Emily Chase is a writer living in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her essays focus primarily on issues of class, work, family, and womanhood. Her essay “In Defense of Grudges” was selected as a notable in The Best American Essays 2017. She has no spouse, no kids, no pets, and no God.
Give and Take
The Christmas tree in our living room is a depressing, fake little thing, with gaps between the branches that no amount of homemade ornaments could fill. It’s an artificial green, nothing like true pine. A hand-me-down from our aunt. We can’t have a real tree because my brother, Justin, is allergic. We are also not the type of family to pile into an SUV and drive to a Christmas tree farm. We don’t have an SUV, patience for one another, or money to spend on something that will eventually die.
It’s our first Christmas in the new apartment, which is worse than the one we lived in before. It’s small—a two-bedroom for the five of us. We’re on the second floor of a three-decker house at the top of a steep hill on a dead-end street. On one of our first nights here, I was on the front porch when I saw the woman from downstairs get into a car, drive it slightly down the hill, then get out and let it roll into the house at the end of the street. I slipped back inside, careful not to let the screen door slap, and told no one. When the police came, I eavesdropped at the top of the stairs and learned it was her boyfriend’s car. I lay in bed making up scenarios to explain why she did it. Intuitively, I was on her side.
I am sitting on the hardwood floor, looking at our sad tree, when my father comes home from work. I hear him rushing up the stairs to our apartment, taking them two at a time. His keys jingle and bang against the door, and when he walks in, he doesn’t regard me. I don’t address him, either. He works in a factory that manufactures tiny plastic translucent beads, but I don’t know what they are for. Stuffing Beanie Babies, I imagine. When I was younger, I used to dump them out of his boots and collect them in an empty film canister to use as bubble bath for my dollhouse.
When my father enters a room, you feel it like a sinking stomach. For this reason, the rest of us try to do whatever we need to do out in the shared living spaces—showering, heating up mac n’ cheese, watching TV—while he’s gone, then retreat into our bedrooms. My father sleeps on a pull-out couch in the living room. After 5pm, that space is his.
Tonight, he is home early, and my mom and I have been caught still living out in the open. I overhear them talking to each other in the kitchen.
“I need to go to Walmart,” he says, which means she has to drive him there. He doesn’t have a license, and he gets to and from work on a cheap bicycle that he is constantly breaking and repairing.
“For what?” she asks.
“I need to get things?” he says, mimicking her tone.
From the other room, I am wishing to not be involved. I try communicating, telepathically, with my mom: Let me stay home, let me stay home. I am eleven, Justin is fourteen, and our baby brother Ben is four months old. We are capable of watching ourselves, but my mom doesn’t like to leave us alone unless she has to.
“Alright,” my mom responds. “Tell the kids to get ready.”
When I am older and my parents are separated, my mom will describe one of the first moments of freedom she felt being away from my father. She was shopping in the bakery section at Price Rite and picked up a package of chocolate chip cookies. She remembered a time she bought them before, and my father reprimanded her, calling her a fat ass before shoving one into his own mouth. It occurred to her that she could buy them, now, and no one would have anything to say about it. She could buy 12, if she wanted to. With this new feeling budding inside of her, she carried on pushing the cart down the aisles, tossing in whatever she wanted.
I hear my father’s boots move towards Justin’s room. He knocks on the door but doesn’t wait for a response.
“Get ready,” he shouts through the wood.
By the time he’s back in the living room, I am already up and grabbing my coat. When he comes in, he is ready to bark his orders at me, but when he sees I have already heard them, he nods and sticks a Marlboro Red between his lips. I am an expert at avoiding him.
In the car, I bring my CD player and wish that the ride to Walmart was longer. I like listening to music in the car, and when it’s just my mom and I we listen to it out loud on the radio. Walmart is only ten minutes away, but it is one of the longer drives we take as a family. Everything else is “too far.” Once, my parents tried to take Justin and me to the Children’s Museum in Providence, but we never made it. It was supposed to be a twenty-minute drive, but after an hour of getting lost, my father’s impatience and my mom’s fear of driving in the city had us back on the highway and heading home in disappointed silence.
In Walmart, my parents decide to split up and meet back up again later. She will take us with her to get some things for the house, and he will go find whatever it is he is looking for, alone.
Hearing the plan, Justin and I exchange a quick, knowing glance. They always separate, and they can never find each other when it’s time to leave. Then there is a fight. It is painful for me to watch my parents make the same mistakes over and over again.
