Sight for Signal
This is our second Christmas in the apartment. The Christmas tree is a damnable bundle of tiny aluminum spikes that cut my arms. After it was up I remembered the balcony. “Should we put lights out there?” I asked my wife. “I mean, there’s a plug.”
Last year we hadn’t thought to do it. Back then our twins were three months old. We don’t remember much from last Christmas.
“Did we do stockings?” my wife has asked.
“I got you maybe lip balm,” I have answered. “I remember going to the hospital to have the babies in October.”
“Huh,” has said my wife.
Now its 2012 and the kids sleep all night.
My wife went out to the balcony and draped a single strand of lights along the railing. They’re LED—wasteful, but gently so. She plugged in the cord. The regular stuff: Lights at a distance. Trees in windows. There you go, Christmas.
There’s a whole class of human communication that happens through decorational lights. New York City does a lot of this. They light up the tree in Rockefeller center. That moment when it goes from dark to gleaming, that’s a big moment for humans. There’s a lot of ceremony involved. What is actually being communicated, then? What is the difference between the dark tree and the light tree?
They light up the Empire State Building most nights in specific colors. And of course fireworks. On July 4 you go on the roof (our building, any building) and in the distance are the great fireworks displays, shot from barges in the river. They’re monumental and synchronized. But closer are the local fireworks, drunks and lunatics setting off explosives all around. You run from corner to corner of the roof and murmur at the colors.
It’s a way of talking at a distance. Flags and towers, short signals. Hello everyone. Here are our explosives. Hello. Here are our rainbow-colored lights hung from the balcony. Hello. Christmas lights work for the same reason that people on shore wave to people in boats.
There was a piece of paper in the box that holds the tree. It turns out that in the fog of new parenthood I’d written a note. The idea must have been to start a tradition. The note said: We had a good Christmas. The kids are well and we love them. I hope next year to go to the gym and be a good dad. Wife hopes to sleep through the night. &c. It was painfully sincere, the note. Those were sincere months.
My wife sat on the couch and stared at the wall. I sat beside her. The children were asleep in their cribs. Bath-and-bedtime had been a production. A lot of naked screaming and helicopter kicks. My wife is taking classes in construction project management and her finals are next week. It’s a lot about roofing and bitumen. I’m covering most of the bills so I do a lot of PowerPoints about the Internet. I thought about the calories in a cocktail.
I would slow it down if I could. We live in the big brick building above the sleep apnea clinic. There’s a mosque across the street and plenty of synagogues and churches too, dropped in between garages and gas stations. There’s a restaurant up the avenue that prides itself on being both Indian and Pakistani. Our babysitter comes from Azerbaijan. “I love the holidays here,” she said the other day. By which she means all of them. “Hallowe’en, wonderful. Thanksgiving, great.” She’s Muslim so we asked her if she could help us some Fridays and she said sure, no problem, what’s special about Fridays?
The B68 bus stops right across the street on its way further into Brooklyn. Thus we have a great audience for our lights. If you stand by the car wash you’ll see them for sure, or walking down Avenue C towards the drugstore. A few bits of plastic in red, green, and blue. A wave from shore as you sail on. We’re honestly not much for God, but we’re really big on light.