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Rusty W. Spell

The Age I Was at Christmas and the
Girl That I Was With

When I was twenty at Christmas, the girl was Barbi. She had blonde hair to her back and looked like an eighth grader, even though she was really a senior in high school. She liked Christmas and especially the really goofy pop songs like the dogs barking "Jingle Bells," the Cheech and Chong stuff, and Run-DMCís "Christmas in Hollis." She danced around to those at her momís house while her momís boyfriend and I tried to untangle the lights for the tree and her mom made some kind of weird clumped-up-ball-shaped confection that smelled bad but tasted great.

My parents had died the summer of that year, and I didnít have any brothers and sisters, so I was glad to have Barbi during that time. Her momís boyfriend and I had all kinds of talks together, since I guess we had something in common, dating the two girls in that little family. He tried to be my replacement dad or brother, and it worked okay. I liked all of them a lot. On Christmas Eve, Barbiís mom said Barbi and I could sleep in the same bed if we promised "not to do anything." We promised and we didnít. We could have sex anytime, but this one of the best gifts I ever got: pressed against Barbiís back in the bedroom she grew up in and was soon to leave, smelling the heater, saying "Shhhh" when we heard noises, pretending it was Santa Claus, whispering "Merry Christmas" forty-eight times before falling asleep.

Barbi gave me a wristwatch that year.

*

When I was twenty-one at Christmas, the girl was Beth. Barbi had gone off to college in another state. Beth was my age and often seemed just about right. I asked her to marry me a few times and she always said, "Not yet." She was really religious or whatever the word is, like me, but in a kind of different way. I always thought that for each spiritual thing, there was a physical counterpart, but Beth would have preferred not even having a body. She didnít talk much, didnít kiss much, didnít get on her knees when she prayed, didnít sit in the lotus position when she meditated, nothing like that. It was all in the brain, I guess. She didnít even like to sing. Christmas was a little odd with her, since I was all about trees and presents and nativity scenes and bows in the hair, but she wasnít into any of that. I forced her to ride with me to look at the rich neighborhoodís Christmas lights and she just called it "gaudy." I asked her what her perfect Christmas would be and she put her finger to her lips and closed her eyes.

I guess I felt all her spiritualness and thatís why I liked her, but itís hard to imagine now. Maybe it was just that she looked like Ophelia. She didnít get me anything for Christmas, so I bought myself an R.E.M. album.

*

When I was twenty-two at Christmas, the girl was Lily. Beth more or less evaporated. Lily was a college freshman with curly blonde hair, a hyperactive little short girl who read too much and too fast, jumping between college reading lists, series books for teens, and reference books. She was spastically crafty, too, always making me little kindergarten projects--Popsicle sticks, macaroni, milk jugs, that sort of thing--with pounds of glitter dumped on each. The walls of her dorm room at Christmas were full of construction paper. Lilyís roommate, Dawn, let me in one day when she wasnít there and complained that she was going to die of "glitter cancer." Dawn was about half my size, decent-looking in the face with a big chest, and she always told me I made her laugh. She and I ended up having sex, and Dawn told me afterward, "You make me feel better about Lily. She must not be as freaky as she seems, being with you." That was kind of sweet and I thought about moving on to Dawn, but I liked being faithful to who I was with.

Lily recorded this fake radio show on a cassette for her mom where she and I were the DJs and played Christmas songs and cracked jokes. Thereís this part on the tape, you canít really hear it, but when Lily left the dorm to get our dinner she told me to go ahead and record a few songs, and Dawn comes in and we quietly start screwing to "Let It Snow." From then on, we used snow as a code word for sex. "Iím expecting a blizzard tonight" and stuff like that. I spent Christmas Day by myself that year, since Lily went home to her parentsí house and told me I couldnít come since Christmas was a "family thing" at her place. She made me a lot of rickety stuff for Christmas presents that got broken soon after New Yearís.

*

When I was twenty-three at Christmas, I didnít have a girl. Lily and Dawn just stopped talking to me, or I got mad at Lily and didnít see Dawn anymore; I canít really remember. Iíd graduated from college by this time and was making a good bit of money, so for Christmas Eve I called one of those escort places where you can rent porn stars for the night.

*

When I was twenty-four at Christmas, the girl was Annette. I organized Christmas caroling at work where weíd go window-to-window and sing at night because I never saw anyone do that except for on TV. I saw Annette through the window while we were singing "Good King Wenceslas" and she came out to talk to us after we were finished. I stayed behind with her after the rest of the group left. She told me the caroling actually made her cry. "I havenít felt like that at Christmas since I was four," she said. She was twenty-six.

