NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong
language and alcohol abuse.
is a work of fiction. I am not in the
story, and neither are you, or anybody you know, or anybody who even exists,
etc., so relax.
The Happiest Christmas Story I Know
“I’ve had this ocean dream a
bunch of times over the years, especially when I’m stressed out. So maybe I’ve been having it lately because
of the holidays,” Nick said. “And this
week I had it twice. It’s hard to sleep
Dr. Waters tapped his lower lip
with his pen, as if acting out a cliché:
“the deep thinker.” He said, “Go
ahead and describe the dream to me in detail.”
“Okay, so I’m snorkeling in
Hawaii. I’m just having a great old
time, looking at all these exotic, brightly colored tropical fish. There are so many of them, so many varieties,
it looks like a screen saver or something.
The water is so clear, and the sun is so strong, I can see the coral and
starfish and stuff on the ocean floor.
So I keep swimming out, following fish around, and I start to see rarer
fish, and larger ones. Then I see an
eel, and that’s kind of startling, because don’t they sometimes sting?
“And then I see something really
scary: out of the corner of my eye I see
some really big thing slip by. I wing my
head around and it’s swimming off, and it’s like a shark or something, or that
unnamed huge vicious thing that eats Nemo’s mother, you know? A barracuda?
So suddenly I’m hyperventilating through the snorkel because this isn’t
Sea World, there’s no Plexiglas here, I’m on this creature’s turf and it could
take me out! And then I suddenly notice
something even scarier: I can’t see the
ocean floor anymore, just this giant dark void.
I’d been snorkeling over this low kind of shelf, and there were other
snorkelers around and kids and everything, and now there’s nobody but me, and
I’m way far out to sea.
“So naturally my first instinct
is to start swimming like crazy back to the shore, you know? But I can’t figure out where it is! I have no frame of reference. I’m like one of those pilots lost in fog who
after a while can’t even figure out which way is up and might fly straight into
the ground. I start frantically
swimming, just to be taking some kind
of action, and then I think, what if I’m swimming farther out to sea? It’s terrifying. And that’s where I always wake up.”
Dr. Waters was quiet for a moment,
and then he said, “And you’ve had this dream twice recently, and you think it’s
because you’re stressed out about the holidays.”
“Well, yeah,” Nick said. He stared at the ceiling for awhile. “So isn’t this where you’re supposed to tell
me what my dream means?”
“Well, I’m not a strong believer
in analyzing dreams. I’m more interested
in hearing what you think is bothering you so much about the holidays.”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s because I’m supposed to be,
like, especially happy, right now, with all the holiday cheer everywhere, but
I’m not.” Nick suddenly snorted with
“What’s funny?” asked Dr.
“Oh, I just remember this
‘Peanuts’ cartoon my brother once read me, way back when we were teenagers. He did the voices. Charlie Brown is talking to Lucy and saying,
‘I don’t understand it. It’s Christmas
and everybody is happy, and I’m supposed to be happy. But I’m not.
Why am I not happy?’ And then—the
way my brother reads it, with his own contribution—Lucy says, “‘Fuck off,
Charlie Brown! Just fuck off!’”
Dr. Waters chuckled. “Yeah, that’s pretty good,” he said. “But getting back to your stress: you feel that you should be happy, and it
bothers you that you’re not. So nothing
about the holiday season gives you any joy?
Nothing to offset the stress?”
Nick was silent for awhile. “No,” he sighed. “I just hate all of it. The retail frenzy, the lights strung up
everywhere … they just remind me of the obligations I’m not making good
on. I should do my Christmas shopping
but I can’t stand the malls. The stupid
decorations and displays, and that horrible music, always the new takes on
tired old Christmas songs, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and worse, ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ and
then there’s always some mall-stalking douchebag
who suckers you into trying
some lotion or unguent or ‘epidermal astringent’ or something. So
I skip the department stores, and I refuse to get caught up in all that
Cyber-Monday crap, and then I feel lame for buying anyone anything.”
“I see. Now, do you think there’s anything … indulgent, about this pure hatred of the
“What do you mean ‘indulgent’?”
