Christmas means one year later I still don’t have a suitable, steady man. It means I will have to spend guilty time with my family and wish I could be out feeling guiltier. It means I am still living the same life that I=ve always had at least an inkling to change. Christmas means I am one year older than when I went through this psychically tumultuous holiday last year, and that the pattern will likely continue until I’m dead.
I will have to think up a present for Paul, then worry that he’ll take it as a symbol of commitment. Paul is more like my wife Madge in that his gifts are reflections of what he thinks the receiver will like, rather than—as with me—what I think needs improving about the receiver. I have given him expensive sweaters and chamois shirts, things that suit him but also act as small hints that he needs to dress like something other than a refugee. Despite his aversion to employment, he manages to buyCI assume he buys themCthoughtful tokens, wrapped carefully, and including a miniature card with each. A card that says, AFor when your day is blue. Love, Paul,@ and the wrapping will contain a little clown, carved out of wood and painted with blue enamel, just big enough to hold in my hand. There=s always at least one risqué gift with the card saying, for example, AFor when I=m not around to make you squeal,@ and inside will be, as once it was, a vibrator with a pig on the blunt end.
We’re not really friends; we’re definitely not lovers. I don’t know why we buy each other presents.
It=s interesting that I always look forward to Christmas when it=s a good distance away, like June. I have a warm image of our stately, turn-of-the-century house nicely appointed with tasteful decorations, of family and friends inside taking comfort from the dark, snowy chill of upstate New York in winter.
But that’s long before Christmas is actually upon me, at which point I wish I were Muslim. I always eat to excess, although I=ve never been a huge eater. The food is there, the expectations are hanging, so I will consume food I am not hungry for. Most of the planet will be genuinely hungry, and we will be throwing away food because we couldn’t finish it in one sitting. Christmas means plastic gadgets and appliances whose manufacture and eventual disposal mock the environment, and wrapping paper burned to toxic ash in my fireplace after one use. But I don’t really care about those things; they’re just useful additional grievances.
Madge loves Christmas, but not the Victorian picture I have in mind. She transforms the house into a Yuletide whore. She prefers colored lights all over the property, even outside the garage, ignoring my admonition that the Victorians didn=t have colored lights. She prefers plastic decorations, Santa and his reindeer glowing on the porch roof, luminary Joseph and Mary and their polyurethane baby savior on the front lawn. She shops for gifts as early as September, and after Thanksgiving turns the kitchen into hell’s bakery, producing pies and pastries to be consumed on one exact day. On the surface it appears my wife loves the holiday, and she says she loves it, but she is dangerous during the baking advent. There is no perceptible Christmasy spirit while the oven is flaming.
Since Christmas brings on a kind of malaise I can’t fight and don’t want to examine, seeing Madge bustling about with packages or decorations or food makes me withdraw, further than usual, first from her, then from the family unit. I don’t kill the joy totally. I=m generous in stuffing money into stockings for my grown children. Especially when they were young, I played along so that they might never guess that their being aglow with holiday spending and planning and self-indulgence oppressed their father.
I can=t determine exactly why I=ve never had a happy Christmas. I=ve got everything a man could wantBgood job, a faithful wife, lots of free time to be with men on the side. I think maybe that Christmas is too tangible a reminder of the commitment I=ve madeBoutwardly, anywayBto this life. If I had lived a more truthful existence, Christmas would be spent with a man named Jeffrey or Michael or Anthony. I look around and see my home and family and think I am just an observer, that I’m on the border between wakefulness and dreaming, that none of this belongs to me. At other points during the holiday, I experience small, shy waves of sadness that this might indeed be my last Christmas here, because I may have to leave Madge before the next one. Then, rolling further into my morbid predictions, I think of how death could make this our last time together, because Madge or I will die before next year, or worse, one of the kids will. But the holidays have always been the same for me—ponderous—so if someone other than me really is dead next year, I will only really see how I=ve wasted all the previous Christmases by having been morose for every single one of them.
