My mother keeps asking me if everything is all right. It’s not, and I’m pretty sure she knows, but I don’t want to talk about it, so I just act like everything is fine. I eat gingerbread and hum “Jingle Bells” like everybody else. It doesn’t stop her from checking in with me every hour, making up dumb excuses to talk. This hour’s excuse is wrapping paper.
“I have some extra wrapping paper,” she says, standing in my bedroom doorway. “In case you need some for Ari’s present.”
Ari’s present. I bought it two weeks ago, approximately eight days before she dumped me. It’s a framed movie poster. Billy Bear and the Great Gumball Adventure. It’s now sitting in my closet because I can’t look at it, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away. It was supposed to be funny, sentimental, celebratory. And now it’s just a ghost taking up space in my bedroom.
“I can get my own wrapping paper,” I tell her.
“Ashley, did something happen between you and Ari?”
Did something happen between me and Ari? I mean, everything happened between me and Ari. Things you don’t tell your mother happened between me and Ari.
“No,” I say.
“I’ve noticed she hasn’t been by lately. Is she all right?” My mother looks genuinely concerned, and I’m not sure if it’s for me or for my ex-girlfriend. She knows about Ari’s parents. She’s not a fan.
The truth is that I don’t know if Ari is all right. I haven’t spoken to her since we broke up. Not even a text. It’s just too hard. “I think so” is what I come up with.
“You know you can talk to me about anything,” she says, and I know she means it, from previous experience. I think of Ari’s present in the closet, and that stupid movie she sat through, and her beautiful face, and I feel sick about everything.
“She broke up with me,” I say, hearing it out loud for the first time. The tears don’t even wait: They are instant and enormous and unstoppable. I am heaving and wailing in my mother’s arms. She smells like gingerbread.
“Oh, Ashley Jean,” she says. She rubs my back and whispers “Hush-shush-shush,” the way she did when I was a kid and scraped a knee or something.
“She-she-she-said she-she-was in love with-with someone el-el-ellllse,” I wail.
My mother doesn’t say anything. She just keeps holding me.
“She’s-she’s-in-love-wi-with,” I blubber, “Ma-Mad-Madi—”
“Matilda? Madeline? Madison?” My mother takes guesses like she’s on a game show. Ten points.
“Madisonnnn,” I sob, nodding.
“Oh, Ashley Jean. Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”
I cry and cry until I’m completely exhausted and I fall asleep on my bedroom floor, the scent of nutmeg and saline all around me.
We’d been together five months when Ari turned 18. A mutual friend, Ryan, had thrown her a birthday party at his house and invited a bunch of kids she used to hang out with before she met me.
“So this is the famous Bruce,” most of them said when they met me.
I noticed a girl with bright red hair staring at me from the corner of the room. Her hand was wrapped around a beer; on her finger she wore a silver ring with an amethyst flower on it. I knew the ring very well—Ari had the same one.
“Who is that girl?” I asked Ari, nodding toward the corner. She looked over and her eyes went distant, like the corner had been moved a million miles away.
“That’s Madison,” she said. And then she clarified: “You know, my Madison.” Her eyes were far away, and I noticed that she kept scratching her palms, a nervous tick I’d never seen before.
“You should go say hello,” I said, trying to be a Good Girlfriend.
“Maybe. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her. It’ll just be like, two seconds, OK?”
I think she may have also said “I love you,” at that point, but all I could hear was my Madison, my Madison, my Madison.
That, I think, is when I lost her.
It’s Christmas morning, and my parents are up and singing, making pancakes and hot cocoa and marveling over the bite that “Santa” has taken out of the cookies my mother left him. Some traditions die hard, I guess. We open presents and ooh and ahh over things, and then my parents head downstairs to watch Miracle on 34th Street.
“Come watch it with us, Ash,” my father says. “You love this movie.”
“Maybe in a little bit,” I say.
Instead I stay in the living room, staring at the tree. It always looks a little pathetic once the presents are opened, like it knows its days are numbered. I’m just about to take a nap on the couch when the doorbell rings.
“Ashley, door!” my mother yells from the basement.
I open the door and there she is, same old beautiful glow, the heartbreaker herself.
“Merry Christmas,” she says. She has a small silver box in her hand.
“What do you want?”
“To apologize, I guess.” She plays with the red ribbon on the box.
“I can’t really deal with this right now.” I try to shut the door and she stops it.
“I’m leaving,” she says. “I told my parents about Madison and they said I could either break up with her or find a new place to live.”
I don’t know what to say. I’m hovering between “I hate you, who cares” and “Oh my god, you can’t go!”
“Madison’s family in Chicago—well, they found out and said I could stay with her, you know, to finish up the school year.”
“Good for you” is all I manage to get out.
“Ash, I’m so sorry. I don’t expect you to forgive me.”
“But you have to understand—“
I cut her off. “No, I don’t.”
“I love you, Ash,” she says. “But Madison and I, it’s like, when my parents broke us up and she moved away, I thought I’d never see her again. But then she was at that party, and it was just, I mean, I don’t know. There’s just something beyond something there, I guess.”
“This has been really helpful for me,” I say. I try to push the door shut again.
“You’re lucky,” she says. “You have like, all of this love in your life. Look at your parents! They love you, every part of you, and they love each other in a crazy adorable way.”
“They are pretty disgusting.”
“Madison is to me what your parents are to each other.”
“Then what am I? What am I supposed to be? Just like, some random seat filler along the way?”
“You’re you,” she says. “I mean, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“I don’t care, Ari. That’s not enough.”
She looks stunned and just says, “OK, well…” before placing the present on the stairs. “I’ll miss you. Merry Christmas.”
I slam the door so hard that the wreath outside falls off.
I wait about two hours before opening her present, because I still love her, even though I kind of hate her, and I can’t help myself. It’s one of those dumb grain-of-rice necklaces. I take a magnifying glass to it. TO BRUCE, it says.
I stare at the necklace as it sits on my bedspread and wonder if I was ever someone real to her. Maybe I was just another distraction, a real-life Billy Bear to help her pass the time and hide from reality.
All I know is that she’s not mine anymore, and maybe she never was, and now I have to figure out how to keep living even though my heart feels completely nonfunctional. I think about her all night, and I know I’ll think about her for a long time, maybe even without feeling sick to my stomach. I mean, who knows. Maybe, once I rejoin the land of the living, I’ll even send her the poster anyway. To Ari, I’ll write, Fourth row, left, second seat from the wall. I hope you enjoyed the show. ♦