“Well, we’ve talked a lot in
these sessions about attitude, and the choices you make about how you see the
world. Isn’t there some aspect of the
holidays you could warm up to? I wonder
if you’re not deliberately—though perhaps unconsciously—focusing on the
negative here, perhaps to achieve some kind of purity in your disdain for
it. Perhaps you’re indulging your impulse
to go negative.”
Nick said nothing for a good
while. He sighed. Finally Dr. Waters broke the silence. “Nick, I’d like you to think back, over all
the Christmases you’ve had, throughout childhood too, and try to think of the
most recent positive memory you have. Not
just a brief moment, like when you got some really cool gift, but something
meaningful. Take your time.”
More silence. Ten minutes.
Finally Nick said, “I have a memory, but it’s kind of complicated. I’d need to give you some back story.” Dr. Waters nodded his approval, and Nick
continued: “It was my first Christmas
after I started college. I was royally
pissed off at my parents. This was a
couple of years after their divorce, long past the period of each one trying to
win me over to their side, but they were still bitter. I was pissed because they were both unwilling
to pay for my flight home for the holidays.
Of course each thought the other should pay for it, and they couldn’t go
in together because then they’d have to actually cooperate, plus they’d both
remarried and why put that burden on my stepparents who don’t even know me,
right? So my initial plan was to stay
back, skip the holidays completely, just molder away in the dorms for the whole
three weeks. That’s what I told my
parents I was gonna do, but they must have thought I was bluffing, and I guess
I was. I caved in pretty early because I
didn’t want the flight to get too expensive.
“So anyway, I decided since I
was paying for the ticket myself, that, you know, fuck my parents, right? I wouldn’t stay with either of them. My friend Micky agreed to put me up at his
place. He was a bit older, had been on
his own for years, never sees his folks over the holidays. My hero, right? He set up a little bed in his basement,
random mismatched sheets and weird old blankets … even set out some light
reading for me, a stack of magazines like ‘Big Fat & Sassy.’ Pretty funny.
“So Christmas Eve rolls around
and my mom is hell-bent on having her kids eat dinner at her place that night. It shouldn’t matter because Christmas Eve was
never a big deal in our family—we usually just watched TV or something. But she’s mainly looking to make sure we’re
not spending it with our dad. Which was
totally unfair, because she was getting us for Christmas dinner anyway. Ryan and I agreed to this because the
previous year my dad got us, and his second wife served these weird onion balls
with the turkey dinner. I don’t know why,
but my brother and I couldn’t face those onion balls again. We talked about that dinner like it was a POW
camp or something. So the deal was, Mom
would get us for Christmas dinner and Dad would get us for Christmas
morning. So when she brings up Christmas
Eve dinner we’re thinking she’s being kind of selfish—I mean, two dinners in
a row?—so Ryan gets this great idea of
throwing a huge party and having all this food there. Actually, I think he was going to do the
party anyway, or maybe it was his roommates’
party, but he piled on with the food idea. So I was going to do that.
“But when I tell my mom, she gets
all sore at me, and is practically crying, so I figure what the hell, the
party’ll go late and I can hang with my mom first. So I try to eat light at my mom’s dinner, but
it’s just the two of us, and she knows how much I eat and flat-out accuses me
of planning to secretly join my brother for dinner later. So to prove her wrong—well, to pretend to—I eat
my fill. And then when enough time has
passed I head over to Ryan’s party. I get
my friend Paul to come along. His folks
weren’t doing anything anyway.
“Of course to Ryan it was a big
deal that we both refuse Mom’s Christmas Eve dinner, on principle, and he’d
made me promise not to cave. So I have
to lie to him, too. And, of course, he
wants to make sure I’m telling the truth, so he serves me this gargantuan
portion of enchiladas. I’m so stuffed
after that I feel like I’m gonna puke.
And then Paul challenges me to a boat race.”
“Boat race?” said Dr. Waters,
Nick chortled. “You haven’t heard ‘boat race’? It’s a drinking contest. You know, who can chug a beer the fastest.”
“Oh, I see. Sorry to interrupt. Please continue.” Throughout this story Dr. Waters hadn’t been
taking any notes. He’d just stared into
space, his head tilted slightly.
