We’d always spent Christmas Eve at Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill’s place. Jack and Jill. When I was little and heard the nursery rhyme, I assumed it was about them in that way you do when you’re small and left to assume the world is scaled down to you and it makes sense that your aunt and uncle would be the subject of legend.
At that point in my life, I marveled at their tree. Uncle Jack would bring a tree bigger than the previous year’s, until one Christmas season, he brought home one that was so tall, it could barely fit in their living room, curling against the ceiling. We had a little artificial tree at home, set on an end table, adorned with plastic berries and flecks of white snow, and painfully artificial, lifeless and dull, with a half dozen presents my mother wrapped in newsprint stacked around it. Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill felt magical, with stockings hung by a real fireplace, strings of light in swooping loops around the room.
I was jealous of my cousin, Cheryl. Cheryl, who wasn’t an honor roll student, got a cash reward for every passing grade. Cheryl, who had presents wrapped in shining foil. Great big plush animals at first, then gold jewelry and an iPad when we were teenagers. In the car, Dad said she was spoiled rotten, and I thought he was just bitter and mean. I thought that until I came to agree with him. Maybe because it became true. Maybe, I just couldn’t see it when I was younger. Or maybe, what I feared most, I had become old and bitter and mean just like my father.
I hadn’t been home for Christmas for four years, though. After I got serious with Tyler and felt better about playing second-class citizen with his family than my own, if for no other reason than because my absence would leave my family to assume I’d moved on to better things.
I should have stayed away that Christmas, closed the shutters and enjoyed a holiday of cable TV movies and mint Oreos in my apartment.
However, I told Mom that Tyler dumped me in a moment of weakness—a late night phone call amidst a stream of old episodes of Felicity, glasses of Syrah and my second pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream—and she’d insisted, even then, even two months out as if it were the gravest component of my recovery, that I must come home for Christmas. By the light of day, I realized my mistake, but it was too late. Mom texted about the logistics of my visiting, and when I didn’t answer, sent guilt-trip messages to reinforce that it wouldn’t only be for my own good to come home, but she would be devastated if I let her down and backed out.
So there we were—me, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Adam, Uncle Jack, Aunt Jill, and Cheryl. The lot of us a few years older. I’d put on eighteen pounds. Dad’s hair had gone gray. Mom had started dying hers chestnut brown. Adam had started lifting weights and was newly barrel-chested and all too aware of it, wearing a polo shirt both out of season and self-consciously too tight on him.
Cheryl was as pretty as ever in that “no acne, perfect hair” sort of way. She wore a preppy argyle sweater over a blouse that looked like we had gathered for a corporate mixer, not a family Christmas Eve.
Then, there was Kathleen. Clearly ten, fifteen years older than me or Cheryl, but still a good ten, fifteen years younger than our parents. Aunt Jill introduced her as Cheryl’s friend, but Cheryl took Kathleen’s hand immediately to clarify, “She’s my girlfriend.”
I gathered the remaining piece. Cheryl had told her father about a guest for Christmas, and he passed her off to Aunt Jill as a friend, an idea Cheryl made no effort to uphold. On the contrary, she would very forcibly assert the nature of their relationship to anyone who might not know. Cheryl and Kathleen met when Cheryl was an undergrad and Kathleen was a grad student, a teaching assistant for a required lit seminar Cheryl had put off until her senior year. Cheryl made it clear Kathleen was her first serious girlfriend.
Things had grown more awkward when Kathleen presented her gift to Aunt Jill—a diamond bracelet that had to have been worth hundreds, if not a thousand dollars. “She didn’t even say ‘thank you,’” Cheryl recounted to me in the kitchen, all but dripping with indignation. “She just sort of stuttered and then said she couldn’t accept it.”
After dinner, Mom and Aunt Jill washed and dried dishes while the guys watched football until one by one, all but my brother had nodded off. I stepped outside with my cup of hot cocoa with a twist of whiskey in it—the only alcohol I’d spotted in the house that came in a small enough bottle to ferry it out of sight and pour without drawing attention to myself.
