Christmas Alone

by Meghan Nesmith

There’s this scene in When Harry Met Sally that always makes me cry, and you’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the movie even once, because it’s one of those deeply perfect scenes that encapsulates everything good and sad in the film and also in the world, and that is the scene — or rather the duplex of scenes — in which Harry and Sally choose a Christmas tree on a snowy New York street and “Winter Wonderland” is playing and they struggle adorably with it before teaming up to do it together, awkwardly, tenderly; and then later, after they’ve slept together, when Sally is alone, completely alone, trying to drag that Christmas tree home all on her own. It topples over, she struggles, she perseveres. She manages, but it’s just a little harder, and certainly more lonely.

I remember my first winter in New York and seeing those tree mongers, walking through their darkly columned corridors heavy with what can only be called Christmas Tree Smell and realizing that I had really arrived, really lived both in New York and in the province of adult loneliness.

There was this 4 to 5-month period this spring and summer during which I developed maddening insomnia, persistent dizziness, and intermittent nausea, coupled with this increasingly noisy voice in my head that refused to shut up about all the ways in which I was doing life all wrong.

After about a month of struggling up stairs and developing this awkward habit of lying on the floor at social functions, I went to see my doctor. Each time I visited the doctor, I paid a $20 copay. I would say I visited my doctor at least six times over those four months, at a cost of $120. I really like my doctor, so this seemed worth it. She listened to me and asked lots of pertinent questions. She looked up my nose and made me breathe slowly in and out. She tested my brain by doing these funny balance exercises that made me giggle.

“I think I’m a little anxious,” I said. I had been an anxious kid, with stomach problems that kept me holed up in public bathrooms. As a teen, I liked the feeling of digging my nails into my skin; later, the more benign rhythmic massaging of the tough sinews between my thumb and my pointer finger.

We did blood work (free), which revealed various vitamin deficiencies and maybe something wonky with my thyroid. She wrote nice, life-affirming advice on her prescription pad: the names of supplements I should try, and reminders to exercise. I started taking St. John’s wort, flaxseed oil, a multivitamin with iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and live probiotics you keep in the fridge (about $100). My pee turned neon green. Maybe my hair started growing a little faster, too. I bought lots of tea: fennel, licorice, tummy tamer ($20). The yoga studio in my neighborhood operates on a sliding scale, $7-$15, depending on your financial capacity, and I started practicing twice a week. I bought Rescue Remedy, which you drip on your tongue when experiencing moments of anxiety. Weirdly, it tastes not unlike alcoholic Christmas trees. I spent $18 on a small vial that I dosed out over a couple of months.

Some of these things may have worked. I discovered a real affinity for fennel tea, especially over ice with lemon. Still, I couldn’t sleep. My doctor did an allergy test. Oh, you’re allergic to dust, she said. Isn’t everyone? Yes, she said, seriously. She prescribed a steroid nose spray ($30) and a neti pot ($25, with salts). Vacuum, she said. Vacuum more than you think you should. I also started taking a daily allergy pill (generic Allegra, $18.99 for 21 days). I had trouble with the neti pot. I couldn’t get the saline balance right. Everything stung. It all went down my throat more than once. And I never really understood what the steroid spray was meant to do, so I couldn’t tell if it was working, and I got bored.

Last year I told my friend Dan I thought we might be Harry and Sally. He didn’t really get it, as he’d only seen the movie once, and I guess was making out with someone through most of it. I’ve been in love with Dan since we met, five years ago as teachers at a summer theatre camp. He gave me his camp sweatshirt and we snuck out of our cabins at night and held hands around the fire pit. We became best friends, and we loved each other through epic breakups and my move to New York and then through the things that made me think we were Harry and Sally, like Sunday morning crossword dates over bagels. Then this love — along with my anxiety and his undiagnosed depression — made friendship hard, and so we stopped speaking.

