It’s my Christmas to fall in love. I will spend the holidays terrorizing and romancing Mario Lopez. I buy a permed blonde wig to wear as a disguise. I knit a long, soft pink scarf to tie him up. I instruct my mom to rent a cabin out in the woods: at least twenty miles away from everything, with terrible cell service, and make sure that it’s cute as fuck.
She says, “I’ll do it, but you need to put five dollars in the curse word jar.”
The f word is worth five times the usual amount. I ignore her and list off everything else I need: It should have a well-maintained skating rink. One with glowy lights that make me look extra beautiful. It should be lined with perfect fir trees, the kind that even when they’re seen in July make someone whistle “Angels We Have Heard on High.” She should take me aside sometime and give me a talk about being a woman and the future and family if it seems like I’m considering letting Mario go free before he’s fallen in love with me. And everyone should pretend that every time Mario says he’s been kidnapped or begs to be set free that it’s a hilarious joke.
My mom writes all this down. Her cursive makes the whole list look like an antique. She’s never looked more excited for me.
“Should I give your father any instructions?”
“Tell him to be really condescending to me about my art. And maybe he should threaten to cut me off if I don’t get a real job. But make sure that he only does it in front of Mario. I need Mario to feel like he’s the only one who really gets me.”
“Oh, Trudie. I remember when I met your father. He lived inside a magic Christmas snow globe and you know how your grandma was. I would’ve gone anywhere to get away from her. Especially during the holidays.”
It’s almost a curse in my family: the women can only find love at Christmastime and only through the most convoluted of means. We are always lightly kidnapping, pretending to be other people, falling into snow globe universes, or meeting men who have been transformed into police dogs that need to be cured by the power of a holiday kiss. And if not that, we end up loving some of the most handsome ding dongs to ever survive until adulthood. The kind of guys who would love to become YouTube stars. Who know they’re handsome and aren’t ashamed to admire themselves in the shiny sides of a well-kept toaster. The kind who have to learn how to appreciate their incredibly rich and handsome lives filled with great families and beautiful women every single Christmas. I used to hate this about us. But then I tried meeting men at bars or online and realized how boring it was. At least when my family falls in love, it feels like a miracle each and every time.
* * *
I decide I have to make my kidnapping of Mario seem extra-impulsive. I begin a relationship with a complete jerk who I know will dump me right before Christmas, so he doesn’t have to buy me a present or pretend he likes my mom’s cooking. I know this, but I tell my friends I really, really think he might be the one. They say half-hearted nice things to my face, but I know they text each other that I’ve lost my mind. I stake out all the restaurants Mario frequents to see which ones have the items on hand for what will feel like a spontaneous kidnapping. I get a job at an Indian buffet/old-timey diner that uses fully loaded antique pistols for decoration. It’s very strange that the owner does this. It seems illegal, but I shrug it off. What is serendipity? Finding a job that gives you the perfect, quirky weapon for your holiday kidnapping. The night before, I pour water in the dumpster area to make black ice in case he tries to escape. I go to Mario’s apartment and leave a romantic note on his door pretending to be his dumb girlfriend inviting him out for lunch the next day.
I toss and turn all night. Keep waking up and thinking about kissing his soft pink AC Slater lips. Dissolves into listing off everything that could go wrong. My downstairs neighbor is loudly listening to “Blue Christmas” on repeat. I imagine her floor covered in bourbon bottles. When I finally sink back into sleep, I am in a casino. I argue with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Mortimer, about how everyone will skateboard in the future. She tells me I am a failure for thinking that way. I open a door and I’m in an amateur strip club. Men slowly, sadly strip to “Wonderful Christmastime.” They strip down to baggy, unflattering green and red striped boxers. None of their butts look good.
* * *
On schedule, my boyfriend breaks up with me while a family is trying to order strawberry milkshakes. He insults the wig I’m wearing and leaves. I almost want to tip him for being so efficient and dramatic with our break-up, but I have to get ready for Mario.
He’s here. Black hair somehow glistening underneath the fluorescent lights. Does he put something in it or is it just that healthy? A beautifully tailored jacket as if he’s on his way to a magazine photo shoot. Nice shoes too, the kind that’ll make walking on ice hard.
When Mario gets up and goes to the bathroom, I pull an antique pistol out of its case.
“You’re coming with me,” I say.
