By Joe Galván
December 26, 2008. It doesn’t feel like Christmas, because Christmas is without its cold-season requisites: ice and snow. We could have watched the tide roll in on the Island from the safety of the porch at the beach house you and I share, but you are gone. I shield my eyes and look into the sky filled with torn white clouds. White laundry flutters in the wind. My mother says, “I’ve got one more sheet for you,” and together we pin the sheet to the line; for a brief moment I am caught up in a wall of wet cotton impregnated with the smell of detergent, someone else’s springtime fantasy. The sun is low and the south wind is blowing. The wind in the trees is what you hear. Two in the afternoon, and the air is warm, soft, dry, a paradisiacal zephyr from the outer waters of the Gulf.
We are taking down the Christmas decorations. It will all go into one Sterilite container. The act of removing the decorations is deflating, depressing. My mother does not want to do it, but it must be done. She has her routines, her need for order and cleanliness, and we must comply if we are to have peace. The concrete on the front porch is still wet with morning dew. While taking down the strands of white icicle lights, I remember those late spring days when you used to visit my house late at night, when you had nothing to do. You would not walk into the house, but wait patiently until I had unlatched the front door and walked out into the dark to meet you. In your car we’d kiss for something like ten minutes, and I could smell the garlic that you’d eaten for dinner on your breath and in your skin; I could smell the Azzaro on the nape of your neck, the sweat in the cleft of your pecs, but most of all I could smell the Hong Kong orchid petals crushed under the soles of your Nikes. While I am taking down the wreath from the front door I imagine you standing behind the screen door, asking to come in. You always asked politely to come in because you somehow knew the fractured dynamics of family and culture here. I put the wreath in the plastic box. Mom says, “Make sure to stack it so I can pull it out next year.”
We have Christmas ham sandwiches and tamales for dinner. Mom watches an old Rankin/Bass special on TV and irons my little brother’s work slacks. He will have to return to work tomorrow at The Home Depot. I will tarry here, until the middle of January, when I can finally return to school. You call me from Dallas and inform me that the Christmas party you attended was a magnificent failure, precipitated by a political argument gone haywire and too much badly prepared food. There was turkey and stuffing, you say, but someone forgot to remove the giblets. What you do not tell me is that you are calling me from a room at the Omni, because you do not want anyone to know that you didn’t go because you were depressed. Depressed because I could not join you, depressed because I could not hold your hand and smile at you from across a long table. You do not tell me that your Christmas dinner is room service. You do not tell me that you plan to hook up with your ex later that evening, who promptly ghosts you at 2 AM to go to a drag ball afterparty.
The sun sets. It is cool and wet and blue in the garden again. The planet Saturn rises in the eastern December sky and shines like a bright silver nail affixed to the darkening sphere of the sky. A few errant wisps of pink cirrus alight in the west over the deep blue of twilight. The rest of the neighborhood has Christmas lights still up. In my house, however, the Christmas tree is packed away in multiple boxes with all of its attendant splendor. The party is over. The year is just a quickly fading memory, and the days to come are mostly dark, mostly twilit, days made of midnight blue and silver, full of reviewal but mostly full of regret. I will watch a rerun of Jesús, El Niño Dios. It will rain on the last two days of the year. I will be outside watching the sky get slowly greyer and darker, I will hear thunder in the afternoon, and I will watch as the first fat drops of rain splash on the concrete of the front porch. I will watch a news report about the Huichol pilgrimage to Wirikuta. I will think about you while I watch the sun emerge from a cloud. I will think about holding your hand, about getting into a car I don’t own and driving to the beach house I don’t live in. I will think about finding you in the hammock on the porch, asleep in your swim trunks or your underwear, I will think about the still summer evenings on the beach where we saw all of the stars.
You call me the next evening. You ask me if I had a good Christmas. I respond that yes, I have, that Uncle Scott has given me some new clothing and a new bracelet for me to wear, and that all in all, we had a satisfying Christmas dinner. I sit on the stiff plywood bench under the carport outside and we talk about the night sky, about the compilation of Debussy your parents gave you, about dead relatives and dead pets, about certain trees and certain landscapes we know. I tell you about almanacs and constellations I can see from the backyard, about how I really just want a pair of binoculars to look at the stars with. The night is getting gradually cooler and more serene, and I can feel the dew begin to settle on the ground again. I know the fog will return from the coast. You tell me that you will drive down from Austin to be with me, so that we can spend the New Year together. I smile and close my eyes and inhale deeply, gratified with the singular privilege of getting to see you during the holidays. You tell me you love me. I am lulled into a sense of safety, of incipient repose, and retire to my room that evening hopelessly, desperately in love with you and the world again, convinced that it is a kinder and more beautiful place, in spite of the distance between us.
After you hang up the phone you sit on the red leather couch in your parents’ house in Dallas, not knowing what to think or feel. Everyone is getting ready to go out to the ice-skating rink. Your nephew tugs on your sweater sleeve and asks you to come with him. You shrug it off the first couple of times, but then you resolve to go for his sake. At the ice-skating rink, you think of how nice it would be if our worlds were a little less different, if I did not live in South Texas, and if you did not live in Dallas. You fall on the ice a couple of times, everyone falls, everyone laughs, gets up, continues to perambulate in an ellipse in the rink around a gigantic sparkling poinsettia wreath hanging from the ceiling of the mall. In the parking lot you grip the steering wheel of the car, breathe deeply and try to ward off the impending sense of angst that is washing over you. You will have to drive back home alone, and there is no one to talk to. Your ex does not want to talk to you. Your other ex is in Florida at a circuit party and is too stoned or drunk to talk to you. And I am asleep.
Instead, you stay up until midnight. You watch an experimental film. You go to Whataburger and buy a cheeseburger and some fries and a big Coke, and then after the Coke you sit there in the dark, in your car, wondering what to do. You go home to your kitchen to pour yourself some wine and sit down in the living room, and, without taking your eyes off the Christmas tree, you drink the wine, you suffocate a sob. Another year has come to an end, and there we are, alone in the dark. Years later, after we separate for the final time, you meet me on a terrace in Portland and you ask me what was so appealing about those final days. I tell you that it was the first and only time I’ve ever really known what true love looked and felt like, even if it was love from afar. That evening is gentle, not unlike those spring nights where we could smell the flowers opening in the night air. You put your arms around me and sigh, and for a moment I am back with you on the beach, with the sound of the surf in my ears and the taste of salt in my mouth, and inside me the tide swells, breaks on the shore of my memories, recedes; the memory of those winter days that felt like spring remains, a solitary glowing ember in the ashes of the extinguished past.
Joe Galván is a writer, artist, composer & anthropologist living in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared in Deep Overstock, The Believer, 1001, and Harbinger. He recently completed a novel entitled In The Realm of the Desert Gods in 2017, and is working on a book for the Independent Publishing Resource Center’s Certificate Program. You can follow him on Twitter @fadopapi.