As per usual, Madge has a Christmas card list that’s pages long and she’s loathe—nay hostile—to suggestions that she trim it down to a manageable size, say, to those who write to us, or to people we actually like. This unappreciated suggestion has been pretty much my only contribution to the festivities. Otherwise, kids grown, I do nothing. Madge’s holiday, it turns out, has an upside, and I would be grateful for it, if I were capable of gratitude. ForFForr in that period after Thanksgiving before the world is cudgeled with Christmas Eve, I have more time than ever to roam. Madge’s backbreaking efforts and determination to fly solo give me and my gloom plenty of opportunity to wander during that awful season of joy.
But even Madge has her limits. This year, scandalously, she decided it was all too much for her, though still necessary. In the Fall, she had started working part time as a school aid in an elementary special ed classroom, and now, faced with her first Christmas season as an employee, she didn’t think she’d be able to take care of every last self‑imposed detail. After a short series of failures on my part to decorate or bake or, most god-awful of all, do crafts, she delegated to me the writing of the cards.
“You can’t screw that up, too badly,” she said, with the wink she uses to ameliorate bitchiness.
Merry fucking Christmas. It was only one job, but it irritated me disproportionately. We didn=t need the money, so she didn=t need to take a job away from some desperate Schenectadian who could have used. But Madge had wanted to explore different things, possibly go back and get her master=s in something. It made sense at the time, but now that I was stuck with the holiday cards, all I could see was the injustice of her choices. Maybe she should just come to grips with the idea that a woman can=t have both a career and an extravagant holiday. That suggestion was not going to come from me, however.
Without further consultation with her, since I know how she hates holiday scrimping of any sort, I made an editorial decision to have cards printed up with our names on them. I considered asking Robbie to help me with addressing the envelopes, licking the stamps, etc., but rejected the idea. It=s not just that he would say no. It=s that he would tell Madge somehow, maybe not directly, maybe not intentionally. No, I would do it myself and I would spend one-half hour tops sharing the wonders of the past year with our loved ones.
Madge, goddam her, got wind of the scheme when she saw the order from Target on the debit card receipt. She took immediate aim. She threatened to take on the chore of writing the cards herself, instead of sleeping. Christmas cards, she snooted, were meant to be personalized or they were not meant to exist at all. In this house there would be no pre‑printing. There would be no cutting down of the list. I could go fuck myself with the hot end of a guilt stick.
Feeling my Yuletide ghost handed a trump card, I stood up to her, only to have her fall into a tortured whine about the importance of Christmas to her. All the children would be here, which was the biggest gift of all.
This is what we are arguing about, I thought. We were not arguing about the stuff she didn’t know, like how that one Christmas when we’d had a houseful of relatives I’d sneaked out late in the afternoon and driven all the way to Kingston to sit unnoticed in Benjy’s! Finally, a guy named Aubrey with a number of gold teeth came over and bent my ear about how he wasn’t giving up on WordPerfect. Eventually he got beyond word-processing and told me he liked skinny guys, thin men with gray hair, and started touching me too personally for such a holy day. We fooled around in his truck a while, his crotch bringing on a mild nausea. Finally, my periodically uncooperative dick and my paranoia about being busted in public on Christmas Day encouraged me to zip up and get on home.
And now, years later, I was negotiating with Madge about this flimsy issue. I told her I’d compose a heartfelt newsletter, then write a short personal note on each card. Madge wouldn’t budge at first. A short note is perfunctory, meaningless. But her battalion of food awaited her and she gave in, pouty, surly at times, but resigned.
Christmas newsletters are, of course, loathsome by nature. I=m amazed at what trifling matters people even remember, never mind think anyone else wants to hear about. Also, reports of actual happiness irk me, since I seek it so often and find so little of it. I found our letter as hard to write as the many coming out letters I’d thought to write to Madge. I love my cellar office, a little room I had built in that dank cavern, the pine paneling, the solitude and the dampness. But even this sanctuary couldn’t help me get inspired.
Every opening line I generated goaded me: It’s been an exciting year at the Smith house. became It has in fact been an exciting year if another wasted year can be exciting, all that squandered time accumulating high and deep as 50 approaches.
Then there was, We reflect on many joys this Christmas. Now that’s the start of a coming out letter if there ever was one.
