Holidays on the West Coast

stockingsDowntown the Boy Scouts are selling Christmas trees. People walk past in board shorts and sandals. Cars roll by with surf boards strapped to their rooftops. Little Mexican markets sell horchata with cinnamon and breakfast tacos. People are wrapping the palm trees in their yards with strings of Christmas lights.

On my days off I walk to the beach and back in my unfashionable anywhere else carpenter shorts and gray hoodie. I walk to the beach to be alone. I walk because I find the sound of crashing waves to be soothing. Sometimes a hot, shirtless guy will walk out of the water, chest glistening in the pale sun, and sometimes tan guys are playing volleyball, or surfers are climbing into or out of their wetsuits. Usually though, the local beach is only littered with older couples, retirees from the UK, pasty in sun hats. I walk to the beach because there is nothing else to do here besides walking to the beach.

A few weeks after moving I landed the best job I’ve had in a decade. It pays well, and doesn’t involve me interacting with any people, so it easily eclipses the string of entry level positions I’ve had since we first started bouncing from city to city. During the week, we wake up at 6 am, get dressed in the cold garage where our clothes are still in boxes and bags, and C drives me to work. Since we share one car, he drops me off in case he gets called in for a job interview, or wants to go somewhere while I’m at work. I work from 7 to 3:30 in a cubicle where no one speaks to me.

After work, I walk around the corner to the gym and work out for an hour. A little-person with frat boy hair and Iron Maiden tattoos sold me my membership, which I took as a harbinger of good tidings. The locker room is full of unabashed old men who stand naked and sagging as they talk about golf and the upcoming marriages of their adult children.

After the gym I walk down to catch the bus back home. The buses don’t seem to run on any kind of schedule. Sometimes the bus is crowded, and I sit crammed next to an Asian kid in a suit who falls asleep on my shoulder, and sometimes I sit alone and listen to a couple of men argue about politics. I stare out the window as the dark gets darker, and the wind whistling through the windows grows cold.

On our seventh anniversary we drove up the coast and spent the weekend in a cheap hotel in San Luis Obispo. We had sex for the first and only time since we’ve moved, taking advantage of the brief window of space and privacy. Then we wandered the city, spending money we shouldn’t have on clothes from overpriced shops, and browsing through book and record stores. We wandered all over looking for a sushi place, but the first place we went to had an hour wait, and the next place we went to ignored us until we left, so we ended up having an anniversary dinner at a bar and grill where we waited for over an hour for food, only to walk back to our hotel to discover it was right next door to a sushi place where we could have eaten in the first place.

I didn’t want to go back to his parents’ house. Not because they are unkind or unwelcoming, because nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been nothing but warm and accommodating. I just didn’t want to sit in their cold garage, watching re-runs of cartoons we’ve seen a dozen times which has become the new normal. We’ve looked at some apartments, but until C gets a job,we can’t actually afford to move out of his parents’ house. Even once he gets a job, I don’t know how we’re going to possibly afford an apartment here that isn’t really far away from my work, and/or a total dump. We’ve started talking about maybe buying a home because the mortgage would be lower than the rent, but then we’d be living far out in some small town, even more isolated than we are right now.

Back at his parents’ house, we watch home movies from when C and his little brothers were young. C was a surly, little smart-ass. (Not much has changed). We watched him rollerblading down the sidewalk in 90s clothes with feathered hair. We watched his brother Jesse playing soccer, and his brother Anthony running around as a naked toddler through the sprinklers.

“My weiner is a lot bigger now.” Anthony says.

“Anthony!” His dad yells, and we all laugh.

On Thanksgiving his mother makes a turkey, and I make cornbread dressing like my mother makes back in Texas. It doesn’t come out very well, but everybody says it’s good anyway. I sit at the table eating turkey and green bean casserole, wishing instead that I was back home in Texas, sitting at the kid table and arguing about the recent election with my republican relatives.

Being the odd man out in someone else’s family has left me with with a constant feeling of homesickness.

