Chapter 16
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The Christmas Ornament

Not all holiday mementos are joyful

Last year I was putting up my Christmas tree, listening to choirs on Pandora, and roaming down memory lane as I sorted through the ornaments. I have one from every college I’ve attended, quite a feat for this professional student. There are the requisite ‘Best Teacher’ and apple ornaments from my years as a middle-school teacher. And I collect ornaments from every place I visit: a coyote from San Antonio, a lobster from Boston, a mermaid from Myrtle Beach, and Santas from England, Italy and France.

But then I came to the last ornament in the bottom of the box, and a most unjoyful memory flooded over me.

In the weeks before the trip, my body tried to warn me that this was not a good idea. First, a sore throat reduced my voice to a whisper for two weeks. Then an ugly red rash encircled my torso, and my dermatologist prescribed ointments, pills, an injection, and light therapy before it finally faded away.

But I didn’t listen. I was determined to go to Virginia to visit the man who once broke my heart. A few years earlier, we had been colleagues at the same college. And although I had feelings for him, for years I resisted his advances because he was married. Then, for a reason I can’t explain, I gave in. I thought we were going to be a couple. He thought it was one more encounter he could strike off his bucket list before he moved away. I was devastated and, for a very long while, did not think I would recover.

When we started communicating again years later, I thought we could be friends. He was the one who changed the conversation, but I didn’t stop him. I believed this visit was a chance to start again with my soul mate. He was divorced by then, and he often talked about our future during our nightly calls.

The first night in Virginia was what I had hoped for. We walked along the pier, holding hands and kissing. We had the obligatory romantic dinner. Then we returned to the hotel and made love. I was happy.

By the next morning, something had changed. I pretended everything was fine, but it wasn’t. He no longer held my hand. There were no more romantic dinners. And while there was still sex, he seemed to be eager to avoid any kind of intimacy afterward. We drove to Richmond, where he taught, and toured the campus. At the bookstore, I bought a Christmas ornament, a large red glass ball with the name of the college imprinted on it. He wasn’t happy about that either. “You never even attended this college,” he said.

On the plane ride home, I had only one goal: not to break down into tears until I closed the front door of my condo. I made it. Barely. I opened the door, dropped my luggage, and collapsed on top of my suitcase.

Oddly enough, he still called me, but with a different goal. He started revising our pre-visit conversations. He told me I had misunderstood his intentions. He had never promised a relationship. “I didn’t even realize you were serious until a day or two before the visit, and then what options did I have?” he said.

We spent two more painful months trying to limp along as friends until I realized that all he really wanted was for me to declare his innocence. But I wasn’t any better; I wanted an apology, something he had already proved he could not give, except for the “I’m sorry you misunderstood” or “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt” variety. Finally, we went our separate ways.

Still, for fifteen years, I put the ornament on my tree. If I’m being honest, I admit that at first I kept it due to a lingering hope. There is a reason Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel. I fantasized that one day he would call or appear at my door, and I would be proven right; he was my soul mate. We’d show the ornament to our children, and then grandchildren, and laugh with relief at how we’d almost thrown our love away.

When it became clear that was not going to happen, I let go of the fantasy. Nevertheless, the ornament went on the tree each December. I began to see it as a test of my resilience. Yes, this man had broken my heart (twice), but I had survived. And the ornament was a symbol of that survival.

It became a ritual. The ornament was the last I took out of the box. I hid it at the back of the tree where I wouldn’t have to look at it until I removed it and put it back in its resting place.

But last year, after I had gone through the memory one more time, I held it in my hands instead of hiding it on the tree. I looked at the tree. I looked at the ornament. I looked at the tree again. Then I thought, “You were right about one thing. I didn’t attend that college.”

I wrapped the red ball in several layers of newspaper and placed it gently on the floor. Then I stomped on it, listening to the muffled sound of breaking glass.