Jenna's relationship has ended, leaving her doubtful, when her Uncle Pat arrives.
It had been four days since she and Matthew had broken up. It hadn't been entirely clear to either of them who had been at fault, or which one of them was pulling the plug. Things just weren't working out. And so, sitting in Matthew's car in the parking lot of the sushi place where they'd endured a stony dinner, Jenna was the one to suggest they "see other people." She had never used this phrase without it being a sort of joke between she and her friends, making light of other people's breakups. A cliche. And here she was saying it without irony, but with a bitter taste in her mouth.
Matthew had looked down at the steering wheel, and then so reasonably, always having been nothing but reasonable, had murmured, "You're probably right. I was thinking the same thing."
Just like that, it was all over. The universe which had been so meticulously sculpted between them had stopped expanding and instead imploded. In the following days, Jenna would evaluate and reevaluate. Who had been wrong, and when, and where had things gone off course? She thought of all the things people had said about her relationship with Matthew, and who had been behind them, and then those who had apparently been right in the end, the girlfriends who told Jenna they weren't sure if Matthew had ever actually been "passionate" about Jenna. Melody told Jenna that if he wasn't passionate about her after five months of dating, he probably never would be.
Jenna ran these lines through her head as she stared in the mirror, as the light shone on her from the skylight over her head. Her short red hair was mussed, and her freckles added the only color to her face. A piece of her was gone, but strangely, graciously, she didn't feel it was that big of a loss. And that thought, the thought that she hadn't really lost much anyway, was what bothered her the most. It made her feel that what had happened between her and Matthew hadn't been real, maybe had been a waste, and for that she inexplicably felt responsible.
An unfortunate detail was that it was almost Christmas. Jenna had already bought Matthew's present a month in advance, when she found a collector's edition figurine of Sora from Kingdom Hearts that she knew Matthew would love. She hadn't felt it appropriate to give it to him, but she also wasn't entirely sure where she had stuck the receipt for it without turning her room upside down. She didn't know anyone else who was as much of a die-hard Kingdom Hearts fan. In the past, Matthew's interests had been endearing to her. Now just thinking about them made her feel anxious.
Like how he couldn't understand how she could read poetry from two centuries ago but had himself read through the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit at least four times each, works of fiction that Jenna determinedly found too long and dense to spend so much time on. His love for Tolkien made her proud of him, though. Her love for poetry from the nineteenth century, however, just seemed to perplex Matthew.
Jenna had felt a kind of competition between them when it came to academic things like reading or getting high grades at their college, a competitive streak than ran through her but was apparently absent from Matthew, though he made it clear that he would "never understand" what Jenna got from reading Wordsworth. Maybe Jenna had felt like she had to prove herself all the time with Matthew, but when she did, he received her successes with a shrug, like they had never mattered anyway.
Jenna ran through these doubts, these suspicions turned true, and all of the regrets, as she reluctantly got ready for the day. She had something to look forward to, at least. Her uncle Patrick was coming later that day to stay for a week, and this was the only thing keeping Jenna from absolutely dreading the holiday.
"Hey Francie, Chuck! Hey, kiddo." Uncle Pat smiled broadly on the front step as the taxi he'd taken from the airport pulled away. He embraced his sister and brother-in-law and then gave a bone-crushing hug to Jenna, who laughed and complained with a shout, "Ow, my arms!"
"Don't worry, I got you a new pair of arms for Christmas. Oops, ruined the secret!" Uncle Pat faked contrition with a comical grimace as he lugged his carry-on and suitcase through the door where Chuck, Jenna's dad, took them from him and the two men left to the first guest bedroom.
"It's been a whole year since we've seen Pat, hasn't it?" Jenna's mom Francine said, smoothing a hand down her daughter's hair. As Jenna nodded and shifted closer to her mother to lean against her, Francine observed, "It will be hard not seeing Debra. I did like her...at least, until the divorce got ugly."
Jenna sighed. Uncle Pat's divorce had been hard for the whole family. She had liked Debra, too, so it had been strange for her to hear from her mother over the months all of the things Debra had said and done, the reservoir of anger and bitterness that seemed to well up in her diminishing conversations with Francine. The ire had, oddly, been about all the same character traits that Uncle Pat had always had. His joking, his intense interest in other people, even his charm--it seemed that it all started to hit his wife Debra in the worst way. Until she couldn't take it any longer and eagerly--painfully eagerly--became his ex-wife.
"It'll be good for Pat to get away from Fort Worth. He's missed us, and I know he's really missed you." Francine smiled gently as Jenna silently rested her head on her mother's shoulder. "It'll be good for all of us."
