Christmas Eve is when everything is going to be all right.
You’re going to do this, accomplish that. You’re going on a fabulous trip. You’re going to meet a wonderful girl and marry her. The girl you are going with now will be wonderful in the future. No more arguments, sex all the time. Everything’s going to change. Everything’s going to be all right.
Christmas Eve is when everything is going to be all right. You’re going to do this, accomplish that. You’re going on a fabulous trip. You’re going to meet a wonderful girl and marry her. The girl you are going with now will be wonderful in the future. No more arguments, sex all the time. Everything’s going to change. Everything’s going to be all right. Everything’s going to be great! You’ll be moving into a big new house, a house with a luxurious lawn and blooming flowers and gregarious (but respectful of your privacy) neighbors who will host lawn parties on long-shadowed, verdant summer afternoons. You’re going to get the promotion.
You won’t have to use your credit cards for anything. If you do you’ll pay them off right away. You’ll write a best seller. You’ll paint a classic picture. You’ll tell the boss off—and he’ll admit you’re right, giving you the raise and the promotion you’ve always deserved. You’ll be the office hero.
You’ll do something noble and life-changing. You’ll be known as a selfless, giving guy, a guy who would do anything for anybody. You’ll get up early and exercise. You’ll exercise at night, one of those enviable individuals you see striding purposefully along the roadway at dusk, looking loose and limber and free. You’ll be neat and orderly. You won’t lose patience and snap at family members and friends. Yes—Christmas Eve!
It’s Christmas Eve in suburban San Antonio, Texas, sometime in the latter half of the 20th century. I live in a raw new shade-less subdivision with the quixotic name Inspiration Hills. Our house has a broad, sloping front lawn with a view of the skyscrapers in downtown San Antonio ten miles away. My father is a corporate attorney, my mother a stay-at-home mom with an inventor’s mind and a wise-cracking comedian’s style. She’s Erma Bombeck with a girdle and a menthol cigarette in one hand. I am nine years old.
My prize gift this year is a dark brown Rawlings baseball glove, stiff and smelling of fresh calves’ leather from Mexico. Playing with this glove I am assured of being an all-star third baseman next spring. (And a big league player in a decade or so.) I sleep with the glove, a shiny new baseball tucked into the pocket, forming the pocket, molding it. There is nothing like a new fielder’s glove and a new hard ball. Sweet dreams tonight!
As a pimply, lovelorn adolescent, I receive shirts and CDs and a video game system which I proclaim as “awesome” but which I relegate immediately to the outcast land of unused gifts. It is, lamentably, the wrong system, an outdated system, the product of poor communication and bargain shopping.
That evening, I slouch about in our sunken living room, tossing my long, greasy hair debonairly and foolishly, almost tauntingly for my father’s benefit. I watch my younger siblings with building envy, observing their carefree antics, their pure joy in the magic of the moment. I am anything but pure. I am a product of bad alchemy, an adulterated mix of chemicals brewed in a contaminated, back-street lab.
My father, the corporate attorney, is a demanding man with impossibly high standards and a temper to avoid, and he seems to think I am a bum, a slacker, a future flop. He wants me to become an attorney like him but I have no desire to follow in his footsteps. I’m a writer, I tell him, and he turns away as if I have slapped his face. My mother, a creative person herself, is more sanguine on this point.
“Daddy,” she says, “Leave him alone. He’ll do what he wants to do. He’ll be a success.” Dad grumbles something that sounds like a curse.
What I really want for Christmas is something my parents cannot provide—an attractive young female who will like me, accept me, talk to me, make me feel like a man. Or at least a human being, not the bizarre outcast creature that I seem to be.
As the night wears on I go through the motions of a happy Christmas, smiling, hugging family members, rough-housing with the dog, uproariously laughing. But I feel alienated from the frivolity, distant, like a spectator in the far upper gallery of a theater. Taking advantage of confusion and a general atmosphere of bonhomie I mix myself a bourbon and coke and knock it down and then another and yet another and before I go to bed I puke. When my dad wakes me the next morning for Christmas Day Mass, I puke again. Merry Christmas, punk!
