"That doesn't make any sense!"
"Yeah, tell me about it. But if it ever comes to trial now, I can actually name the person I was sleeping with. Since she's graduated, her job would no longer be at risk. I might even get her to testify on my behalf."
My friend nods in agreement. I had been feeling depressed by the legal summons, but his reaction improves my mood. He starts up the car and we continue our drive.
I am with a lover. I'm holding her around the waist as she leans back, and I have one arm up her back, cradling her head. Her face is indistinct, but her words are reassuring
"It's okay." she whispers up at me. "I do like it. Go ahead."
I kiss her under the chin. Her hair twists in black rings towards the floor. The white gown moves in warm air from the window. The edges of the experience slope up, like a photograph in an old scrapbook. Edges that define a center, and that is the woman I am kissing.
I slip out over the edge and dream light implodes like a flare sucked down a black ocean. Regular daylight courses in, a warm current pushing from the side, catching in my mind, relighting my senses.
The orange cat is long gone. I rustle my head up and the digital clock reads noon. Rubbing my chin, I turn the covers aside and pad to the stairway, trying to keep quiet so Mr. Beatings can remain in his dreams.
Down five steps, then up five steps on the other side. The bathroom is narrow and the shower is mounted low on the wall, but the water is hot. In twenty minutes my eyes are clear and my hair is clean.
In the kitchen I chat with Mr. Beating's parents. Their hospitality is inspiring. Though they offer me half a dozen fine options for a breakfast meal, I am not feeling hungry, so when Mr. Beatings himself comes down, I politely decline the buffet and tromp upstairs to use the computer instead. I check my journal and email, and Mr. B does the same.
Downstairs again, we read the paper. The parents bundle up and head out to do some last-minute holiday shopping. Before they leave, they tell me I am even welcome to stay for Christmas Eve, if I want -- but I have my own family party to attend. Should be leaving for it soon, too.
Mr. Beatings and I had spent the previous evening resting by the Christmas tree, catching up, while his father made custom Christmas cards in the living room, using long-exposure photos of a persimmon tree from the front yard. They were gorgeous pictures -- a full moon illuminating a leafless, skeletal tree incongruously burdened with heavy red fruit. He had shown us the cards, and Mr. Beatings and I had moved from the Christmas tree to the television, and stayed up until 3:00 watching "Cheech And Chong's Next Movie".
So, in order to get enough sleep, we'd remained in bed until noon today. And now my time is limited.
Mr. B sees me to my car. We review future plans for our road trip and trade gigantic hugs. On the way out of Santa Cruz I review the connected quotes that are tumbling around in my head.
Android: "I was greatly relieved to discover that the problem wasn't everyone else -- it was me. This was a relief because I couldn't change the world, but I could change myself."
My Dad: "You young people are always in such a hurry. Relax. If you enjoy being with her, that's great. If you don't enjoy being with her, then tell her so and look for someone else. Relax. You can handle either one."
Richard Feynman: "We knew what we were doing. Our parents thought it would never work, us being honest with each other all the time."
And so, I decide that the best way to sort the tangles out of my social livelihood is to be entirely up front about my intentions, as well as my opinions. ... And to avoid situations where I can't be.
I arrive at my uncle's party and remain in the car for a few minutes, waiting for a good pause in my audiobook. I also take the time to consolidate my memory of my relatives, and of past Christmas parties. I replay the time that my ex2 and I went traipsing over the steep cold hills above the house, pretending we were in a romance novel on the moorland, her in a long flowing dress, me in a second-rate suit, calling her my "lass" in a fake scottish accent. We'd fetched up underneath the oak tree -- just there, on the hill -- and talked about what the future may hold for us.
Melancholy, I realize I no longer remember what color the dress was.
That's enough. I walk into my uncle's house.
Much warmer inside. Votive candles and white carpet, and already a dozen people standing with glasses, trading their yearly news.
I recognize a cousin. Light and smiling with rust-red hair and grey pants. She helps me carry two bags of presents and spread them around the tree, a minty pine raised on a coffee table to preside over the massive hoard of gifts. Twenty feet higher, ceiling fans spread cool air around the immense living room. My cousin and I talk about college, and the weather in Davis. She's kicking ass in the field of molecular biology, and graduating soon.
I shake hands with my uncle, the charismatic man of the household. His unruly head of white-blond Danish hair perfectly accents his boisterous personality. While we're shaking hands he clasps my shoulder with his other arm and grins. "Great to see you here!" he says.
"Great to be here again!" I say.
