December 21: Four days until Christmas
I suspect her classmate, of course. The guy from Philadelphia. What’s his name? She’s totally fallen for him, I’m sure of it.
No, it’s not like that, she says. There isn’t anyone else. I just can’t do the long distance thing anymore.
So it’s over.
Four days until Christmas. A few hours from now I’m supposed to fly out of London. To meet her in Italy. To eat gelato and drink wine and kiss on the steps of duomos.
But instead, she breaks up with me. While I’m still at work. Over Skype chat.
Skype. Chat. I gotta get outta here.
Back at the flat, I grab the green bottle of gin from Marks & Spencer. Drain a glass. Lie down on the floor and stare up at the ceiling, hands shaking. Bite my teeth into my tongue.
Guess I could still do the trip on my own, right? See the Italian countryside. Fall madly in love with an Italian woman. Start a whole new Italian life. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather… except without that whole exploding car situation.
But I don’t. I just have another gin.
All I want to do is go back to stupid San Jose, California. Spend Christmas with my family. Thing is, if I leave England now, my work visa is toast. Can’t come back.
But there’s a great side effect of getting dumped: I don’t really give a shit about the details. So I book a one-way flight to California.
Later that night, meet my friend in Camden Town. Drink a staggering number of Caipirinhas. It would be impressive if I wasn’t also choking back tears. I get stumbly and miss the last train back to Hammersmith… because that’s the kind of day it’s been.
Board a late-night bus. Watch the city fade for hours. See foxes roaming the streets. Poking up their heads. Retreating into the darkness. What the hell are they even doing here?
December 22: Three days until Christmas
Your flight has been delayed three hours, sir.
Off to a great start.
A few hours later, I finally board my trans-Atlantic flight to the shimmering coast of New Jersey. Shuffle onto the plane. Sink down into the seat. Breathe.
An attendant appears next to me. Asks if I’d like a drink. I look up in a daze.
Do you have… adult beverages?
She pauses. Studies me for a moment. Is she about to ask for my ID?
But she doesn’t say a word. She sets down not one, not two, but three bottles in a row. Tiny, pale blue bottles: Bombay Sapphire Gin.
I don’t know what she saw in my eyes during that brief pause, but I do know one thing: that woman will be rewarded in heaven for her mercy. I mean, I don’t believe in heaven, but… I do believe in gin.
I try to remember the last time I tasted Bombay Sapphire. Definitely a step up from Marks & Spencer. Definitely out of my price range. I crack open the first tiny bottle. Inhale. It smells the way the blue glass looks. A clean, bitter wash. Strong and soft at the same time.
We shoot up over the Atlantic.
December 23: Two days until Christmas
4 am. Hotel in Jersey. This is where you end up when you miss your connecting flight. I bide my time all night, sober and simmering.
Head back to the airport to get the first flight west. Shuttle grinds down the icy, salted road. Streetlamps reflect against dirty snow. Quiet and dark and cold.
At check-in, my ticket comes back with an error. No one knows why. Go through several staff members before someone tells me:
Yes, they booked you on the flight, sir. But they didn’t book you a seat.
I didn’t even know that was possible.
We’ll put you on standby.
It seems increasingly likely that I’ll spend Christmas alone. Post-breakup. In a Doubletree. In Newark.
I don’t believe in hell either, but this trip is starting to change my mind. Is it too early for a drink?
Irrelevant. Because I spend the next hour in line for the standby list. Great. More idle time to steep in all these post-breakup botanicals. But then… I notice the traveler next to me. She’s heading to California, too. And we get to talking.
She’s sweet. Funny. Pretty. She rolls her eyes as the couple in front of us squabbles. I smile. Ask her if she wants to have lunch with me. She smiles, too.
Maybe we’ll get on the next plane together. Maybe we’ll sit next to each other. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
Planes lift off and touch down against the pale sky. We laugh and talk about how awful it’s going to be to spend the next week with our families. Even though neither of us means it.
Standby time. We tense up. The first flight comes… and then it goes. Nothing.
We keep waiting.
Second flight arrives. Seats open up. One name gets called, then another, then another… and then it’s her. We grin at each other. I’m next in line, and I wait for them to call my name…
They don’t. That’s it. I watch as she falls into line to board the flight. She gives me a little wave and a small smile. I want to ask for her number.
But I don’t. I just head to the bar. And have another gin.
One more plane to California for the day. It’s going to LA, not stupid San Jose, but I’ll take what I can get. There’s exactly one open seat.
I’m placed with an elderly couple in the back of the plane. They seem nice enough. I squeeze in to take the window seat, pull out my headphones, get ready to relax and disappear for the entire flight.
But then the lady turns to me. No introduction. She tells me a story. And then another story. And another…
Stories about Frank. George. The tennis instructor. The man with the yacht. That hotel room she didn’t leave for an entire day. She goes into more and more detail about her many, many affairs.
I glance at her husband. He sits there, staring straight ahead. Is he hearing this? Am I hearing this? I keep waiting for him to speak. But he doesn’t.
Look around for the flight attendant. Wonder if they have Bombay Sapphire on this flight.
We land in LA.
There’s just one flight left. To San Francisco.
December 24: Christmas Eve
We land at SFO a little after 1 am. Place is a ghost town. It’s just me and a family from the flight, looking very lost by baggage claim, all trying to get to stupid San Jose.
Then, out of nowhere, some guy in a windbreaker and a baseball cap walks up. Asks if we need a ride. Points to a white, unmarked van outside.
We all look at each other. This is basically the definition of shady. But none of us seem to care. We do outnumber him, right?
We fork over the cash.
As we race down the freeway, I wonder if we’re all about to end up dead behind the race tracks in San Mateo. Or maybe we’ll get sold off to an organ harvester who will put our lungs in bright red picnic coolers, ready for sale on the black market. I contemplate our fate as another round of holiday muzak leaks out from the speakers.
But it’s a Christmas miracle, apparently. We arrive at the family’s house, no grizzly murders to speak of. The mom and kids head inside, but the dad offers to drive me the final stretch home. His Prius, unfortunately, does not contain a minibar… but I accept.
Then, after three full days of travel, with my heart hanging by a single thread, there I am. Standing in front of my family’s house. 2:30 am on Christmas Eve. Two suitcases that hold everything I own. I knock.
One Year Later
I meet up with some friends from college. We mix up Tanqueray cocktails. Laugh about old times. It all feels pretty great. Until one of my friends says something about my ex. Something about her new boyfriend.
The guy from Philadelphia. What’s his name? She’s totally fallen for him. They’re doing the long distance thing.
My throat closes up.
I want to smash my glass. I want to crawl under the table and scream into the tile. Even more, I want to tell her how heavy I feel. Every time I meet a stranger in an airport. Or an old couple on a plane. Or a family piling into their Prius.
But I don’t ever talk to her again.
Instead, I head to the liquor store. Buy a full-size bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Look through the pale blue glass. Crack it open. Inhale. A clean, bitter wash. Strong and soft at the same time.
And I have another gin.