At age 21 things are picking up. On Christmas Eve I sit in my grandparents’ retirement-community condo nursing a bourbon and coke highball that my grandfather has mixed, sanctioning my official entry into adulthood. My father and I sit side-by-side in leather wing chairs, drinking openly together for the first time. Amazingly all the bitterness and rancor of my adolescent years seems to have washed away in a 90-proof river. We sit chatting amiably, like old office mates, discussing political and sociological topics of the day. I am more artful now in my responses to him. I dance away from controversial answers. I refuse to be baited. I concur gracefully on some of his more dubious opinions.
I have a girlfriend now, a girl I am heading over to pick up in a few minutes. I am proud of this girl. I am happy to be with her. She is a short, attractive, well-put-together, raven-haired young woman with a trace, just the slightest trace, of a Southern accent learned from spending her first 10 years in rural Alabama. We live together secretly back in our college town, Austin, and we have sex together on a regular basis. Oh my God—sex! They were right about sex that it’s the greatest elixir there is, a miracle, a magic potion bottled up in our own bodies. No wonder they don’t want anybody to know about it too soon. It’s dangerous stuff.
I turn to my father clad in a starched dress shirt and striped tie like his father before him and blurt out some sentimental, bourbon-induced bromide.
“I think everything’s going to be okay,” I say referencing pretty much our entire history up to this point. “Everything’s going to be all right.” Leaning over I embrace him, awkwardly, his light lawyer’s hand forming a practiced circle around my back, as though I am a client. It is our first embrace since early childhood. My mother I observe watching us with a combination of indulgence and amused skepticism.
Driving through a montage of city lights to pick up my girlfriend Sandy, I bask in the afterglow of the highballs and my rapprochement with my father. Life can be good. The earth is a good place. Sandy is ready for me when I arrive. She wants to go. She wants to go with me. But first we embrace. We kiss. In the soft bath of yellow light beside her doorway Sandy appears ravishing in a tight black dress and platform heels and her hair pulled into ringlets—a wedding guest look. Emotion welling in my chest, I kiss her ravenously, ravishingly, one last time, and afterwards she buries her head of brunette hair in my shoulder. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to leave. For the moment, I am happy, about as happy as a human being can be. I am content. I am content to be me.
“Your breath smells good,” she tells me.
“It does?” I say. “Really?”
“Uh-huh,” she says. “It smells like whiskey. Whiskey is good.”
I accept her testimonial with poise and equanimity.
“That’s good,” I say. “That’s good to hear.”
She is mine. Everything is going to be okay after all. My God everything is going to be okay.
In my late thirties now I am married (though not to Sandy), with two lovely blond-haired kids, a girl aged 9 and a boy aged 6. The girl is smart and sassy, the boy a future techie nerd, determined and undeterred by outside social forces. I work for a large international conglomerate with an office in San Antonio. Our facility is a long rectangular one-storey mirror-glass building located near a freeway interchange in the outer layer of suburbs. I sit in a cube. I edit documents on a computer screen. If I stand up out of my desk and walk a few paces into a kind of cube corridor I can see daylight outside. I can tell when it’s raining by the crescendo of sound on the gravel roof. My wife Sara is an art instructor for a private school, a smart, gregarious woman who accumulates friends as she strolls smiling through life. Unfortunately I don’t believe I am one of them.
We’re spending Christmas Eve at my parents’ house, the same house where I grew up. Dad is retired from his law firm now, and Mom, afflicted with emphysema and osteoporosis, is hooked to an oxygen tank, wheeling it around like a miniature grocery cart. She is cheerful still, still brimming with jokes, but there is an underlying sadness now, a foreshadowing of mortality. I try to keep her laughing with my observations and ready wit. Her laugh emerges in a wheeze. Sara is free and easy with my parents, sometimes too much so, blithe, almost callous. She says things to my parents like, “Come on, Dad, you can do it.”
