I’m huddled in an airport bar at JFK, more than three hours before my flight to Albuquerque. Even with the wide margin of error, my anxiety spiked in the car on the way over. This trip has been a fixed mark for months and now, as it’s happening, part of my mind is bracing for something to make it impossible. The giddy, exciting side of anticipation has always been basically inaccessible for me until I cross some threshold that confirms the awaited thing will actually come. This confirmation can be superstitious. It just has to feel safe. There is a point where waiting can feel good. It’s the feeling of sitting in a restaurant when you know someone is meeting you or a theater when you’re seated but the curtain hasn’t gone up. Getting through security at the airport does this, too, even though things could still go wrong.
Besides, I have a soft spot for airport bars. Drinking alone in them still makes me feel special and like an adult in a way that isn’t depressing like most other things about feeling adult. Maybe it’s because they’re so often places where I experience that rare high of waiting. Most forms of travel are romantic, even down to the subway, so it could be that a little of that train station anything can happen aura rubbed off onto the overpriced restaurants at JFK. Airport bars are not glamorous. Look even a little closely and it falls apart, but the illusion persists for me.
I used to think that this kind of waiting was the happiest a person could be in life; when against our better judgment we let the optimism and potential get to us without the edge and disappointment of reality. I was sort of right. It wasn’t safe to believe you’d arrive or could rest in anything. Maybe I didn’t realize that it’s possible to take it too far and never remember to stop and take inventory of everything. This is the second time I’ve flown to ABQ. This time I’m alone. But I’m going towards (and back) to something. The other day my boyfriend said “you’ll be home soon,” referring to this flight, this day. I don’t know if it as a slip on his part. Either way, it feels true.
To go to Sephora in Albuquerque, you have to go to the mall. I forgot to bring moisturizer – so, a big emergency. The last time I was at a mall was the last time I was in South Carolina. It’s not just living in New York that makes the idea of the mall feel strange. The mall as an event and a destination seems like something from a different time. Going to the mall used to be an all day production, starting full of hope and ending in a weird, shopping-specific type of exhaustion. In my adult life the exhaustion hits early when I go to a mall.
Before online shopping, the mall was both a necessary service and a place full of promises. This was a time when popularity seemed to hinge on Rainbows in the spring and summer, Birkenstocks in the fall and winter. The unintelligible, drowning music and weirdly Heart of Darkness-esque mugginess of Hollister whispered that you could buy the rumpled, sexy ease of a beach bonfire. When my parents decided that a preteen me was not allowed to shop at Abercrombie and its sibling brands, I wasn’t only cut off from a store. I was cut off from the biggest signifier of social success.
At the mall in New Mexico, it was sad to see that the entrance to Hot Topic is no longer the black vortex that it used to be. As an adult it’s easy to make fun of its edgelord veneer – a fuck you darkness that tries to look standoffish from everything but is of course entirely vulnerable and earnest. In middle school I hoped that going through that doorway meant that I could come out with a personality that would transcend questions of popularity, that would armor me against the need to belong, all in the form of a plaid skirt embellished with straps and chains like a Testuya Nomura character. Now Hot Topic is mostly anime and general nerd merchandise, with a tiny, forgotten section dedicated to off-off-goth clothes (even the thing that fit my preferred goth subset – a black dress with a delicate white collar – was official Riverdale merchandise). And I guess it’s still serving the same purpose to kids like I was. The coat of paint on the armor has just changed.
P warned me that I would go out of my mind about luminarias.* A luminaria is a votive candle in a brown paper bag. It is also, from even the smallest distance, magic. It would be hard to nail my whole Christmas deal better in one object: something simple, mundane, even ugly in the light of day, transformed by night and tradition and sentimental value.
Driving into the city a few days before Christmas, a smattering of houses had lantern dotted walkways but they come out in full on Christmas Eve. Plain storefronts and balconies are filled seemingly out of nowhere and plain again just as quickly. I remain, as always, a slut for the ephemeral .