The day after Thanksgiving is C’s birthday. I got him a Kindle and some yoga shorts, and we we go out for breakfast at a small cafe, and then drive to Santa Barbara and walk along a beach that’s overlooked by tree-lined cliffs. We walk past the pale tourists and the leather skinned locals, looking for starfish and seashells. We want to go out for a late lunch, but all the Sushi places that he wants to go to are closed, so we settle for a bar and grill that has an “adults only” section, eating overpriced Mexican food with a view of the ocean.

Back home, his parents barbecue ribs for dinner, and we sit in the back yard around a chimenea. Back in Chicago I’d still be wearing short sleeves in the 50s and 60s, but in California, the cold seems colder. We shiver around the fire with glasses of wine and bottles of beer. C gets very drunk and demands that we watch Sleeping Beauty, so we sit in the living room while he sings along to Once Upon a Dream. I put him to bed in the fold-out couch while I curl up in a blanket on the couch opposite him. At night I listen to him snore as his dad snores down the hall in unison. I doze off for an hour at a time, and wake up feeling lost in still unfamiliar surroundings, wishing more than anything that I still had a big, comfortable bed like the one I had back in Seattle.

After Thanksgiving, C’s mom puts up the Christmas tree and hangs stockings on the fireplace mantle. I see the green and red stocking with the letter L, for Lance, and my eyes well up with tears. It’s touching that I’m included in their holiday, that I’m a part of their family. But it only makes me feel more homesick for my own dysfunctional family who I won’t be able to spend Christmas with this year.

Today it rains, and we sit on the back porch and watch the rain.

“People go crazy when it rains here.” His dad says. “Because it never happens.”

The clouds roiling over the mountains look surreal, like a landscape from a dream. Oranges are ripening on the tree in the corner of the yard. The dog refuses to go outside for a walk. C looks at me and says, “I’m never going to drink again.” I sit in a corner on the couch that at night becomes my bed and play a video game on my phone. When the rain stops, maybe I’ll go for another walk along the beach.

Until then, I sit and listen to the din, the rain, C’s little brother saying something about vaginas and laughing to himself, and C’s dad yelling at his little brother, and the dog barking, and his mom clanging pots and pans in the kitchen.

I wonder if we’ll have an apartment soon, and if not, how long I can handle the lack of space before I collapse into a puddle on the garage floor, or load up the car and drive away to parts unknown? I wonder if we’ll buy a house and settle here, if we’ll become proper Californians, sun tanned and sitting in cafes demanding organic, gluten-free everything. I wonder if I’ll ever stop being homesick, and will actually just be able to feel like I’m finally home.

A Christmas to Forget

xmas2010The night before the night before Christmas we opened our presents to each other. He got me a new pair of headphones, and Ninja-bread cookie cutters. I got him an overpriced workout hula hoop and some essential oils. He’d considerately sent me the links to each in the weeks leading up to X-Mas in his completely unsubtle way of letting me know what he wanted.

We’d attempted to go out for holiday sushi, but the internet led us first to a Japanese place that was closed, and then to one that didn’t seem to exist. After driving aimlessly, we finally ended up at Kirby Lane which is our default restaurant when nothing else pans out. Christmas music played overhead as I ate a bison Frito pie and listened to his little brother quote lines from Will Ferrel movies like some b-grade comedy savant.

Back at our unfurnished apartment, our stockings were hung over the fireplace, empty because we’d raided them repeatedly for candy in the days leading up to X-Mas. The lights on our tiny tree blinked on and off in epileptic fits of holiday cheer. When C opened his present, he smiled and hugged me, but I couldn’t help but feeling like a failure. Last year I’d gotten him an iPad. Then again, everything about this year is watered down, a more disappointing version of what was expected, so why should Christmas be any different?

On the morning of Christmas Eve, C and his little brother drove me to meet my parents. Because C had to work that evening he needed the car, so my parents volunteered to come pick me up. But because they’re terrified of “the big city” they wouldn’t come all the way into Austin, so we met them in Bastrop.

To her credit, my mom got out and shook C’s hand and told him it was nice to see him again, and did her best to smile as if she meant it. My dad, on the other hand, didn’t even get out of the car. C and his little brother drove away waving, and I looked back, wishing that I was spending the holiday with them at the Alamo Drafthouse watching the Hobbit sequel.

