A Christmas Story, 2007
Milk. That’s it, just milk. A tall glass of. Or cup of. Wine glass of. Five shot glasses of. A few bubbles on top, or not. I would say cold except it’s ten below feels like who even cares, so, by the time I get it back to my apartment, the distance I’ve traveled will likely freeze it anyway. Then I’ll have damn custard. Who even cares, just, all I want is milk. I want to drink it in a gulp so big it feels like my throat is an ocean and I am an ocean-swallower. A swallower of oceans, maybe for money. But in this case the ocean is milk. That’s the thing I want.
I fully get where this is coming from, so don’t act like you’re the first person to think you’re Freudian X. Fricking Jung for pointing out that wandering the streets of New York looking for a deli or bodega to sell me some damn milk on Christmas Eve is, like, so fitting, right? I mean doesn’t it make me some sort of latter-day, broke-ass Santa Claus? Or isn’t it some sort of metaphor for emotional poverty, the kind that gets you so low on a holiday evening that naturally you seek out the one thing kids around the country are just ladling out–for free–to the imaginary keeper of hopes and dreams and all that. Then naturally that one thing the kids around the country are guilelessly giving away just happens to be nigh apparently impossible for anyone to stock in a ten block radius of my apartment.
When I moved to this apartment my roommate Gary told me there were three places I could go to buy stuff at the last minute, in the middle of the night, when I was drunk and needed Entenmann’s. There was the good deli, around the corner and expensive, with a small selection of spices. Then there was the faraway deli, far away, cheap ATM, bad pre-packaged egg salad. Finally, there was the ghetto bodega, which was what he called it, he uttered the words “ghetto bodega” in the year of our lord 2007 and I know this because I witnessed it, our lord, 2007, “ghetto bodega,” and I just stared at him and said, “What?” and he said, “I bought toilet paper there once and it had rat droppings on it,” and I said, “Those are smart rats,” and he said, “Anyway, that place never closes,” and then he looked me up and down with his eyes slit as thin as dimes and I could tell he was seeing me for the first time and ruing the very day.
Tonight the ghetto bodega is closed, I just want you to know that, Gary, but you’re in Texas with your family so why do you care? I’ve already passed the faraway deli and bless it they were open, a dead-eyed cashier staring at an episode of Law & Order on the 5-inch TV behind the register. “Milk?” I asked, and he shook his head. I checked the case anyway thinking there might be one of those horrible school lunch cartons, milk that tastes like cardboard and bleachers but the whole drink case was clear. Maybe they were closing, foreclosing, going forever. Maybe this was their way of telling us. Thinking of that I almost bought a pack of Twizzlers like a just-in-case goodbye-bodega gift, but if there’s one thing that isn’t milk, it’s Twizzlers.
My walk leads me slightly uphill, and there’s snow starting to fall like I’ve reached the credits already. I think, no you don’t, snow, no you don’t go turning me back to my house thinking I’m satisfied with dissatisfaction. I can feel the ghost of the milk ocean, I can hear the giggles of children as they drop entirely full cartons while trying to pour that Santa glass, I am not even slightly amused by how snow and milk are even the same cold color. It’s everywhere now, and it’s past midnight. I guess that makes it Christmas. I am twenty blocks from my apartment, now, an entire zip code I think. The city may never sleep but its people do, and so do its sidewalks, and so it’s just me and the flickering on-and-off streetlamps, like electricity itself is barely holding it together.
(Think about how you got here, and make sure you never do it again. There were pills you could have taken to sleep; there were plane tickets you could have bought to be out of here. There were grad school applications you could have filled out, and there were diets you could have been on. There were notes you could have reached. You are in control of every horrible thing that happens to you, at least if you hate yourself enough.)
Nothing is open, and nothing will ever be open again. I feel it in my blood. Even the bars are closed, even the dives. The Chinese restaurant, the Mexican restaurant, and the diner that wants to be so much more; we all sympathize. I am getting tired and I want to sit, and really the only place to do that is the ground, and the second only place is the curb, and the third and final place is a cab, but all I have are quarters and cabbies don’t take those so much anymore. I choose the curb and watch a snowplow go the other way, I look at the sky and the lamps turning everything yellow. Other people smoke, given these situations, but me, I just look around until my eyes hurt, until I could roll them straight out of the sockets and flick them around like marbles, wedge the left one between my thumb and forefinger and make it the shooter, rolling around Amsterdam Avenue until that snowplow comes back around and salts my vision to death.
I am so caught up in this idea of rolling my eyeballs like marbles that I begin making these flicking motions with my fingers, then I am kind of wishing there was enough snow to make tiny snowballs. I could draw a circle in the snow, play keepsies. That would at least be good, that would mean I didn’t come out here for nothing, not as long as I didn’t beat myself. In the distance I hear the rolling engine of the retreating plow and right up against my face I hear my own angry breaths echoing in the space between my ears and my wool hat. Whooshing around, creating pockets of sweat. A hat cyclone.
Then all of a sudden there is this tap on my shoulder, so I turn right and slightly up and there I am, standing above me, only the me standing above the me sitting is holding that tall glass of milk and, for some reason, wearing a sundress. I look at her and she looks at me, and she says,
“Sorry, I just came through that door.”
