The holiday season is a time of extremes.
From the impossible joy of drunkenly shouting the wrong lyrics to holiday songs with your loved ones around the piano at mom’s house, to the impossible sadness stemming from the acute awareness of seeing happiness flourish all around you and feeling barren.
The awareness—and fear of—these extremes is what I call “The Holiday Blues.” Your Christmas list is just a list of things you don’t have. The decorations you put up are artificial joy. The old friends you catch up with at the bar the night before Thanksgiving judge your achievements, and you become who they see, not who you are.
There was a girl and there was me. A few Christmases past, on eve’s eve. We’d known each other a few years, having worked in the same restaurant. She was younger and saw more possibility in me than I ever saw in us. We went on a handful of dates, and then one night we went to her place together.
My eyes opened a little after 5 a.m. The first light of day was spilling through the east-facing windows of her bedroom. She rolled over, comfortable, those few rays acting like fresh pillows. I was a million miles away, fretting over my completion of my holiday nostalgia scavenger hunt.
I was not thinking about tomorrow, I was thinking about tradition.
The hangover I had was gargantuan. Like someone drove a truck leaking whiskey from one of my ears and out the other. And then, for good measure, had stopped halfway and thrown all the fast food wrappers in the cab out somewhere near the back of my tongue and the pit of my stomach. I stood, groaning with the hangover pain of sore joints and hazy eyesight.
I did that classic search for clothes in the dark of a foreign bedroom, knowing I wasn’t going to find everything and hoping whatever I left could be sacrificed if she never called me again. I threw my feet into my winter boots and sat on the edge of the bed, calling an Uber.
She rolled over and put her hand on the small of my back. I pivoted toward her and took her hand in both of mine. I let go as my phone beeped with the arrival of the ride.
Closing her door softly, I tried my best to slink out of the college house. Every step creaked, the ghosts of past tenants wailing. I woke up one roommate: the cat. She met me in the kitchen, standing in front of the exit, and looked at me with the knowing only cats have. Dogs, god love ‘em, aren’t capable of any active emotion other than consolation: they see you sad, they know. Cats, on the other hand, can read embarrassment and selfishness.
“Merry Christmas,” I sneered at the animal, wishing it would stop judging me.
I shooed her away, exited through the back door, and turned the corner into the alleyway. My stomach and head sloshed out of sync and I was a water balloon waiting to pop. I saw my car across the street.
I should point out that I had begun to wonder if I was making the right choice: I could pile into the car, go back to my folks’, and be with the old ways, or I could stay and experience a new tradition and deal with the consequences of external perspectives.
But what I did instead was step forward, catch my untied shoelace on my other shoe, and fall face first into concrete.
Not falling over should be a bell curve for most people. When you’re a kid, you’re usually not not falling over. As an old person, you’re feeble, brittle, and yeah, prone to not not falling. But as a 30-year-old, I should be at peak not falling. But I fell. And it was like being tackled by myself.
The first thing I did was catch my breath. Icy air and gravel filled my chest.
My cheek pressed on the cold sidewalk.
I could have fallen back asleep right there. I didn’t feel deserving of a bed.
But I heard the sedan idling across the street. I rolled over onto my back and squinted up at the pink grey winter morning sky, tears on my cheeks from the surprise of the fall and the cold in the air.
I lurched upward, like an over-the-hill vampire, then reached down to my boots, untangling them from one another. I finally climbed to my feet and limped over to the Uber.
The driver was laughing his ass off. “That looked like it hurt.”
That’s the sound of an idiot falling in an alleyway on Christmas Eve: a smart-ass remark from a watchful driver.
As the car slid beneath the morning fog and past the frosted windshields parked along the road, I understood I’d only be broken if I lived with one foot in the past and one in the future.
Christmas, the holidays, and the coming home and the checking in are undeniably sweet, but they don’t alleviate pain. They exist as a contrast to your unhappiness, making your own anxieties louder and stronger. But without it, without the clarity of the pain, without the glow of Christmas lights casting a shadow over the big fear, you’d never see it.
How can you beat what you don’t see?
I realized what I wanted out of the holiday season—what I’ve always wanted for Christmas: context.
You’ll always have something beautiful behind you, and before you, the endless possibility of the future. But as one’s only lenses, they’re dangerous glasses, and you can’t see straight. And you’ll fall. Hard.
There are lots of Kevins out there. There’s the Kevin who tried harder in school. There’s the Kevin who missed the train and never got that job in the city. And there’s the Kevin who never left that bed with that person who would have rolled over with him. Christmas is a time when all those other Kevins don’t matter.
We’re all the ghosts of our own present. Remember: you, now, are perfect. Broken, beat up, and endlessly comparing yourself to the choices you never made, your present is the present you deserve.