I came close to relinquishing the task, close to pitching this chore with one of my mealy‑mouthed excuses to Madge about knowing my strengths. I hesitated, though. This damn newsletter was for her and she had to put up with so much with me, whether she knew it or not. I owed her Christmas cards.
Then a conciliatory thought lightened my holiday spirit. Like a high schooler realizing how to do the least possible work to get by, I would write all the dumb opening lines I could conjure, and a holiday bulletin would be born. I deleted the editorial lines, then started over confidently. It’s been an exciting year at the Smith house. We reflect on many joys this Christmas. We saw our children grow a little older and a little further away from the nest. The year gone by has been a time of change. We look ahead to an exciting and fulfilling New Year. The Smiths send their very best for a blessed holiday.
Efficient and unoriginal, in keeping with just such newsletter standards.
Just as I was about to print out the copies to include with the cards, my mind went white with sorrow. Sitting there, I lost track of time reflecting on my two lives, the life I had lived with Madge and the kids, and the life I snatched at truck stops and other places where men of my sort met for tea. It’s a cruel self‑mortification for a man to think of his family and his tricks in the same reminiscence. One requirement of leading a double life is not to think about one while you’re in the other.
At one point, a volcanic guilt sickened me just long enough for me to think I was having a heart attack. This is how it was going to end: me with no boyfriend, my wife and children with no clue. But there was no pain in my chest or my arms or my jaw. I imagined a demi-dream world with the room getting foggy as some vicious fag version of Marley’s ghost loomed before me. I put my fingers back on the keyboard. My memoir fairly danced from them.
It’s been an exciting year at the Smith house.
Exciting for Ralph, anyway, because this is yet another year he took the risky step of engaging in anal intercourse with a man in a truck at a highway rest area. Unable to dislodge himself from the stranger’s powerful hold on his hips without appearing panicked because he thought that looking panicked was somehow impolite, Ralph knew that said stranger was indeed not going to pull out at the agreed-upon time. And Ralph’s colon was subjected to absorbing the entire shot, thus putting himself—once again, if he’s to be honest with himself—at grave risk. How would Ralph explain to his wife, Madge, the abrupt need for condoms the next time they lived as man and wife? Could he convince her that rubbers would make them feel like teenagers again in the back of a car? Would she remember that they had never had sex in a carBthough Ralph has had plenty of itBand that he had driven a sputtering teal Plymouth when they were a-courtin’? Or would he honestly explain that he had foolishly received another man’s dick in the cab of a semi, not far from where his hunting Honda was parked. That in light of the possibility that such a man-to-man sex act could have led him to contracting a dread disease, he thought it best to protect her from a similar infection by way of latex? Madge has been a bit frisky since going back to work. It’s supposed to work the other way, but, you know, in sickness and in health, blah, blah, so Ralph has stepped in his role as relief pitcher. This doesn’t explain what role it is that Madge has been playing.
Of course he was not absolutely certain he was infected since this had only happened once, recently anyway, and the stranger was probably exclusively a top, just a straight man looking for release on the lonely road. Of course the trucker was exclusively a top; he had obviously done this before, fucked a man in a space that’s not optimal for such an activity. Should Ralph also tell Madge that, thus trapped by the trucker, he felt cold and lonely and almost uncontrollably afraid, especially after feeling liquid streaming into his intestines? And that he nevertheless asked the stranger for his phone number? And that the stranger said nothing, just waited silently for Ralph to get the fuck out of his cab, which Ralph did, and with a self-conscious obedience?
We reflect on the many joys this Christmas season.
Ralph’s joy—minimal as it might seem—was that Madge kept to her pottery class on Wednesday nights despite having gone back to work for the first time since the kids were born, so he remained free to pay calls at the dwindling variety of bars in the greater Capital District in search of a shallow, brief, potentially destructive relationship. Damn if he didn’t strike out almost every Wednesday of this particular ceramics season, although there was the odd quickie here and there in the, for example, afore-mentioned uncomfortable accommodations that risked a run-in with the law.
