other people's houses

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The thing about the run of holidays that starts with Thanksgiving is, traditionally, other people’s houses. Part of what makes a holiday feel like a holiday, and part of what makes things that aren’t holidays at all feel like holidays, is the part where I would bundle up and walk or drive somewhere, taking coats and scarves and gloves across the street, into the subway or into the collected heat of a car’s interior. It’s going somewhere else, climbing up the stairs, waiting for the elevator, standing on the stoop until someone answers, exchanging pleasantries at the door. Holidays are about home and family, but they are also about other peoples’ houses and other people’s families.

Of course I’m not doing any of that this year. I’m not going to anyone’s house this year, and no one is coming to mine. I assume I don’t need to tell anyone the unconscionable risks involved with proceeding into the holidays this year as though it were any other year, with pretending at some kind of normalcy. I know it’s Wednesday and I’m not going to change anybody’s plans, but if it is at all possible for you, don’t travel, don’t go inside with people you don’t live with, don’t gather in large groups. The holidays are often about throwing an obscuring facade over reality, pretending things are better and brighter and more stable than they actually are. This delusional quality of holiday celebration is one more thing in a long list of things that have been scoured away, or should be, by the facts of this year.

Holidays are often about grief, too, about the bleak collision of the real with the things we wish were real. In this way the 2020 holiday season is right in line with the same theme as always. An unpleasant reality intruding on what I thought was supposed to happen, on what I would have preferred, has always been the whole meaning of any big obligated holiday. This year that reality means staying home if staying home is at all possible. I’m thinking about other people’s houses because of the absence this year of any of the rituals that involve entering somebody else’s home; I’m thinking about parties because of how long it’s been since I’ve been to one.  

The holidays, and the parties that would normally crowd this time of year, are about other people’s houses because they are about jealousy, and comparison, about the ways in which other people are doing it right, making a life, actually managing to be people. I don’t just mean photos or posts on social media, but rather the way that the idea of the thing never touches the thing itself, that there always seems to be some other holiday, some other party, just a breath over from this one, where the food is better and the house is warmer and the people are kinder and more attractive. The holidays are set up to encourage these false comparisons. I keep trying, even this year, believing that if I can just get it right, my own petty little two-person Thurday will blossom into the idea of a holiday, as welcoming and successful as a party in somebody else’s warm, lit-up home. 

I took a chilly walk through the park in the late afternoon yesterday and it looked exactly like the establishing shot for the day two days before Thanksgiving, like you would have known it was this Tuesday of this week just from a still image of the park, with no other context at all. Dramatically red and yellow leaves clung to the trees, but they were the last ones, already patchy and vanishing. The trees seemed more empty than not, and the ground was carpeted in fading reds and golds. Mostly-bare branches framed the chilly exteriors of the buildings rearing up at the edge of the view, red brick moulding distinguishing them from the grey sky. 

A crowd of high school kids, their masks pulled down to their chins, stood in a circle on a rock jutting out of the rolling lawn, holding beer cans they didn’t bother to conceal, a now-empty pizza box on the ground between them, doing that high-shouldered, sharp-elbowed light stomp back and forth that people do standing around outdoors when they’re cold but don’t want to admit they’re cold because that would mean having to leave, and go home, and not be in this group anymore. They all wore a version of the same puffy coat, the same practical and expensive boots. Somebody was telling a story and everybody was trying to laugh the right amount at it.

Normally, around this time of year, all the new college students and the boarding school kids come home for the holiday, and the whole thirty-block radius of my neighborhood expands and fills in, suddenly populated by families and their histories. Crowds of newly-returned teens stand awkwardly and eagerly in loud, multiplying groups on street corners and just outside of the dive bars on Amsterdam, bumming cigarettes from each other. They crowd into the aisles at Duane Reade, buying things for no reason, laughing too loud at each other’s newly imported stories. They spend the long holiday weekend that starts on Wednesday night fighting with their families and going to parties at somebody else’s friend’s house where they’re never quite sure, actually, who lives in this apartment, staying too late, awkwardly trying to catch up with someone or avoid someone else, and going grudgingly back home to the family they supposedly came here to see, to the warm rooms that never feel quite as warm as the rooms in somebody else’s house. 

Seeing these kids in their clusters on the street always made me feel like it was really the holidays, and the reason it felt that way was that I envied them. They had more money than I did, and more friends, and bigger, warmer, brighter homes. They were younger than I was, and from the outside it seemed their lives resembled movies about quirky, loving families in a big city. I imagined holidays in each of their homes looked crowded and bright, packed full of familiar abundances. It didn’t matter that I knew no one’s holiday actually looks like this, that I know for the most part everybody is always longing for something somebody else has. In my mind, the reunited families in my neighborhood were actually doing this long obligated weekend at the end of November correctly, and each year my envy let me know that the holiday season had arrived. The balloons for the parade being staged at 81st street, and the sense of failure in comparison to somebody else’s life, everybody all dressed up in sweaters and exclaiming over each other on the streets, all felt like home and smelled like cooking, and made the time of year itself again. It was somebody else’s house, the coziness and delusion of it, the awareness that it wasn’t mine and I couldn’t stay here. 

The kids have been home all year, and nothing feels special. The neighborhood hasn’t exploded in reunions, and the block of 81st street before the park is open to traffic like any other week, free of parade balloons. I watch my neighbors in their lit-up windows across the street stay home, the same neighbors I’ve watched retreat into their same rooms and repeat their same days over and over for months now. There is much less to compare myself to; if the exuberance of celebration and smug family gathering is still taking place, it doesn’t spill over onto the street, it stays hidden behind withholding closed doors. 

But the thing at the bottom of it, the thing that for me defines this time of year, is strangely the same. Few holidays feel so perfectly timed as this one, I think, its placement in the year betraying its real meaning. Fall is basically over by the third week of November, the season and the leaves and the trees and the colors are already failing to hang on, already dying out into the stark bleakness of winter. That’s that tooth-edged despair of getting in a car and going to somebody else’s house, of going back to a place where you no longer to live to see all your former friends who no longer live there either and wander around laughing too loud pretending your lives are better than they are. It’s the cold that exhales from each new coat on the bed at a party, reminding me that the weather is still lurking outside waiting for me and that at some point many hours from now, I am going to have to go home and getting home is going to be annoying and my feet are going to be cold and my back is going to hurt and it’s going to make me wonder if it was worth going to that party at all.

None of this is happening now, but the feelings that undergird it arrive anyway. I haven’t gone to any parties, and won’t, but that nervous, cozy anticipation of worse things coming, trying to cling to the last bright shore of the present moment as it falls away into yawning nighttime at five-thirty in the afternoon— that’s the holidays, the thing of them, and that’s just as available as always this year, the menacing sense of dancing right on the precipice, playing at celebration and warmth in the moments before a larger darkness arrives.

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