On the ride home my dad asked what C did for a living, and asked if the car was in my name or both of our names. My grandmother called every few minutes, asking what day it was, when she was supposed to take her pills, which pills she was supposed to take, where her pills were, etc…

“If I ever get like this, I’m going to kill myself, so you won’t have to deal with it.” My mom says over her shoulder to me in the back seat.

We stop at a grocery store to buy some coconut flakes for a pie, and my dad declares that it’s “The Bad HEB” because only Mexicans and blacks shop there. The store is bad, run down and poorly stocked, and there is a disproportionate number of blacks and hispanics shopping there, but I don’t point out the fact that this doesn’t imply a causal relationship.

After the store my aunt Sally calls my mom to tell her not to get coconut flakes because she has some already.

We go to the Post Oak Mall in College Station and I let my mom buy me some new shoes because it makes her happy, and because I need them and can’t afford any on my own. We eat lunch at a Mexican Restaurant in the mall, and my dad tells me once again that I need to get a wife and give him a grandson. I tell him that C might have something to say about that, and my mom changes the subject.

On Christmas Eve we always go to my grandma’s. When we were kids there’d be a mountain of gifts under the tree, and it felt like torture having to wait until everyone arrived before we could open them. This year the kids and presents were sparse. Now they are my little cousins’ children who can’t wait, and the adults are mostly bored and resigned and ready to go back to their own respective houses.

As per my usual, I sat in an inconspicuous corner and tried my best to blend in to the scenery. I wore a baseball hat that I only wear when I visit my family, and sat by a shelf of old photographs in my green, wooly sweater. My cousin Clint asked about C, and how much he likes Texas.

“He hates everything about it.” I said. Which is true. We were barely in Austin for a few weeks before we’d started planning where to move next.

I go back to the kitchen repeatedly for piece after piece of my mother’s homemade Christmas candy.

Before we leave my grandmother asks me to come sit on the couch with her. She asks me where I’m living now, and I tell her I’m in Austin.

“Austin?” She says, surprised.

We sit and talk a bit, and then she turns to me asks, “Who am I here with?”

I tell her, “Maw maw, this is your house. You live here.”

She smiles absently, and asks, “Am I here with Jean?” That’s my mom.

So I just nod.

When we leave she says to my mother, “I’m just bunking here, then?” My mom explains again that she’s home. That this is the house she and my grandfather built over thirty years before. But it doesn’t seem to register.

Back in my room in an uncomfortable twin bed, I cannot sleep. I toss and turn all night wishing he was beside me, unaccustomed to the absence of his heat, the sound of his breathing, the feel of his skin on my skin.

Christmas morning at 6 am the television in the living room blares to life and I hear the keen of gunshots from the old western my dad is watching. At 7:30 he comes in without knocking as I’m putting pants on because he wants to open presents.

I got my mom a book I knew she wanted, and my dad scratch off lottery tickets (He won $32.) I, in turn, got money, which is good, because without it I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, and socks and gift cards to Amazon, and the requisite candy.

We loaded up the car with a turkey, rolls, bottles of soda, deviled eggs and pies (my mom ended up not making a coconut one), and headed back to my grandmother’s.

“I like that sweater.” My mom says.

“C’s mom got it for me.” I tell her. Which is true, but I make a point of saying it so that she feels at least a little guilty for never having gotten C anything, and barely acknowledging his existence.

At my grandmother’s house, my aunt Linda, uncle Tommy and his wife Lori were trying to get my grandmother out of bed. She refused to get up, or put on clothes, or come eat breakfast. My mom made coffee and toast and brought them to her, but she refused them too, so my mom made oatmeal which she also wouldn’t touch.

She was talking at first, but then became incoherent, and then she stopped saying anything, closed her eyes and became unresponsive. After several minutes of her seeming to be semi-conscious, my aunt called 911. They were worried that she’d had a stroke.

We waited for the ambulance to come, hearing the siren wailing down the quiet, country road long before we saw the lights. Two paramedics came in, a man and a woman, wheeling a stretcher. They asked some questions about my grandmother’s health. When the woman paramedic attempted to find my grandmother’s heartbeat with her stethoscope, my grandmother perked up enough to ask, “Who are you, and why are you in my bedroom?”

