THE UNMENTIONABLE YEARS

 

 A short story

 

It's been doughy waffles and dead pine needles for the last three weeks.

In what now appears to be a hopeless effort to catapult myself into the holiday spirit, I've suddenly realized that stripping Wal-Mart of its Christmas aisle boon was perhaps a very bad idea. I've never been a fan of Christmas, mostly because my memories are tainted with relics of fat aunts, dry turkey, and bitching nieces who didn't get the right kind of Barbie (Bitching that would always commence with, "We hate you, Uncle Taylor!" and a lot of ear-splitting cries). Despite this constant negative attitude, every year I ceaselessly try to drown my house in Christmas glitz.

Every year I fail.

Last year, I went so far as to purchase one of those inflatable Santa snow globes and set it up on my cast iron balcony, a daunting three stories from the street. I was fairly proud of myself for such a festive gesture until Christmas Eve when the band of roaming neighborhood juvenile delinquents saw it from the street and began pelting my living room window with icicles and refrozen snowballs.

This year I’ve decided to give up ambitious hope and I instead of glorifying a large fir, I’ve managed to stick myself with a twiggy, crippled excuse for a tree, one that begs to be immolated in my fireplace. So far, it's the only decoration I've actually erected; the rest of the festive shit has been lying in a pile in the middle of the kitchen since three weeks ago when this whole charade began.

Usually, I just blast the Billboard Top 20 Christmas Songs of All Time, do a little jig, and throw handfuls of mistletoe around the room. I don't really like mistletoe and I don't really like Billboard Top 20, but they do a fantastic job of distracting me from the choking reality that this Christmas, like every Christmas for the past few years, I'll be relishing my dry turkey alone.

The fear of loneliness during the holidays never gripped me before because I'd always wanted to be alone on the holidays. Every year that I'm able to remember has been, dare I say, cursed with some obscenely embarrassing event.

 

Age seven: Max Kazinski, the same little bastard who convinced me that my sisters were cannibals, informs me over a stack of pilfered porn that Santa is nothing more than my parents sneaking around downstairs at three in the morning. I refuse to believe him, mostly because Max Kazinski is notorious for constructing elaborate lies. And his stolen porn isn’t even that good.

 

Age eleven: My parents hold The Santa Intervention. Calling me into the living room, they carefully explain that Santa is just a “friendly fictional character” created to "enhance the fun" of the Christmas season. Upon their confession, I inform my mother that I've already known for four years thanks to Max Kazinski. She bursts into tears and my father uses some colorful phrases like “punk ass bastard.” I don’t know why she is the one crying because they were my ruined Christmases, not hers.

 

Age seventeen: Crazy Aunt Roberta attempts another Baked Bean Surprise in the name of the infamous Conrad Christmas luncheon. In years past this culinary masterpiece has been the ass end of every family joke and the reason that half of my family spends the remainder of their day locked in the bathroom moaning in agony. This year Aunt Roberta, who frequently refers to herself as Mighty Momma after having gained sixty pounds from a pregnancy two years earlier, shoved a spoonful of the desiccated dicots before my face and dared me to try her life's work. When I politely refused and mentioned that I'd filled myself up on cranberry sauce instead, she realized after seventeen years that I still hated her beans and tossed them over her shoulder with a grunt.

At this point we were all used to Roberta's projectile food habits, so no one reacted until the brackish beans chipped the mirror resting above her head. Zac, as usual, was the first to laugh as he leapt up and collected the beans with an evil grin. When he returned with two film canisters full of the rejected beans, he stopped in the doorway and began rhythmically shaking his ass.

Giggling with sheer satisfaction, he began encircling the table, shaking his ass and the film canisters. "Who wants to salsa?" He sings in falsetto as he gyrates with the faux maracas.

Apparently my Aunt Roberta was too dense to realize my younger brother was mocking her shitty cooking, and she was the first to join Zac in his musical trip around the Christmas table. Within two minutes, my entire family excluding me was dancing around the table to Mighty Momma's baked bean surprise and Zac's screeching.

