My Katie had an adorable trait that I discovered the first January we spent sharing an apartment – she picked up old Christmas trees to decorate her place. I came home to a graveyard of a dozen dead trees propped up in various fashions, some with tinsel still on the branches. Katie came out of the kitchen bright-eyed and smiling, holding egg nog which was topped with freshly ground nutmeg. “Can you believe it? Egg-Nog is 75% off this time of year!” And maybe it was the amount of brandy in the Egg-Nog, but it seemed endearing and lovable and I supported the quirk by bringing home any trees I saw on the street, dragging little brown-ended needles behind me and receiving weird looks from people who clearly thought I was crazy. Our apartment smelled like pine and Christmas for a while and then sort of musty, neither of which was disagreeable to me. The people below us smoked openly, and I was always happy to have something quell the smell.
Sometime in April, only a month after the trees disappeared without comment, I was laid off from my job and someone re-gifted me a box set of an old sitcom that they loved when they were a teenager. I watched every episode with the fervor that some people devote to re-reading psalms from the Bible, and came across a side plot where one of the characters brings home Christmas trees to appease the more eccentric character of the group.
The show was a pop culture phenomenon that I had missed, sometime between watching Star Trek the original series with my Dad and reading my Mom’s dime novel collection, and there were sayings and gestures that people had used over the years that were obvious homages to the show. But seeing the set of that fake apartment filled with blank, ornament-less Christmas trees was strange and too mirror-like for my fuzzy, directionless mind. Without much to occupy me, I puzzled for days what came first – Katie’s appreciation for the smell of pine and bits of life that are thought of as trash, or this television show, which she decided to steal a quirk from?
It shook me more than it probably should have, maybe because in my head, bits of ad copy for “the reason I love Katie” printed like ticker tape, and one of the most popular phrases was: “She’s the type of girl who picks up Christmas trees after Christmas, just because she likes the way it smells.” And I realized, of course, that Katie actually liked Christmas trees after Christmas, while the character in the show wanted Christmas trees while Christmas was still seasonable, so the facts were different. But still. It made me wonder how much of Katie was a facsimile of the things she saw on television – did I want to date a girl who got her best characteristics from fictional characters? Did it matter? I boiled a hot dog and ate it without a bun the first time I watched the episode, I did it again the seond and third time, dipping the hot dog into dijon mustard that I hadn’t paid for.
I asked her in a nonchalant way, “Katie, what’s your favorite sitcom?” She said she didn’t have one, that she hadn’t watched sitcoms since was in junior high. Unfortunately, this didn’t prove anything. The particular episode that she might have copied had aired when she was in junior high. I tried a different tactic: “When did you get the idea to start picking up Christmas trees after they had been left to be thrown away?” I asked. She had been drinking a glass of water and she didn’t stop to answer. She kept drinking until the glass was empty and then she set it in the sink. She said, “I don’t remember, I just did it. Didn’t you like it?” I said I did. I told her it covered the smoke smell from the people downstairs. “You could do that with a bit of caulking,” she said. “The smoke only comes up in a few places. I kind of like it, it reminds me of my grandfather.”
I ate a lot of boiled hot dogs that Summer and Fall, never getting a job, living off my parents’ charity and some old bonds that my own grandparents, non-smokers, had given me. Katie seemed less magical than that post-Christmas, and when Egg-Nog showed up on the shelves again, I finally brought it out. I told her my suspicion, that her quirk wasn’t her quirk at all. I think I said it like that, pointing at her, accusing her. She looked distraught and told me it didn’t matter, but I maintained it did. “What are we, if we aren’t an accumulation of everything we’ve seen or heard?” She asked me. I didn’t know how to answer that, so after some more deliberation, I moved out. She subletted the room we didn’t use and I moved back in with my parents. I got sort of depressed after that, and didn’t do much, other than what little was asked of me from my folks.
When I was at my parents’ house, I watched some old tapes they had made of television shows I liked. My Mom used to tape shows for me for when I was sick. One tape, a game show, had a female assistant who displayed everything attractiveley. The female assistant wiggled her hand underneath the game piece like it was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I realized something – I do that. I do that same thing. I didn’t know it had come from someplace other than me.
I spent a happy holiday at my parents’ house, imagining what it would be like to be on my own again. When it came on January, and I saw dead trees on sidewalks, I thought about bringing them into my parents’ house. But I knew what my Dad would say.