Saturday, December 25, 2010

Ho. Ho. Bloody Ho.

So that's another Christmas over and done with.  Well, nearly.  And thank God (or Jesus, perhaps?) for that.  There WILL come a time when it is a day I look forward to and truly celebrate again...and not just dread for weeks and then limp through wanly with a drag queen smile plastered on my face.

At least I got to spend most of the day with my boys, for which I guess I should be very grateful.

They went to their dads the night before Christmas Eve.  The arrangement Ex and I have had for the past 2 years (this is our 3rd Christmas since we separated) is that we would always spend Christmas and their birthdays together.  This was a principle that I insisted upon, because I had always hated the fact that as a child, ever since my parents divorced, we were never able to celebrate a single event together as a family.  And I have always wished that was different.  Christmas and birthdays were never the same again with one parent always absent.

How ironic then, that I seem to be the one struggling the most following through with our agreement.  This year I just wanted to run screaming for the hills rather than face a day with Ex, painfully aware of my every move, gesture and word in his presence.  Unable to relax for a single moment and conscious of every forced conversation - trying, oh so hard, to be polite and cheerful and natural.  There felt nothing natural about my performance today.  By the time I left, feeling guilty about leaving the boys before their bedtime, I was emotionally wrought and physically exhausted.

Of course, it didn't help that plans had, unbeknownst to me, changed from those we had agreed upon over the 'phone a week ago.  Ex confirmed he was going to be alone with the boys - and I was to join them.  I enquired about AG's plans, to a non-commital response, so I took a deep breath and suggested she should join us in the afternoon - and then late afternoon I would leave them to it.

I wake up in my friend's beautiful home and spend an hour with her family, the children tearing their way through the piles of presents while the adults sip coffee and take pains to avoid the dreaded video camera.  My friend has bought me luxurious gifts and written a card that almost has me in tears.  Part of me just wants to hole up in their house all day and another part of me is itching to see the boys.

Before 9am I drive to Ex's home and, of course, who is the first voice I hear before the door is open?  It's her.  She's there.  She's woken up with my children on Christmas morning and is seemingly going to be there all day.  As I stand on the threshold to the house (where I can hear my boys leaping over each other to be the first to the door, to let mummy in) I can feel my blood pressure sky rocket and there is practically steam coming out of my ears.  I am instantly livid to the point of turning puce and feel totally ambushed.  What a disrespectful fucker.  Why couldn't he have warned me?  My little two year old self wanted to have an almighty tantrum.  The teenager in me was in a monumental huff.  Luckily my adult self managed to seize control before the door opened and I was able to stuff my bitch face grimace into the waistband of my control top tights (really, there is nothing that can escape those buggers) and plaster a Happy Christmas smile on my face.

Watch out for the Oscar nomination, folks, in January.  I'm telling you, it's definitely on the cards this year.

There were hugs all round, but I couldn't look Ex in the eye.  Far be it from me to confront the issue and effectively 'spoil the day'.  Ex and AG cooked breakfast, while the boys showed me the gifts they had already unwrapped in their stockings.  AG was as pleasant as ever (I really can't find one single person to say a bad word about her - even those that have made it their life's ambition to nitpick the hell out of anybody and everybody - which is just so damned irritating, isn't it?).  I didn't have much of an appetite (actually not true - I pretended not to be hungry purely to be petulant and because this whole sitting around the table, 'breaking bread together' still makes me feel like a bit of a though I am somehow being made a fool of by being so compliant with AG in our lives).

After breakfasts, we opened gifts.  And I guess that is when I started to relax and accept the new version of Christmas v.2010.  Of course, the focus was completely on the boys and they were so overjoyed with everything that they opened, it was easy to be distracted.  AG and I sat near each other, but I still can't bring myself to initiate a conversation directly with her.  There is not a single molecule in my body that can feign any interest whatsoever in her life and adventures with my (soon to be ex) husband.  It's all just a little too close to home.  But her presence does make things a little easier between Ex and I.  A buffer.  I try hard not to scrutinise her too closely and formulate questions in my head, like "WHY does he prefer you, exactly?" and "are you a bit of an animal in bed, because I just can't picture that myself?"  I wonder if she thinks the same about me?  Probably not.  Hence the preference, possibly.

The boys bounce all over me, like over grown puppies, lavishing me with affection and insisting that I help out with their new lego projects.  AG has bought me a book that I wanted and written a thoughtful card, thanking me for letting her be a part of the boys birthdays and Christmas.  I have bought her a bag full of Lush goodies from the boys, which seems to go down well.  It's all very civil, verging on pleasant.

