A few weeks ago Desirée asked if I wanted to go with her to pick out a Christmas tree, then go back to her place and decorate it. I haven’t decorated a tree since I lived with Grace, and was never really into the ritual, but I’ve been told that when helping hands reach out, take them, so I did. She called me on the day of and asked about my plans for the rest of the evening. I said I had nothing to do. She then suggested we have dinner. She’d be making biscuits and stew, an outing we planned ever since we went to Pike Place Market together and had what were self-proclaimed to be “kick-ass biscuits”. Her contention was that she could make better ones. I told her to prove it.
Now from the outset this may come off as the makings to a very romantic and intimate night, which in some ways I guess I would agree, but you’d first have to understand the context of our relationship between when we first broke up until now. I don’t really know how to describe how I feel about Desirée. She touches a very gentle place in my heart. Not in a burning, passionate sort of way, but something cooler, more subtle, yet equally filling. There is, and probably always will be, this small sense of emotional and physical attraction, but protecting our friendship supersedes any sort of superficial urges. I guess I’d say that what I’ve come to realize is that Desirée is the person I’ve come to love most purely in my life, meaning I truly want her to be well, regardless if I have anything to do with it. Now don’t get me wrong. I’d say that I loved Flora more intensely, and I still think she is the love of my life, but there is not the same sense of control when it comes to her. With Desirée there is no sense of rush or expectation, no demands or uncontrolled desire. She’s just someone that radiates a good energy and I enjoy when it’s around, don’t hold onto it when it needs to leave. Truth be told, I’d love to reach that point with Flora one day.
I show up to her place around 5:30. She opens up the metal gate to the back alley which we refer to as the “creepy back alley” back when we were dating. The joke started on our third date when we randomly walked around downtown and I thought I had stumbled upon this small hole-in-the-wall restaurant I visited a few years back. I told her to follow me while I checked, but to her it just looked like I was trying to lead her down some creepy back alley, so she stayed back with sort of this nervous smile. I called her out and made a joke of it, something I still tease her about today after having known me better. Later, on I think our fifth date, I walked her back to the back entrance of her apartment, which resembled, of all things, a “creepy back alley”, and it was there she grabbed me by the collar for a furious make-out. I’ve never stopped giving her shit about it since.
She’s descends the stairs wearing a knitted white sweater that outlines the curves of her body perfectly. She opens the gate and gives me a firm hug. I can smell the vanilla lotion on her neck. She snakes up the stairs with a slight shift to her hips and I follow closely behind. We go through pleasantries on the way up and I walk through familiar hallways. She opens the door to her apartment and I’m hit with nostalgia. For the most part, everything is the same: the scent, the colors, the ever-present ambiance of warmth. It’s as if the place radiates in her essence. She’s moved some furniture around to make room for the tree, turned the bed against the closet door and made a bigger gap between the two sitting chairs so guests could walk by. With all that she has on her plate, she puts a large amount of effort just to put together a Christmas tree. It’s one of the things I really love about the girl.
The room smells vibrantly of broth. The stew is on the stove and the biscuits are out of the oven. She made sugar plums earlier in the morning because I told her I’ve never had them. We catch up on each other’s lives while she prepares the plates. She’s diligently preparing for her law school finals. I tell her I’m reading a book on chakras. I guess that kind of sums up the kind of people we are. She brings out the plates and they’re gorgeous. Succulent beef cuts flaked to perfection brewed alongside carrots and potatoes in a hearty brown sauce. I swore off meat back when I was in Brazil, but for her, I’d break that oath for a night. The culmination of the evening thus far strikes me. For someone to put that much effort into showing they care, as even just a friend, was something really special. It’s one of those things that kept me believing in people.
She’s heard about two potential places selling Christmas trees. Her original spot requires a drive, but boasts “the best trees of the city” and also goes towards funding some non-profit helping the AIDs community. The other one is a few streets up from us, though with no guarantee of quality, no non-profit involved, and quite honestly, neither of us know if it even exists. Nevertheless, I suggest we walk to the second place, and if we can’t find anything, go to the first. Make an evening out of it. She smiles.
