You can never go home again.
Or so they say.
They also say there’s no place like home, and at the moment I’m torn as to which statement makes the most sense.
I’m standing in the driveway of my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, suitcase in hand. Light snow falls around me, gathering in my long hair like white glitter. To add to the poetry of the scene, the house is all warm and glowing against the dark night and I can see the giant, perfectly-decorated Christmas tree in the big bay window, just where it’s always been. My cab drives away, plumes of exhaust rising behind it, and I’m alone on the street.
It’s such a change from New York City. Even though the suburbs of Philadelphia aren’t anything to sneeze at, I’m already missing the hustle and bustle and anonymity of the city.
Especially the anonymity.
I take in a deep breath and walk carefully down the driveway, even though my father has probably shoveled and salted and sanded it a million times over. My gait is never that steady, even in shitkicker boots, so I’m usually more cautious than I should be.
Before I can even knock on the front door, trying to find a spot that isn’t covered with a giant Christmas wreath that looks like it was made from a small forest, the door opens.
“Rie-Rie!” my oldest sister, Angie, exclaims, throwing her arms out and pulling me into a tight hug. The smell of my mother’s gingerbread cookies follows her out, enveloping me too. “You made it!”
“Rie-Rie!” her five-year old daughter Tabby says, and the whole reason I have the Rie-Rie nickname, appears from behind her mother’s legs, wiggling her fingers at me and wanting a hug.
I drop my suitcase and crouch down to her level. Tabby is gorgeous, just like her mother, with shiny blonde curls that Angie fears will go dark one day. “How are you, Peggy Sue?” I ask.
“My name is Tabitha,” she says, scrunching up her face. “Why do you always call me Peggy Sue?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell her, giving her a squeeze. “Are you excited for Christmas? Santa is coming tonight.”
“I was hoping you were Santa.”
“Well, you know he doesn’t use the front door.”
“He could. We just need to leave him the key.”
I grin at her, and when I get back to my feet I notice my father and mother have joined the impromptu greeting session in the foyer.
They both come at me at once.
My father with his arms out and a heartfelt, “Good to see you, baby girl.”
My mother with a sympathetic tilt of her head, hands clasped at her front. “You look so tired.”
Of course I look tired. I’ve been pulling my hair out, stressed to the max, crying nonstop for the last week. Figures my mother would point that out. She likes to get you when you’re down.
A second glance at my body from her warrants a proud, “But you’ve lost weight.”
I ignore that and sink into my father’s hug. He’s always been so good at giving them.
“I think you look beautiful, Valerie,” my father says to me warmly. He’s very sensitive to the things my mother says these days, not like when I was younger. “I’m glad you’re here. Come in. Want some eggnog?”
Angie takes my suitcase away, tucking it in the corner, while my father hustles me over to the kitchen. On the polished granite center island is the eggnog punchbowl and the moose cups that my father bought decades ago, inspired by the Christmas Vacation movie. I think he still wishes he was Clark Griswold.
“Do you want to talk about it?” my mother asks, leaning against the counter and tapping her perfectly manicured red nails against it. I’m guessing she asked her manicurist for a specific shade of Christmas red.
“She doesn’t have to talk about anything,” my father says as he pours me eggnog from the bowl, and it’s then that I notice he’s wearing his jolly snowman tie that he always wears on Christmas Eve. “Here you go, sweetheart.”
“Thank you,” I tell him, and take a sip, the rum and nutmeg hitting me hard. “Whoa, Dad. This is strong.”
“You need it,” he says. “Want a cookie?” He turns around to bring the tray of freshly baked gingerbread men out, but my mother shakes her head.
“She doesn’t need a cookie,” she says, and then gives me a sweet smile.
“Hey, she can have a cookie if she wants it,” he scolds her, narrowing his eyes.
“It’s okay. I’m not hungry,” I tell him, waving the cookies away. The truth is I’ve lost my appetite, so while I’d normally be tucking into one, this time I don’t feel like it. At least this way I don’t have to deal with the pre-cookie shame and calorie-reduction calculations.
“Where’s Sandra?” I ask, changing the subject off of cookies and onto my other sister.
“She’s out with her friends,” my mother says, and I swear there’s some kind of jab in there about me.