Then, unexpectedly, AG leaves to see her family.  I am relieved - yet it is far more awkward without her around.  The next few hours are strange.  As though we are playing happy families.  I keep laughing and joking with the boys, but inside I feel lost at sea and lonely - in their house, surrounded by pictures of their happy coupledom.  I spot a picture of AG and the boys in their bedroom and it instantly fans the flames of jealousy and resentment.  Am I wrong to feel it's a liberty?  How would he feel if the situation was reversed?  Even after 2 years of separation, it still feels way too soon to accept this other woman's place in the boys lives.  I can't stand seeing the physical evidence of all the things that they do together.  It smarts like a fresh wound all over again.  I just ache to leave - not the boys, but definitely this home where I do not belong.  Where I have no place at all.

Late afternoon, I decide to leave.  The boys are sad and ask me to stay.  They want me to sleep over.  How much do they understand of this situation, I wonder?  Do they see us making an effort to get along and think....maybe?  Maybe if we just nudge the situation a little, our family will be reinstated.  At Christmas.

I feel guilty as I kiss them goodbye.  Their hugs are reluctant and I know I am letting them down by not staying longer.  By not having the strength to see this day out to the bitter end.  I leave, berating myself internally, and struggling not to cry as I drive away in the snow.  It's just another day and I have done the best that I could.  But, yet again, I don't think it's been good enough.

It's just not how Christmas should be - but it will be the last one of its kind.  That's the intention.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Six Sleeps and Counting

Okay - probably ought to preface this post by saying I am a little teensy, weensy bit drunk (and intending to get slaughtered...but only after I have hit "publish post".  God this chardonnay is like drinking liquid butter).

So it was the boys' last day at school.  I am dealing with all these goodbyes on autopilot.  I know the tears are being stored up to be shed later (hopefully they are being stored in my increasingly ample thighs, which will shrink to microscopic proportions when the tears are finally set free...fingers crossed).

I have been dreading this day, but it ended up being very civilised, verging on anti-climatic.  There were no street banners, streamers let loose from the roof or marching bands.  It was just like any other end of term day, with the exception that both boys received beautiful hand made scrap books from their classes as a memento.  We have been pouring over them since we arrived home.  No doubt, I will be able to commit each page to memory within the next 24 hours.  But the boys have taken it all in their stride and don't seem to truly appreciate that this was their last ever day at this school.  Or maybe they do and I have just raised a couple of heartless little buggers?  Time will tell.

This school has been such a huge part of my life for the past four years.  A lifeline, much of the time.  I know their class mates so well and have meaningful relationships with many of the parents.  Strange to think this life will continue without us.  I am going to miss it.

The boys are so focused on Christmas right now, that nothing seems to be particularly phasing them.  Which is a good thing.  We went to a Christmas party at the weekend and, of course, Santa was there.  Even at the ages of 5 and 7, they are still a little intimidated by Santa.  Almost reverent.  Mind you, that's a darn sight better than a few years ago, when they regarded Santa as a combination of the Abominable Snow Man and Jack the Ripper, judging by the screams and tears whenever we attempted to sit them on his knee for the obligatory photo.  Now, they are quiet and serious and in total awe.  Is this the last Christmas that they will believe?  I hope not.  Even though this year's Santa was wearing a coat and hat trimmed with pink fur (me thinks someone unintentionally boil washed his suit, making the colours run...such a novice mistake, don't you think?) and fake 'pleather' booties, they were totally convinced he was The Real Deal.  At the end of their little sojourn with Santa they both received a little bell on red ribbon, which both delighted and convinced them even more than ever.  Just the previous night we had read The Polar Express for the first time, so the bell had particular poignancy.  I couldn't have planned it better myself.

Of course, all this awe and reverence quickly faded once a carton of apple juice hit their stomachs and they ended the party by being accomplices in the smashing of a small, cracked window.  Nice.  A couple of hoodlums, I'm telling you.  I, quite frankly, didn't make much of a better impression by yelling "FUCK!" in a foyer full of joyful parents and children, when the heavy outer door handle swung with some force and hit me on the hip.  Really.  You can't take us anywhere.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In a State of Denial

So the past few weeks have been manic.

The final two weeks of November I was simply packing like a woman possessed.  And, although I say so myself, really - I should turn professional.  I think I might have found my true calling.  There was no sentiment attached to the appraisal of every inanimate object before making a split second decision on pack/donate/bin.  I am the Queen of sorting out tat.  And boy, even after the cull I did in the summer, we still seemed to have accrued mountains of it.

Well, not any more.  With any luck I will be unpacking a shipment of 113 items (don't ask me how it is that many...but the last minute purchase of essential sleds and skateboards didn't help) safe in the knowledge that every item swathed in acres of paper is essential to my London existence.  I wonder how long it will take me to accumulate fresh hordes of unnecessary tat to fill every cupboard and drawer?  Despite my best intentions I am hedging my bets and guessing April, at the very latest.

