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A decade after the fire, my dad left my mom. In the years leading up to the separation, Christmases had become fractured and inconsistent. A few gatherings were held at my parents’ new home in northern Massachusetts. Some were at Aunt Kathie’s apartment in Manhattan, which my mom didn’t attend. Others at my uncle’s house on Long Island, but the families had been spreading apart for years, and never were they all in the same place.
I became increasingly disenchanted with the holiday. My aunt’s latent observation that I was a homophobe wasn’t a cause for the way I began to feel about Christmas, but I used it as a justification for a cynicism that at some point I became proud of. To me, holidays unduly demanded feeling things about people who I only saw once or twice a year. And so I began to skip them, staying in Missoula or joining a friend rather than returning to the East Coast. And after my parents split, I stopped attending holidays with my dad’s family all together.
Two years ago, I devised a plan to have Christmas my own way, reinvented without the pretense and obligation of the family I was given, free to spend the day with the friends I had chosen. For dignity’s sake, the friends’ names have been changed.
After a morning spent trudging through knee-deep snow in the hills above the Clark Fork, my friend Davis and I returned to town with a sapling evergreen in the back of my truck. We stopped by China Buffet and ate a plate of lo mein and cashew chicken, and then a second and a third. Some time in the late afternoon, I built a bank of snow around the keg on the deck and the other orphans started to arrive.
They brought decorations, Christmas lights and tinsel and ornaments for the tree. They drank from Solo cups and refilled them before they were empty. They wore ugly sweaters. At one point, my friend Chris pulled a bag from his jacket pocket and poured a little pile of cocaine onto a plate. For a moment, I was anxious because it was a sort of brash move, and I wasn’t sure how the 15 or so other orphans would feel about it. And after all, it was Christmas. But no one seemed to mind.
The night dragged on. I called my sister, Kate, back in New York City. Forever, she had been the most constant relationship in my family, a relative who was also a friend, a confidant and a counselor. In recent years, though, my absence at Christmas had driven a wedge between us. I’d tell her that I couldn’t afford the trip or more bluntly that I didn’t want to deal with the hassle. She would call me on it. My niece, she would say, deserved to see her uncle.
Why I thought it necessary to call her that night is obvious—I had too much beer and too much of Chris’ party favor and felt the need to rub my newfound give-no-fucks attitude about Christmas in the face of someone I missed. The conversation was brief. She gifted me some laughs.
Eventually, people filtered out of the party. Hours before sunrise, it was just me and Chris and a few others, sitting in my ruined living room, watching YouTube videos. My dog sat on her bed with a dog I didn’t know, looking forlorn. The Christmas lights were on the floor and lit the room from the ground up, so the ceiling was dark. The kitchen floor was slick with dirty melted snow. All night, I had had reason to rejoice, feeling the levitating chemical surge of the holiday spirit, something I knew I wouldn’t feel with my family back east. But then it was the next morning, and everyone was gone. I picked up cups and poured the dregs down the sink. Every surface was sticky, and when I tried to mop the kitchen floor, I succeeded only in spreading around spits of sand. I was tired and probably could have fallen asleep but I felt the need to keep moving, to distract myself from whatever feeling was sure to come. The tinsel was a bitch to get off the carpet.