While I was a bookish loner growing up and have just a handful of good friends, Sandra is the life of the party and is very social. More than that, she’s spiteful. Whenever she’s back in town for the holidays or some family gathering, she always goes to her old watering holes so she can show off. Now she’s known to the world as Cassandra Stephens, an accomplished actress with her own STARmeter on IMDB, and she loves rubbing her success in the faces of those who didn’t believe in her. I don’t blame her one bit. I often dream of the day I might do the same, shove any crumb of success in the face of all those people who called me a freak while growing up.
“Can I just say one thing?” Angie asks, appearing beside us, holding a glass of wine.
“Angie,” my father warns because we all know it’s never just one thing when it comes to her, and whatever it is will probably hurt. She takes after our mother. I’m already wincing.
“No, really, it needs to be said,” Angie says.
I sigh. “What?”
May as well get this over with because I figured this would be coming.
“I knew that boy was no good,” she says. “I knew it from the moment you met him. I mean, come on. His name is Cole Masters. He sounds like a villainous douchebag from a show on the CW.”
“Douchebag!” Tabby yells, even though I know she has no idea what it means.
“Angie, your language,” my mother says, more for the fact that she hates vulgarity rather than any swearing in front of her grandchild. “You’re more civilized than that.”
As for my sister calling my ex-fiancé a douchebag, well, I can’t argue with her. A month ago I would have defended him, but now there’s no going back to that.
“I know,” I say, my heart heavier than ever. I hate that everything Angie had been saying from the beginning was right.
I met my fiancé … okay, ex, just a year ago.
We were at a mutual friend’s birthday party in Bedstuy.
Cole is handsome as all get out. Movie star handsome. Even Sandra said he should be in films. But Cole was all about New York money and had huge success with an app and now heads his own company, all at the age of twenty-seven.
He was also very enigmatic and persuasive and I fell for him hook, line, and sinker. The fact that he wanted me, just a lowly writer with more curves than straight lines instead of the size-zero Instagram models with pillows for lips that were throwing themselves at him, took me for surprise. I suppose I managed to charm him as much as he charmed me.
Our romance was a whirlwind that turned into a tornado that ended up in us getting engaged after only six months.
And exactly one week ago, Cole pulled me aside in our shared apartment in Brooklyn and told me he wanted to call off the engagement. He wasn’t sure about the marriage thing anymore but he wanted us to stay together regardless.
I told him I’d think about it. Went for a long walk to the river and back.
Managed to grow a spine for the first time in a year.
Told him if he didn’t want to marry me now, he probably wouldn’t later. And yeah, I will fully admit we got engaged too fast, but I wasn’t about to still stick around in a relationship with him when he didn’t want anything more.
Which meant, in the end, it was my fault that I had to move out of the apartment and sleep on my friend Brielle’s couch for the last few days, and also my fault that I lost the man that I loved.
Then again, if I really loved Cole, wouldn’t I have chosen to stay with him even if he didn’t want the commitment?
I just don’t know anymore.
But Angie seems to know. She has that look on her face, and it’s not just that her cheeks are raging pink like they always are when she drinks wine.
“Look, I’m sorry, I really am,” she says while my father snorts. She gives him the evil eye. “I am.”
“You just like to tell her I told you so,” my father points out before he has a long sip of his eggnog, the drink getting on his mustache.
“No,” she says, rolling her eyes, even though we all know my father is right. “I just know what kind of guy Cole is. Believe me, I’ve been there. He wasn’t any different from Andrew.”
My mom shakes her head, not amused. She hates any mention of Angie’s ex-husband, one I’m tempted to point out was way worse than Cole. But this isn’t a competition of who had the shittiest ex.
“Plus, he went to Harvard,” Angie adds. “That’s bad news.”
“You went to Harvard,” I point out.
“And that’s where I met Andrew,” she says pointedly. “Believe me, the guys that go there have egos the size of Jupiter.” She pauses. “It’s a wonder I managed to stay so humble.”
I exchange a wry look with my father before I say to her, “It’s Christmas Eve. I don’t want to think about how my life is falling to pieces right now. Let’s just drink the eggnog and pick on Sandra when she gets back.”
But when Sandra does finally get back from her shenanigans at the local bars in town, we’ve already had my mother’s Christmas Eve duck for dinner, my parents have retired to their bedroom, and Tabby’s fast asleep in hers, leaving Angie and me downstairs blowing through bottles of wine.