Justin and I follow my mom around the store like ducklings while the baby sleeps in the cart. We are loyal to her and would follow her anywhere. When our parents have a particularly bad fight, we follow her to the car to spend the night at her friend Tara’s house. Sometimes we stay there for days and pretend like we aren’t going back. Each time, I am conflicted over whether I want us to or not. Ultimately, going home is easier.
Justin, Ben, and I look like our mom. We have her light blonde hair and her fair skin. We have her mouth and her nose. Justin shares my father’s face structure, but there is almost no trace of him in me. I imagine my mom’s genes building me in the womb, fighting off my father’s genes like white blood cells do with an infection. When I ask my mom if I’ve inherited anything from him, she replies, “His anger.”
Alone in the aisles with our mom, Justin and I are more relaxed. At the layaway counter, we are giddy when my mom asks us to close our eyes. We don’t peek, knowing they are our gifts for Christmas. With our backs turned, my mom hides our gifts in the cart underneath her puffy winter coat.
When we’re finished, we can’t find my father. We walk in circles around the store, unable to catch him. Defeated, my mom sends Justin running up and down the main aisle to look for him faster.
When we finally find him, he is wandering, aimlessly, and there is nothing in his hands.
“Are you done?” my mom asks.
“No,” he says, irritated.
“What are you looking for? The kids want to go home.”
There is a long pause, and finally he answers like he’s confessing.
“There’s a Yankee Swap at work tomorrow,” he says.
His answer surprises me. I do not know my father as a Yankee-Swapper, or a gift-giver at all. I try picturing him at a Christmas party and I can’t. He is not festive, fun, or friendly.
Frustrated, my father takes off his baseball hat and runs his fingers through his hair. He walks toward the cash registers, and for a second I think he has given up. Instead, he approaches a rack of small candles, picks one up, sniffs it, and puts it back down. He picks up, sniffs, and puts down candle after candle, occasionally storing one in the crook of his arm.
It gives me a funny feeling to watch him do this. I think about the time he killed Midnight, my pet rabbit, in front of me, hurling him against a wall after he bit him. Or the time he stomped on my most prized possession––a white porcelain tea set in a wicker basket that my mom tried to piece back together with superglue. I have never seen my father be so delicate. I wonder if, maybe, there is a woman at work who he has a crush on, although I’ve never seen him be sentimental with any woman.
Eventually he ends up with five candles, all different scents and colors. I read the names as the little jars clink down the conveyer belt at checkout. One is called “Warm Apple Pie.”
There is a fight between my parents on the ride home. It starts out as being about losing each other in the store, but quickly turns into a fight about spending money. Justin and I know it’s best to keep quiet, and when I look over at him, he has his headphones on, like me, and he’s closing his eyes. Even the baby doesn’t cry.
By the time we arrive home, everyone is silent. We’re shuffling up the narrow hallway in our swishy winter coats, and my father takes the stairs too aggressively. I’m a few steps behind him, so I am eyelevel with the sole of his boot when it slips off the step a bit too early. He is able to regain his balance, but when he grabs for the railing, the bag of candles drops from his hand. The candles roll out of the bag and down the steps, past me, each one smashing as they go. I flinch at every tiny crash. Justin and I are frozen in place. We are waiting for the bomb to blow, for my father’s heavy boots to come thudding down the stairs.
But the explosion never comes. Instead, my father stares at the pieces of glass and chunks of rainbow wax decorating the steps. From behind us, my mom tells Justin and me to keep going, get inside, so we squeeze by him. Before going in, I check his face for signs of anger. There aren’t any, and he looks childlike, bending down to pick up the larger pieces of glass and collecting them in the palm of his hand. Later, I hear the soft bristles of a broom sweeping the hallway and feel the urge to cry.
On my way to bed, I stop by the living room. My father is awake and smoking a cigarette on the couch in the dark. The tree is lit up beside him, and flashes of blue light from the television reflect off of his glasses. I’ve noticed he sleeps with the tree plugged in all night, which I think is dangerous, but I wonder if it comforts him. I hover in the doorway for a moment, trying to figure out why, exactly, I am there.
I want to tell him how human he looked to me today. I am confused by how it disturbed me and made me feel embarrassed. I am afraid that I am more comfortable knowing him only as a monster. In this moment, overcome with a sudden tenderness towards him, I feel like I am the one who has been cruel.
“I’m sorry about the candles, Daddy,” I say, softly.
He doesn’t take his eyes off the television. He removes the Marlboro from his lips, and he dismisses me. “Go to sleep.”