MJ brings in a few boxes of ornaments from the garage and sets them on the couch. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are in the kitchen, she’s got a lasagna sitting in the oven, and she even went out and bought an expensive bottle of wine. She doesn’t play. It’s tree decorating date night.
She glances at the clock. 6:30pm. Steve normally would call her by now, saying he’s on his way home. Unless…
No, she thinks to herself, trying to shake that thought out of her brain. He promised he’d come home on time today. This is their thing. This is what they do together. From when they started dating till now. Well, there’d been a few times when Steve did have to work late, and couldn’t participate immediately. But those times, their kids were still young and decorated with her, and they always waited for him to put the angel at the top of the tree.
But Frankie is off at some party, and Nick is probably at some swim team thing. And now Steve is at work. No, she corrects herself firmly, hoping that if she thinks it hard enough it will be true. He’s got to be coming home from work.
She sits on the couch, sighing, taking out an ornament. It’s the first one they ever bought as a married couple. For some reason, MJ had placed all sorts of importance on this one. Steve wasn’t sure why, but he went along with it. Honestly speaking, maybe she wasn’t sure why either. But she made a big show of going into a souvenir store on their honeymoon in Italy and spent hours choosing between four different ornaments. They’d eventually settled on a silvery snowflake.
He should really should have called by now. But maybe he’s surprising her. He could be home any second…
Her phone rings and she picks up eagerly, seeing that it’s Steve. “Hey!”
“Hey, I am under water on the Kleinfeld case, I’m gonna be-“
“Really late?” MJ wants to cry. This is the one thing she’d been looking forward to all day. She takes a breath to compose herself. “Fine. It’s fine. I mean I figured. I’m just decorating the tree.” Her voice is strained.
“Oh. Right. The tree. I- look, there’s nothing I can do about it, the deal is closing tomorrow- I- I’m just checking in like you asked.” Steve’s response feels like a punch in the gut.
“There’s no need to get defensive, I said it’s fine. I like decorating by myself, you know I’m a total control freak- your words.” She bites back. “It’s fine.”
“Okay, you know what? I’m gonna go-“
“If you’re gonna be that late you might as well spend the night in the city.” She interrupts. She suddenly doesn’t want to see him at all. “Might as well.”
“I guess it doesn’t matter where I sleep I’ll just be sleeping anyway, right?” MJ doesn’t know how to respond, at a loss for words.
“Right.” She hangs up, hurt.
She sits on the couch, tears stinging at the corners of her eyes. Her mind won’t stop whirring, and she contemplates making it stop for a bit, making it all easier, feeling the pill bottle tucked inside the sleeve of her sweater. No, she’s trying to stop resorting to that method.
She puts the snowflake ornament back, and brushes tears from her face,
Steve forgot about tree decorating date night.
Steve forgot about their tradition.
Steve forgot about her.
She turns his last sentence over in her head. “I’ll just be sleeping, anyway, right?”
The idea of Steve having an affair passes fleetingly through her brain. But she knows he’s not, because she’s been monitoring his phone and his internet. It’s genuinely all work stuff. And the porn.
That’s why his words stung so badly.
They aren’t sleeping together because she’s not letting it happen. Her accident left her antsy and sensitive and twitchy and not in the mood to have sex at all. But even if she did, why would he want to have sex with her? He’d been looking up porn with terms that had absolutely nothing to do with her, after all.
And even if they did have sex, he would just be having sex with her out of some marital obligation. Because he’s Steve Healy and he has morals or something. But he’d absolutely rather be fucking some hot girls. There’s no way he’s attracted to her anymore. Who would be?
He doesn’t love her anymore.
Hell, he probably doesn’t even like her.
Her breath catches and she hiccups trying to hold her tears back. Why she’s holding them back, she’s not sure. She’s alone.
She stares at her hands, trying to get them to stop shaking. Maybe they should just divorce. So at least one of them could be happy, and Steve could then sleep with whoever the hell he wants.
Her phone buzzes again and she picks up quickly, seeing it’s Steve, wiping her face. Can’t have him think she’d been crying. “Yes?” She’s annoyed. Why is he even calling?
“Look, I’m really sorry about tonight. I just called to keep you in the loop and you got so-“
“Yes! Thank you, I am in the loop, just keeps going in a circle, that’s what loops do, they don’t change.” She’s not in the mood for his half apologies that don’t even mean anything.
“Honey- would you please just consider seeing that couples counselor with me, the one that I told you about.”
“So we can pay someone to tell us you’re a workaholic?”
“Okay, I’m glad I called.” He hangs up, angry.
She takes a deep breath, trying to calm down. But it’s not working.
