Your destination, the GPS repeats, is on the right in 600 feet.
I am in Cary, North Carolina.
Only 600 feet from reuniting with the daughter to whom I gave birth 18 years ago today.
I find my destination.
Are you here? she exclaims.
Yes…are you here?
Oh my God! Yes!
We’re still holding phones to our ears when she emerges.
Our eyes meet and our phones drop.
Before I remember to breathe, she’s already burrowed in my arms.
Her shoulder fuses to my chin like a long-lost limb.
Our arms grip each other’s rib cages.
Feet meet and rock in place.
We are a single silhouette of fabric and skin.
A single silhouette from which sobs and squeals and sighs are escaping.
A single silhouette being filmed by several lenses.
I shift away from the cameras, find her ear.
Darling girl, I whisper.
She squeezes tighter.
Oh, darling girl, happy birthday.
She sobs harder.
I find her shoulder again.
Breathe in the apple scent of her long brown hair.
Exhale a few sobs of my own.
We sway in the December air—five minutes? fifty-five minutes?—until our senses start to recover.
She lifts her head toward my ear.
I’ve been dreaming about this moment, she confesses.
Me too, I admit. How’s it going so far?
It’s perfect, she sighs.
You’re perfect, I whisper.
We squeeze each other until we’re both cry-laughing.
We do not let go until our tears have officially dissolved into giggles.
“I am itching with anticipation for your next entry! I hope you realize you have the support of Tumblr behind you, cheering you on, and hoping for the best in your life. You and the beautiful story of White Elephant in the Room continue to touch all of us in so many different ways.” — An Admirer, India
I’ve packed outfits for meetings with Vogue editors.
Dinners with international hoteliers.
My own wedding brunch.
This two-day trip to North Carolina has me scratching my blonde head.
I mean, how many times do you meet your 18-year-old daughter for the first time?
How many times will we replay this reunion in the years to come?
So, yeah: the outfit.
My favorite Paige jeans and lucky scarf are in the suitcase.
But the faux-fur coat: is it too NYC?
Are my patent-leather boots impractical?
My Converse too casual?
I’m contemplating neutral vs. bold when I get a text from her:
I’m out shopping for the perfect outfit right nowwww!
Of course she is.
Of course she’s obsessing like I am.
Over exactly the same thing.
We are, after all, fashioned from the same flesh.
And this outfit?
Is simply the first we will wear to what will hopefully be many, many meetings.
In the year following Alberto’s death, I couldn’t fathom holiday traditions without him.
So I made them as different as possible:
Escaped to West Palm Beach for Easter.
California for Mother’s Day.
Instead of Jersey for Thanksgiving, I flew to London.
Traded Noëlle in Quebec for Feliz Natal in Brazil.
As 2009 marched into 2010, I started testing the waters.
Spent Mother’s and Father’s Day with his family in Jersey but flew to California for Thanksgiving and to Italy for the holidays.
This year, I thought I knew how (and with whom) I’d spend Christmas.
By the end of Thanksgiving weekend, that plan was History rolled in Yesterday Sauce.
Suddenly, December resembled a series of sliding doors: some slamming in my face, others opening unexpectedly.
That six-month project for Jamaica?
A manuscript meeting with Random House?
Reuniting with my biological daughter in North Carolina on her 18th birthday?
My revenue stream from Revolución?
And just beyond all the sliding doors?
So I found my man-pants and did what I’m learning to do:
Test the waters and plunge in already.
Last night, I crossed the Hudson to spend Noche Buena the way Alberto and I used to:
With his family.
But instead of leaving by midnight, I put on pajamas and helped his sister set out presents.
Emerged from the guest room this morning to see my/his goddaughter’s expression when she came downstairs.
And saw her new dollhouse.
And Santa’s half-eaten cookies.
And the mountain of gifts.
In that moment, I realize I’m where I was meant to be.
But even more?
I am exactly where Alberto—legendary godfather and uncle to this three-year-old who shares my name—would be.