I sit leaning forward on a couch, and Sara sits across from me on the carpeted floor, legs crossed, arms folded across her chest. It is a posture that seems designed to repel my overtures. I try catching her attention but she flips her hair and stares steadfastly away. I cough. I wave, even. She takes a call with her cell phone—one of her cadre of friends, no doubt, checking on her Christmas Eve activities. Can’t they leave her alone even tonight? She is talking and laughing easily with her caller. I wish she would laugh with me.
My spirit droops. My heart aches. The fact strikes me like a bludgeon to the chest—Sara enjoys being with her friends more than she does with me. Sometimes it seems that we live separate lives, lives that intersect for only a few brief moments each day. We go to work in the day then she goes off to hang out with her friends at night. It’s an arrangement that has become established over time.
Here at my parents’ house watching the children play we seem terribly, tragically distant from one another, mismatched like different chess pieces, a rook and a bishop perhaps. I am edgy. I am unfocused. I won’t admit this to anyone but we have come to that stage in our marriage where everything seems stale and brittle, ready to crack. I want to try something new. I think Sara does too.
That night on the drive home across town all the pressure bubbles to the surface and we erupt in a terrible argument, yelling at each other, hurling insults. The kids shrink back silently in the back seat. Finally our daughter, the take-charge older one, says, “Do you two even like each other?”
“Sure we do, Honey,” Sara says. “We just get mad at each other sometimes. Everybody does.”
We hush then, but later Sara locks herself in our bedroom, shutting me out. I sleep on a hard couch in the living room beside the Christmas tree, amid wrapped presents and symbols of joy, turning fitfully every few minutes, my life turning over like a body in a centrifuge.
Next morning the children rouse me early, filling the early dawn with their shouts of surprise and delight. I pretend I am interested. I pretend there is a reason to go on. Sara sits stone-faced across the room, her fresh-ground coffee cradled harshly in both hands.
I am 45 now, this Christmas Eve, divorced, a single dad. I send vague and amorphous prayers heavenward, hoping that any second something good will happen with my life. Actually the kids are holding me together. They keep me from falling off of a very steep cliff. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know where I’ll be next year—or next week. I walk a tight line hoping that I’ll be able to hold things together, hoping that I won’t fall apart. Everything is a giant pendulum swing.
This one day, this one night, I feel relatively happy and secure, both kids hanging out with me, not out running around or with their mother. Watching a video of Scrooged! with Bill Murray, we huddle together in a ring on the floor of my parents’ house, touching feet like Cub Scout campers, connected by physical proximity and a sudden satisfying synergy. I feel connected. Tomorrow and the day after, who knows? I make no plans. Nobody would follow my plans anyway. I hope for the best.
Christmas Eve is when everything is going to be all right. It will be all right.
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, in one of those large, loud, rollicking Catholic families typical of the 1960s. On any given day there might be games of pitch and catch in the hallway or tackle football in the back bedroom. I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas and still live in Austin. I have published more than 35 fiction and non-fiction pieces in a variety of literary journals including two stories in the 34thParallel Magazine, Vietnam Vets in Issue 22 and The Hermanos Brothers in Issue 19. Most recently, The Plumber was published in the Belle Reve, Turning Blue and 62 in the Chick Lit Review, Kingston: The Lizard, The Man in Stories That Lift, The Shorthorn No. 3 in Flatman Crooked, Thanksgiving for Sex in Freight Train, Night of Hope in Concisely. Other stories have been published in The Prose Menagerie, Slugfest Ltd, Short Stories Bi-Monthly, Words of Wisdom, Nocturne Horizons, Balcones, and Carve. My short stories Christmas Day on a City Bus is published by McKinney Press. Image by Shauna Autry Photography.