Avoidance Seeps into Perception — A Close Reading of Winter Break

Winter Break, by Tyler Barton, is a story about a wordlessly strained relationship between a mother and child. And as the complex relationship is revealed indirectly though imagery and dynamics with other characters, it’s not clear how aware the narrator is of its strain; family relationships seem normal almost exclusively from the inside.

I was a little shit during breaks from school, like from Kindergarten to the last fucking winter break I spent at home. For some reason, the surroundings put you back in the same high school mentality you had before. I felt called to call out and then debate every worldview discrepancy that came up between my dad and me.

“Nice day, huh?” “Yeah, because of MAN-MADE climate change, conservative dick.”

For my mom, I just tried to shirk her over-protectiveness by casually mentioning the more risqué things I’d done that semester. Zero logic behind it. If I spent another winter break with my parents, knowing what I know now, today, as the 24-year-old that I am, I’d probably be that same little shit.

There is something very off about the narrator’s winter break. It colors his or her perception, the details he chooses to include. From the very start, the tree is off kilter, at a 45-degree angle, and he or she comes home “tipsy.” Not drunk, off-balance. Later, the mother “spills hashbrowns” from the bag. Careless in all things she does, the mother is the source of the imbalance.

Her carelessness is characterized a passivity. Her child has to clean up for her when she’s passed out, like a motionless, agent-less, but conscious “starfish,” not tilted but “flat” and at home in her mess. Her ex, only recently disposed of by the child, was an asshole as evidenced by his Kid Rock records and Tapout shirts (what other proof do you need?) The unattended dog eats ivy and will puke it up. Still, the narrator is loyal, defensive and loving toward her, but he or she betrays an awareness that this isn’t how it should be.

The typical Christmas is replaced with their dutiful, depressing and uncomfortable affair, just like his cleaning up after her is like another holiday tradition — an Easter egg hunt with a new, sad objective for the adult child, picking up her wine glasses. For presents, they’ve received first the dog vomit “in the stocking,” and a bunch of one dollar bills, a “gag” gift. It’s hot and sweaty, very unsettling.

What’s more dysfunctional and straining on their relationship is what’s not there, which they avoid — the missing ex-boyfriend and the lack of presents. There are only five to go around.

Away from the mother, the narrator broaches a confrontation to the problems in his or her life when he or she goes out to the garage to pack up the ex-boyfriend’s stuff and wait for him to pick it up. Without any other action to take, the narrator breaks said valuables and imagines beating him up. The motivation though originates from a rare direct acknowledgement. “[I] Want everything I haven’t given, every gift we haven’t gotten to be punched into his person, this body who creeps her property.” The boyfriend is only an outlet for his anger at what isn’t there. The detached, haunting, creeping “body” of the absent father.

Like the watermark on the 20 dollar bill the mother handles at her gas station job, underneath the narrator’s affectionate kiss on the crown of her head are the “skeletal” roots of her hair; what’s underneath their superficial conversations is his or her responsibility to take care of her. The narrator cannot take his or her aggression out against her for her careless passivity or the missing dad.

So the narrator finds a new outlet in a sophomore, acknowledging the motive underneath, holding him “up to the light like a fifty.”

My parents and I were collectively aware of the at-times jarring dynamics. The narrator and the mother are not. Instead, it seeps into his or her perceptions. Its muteness only contributes to the helplessness that runs through his or her experience.

It’s a claustrophobic feeling, in the story and being stuck at home irl. Compared to college, there’s nothing to do, no agency. It’s much worse for our narrator, but it’s universal. Except for my daughter and me, we’ll always have great and fun breaks from school.

She’s in her mechanical chair swing now, listening to Galinha Pitadhina, a Brazilian musical cartoon for little kids. Like her mother, she’ll be bilingual. We’ll never have any misunderstandings.