Packing my clothes, for what could be up to 2 months, presented the biggest dilemma.  I resolved the issue of what single pair of boots to wedge in the case by the age old technique of "ippa-dippa-dation-my-operation-how-many-people-at-the-station?"  It's not the most scientific technique available.   Or the most effective, because there isn't a single day that has gone by that I don't rue the pair I should have selected instead.  How on earth did I think this pair of boots was The One?  Oh well.  I guess if this is the extent of my packing regrets, I haven't done too badly.

In fact, everything went accordingly to plan except for one thing.  The most important thing.  The cat.  Yes, after all the cat drama and trauma of the past few weeks you would think I had had my fill for the year and that, by rights, everything regarding my surviving cat, Bert, should have been tickety-boo.  This was not the case.

He was successfully collected by the specialist pet shipper, I handed over all the relevant paperwork and waved a tearful goodbye.  How am I going to get through the next 48 hours, I thought to myself, until I know he is safely at my dad's?  Oh famous last thoughts.  If only it had turned out to be just 48 hours of concern.  Turns out there is a minor discrepancy in his rabies certifications, which means he needs to endure 6 months of quarantine.  I still can't think about it without feeling sick and distraught way beyond the point of tears.  I have investigated every avenue and potential solution (of course) but there is no alternative aside from shipping him back to Chicago.  So as I type he is currently imprisoned in a farm in Essex, being looking after by a very caring woman called Kim and her team.  My dad visited last week and said he was purring up a storm and seemed in good health.  But still.  It is the last thing I wanted for him and I am mad as hell at the vet and the customs bureaucrats...but, most of all, myself.

It's sod's law that something had to go awry at the last minute.  But I really wish it had been something other than the cat being effectively punished by my desire to move.

I am now safely encamped at a close friend's beautiful house in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in Chicago.  This was not the wisest idea, on reflection, because I am enjoying myself so much that leaving is the last thing on my mind.  In fact, I am in a total state of denial about the fact that I will be boarding a plan in just 10 days time, possibly never to return.  I just can't think about it.  I don't have the emotional capacity to face the enormity of this move in any shape or form.  So for the most part I am simply ignoring it, pretending nothing remotely out of the ordinary is on the horizon and specifically avoiding friends incase we get caught up in a frenzy of sentimental goodbyes that crack my "I am handling this okay" veneer.

The boys are doing remarkably well.  Christmas is a big distraction - which is both a blessing and a curse.  So much more to pack.  So much more to coordinate, on top of everything else.  We have additional 'mini-xmas' celebrations planned with family and friends when we get home, so with any luck they will be distracted until at least mid-January.  They are a combination of excited and anxious about the move.  It breaks my heart a little to witness the extraordinary bonds they have with their close friends and know that those friendships - which mean everything to them on a daily basis - are going to be lost.  We will keep in touch with many of these boys and girls, and even see many of them as they visit the UK on a regular basis (oh, the beauty of attending an International school).  But it won't be the same.  And that makes me sad.

In fact there are many things I will miss about being in Chicago, now I think about it.  Juicy steak that is always cooked to perfection (who cares about the steriods, it just adds to the flavour).  Huge parallel parking spaces in every garage you encounter.  A clean glass of iced water presented immediately upon arrival at any cafe, restaurant or bar.  Click and Clack The Tappit Brothers radio show on NPR.  Closely followed by Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me.  The most incredible city skyline I have ever seen in the world.  Intense blue summer skies refecting into a cobalt blue lake, which is so immense it resembles an ocean.  The sale room in Anthropology.  The sale rail at Club Monaco.  Half and half for my morning coffee.  Dunkin Donuts vanilla coffee (you can get it in a styrefoam bucket, exactly how you like it - extra cream and one sugar for me - for under $2).  Drinking cocktails on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building.  The noise of the el clattering about my head, as the trains wind their way above the city streets.  The efficiency of the snow ploughs and gritting trucks when a blizzard hits.  The ability to buy a beautiful DKNY cozy sweater (retailing at $195 plus tax) on clearance for just $29 at Marshalls.  And don't get me started on the delights of my local supermarket Trader Joe's.  The fact that I couldn't ship home a huge box of edible goodies is one of my biggest disappointments.

Anyway, I don't have the luxury of thinking about all the things I am going to miss just yet.

I am far too preoccupied with the thought of how many layers of clothes I am going to have to wear on the plane, because my case simply won't accommodate the bags of must-have bargains I have been insane enough to purchase the past 2 weeks.  Goddam you Banana Republic and your ridiculous sale.  It is your fault and your fault alone that I am going to look like the bloody Michelin Man at check in.

So if you happen to be at Heathrow on the 28th December and you spot a rather hot and bothered person resembling a bag lady and wearing what appears to be her entire wardrobe...well, that will be me.