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Episodes: A Christmas story


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 26 2015

8 min read



It took us far longer than it should have to move out of the old apartment, choked with dust and junk as it was. It was a place we had both disappeared into, and even though we budgeted six weeks to crawl out of it, it took us an extra three.

What was amazing was how much stuff we had accumulated. Being a TV critic will do that, I suppose, as the networks are forever sending you promotional items, meant to make you think more kindly of their product. Inevitably, these end up in the trash or going to charity. We just sort of threw them in corners and hoped something might happen.

So it was that I found myself, a week before Christmas, hauling down bag after bag of "trash," which was really filled with mostly usable items that we simply had to bail on, wishing I could be anywhere else, doing anything else. I had work to do, after all, and articles to write. If I was going to take any sort of Christmas holiday, it would require me working straight through the weekend, because that is how I've lived for years now, working so that I might not stop to face the ghosts of the past.

We were staring down the Christmas deadline, yes, but also the deadline of when our lease was up on the 31st. And then, finally, one last deadline, neither of us had prepared for. My wife was to have surgery before the end of the year, a surgery that would reprise one she had had exactly a year before. We had canceled our Christmas plans then, would cancel our travel plans now. The surgery was tied to our ongoing, seemingly futile quest to have a child. The infertility treatments she underwent seemed to cause her more and more pain with every month, until we got the bad news. Things were only getting worse. A year that had begun in such promise, with treatments that seemed to be going somewhere, returned us to the limbo we had always been in.

I have been noticing children a lot more in recent months. My wife told me the news of her diagnosis immediately after I exited a flight from New York, where a precocious young girl was telling a flight attendant all about seeing Wicked on Broadway. Friends seemed to have babies almost as a matter of course. Other peers drifted further away from us as their own children got older, and we found ourselves, somewhat unwillingly, lumped in with the childless, getting older and older.

And, of course, at Christmas, it's impossible to escape babies. I found myself fixating on Joseph, imagining him realizing he would be raising the child of somebody else but would have to be a father to that child nonetheless. What a burden that must be, and, I slowly am realizing, what an honor. But the Christ child seemed to lurk more heavily over my thoughts this year, of all years, in a yard scene Nativity here, a Christmas card there.

So as I carried those bags down to the trash, my thoughts were anywhere but in the middle of the minor unfolding catastrophe that had been our old life. This may be why I didn't see her right away. I must have been aware of her, but I think I tuned her out more easily, because I had to.

See, the jettisoning of so many of our old goods had drawn the city's homeless population into our alley, for their very own dumpster diving holiday marathon. You would enter the alley to find some item that had once brought an iota of joy or a moment of happiness, strewn into the dirt, seemingly unfit even for those who might need it most. So when I first was aware of her, I saw her more as a shadow, someone not to focus on, because to do so was a reminder of how poorly I had stewarded my own life all these years.

This, of course, was callous. To think of these people, the most in need among us, solely through the filters of one's own experience is a dick move. But I think it's something we all do, every day. There but for the grace of God, and all that.

She was different, though. She was pregnant.

I realized this slowly. Her faded LA Dodgers hoodie hung about her oddly, which indicated a pregnant belly with time. She seemed to know a few of the others in the neighborhood, cheerfully chatting about how hard it was to be pregnant in an unseasonably cold Los Angeles winter.

She was also, industriously, going through dozens upon dozens of promotional T-shirts for TV shows you won't even remember, folding them up and putting them in little bags, to take back to whatever place she might call home. (I assume she was homeless, from the way her whole life seemed to be mobile and her general state of being, but Long Beach has long been a city for the itinerant. It's possible she has a room somewhere.) She seemed genuinely happy in that moment, smiling and offering to help me a few times when I was carrying something particularly heavy. We chatted a bit, though I never learned anything about her, not even her name.

The apartment had gotten so messy because when I first moved to it, I fell into a state of deep despair over the state of my life. That despair gnawed, moth-like, at the contours of my very self, until I had no job, no prospects, and a marriage collapsing in on itself. To save that marriage and provide for the children I assumed we would have, I reinvented myself from scratch. It was made easier by a lot of advantages (parents who were willing to spot me some cash here and there, the unearned confidence of being a straight white dude in America), but nobody can take away from me that that moment was mine, that the whole life I've built for myself in its wake is perhaps the most amazing thing I've ever done. I had nothing and should have continued to have nothing. Instead, I have so much more.

And yet no child to provide for. I try to be philosophical, to assume that nobody gets everything they want, that the time will come for us, as it does for most. But as I grow older, the more I start to panic inside that it might never happen. Being a TV critic was always something I thought might be fun but never something I presumed would happen. Becoming a father someday was an easy assumption. But one has come far more easily than the other.

And yet as I looked at her, I realized that all of those years were providing for a child, even if not my own. Those shirts, the direct result of that life I built for myself, will now clothe that baby's mother, protect her against winter's chill. I do not want to pretend this is Enough. It is never Enough. But it is, at least, Something and enough to make me feel guilt over how little I do, because I'm lost inside my own world and my own problems.

I didn't actually see her go. I went off to a coffeeshop to watch screeners, and when I came back, she was gone. She is, on this Christmas night, somewhere, with a bunch of my former T-shirts, hopefully having found a place that has room for her and her child. It is easy to think about what I don't have and less easy to think about what I do have, but I have so very, very much. We'd like to think that our lives travel in straight lines, but they do so only rarely. Far more likely are parabolas, and all around us the points on those sweeping arcs, people we see every day but never truly see.


Episodes is on hiatus through the new year. Hope you're having a festive holiday season, and I wish you the very best of 2016s.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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