I press the gun into his back. No one notices.
“Let’s go. Out back.”
I lead him to the dumpsters. The black ice is waiting. My car is the only one parked out back here. It was so slick everyone else moved their cars into the customer parking lot.
It smells like onions and garbage and clouds—I think of it as gray scent, I’m not sure why—cooking up powdery snow.
“This is insane.”
It takes a lot of willpower to not tell him I know. Mario says some dumb thing about not wanting to hit a woman. And he’s talking and talking, but I’m not listening because I am freaking out. It’s like I’ve gained the ability to see the back of my head at all times. I am shocked and uncomfortable about knowing the true shape of my head, the exact curly mess my hair makes. I can see how bad this looks. I should drop the gun and run away. Apologize. Then run away. Mario slips on the ice. He hits his head. It makes a terrible noise like a can of vegetables falling down steps. I stoop and check. He’s unconscious.
How can I explain this to anyone who doesn’t already love me?
I could leave now. He has a head injury. He’ll probably doubt all of this really happened if he wakes up alone back here.
But everything is going exactly how I planned it.
Five minutes later, he’s in the car. I’ve bound his wrists together and blindfolded him with a pink scarf. He snores a little and it’s the least cute he’s ever been. If someone tries to ask me what’s going on, I’m going to tell them it’s a fun, cool sex thing.
* * *
What does it say about me that I couldn’t just ask him to get coffee? Why couldn’t I have done the other things people do for love: I could’ve been artistic and aloof. Painted my lips red, wore a low-cut shirt, and leaned over his table while taking his order. I could’ve sat alone at his favorite bar drinking a glass of Scotch, frowning at everyone but him. I could’ve been nice and sweet and kind, a woman who loves kids and never thinks look at that little asshole when I see a child yelling at his mom in the grocery store. Instead I’m driving a captured Mario Lopez hundreds of miles away.
* * *
Mario tells my family he’s been kidnapped.
“Help me, “he says.
“He’s so funny,” I say and nudge him. My family laughs and laughs. We all looks so cute in our festive sweaters. You’re so funny, Mario Lopez.
He escapes into the night. Walking until he almost has frostbite. I drive slowly next to him. Big snowflakes are beautiful in the car’s headlamps. The sky so black I squint and pretend I’m in space. Warp speed. When he gets too cold, Mario gets in the car. At home he drinks a cocoa, stares at me in a way that makes me sure he’s wondering how far he can push himself. How long can he live in the cold? Can he hurt someone much smaller than him? Can he punch a woman?
“Can I have more marshmallows?” He asks and maybe that was it.
Mario locks himself in the bathroom.
“Is he OK?” My brother asks.
“He gets stressed out about away from home pooping,” I say, “he’s fine.”
I hide or smash all the cellphones I can find with a meat tenderizer. Their metal insides hit my face. Scratches my left cheek.
“I called my girlfriend,” Mario says when he leaves the bathroom. “And she’s going to find me and bring the police.”
Mario throws a cellphone—I think it’s my brother’s—at me. It hits me in the chest and clatters to the floor. He is very handsome when he’s mean.
“Sure,” I say.
Mario outlines a plan. He’s going to be the best boyfriend ever. He’s going to make my family fall absolutely in love with him so they can see how rotten I am when the police come and arrest me for kidnapping. I get hung up on the word rotten. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone in real life describe someone else as rotten. It feels so formal. Like something written on a report card. Trudie is excellent at spelling, but rotten at math.
“Are you even listening to me?” Mario asks.
“Have fun,” I say.
* * *
Mario is so good at baking cookies. He perfume bombs the cabin with molasses and almond and hot raspberry sauce.
He charms my mom and sister and brother by taking off his shirt and revealing his abs.
He charms my dad by speaking the language of rich white men: stocks, golf, and agreeing that yeah, the estate tax is bullshit.
And the more he does it, the more my family turns on me.
“You seem a little out of your league,” my mom says.
“Think of how great life would’ve been if I’d had a child like Mario Lopez,” my dad says.
“Cool it,” I try.
“Also,” my dad waves some eggnog at me and a bit splashes down on my shoes, “your art is stupid. Why do all the men you paint look like Frankenstein?”
Is that true? I wonder.
“It’s the holidays,” Mario says, “we should all try to be a little nicer.”