After eight months of silence, Dan asked me to go on a picnic. We went to a bar instead, and I showed up already drunk, feverish, my stomach pulling knots that made me hold my breath. I’ve finally realized what I think you’ve known all along, he said, which was as close as I’d ever heard to Harry’s New Year’s declaration: “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

And still I didn’t sleep. Ever since I’d moved to New York I’d been trying to find a therapist in-network. For two years I courted them. I contacted over 20 New York therapists, all of whom either wouldn’t return my calls or rejected me for various reasons — scheduling conflicts (I can only see you at 8 p.m. on Friday), or for not being interesting enough (I’m only taking clients with schizophrenia). When I realized I was about to get fired, when I started getting the shakes on the subway, when Dan came back into my life, I gave up and found someone close enough to my office so that I could go on my lunch break. I liked her because she looked like my old therapist in my old city, who looked something like both of my dad’s sisters. Out of network, her rate was $250 a session. She agreed to see me for $125. My parents agreed to pay half.

My therapist is lovely. Everyone should have one. But it didn’t really work. And when the allergy pills didn’t work, and the supplements didn’t work, and the yoga sort of worked but only for like a few minutes of affirmations, my doctor said, “I think you might want to try medication.” She pulled up an online diagnostic, which asked questions like, “How frequently do you experience fatigue? 1 = Every Day, 5 = Never” (2) and “How often do you entertain suicidal thoughts? 1 = Every Day, 5 = Never” (5). The test diagnosed me with “moderate depression.” She prescribed 5 mg of Lexapro, increasing to 10 mg at the end of a 30-day trial period if we — and my therapist — felt it would be beneficial.

I started taking the Lexapro in August, after I did get fired, which put my immigration status at risk. I take 10 mg every night. It’s generic, so 30 pills are $10 with my insurance. I think this is a great deal. But I lost my health insurance when I lost my job, and signed up for COBRA at a cost of $781 a month. I had to ask my parents for the money.

After his initial declaration, Dan slowly stopped talking about our future. Then he told me one night, “You need to remind me that I like spending time with you.” I love the Lexapro. I love it so much I’m telling you about it now. After some brief nausea, the new dose mellowed my anxiety into the softest, kindest thing. My feelings were suddenly my own. I could capture a mood or thought with a quiet, calm precision, feel my sadness and know it and marvel at it like a small cold something in my palm.

Sally pulls that Christmas tree through the snow all on her own. It’s manageable. It’s fine. But it’s better with someone else. It’s better with Harry.

I bought my first solo Christmas tree last year ($20) at the tree stand on Flatbush where I briefly stalked the handsome vendor who read big books in his small hut. The tree was apartment-sized, in one of those built-in stands.

I named him Fred. I got some vintage ornaments from the Brooklyn Flea ($15 for six) and a string of white lights from my local hardware store ($9). When I brought the lights home they didn’t work, and when I marched back to the store the owner told me I couldn’t return them. He did, however, consent to help me test each light to see which one was ruining the batch. We did this while he negotiated over the price of Barbra Streisand tickets on his phone. The broken light was the very last one we tried. We smiled.

I recently read about this pensioner in London who put an ad in the local paper for someone with whom to spend Christmas. I’m not going to go find the article because I cannot with the heartache, but I remember a small old man who talked about the meal he made himself of smoked salmon, and how open-mouthed honest he was about his loneliness.

I’m lonely, he said. I just want someone to have Christmas lunch with, he said.

He got one response to his ad, and that person later cancelled, but — Christmas miracle! — his story was picked up and then he was flooded with requests to join him and I know this is meant to make me feel better about the world and it does, it does, but it also makes me want to pull my little tree closer and closer until all I can see is the searing of light twinkle-twinkle, smell the pine needles as though they were inside me, the liminal skin that keeps me locked in this anxious body dissolving until I am all tree, twinkle, happiness, happiness, happiness.

Before he left both me and New York, Dan and I finally watched When Harry Met Sally together. It’s all about sex, he said, which it isn’t, and I would have fought him on this if I’d had the energy, but by then all we did was fight and so I didn’t say no, it’s not all about sex, it’s about friendship. It’s about finding someone to carry the goddamn Christmas tree. It’s about how we’re all swimming in terror and ecstasy away from the slow-moving ship of loneliness.

“I’m not Harry,” he said softly, when the movie had ended.

“I know.”

Anyway, he’s gone now. This year’s tree is named Junior ($25), and I was high on Dayquil and alone when I bought him, so he lists dramatically. I adopted a kitten this year, and he has invented a new game: I plug the lights in, he bats them off. We do this every evening for hours. Then I pick him up and hold him tight to my face so I can smell his deliriously strange blend of warm and smoke and animal love, until he finally wiggles, relieved, out of my arms.

Meghan Nesmith lives in New York.

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