Chapter One Chapter One
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
There is almost an inch of snow on the ground, so naturally, the entire city is on the verge of collapse.
Since buses are delayed, I tighten the red, hand-knitted scarf around my neck and plow angrily down Belmont Street. Cars are Tetrised bumper to bumper from the arcade all the way to the dispensary because no one here knows how to drive in the snow. Schools have prematurely closed for the day, and children appear in every doorway and walkway, dancing joyfully, catching snowflakes on their tongues. Up ahead, I watch two kids attempt to make snowballs that are at least 90 percent dirt.
Leave it to Portland, Oregon, to be simultaneously so delighted and so horrified by such a modest amount of snow.
And, quite frankly: fuck the snow.
By most meteorological definitions, this doesn’t even constitute snow. It’s small and wet, falls too quickly, and halfway melts into the concrete as soon as it lands. Still, it’s enough to delay the buses and completely derail my day.
I reach into the pocket of my puffy jacket and pull out my phone to check the time again.
Three minutes. I have three minutes and ten blocks to go, which means I’m going to be late for work. And if I’m late for work, I definitely won’t get the promotion and pay raise I so desperately need. And I’ll probably get fired. Again. And if I get fired again, I’ll probably lose my apartment.
Two days ago, the neon-yellow flyer appeared in the slit of my front door, informing me of the raise in rent January first. Fourteen hundred dollars a month for four hundred square feet of subterranean hellscape in Southeast Portland.
If I lose my apartment, I will have to find housing in a city with a horrible housing crisis. And if I can’t find a new place to live…
The anxiety extrapolates and catastrophizes all the way to its natural conclusion: if I’m late for work again, my trash heap of a life will finally be put in the compactor and crushed into a cube of steaming hot garbage once and for all.
Why does Portland snow always insist on ruining my life?
The image creeps in. The girl with fire in her eyes and snow in her hair. Dancing on a bridge at midnight. The sound of her laugh in my ear and her breath on my throat and her hands—
But no. There’s no point in torturing myself with the memory of last Christmas.
I look down to check the time again just as my phone buzzes with an incoming call. The cracked screen on my iPhone 8 flashes with the name Linds along with a photo of a woman holding a two-gallon alcoholic beverage outside the Bellagio.
I briefly consider ignoring the call, but Catholic guilt, solidified in infancy, wins out. “Hey, Linds—”
“Did you Venmo me that money?” my mother starts as soon as the call connects. It’s abundantly clear that no, I did not Venmo her the money, or else Lindsey Oliver would have no reason to call me.
“Elena. Lovey. Baby girl.” Linds adopts her best mom voice—the one she probably learned from watching Nick at Nite reruns while stoned through the better part of the late nineties. Lindsey Oliver insists everyone, including her only child, calls her Linds, while she exclusively calls me Elena despite the fact that I’m Ellie, that I’ve always been an Ellie, that Elena fits me like a too-tight pair of jeans.
“I really need that money, sweetheart. It’s just two hundred dollars.” I can perfectly picture my mother’s pouting face on the other end of the line. Her dark brown hair, which she dyes a stark blond; the natural waves she straightens every morning; the pale skin she’s eradicated through numerous tanning salon punch cards; the high cheekbones she highlights through contouring.
I can picture her face because it’s my face, except I still have the curly brown hair Linds calls “frizzy” and the pale skin that makes me look “washed out.” If my mother isn’t asking me for money, she’s probably criticizing my appearance.
“I promise, this will be the last time I ask,” she insists.
“I’m sure it will be,” I huff as I jog to catch the tail end of a “Walk” sign. Not for the first time in my life, I regret that my only means of physical exercise is the occasional kitchen dance party while I wait for my frozen burrito to heat up in the microwave. “I’m just a little strapped for cash at the moment with my student loans and my rent, but hopefully I’ll get this promotion to assistant manager, and—”
“It’s not my fault you insisted on going to college forever and got fired from Lycra Studios,” she snaps.
