I stood outside the door of my alternate universe, smoking what felt like my fifth cigarette in a row.
Inside was Christmas evening (not the eve before Christmas but rather that strange bookend of time after the holiday morning where all the gifts are opened, videos are watched and leftovers have been eaten). The man I would sometimes date had invited me to his parents house, which at first I had balked at, being I had no intention of serious involvement. However he assured me that his friends would also be there in the giant suburban home at the end of a cul-de-sac. I had visions of cannonballs into an indoor pool, beers and BBQ, so invited one of my friends, Jennifer, as well.
When we arrived, the cul-de-sac was more like the edge of a field, which gave the freezing wind a running start in taking our breath away. The split-level home we parked in front of didn’t do my imagination justice and frankly, where had I gotten the idea there would be a pool? Not a whiff of chlorine lived in the neighborhood.
“I should have turned around right then,” I said to Jennifer. She had slid out the front door to check on me. I had used my smoking habit to escape the absurd game of Life we were playing. What do you mean you don’t want kids?!? still echoed in my ears as I sucked the nicotine as far into my lungs as I could.
The street had been empty aside from his car. Where were all his friends? Surely we couldn’t be the first to arrive. We had used the occasion to primp and pregame. (What are parties for?) We were a good hour past the scheduled time of commencement. And yet, a deserted avenue.
Jennifer and I were alone, together on this holiday. I slept at her house the night before and we had stuffed stockings for each other. We volunteered to feed homeless families the next morning, both avoiding the people who made us feel, well, not so merry this time of year. When I got the invitation, we thought it would be a perfect way to cap off our non-traditional holiday. Party with some random people on Christmas? Sure! Why not?
She laughed now at me, and I saw her for what she really was. The only thing saving me from the inevitable doom of that universe inside the house. Without her I would have pretended it was completely normal that the only people at this “party” were Collin and his parents. Bless her for always pointing out the elephant in the room. “Where is everyone else?” she boldly asked.
Without her I would have probably gotten talked into having one kid in my little toy car on the game board, desperately trying to maintain my occupation, salary and sanity. “If I know Rebecca,” she said, incredulous, “she’s pretty damn sure.”
“Can you believe that shit?” she asked as I jittered back and forth on the porch, trying to keep warm while destroying my circulation via cigarettes.
“Dude. I know. How much longer should we stay? I mean, to not be rude.”
She sighed. “I dunno. Probably have a coffee after dinner and head out. We do have to work tomorrow.”
I brightened. “Right. I completely forgot!”
Of course I had forgotten. My life, while better than it was a year ago, was still teetering on the edge of chaos. Inside that house was one future, where my alcoholism would be embraced and manipulated until it turned into madness.
“I’m freezing,” she exclaimed. “I don’t care what awaits me in there. This weather is the worse of two evils.”
I lit one more cigarette as she closed the door. Were there any other alternatives, I wondered, to being miserable on the holidays? It would seem I had played them all. Despairing with family. Drunk, late and distressed, traveling hours to get to that clan. Alone and married on the holidays equaled tragedy. Single, dating, miserable. And a partridge in a pear tree. What else was there? Should I just give up and accept this Irish-Catholic reality, presented to me on a suburban platter?
I stubbed my Marlboro out and walked back inside to a cup of lukewarm coffee. I guess I’d been out longer than I’d thought. I sat in the place next to Collin’s mother — her smiling uncomfortably the way she had all night, from the time her husband declared Running with Scissors to be inappropriate for us to be watching together to the moment I offhandedly remarked that it was obvious the church stole Christmas from the pagans because there was no way Jesus was a Capricorn. But this look was a bit more desperate. She looked past me to Jennifer, and I honed back into the reality.
“All I’m saying is that in theory, some communist practices aren’t all bad,” she said sweetly, lifting her shoulders and tilting her head slightly.
“I’m not sitting here while some Marxist lectures me on politics,” Collin’s father scoffed. “This is my house.”
It was bad. Even though I’d admired her for her knack at looking at the uncomfortable, maybe Jennifer had pushed this baby boomer, McCarthy-era Republican a bit too far. I needed to diffuse the situation. I looked around for something else to talk about. Photos on all the walls of gaggles of children. Catholic families. Birth control. Nope. Something else. I glanced across the table. Pickles. Yes! I loved pickles, as do most Minnesotans. And many make their own. Bingo.
“These pickles are amazing, Mr. Irishname. Does your family have a garden?” I asked in a loud voice, as if volume could disguise my intentions.
“Hm? Oh. No, those aren’t from the garden. They’re good though aren’t they? They’re Amway.”
My mouth opened before my brain could put on the brakes.
“Whaaaaa? You mean the pyramid-scheme Amway? That’s still around? I thought that was illegal.”
Mrs. Irishname gave me a more concerned, uncomfortable look than when I had said I wanted to go back to school for my masters degree. He got red in the face.
“It is not illegal. It is certainly still around. We have been selling it for years, and I sell products to police men so I know it’s not. That it’s lawful. I know that.”
Stunned and wishing perhaps we could go back to talking about the rule of the proletariat, I nodded my head and said, “Ok. Ok. I didn’t know that.”
Awkward silence polluted the room. Jennifer smiled.
“I think, on that note,” she said, “We better get going.”
It doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know on the holidays, there is bound to be an awkward moment or two when you mix people up. For years, I liked to believe my girlfriend saved me from that alternate reality, and perhaps she did in part. But the awkwardness of that Amway Christmas has stuck with me and my visceral reaction to the direct marketing scheme can only be attributed to a story my father told me, where he lost friends around the holidays because he wouldn’t join their Amway circle. I will forever be grateful to him for passing that story down verbally and through his DNA – because that alternate reality ended with me taking my own life, and this reality began with me taking my life into my own hands. And that has been one of the best Christmas gifts I have ever been given.