Then she drifted out again, and became unresponsive. They loaded her up onto the stretcher as my mom struggled to put on her socks and shoes, and wheeled her out and into the waiting ambulance.

My mom and aunt and uncle Billy rode after them, while the rest of us piddled around my grandmother’s house, uncertain what to do. Other relatives arrived, and my aunts busied themselves with making dinner. Toddlers I didn’t recognize ran around the living room with shiny new Christmas toys.

My dad and I ate while we waited to hear something from my mom about how my grandmother was doing. My mom called while we were having dessert. My grandmother was talking again, and they were awaiting the results of a CT scan, though a mini stroke wouldn’t show up on it anyway, if that’s what she’d had.

My dad and I went back to my parent’s house. He watched some John Wayne movie, and I retreated to my old bedroom and watched episodes of Dr. Who. Later he was snoring on the couch, and woke up with a headache saying, “This drummer in my head must be a nigger, because he doesn’t miss a beat.” I remind myself that one day he’ll die and I’ll inherit his money.

My mom comes home. They’d released my grandmother from the hospital saying they could keep her for observation, but there’s so many sick people in the hospital, she’d be better off at home.

My parents drive me back to Austin in a gray, drizzle. We ride in silence. My dad had me re-set his password on his e-mail on his phone, and change his phone’s background image for him. I wonder what’s going to happen next year, or the year after, or whenever the time comes that my grandmother passes away what our family Christmases will be like. All of my cousins now have families of their own, children, spouses, extended families. But my parents only have me.

Because C and his little brother are at the movies, my parents have to drive me all the way to my apartment. One road leads all the way there. They only have to take the exit for South 1st, turn right onto South 1st, and my apartment is right there. It’s the easiest thing in the world, but my mom acts as if she’s having to navigate a T-65 X-wing star fighter to blow up the Death Star.

When we make it to my apartment, she proclaims, “I’m never coming to this hell hole again!” Referring to Austin.

We hug goodbye and wish one another merry Christmas. My dad doesn’t get out of the car. I walk up the stairs to my apartment wishing that I could just forget this Christmas. Without the childhood luster of excitement, the adult holiday is comprised entirely of stress and disappointment. I almost envy my grandmother, because of all of us, she’s the only one who isn’t going to remember Christmas this year.

Inside I eat some Christmas candy and turn on my computer, waiting for C and his brother to get home so that we can make a post Christmas feast, so that they can tell me what their parents sent them. So that we can sit down together and laugh, and quote bad movies. And then it dawns on me. I have my own extended family too. Maybe not the one my parents hoped for, or the one that I expected, but the one I love, and the one that loves me.

Lance’s Annual Holiday Special!

The morning of our departure.  Puffy eyed and exhausted.  My plane was boarding at gate C24 and his at gate E16.  A, B, and C gates have a different security checkpoint than D and E gates, so we reluctantly split up.

I take off my shoes and hat and go through the full body scanner.  Unnecessary radiation.  A strange TSA agent looks at my junk.  But I am too tired to care about these things.

A text from him, “I don’t think I’ll see you after the checkpoint.”  A sad face emoticon.

His plane is starting to board and mine is about to.  I reply, “Have a safe trip baby.  I love you.”  Disappointed that we didn’t get to say goodbye in person.

Then my phone rings and he says, “I can’t leave without a proper goodbye.”

So we run toward each other through the terminal.  Me from the C gates and he from the E gates.  We run, shouldering our suitcases, past families with strollers, security guards, old people in wheelchairs.  We meet in the D area, breathless and sweating in our winter coats.  Wrap our arms around one another and kiss goodbye.

He says, “I love you.”  I say, “I love you too.”  We run back to our respective gates to board our respective planes.  Him to Santa Barbara and me to Austin.

6 am.  The Estée Lauder flight attendants smile as I board.  Blue skirts and red lipstick.  I sleepwalk to my seat.  Behind me a baby begins to cry and is soon joined by other babies so that they are shrieking in surround sound for the duration of the flight.

