Mixed-use Developments

Illustration by Levi Hastings

 

It’s Christmas Eve 1995, and I’m a kid on the phone.

I’m with half of my family—my mom, her sister, her sister’s husband, their kids—at my aunt’s house in Connecticut. In the next room, they’re bickering atop the sounds of Sesame Street’s “12 Days of Christmas.” Familial bickering I’m not a part of. I’m no good at bickering. Too young.

 Incapable. Real bickering requires history, shorthand.

An example of real bickering:

“Try the artichoke, Julie.”

“Don’t start.”

I can’t pull this off. I’m nine. An example of me bickering:

“Try the artichoke, mom.”

“I already did. Is yours okay?”

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“Good.”

The verbal equivalent of gunning a car stuck in neutral. So I’m grateful when my dad calls. I pick up the cordless.

“Hey bud,” he says.

“Hey pops.”

“What time is it there?”

“Three hours later.”

“Still?”

“Yup. Every time.”

I can’t remember if this was a bit, or if it was serious, or if my dad was reminding me how far away from each other we were, or if he was reminding himself. Regardless, he then says something else. Probably about his father. All I hear is Ernie and my family singing Five argyyyyle socks!! in unison. Like the golden rings, but argyle socks. Five argyyyyle socks!! they sing.

“What are argyle socks, dad?” I ask, inadvertently changing the subject. I have the phone receiver pressed to my ear, just on the edge of its range.

“What?” he asks.

“What are argyle socks?”

“Socks with diamonds on them. Hey, I gotta go, bud.”

“Don’t.”

“I gotta. I love you. I won’t tell Grandpa you’re doing Christmas. I’ll call you tomorrow.” I had lit six candles with the two men a week earlier, speaking with them the only Hebrew I knew. My separation from them meant Hanukkah was a one-night sort of miracle this year.

“No, don’t go.”

“Bud, that’s a non-starter.”

“I just… okay.”

“There should be something under the tree from me. If not, ask your mother, she’ll know.”

“Love you.”

He hangs up. Then I hang up. Then I rejoin a portion of my family.

It took me the better part of a decade to realize that argyle was a pattern, and not actual diamonds woven onto fabric. I assumed argyle socks were socks covered in diamonds. The only reason Burt didn’t sing Five socks with diamonds on them!! is because that doesn’t work in the rhyme scheme.

I was probably crying for the entirety of that phone call. I don’t say that to curry favor or gain sympathy. It’s just that I cried a lot as a kid, often enough that the odds are good that I was crying during that particular phone call. I didn’t have any reason to cry so much. My childhood was not difficult. There was no struggle. I wasn’t crying to get something; I had most anything I wanted. I just had a lot of brain space that, when wandered into, would trigger crying.

The crying made other people uncomfortable because a crying child is a very uncomfortable thing to be around. But crying didn’t make me feel bad. I didn’t stop my consciousness from slipping toward the parts of my brain that made me cry. I couldn’t tell you what those places were like now; I couldn’t find them if I went looking. They probably no longer exist. They’re neighborhoods of my brain that were gentrified by adolescence. But I didn’t want to be an uncomfortable thing to be around, so I stopped going to those places, and eventually those places were torn down and became other places. But they were there. Big, weepy swaths of brain.

In the years before I cried a lot, I threw up a lot. As a toddler, I had an improperly developed esophagus, so this was just a natural process for me. I would eat, then I would throw up. This wasn’t a problem—I digested enough that I wasn’t starving, and by the time I was old enough to think, the problem went away. But for the first few years of my life I threw up constantly. Again, I’m not looking for sympathy. Merely adding context. I was a kid who spent his first few years on Earth puking and the next 10 or so crying.

It’s Christmas Eve 2012 and I’m a man on the phone.

“You’re coming down to the city for Christmas, yes?” Ally and I had been seeing each other for six months before I left New York for Seattle. We were doing our best to stay together. Travelling back and forth. At this point we’d been apart as long as we had been together.

But I’m back East now—something of a combination trip. Family. Ally. Maybe even a little work. I’m at what was my aunt’s house in Connecticut. She passed away months earlier. In the next room my mom, her brother-in-law, his daughters, and his daughters’ children are listening to the Sesame Street Christmas album. I tracked it down and ripped it onto my mom’s iPhone.

“Yes?” Ally repeats.

“Yes.”

I hear Bert and Ernie engage in their version of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Ernie trades Rubber Duckie to Mr. Hooper to get a cigar box for Bert’s paperclip collection. Bert trades his paperclip collection to Mr. Hooper to get a soap dish for Rubber Duckie. Then Bert and Ernie exchange gifts and have to reckon with their mistake. This version has a happy ending though: Mr. Hooper returns Rubber Duckie and the paperclips in the spirit of Christmas.

“Where are you?” she asks.

“Greenwich,” I say.

“That’s not what… it’s good you’re coming down. It’s been too long.”

“It’s been three weeks since you came out.”

“That’s too long.”

“I guess so.”

“You guess so?”

Six months is enough time to know someone. It is also enough time to start to un-know someone. You can’t push a relationship forward on the phone. You can at best maintain a pulse. Shove a feeding tube down its throat. Why would Ernie think to sell his Rubber Duckie? He can’t! He’s Ernie. Selflessness is a crutch. A lie. Don’t do it, Ernie! Don’t rely on Mr. Hooper’s generosity. Stay you, Ernie. Stay you!

I think all of this, silently. I wish I were talking. I wish she were talking. Silence over the phone is unbearable. I miss phones with static.

We bicker. I’m better at this now.

She hangs up. I hang up.

Human empathy is theoretically unlimited. Love, theoretically, is unlimited. One relationship does not need to exist in lieu of another. I don’t have to wall off parts of my life from one another. I don’t. Even now I wonder if I know this.

I don’t go down to the city on Christmas day. At some point while we’re unwrapping presents, my dad calls. I excuse myself from the living room. Cell service is shit in there.

“Hey bud.”

“Hey pops.”

“What time is it there?”

We exchange pleasantries. He tells me that he won’t tell my grandfather I’m celebrating Christmas.

In the two years between my living this moment and recording it, I’ve completely forgotten what it was like to feel any of these feelings. I know I was grieving, and I know that I was both in love with a person and angry with her. Angry at her for being angry with me.

But all of those places have been torn down in my brain. Replaced with boxy new developments. I missed every design review meeting. Each new building has a plaque out front. Each plaque has words, the history of what had lived in that spot before. I can’t remember, but I can read.