It’s Christmas, and a stranger, not much older than me, comes to the door to ask for help.
I’m lucky, and I know it, especially at Christmas. It’s not just the presents, although there are always plenty of those. I live at the local nexus of two big families, and with Christmas comes the convergence. Aunts, uncles, cousins from multiple other towns and states all gather in what I won’t realize are small houses until much later. We’re nestled in, all together. Dad even takes a few hours off from work to be there.
This year, we’ve already had the great traditional Christmas Eve party at my aunt’s, with gourmet food and goofy stocking stuffers. (Last night they were identical cardboard “haunted houses” for all of the cousins, little boxes imprinted with roofs and windows and doors, and the words “Real Ghosts Inside!” We opened the boxes to look, but didn’t see any. And the adults said, “There they are, can’t you see them?” So we looked harder and harder, feeling almost at the cusp of revelation, but not quite able to vault over the top. The adults seemed to get a particular kick out of this.)
Now we’re at first grandmother’s house, with the tree and its heirloom big-frosted-bulb string of lights familiar from all the years before, soft and wonderful. The buffet lunch unfolds without schedule, in the dining room with the organ, on which I’d earlier played a rousing version of “Come Back to Sorrento” from my grandmother’s big Liberace songbook. There are plenty of black olives, and I shove them onto the tips of my fingers, five at a time, to eat, because even though it’s a little rude the adults are indulgent and festive.
I’m pre-ironic, of course, not yet nostalgic. Christmas is real, and it’s here, now. So I’m not surprised when a stranger comes to the door needing help.
I am surprised, and uncomprehending, when the stranger, a kid from the apartment houses down the street, not much older than me, is sent away.
That feels wrong, so I ask.
“Who was that?”
“He was collecting money for his aunt’s funeral.”
“She died on Christmas???”
“She died last week.”
“How old was she?”
“In her 40s.”
“What did she die of?”
“Cirrhosis of the liver.”
“Why didn’t we give him anything?”
“Because she drank herself to death…”
The adults, wise and generous, able to spot shy ghosts in cardboard boxes, seem to think that’s a reason. Over my head and to my diminishing attention, their discussion wanders into the small-town territory of who the dead woman descended from, and who her kids were, and whether anybody of any worth ever came from that family anyway.
I know they’re wrong.
But I’ll forget.
Christ, will I forget…
The first place John and I lived was a tiny apartment, maybe four hundred square feet, perched on top of the workshop a retired Navy vet had built just behind his own house. The doors were on wrong: the front door, at the top of the rickety open-frame stairs, was sliding glass; the back door, leading out to the big deck that the vet liked to park his tractor under, was a single, solid-core wooden door, with a wobbly brass knob.
An afterthought to an afterthought.
We’d been living together just shy of three months when December 25 began looming in earnest. I tended to eschew things Christmas then; I was making a set of solstice cards for friends and family instead. We were outside our neighborhood grocery store, with “Jingle Bells” blaring incessantly, and half-joked about stealing one of the cut live trees on display. Whatever blow we might convince ourselves this would strike at the heart of relentless plastic capitalism, though, I just couldn’t do it. Who steals stuff at Christmas, anyway?
But once I had the idea of having a tree, ill-gotten or otherwise, I couldn’t put it out of my mind. So we found a tree farm, ventured out into the fields, and cut one down (the start of an annual tradition that lasted years). We put it up in the kitchen/living room, right by the sliding glass door. We laughed at the perspective shift between open and closed spaces: the tree that seemed so paltry and modest when we picked it became massive in the tiny apartment, fragrant and wide and scraping the ceiling.
It was his weekly poker game that night, and he’d be out late, so I went to Walgreens myself and bought (bought, mind you!) a set of gold, green, and red ornaments, and a string of warm white lights. I decorated the tree, and quite satisfied with the results, I left the lights on and the bedroom door open, and went to bed.
“Are you awake?” I heard him ask quietly.
“Hmm,” I acknowledged, a little groggy, “what is it, babe?”
“I’ve never had a tree like that.”
“Oh?” I was awake now, the glow from the tree filtering over him as he stood in the bedroom doorway.
“When I drove in, there was condensation all over the door, and the tree was just… glowing.” His eyes were shining, his voice soft, as if he were trying not to break the spell. “It was so beautiful. I’ve never had a tree like that. Thank you.”
“Of course, hon.”
It was poker night, so he’d been drinking, of course, which wasn’t a problem. (Not that I would have known if it were, not then.)
It seemed to be only enough to make him grateful.
He left the bedroom door open, and curled up with me in bed, the whole four hundred-square-foot ass-backwards apartment glowing in the light from the tree. It felt like the inside of our own little snow globe. Perfect. No other thing in the world was necessary.
The years went by. The houses kept getting bigger. The trees kept getting smaller.
We were supposed to have seen the Squirrel Nut Zippers back in California, earlier in that year of the first magic-spell Christmas tree. We had tickets and everything, but I was still in the death throes of a relationship I was trying to get out of, and at the last minute I couldn’t go.
He went without me, and we danced in his bedroom to “Blue Angel” later, and he told me how sad he was that I hadn’t been there.
