From Chapter 8: Rabid
This year would be Dick’s and my first Christmas as separated husband and wife. Did Hallmark make a tree ornament for that? I could think of a few designs. Maybe a wedding ring split in two with a busty British massage therapist holding the pieces. There could be a big bruise under the massage therapist’s eye from where the wife slugged her. The word separated always conjured up the image of a dismembered torso, with limbs scattered nearby. It felt pretty much like that.
But separated or not, Christmas was coming, and I was determined to make it a good one for the kids. I was proud of myself for taking the girls to see The Nutcracker as we’d always done as a family, and even prouder that I did not allow my gaze to linger too long on the well-endowed crotches of the male dancers. In addition to The Nutcracker, one of the most important traditions was the trip to the tree farm. This was what I kept in mind as the girls and I tromped through mucky brown fields to find a tannenbaum worth fighting over.
“Where’s all the snow?” Carli wanted to know. “Christmas is supposed to be white.”
Christmas is supposed to be a lot of things. “We still have two weeks. I’m sure we’ll get some,” I said, lacing my voice with optimism.
“We might not, though,” Lily responded. I threw her a don’t start look, but her head was turned toward a family cutting down a tree. A father, mother, son and daughter. The father was tall and handsome and smiled a lot. He’d probably gotten laid last night. The mother was petite and adorable in her fuzzy red hat and matching mittens. Even the tree was perfect: gargantuan, majestic. They undoubtedly had cathedral ceilings and a huge window in which to display the tree. They’d load the tree with expensive ornaments but would also proudly display the popsicle-stick-and-glitter stars the kids made in preschool. You could just tell.
Carli ran ahead to a tall evergreen. She undoubtedly had tree envy after seeing that family’s selection. “How about this one, Mumma?”
I shook my head. “Too big.” I glanced over at Lily, who was standing with her hands jammed in her pockets. “Come on, Lil…help us find one.”
She dipped her chin into the collar of her coat. “I’m cold.”
“Well, then, let’s find a tree and we can go.”
“Why didn’t we just get a fake tree?”
I could feel my jaw begin to tighten. Why was she making this so difficult? We always came to this tree farm. Couldn’t she understand I was just trying to keep things the same? I forced myself to sound pleasant. “Because live ones are better.”
“But once you cut them down, they aren’t alive anymore. They’re dead. So we’re really bringing home something we killed.” She looked immensely pleased with herself.
I stared at her. I could hear the son of the Perfect Family asking politely if they could go get some hot chocolate. “Of course!” his perfect mother replied. “That’s the best part!”
“Come on, Carli,” I said. “I feel like killing something.”
I trudged to the next row of trees. “Do you girls see anything you like?”
Lily rolled her eyes and shrugged. Carli ran to a rather sparse-looking tree. “How about this one?”
“That one’s not full enough, honey.” I turned to see a couple in the next row standing by their selection. They looked like newlyweds. The wife stood back as her husband cut into the tree with the bow saw. Her eyes were glowing. There was something sexy about a man cutting down a tree: even a stocky guy with glasses like this one. He was probably going to get laid tonight. We stood watching him work the bow saw with quick, even strokes. The tree began to tip.
“Timberrrr…” I called. Lily and Carli looked at me like I had three heads. “That’s what they say,” I explained, “when they’ve cut down a tree and it’s falling and they want to warn people.”
Carli was puzzled. “Why don’t they just say, ‘look out, there’s a tree falling?”
I gritted my teeth. “Because that would take longer to say. They want people to get out of the way quickly.”
Carli was undaunted. “You could say it fast. Like ‘lookoutthere’satreefalling.’ Kids might not know what ‘timber’ means.”
“WhatEVER!” Lily exploded. “Just shut up!”
“LOOK,” I hissed. “We are getting a goddamned Christmas tree.”
The girls gaped at me.
“We’re getting this one.” I pointed to the tree closest to me.
“But some of the needles are orange,” Carli said hesitantly. “And it’s not very big.”
“It’s perfect,” I snapped.
Within minutes I was sawing away at the trunk with vicious cuts. Goddamned–sonofa–BITCH! The tree was mine. It began to lean. Breathing hard, I gave it a shove, looked at Carli and yelled, “Look out, there’s a tree falling!” Lily rolled her eyes. Carli stared at me, unblinking.
We headed back for the cabin with the murdered tree. We did not speak. Suddenly, a black and white cat darted in front of us. Carli twisted around to look and dropped her end of the tree. “Mumma, look! He’s so cute!”
We put down the tree and I walked to the next row where the cat had disappeared. “Kitty-kitty-kitty!” What was he doing on a tree farm? The owners leased the property but didn’t live there, and the closest neighborhood was some distance away. It must have been a stray. I continued searching.
