Of all the times of the year to break up, Valentine's Day was undoubtably the worst.
Coming a close second, however, was right before Christmas. Tis the season when everyone is scrambling to finish their workload before the shut-down, all you wanted to do was curl up on the couch and mope over a tub of ice-cream, and you kept getting messages from family asking whether your new ex- would be joining you for the holiday. Didn't really put you in the mood of holiday cheer, peace, and goodwill toward men.
(Or women, or non-binary, or gender-fluid, but men in particular, and adding the rest didn't scan as well.)
Technically, I'd been the one to do the dumping, but it still sucked.
Tom and I had been together for years. High School sweethearts, moved in together for university, planning on marriage... the works. Everyone thought we were set for a fairytale ending.
Sure, there had been points of conflict, like me not wanting to be a housewife and waiting a few years before kids. Tom took it as a personal insult that I didn't want to be dependant on him as the sole provider, and wanted some 'us years' to build a financial safety net and save toward our own house before our lives got taken over by kids. Tom was an only child, I was the oldest of five. I knew exactly how much work babies were, long before you got the hassle of PTA meetings and extracurriculars and sports.
Yeah, we had very different opinions on social issues, but we generally agreed not to talk politics. Some times that was easier than others, what with the state of the world these days. I was pretty sure I was straight, and you probably wouldn't catch me at a Pride Parade, but didn't think it was any of my business who other people found love and happiness with. Tom disagreed, loudly and often.
I'd thought that working from home was a good compromise, but Tom took issues with the company's multi-national status, as well as my multicultural and... colourful co-workers. He did agree that it paid too well to give up, though.
It had been wanting to wait for kids that tipped over into a screaming fight that ended with our break-up. Tom's cousin had announced her second pregnancy, triggering the dreaded baby-fever in every older female relative, and jokes about my ticking biological clock. I pointed out that a non-complicated pregnancy cost tens of thousands of dollars with insurance, and repeated my stance on waiting for kids.
Now, here I was, back in my childhood bedroom, ostensibly just because it was easier than driving an hour each way for Thanksgiving, trying to dodge questions about why Tom hadn't joined me. Just one more weekly meeting and a few more bookings, and I could log off for a good mope and stratagise for how I was going to get through the weekend.
At least I wasn't the only one counting down the minutes. Chloe, the team manager, dramatically scanned the patchwork of faces. "I know we're all ready to end the day, so I won't keep you much longer. Finally, we've got a new spot opening up in a few of our city offices, so if anyone is looking for a change of scenery, or knows someone who'd be interested, applications close at the beginning of December."
A small 'ping', and a link appeared in the chat. I clicked it, mostly out of curiosity.
It was essentially the same position I was in now, except working out of an office, instead of from home, and located a few hundred miles away.
Working from an office would be a change, but not necessarily a bad one. It almost certainly beat trying to concentrate over the noise of sports in the background when I lived with Tom, or listening to my parents complain that I never came out of my room because it was the only place I could work from. Hadn't I just been complaining about how much I wanted to get away and start fresh?
I pulled up my resume, made sure it was up to date and added a few more things about being willing to travel or relocate, and started filling out the application.
'Why do you think this opportunity is right for you? (Max 500 words)' Honesty - aka the burning desire to get out of this small town and away from my shitty ex-boyfriend - was probably not the best policy here. I made the mental switch to editorial mode, and started typing.
The day after I sent in my application, my manager sent me a meeting request. Shoving my anxiety into a corner and reminding myself that I was due for a monthly catch-up anyway and that it was probably nothing, I accepted the invite, set for just before my usual lunch break, and got started on my allocated tasks for the day.
That took up my morning, with only one or two phone or email exchanges that made me pull a face at my computer screen. I understood that it was the holiday season, but did people really have to leave things to the last second all the time? There was no way they were getting an appointment for the next business day, no matter what I did.
A chime reminded me of my meeting, and I clicked on the video link, which opened to two faces: Chloe and Serafina, the Recruitment Manager. "Is now a good time?"
I straightened in my seat. "Yes, now is perfect, thanks for setting up the meeting."
Serafina smiled. "I'll be recording your answers in the interview to go over later, and I'll let you know if I need you to elaborate on anything."
I'd already made it to the interview round? I knew the company liked to promote from within, but that was a pretty good sign! I tried to project confidence. "Fire away."
It wasn't too different from the interview I'd done to earn my job in the first place, and I'd been practicing excuses for why I was planning to move to my family already.
Near the end, Serafina chimed in, "You can decline to answer this question if you want, but do you have any personal reasons you would or wouldn't want to relocate?"
I briefly wondered if anyone did decline to answer, before settling on a sanitised version of the truth. "My newly-ex-boyfriend is being clingy, and I wouldn't mind a few hundred miles of enforced separation."
