Author’s warning: Strong language
Life drapes across my shoulders, heavy as those vests they make you wear for x-rays at the dentist, and getting heavier every second. My knees are starting to buckle under the weight of it all. I’m radioactive with pain. I shine like the fucking Christmas tree in the corner while my soul and my will to live are scraped and scrubbed and erased from existence, sliver by sliver.
It is Christmas Eve. Almost midnight. Almost time for the day to rollover into the holiday like the pages in a jukebox. The sky is thick with darkness and lousy with stars, and I am filled to the brim with whiskey. I won’t be surprised if it starts leaking out of my pores. I pour myself another; might as well. Tomorrow is going to bring one hell of a hangover, but who cares? I have nowhere to be. No one expecting me to show up and unwrap gifts and smile and be convivial. No one expecting me to come over and do the opposite of those things either.
No one expecting me at all.
Listening to this pathetic tale, you might expect to find me a high-functioning alcoholic in a hole of an apartment, sparsely decorated and probably filthy, illuminated by a single bare bulb, a cockroach my only company. But, despite the excess of whiskey, I am not, in fact, an alcoholic of any stripe. Most of the time, I’m closer to a teetotaler, for which my friends (yes, I have friends) occasionally poke fun at me. It is just that the holidays are hard and bring out the worst in me. Bring out the darkness.
And my apartment is anything but squalid, thank you. I make a decent enough living as a science teacher at a private school that I can afford to live in a place that is actually quite nice: beautiful high ceilings, many large windows, marble countertops, plush carpet. There are plenty of lights, they just don’t happen to be on at the moment. I’ve never even seen a cockroach though I’m sure my hyperactive puppy Roger would have eaten one, if they were around, before I ever came across it.
The glass in my hand is empty again. I survey the bottle through bleary, unfocused eyes. A small amount sloshes around the bottom. I might as well drink it. It’s just a mouthful, after all, and it seems such a shame to leave it all alone like that. One fiery swallow – I assume it was fiery, I can’t actually taste anything anymore – and the bottle is empty. I toss it on the couch beside me and slump back against the cushions, staring out the window at the blanket of stars over the far-off lights of the city.
Is it Christmas yet?
Somewhere amidst those lights is my father. What is he doing? Is he drinking like I am? Is he up with family and friends, laughing and talking and waiting for the 25th to click into place? Is he snug in bed, next to his new wife, sleeping soundly?
Does he ever think of me?
It’s been two years since I last spoke to my father. Everything fell apart at – are you shocked? – Christmas. A full-on, throwdown meltdown of all the ways we had ever failed each other, from birth to present. It was a comprehensive implosion. I called him self-indulgent and selfish and absent. He called me immature and selfish and ignorant. Words flew like shrapnel, a glass or two flew like shrapnel, too, and it ended when I stormed out, slamming the door behind me and vowing never to speak to that irascible, heartless man again. By the time I got home, it had been Christmas for fifteen minutes. I spent the day alone in bed, hoping the phone would ring and vowing not to answer it if it did. (It didn’t.)
to be clear, my father is not a horrible man. He is not a monster. He’s never raised his hand to me though I carry some scars from his raised voice. He is a human being, I assume, fumbling along just like the rest of us, but somewhere along the way he forgot how to be my dad and he showed no interest in remembering. Somewhere along the way, I became an obligation to be fulfilled, a box to be checked so he could go back to his real life with his new (much younger) wife and their baby. His real family, I guess. No matter that I was here first.
Roger nudges my calf with the top of his head. I reach down to pet him and the world goes slanted. My stomach lurches and I can’t seem to right myself, so I just hang upside down for a moment, waiting for the urge to vomit to pass. It takes a long time. I feel like it would have been faster if the world would just stop spinning.
Spinning, spinning, spinning…
I awake to a horrible pounding in my head, like someone knocking against the inside of my skull with a hammer. My eyelashes stick together and it takes a long, long moment for my vision to focus. The living room is still dark, lit only by the multicolored lights on my Christmas tree. What time is it? Is it Christmas yet?
The pounding continues, but it has gotten so intense it feels like it has migrated to the outside of me. My mouth tastes like something died there and then Roger decided it would be a great place to take a piss.
I somehow manage to sit upright without puking or passing out. The pounding continues and the realization comes from far, far away… Someone is knocking on the door.
What the fuck? It has to be like two in the morning.
I stagger to my feet. My phone slides off my lap and bounces off of Roger’s head, who gives a sleepy yap of protest. Using the wall for support, I start the long trek to the front door, wondering who the hell designed this place to be so goddamn huge. Who needs all this space?
After a small eternity, I manage to get the door open. The hall light accosts me like a knife-wielding serial killer. Stars dance in my vision as I raise my hand to block the light, so I don’t immediately recognize the person in front of me.
“Dad?” I can’t keep the heavy incredulity out of my voice. Of all the people I would have expected to find on my doorstep at 2 AM on Christmas morning, my father is not high on the list. I would have been less surprised if it was the Dalai Lama. Or Nelson Mandela. And Nelson Mandela is dead.
I can’t find more words. My father shifts uncomfortably. He looks older than the last time I saw him. His face is grey. I am immediately fearful. Is he sick?
“What are you doing here?”
His brows pull down. “You called,” he says.
“No, I didn’t.”
He pulls his phone from his pocket, presses a few buttons, holds it out for me. I take it, press it to my ear. Hear my own voice, smeared with alcohol.
“Merry Christmas, Daaaaad. Peter. Can I call you Peter? It’s Christmas Eve and I am hammered, as usual, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t wake up tomorrow, so I just wanted to say – ”
But I don’t want to hear what I wanted to say. I hand the phone back, my face flooding with embarrassment.
“I don’t remember calling you.”
He nods, rocking back on his heels. “I’m not surprised.”
Silence stretches like taffy between us. I notice there’s a large chip on my doorframe. Has that always been there? He clears his throat. I cross my arms, fighting a new urge to puke.
“What are you doing here, Dad?” I repeat.
His face folds in on itself, then unfolds in an explosion of emotion that staggers me. He opens his hands wide. “You asked me to come.”
I stare at him. I asked him to come? Boy, I must be really far gone. That’s the only way I can imagine ever asking my father to come over. But –
“You came,” I say blankly.
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “Of course I came. I’m your father.”
After all this time, I called and he answered. Something breaks open inside of me. I step back.
“Do you want to come inside?”