All she can think of is how Steve hates her, thinks she’s unattractive, doesn’t want to be with her anymore. And why would Steve like her anymore? What was desirable about her in the first place? What does she even have to offer him, then, and now? She’s not even quite sure she saw what Steve ever saw in her, but she went with it.
Well, now all she can do for him is make food and half the time he’s never even home to eat her meals. She tries her best to keep fit, to keep in good health, but for what? For him to just search redhead milf and outdoors on the internet. Redhead? Not her. MILF? Certainly not her. And she’d never be comfortable with outdoor sex.
And so she is mean and rude to Steve in response, hoping to hurt him like the way he burns her. It’s not the best thing she could do, but it’s how she protects herself. If she’s focused on digging into what makes him tick, she can ignore how she herself is feeling and keep plodding along her daily routine: making sure her kids have a good life and that everyone looks great. Super mom, as her ‘friends’ call her.
But she’s not super mom in the least. Her growing distance with Frankie cuts deep into her. What is she doing wrong? There must be something. She’s actively been trying to do the opposite of everything her mom did, because her mom made so many mistakes so she doesn’t want to make those with Frankie. But instead, she’s made a whole host of new mistakes, and now, just like her and her mom, Frankie wants nothing to do with her.
She feels her stomach churn uncomfortably, and her back start to sting again. This always happened when she got stressed or anxious. She hurriedly takes the pill bottle out of her sleeve and spills them out into her palm. She stares at them. She’s tapering, but...
The last conversation with Steve echoes in her brain again, and she shoves the pills into her mouth.
“Mom? Is everything okay?” Nick comes in, startling her a bit. MJ tucks the pill bottle back in her sweater sleeve by her wrist.
“Oh, it’s just your father.” She says dismissively, sniffling. She turns to face Nick. “Oh look, the nativity scene! You always loved the little lamb… remember? Baa.” She picks up the lamb and pretends to bleat at Nick.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“How was school today? People must have treated you like a rockstar.” MJ watches Nick sit, definitely not looking as proud as she feels.
“Yeah we don’t really talk about colleges that much, people get in where they get in.” Nick cuts in, somewhat defensively.
“Nick. You’ve got to own your accomplishment.” MJ’s a little confused as to why Nick seems so resistant to boasting. He got into Harvard, for Christ’s sake. She picks up pieces of the nativity scene and starts to put it together.
“Yeah. You know, I thought I’d feel more excited about it, but I kinda don’t feel anything.”
“You’re just in shock, it’s so new.” MJ reassures him. “You are going to have the most amazing life ever. And all of the opportunities that I always wished I had.” She continues to put the pieces in, thinking only for a brief second of her scholarship and how hard she’d worked to keep her place in school before- Nope, not today. She buries that thought back down.
“What if I hadn’t gotten in?”
“Well you were always going to get in. I didn’t doubt it for one second. I am so proud of you Nick.” She takes a deep breath, feeling tears stinging at her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like you are the only thing I’ve done right.” And he is. Her son is everything she asked for and more. She doesn’t have to worry about him. She wipes her eyes, trying not to cry in front of Nick. “Let’s have one of our movie nights tonight. It’s Christmas let’s watch Die Hard!” She suggests. She’s not a big Die Hard fan, but Nick and Steve love watching it during the holidays, so she can deal with that.
“You know, I was thinking about going to this party.”
“Oh, like a swim team thing?” She asks, trying not to sound too crestfallen.
“No, just a general student population.”
“Oh.” She knows she’s not succeeding at not sounding unhappy that he’s going. She gets up from the couch, deciding that she’s going to decorate without Steve.
“Well, I don’t have to go. I mean- even Frankie’s going-“
“Oh, you should.” She wants Nick to stay home with her, but not like this. But it’s so unlike Nick to go to a party, anyway… “I mean, generally you don’t like parties like that. Remember the time you called me to pick you up because kids were drinking?”
“Yeah I was 13 mom I’ve been to parties since then.”
“I’m just saying it’s not really your scene.” MJ can feel herself get a little more defensive each time Nick argues with her. She’s not sure why she’s frustrated with him, to be honest, he’s 18 and is allowed to do what he wants. She trusts him.
“I don’t know what my scene is.”
“You will figure that out at college. You’ll make some friends that are on your level.” She’s never really liked many of his friends, they were all bad news in different ways. But she tries not to judge.
There’s a long beat. MJ continues to put up ornaments, trying to channel her frustration and sadness at Frankie, Steve, and now Nick into decorating the best fucking tree possible.
“You know what? I’ll stay home. Die Hard?”