By the time Christmas Day arrived, she had moved in with me. Iíd caroled her house the first week of December, so it happened within the month. Annette was near perfect, but I tried not to think about that too much so I wouldnít get disappointed when something happened. She was another blonde. The only non-blonde was Beth, who had brown hair like my motherís. All my friends at work liked Annette. We felt like newlyweds at the office Christmas party where she wore reindeer antlers and I wore two necklaces she made me, two huge bells tied by red ribbon. She called them our engagement rings and said, "Get it?"

It snowed that year on Christmas Eve. Iíd never had a white Christmas since the day I was born. We were watching Itís a Wonderful Life, the colorized version that she preferred. When George Bailey prayed for his life back, I saw the first flake outside our window in the dark. I turned away from Annette and didnít cry, since weíd been crying a lot around each other since we met. I waited until the movie was over and then took her hand. She knew we were going outside to see the snow without my saying anything. I could tell she had seen it too, was not crying too, was trying not to be disappointed too.

Annette told me the next morning, after weíd opened presents and sat looking at the paper across the floor, that she always hated Christmas afternoons, that all the anticipation sheíd felt since Halloween sort of oozed out like pus when the holiday was actually over, when all that remained was leftover food in aluminum foil and a falling-apart tree. I told her everyone must feel like that, then I thought again and said that probably wasnít true since I didnít know too many people that got excited about Christmas anymore, at our age. She said she wasnít sure, but that they should, or had every reason to. She explained that there was a difference between actual age and "Christmas age." She said that the Christmas season only lasts two or three months a year, so that by the time youíre twenty-six, youíre really only about six and a half.

Annette died in a car wreck in March, and I remembered what she had told me Christmas morning, when we were driving in the car through the snowy neighborhood to see friends. She said, "We must have gone in together on this whole white Christmas gift to each other."

*

When I was twenty-five at Christmas, the girl was Kimmy. She was going to be eighteen in February, but she was kind of skanky, so she seemed mature enough. I had a girl just like her when I was a freshman in high school and my mother hated her. Dad thought she was all right. Kimmy hated Christmas, but she pretended to hate everything, and she basically hung out with me because I was acting depressed all the time. I got her a Christmas present, but she gave it back to me and said, "You keep it, Captain Kangaroo," so thatís what she got me. I donít remember what it was.

*

When I was twenty-six at Christmas, I juggled about five girls who all considered themselves my girlfriends. Kimmy had dropped out of high school and stolen my car. None of the girls knew each other, which helped.

Jenny was the youngest at nineteen, and because of her I considered nineteen the perfect age.

Jenna was twenty-one, and her name was too close to Jenny, so I eventually just called her and the rest of them "baby" so I wouldnít get confused.

Brett, the twenty-nine-year-old, didnít like that I called her baby, though she was never really able to explain why. She said I should have known why. I would have dumped her, but she looked a lot like the porn star Iíd rented when I was twenty-three.

Harriet was a twenty-eight-year-old rich girl who I liked hanging out with because she lived in the neighborhood everyone drove around in to see Christmas lights.

Abi was twenty and lived with her mother. I probably spent the most time with her because her mother really liked me and cooked for us all the time. Abi said she wanted to keep me because her mom never cooked much before. She was also a punk rock musician which was cool because every December she only played Christmas songs at her shows. Her favorite was "Santaís On His Way" by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the old 1940s song. She didnít punk them up like I expected her to. She played them straight. When I listened to her, I closed my eyes and imagined my parents hadnít been born yet. The rest of the year she basically just played The Ramones.

For Christmas presents from all the girlfriends, I got a computer game, a Time-Life 80s CD collection, a box of rubber bands which was some inside joke I canít remember now, a bouquet of flowers, bright-colored socks, and a one of those fake turds sitting in a box of Easter grass. Abiís mom gave me the flowers. I decided not to get them anything to see how they would take it. Some didnít care, some got mad, some thought it was sweet.

I didnít know how to manage them all on Christmas Eve, so I didnít spend the night with anyone, unless you count the blow-up doll a buddy of mine got for me as a gag gift. I remember thinking that its O-shaped mouth made it look like it was caroling. The doll didnít seem all that bad to me, so I messed with her a bit while watching A Christmas Story about six or seven times on TNT.

*

When I was twenty-seven at Christmas, the girl was Rhonda. The five girls had exploded like in some Family Ties episode, and I didnít feel like doing the proper maintenance on the blow-up doll, so I threw it out with the tree. Rhonda told me she had cancer the day I met her, so I figured she was just about right. She said the doctors didnít know if she were going to die or not, but she thought she was. I thought she wasnít, since she seemed to be getting better each day I was with her. When I met her, she was in a wheelchair and wearing a wig to cover her baldness. By Christmas, she was walking on her own and most of her hair had grown back. She was thirty-three and told me that sheíd probably die on Christmas "just like Jesus." I told her he was born on Christmas and she said, "Yeah right."