Francine gave Jenna's shoulder a little squeeze as the two of them pulled away. Chuck could be heard belly-laughing from upstairs, where Pat was regaling him with some story which Jenna could just make out was about something that had happened just before his got on his flight from the Denver airport. "...And then I bend over to give it to her, and I realize--" Uncle Pat laughed himself at this point, "I realize that she must have had a very productive cold, but I still pick up the handkerchief anyway, because, you know, she's this little old lady, and...and I have to immediately catch my flight, and I can't see a bathroom to wash my hands in anywhere."
"Oh, Lord," Chuck managed to say between laughs. The two men were coming back downstairs as Francine went into the kitchen to get some drinks together, Jenna lingering on the landing to hear the conclusion of the tale.
"Thankfully, and I mean this was one in a million that I hadn't thrown them out, but I still had a few of these wipes--like antibacterial things--that, uh..." Uncle Pat's voice wavered for a few seconds before continuing, "...that Debra had put in my carry-on who knows how long ago, I mean..." He coughed, but a smile still lingered on his face. "So I owe her for that one."
"Well," Chuck said with a chuckle, "It wouldn't be the first time you've gotten into something like this. Many a great story has come out of your chivalry."
"My chivalry, that's one way of putting it," Uncle Pat said wryly. "But enough about me, how's my little love-struck niece over here?" Pat turned to Jenna with a renewed smile.
"Um, take out the 'love' and leave the 'struck' and that's about it." Jenna said bluntly, and it was her turn to become sheepish, as she watched the realization dawn on Uncle Pat's face.
"Oh, honey, it ended? I'm so sorry," Uncle Pat said, reaching out an arm, now gently, to hold the back of Jenna's shoulders. "He didn't deserve you. We'll talk later, you and me, but that's my premature, condensed, utterly irrefutable verdict." Jenna had to laugh at this outlandishly-made conclusion, and when her mother announced the hot chocolate was ready, she walked with her uncle behind her father into the living room with a feeling of having been accepted, even when she hadn't done anything to merit it.
Uncle Pat's arrival had greatly improved Jenna's mood. She popped into the bathroom after finishing her hot chocolate, hearing the sounds of her parents' and uncle's laughter rising up from the first floor. She splashed some water on her face and applied lip balm, for no reason other than she somehow now felt worth it. She ran her comb through her hair, picked some lint off of her sweater, and actually felt pleased at what she saw reflected back to her.
She thought briefly about the fact that her mom apparently hadn't mentioned to Uncle Pat anything about her daughter's break-up, but Jenna figured that the way he had found out hadn't been so bad. Uncle Pat's situation had been far worse, anyway. A five-month relationship wasn't exactly comparable to a 14-year marriage.
Jenna went back downstairs. Her mother sat next to her father on the couch, Uncle Pat in an armchair on one side of the Christmas tree. They were talking about Christmases past, highlights of family visits and the antics that were prone to happen each year.
"Do you remember the time Mom forgot the baking soda in her homemade spice cookies but she didn't realize it?" Francine said.
"Oh, yes, she had no idea!" Uncle Pat laughed. "She said, she said, 'Would you like to try one?' and we could all tell something was wrong, and we looked from one to another like, who's going to be the guinea pig?"
"I think I was the sucker who finally took one. Man, that thing was hard as a rock. We could have played hockey with those cookies!" Chuck wiped a hand down the back of his thinning hair with a grin.
"I guess Mee Maw hadn't tried one herself," Jenna said, taking her seat back on the other side of the Christmas tree.
"'I made them the same way I always do!' she said. She was so terribly flustered." Uncle Pat smiled to himself, and with a quieter voice said, "It was Debra who offered to go pick up that ready-made cookie dough from the corner store. She power-walked there and back, in the cold, always faster on foot," he said, just a trace of sadness at the edges of his words.
"That was a memorable Christmas," Francine said, putting a gentle close to the conversation. Everyone looked relieved, and then Francine looked at her watch.
"Oh, it looks like about time to go pick up the old folks. Chuck, are you ready to go?" she said, rising and beginning to collect the cups.
"Is it time already? Yes, we'd better get going, then. I know your father doesn't like to be left waiting," Chuck said, rising himself.
"Oh, yes, Dad's patience has its limits," Uncle Pat agreed. Jenna picked up the other remaining mugs and put them in the dishwasher, but when she returned from the kitchen she rejoined her uncle as her parents said their brief goodbyes and headed to the SUV in the garage.
"Well, kiddo. It's been a rough one, eh?" Uncle Pat said, his eyes meeting hers softly.
"Yeah...it was just four days ago that we, that I..." Jenna stammered, realizing what her words were about to say. She decided to spit them out anyway. "That I broke up with Matthew."