God, she hates it when Nick takes pity on her. It’d started to happen a little more often as he got older, whenever she’d ask him to do something and she could sense he didn’t want to. And he often would stay, for her, and while she loved it and enjoyed spending time with him, she hates that he feels like he has to. She doesn’t need to be “taken care of” in any way. She can manage fine on her own.
“Well, no no. Don’t do it just for me, you have to make decisions for yourself- no not there.” Perhaps it’s just part of her kids growing up, flying the nest. Nick does seem set on staying though. “I’m gonna go get some more ornaments from the garage.” MJ tosses him the ornament she was holding before.
The more she thinks about it, the more excited she starts to get about decorating with Nick. She’d not had much alone time with Nick that isn’t centered around college applications in recent years. She misses just being able to spend time with him, just the two of them, without there needing to be some perfect end result, like a good SAT score or a first place medal. But Nick never complained, he kept his head down and worked hard. Whether from pressure from her or pressure from himself… probably a combination of both, if she’s thinking realistically.
She digs through the boxes in the garage. The garage is not as neat as she’d like. Perhaps that’s her next project, cleaning the garage. She takes a moment, surveying the space, trying to envision where everything would go. Nick could help her build some shelves, maybe. If he had time in his busy schedule.
Finding the box she needs, she returns eagerly to the living room. She finds Nick gone, and a note.
He’d gone to the party.
Frankie’s there too.
Steve isn’t even coming home.
She’s alone tonight.
Heart sinking, MJ puts the box of ornaments down and sits on the couch. She takes the little lamb from the nativity scene and cradles it. She even doesn’t try and stop herself from crying. No one’s there to find her, anyway.
She’s not sure how long she cries for. Or who or what she’s crying for.
Is she crying because of Nick?
Maybe a bit. She HAD been looking forward to tonight. When she realized Nick was home and wasn’t entirely alone, she thought maybe her date night could be salvaged. But he’d up and gone. But he is a growing boy, capable of making his own decisions. And she hated it when he pity-stayed, anyway. She doesn’t need anyone’s pity, least of all her own son’s. God, why is she acting like this?! How fucking pathetic, she thinks to herself, berating herself.
She did miss when he was a young boy, though, and would always hang out with her. She misses young Nick, young, sweet, sensitive Nick.
The same for Frankie. She misses young Frankie, headstrong, outspoken, but still loving and affectionate towards her. Now she’s just headstrong and outspoken, and... so out there. It scares her a little bit. What if, from constantly putting herself out there and speaking her mind so loudly, Frankie gets hurt? As her mother, MJ is supposed to protect her. But lately...
She feels fresh wave of tears come, as if some sort of dam has been unleashed.
Frankie wants NOTHING to do with her. She tries to deny it, but Frankie makes it clear day after day that she doesn’t want MJ taking part in her life. Every day seems to begin and end with a fight. She’d seen moms and daughters get along like best friends all around. And here she is, with her own daughter, barely able to even understand her.
She’s a failure as a mother.
Her shoulders start to shake and she buries her face in her hands, the nativity lamb falling to the ground as she spirals deeper into the hole of self loathing. Her brain is meticulously going through every aspect of her life, telling her why she’s completely awful.
And... well... Steve.
She starts to gasp for air, she can’t stop crying. She gets up and leaves the living room, going up the stairs to their bedroom. Closing the door behind her for good measure, she sinks to the ground on her knees, holding herself tightly.
He’s stuck with her because of some stupid decision they’d made 20 years ago. What does he see in her? What DID he see in her?
All she can think of is how she’s failed him. Completely. As a mother, as a wife, as a person. She’s gotten bigger, despite all her best efforts to keep fit. She doesn’t want to have sex with him, and probably wouldn’t satisfy his needs anyway. She’s controlling, bossy, demanding, and... not enough to tear him away from his precious work.
No wonder he doesn’t love her.
She feels pity.
Not for herself, never for herself, but for him. He’s a wonderful man, sweet, sensitive, beautiful. And here he is, married to this... thing. Her. Imperfect, tainted, unsexy.
So unsexy that he completely forgot about their tree decorating date night. The date night that she looked forward to every year.
That’s how unlovable and undesirable and terrible she is. Earlier she’d been thinking how she hated those soulcycle moms more than anything, but she’s wrong.
The thing she hates most is herself.
She manages to peel herself off the floor, change into pajamas, and crawl into bed, her head pounding from crying too hard. She stares at the the pill bottle on her bedside table, before deciding to take just one extra. To feel just a little bit better. She falls into a fitful sleep, burying her face as far into the covers as she can.
When Steve eventually comes home that night, she’s fast asleep. He kisses her goodnight like he usually does, before whispering a quiet apology to her. But she doesn’t hear any of it.