On Christmas Eve, Juliette shows up at my place in Pasadena with her four-year old daughter, TS, and five shopping bags bursting with unwrapped gifts. It’s dusk when the doorbell rings, and when I look through the window it takes me a second to figure out who it is. I haven’t seen either of them since TS was a baby, and the last I heard they were living in Stockton with a guy Juliette met on the Internet.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” I say. It comes out sounding unfriendly, though that’s not how I mean it.
But Juliette waltzes in as if she’s expected. This is one gift I have somehow given her: the belief that any place she goes, she will be welcomed.
“Merry Christmas, Mama,” she says.
She stands in the living room, shopping bags in each hand, surveying my lame, under-decorated plastic tree with an expression I recognize as unsurprised disappointment. It’s the same look I often leveled in her direction throughout her teenage years. Her hair is dyed red, and she’s wearing mascara so thick it must hurt to blink. She’s always been slender, but now she’s so thin she looks pared down, a sliver of herself, like somebody’s worked her over with a nail file.
TS, on the other hand, is not thin. She’s a chubby ball of energy with frizzy golden hair, dressed in a pink leotard and matching tutu–never mind it’s cold out, the kind of just-below-sixty weather that makes people in L.A. pile on the coats and boots. Without even looking at me, she bounds through the house, shouting, “We’re at Grandma’s!” and “I hope Santa finds us here!”
Two seconds after she runs into the kitchen there’s a scraping sound, followed by the clatter of dishes hitting the floor. When I go in to investigate, she’s standing on a chair trying to reach a Chips Ahoy package on a high shelf.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” she lies, and jumps down.
Like mother, like daughter, I think.
Juliette was only 20 when she got pregnant, and partying a lot–I’d pick her up outside seedy clubs in Hollywood, her eyes dazed with drink, or scream at her on the sidewalk in front of the dark bars that line Figueroa while she laughed in my face and said she just wanted a ride home. TS stands for Tequila Sunrise, if you can believe that, and I’m not sure even Juliette knows who the father is. When the baby was born, she was still living at home, but we fought even more than we had before; somehow she didn’t appreciate all my sensible advice. One day I woke to a note on the fridge saying she was leaving town with Tony and would be in touch.
Tony was a guy she’d met in the birthing class I made her take, somebody else’s husband. Only Juliette, my beautiful mess of a daughter, could pick up a man while eight months along.
Since then I’ve gotten occasional emails and letters postmarked random places: Barstow. Tahoe. Rogue River, Oregon. Sometimes there’s a P.O. Box and a plea for money.
I was planning to visit friends in Reseda tonight, but I make dinner for Juliette and TS instead. I’m happy I put up the tree. Every year I think about leaving it in storage, and then I wonder, what if Juliette shows up? I never leave town for the holidays, and usually by the time New Year’s comes I feel foolish and even more alone than before.
But now she’s here and I am glad, cautious but glad. While I cook, she fidgets around the kitchen. She keeps opening cupboards and drawers but when I ask her what she’s looking for, she mutters, “Nothing.” I measure the rest of my questions out carefully, knowing I’m only allowed so many before she gets mad.
“How are things in Stockton?”
She looks confused. “How would I know?”
“Where’ve you been, then?”
“Salt Lake. Tony had some business deals.”
“I thought you split up with Tony.”
“I did,” she says. “But you know how it goes.”
“The path of true love,” I say.
“Plus I needed the money,” she says.
We eat macaroni and cheese in front of a Christmas special, TS jumping up and down with excitement every few minutes, grinding noodles into the carpet. Then she knocks over a lamp, and before I can stop myself I shout at her to watch what she’s doing, and she bursts into tears.
“You’re too mean to be a grandma,” she says.
“There’s no rule about how mean grandmas can be.”
“It’s true, baby,” Juliette says.
TS keeps sobbing like we just told her Santa Claus is dead.
Juliette strokes her hair and says, “Why don’t you show Grandma how you dance?”
Instantly the waterworks stop. Juliette pulls a laptop out of her bag and sets it up to play a video. I’m picturing a little ballet, maybe a Nutcracker-themed tap dance. Instead, the video shows some half-naked girls gyrating on the floor to a manic beat.
TS throws herself into it. She shakes her booty and flaps her arms, sticking out her little-girl belly, smiling wide. It’s like watching a baby seal at a nightclub. When the song ends, we clap and she collapses in an armchair, her cheeks flushed.
“You’re a star, baby,” Juliette tells her, which makes me wince.
They go get ready for bed. While they’re gone I peek at the shopping bags: an Xbox, a cell phone, an American Girl doll, stuffed animals, some girls’ dresses, shoes. It occurs to me that Juliette hasn’t mentioned a job, that it looks like she needs a haircut, that the car she pulled up in is a Chevy Malibu with a missing bumper and a dent that crumples the side.
From the bathroom I hear TS crying and Juliette saying, “You have to!” and what may or may not be the sound of a slap. Then they come back, TS sullen in pink striped pajamas.
“Good night, Grandma.”
“Give her a hug,” Juliette orders–clearly this was the subject of the bathroom debate–and TS shakes her head.
“Tell you what,” I say. “Let’s leave some milk and cookies out for Santa.”
TS brightens. We go into the kitchen and prepare a plate, and by the time we set it on a table by the tree, she’s all smiles. I can tell that she’s a sweet kid as long as she gets what she wants. I wonder where she gets that from.