“Your writing—along with an epiphany, a conversation with an English professor and a handful of failed chemistry exams—has inspired me to pick my pen (or laptop?) again and switch to an English major. What you do and how you express it means volumes to myself and others. As a long-time follower of White Elephant in the Room, please keep doing what you’re doing…you’re an inspiration on so many different levels.” — Haley, New York
Going to a wine store with Alberto was not unlike going to a boutique with a fashion merchandiser: while you’re drooling over ankle boots, they’re dissecting the front-of-store, judging wall and counter displays, evaluating the retail layout.
Whenever Alberto and I stopped “for a bottle of red” at the Jersey wine market near his sister’s house, we never got out in under 45 minutes.
He’d talk up the manager about screw caps vs. corks, recent consumer habits, whether sales were up or down compared to this quarter last year.
Alberto would walk every single aisle: scrutinizing shelf-talkers and placement of his client’s brands or translating market trends that blew up after the success of a certain movie or vintner: thanks to Yellow Tail, we’ve got Red Buffalo, Blue Fish and Green Fucking Monkey chardonnay. And thanks to ‘Sideways,’ people are too embarrassed to serve merlot. Which is, frankly, a shameful travesty.
During one of our stops for a bottle—or 12—I’d held up a velvet wine bag.
Your sister would love this, I said.
The look on his face said we are so not buying that.
Because wine bags are redundant: people just take out the bottle as soon as you present it.
No. Wine. Bags.
This is the flashback that greets me tonight when Alberto’s sister and I stop at Alberto’s favorite wine market in Jersey.
I get in line while Barby looks for merlot but find myself remembering one of our holiday rituals: placing a bottle of wine and a ribbon-tied card at the front doors of our NYC neighbors.
(The ribbon-through-the-corner-of-the-card was my idea, but the bottle-at-each-door was Alberto’s tradition.)
It was what we did before wheeling our Miami- or Quebec-bound luggage into the hall on Christmas Day.
When I feel the familiar clutch in my throat, I start fidgeting.
Shifting my weight.
Soon as Barby arrives, I dash out of line.
Where you going? Barby asks.
Holiday wine, I explain, for the neighbors.
When I return with four bottles of 2007 pinots, I give Barby the backstory.
Really, she sighs. Albert did that? I had no idea.
It’s smart PR, I say. Considering all the common walls.
We share a few silent moments before Barby grabs my arm.
Holy hell, she exclaims, have you ever seen such a cute wine bag?
I whirl around.
The bag is illustrated with a tipsy Snowman: a wine glass in its stick hand.
I hesitate for all of a half-second.
Gimme me four, sister, I nod. And while you’re at it, add one for you.
“I’ve been following White Elephant in the Room for awhile, but when you mentioned the closing of Revolución, I googled it for the first time. I’m so sorry his business met its demise, but what accolades! What an incredible man you married! And frankly, what an incredible woman and writer he married. In my family, when someone dies, the deceased becomes sainted: we only talk about the strengths. But I think it detracts from a person’s legacy when we overlook foibles and shortcomings. You write with honesty—brave, irreverent honesty—about your relationship with Alberto. And through every story, your love and his legacy shine through.”— Renee, Las Vegas
My breath catches while channel surfing.
Freezes on a frame of a young Robert Downey, Jr.
His smile—with its crooked, bee-stung lips—is the celebrity twin of Portugal’s.
So, when we first met?
And Portugal’s face seemed inexplicably familiar?
It was only because…he resembled someone famous?
Someone equally famous for his, um, addictions?
The film is called “Chances Are.”
Chances are, I should change the channel.
My finger lingers above the info button.
My breath catches again.
It portrays a widow?
Who lost her husband three years after their wedding?
Who encounters her late husband years later?
Reincarnated as a half-drunk Robert Downey Jr.?
I watch until the late husband and the reincarnated version become so conflated that you can’t tell which is which.
I watch until the widow onscreen and my own version of her become so conflated that I can’t tell which is which.
And that’s the part in the movie where I stand up.
Turn off the TV already.
I don’t need to see the ending to know dead husbands don’t come back to life.
And even if they did, chances are they don’t resemble whisky-swilling Robert Downey Jrs.
I’m a girl who comes with a box of Christmas ornaments.