I change planes in Denver.  The flight is delayed.  We sit on the tarmac for nearly an hour because the lavatory is being serviced.  The captain says over the intercom that the toilet will only flush while the plane is in the air.  I guess I am the only one that realizes the simple solution would be to fly the plane.

My parents pick me up from the airport in Austin.  See them standing at the bottom of the stairs.  Hair grayer than I remember.  My father’s arm around my momther’s shoulder.  I breathe in deeply and brace myself for the criticism I’ve come to expect.

“You look ridiculous.”

“You look awful.”

“You look like a refugee.”

These are some of the phrases I’ve been greeted with in seasons past.  But this year, a Christmas Miracle.  They only hug me, and my dad asks if he can carry anything. So I hand him the heavy bag, and we walk to his truck.

Admittedly, I’ve gone out of my way to do nothing that might elicit a critique.  I’m wearing blue jeans that are neither too tight, nor too baggy.  A dark green sweater.  A baseball cap.  My closest approximation of traditional masculinity. Being home means being unable to be myself.  I try to project the least disappointing image of myself that I can muster.

“Where can you eat?”  My mother asks sometime during the two and a half hour drive from the airport to my childhood home.

“Anywhere.”  I say.

“A steakhouse?”  My dad asks.  Every year it’s the same.  For eight years I was a vegetarian, and my dad is such a jerk about it, that I’ve vowed I’ll never tell them that I started eating meat again.  Two years ago.  We end up eating at a Pizza Hut in Caldwell, TX.  My dad stares at my mushroom and black olive pizza in disgust, and asks how I can live without meat.

My mom, who knows about my recent forays into sushi says, “Fish aren’t vegetables.”

“What did you get your girlfriend for Christmas?”  My dad asks as we’re waiting for the check.  This is a new thing.  I came out to them as a teenager, and in previous years he’s asked if I had a boyfriend, but in the past two years, he’s started to ask about girlfriends.

For Christmas I got Carlos a fancy kitchen knife, and he got me a nice coat to wear in NYC.  We both got new iPhones and signed up for a family plan.  A two year commitment.  We’re now contractually linked.

In lieu of an answer, I just stare back at my father blankly and my mother immediately changes the subject.  We’re all relieved when the check arrives and we can leave.

That night I’m lying in my teenage bed.  The rockstar posters of my youth have been replaced with racks of my mother’s clothes and my dad’s old hunting trophies.  Her growing shoe collection and his growing arsenal.  Lightning flashes, bright and blue through the bedroom windown.  Then thunder, so loud it rattles the window panes and sets off car alarms down the street.

My mom creeps through the dark house unplugging appliances.  I lay in bed counting the time between when the lightning flahses before the thunder rumbles to gauge how far away the storm is.  The Pacific Northwest doesn’t have storms like this.  I count the time between the lightning and the thunder.  The thunder and lightning is followed by rain that lulls me into the deepest sleep I’ve had in months.

It rains the whole time I’m in Texas.  My mom complained all summer about the long, lingering drought, and she complains all week about the rain.

We spend the days shopping and eating.  The mall.  Two different Super Wal-Marts.  Morbidly obese people ride around on Weasels trailing their sausage toed children.  We eat at Olive Garden, Taste of China, and Casa Olé.

If I was drugged and dropped off in Texas, I’d immediately know exactly where I was just from looking at the old ladies with their football helmet hair and welded on make up.  The Wrangler jeans, and chain restaurants.

We buy groceries for my grandmother.  The next day she sends us out again for things that she forgot to add to her list.  “She’s driving me crazy.”  My mom says.  My grandmother is 86 and forgets things more and more often.  When she can’t balance her check book, or remember if she took her pills, or find the television remote she calls my mom, sometimes at 4 am.  I wonder, when my mom is in her dotage, will I be there for her?

Christmas Eve I’m surrounded by blond toddlers.  My cousins are all now married with children.  There are too many of them for me to distinguish among them, or to learn their names.  My mother is the only one of her sisters who is not a grandmother.  She dotes on her sister’s grandchildren.  I feel guilty that she is unlikely to have any grandchildren of her own.  I gorge myself on pie to make up for my inability to please my parents.  The pie loves me just the way I am.