Kathleen was already there, leaned over the porch railing, staring out at nothing as far as I could tell—just at grass covered in snow and a chipped white picket fence with more snow piled halfway up the boards. She had a profiterole in one hand, a cigarette smoking between the index and middle finger of the other. When she saw me, she let the cigarette drop into the snow below and waved away at the smoke left behind.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Kathleen looked something like Aunt Jill when she was younger, more the way she looked in pictures with my mother than how I’d ever known her. Maybe it was the short blond hair. Aunt Jill liked it short but explained she’d grown it out because people kept confusing her for a boy. I’d asked her why that mattered when I was little and she’d said something about wanting boys to notice her straight away without having to wonder, then cut herself off like maybe that wasn’t appropriate to talk about with a girl my age.
“Cheryl hates it, and she made me swear I wouldn’t smoke in front of her parents or they’d hate me.” Down below, a little wisp of smoke escaped the mound of snow. “Some big joke, right?”
I didn’t have anything to talk about with Kathleen, besides the disappointment we shared from Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill, and bringing that up any more explicitly felt counterproductive. It didn’t feel much better to head straight back inside. Instead, I latched onto one of the few topics of conversation I could think of.
“I saw the bracelet.” Uncle Jack had shown it to Dad, and the two of them had a conversation in raised eyebrows and puffed out cheeks of boy, this is crazy and what are you going to do with that? I’d peeked and registered that it was a gaudy, but objectively beautiful piece. “It was really nice.”
“It was stupid.” She rubbed her hands together. It was bitter cold outside, nice for the moment, in contrast to the overheated inside, but she’d been out long enough for it to catch up to her and remember what December in Upstate New York felt like, left in the elements without any place to go. From inside, I could hear just the bells of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”
“I’ve got this really stupid habit of saying things I’ve done and it sounds like bragging, even if I don’t mean it.” The way moonlight lit her face, the way it reflected off the snow to light her again, all but painted her in a younger light, face shining at points, the beginnings of lines and wrinkles hard to see. I imagined she was younger when someone first told her she was bragging. That may be, this Achilles’ Heel followed her through life, making her second guess anything she was proud of and so bold as to say something about. Or maybe, she’d been encouraged to be boastful when she was young, only to have that taken from her and be told she should be more modest after the habit had long been engrained.
“Of course, this time I went and did it before I even opened my mouth.” She must’ve seen on my face that I wasn’t following, because she clarified, “I’ve got money. The bracelet wasn’t putting me out and I thought it would be a nice offering. But then I told Cheryl what I’d gotten on the drive over, and she said it was too much, and, of course, she was right, and I was all shell-shocked about it when I handed it over to her mom, because I figured an excessive gift was better than no gift at all. But was it?” She shook her head slowly and peered down after her cigarette, no sign of it left by then. “Fucking Christmas.”
I remembered the first Christmas with Tyler’s folk. These people were supposed to be like family—were family for him—but I was staying in a stranger’s house where I didn’t know which drawer had the silverware and which coffee mugs were decorative and which were used day-to-day. His sister complained about how her husband never helped in the kitchen, least of all during the holidays. When Tyler agreed, I wasn’t sure if that were a dig at me for not helping either, or some beef with his brother-in-law. I thought that, if anyone, I’d find solace in bonding with him as twin outsiders, but he was glued to his iPhone, always sending something, always scrolling through pictures. I tried to latch onto any clue about what he was doing and peered over his shoulder, until I recognized he was probably being secretive consciously, maybe specifically because he thought I was spying.
I had almost convinced myself I missed all of that, in the throes of missing Tyler. I thought of all the ways I might help Kathleen feel more comfortable, in asking her for the story of how she and Cheryl met and what their life was like, or what kind of Christmas cookies her mother made, or what her favorite holiday movie was. In the same instant, all of those questions in my mind felt like prying. I thought about how I’d feel if she were to ask me about Tyler, for surely all Cheryl had told her about the cousin she hadn’t talked to in years was that I’d been dumped.
Kathleen, like me, had come outside to be alone. For that momentary reprieve, where it was too cold but nonetheless better. Easier.
I told her Merry Christmas and didn’t wait for a response before I went back inside.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.