Catherine didn’t ask for much. When her mother invited her to Christmas and asked if there was anything she wanted, she felt silly saying yes. She had just turned forty-eight, and though the divorce had left her feeling a particular kind of vulnerability, she didn’t want to bring that home for the holidays. The whole point of the divorce was to try to finally grow up.
“I can’t think of anything,” she said, switching the phone to her left hand so she could lock the door behind her with her right. Her mother had a habit of calling just as she was leaving for work. “I don’t need any more stuff, Mom.”
“Well, you have to get something.”
“How about some socks?” Catherine said.
“Yeah. With polar bears on them. Or penguins in scarves. Something cheerful.”
“Well, OK. We’re just excited you’re coming. Teresa just said she can get time off as well.”
Catherine paused. The corners of her mouth turned down and she shrugged, glad her mother couldn’t see her. Her whole face felt the pull of gravity toward the black hole in her chest. For about a year, her life had slowly collapsed into the dense cavity that occupied her ribcage. It swallowed desire first, then creativity, and would have swallowed her job if she hadn’t been able to do her work in her sleep. Even her complex feelings toward her sister Teresa had been pulled in, like tiny iron filings toward a magnet.
“Great,” she said.
Three months later, sitting between her mother and sister on the couch in front of the Christmas tree, she couldn’t remember how that phone conversation had ended. The black hole in her chest had traveled with her for the holidays, but no one else seemed to notice. Teresa had flown from Europe for the first time in three years with a vortex of her own. It sucked not light, but attention. She wore cashmere and silk. She had neighbors on the ramblas who made too much noise. She made over two hundred thousand Euros a year and claimed it was hardly worth the exhaustion of managing a team of over two hundred on multiple continents. Just days ago, when Catherine put down a bottle of perfume in a shop downtown after looking at the price, Teresa marched to the counter and bought it for her.
Catherine handed out the gifts she’d brought and quietly unwrapped the packet her mother handed her. Two pairs of plain grey socks, devoid of polar bears and penguins. The black hole inside of her belched out a sour trickle of something old but nameless. She hardly asked for anything, and when she did, no one heard.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said, holding them up for everyone to see. From some distant place she recognized they were actually quite nice – soft wool, crew length. She conjured a sweet feeling and tried to force it to her face.
“I can’t believe it!” Teresa said, unwrapping a similar packet and pulling out a pair of socks. They were knee-length and black. “These are boot socks!”
“Yes,” their mother said, sipping her coffee.
“I asked for crew length socks! I can’t wear these.” In her outrage she pulled her plush fleece bathrobe tighter around her collar. “You got Catherine crew length socks.”
“Oh,” their mother said. She listed a little in her chair. “Catherine, give Teresa your socks.”
“What?” Catherine asked.
Her mother reached for them and exchanged them for Teresa’s.
“She makes thousands of Euros per year, but she has to have my socks.” Catherine felt her chest rattle with tiny iron shavings shaking loose from their moorings. They shook their way up her throat and filled her mouth, cutting the tender inside of her cheeks.
“They’re just socks,” her mother said, re-inflating and starting to look angry.
“Every time she has a feeling, we have to placate her,” Catherine said.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” her mother said.
Catherine stood up and threw the black socks at her sister. “I’m going for a walk,” she said, pulling her boots onto her feet and a coat over her pajamas. She came back an hour later and dressed quickly for the holiday party her aunt and uncle were hosting in Boston. Their mother didn’t say much as she drove. Catherine sat in the back seat cradling the Christmas cookies her mother had baked, while Teresa sat in front and quietly noted that the coffee was much better in Spain.