Ralph, as you know by now, is not a joyful, optimistic person, but he perhaps can congratulate himself—if bitterly—on what a fine juggler he is: He has accomplished another year of keeping not only his wife Madge at bay, but also Paul, whom he will refer to here as his suitor, and to whom he continues avoiding any hint of commit despite Paul’s loyalty and patience.
We saw our children grow a little older and a little further away from the nest.
Actually, not far enough away. Robbie is a weird child. Maybe the last one in a bunch always is. Ralph tried to squelch the resentment that Robbie is still only a junior, and despite sixteen years, he can’t shake the annoyance of having said yes to a third child. Katherine, his daughter, is the only one truly away from the nest, and the only one, he aches to admit, that he wants close.
Ralph took note this past fall that Robbie=s friends were going to be quite beautiful someday, and he wonders now if the avuncular interest he showed them was inappropriate. He contrasts this latest teen era to when his daughter brought home giggly friends he had immediately disliked. In fact, he never liked Katherine having friends, even when she was a toddler. He was jealous of the time he imagined they took away from him. As adolescents, the girls were stupid, gawky, spoke in a dialect engineered to irritate adults. Katherine was not one of those creatures. He misses her something awful, though not her friends, and he doesn’t care what they look like now.
Hmmm…Ralph wonders as he writes this about an incident just before Thanksgiving. Perhaps Ralph had been too effusive with the boys, had stayed in the same room too long, although Robbie’s definition of too long with his father was any time at all. In a grease-fire flash of rage, Robbie told him to get friends of his own. Stop joining in their conversations. It was more words than Robbie had directed to him voluntarily since turning sullen somewhere after ninth grade. Ralph thought he should defend himself, at least feebly, so he asked what Robbie meant by Aleaving them alone.@ No answer. Then he did the parent-rhetorical: “Do you think your own father is immature?” But, the short, decisive attack complete, the boy went back to his default, a silence which managed to convey his implacable disgust. After the shock, then indignation—Ralph’s own father would have fractured one of his arms for such cheek—followed by a bit of fear, Ralph found himself strangely reprieved: The outburst was a kind of invitation from Robbie to stop trying. No approach had worked, and anyway Ralph didn’t have the energy or even the interest to connect with a sullen teenage boy anymore.
But now he wonders if Robbie was onto something? Had he seen through his father’s phoniness in trying to talk to boys about girls? Then, the horror of a possible self-realization: Was Ralph a pedophile? It took some reasoning to bring himself down from that scary height, some examining of the evidence, but Ralph concluded that he was indeed not. He did not cruise school yards looking for vulnerable children to methodically seduce. In fact, he didn’t even have much on for these 17 year olds. Their red-moony faces didn’t fit on top of the adult bodies beneath them. He simply admired the final product of their adolescences, their hair especially, so innocent of dyes, weaves, plugs, or—like his own—iron. He noted only with appreciation the dawn of manhood in their chests and legs. Give them five years, he had thought wistfully, maybe seven. And then he realized that in five to seven years he would be 55 to 57; in some quarters, he is already considered a troll.
We look ahead to an exciting and fulfilling New Year.
Yes, Ralph still does, despite all the plain evidence, think the next year will hold something to look forward to. He will, he knows, continue to enjoy a small thrill at the deceit that allows him to get out of the house, even when he returns hours later untouched emotionally after settling at a very inappropriate hour for his longtime-mistreated suitor Paul. The excitement’s always present: will Madge be suspicious? Will she smell cologne and other men on him and demand an explanation? By some chance will she notice when he is changing that his pubic bush is webbed with rubberized semen, if it’s one of those nights where his arousal doesn’t make it past his zipper? Will his son, getting out of bed for a drink of water, look up at him with Cindy‑Lou‑Who ingenuousness and say, ‘Why, Daddy? Why were you out sucking cock?’
Unlikely. There is a perverse thrill that Madge may catch him. But he doubts that he could do anything to alienate Robbie further than he has just by being.
The Smiths send their very best for a blessed holiday.
Ralph, especially, wants everyone out there to have a wondrous holiday, seeing as he’s never experienced one and has long given up believing in such a thing. Even childhood memories don’t register that way, inducing instead an aching self-pity.