Kids swirl around the room. One and two and four-year-olds bang away at toys. Some wear that same halo of blond Danish curls. I sit on the couch between conversations and watch them, interested by the way their simple personalities mesh.
I pull the frame away from my vision. I see so many people I know, in one place. Each could be described as an individual, yet we would all be familiar with the personalities, and the forces at work. In a way, everyone comes home to the same family on Christmas, differing only in quantity.
I correct myself. Some people avoid Christmas. Some people don't enjoy the hooplah of the season. Those people do not appear at such events, yet they are still family. The private holiday they enact, alone by a cozy fire, out with friends, or pinned in the office, is a facet of humanity just as legitimate as the thirty-or-so people that have gathered here at my uncle's house tonight.
Happy holidays to all you people who don't fit in. You deserve one just as much.
But anyway, here I am. I play a CD of guitar music on the stereo, to polish the atmosphere.
"Hey," says my uncle, "that's good stuff. Where'd you get it?"
"It's actually my friend Skot playing the guitar."
"He's good! I like it."
"Thanks. I'll let him know."
I sit down on the white rail by the door, between two columns ringed with spirals of gold ribbon, and try to call my sister and my brother-in-law on the phone. I'm guessing they'd like to say hello to the party, but neither is answering. Oh well.
The matron of the household announces dinner by ringing a loud glass bell. We queue up in the kitchen with red and green plates, and I get a huge helping of potatoes and salad. Over dinner I talk about cars and parenting with two cousins. One is pregnant, and inquires of my older sister.
"Oh, she's doing fine," I say. "She's the veteran professional by now; it's pretty cool."
After dinner we hang around, clearing the tables. The kitchen volunteers pack the food away. Soon we all gather in a loose ring around the overstuffed Christmas tree, and when I call my Mom in from the other room, she joins up and starts off the singing with "Silent Night".
All too soon we've exhausted our collection of songs. We don't do any Danish ones this year. When Santa busts in from the front door yelling "Ho ho ho!", all the adults feign surprise, and all the children gape.
Santa takes the recliner, and opens his sack. The rambunctious one-year-old, center of attention all evening, takes one look at the big red man and bursts into tears, completely unaware that it's his own father wearing a fake beard.
I prod my uncle in the ribs. "You know, when I sat on Santa's lap, I was scared too. I didn't think it was funny back then, but now ... man, this is freakin' hilarious!"
Santa empties his bag, and the little ones fling the first scraps of wrapping paper around the room. Santa leaves by the front door, and sneaks in through the side, into my uncle's bedroom. Soon the one-year-old kid discovers his father again.
Someone dons a red hat, and begins doling packages. Tiny hands fling paper skyward, and big hands crumple it towards the cleanup bags. I sit back and watch the mayhem, snacking greedily on dark chocolate.
A few times I slip completely out of myself, caught up in watching groups of people trade gifts, smile, turn their heads back and forth. Tracing the exchanges, trying to match it up with the different things that must be happening inside each mind. They all have different personalities, and here for the space of eight hours, they all fold themselves up to work together. Edges pull in, openings close, differences simmer down. With interested surprise, I notice that a couple other people are doing the same thing I am ... just looking around, taking it in, seeing it work.
I like that.
The basin of the tree is empty. The hour moves on, and kids rub their eyes. I have an exciting conversation with an older cousin about IT work. My uncle implores me to bring my father to the next Christmas -- for the third time this evening.
"We've still got to play golf!" he says. "Hey, tell him I'm way out of practice! Then he'll really wanna go, so he can beat me!"
I grin and roll my eyes.
My mother gives me haphazard directions to my aunt's house, and though I tell her to wait so I can follow in my car, she vanishes.
So I hang around a while. My uncle mixes himself a drink and leans back triumphantly into the couch, but no sooner has he arranged his feet than he's pulled me and my red-haired cousin into a debate about human nature.
My uncle gets up and paces the room. He walks up to me and waggles his finger. He grandstands. He interrupts. He's on a roll. His wife walks into the living room to retrieve a trashbag, and says "Oh, jeez, is he onstage again? Pff!"
I have a hearty laugh. But I have to admit, my uncle makes a few very good points. He is a powerful, and undeniably good, individual.
I hug my cousin and declare I'll visit her in Davis sometime. Uncle walks me to the car, shakes my hand, and reminds me about the golf game I'm supposed to rope my father into.
Nice Christmas Eve, all told. I end it by cruising around Berkeley with the heater on, searching out my Aunt's place, and enjoying the look of the old neighborhood.