It’s a typical Seattle winter, but we’re dressed accordingly. She’s a bit caught up in the fact that her jacket is made for the rain, yet it isn’t raining, and can’t seem to stop fretting over it. I tease her to no end about it. We make playful commentary on the changes in the neighborhood as we walk through it, enter a few spots that we find interesting from the storefront, and end up buying some second-hand books for a dollar each at a used clothing exchange. Across the street there’s a guy writing impromptu poetry on an old-school typewriter for change. We give him four words to write a poem about us. He tells us to come back in 10 minutes. I can’t remember much about where we went for those ten minutes, but it didn’t really matter. Every moment with her is light, as if the rest of life’s problems fade away in her presence and vanity of action holds no importance. We come back and the poem is surprisingly thoughtful given the four words we provided. Christmas tree. Sugar plums. Friendship. Condoms. We pay the man four bucks and Desirée carefully places the poem like a bookmark into the new used book she purchased.
Turns out, the elusive Christmas tree farm has either closed or never existed in the first place, so we end up picking one up at the non-profit AIDs center. Not much happened that I can remember at the second place (or would it be the first place?), just that there is a lot more to picking out a Christmas tree than I thought, and we spent a good amount of time analyzing pine needles and using a tape measurer to ensure it fit inside her apartment. We go back to her place and she pulls out a couple of boxes from underneath her bed. Stuffed inside are all sorts of ornaments collected over the years. She tells me the stories. Some of them were bargain catches sold at a fraction of the sale price the day after Christmas in the year previous, other ones she’s held on for years with origins tied to the Tri-Cities. One very special one is preserved neatly in a box spewing tissue-thin gift paper and wrapped carefully in soft cloth. The ornament is a bright red ball with a preserved waffle cone protruding from one side and a stream of sparkle glitter playing the role of topping on the other to finish the imitation of the pastime dessert. This one, she tells me, was put together by her daughter, Libby.
We rummage through the box, holding up ornaments and stars to make sure the colors and shapes have enough distance from one another, ensure the texture matches with the composition of the tree. In total the ritual takes maybe two hours, Christmas tunes humming on her record player the entire time and she glides past me singing along with the tunes. I don’t say anything, but I actually hate Christmas music. I don’t really know why, maybe because I find it too “joyful”, but I’ve despised it since I was a kid. I guess that, in a way, represents some of the difference between us.
See here’s the thing about me and Desirée. We’re probably the most unlikely match to be seen walking down the street together. Here’s me, this rather serious-looking Asian guy with long hair (at the time I had long hair), covered in tattoos. Desirée is like a princess. I don’t mean “princess” in a way like things always need to go her way or that she's prissy in any sense of the word, I mean she actually came from pretty rough beginnings, but if there’s one word I’d use to describe her, it would be "regal". Someone of royalty. It’s like she walked straight out of the lead role in some classy 1940’s movie and into my life. I used to describe her to my friends as a “really, really pretty white girl,” like a slightly older version of Rachel McAdams or a much younger version of Julian Moore. Either way, anytime I’d see a pretty and respectable redhead on screen, I’d immediately be reminded of her. I guess I never really understood how we ended up together, and in some ways always found it a bit comical that we were, but for whatever reason it worked, at least for the time that we were together.
But when I think about it more, and with all the perspective of time and distance, I wonder what would have happened had we stayed together. I'm not really sure it would have worked. The first time I questioned things was when we once talked about the prospects of traveling internationally together and for whatever reason she blurted out, “But I can’t…I can’t be like grimy…”
I told her to relax and said that “grimness” wasn’t any sort of requirement for international travel, though it did linger in the back of my mind. I’m more like a gruffy type that will finger through his own shit if he thought he accidentally swallowed something he was looking for (that did actually happen once in college). I mean I could literally wear the same underwear for a week without issue. I know it seems kind of stupid to base the prospects of romance solely on hygiene or holiday jingles, but it could in some ways speak to some core character differences that might have emerged had the relationship continued.
Aside from Flora, Desirée was the most crushing break-up I’ve ever had in my romantic life. I was pretty useless for the first 3 or 4 months I was in Brazil, trying my best to comprehend all that was happening and not really succeeding. But the thing I appreciated most about Desirée was the amount of respect she showed to my feelings during this time. She knew when to be there for me and when to give distance. She showed care in her actions and considered the many ways words could be interpreted when she spoke. She was, as I’ve always viewed her to be, honorable in witnessing the painful course of a crumbling relationship and compassionate to the one left trying to hold on.
I think there will always be a soft spot in me for Desirée, a part of my heart that will always be broken in her name. But it’s one of those good heartaches, one that you can look back at and relish in the lessons rather than agonize in the losses. I guess in many ways our story is just what I need in my life right now, a way to be reminded that one day you can always go back on your pain, and find a way to be grateful for it.