“So anyhow, it is a party, and I am the fastest boat racer around.
I never realized it until college.
It’s a gift, really. I can just
open my throat, and—BAM!—just pour it
right down, like my throat’s a clear pipe.
And Ryan had never even seen this!
We’d never even boat-raced before!
So here it is, my moment of glory, and I pound this plastic cup of beer
in like two seconds, and then this horrible thing happens: I totally puke! Not ‘cause I’m drunk, but just too damn
full! I kind of catch the barf in my
hands, and I’m running for the sink but it’s totally crowded and I’m knocking
people out of the way and they’re all seeing my hands full of barf and laughing
their asses off. And I know what they’re
all thinking—oh, this lightweight can’t hold his booze, it’s only 9:30 and he’s
already throwing up! It was so
humiliating. Paul is laughing harder
than anybody. ‘Way to catch it in your
hands!’ he keeps saying. And the worst
part is Ryan looking at me, all confused.
He knows I haven’t been there long enough to get that drunk. I don’t know what to say.
“So Paul and I leave. I’m just too ashamed to stay there. I’ve got barf all down my pants and can’t stand
the idea of having to explain it to every new person I see. But it’s too early to turn in, so Ryan drives
downtown and we park the car and start looking for a bar.
“The weird thing is that I don’t
think either of us had ever set foot in a bar before. We were only eighteen.”
“Why did you think they’d let you in?”
“This was 1986 and the drinking age was still eighteen. It occurred to me later that of course you’d
have to be twenty-one to go to a bar—eighteen-year-olds could only buy 3.2 beer
and only at the grocery store—but at the time I just wasn’t thinking. I mean, I’d never considered it. Like I said, we weren’t the kind of guys who
went to bars. Our idea of a good time
was buying a case of generic beer and drinking it in the garage.
“It didn’t matter, though. We go to
this total dive bar and don’t even get carded.
The bartender isn’t one of these chatty, friendly types … he doesn’t say
a word. He’s like a pithed teenager
running a roller coaster at an amusement park.
And this bar … they haven’t decorated for the holidays at all. No tree, not a single sprig of holly, no
ribbons, no nothing. They probably don’t
have the money to do it right and realize a half-assed job would just make the
place even more squalid. Or maybe they
know their clientele, know that it’s just a bunchy of lonely no-hopers who
would just as soon pretend it’s not even ‘the holidays.’
“So there aren’t a lot of people in there and the ones we see all look totally
depressed. Each of them is sitting
alone, nobody talking to anybody. Just
sitting, staring forward, working their way through their drinks. I thought we might get a few dirty looks—I
mean, these yuppie kids infiltrating their bunker here—by they don’t give a
shit. If they’d looked homeless or crazy
that would have actually been less depressing.
They look unwell, one guy’s skin is practically grey. One dude is wearing one of those cheesy
‘Members Only’ jackets.
“So all I can think about is how, as dingy and awful and depressing as
this place is, for these guys it must be better than sitting alone at home on
Christmas Eve. It didn’t occur to me
until years later that some of these guys may have had no idea what day it even
was, and were just in there every night.
At the time, I definitely had the feeling they were escaping something,
and that they had every intention of being so hung over on Christmas morning
they wouldn’t even care that they were all alone.
“I think Paul was as uncomfortable as I was there, and anyway he has to
drive so he can’t have more than one drink.
Back then we hadn’t learned how to sip a beer, we just instinctively
drank them as fast as a glass of water, so we’re done in no time. I think we both had the idea of staying just
long enough that it didn’t look like we were fleeing the place. So we head out.
“We could have strolled the Pearl Street mall, which is this really nice
outdoor deal, all the shops done up with lights and everything, but it’s like
five degrees out and I feel like the skin on my face is gonna crack. So we just hustle back to the car and head
back to Paul’s place. He was still
living with his folks. They weren’t
home, I think they were at a holiday party or something.
“So we sit around his house for awhile.
