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
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
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
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
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
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.