I can’t tell if anyone is saying what they really mean or following their plans.
I am reminded of how I’m wasting my potential. And why can’t I wear more pink? I am not attractive enough to wear all black. Men, but just people in general, would like me more if I seemed a little more cheerful. Pink would help. And why are all my friend so weird? I should go get my MBA. Actually learn what a dollar means. What values do I even have? Why is my life so off track? They should’ve known I was always going to be weird. My mom tells everyone again about how I used to stand outside rooms people were sitting in and peek my head in and yell, “I’m going to kill you, Mom.” I would do it to people in my family, sometimes I would slam my hands on bathroom stalls while old women were peeing and whisper it. I was only five years old, but they tell it as if they suspected I was spending most of my adult life wandering place to place, slamming my hands on doors, and threatening my mom.
I want to take all the cookies and sit in a closet. I want to smell dirty shoes and only think about their stench rather than hear all this. How do parents know how to find the flimsiest, most toothpicky version of you to pull out for everyone to see?
Somehow, in the middle of this, Mario Lopez has taken my hand.
He leads me away from my worked up parents.
“That was deeply uncool,” Mario Lopez says. “Your paintings are beautiful. They make me feel like I actually know you.”
* * *
We stay up all night talking about families and expectations. He tells me about his parents who died, his strange grandfather who raised him, and what’s it like to feel so alone. Mario Lopez is saying smart, sad things in his dumb dude voice. I tell him about wanting to be an artist ever since I was a little girl. I would paint and marker my body so I could feel like a small part of me was beautiful. And everything I say I actually mean. He smiles and listens.
“I’m so sorry about all this,” I tell him. “Do you want me to take you home in the morning?”
“No.” I can tell he actually means it.
The next morning he takes me ice skating on the pond. We glide on the ice. I think about the colors I would have to mix to paint the blue the sky is. Even when he’s ice skating, he’s so sexy. My nose is red. Snow makes the tree branches droop close. They remind me of how when my family went to baptisms, we would all pray for the child’s new life in the church and raise our hands in the air as if our prayers needed extra force. Here are these trees adding their blessings on our weird love.
I alternate between feeling soda pop fizz attraction and excitement when looking at him and wondering if all of this is because Mario has a severe untreated concussion from his fall the other morning.
Be happy, I tell myself. Be happy. We walk in the snow. Chess in the attic. It’s Christmas Day. We go back to the pond. Somehow, I can only believe through magic, Mario has hung up hundreds of perfectly tasteful white lights on the gazebos and all the surrounding trees. And for a moment, it’s like I’ve been replaced by a woman who looks like me if you squint. One who is confident and is just spending time with her boyfriend, not someone she has forcibly abducted. I perform an elaborate, romantic ice skating routine. A triple axel, toe pick, glide, camel. It’s the best I’ve ever skated, will ever skate. Love me I try to etch into the ice. Love me.
* * *
Then the police come and arrest my entire family. We somehow get to sit in a jail cell together, waiting to find out if Mario is pressing charges. He doesn’t. We say goodbye in the parking lot. I notice he blinks five times less than the average person. I would tell him, but he’s already striding back into his old life.
* * *
It snows. It sleets. I don’t know the date, but I know the shape of today’s and yesterday’s clouds. The exact gray of the old snow next to my parking spot. I paint the night at the skating rink. The warm glow. The perfect gazebo. A tiny me in mid-leap.
* * *
I sell my ice skating painting. After I celebrate, I walk alone to a car. A man grabs me from behind and pushes me against the car. He blindfolds me and puts handcuffs on me.
“I know how to fight,” I say. It sounds so dumb. I wish I said as if I were five years old again, “I’m gonna kill you, Mom.” It would’ve at least been a weird enough thing that it might’ve been a little threatening.
“Payback,” says Mario Lopez.
He leads me through the city. Why does nobody notice him leading around a blindfolded and handcuffed woman? He takes me into a building. In the elevator, I count at least fifteen floors. Is he going to push me off the roof? I see myself suspended above the city, a poorly dressed cloud. Then, splat. He takes the blindfold off. My painting is there. He’s strung up more lights. I’m not sure how this can go on for much longer. Can we spend the rest of our lives kidnapping each other? But isn’t that what love is? A series of being whisked away by someone your dumb heart has decided is right for you? I lean in, still handcuffed, for a kiss.