Jay kneels over the box containing the components of Barbie’s Dreamhouse and tries to rip through the tape.
I sit on the hearth and read the side panel aloud: “Dreamhouse comes with three stories and eight rooms! Inspire imagination with over seventy accessories!”
Jay grunts. “More like, inspire ridiculous expectations. Why can’t we just put the box under the tree?”
“Because Santa would put it together! Hang on. I’ll get some scissors.”
“Get the rest of the wine too,” he says.
I tiptoe toward the kitchen. I pause at the stairs to make sure I can’t hear Gracie stirring, even though it’s almost midnight. I find the scissors in the kitchen drawer and take a long swig of wine directly from the bottle before returning to the living room.
Jay takes his wine glass from the mantle and drinks the last sip, then grabs the scissors from my hand.
I fill his glass and put a splash more in my own. Jay stabs at the tape.
“Careful, Jay. I don’t want to be that drunk couple in the emergency room on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m not drunk. And these aren’t that sharp.”
Finally, he’s cut away enough of the tape to pry the box open. It’s full of individually wrapped walls and doors and plastic bags containing tiny little pieces. Jay flips through the instructions while I open a bag of adorable home goods.
“Jill, stop playing with that crap,” Jay says. “We need to put the house together first.”
“But look at all this cute stuff! There are tiny plates and cups. An itty-bitty rotisserie!” I present my open palm, full of miniature marvels. I’m attempting to force him into a better mood. Trying to will him into the perfect Ken who wants to hang out with me in the dream house of our own making.
“Until Gracie freaks out because she can’t find something,” he says. “Come on, I want to go to bed.”
“Fine.” I unwrap all the big pieces and he starts snapping the house together. My resolve to be cheerful weakens, and I’m exhausted from making the effort.
“Can you do me a favor tomorrow?” I ask.
“Sure.” The pink garage is up. Now he’s working on the house’s frame.
“Can you please be pleasant?”
“I’m always pleasant. Is this a fucking pool on top of the garage? This is retarded.”
“Hey! Stop saying that. Gracie is picking it up. The other day she called a book we were reading retarded.”
“Hmph.” Jay pounds his fist on the pool to get it to snap into the roof of the garage.
“And, yes it’s a pool, and it’s awesome, so don’t break it.” I prop up the box with the picture of the finished house. “And there’s a waterslide from the third floor.”
“It was on sale. Anyway, last year on Christmas you sulked the entire day and basically ignored my family.”
“Did not. Will you help me with this, please?”
I pour the rest of the wine into our glasses and stand up. With my glass in one hand, I stabilize the structure with my free hand so he can pop the floors and wall dividers into place.
“So, I know that nothing under that tree is from you to me—” I say.
“You said no gifts! Hand me the slide pieces.”
“Right, so what I want instead is for you to pretend to be a husband and a father who has fun on Christmas.”
“Whatever,” he says as I hand him the blue half-pipes for the pool slide and watch as he bangs it into place.
“Not like that,” I say and move in front of him. He steps back and makes room for me as I carefully snap them from the pool on the third floor of the house to the top of the garage.
“Looks like you don’t need me anymore.” He tosses the sheet of stickers that we are supposed to adhere to the house.
“I guess I can take it from here,” I say. Jay looks at me, and I meet his gaze, trying to convey that he’s still wanted, silently inviting him to stay, hoping that he thinks I’m worth staying for.
Instead, he picks up his glass and leaves the room. I’m disappointed but not surprised that he chose to leave. Maybe I shouldn’t have tested him by giving him permission to leave. Would it have been better to tell him what I wanted? Not just then but for the last several years? But if I said it out loud it wouldn’t count—he’d only have stayed because I asked. He wouldn’t have been fully present. Just as he will pretend to be in a good mood tomorrow, drinking coffee in our matching pajamas, helping Gracie put together new presents, smiling for pictures. But I will be able to tell that he doesn’t want to be there, and it won’t feel real or special or Christmassy, just all of us going through the motions. And as I hear Jay settling into our bedroom upstairs, I wonder if there is anything real in our own house worth fighting for.
I stay and put the stickers on. They add depth to the house, showing all of the items lined up in the fridge, the plants on the back porch, and the recycling bin in the garage. I set up the tiny couches in the living room, and the table and chairs in the kitchen to complete the scene. I hope they will bring out the best in Barbie and Ken.
I find a piece of paper and scrawl, “Dear Gracie, Merry Christmas! I know you’ll make Barbie’s Dreamhouse a home! Love, Mom and Dad.”
I tape it to the dream slide, put the rotisserie on the tiny table in the dream kitchen, and head upstairs.