 

Age twenty-two: Great Grandmother Velma knits another one of those horrific reindeer scarves and successfully guilts me into wearing it for the remainder of the day. That afternoon in the middle of our Christmas luncheon, I was seated across from Grandma Velma feeling somewhat choked beneath the awesome itchy power of her all sheep's wool hand-knitted scarf. She kept grinning in my direction, most likely unaware of what was going on around her, while my mother kept kicking me under the table to remind me to pet the scarf and grin back.

So I grinned and I petted and my mother found it entirely necessary to remind all fifteen of us at the table of my Unmentionable Years when I was young, impressionable, legally blind, and tricked into taking tap lessons. Usually I just abandon the table when tales of my tapping begin flowing from my parents' mouths, but this time I was stuck under the awesome weight of guilt and an ugly scarf.

I was tolerating the torture quite well in my meek silence until she burst into laughter, remembering my first pair of glasses.

"Oh, he was so adorable!" she leaned back in her chair, reminiscing.

"Mom, shut up," my neck suddenly began itching more than it had all day.

"They covered at least half of his face!" She held her fingers up to her eyes, indicating the gargantuan size of the red plastic frames that had rendered me socially retarded for four years of childhood.

As expected, younger siblings unaware of my vision handicaps joined in her laughter as I sat helpless and fuming at the end of the table with a ridiculously irritated neck and a bruised self-esteem.

My mother took a breath from her laughter and sighed, "We always thought they were the only reason he couldn't get a girlfriend, but now we're not so sure, are we baby?"

I just stared at her in horror.

"Maybe someday," she smiled and patted my thigh from beneath the table, "when you get out of Tulsa, right sweetie? Oh, he's always had big dreams."

Infuriated that my family's opinion of me had deteriorated to assuming I was going to be condemned to Tulsa for the remainder of my life and that I'd die a virgin, I stabbed my steak knife into the table with a primal yawp.

"Goddamnit, I'm only twenty-two! What the hell do you want from me!?"

My mother softly placed her napkin on the table and shot me a glare while everyone else froze in my general direction.

"Taylor," she threatened, tightening her grip around the napkin.

Enraged, I tore that scarf from my neck, declared myself irrevocably sick of the canned cranberry sauce by dumping it on the tablecloth, exclaimed to whoever was listening that

Santa never did exist, and exited the room with so much adrenaline I was shaking; I'd had enough.

 

By that New Year's, I found myself in a dingy, yet homey, apartment in the south side of Pittsburgh with an erratically compulsive woman named Emma. Despite her strange idiosyncrasies and awkward compulsions to clean the fridge at midnight every third Tuesday of the month, she was my home, sans ridiculous siblings and senile grandparents.

Her favorite holiday, as irony would have it, was Christmas. She became so wrapped up in the season, she'd abandon her fridge cleansing rituals to make mulled wine and follow me around, belting out those obnoxious carols that had always triggered my gag reflex. This didn't stop me from falling ridiculously in love with her, mostly because she was my polar opposite and had an uncanny ability to keep me in line.

We only lasted two years; the end of us was nothing short of dramatic, as she'd always wanted it to be. Decorating for another smashing Christmas, she'd been dancing around the room to Mariah Carey's bastardizations of Christmas songs when she informed me that she had a gift she needed to give me early. Suspicious, I just watched as she paraded around the room, hunting for the little wrapped bundle of joy.

"Go on, open it."

I half smiled, afraid of what would be inside.

"My parents are joining us for Christmas dinner this year; I want you to wear this for them."

Oh God.

Slowly, I pulled what seemed to be a factory-fuck up of a Noël sweater and watched as Emma clapped in excitement.

"She'll love it on you! Go ahead and put it on!"

I just stared at her while she forced the cheap poorly woven wool over my head.

"Don't you love it?"

I cringed, "Baby, it reminds me of my Great Grandma Velma's cheap attempts at festive fashion design."

Her face dropped, "Excuse me?"

"I just…what if we didn't have that dinner this year?"