“MOM!” Lily called. “Can we go?”
“I’m trying to find him,” I yelled back. “He shouldn’t be out here.”
I moved between the trees, taking slow, careful steps. Black tail with a white tip, snaking back and forth. He was huddled under a tree. I crouched down and reached for him very carefully. Lily yelled my name again just as my hand came in contact with the stray. He whipped around to face me…shit! I felt his needle-sharp claws sink into my wrist, in the space between my glove and coat. He bounded away through the brittle yellow grass.
I met up with the girls near the cabin. “Where’s the cat?” asked Carli.
“He took off.” Gingerly, I pulled back the edge of my coat sleeve to reveal the scratch. There were two half-inch gouges, deeper than I’d thought, and very red.
“Did he bite you, Mumma?” Carli leaned forward to peer at my wrist. “It looks like teeth marks.”
Now I was unsure. What if he had bitten me? If he was a stray, there was no telling what diseases he could be carrying. Toxoplasmosis, or cat scratch fever, or….rabies. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men, he could have rabies!
I gave Lily a little push in the direction of our car. “I need to pay for the tree. Take your sister to the car and I’ll be right out.”
“But can’t we have some hot chocolate?” Carli asked.
“But that’s the best part!”
We are not the Perfect Family! “No,” I repeated, “we don’t have time. I have to get home and put something on my wrist.” I would wash the wound with antibacterial soap and hot water, and use hydrogen peroxide. Then I’d put some of that bacitracin ointment on it. I could call my doctor (or even the vet) and get some more advice. I would be fine.
Upon arriving home, I tugged at the ropes holding the tree on top of the van and wrestled the conifer to the ground. After I’d plunked it in a pail of water and leaned it against our garage wall, I raced to the bathroom to tend to my wound.
“Mom,” Lily called from downstairs. “Dad’s here.”
I opened the medicine cabinet and scanned the shelves for the peroxide bottle. What if we’d run out? Ah, there it was. I pressed it to my chest. Thank you, thank you, my brown disinfectant friend!
“Mom.” Lily’s voice sounded sharp. “Do we have to go with him?”
I turned the hot water on and squirted some soap on my wrist, working it into a lather. “Isn’t he taking you shopping?”
“I don’t want to go.”
Carli piped in. “Me neither. I’m tired.”
“Well, go tell him.”
“We already did. He says we have to. Will you go talk to him?”
I hesitated. Was I ready for this? Maybe it would be a good thing to force myself to see him, before the mediation. Perhaps I could spread some holiday cheer, wish him a Merry fucking Christmas.
“Yes,” I called back. I could do this. I shook the water from my wrist and patted it dry with a washcloth. I’d have to continue my disinfecting regimen after I’d spoken with Dick.
Approaching his car, I steeled myself. He rolled down his window, his cheek muscle twitching.
“They don’t want to go with you today,” I said. “They’re tired. We just came back from getting a tree.”
He stared at me. “They can rest at my apartment.”
The sound of his voice made me want to leap out of my skin. It scraped my ears like the tines of two forks colliding. The wind lifted my hair and I jabbed it behind my ear. I took a deep breath. The sleeping tigress in me, wanting to protect her young, growled. “They’d rather rest here,” I said. “In their own house.”
The muscle in his cheek twitched again. “The girls have two houses now.”
“But this is their home,” I said. “There’s a big difference. You’re living in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s not the same. You’re not the same,” I added, folding my arms across my chest. The December air was biting, but I was determined not to let him see me shiver.
His lips drew into a thin line. Like a worm. “People change, Chris. You should give it a try. Just remember that the ‘poor Mommy’ role isn’t very becoming.”
I struggled to call forth the image of Hank, who would be flashing me a keep your cool, pumpkin look right about now. “It’s no secret I’ve been in pain, Richard.”
Dick leaned forward. I could smell coffee on his breath. “Well,” he said softly, nastily, “a good mother would be stronger.”
No one was going to criticize my motherhood. I was the only one who could do that. The tigress attacked. I slammed my hand against the side of his car, hard. “You and your goddamned angry face!” I spat out the words. “You look like shit.”
“Have you checked a mirror lately?” His eyes were blazing.
“I just got a CHRISTMAS TREE,” I screeched. “It was muddy!”
I looked over at the house. Lily and Carli were standing in the window. I wondered how much they had seen, or heard. I took a step closer to his car and arranged my thumb and forefinger in the most offensive hand gesture known to a man: the demonstration of length. “You are THIS BIG,” I said, and walked away. Merry fucking Christmas.
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