Chloe frowned. "Bring a photo of him to security when you arrive; they'll make sure he can't come bother you at work."
That was all it took? One of my cousins had to threaten to sue her workplace for endangerment before they'd so much as call the cops when her abusive ex- stalked her to work! "Thank you."
Serafina nodded, "We ask the question for exactly that reason, and to weed out candidates who might be wavering in whether or not they actually want to move from their current home. Now, you'll start your new position in the new year, and if you need additional leave to arrange moving, apply under family and community leave, it'll get approved faster."
Chloe smiled as Serafina logged off. "I'll let you get back to work. Is there anything else you need from me?"
I shook my head, "Only to say that you're a great boss, and thanks for the opportunity."
She laughed, and logged off with a promise to let my future office-mates know. I knew most of them from online interactions already, so I wasn't too worried.
I clocked off to use the bathroom and make lunch, and returned to a number of notifications.
Oh, that would solve most of my problems in one hit!
Alannyah was a good friend, even though we'd never met in person. I'd feel bad about taking up her spare room indefinitely, but the same landlords who made a big deal about not kicking people out over Christmas tended to lose that attitude as soon as January 1st rolled around.
I finished the HelpChat I had opened while I waited for my soup to defrost and quickly responded.
Another ping, and another of my co-workers joined the chat, probably added by Alannyah.
Maddelyn and I shared the same Phone shift most days, and she was the most frequent organizer of any company social occasion.
I sent an appropriate GIF, made myself a cup of coffee, mostly as an excuse to stretch my legs, and by the time I got back, I had another message.
Jessica and I had been hired at the same time, and shared the solidarity that came with going through training together. Most of the time, our messages consisted of "I know you're swamped, but this just got assigned to your allocation..."and occasional commisserations.
This time, it was one of the rarer "hey, congrats!" messages that had been more prevailent during our training days, when we had a implied agreement to boost each other's self-esteem when struggling.
Maybe how well things were lining up for me was a sign from the universe that I was doing the right thing?
City property prices were more expensive than country ones, but not out of my reach. The real question was whether I wanted to get a loan with ruinous interest rates, or if Jessica's grandmother would accept a rent-to-own agreement. It wouldn't be much more per month than I had been paying for the place Tom and I had rented.
A girl I went to school with was in property law, I could ask her to write up a contract, and see if Jessica's grandmother was interested. The Retirement Pension wasn't that much to live off, these days, and she might prefer a weekly or monthly income...
One of Tom's old school rivals had started a moving company straight out of high school, and if there was one person I could trust not to tell him until after the fact, it would be him. Stan was happy to show up with a few co-workers to help me pack and move in the same day, and even let me hitch a lift in the passenger seat of the moving van, detouring to the airport before they started their cross-country trek.
I sent a notification to the extended family chat, along with a selfie of me boarding the plane, then turned my phone off as the first of the notifications started appearing. That was Future!Me's problem.
A few hours later, Alannyah and Molly met me at the arrivals gate, guiding me through the packed airport and city traffic - one thing I hadn't missed about living in the country - and my mother's name lit up the screen of my phone. I winced and held up the device, "Sorry guys, do you mind?"
Molly, who was driving, shook her head. "Go ahead, but maybe not on speaker. We're about to hit the area where Alannyah yells at traffic."
I giggled, and hit the green button to accept the call. "Hi, Mom."
I let her get the initial rant out of her system. As expected, it was mostly to do with not telling her I was moving, and how could I do this to everyone, and was this why Tom and I broke up? Finally, she wound down with "I just don't understand why you didn't tell me!"
Could I be diplomatic about this, with my hosts shooting my sympathetic glances in the rear view mirror? Probably.
Did I want to? Not really.
I sighed, suddenly feeling exhausted with the whole mess. "Because every time we've spoken in the last month, it's been about your plans for me to 'win Tom back', as if I wasn't the one who dumped him for being a small-minded jerk. I didn't tell you because I didn't want the stress of fighting you and Dad on top of the stress of moving."
Mom was silent for a moment, though I didn't dare hope that it would be over that easily. "I expect a call on Christmas, if you're going to abandon your family over the season."
She hung up, and I sighed. Family was complicated, I suppose. Alannyah reached back from the passenger seat to pat me on the knee, about as far as she could reach. "If you aren't comfortable, call when you know she'll be too busy to pick up and leave a voice message."
Molly nodded agreement, honking the horn at someone who swerved in front of us without so much as an indicator. "Easier than listening to another round of when I'm coming home to settle down with a nice young man, and the list of this year's candidates."
I blinked, wondering if I'd somehow misunderstood things. "Aren't you two married?"
Alannyah sighed. "Yes, for nearly ten years now. They're just chosing to live in oblivion and convinced that we'll come to our senses eventually."