This holiday season, I’m grateful that family reunions can be eased by the judicious application of alcohol.
Juliette and I sit by the twinkling lights of my plastic tree, drinking whiskey. The air smells of night-blooming jasmine and the festive scorch of neighborhood fireplaces. When she was a child we used to make a gingerbread house, hang stockings, sing the occasional carol. She had a pretty voice, reedy and clear, and she loved to perform. We came to L.A. from Minnesota when she was 11, so she could be an actress. Young as she was, she’d bugged me about it for years. I liked the idea too. Her father was a disaster–drinking runs in his family the way blue eyes run in others–and I wanted out. I wanted to give Juliette something better than the drab, angry life we had.
And I did. Before the partying, before the drugs, before her many boyfriends and before TS, we had a love affair with California. On Sundays we drove to Malibu and dipped our toes in the sand, pretending we were millionaires who lived in high, bright houses above the water. A simple thing like that could fill an entire day.
In Los Angeles, I thought, there’s room to breathe. It’s an open city, each day unfolding sunny and new, nothing to constrain you or hold you back. What I didn’t realize is that there also isn’t anything to catch you when you fall. Or maybe I was just too busy, working two jobs then coming home late to our little apartment in Mid-City, to notice when somewhere along the way Juliette got lost.
We tried so hard. We stood in lines and sat in waiting rooms, crossing our fingers that Juliette would be cast as the kid in the toothpaste commercial or an extra in a school scene, but nothing ever panned out. I still don’t know why. She was just as pretty as the other girls; her smile was just as bright.
In the end, she found different ways to feel like somebody else.
Now she pulls out some paper and sets to work wrapping the gifts, making straight lines as she folds, tying the ribbon tight.
I take a breath and ask, “Where’d you get all this stuff?”
The pause before she answers, “I bought it” is tiny, but I’m her mother so I catch it.
“Bought it where?”
She sighs, her green eyes hooded and dark. “Tony taught me some skills,” she says. “Computers and stuff.”
“What do computers have to do with it?”
“There’s a universe of information out there, Mama.” She gestures in the air, a magician casting a criminal spell. “There for the taking. You just have to reach out and grab it.”
For a second, I can almost see it dangling in the air. A stream of data flickering around us, credit cards and social security numbers, tax refunds and bank accounts. She tells me that for a while she was Grace Hernandez, a dental hygienist from Chicago. After that she was Marvin Gardens. “Can you believe it? That was his real name, like in Monopoly.”
We’re both smiling until I break the mood. “I don’t know how long you think you can get away with something like this.”
There is a pause that lengthens until I realize she isn’t going to say anything.
So I move on, at last, to the question I’ve wanted to ask all night.
“Why are you here?”
She shrugs. I thought there had to be a reason she finally came home, but now I understand that, as with many things Juliette does, there is no reason; that maybe, at best, she ran out of other places to go.
She says, “It’s Christmas.”
I head to bed at 11, with Juliette set up on the couch. She’s taken a careful bite out of Santa’s cookies and drank half his milk. The presents are stacked beneath the tree, gleaming red and green and gold.
Cuddled under her blanket, she looks very tired and very young.
I want to say: things will be different. I won’t yell the way I used to.
Instead I say, “In the morning, I’ll make French toast.”
It’s her favorite.
“Thank you, Mama,” she says. “For everything.”
Christmas morning I wake early to brilliant sun. A hummingbird motors around the fuchsias in the front yard. Reflexively, I check to see if Juliette’s car is still in the driveway, and sigh in relief when it is. I feel so guilty for doubting her that it takes me a minute to notice my Camry is gone.
In the living room, the couch is empty, the blanket crumpled to one side like a tissue. The house is so quiet I can hear myself breathe. I should have known that this would never be anything more than a temporary stop for Juliette, quick as a hummingbird before she moves on to the next thing.
I make coffee, pouring Santa’s leftover milk into it. When Juliette was little, I pretended Santa was real for her sake. Then I began to suspect that she was pretending she still believed in him, for my sake. She seemed to think it would hurt my feelings if she gave up on it. So for a couple of years we were locked in a stalemate of pretending, neither of us wanting to admit the truth. We outdid ourselves in talking about Santa, anticipating his arrival, claiming we heard reindeer hooves on the roof.
Weirdly enough, these were some of our best times, celebrating a story we both knew was fake. Clinging to the last moments of magic.
Am I the one who made Juliette the way she is–always slipping away from the reality of the world? Would things be different if we’d never come to California?
These are questions that will haunt me always.
Then from the spare bedroom I hear a cough. Walking to the doorway I see TS nestled in bed, hugging a white bear that used to belong to her mother.
And now I understand.
I know, with a mother’s steely certainty, that Juliette won’t be back. I can see her driving up the highway past Malibu, the ocean blue as a postcard, the city falling away behind her.
There’s a universe out there, she told me last night, and you just have to grab it.
My heart is breaking, but the crack in it feels like an opening too.
I know I can do better this time.
TS’s presents wait beneath the tree. In bed, she dreams of Christmas, her hair a blond cloud against the pillow. Her face in sleep is sealed and innocent, sweet with possibility, like a gift.
Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person and Babylon and Other Stories. Her newest novel is Inside.
*Photo by Vera Topinka.