Most protestant American upbringings take all the mysticism out of the season, but these lights make it easier to believe in spirits walking the earth on Christmas Eve or wishes coming true. If that sounds stupid. Well. Christmas turns me into a ridiculous child. I don’t want to overuse the obvious word here, but it was enchanting.
There is a disagreement in New Mexico over whether to call this kind of light a luminaria or a farolito (little lantern). A luminaria can refer to a more specific kind of festival bonfire and so some New Mexicans think it’s a misapplication. I, of course, think it’s very charming that this is a controversy.
Christmas is a sad holiday. Rather, it’s a holiday that can be achingly happy and beautiful because it stands side by side with melancholy, transience, and endings. The best Christmas movies and stories – from It’s a Wonderful Life to Carol (and 2046!) – understand this, where the good ending is hard-won and imperfect. In talking to P’s mom about our favorite Christmas songs, I realized there’s no more fitting sentiment than “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and in particular “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” It’s so wistful and human. Christmas is good because we grasp things close to us knowing we can’t keep them, in spite of the messy truths of our lives and relationships and the cold, dark of the winter that’s barely started. Christmas is mono no aware, is what I’m saying.
Christmas is also about grace and failure. From November through New Year’s, every few weeks sees variations on the same twitter thread go viral: quote this tweet with what you’re most proud of in 2018, quote this tweet with your three biggest accomplishments this year, what have you done this year? I hate these threads any time, but especially at Christmas. At Christmas, you can be celebrator without earning it. You get a holiday our of our collective sheer force of will, not because anything you achieved.
What the spirit of Christmas actually is to me is resting in failure. It comes and it’s a chance to be kind and recognize kindness even if you failed your personal goals. Even if you’ve failed each other. I’ve failed so many times this year in ways I couldn’t have predicted. On top of that I have been very sick since before the flight. Nevermind the big things I fell short of. I am a disgusting, oozing mess of a person yet Christmas still lets me sink into it fully. It was one of the hardest years of my life. We muddled through somehow.
The family had to put down their dog, Tam. Tam is a dog that I maybe never should have met. Diagnosed with bone cancer before my first trip to New Mexico, it wasn’t a sure thing he would live to that spring. He definitely wasn’t “supposed” to be here for Christmas. He was clearly in more pain and less mobile than last time. He was still wonderful, as I might say about almost any dog, but Tam was exceptionally gentle and had incredible ears.
It’s weird to accidentally get a window into an emotional experience you haven’t earned and aren’t entitled to. Even if I loved Tam in the way it is simple and easy to love animals, I didn’t have over a decade of history with him. When the vet came, I sat around him with the whole family and I cried openly with everyone. While the pain of animals is reliably, sincerely heartbreaking for me, I still felt like I was intruding on a private circle of grief. Somehow both a presumptuous screw up on my part and a strange honor that I could be there.
The expanse of mountains past Albuquerque that I will never get over is slate grey and covered in snow . Looking at it is what brings the tears I knew were coming. I am heartbroken to leave this place I never expected to love. And I still feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to love it. It’s not mine and in so many ways I’m just another east coaster in awe of the unfamiliar beauty that we really should not be so shocked to discover exists.
Being allowed to love it was an unexpected Christmas gift. One of my actual, physical gifts from P’s parents was a set of tiny spoons. They had remembered an embarrassing piece of personal lore. I like to eat with the smallest utensils possible, especially ice cream with miniature spoons or forks. My mom keeps disposable cocktail silverware in a drawer for me when I visit. Four of the Christmas spoons are embellished with state birds on the handles: Ohio, South Carolina, New York, New Mexico. It meant more to me than I could express at the time to see their home lined up as if it could be a natural part of my own personal narrative. In one weird present I was told that my stupid quirks were ok and treated like I belong. I don’t know if I’ll ever live in New Mexico, but however undeserving I am, it welcomed and accepted me.
It’s dangerous to ever hope that something could be as good as you hoped it would be, but this Christmas was.
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