"And why the fuck would we do that?" She was getting impatient, tapping her fingers angrily on the closest side table.

"Baby, you know I can't stand Christmas."

I didn't bother stopping her as she violently tore tensile from the door frames, kicked over the Christmas tree, and crushed holly berries beneath her heels.

Her last words to me were, "Jesus, Taylor, you're such a fucking Scrooge," before she slammed the door on the apartment and on me.

 

The rational part of me claims that I may be subconsciously projecting this loneliness through frivolous commercial purchases. The sentimental part of me believes that if I don my house in potent pine needles and holly that I'll create some ambiance of what I've always thought "home" should feel like and then I'll forget how much I hate the holiday.

Eggnog tends to temper the sting as well.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I really do hate that shitty desiccated bush in the corner of the living room. I haven't bothered to decorate it yet, and all it's been doing is dropping needles like a stripper. At that disturbing comparison, I poured myself another toxic glass of eggnog and tripped over the growing pile of faux wreaths and stuffed elves.

Bloody fuck me.

Overwhelmed by the amount of shit I had amassed in the last three weeks and that loathsome drone of young carolers outside of my window, I reached for the box of un-hung ornaments and chucked them from my third-story kitchen window. I'm sure as I tossed plastic ornaments at their heads just as enthusiastically as they'd pelted my window with snowballs I yelled out ridiculous phrases like, "Deck your halls with this!" and "Try jinglin' that bell!"

Satisfied with having cleared a walkway through my kitchen and the sidewalk below, I kicked back into the same lounge chair to which I'd been confined all evening and stared at the dead tree in the corner of the room, the only remaining relic of Christmas in my humble abode. I hadn't lost the Christmas spirit, I reassured myself; I simply never had it to begin with.

Pleased with the utter silence surrounding the room, I grinned at the tree again making sure it understood that I had won this battle. I closed my eyes in the suffocating silence that had become my apartment.

Stubbornly, I rested for a few minutes before allowing myself to accept that part of me missed Emma's ridiculous Mariah Carey songs, part of me missed my obscene younger brother, part of me missed those shitty baked beans, part of me missed simply being annoyed with my family. Gripping the armrests in anticipation of my confession, I sucked in the air around me.

God, I hated being alone.

Just as I released my death-grip on the armrests, someone began kicking my door. Had those little punks figured out which door was mine?

Prepared for self defense, I plucked the naked pine tree from its niche and carefully approached the door, afraid they may have been armed with additional snowballs and remnants of my broken ornaments.

I carefully pulled open the door, the twig above my right shoulder ready to attack.

"Whoa, dude, don't hit!"

I dropped the tree behind me in shock, "Zac?"

He sheepishly smiled and pulled the hat-sized red bow off his head, "Happy Christmas."

I gaped, wondering why it had taken my little brother five years to figure out how to get to Pittsburgh in the first place and what he possibly had left to say. "What are you doing here?"

He stepped back and motioned behind him, revealing my entire immediate family. "We figured you'd skipped out on enough embarrassing Hanson family Christmas meals."

Speechless, I clutched my brother as my family filtered through the doorway; Aunt Roberta trailed behind, holding up a brown casserole dish.

"Who wants Baked Bean Surprise?!"

As usual, my sisters groaned and hid their eyes while Zac started humming out his favorite Salsa tune. For a moment, I too groaned fearing that another tragically obscene Christmas dinner was in store. I rested outside of the door, slightly plagued by memories of Christmas horror’s past.

My mother galloped over toward me, “Great Grandma Velma wanted me to give you this!” She pulled a three-foot long knitted hat, embellished with golden fluff balls and glitter from within her mammoth purse. “Matches your sweater perfectly,” she laughed, sliding it on my head and disappearing again into my kitchen.

I stood somewhat disgusted at the shotty craftsmanship of the yard-long toboggan atop my head. It was so ridiculously hideous I had to laugh at myself.

No sense in protesting anymore.

Shrugging, I picked up the earlier discarded twig of a tree and dragged it in behind me, making sure to shut the door before joining my family in their traditional Salsa around the dinner table.