Monday, December 22, 2014

From the bottom of my heart


“Feliz Navidad,” the Spanish-language radio stations played, over and over, the day after Thanksgiving. I was driving through the Southwest in a car with a busted CD player and no iPod, and this song seemed to be the only transmission coming from any radio station anywhere that I could hear.

It seemed to mock me, given the circumstances. I was driving home after a four-month stint in San Diego, having essentially lost my job out there (this was 2008; the economy was in the crapper), spent nearly all my money on day-to-day survival, and having pretty much no option other than to come home and crash at my kindly parents’ house (in the room that had been mine since I was four) to regroup and find another full-time job.

A few hours outside of town, I got dumped. I got a call from the guy I’d been secretly involved with for nearly a year. (The “secretly” part was his choice; we were both otherwise single; let’s just sum up by saying he was out of my league and we both knew it. ) He said: “As of right now, you and I are no longer lovers.” He couldn’t say something normal such as, “I think we should break up,” because we were never boyfriend and girlfriend to begin with (again, his choice). So “lovers” was the word he went with.

I was madly and hopelessly in love with him. I dumped my previous boyfriend (of 10 years) for him. I moved out West for him. I did many other things for him.

I hadn’t even made it out of California yet when he called; I was headed home to Virginia. It was dark outside and everyone else was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner.

“Feliz Navidad!” chirped the goddamn radio, again and again.

***

This morning while driving to work, I heard it again.

I was driving past the erstwhile Springfield Mall, the phoenix-from-the-ashes shopping hub that I grew up thinking of as “the mall,” that lay mostly dormant (except for a few department-store “anchors”) for years amid industrial dust as it rebuilt itself into a classier incarnation, with high-fashion stores and a movie theater that sells wine and has recliners for seats.

Having been born in Alexandria, a straight shot down the road (within biking distance) from Mount Vernon; having attended Fairfax County public schools for years k-12 (I graduated from high school with many students from my kindergarten class); having gone on my first date at the Multiplex Cinemas on the Alexandria stretch of Route 1; having tried living someplace else (California) before returning, to ultimately live in a townhouse by the woods of Springfield’s Lake Accotink Park; having married a man who went to my high school and whose parents live just down the road from mine – I deeply identify with NoVA, the good and the bad.

The traffic. The high cost of houses and rent. Suburbia and megamalls. Office parks and parking garages. Colonial school mascots, Colonial field trips. Everyone's dad working at Crystal City, or the Pentagon. Being blasé about DC monuments and museums yet taking visiting relatives there, always. Having a dad, brother, and husband with government clearances that render them unable to discuss certain subjects around me. The identity crisis of living in DC’s shadow. Hitting three states in a day (VA, DC, MD) without batting an eye. The rootlessness that occurs when everyone comes from someplace else. The traffic. Traffic traffic traffic.

Springfield Mall was “the mall" to me. "Want to go to the mall?” my friend Mandi would ask in junior high, and duh, I knew which one she meant, because there wasn’t another one, at least not on our radar. I still have a picture of one of the old numbered, baby-block-style mall entrance signs hanging on my living-room wall.

Springfield Mall is NoVA, and NoVA is a big part of me.

This morning, passing the revamped mall (technically “Springfield Town Center” now) while stumbling upon freaking “Feliz Navidad” on some back-up radio station I only listen to when the good ones are talking – a bunch of stuff clicked into place, and I felt as if I had triumphed over time. Or at least, that I had not done too bad these past six years since the time when the song seemed to taunt me.

Instead of skittishly clicking the next pre-programmed radio button in the row, I turned the song up and sang along. I held up my hand – my left hand, with my wedding and engagement rings on it – up to the radio, as if to say: “Ha!” Ha ha, I was once so sad over some dude, and now I’m happily married to someone else and wouldn’t have it any other way.

I thought about all the other luck in my life. Here I was driving to the Metro station, for my commute into DC for a full-time writing-and-editing job that allows me to be creative and spend most of my time working with words, and that also pays well and offers “great benefits” (as the HR pamphlets say), covers-everything health insurance and paid Metro fare for work commutes, a free on-site gym and a flexible schedule (starting next year, I’ll work from home 2-3 days every week). And on and on. My bosses are nice. I am valued there.

Six years ago in San Diego, I had been clinging to a writing/editing gig with a small marketing firm, pulling thankless 11-hour workdays for a founder/president/head honcho who basically avoided the topic of paying us for more than two months, and who finally admitted she couldn’t afford to keep all of us on her staff full-time, whittling my hours down so tiny that it wound up being more like a freelance gig.

In San Diego I was broke. I would sometimes, reluctantly and guiltily, ask my dad if he could please put another twenty in the bank (knowing he would likely up my requested amount to a hundred) – swearing to “add it to what I owe you; I’ll pay you back as soon as I can” – just so I could buy food. I once spent a day walking through the pedestrian mall to collect samples – a piece of teriyaki chicken on a toothpick at the food court, a tiny square of chocolate at Ghirardelli’s.

I knew exactly what time the shipment of 69-cent donuts came in at my local 7-Eleven – for a while, that was what I could afford to eat. I once used my druggie roommate’s cocaine dollar (yes, one he had rolled up to use for snortin’ and had left on a little dish in our bathroom, amid a swirl of white powder) to buy this donut. (I more than paid him back later after I finally got paid, with the gift of a bottle of fancy limoncello from the quaint market on our street in Little Italy.)

Yeah, I’ve had some bad luck in recent years, mostly in the fertility department, and yes, I had a miscarriage. But otherwise my life with my husband is happy. I love him. I love our life together. I love our home. We just went to Nepal. Today I signed up for night classes in Spanish, in hopes of knocking out another item on my life “to-do” list. (“See the Himalayas.” “Learn Spanish.” “Write a book.”)

Strangely, another thought that filled me with a sense of triumph was this: That guy who dumped me over the phone as I sat in my car, pulled over to the side of the California Interstate with cars whizzing by, on a Thanksgiving evening far from home, driving home in defeat? We’re still friends.

The “Metro-commute-reading” book in my tote bag right now is one that I recommended to him recently, that he brought with him and read on a recent trip to Australia with his wife (the girl he dumped me for). The other night he excitedly sent me a text message about a song he said I absolutely had to hear – preferably in the woods or in some other sacred place. We have most of the good parts of our prior relationship, without the bad stuff.

I’m happy, he’s happy. I’m happy he’s happy. He’s happy I’m happy.

Ah, life – you just keep going, plugging away, clocking in, maybe occasionally making some little move to get what you want, an inch in an upward-reaching direction. Enough years of this and you have something to look back on.

“…Próspero año y felicidad.”

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