She liked the mystical, ghostly nature of Christmas. Dickensí A Christmas Carol was the bare minimum. She liked "The Carol of the Bells" because it spooked her. So did Tchaikovskyís "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker. She always put up her tree on Halloween. She said she hated Tim Burtonís The Nightmare Before Christmas because it made it all look silly. I guess I was pretty crazy about her even though all my friends hated her.

Rhonda made me remember things I enjoyed, even though she never exactly talked about them explicitly: things that have always been available, but that I just forgot about, like The Beatles or libraries or playing the piano or camcorders or God himself. She did little things around my house like putting up pictures of my parents or opening windows on sunny days.

When I was twenty-eight at Christmas, the girl was also Rhonda, because Iíd married her in June. I was happy. I used to come in after work and sit on the recliner, from the double set I bought us, and it would feel like the stored-up mess inside me was draining out. I was comfortable and tired and, as a result of that, energetic about things.

The next month, seven months into the marriage, Rhonda walked in on me while I was sitting and relaxing and said, "Your life wasnít worth all this relief." She went on to talk about her life and how horrible it was, comparing it to mine. She said I had great parents until I was twenty, but she had living parents that she wished were dead. She told me about the sexual and physical abuse and all the stuff about her I knew about already. She told me that sheíd never had cancer, that some guy had beat her up and shaved her head.

We filed for divorce. She hadnít bought me any Christmas presents that year because, as she told me later, she spent all her money on her new boyfriend. She sent me a late Christmas present that arrived on Valentineís Day, the ABBA four CD box set, Thank You for the Music.

*

When I was twenty-nine at Christmas, the girl was Erin. She was my age with short brown hair. I referred to her as a "woman" once and she shook her head and insisted on "girl." She looked nineteen, which I still felt was the perfect age, even though I shot for twenty-one these days.

Erin and I had these little planned marathons together, like when weíd have to watch all her favorite Christmas movies in a row, her favorite being A Charlie Brown Christmas. I planned the Christmas album marathon, only they werenít actually Christmas albums, just certain recordings I associated with Christmas because I listened to them so much around that time. The first Weezer album is one. Rick Wakemanís King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is one. Belle and Sebastianís If Youíre Feeling Sinister.

Other times we would drive around for hours listening to compilation CDs, or try every flavor of Hawaiian shave ice, maybe say things backwards into the computer microphone and play them in reverse. She would read her daily diaries out loud to me. We passed a radio tower once and she told me the red light at the top was Rudolphís nose.

"Iím not really grown-up or settled," Erin would say. "Me neither," Iíd say.

Erin didnít have any family to speak of, like me. She lived with an aunt until she was eighteen, someone that reminded me of Judge Judy. Erin and I decided to join forces and start over. By next Christmas weíd have a baby. He would be born on the twenty-fifth of December or close enough, and we would call him Brice, unless it was a girl and then we would call her Connie, and if it were twin boys we would resurrect the rhyming tradition and call them Teddy and Eddy and if they were twins girls we would call them Wendy and Cindy, and if they were mixed twins we would call them Brice and Connie, because it didnít have to rhyme if they were just fraternal twins, so if they were fraternal twin boys we would call them Brice and Sidney, and if they were fraternal twin girls we would call them Connie and Alice.

We talked about having a baby while watching Charlie Brown on Christmas Eve. Linus was reciting from the book of Luke, and Erin began to cry and I was crying too and we met each other on the floor next to the Christmas tree where the red and white lights were blinking on our faces in the dark of the room, the three foot Santa Claus whirring in slow motion by our heads. I heard Elvis Presley singing "If I Get Home On Christmas Day" from the radio in the other room and imagined hearing it on Christmas Eve with my grandchildren years from now. I looked toward the fireplace where our stockings were spinning slowly on mechanical hooks and imagined I saw figures of my mother, father, and Annette smiling at me. At first I thought they looked like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, but then I realized they looked more like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker from the last scene of Return of the Jedi. On the television, Linus was finishing his quotation from Luke, saying, "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ĎGlory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.í"

We bought a DVD player that year.


Rusty W. Spell teaches English at the University of Texas Pan American in the Rio Grande Valley.  His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review and Georgetown Review.  He edits the online magazine We Like Media, and his favorite holiday is Christmas.

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