I asked Dennis if we could get the Christmas tree, but he said he was busy. I said I knew he was busy. He said he had to study. I said I knew that. It was too early. But didn’t he want to get one? But why did I have to have one now? When then? Didn’t I understand the pressure he was under? He had to read for class. I told him he always had to read for class. He said he wouldn’t have to read as much if he wasn’t always being interrupted. I told him I wouldn’t interrupt him ever again. He said he had to get ready for exams for God’s sake. I told him all I wanted was a frigging tree.
I stood on the brown carpet amidst the tan walls in the empty spot where the tree was supposed to be. Before I had gotten the nerve to ask him, I had imagined it in front of the sliding glass doors where the lights could shine down on the parking lots and apartment buildings, on the snow piles and brown trees. My mom always had white lights, but I had decided on multicolored. White lights were elegant, for people who had made it. Colored lights were festive, for cozy homes. I had thought I would see the lights at night when I drove up and want to come into our apartment. Over dinner, maybe Dennis would say something, talk like he used to. We could hang lights on the balcony. I could bake cookies. Our lives would be full of Christmas card promise. I could get mistletoe. Maybe then he would kiss me.
Standing in the brown empty spot, I started to cry. Dennis said “God!” and threw his book across the room where it hit the pressboard stereo stand. I walked away, to the only other room. I flopped down face first onto the bed.
Now he was mad and another little girl dream slapped the floor like so many of the others. I went down the list. I hated Michigan. I hated the dark, the cold, the barren trees. I had no friends. My job was menial. I did everything I was supposed to: work, cook, exercise, clean. Had no fun. I was doing what I was supposed to do, and it wasn’t enough. Something was missing, and that something the tree could fix.
Dennis came in a few minutes later in his parka, putting on his gloves. I lifted my head up and saw his silhouette in the doorway, put my face back in the pillow. “What?” I said, muffled in down. “Come on,” he said, but I said no, forget it. He said “Come on,” in the tone that meant I better get up so I did. I zipped and bundled and dried my eyes with my gloves.
Outside my lashes and snot froze with my first breaths. The doors to the car creaked. Waiting for the engine to warm, I shivered in my seat, sat with arms folded, fingers tucked into my armpits. Dennis blew into his gloves, and his nose turned red, his cheeks pale. Our breath froze on the glass. Between that and the salt splatters there was only fog to see.
Dennis said, “Where do you want to get the tree?” I would have to decide where to buy it, which one to get now, because I had thrown a tantrum. It’s not that I didn’t worry about his school. I did. It’s not that I didn’t know about the stress, the competition, the slim hope of money. But, I needed a happy tree. I needed to smell it and see it fresh in our apartment, look at it aglow.
I looked at my husband. Maybe I was on Jupiter, not in Michigan at all. They say the gravity is so thick there it would flatten me like a pancake. I closed my eyes, pulverized and flat.
“Where am I going?” he said, still annoyed. Without opening my eyes, I told him to go to the fruit stand.
We drove in silence through salt white streets and dark snow. Neither of us reached for the radio. Neither of us looked at the other. The heat from our car didn’t warm my feet and soon they felt oddly numb, unattached to my ankle. I was supposed to put my feelings up on a shelf, and so I imagined a row of white shelves, a can of green beans, a can of sadness. But the shelf fell over and the cans fell and rolled down the stairwell into a cellar. My eyes popped open.
We pulled in. Lights were hung in the parking lot around the thicket of trees. It wasn’t easy getting out of the car with any sort of grace so bundled. The wind slammed my door closed. Walking with heads down, hats on, mufflers around our neck and mouth, the snow crunched underfoot. I smelled pine. Our breath made foggy clouds. It was Christmas. It was almost joyous.
“Why are we doing this?” he said. He walked into the tree lot. Dennis grabbed a tree and held it up. No, I told him, Scotch pine. One had to shop. The first tree found, even adequate, could not be selected. Besides, I didn’t like those blue short-needled trees. They looked half naked, like a Charlie Brown Christmas. We didn’t want a tree that looked unloved, did we? He said he liked them. I told him they were more expensive. His eyes got that worried look. This was going to cost money.
And then I saw the fruit stand lady. She was always at the stand, ringing up my vegetables every Saturday. She lived on a nearby farm. She ran the business herself. I liked her the way I didn’t like anyone else in Michigan. I liked what she did. I liked the way she smiled. I wondered what her house was like. I wondered if I would feel at home there, like at the fruit stand. And something else, she seemed happy. She was helping a family pick a tree. I would wait for her.
I went up and down the aisles slowly waiting for my turn. Dennis would grab a tree now and then but it was hopeless. I would not nod consent. They were too big, too small, too crooked, too holey. He was out of patience. I could hear it when he said, “What’s wrong with this one?” the way he wanted to say, “What’s the matter with you?” He didn’t receive an answer so stood firm. It was big enough. Full enough. Straight trunk. It was a beautiful tree. The fruit stand lady was free. I nodded at him and we walked toward her.
“Pick a tree?” she said. I wanted us to be happy tree pickers then. I wanted us to be on the way back from ice skating, on our way home for hot chocolate.
Dennis said, “Yes, how much?” He opened his wallet and thumbed through the money. I looked down at my boots. I looked up at the fruit stand lady, at those lines in her weathered face that told of laughs and love and growing things, sunshine. I looked at her and felt the first pangs of growth, thaw, there, in the cold. I had thought for a moment I wanted to ask her how to live, but I think she was showing me.
“Yes, we’re taking this one,” Dennis said, his lips cracked and white. And then the fruit stand lady did an amazing thing. She pulled out of her pockets bare hands in frostbite weather. She reached through the needles to the bark and hoisted the tree onto the table without any gloves. Her bare hands, wide and flat, thick and white, calloused and dried like jerky held the tree with one hand and a saw in the other, surgery. The cracks and crevices in her skin were like a map, a geography of where she had been, of where she could be. And I decided I would have hands like hers, a face of my own. Maybe it was the cold, but my lips stuck shut, frozen in a small, distant smile.
She wore no hat, only soft white curls all over her head. Her face was like Rhino skin with crow’s feet and smile lines. Her cheeks and nose were red and her breath came out in long curls. She winked at me with ecstatic blue eyes. She held my tree and made a fresh cut with her saw and then picked it up and twirled it. It could be anything it wanted, that tree.