The main thing Ralph can remember about his own youthful holidays was the Christmas season after his sister Colleen died. He and his other sister, Linda, then eleven, ventured to ask their mother if they could decorate the house. There were lots of Italians on Albany Street back then, and the Smith home looked forlorn compared to the others’ merry tackiness. Mom agreed and waited patiently while Linda and Ralph assembled the metallic tree and clamped the lights on the stingy, unyielding branches. Mom was such a good actress that her children actually trusted her this time, uncharacteristically oblivious that they had strayed into a mine field.
“Let me go upstairs and get one more ornament for the tree,” Mom said. Ralph felt just the tiniest twinge of foreboding, not just because he was sure he and his remaining sister had lugged all the decorations downstairs, but because their mother was displaying the politeness she reserved for company or teachers. He was a child, however, and caught up in the first moments of playfulness he had experienced in months. But playtime was over when Mom came down with one of Dad’s belts in her hand. She started out calmly enough. “You two have no respect for your sister.” Ralph and Linda tried to draw back, despite having been down roads like this before and knowing there was no outlet. Quick as a lynx she scored Linda down the right side of her face and shoulder. Ralph got it on the back and neck. The momentum in her voice built as Mom, clearly exhilarated by this opportunity her two spawns of Satan had handed her, whipped the Christmas spirit out of them.
Ralph has to say this for his mother: She had the chance to kill him that time and she didn’t take it. Actually, when he and his sister ran for cover, she didn’t even give chase for once, but tore into the Christmas tree, sparking with hysteria. She whipped at it, catching it in the belt’s loop and pulling it over, stomping on it and growing more frustrated when it refused to break apart, kicking at the defiant aluminum branches, cursing it the whole time as if it were leering at her loss.
Ralph has heard from his various therapists over the years that children never stop trusting their parents and never really hate them, even reprehensible ones. But Ralph already hated his mother by then, and hated her even more for her raucous grieving that night. Linda and Ralph cried vigorously, as humans will when strap meets skin; but Ralph’s tears were only for his welts, not for his grieving mother or the daughter she had mythologized.
Even years later, dying in her last hospital bed of another species of cancer early in a December, Ralph’s mother couldn’t relinquish hating on her surviving children. She shook off their hands when they tried to hold hers. She even spat at them a few times, although to be fair, she also tried to stab a nurse–no relation–with a fork. Bald, her skin clinging like paper machier to her useless bones, her voice a mean whisper, she repeated over and over, “My baby. God, why didn’t you take me first?” Ralph wanted to know why, too. It would have made him believe in Christmas miracles.
But back to the current encroaching season. What would Christmas be without that feeling of gentle suffocation as a man’s misbegotten family surrounds him in a whirl of holiday cheer? And the Happy New Year crock? Could this be, by some whimsy of bravado, the year that Ralph actually reveals his sexual preference to someone whose face he can see in the daylight? Could the skeletons of aborted coming‑out plans finally give way to a missive his wife actually reads? Might there be a God who frees Ralph from the constant of living in-between?
Probably not. Considering his long, long marriage and the fact that he’d been lying with other men before it took place, Ralph is an unlikely pioneer. The old path is worn, sagging, almost no signs of life on it, but it doesn’t wind through the terrors of the unknown.
Happy holidays to all!
This was my first-ever heartfelt contribution to the Christmas preparations. I had chased Marley away, for this year. And despite all the misery that had seeped in with the season, I had a moment’s peace.
Better even than committing this to paper was the fantasy of sending it out to those on our list. I imagined them opening cards with half‑interest, seeing ours and expecting nothing, grated a bit by finding a newsletter, then reading, idly at first, then with growing interest and disbelief. Then?
Slowly, like a killer watching his oblivious victims going about staid routines, I began to write out the envelopes.
Peter Marino is an English professor at SUNY Adirondack in upstate New York. He has published two novels for young adults, Dough Boy (Holiday House) and Magic and Misery, (IntoPrint). His plays include the comedy You’re Right—I’m Dead and the ten minute “Ralph Smith of Schenectady, New York.” He can be contacted on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/