"That's a tough one. He wasn't a bad kid, was he? A good kid. But sometimes it doesn't matter, being good, if it just doesn't jive." Uncle Pat said thoughtfully.
"He wasn't a bad guy. You're right. But you're also right, that it didn't...our relationship wasn't...well, it wasn't what I wanted. We didn't fit together," Jenna said honestly.
"You can't force a round peg to fit into a square hole," Uncle Pat sighed.
"I think you got that backwards, but you're still right," Jenna smiled.
Uncle Pat thought for a second and laughed. "As long as I'm still right."
"My girlfriends...some of them thought Matthew and I didn't have that spark. That he wasn't really in love with me." Jenna chewed her bottom lip.
"Hm. Could be. I guess must not have been, to just let you go like that. You never can be sure what's going on in someone's heart, though," Uncle Pat said.
"Yeah, he was never exactly passionate about...well, he was passionate about a lot of things, just not about me. And when I said we should see other people, he just said I was probably right." Jenna looked down at her socks on the carpet.
Uncle Pat sucked the air into his mouth in a hiss like he'd touched a hot plate. "That'll sting. It's funny, how people can hurt you like that even when they're not being aggressive, even when they're being totally passive in that way. I totally get that," he said, nodding.
"Uncle Pat?" Jenna asked, looking up at him now.
"Do people ever actually, like, really find true love? How do you know? And does everyone, you know, find that love, or do they just settle sometimes?"
At this question, Uncle Pat leaned back in his chair and let out a deep sigh. He laced his fingers together, thought for a minute, and then leaned forward again with a fresh look in his eyes.
"Kiddo, it's like this. Do you believe in pink elephants?" Uncle Pat asked.
"Um, I don't know. I've never seen one before," Jenna said, furrowing her brow.
"That's right. No one has ever taken a picture of a pink elephant or provided any tangible proof they exist. Some people swear they've seen them. Some say they experience them every day. But others say no, that pink elephants don't exist. That's what love is like," Uncle Pat said simply.
"Uh huh. I'm not sure I get it...So do you say, uh, that pink elephants exist?" Jenna looked closer at her uncle.
"I did once. I know other people believe in them. I think your parents do. But no one is ever going to be able to show anyone one else a pink elephant. You have to see it yourself to believe it. And then you'll find out, if pink elephants exist." Uncle Pat nodded, and paused. He continued.
"Some people will say that you're never going to find a pink elephant. They'll claim no, they're all gray. Every last one. But the thing is, Jenna, that you have to search for yourself and you'll only ever know one way or the other if it's you doing the finding."
"Okay," Jenna said, thinking she might understand.
"There are no promises. It's like Shrodinger's cat, too! Is the cat dead or alive? You'll never know unless you open the box. Sometimes you'll get a live cat. And even then...sometimes the cat still dies..." Uncle Pat looked at Jenna, and when her face twisted into a look of disgust, Uncle Pat laughed out loud.
"Forgive your uncle for his strange metaphors. But do you get it, the pink elephant thing, at least?" Uncle Pat asked.
"Maybe," Jenna said, playing with a strand of her hair.
"Life has to be lived, kiddo. We don't need answers so much as we need more living. And with living comes grace, and with grace, maybe love. Maybe a pink elephant. Maybe just gray ones. And a gray elephant isn't so much different than a pink one, either. Basically the same thing. Let's not parse elephants. But we do know a pink one when we see it, don't we?"
Jenna smiled. "I think I understand now. No, I haven't seen a pink elephant yet. I guess I can't be mistaken if one does ever show up. I don't need to worry about it either, I suppose."
"You've got that right. Matthew, Shmatthew. It's like I already said: he didn't deserve you. Good guy, all that. But that's over. You can sleep fine tonight, kiddo." Uncle Pat smiled gently at Jenna, and she smiled back.
"We're having pizza tonight, aren't we?" Uncle Pat said.
"I think so. I know Mom won't want to cook so late," Jenna nodded.
"Good. I'm going to make the presumptuous request that we get at least one pizza with extra pepperoni. I'm in a mood for gambling with the potential heartburn that it's possible I may regret later, but...what's life without a little regret?" Uncle Pat stood up and stretched.
"I think A Christmas Story is on TV right now," Jenna said, glancing at the clock.
"Then by all means, let's watch that. Nothing like another dysfunctional family to judge."
Uncle Pat and Jenna flopped down in front of the flat-screen, and they both laughed much more loudly than necessary at all of the jokes they still remembered from last year's viewing. Jenna felt that while her problem of love or lack of love was still hiding in her heart somewhere, at least it had been seen. And more than seen. It had been felt, full-bodied, acknowledged, believed. She had been made real.