She thumbs back towards what sure enough is a door, only it’s not so much a door as a bend in the air, or a ripple, or some sort of camera trick. It surely is a door, though, wide and flat and opening onto what is still Amsterdam Avenue, only the bit I can see is just slightly different. For one thing there isn’t snow, and it’s sort of dark, but not the same dark. A bluer dark. It fits right into the landscape but for a slight colormatch issue, like a section of the air’s been poorly Photoshopped in.
I look back at her and she holds the glass of milk towards me.
“You look like you need this,” she says, and I nod like an idiot.
She’s got the glass right under my nose so finally I reach out and take it and kind of stare into it. Oh the milk looks so good but I wasn’t born yesterday. You don’t just go drinking things that people hand you on the street, even if those people look exactly like you except wearing a sundress, like, isn’t she just a bit cold and do my arms really look like that all waving around? Because it is me, I can tell this already, I don’t need all the backstory. I mean she is me. She is me exactly but for the dress and maybe the hair has been dyed slightly more recently but we’re just about blinking at the same time, breathing at the same time, but–
“Where’d you come from?” I ask.
“I just walked through that door and when I got here the milk was in my hand,” she says.
She gestures at the ground.
“Sure,” I say, and she sits. I worry a bit about the dress.
“It’s raining,” she says, “Where I’m from.”
“In December?” I say.
“No, it’s June,” she says. “In there.”
“So, what, six months. . . in the future?” I say.
“Definitely not the future,” she says. “That doesn’t feel right.”
“So is it parallel or something?” I say.
“God, who knows,” she says. “I thought parallel meant everything was different. But this looks just like back there. I mean, same street and everything. Same stores. Maybe not parallel, more like. . .”
And she puts her hands up like she’s calling a time-out. I can’t remember the term either, though it feels so obvious. I just raise the glass of milk a bit. I am toasting myself.
“Are you going to drink that or not?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “To be honest. Would you?”
“Probably not,” she says. “At least not right away.”
“Are you cold?” I say.
“I think the door’s keeping me warm,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. “Of course.”
“I don’t quite understand it. I was having dinner with my husband, all of a sudden I got this feeling like I needed a candy bar,” she says.
“What kind?” I say. “Wait, husband?”
“Oh, I’m married to this fellow, Gary,” she says. “Maybe he’s your friend here?”
“Ugh,” I say.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, it doesn’t matter. So I went to the shop and just stared at the candy for about fifteen minutes.”
I whistle low.
“Right?” she says. “I felt like such a jerk, but even though they have everything, what I wanted. . .”
“Not there,” I finish.
“So I’m standing right about here on Amsterdam and it starts to rain all of a sudden, and of course I’ve just gone out for a candy bar so naturally I don’t have a jacket or an umbrella, and I curse the most amazing set of words I’ve ever put together–”
“What did you say?” I ask.
“I wish I could remember,” she says. “Because I think it’s what opened up this thing back here.”
“You cursed open a door?” I say.
“I think so,” she says.
“To a–a perpendicular!” I say.
“Yes!” she says.
We high five and a sort of current zaps through our fingers and I want that entire glass of milk immediately. I knock it back and she watches.
“Perpendicular,” she says. “That’s got to be it.”
I set the glass down in the snow and reach into my pocket.
“You’re kidding,” she says.
“Everything happens,” I say. I have two Fun Size Snickers in my jacket pocket, swiped out of my aunt’s candy dish on Thanksgiving.
“I guess so,” she says. I watch her rip into the foil with her teeth, which I would absolutely never do, but the pleasure she takes in swallowing those tiny candies makes me feel sort of amazing, and I know on a true and profound level that the frustration she felt in eyeing her bodega candy was only that their candy was too much.
“Fun Size,” she says. “Brilliant.”
“Yes,” I say.
“What day is it?” she asks.
“Christmas,” I say.
She looks at me, eyes wide, and punches me on the shoulder.
“Merry Christmas!” she says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Don’t give me that,” she says, standing and brushing off the dress. “It’s Christmas. It’s my favorite, it’s probably yours.”
“Not this year,” I say.
“Again,” she says. “I say don’t give me that. I mean have you even thought about it this year? I mean have you thought about everything, or have you just kind of been lazy about it? I mean have you thought about how close it is to the newest year yet, and how it’s like a national excuse for everyone to demand and impress? I mean have you thought about making a big pot of soup, or changing your life, or your favorite kind of baby animal? Have you thought about love and loss and future versions of same? Have you thought about peanut butter and chocolate mixed together or sandwiches made entirely of leftovers?”
“I can think about that stuff any day,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “But the thing about thinking about it on Christmas is that next Christmas when it gets around to being nighttime you’ll lean back in your bed or chair or whatever and you’ll think back on all prior Christmases and you’ll get that sort of flood of joy remember how you didn’t ruin this one by being sulky. You got your milk, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I say.
“So you’re doing all right,” she says.
The thing is that it is such reasonable advice that I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to thank her for it. I don’t say anything, I just look at her in the doorway. Behind her it has stopped raining. I pick up the glass and hand it over, and she winks as she takes it and I find I am winking as well.
“Together it’s like blinking,” she says, and then she turns around and walks away.
I stand back and the door swings shut. Now the entire sidewalk is just snow and the right-colored air. It’s late and I feel finally tired, and like tomorrow I might make a loaf of bread. Something with seeds and wheat, something I can knead and bake and watch get brown and risen. I think about bread on all the twenty blocks home.