When I was a kid, our family made snowmen with top hats, skiing pandas on popsicle sticks, plastic apples with our names in gold pen. As my brother and I grew up, the ornaments were store-bought and commemorated a hobby or some significant event: convertibles when we got our first car, a globe for my first trip abroad, a filigree of Sather Gate when I graduated Berkeley.
During my first December as a wife, I unpacked my giant box of ornaments.
A sea of mementos crept across the dining table.
From the couch, Alberto raised his eyebrows.
You’re putting all those up?
They’ll fit! It’s a big tree.
He got up, examined a badly painted dough figure in the hollow of a walnut.
Seriously? he said.
That’s the first ornament I made, I squealed. I was, like, three!
He laughed, shook his head and went back to the TV remote.
You’re not? Going to help?
Um, no. This is your thing.
I couldn’t comprehend it.
My dad and brother had always participated in this ritual.
I was newly married and a little devastated.
Hadn’t yet realized that everything in a marriage isn’t met with mutual enthusiasm.
So I decorated the stupid tree with a pout on my face.
I may have done a tequila shot in the kitchen.
On Christmas Eve, he grimaced as he unwrapped SIX ornaments from our respective families and me.
He handed me a box: a flaming, Mexican-style heart decorated with the words ‘I Love You.’
The following year, I dressed the tree on a December night when he worked late.
By Christmas No. Three, as we drove back from Jersey with an evergreen on our convertible, he announced that it would only be fair if we switched off the Christmas-tree theme every other year.
What does that mean? I asked.
This year, we continue your Craft Land Adventure. Next year, we do an all-monochromatic tree. The lights, the ornaments, everything. I’m thinking white or silver.
Does this mean you’ll help me decorate? I laughed.
Are you kidding? I will art-direct that motherfucking tree!
When Christmas No. Four was within sight, I reminded him about the monochromatic tree.
Right, we need to do that.
The second weekend in December, I mentioned it again.
Honey, he smiled, how would you feel about not getting a tree this year? I mean, we’re leaving for Quebec in 10 days and then we’ll just have to pack everything away when we get back…
I did not interrupt to say that, actually, I would have to pack everything away when we got back.
Instead, I agreed.
Not getting a tree sounded brilliant. And practical.
I did not give him an ornament on what became his last Christmas.
He didn’t get me one either.
And as we celebrated the holiday from our suite in Montreal, neither of us gave two shits about ornaments or trees.
The ad agency Alberto co-founded with his best friend and business partner 11 years ago.
The agency that’s been struggling since his death.
In 24 hours, it will struggle no longer.
It will close its doors forever.
Tomorrow, the place where Alberto spent half his waking hours for nine years will cease to exist.
The office he designed and furnished and staffed will be empty.
Another casualty of the market.
Another casualty of grief.
Revolución’s fate seems equal parts apropos and awful.
Apropos in of course it couldn’t survive without him.
Awful in his creative legacy is actually coming to an end.
It was two hours before anyone mentioned Portugal at last night’s holiday party.
The sound of his name made me dash into a bathroom.
Lock the door.
And dry heave.
Two weeks ago, you and I were in Koreatown, singing like it mattered.
Two weeks ago, you knew where I stood:
I love you, Portugal, but you can’t keep disappointing me. These past few weeks of last-minute cancellations because of work? And on weekends? Not okay. Not acceptable.
You took responsibility for your actions.
Said all of the right things.
We kissed, made up and went to dinner.
As we headed to my friend’s karaoke party, I thought I knew where you stood.
But two hours later?
When we all decided to head to my place?
You hailed a cab and turned on me and my expectant girlfriends.
Baby, I’m gonna drop off my guitar.
Pick up some pot.
Imma take this cab and meet you at your place.
Bad cab etiquette, Portugal, but whatever.
An hour later?
No word from you.
An hour and 30 minutes later?
You sent the ambiguous text that pushed me over the edge:
Call me OK
I’ve hit my limit
For disappointing me six hours after our disappointment conversation?
Hit your limit?
Your Tré limit?
It went straight to voicemail.
More than once.
Hit your limit?
Hit my limit too, Portugal.