My father had already opened his big Xmas gift, a deer blind to aid and abet him in the stalking and murdering of Bambi.  So my mom and I got him a giant toolbox for the back of his truck.  We’d hidden it in my grandmother’s barn, and on Christmas Eve we loaded it ourselves into the back of his pickup.  My mom put a big, green bow on it.

On Xmas morning he got a card that said, “Go look in your truck.”  We all walked out together in the cold, and all he said was, “You wasted your money.”

My mom and I made out a little better.  She liked (or pretended to like) her camera, perfume and bathrobe.  I liked (or pretended to like) my money, sweater, gloves and gift cards.

Then it was back to my grandmother’s for Christmas lunch.  My mom made turkey and stuffing and vegetarian stuffing for me.  I sat in a corner beneath a picture of a blond Jesus and listened to my family with growing horror.  My uncle was bemoaning the fact that the American Kennel Club wouldn’t let him register his dog under the name “Osama Bin Laden.”  My closeted cousin made an awkward comment about how hot some chick was, despite the fact that he’s nearly forty, has never had a girlfriend and collects antiques.  Then they engaged in our favorite family pasttime:  Telling racist jokes.

Sometimes someone would ask me where I’m living now, and what the weather is like up here.  The conversations never deviate from work or weather.  Don’t ask, Don’t tell is still in full force at family gatherings.

After Christmas we shop some more.  Eat at other chain restaurants.  We visit my grandmother.  But mostly we sit in different rooms watching different TV shows.  As the week progresses, I find myself watching P90x infomercials for all the wrong reasons.  I feel like a teenager again.  Staying up late, hoping for a random Bowflex commercial.  Long, aching nights.  The barking of dogs.  The constant rain.

In the days leading up to my departure, my mom starts saying things like, “Why don’t you move back to Texas?”  Or, “Don’t leave.  Just stay here.”   I don’t know how to respond.  I cannot wait to get out of there, and back to my real life.  To sleep in my own bed.  To be surrounded by my things.  To be able to be myself.  To be with him.

When I call him he is going to the beach.  He is having a great time with his own family.  I try to imagine a time in the future where I bring him home with me to celebrate the holiday together, but find it impossible to merge my life with him and my life with my family.   The two are magnets that repel one another.

Driving back to the airport on my last day, I stare out at the central Texas landscape.  Flat, barren horizon.  Short, scrubby, leafless trees.  Brown fields, dotted with grazing cows or blackened from summer fires.  Wonder, what is it about this place that my parents love so much?

The whole trip I keep waiting for the right time to tell them I’m moving to New York, but the time never arises.

When they drop me off at the airport, my mother begins to cry.  I hug her, and walk briskly inside before I start to cry too.  If I were to describe our relationship in Facebook parlance, it would be “It’s complicated.”  I love her.  I wish I was able to be closer to her.  I wish I was able to be the child she’d hoped for, and not the one she ended up with.

Flight back to Portland.  I’m sitting between two middle aged women who spend the entire flight grilling me about every aspect of my life.  They ask me all the questions that my own family is afraid to ask.  And I tell them everything about Carlos, and New York, and my growing excitement and nervousness about the futre.  They tell me they are envious of my adventures.  Wish me a Happy New Year.

Strangers know more about me than my family.

Carlos comes home the same night.  Our clothes are coming off before I can set my bag down.  Afterward we lay in his bed and watch Pee Wee’s Christmas Special and Garfield’s Christmas Special.  We watch the Goonies, and he falls asleep holding my hand.

His mother got me a hat for Christmas.  My mother doesn’t acknowledge his existence.

On New Year’s Eve we debate going out somewhere, but can’t rationalize spending $20 on cover to a club we wouldn’t ordinarily want to go to for free.  So we meet at the grocery store and pick up some food for a dinner at home.  He cooks and I mostly try to stay out of his way.  Red wine and laughter.  French pop songs.

We try to stay up until midnight, but by 11:30 we’re both exhausted, and decide to go to bed.  He says, “It will still be a New Year whether we’re awake or not.”  This is all the rationale I need to cuddle up with him in bed.

Maybe next year when we live in New York we’ll be able to make it all the way to midnight.  But for three years running, we’re at home in bed before the fireworks go off.  And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.