. To have the things that won’t go away, but to have them bring you even the temporary stuff as well. Be blessed and happy. Do you want that too?”
There was a lump in my throat. Part of me wanted to try and run, but instead, I barely eeked out a weak “Yes.”
“Good. Well then find your size in that shirt, and let me buy it for you.”
It only took nearly all afternoon, but Ashley finally found some simple gifts for Alex and my dad. I’m not quite sure why she was so concerned with it, as the two of them would probably forget or lose their gifts in record time, but she wanted to make sure they were just right. And it gave her an opportunity to shop.
Walking into the parking lot, it hit me that I never replied to Jenn’s text. I had read it while stuck between the three different cell phone kiosks, the perfume stand, the miserable looking monogrammed shirt guy, the jewelry guy and the guy with the toy helicopters, so stared at the smile too long and forgot. I typed out a quick, “Yeah, but never enough! haha”, hit send, and instantly felt like a moron.
Without fail, none of us could remember where we had parked, and we spent the better part of five minutes staring down rows of cars and hitting the keyless entry, hoping for a sign. Eventually, the sedan was spotted, and we grabbed our bags and started our walk back.
“So,” Ashley said, keeping her voice low, as if she knew anything about being discreet, “how is Jenn?”
“Good. Well, uh, I mean it was good to see her last night. We had a fun time.”
“But you haven’t spoken to her today?”
“She sent a text, I just responded.”
“Uh oh!” Ashley had a huge grin, like she was privy to a grand secret in the female gender and enjoyed keeping it from me. “She sent you a text already? What did it say?”
“Nothing, Ash. She was just saying hello.”
“Okay then, Captain Privacy.” He sounded like an awful superhero. “Suit yourself. I’m sure she is very concerned with your well being.” And with that, she trotted off ahead, hoping her words would spark panic in my head.
Very funny, Ashley. I couldn’t figure out why she acted like she wanted to date Jenn. Oh gosh, do I want to date Jenn? I don’t even know her! Shoot, Ashley’s plan worked. Oh well, I guess it couldn’t hurt to see if she replied to my text….
“Good! haha. Well if Christmas Eve gets boring, let me know! I’m sure I can help ;)”