“Laika Studios,” I correct her for the dozenth time. My mother may switch her career goals as frequently and thoughtlessly as she shuffles through husbands, but she never misses the chance to remind me of my greatest failure. I don’t let her see how these words affect me, though—don’t let her know about the hot kernel of shame that blossoms in my stomach. “And I didn’t go to college forever,” I manage casually. “I got a master’s of fine arts in animation.”
“And what’s the point of having that fancy degree if you can’t financially provide for your elderly parents?”
Linds is forty-six.
Her rant is really starting to build now. “For eighteen years,” she laments, “I clothed you! I fed you! I kept a roof over your head!”
Her claims of providing for my basic needs are greatly exaggerated. When I was twelve, I’d asked my mother for money for new art supplies. Linds hadn’t taken it well.
“Do you know how much it costs to raise a child? And you want more?”
“Add it to my tab!” I’d screamed in a fit of preteen surliness.
And Linds had screamed back, “Maybe I will!”
And she had. Lindsey had calculated the cost of my existence down to the nickel, and she expects full reimbursement. Unfortunately, saying no to my mother is not a skill I developed in the first twenty-five years of my life. I exhale a lifetime of parental disappointment into the wet, snowy air. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do to get you the money.”
Her voice goes soft on the line as she coos, “Thank you, Elena, my darling.”
And this is it. This is my moment. I need to strike while she’s briefly filled with maternal pride and affection.
“So, Christmas is less than two weeks away,” I hedge. “Any chance you’ll make it up to Portland for the holidays this year?”
There is a desperate hopefulness in my voice, even though I already know the answer. She didn’t come last Christmas, and she won’t come this Christmas, and I’m only setting myself up for heartbreak.
And is that even what I really want? To spend Christmas morning scraping a hungover Linds off the floor between suffering her rants about everything from my lackluster physical appearance to my even lacklustier love life? The last time we spent Christmas together back in Cleveland—before Linds followed husband number three to Arizona—she dragged me to a nightclub, tried to set me up with a handsy forty-year-old Realtor named Rick, and then promptly ditched me so she could go home with Rick’s friend. I didn’t see her for three days after that.
I was nineteen. My mother had provided the fake ID. Happy fucking holidays.
Is that really my Christmas wish?
The answer is, apparently, yes. I don’t have anyone else. If last Christmas is any indication, it’s best I’m not alone for the holidays. I tend to make misguided life choices in the name of loneliness.
“Why would I leave Phoenix for somewhere wet and cold?” Linds asks, reminding me that my Christmas wishes are always irrelevant.
“Because I’m here?”
She smacks her lips into the phone. “Elena Oliver, don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“You’re so dramatic. You’ve always been like this. Don’t get all sensitive and try to make me feel guilty for not wanting to spend Christmas in the rain.”
A deep voice growls in the background of the call, and Linds mutters something under her breath in reply. “I gotta go.”
“I could always fly down to Phoenix,” I offer pathetically. So very pathetically. Just a twenty-five-year-old woman, begging her mother to spend Christmas with her.
“Now’s not a good time for that. Just Venmo me the money by tonight, okay?”
That’s it. No happy holidays. No I love you. The call disconnects before I can even say goodbye. The earlier shame in my stomach is eclipsed by the aching hole of loneliness in my chest. I’m going to spend Christmas by myself in my squalid studio apartment, eating a five-dollar rotisserie chicken over my kitchen sink for dinner.
Homesickness sluices through me, but there is no home to be sick for, nothing waiting for me here or anywhere.
I don’t let myself think about the brief moment last Christmas when I thought I’d found someone to ease the ache, a person to call home.
But I’m always alone, have always been alone, and just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean there’s any reason for that to change. You can feel just as lost and aimless at Christmas as any other time of the year.
I pause as I wait for a walk sign, and around me, the snow is already turning to rain.
The thing about snow is, it never lasts, and you’re always left a slightly dingier version of the world when it starts to melt.
I stare down at my cracked phone screen. I’m already four minutes late for work.
Snow magic, my ass.