Twenty-two years later, the Zippers, or what was left of them, came to our adopted hometown. They were scheduled to play a joint with a full-tilt capacity of fewer than 500, at tables with food and drink served during the shows. (It was a far cry from Clinton’s second inaugural ball or the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics.)
I got the tickets, and getting ready to go we argued about our marriage counselor, specifically the fact that his substance abuse counselor apparently didn’t like her. I told him I didn’t give a shit what his substance abuse counselor thought, which was the nicest thing I could think of to say.
This is going to be our last date, which I don’t know at the time, but I may be starting to suspect.
Twenty-two years, almost to the day, past the suppressed whim to steal a tree, he needed me to drive us to the show, because he hadn’t been feeling well. We pull into downtown, and it’s decked out in pine boughs and Christmas lights. He asked if I could drop him off directly at the club, so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way from the parking garage.
I’ve just parked when I get his text: Im in the down sairt s bar.
[Sic], as they say in Latin: exactly thus.
(I know, I know.)
I met him downstairs, and took a drink of the beverage sitting in front of him, and that one really was just tonic. Satisfied, I suggested we head up to get seated early.
As we were being led to our seats, he lurched, stumbled and fell, overturning an entire unoccupied table.
They were ready to throw him out. An obvious drunk. Clearly trouble. I got John to a chair, noting his pallor, and asked him if he was okay.
“Yes, I’m fine, this has been happening lately,” he replied.
I stood between John and the venue security team, and I explained in a low voice that he’s not intoxicated, he’s a transplant patient, and we’ve been having trouble with his meds, which make him dizzy. I was so rational and calm and well-dressed that they believed me unreservedly. They even moved us to seats near an exit, in case he were to have another spell and need to step outside.
The new seats were far better than our original seats. And there we were, finally seeing the Zippers together.
Just twenty-two years too late.
Not long after the Zippers, it was already over for us. I’d gotten the lawyer, it was done. But we were still fighting. This was one of many fights upstairs in his room, where I’d chased him, hot on the heels of his comment: “If you had something to say, you should have said it before now.” Meanwhile, I was about to chew through the drywall with all the things he hadn’t let me say. Reclining on his bed, he recited the laundry list of terrible things about me: I’m always angry, I always start fights, I’m selfish, I’m always negative, I’m the reason he’s an alcoholic, I watched him suffer for years and never lifted a finger to help him.
Ass-backwards, upside down, inside out.
It was the last item that did me in, though.
“You give terrible gifts.”
I’m lucky, and I know it, especially at Christmas. Which makes it hard to explain to Mom why I’m crying so hard when she comes to tuck me into bed on Christmas Eve.
Mom’s stunned. What could the matter possibly be? We’ve just gotten back from the party at my aunt’s, and it had been wonderful as ever, family together, games of bumper pool next to uncles drinking at the basement bar, then roast beef and popovers and home-made chocolate-covered potato chips.
We’d gotten home, and I’d been looking at our tree, with all the presents already under it, and Santa hasn’t even come yet. (I’m savvy to who the real gift-givers are, but I have a younger sister I don’t want to spoil it for). And time has slipped by and I haven’t gotten anything for Mom, and now it’s too late. I feel so small and selfish and embarrassed. Undeserving.
She sits with me on my bed, and I can’t quite read her. She’s sad about something, but it isn’t the gifts. She tells me she doesn’t need anything from me that I haven’t already given her, and that my only real job as the kid that I am is to have a good Christmas. And that it would really help if I could stop crying…which I eventually do, with her calming presence next to me.
And then, after I finally fall asleep, she gets to work.
One thing to remember: alcoholics hate themselves even more than the rest of the world seems to.
Worse, the thing John holds onto of the childhood that he can’t remember Christmas trees from is his mother saying “Good things don’t happen to people like us.”
He and I were meant to fail, because he’d learned early that that was how life worked. But good things did happen to us, and every year we didn’t fail, every year we got a degree, got better jobs, got bigger houses, took amazing trips, it broke a cosmic law, the same one that convinced him that he was alone, the whole time we were together.
Like being turned away at every door, before you’ve even knocked.
He had to take it upon himself to restore the cosmic balance.
It was done, and as I was sorting through stuff to separate out the things that would go with him, I came to our box. I’d written on it, years ago, the word “US” surrounded by a big heart on the outside. Over the years, various things had gone in the box: maps from trips, a wedding photo album, cards, movie ticket stubs. Proof.
From our box, I offered the things I’d made for him over the years, for him to take. They sat, untouched, on his bedroom floor, not far from bottles hidden out of habit rather than necessity.
I took them back and kept them, including the handmade solstice card I’d given him that first Christmas, in our tiny snow globe apartment. I’d written then, “…You make me feel so very lucky every time I come through the door and get to see your face. I can’t really find the words to tell you how glad I am that, after everything we’ve been through, we get to be together…”
I’m still thinking about what happens when your own love comes back to you, unopened, unabsorbed, unaccepted. Is it still love if the person you intended it for hasn’t used it? Can you take back out of its box and use for yourself, like wrapping up in a warm sweater that somehow didn’t fit the intended recipient?
One thing about getting it back: I know it was real.
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