Ouch. Well, the offhand comments about Alannyah rarely going home for the holidays suddenly made a lot more sense… “I’m sorry you have to go through that.”
Both of them shrugged, attempting to make light of it all. “It is what it is. We volunteer at a Community Center Soup Kitchen during the holiday season; it offers a sense of community, without having to attend the family Christmas. You’re welcome to join us, or stay home, as you like.”
Right now, after the long drive and longer flight, I wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and sleep. "Can I let you know in the morning? My brain has clocked off for the day."
Warm laughter filled the car, and I realised how long it had been since I went into the holiday season with a sense of hope.
The Soup Kitchen was chaotic in the best of ways. People of all ethnicities, creeds and cultures were clustered around tables, chatting away. Most Soup Kitchens catered to the poor and homeless, but this one welcomed all comers looking for company over a meal during the festive season, without checking their bank account first.
The table next to us was speaking in rapid-fire Spanish, a bunch of older ladies from Spain, North Africa, Mexico and South America. It had been a while since I studied the language, but I got the impression they were discussing their families. One Abuela threw up her hands in dramatic emphasis as she finished a story, encouraged my sympathetic murmers and a gentle pat on the hand by the table's lone Tante.
Next to me, Molly leaned in. "I bet those grandkids have a chill going down their spine, and no idea why."
Alannyah laughed, half-eavesdropping on a conversation in what I was reasonably sure was either Dutch or Afrikaans. I spoke neither dialect, only recognising enough to identify the language family. "Never fails. Oh, hello! Please, sit."
I looked up to see two older women, holding trays and moving with the familiarity of long-term best friends, though whether in the literal or the archeological sense was yet to be determined. They joined our table, settling in. “So, what brings you to a community kitchen instead of going home for the holidays?”
Neither Molly or Alannyah looked quite ready to delve into that, so I threw myself under the metaphorical bus. "Chose my career over my small-town, small-minded boyfriend. Nobody took it well."
The taller woman, her skin lined brown from a long life outdoors, toasted me. "Good for you, girlie. Not to worry, you'll find someone willing to grow with you, rather than prune you into a tiny pot, if you're so minded."
I took the metaphor to mean that she was a gardening enthusiast. The other one, her hair a true white that made me think she'd been blonde well before age got to her, with a fair complexion to match, leaned her head against the first one's shoulder. "Ri-Ri and I are too old for regrets, but the young shouldn't accumulate them, either. Own your choice, and take joy in the fact that you have one."
It was advise I'd heard a dozen times, in a dozen different phrases, but coming from a stranger, and spoken in kindness rather than frustration, made it different, somehow. They were right. I'd made my own choice to walk away, and for all that they loudly disagreed, none of my family had been able to stop me from doing so.
A knot lurking somewhere inside of me loosened, and a weight that I hadn't realised I'd been carrying lifted. Here, surrounded by cheerful faces and general goodwill, I felt at peace.
My sides hurt from laughing at the punchline of Ri-Ri's latest story. Eurydike, as she was properly called, had a wicked sense of humor and a lack of patience for people who butchered the pronunciation. Hence her willingness to use a nickname.
The rest of the table, big enough for ten and currently only seating the five of us, was waiting for others to wander over. I assumed some latecomers would fill it eventually.
"May I join you?" It was the young man who had taken our names when we arrived earlier, accompanied by a few others. I vaguely recalled them being on Hamper duty; figuring out what people needed and how to supply it from the seasonal charity donations.
Tall and copper-skinned, he had a warm and welcoming air about him, probably why he was on door duty to begin with. He made for a very nice place to rest my eyes, even if I had promised myself to take a break from relationships. The rest couldn't have been more than a few years out of university, but somehow gave the impression of middle-aged pencil-pushers as they explained their presence. "Yia-Yia kicked us out of the kitchen, told us to go socialise while she finishes dessert. We decided to drag Jamal along with us."
Jamal, I assumed, was the handsome doorkeeper. Molly smiled, explaining for my benefit. "There's a betting pool on her actual name, but she's basically the community grandmother, so everyone calls her Yia-Yia."
Sapphire laughed, warm and hearty. "Oh dear, is she still pulling that with you young ones? She just doesn't like her birth name, but could never settle on something she liked better."
Ri-Ri smiled. "Not to worry, dears. If she doesn't come out on her own, Sapphire and I will extract her and make sure she sits down and spends some time in company before the Center closes for the night." She lowered her voice conspiratorially, "We grew up together. I know how to persuade her."
A quick glance between the younger inhabitants of the table quickly arrived at the mutual agreement that we probably didn't want to know. A change of topic was in order. "I want to thank you all. This has been... the best Christmas I've had in a long time."
Jamal grinned. "Good food, good company and good cheer will do that to you. Merry Christmas."
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