We’re pretty bored and there’s nothing on TV, so we decide to do
something we’d never done during our high school years, but which always seemed
like a rite of passage: we raid his
dad’s liquor cabinet. We got pretty
plastered. There were all kinds of booze,
which was funny because Paul’s dad was actually a very temperant guy. I never even saw him drink. We figured if we drank from each bottle
equally, maybe he wouldn’t notice anything was missing.
“Once we realize Paul is too drunk to drive, I figure I’ll walk over to
Micky’s, but it’s at least a mile and I’m not looking forward to braving that
cold, so I keep procrastinating. Just
after midnight Paul’s parents show up, and his dad offers to drive me
home. I try as hard as I can to seem
sober, and I’m so worried about him smelling booze—his booze!—on my breath, I keep the window down through the whole
drive. I was so drunk I actually
believed this would work. But Paul’s dad
never said a thing, he was really nice.
“Micky has gone to bed by the time I get there, but I let myself in. I’d only brought one pair of jeans to Boulder
with me, and have the foresight to throw my barfy jeans in the washing machine. Then I pass out. The next morning I bounce out of bed at like
seven, feeling completely fine. No
hangover at all! I throw my wet jeans in
the dryer but I can’t get it to work. I
ask Micky to help and he’s like, ‘Dude, my dryer’s broken.’ I’m thinking, crap, what am I supposed to
do? Even if I find a Laundromat open on
Christmas, am I supposed to stand around in there in my undies? Plus, I’m expected at my dad’s place before
long. I figure since he’d traded Christmas
dinner for this morning with his kids, he’ll be pretty chapped if I show up
“But having escaped a hangover I’m feeling invincible so I just pull on
the wet jeans, throw on my coat, and bolt out the door to run the mile or so to
my dad’s house. And it’s the awesomest
thing: the sky is blue, it’s sunny, and
there’s at least a foot of fresh snow.
So I race through the cold bright morning, high-stepping through the
snow, which is the dry, powdery kind so it’s flying everywhere, like in an ad for
a ski resort. Not a soul is out there so
it’s like I have the whole world to myself.
You know how snow seems to muffle sounds? Everything is completely silent except the
creaking of my shoes on the snow, and my own breathing. I’m panting pretty hard, not adjusted to the
high altitude. So I’m just hauling ass
through all this snow, and about halfway to my dad’s I have to stop and take a
breather, and I notice that me jeans have frozen stiff!
“And I’m standing there panting but I’m not even shivering, because I’ve
been working so hard, and I’m just feeling euphoric. I feel such a sense of release after being at
that bar the night before. See, I’d been
kind of dreading Christmas morning, because my dad wouldn’t know how to run the
show. Christmas morning in my childhood
was perfect: the same stockings every
year, hand-embroidered by Mom, stuffed with all the right stuff—the orange shoved
down in the foot, her perfect homemade fudge in crackly waxed paper, the
gift-wrapped tube of Crest, the Chapstick—and as we tore through our gifts we’d
be smelling the yeasty stollen baking in the oven. Well, none of that was going to happen this
year. Dad would probably make some weird
greyish brown pancakes with like thirty types of flour in them, and flaxseed
and wheat germ and all types of healthy stuff, and the stockings won’t be red,
they won’t match, they’ll be stuffed with god knows what, and my evil
stepmother will be there, and everything will be all wrong. So that’s why I’d been dreading it.
“But standing outside now, surrounded by all this dazzling snow, panting,
feeling invincible, I’m thinking about how I’m breaking with the past, all
these lost traditions, but it’s okay, I’ll always be me. I’ll make my own life now, with my own
rules. I’d thought that before and it
was kind of scary, like maybe I’d just screw everything up, but now I’m
strangely heartened by the realization that whatever happens, at least I’m not
going to end up like those poor lonely bastards in that dive bar, just trying
to get through Christmas Eve.”
Dr. Waters looked at Nick. Nick
looked at Dr. Waters. Neither said
anything for awhile. Nick’s smile faded
and morphed into a frown.
“Well, that’s the story,” he said.
“You told me to tell you a happy holiday memory, and I did. So … what happens next?”
“You seem to have some expectation.
What would you like to happen?” Dr. Waters asked.
“Well, I assume you asked me to tell you that story for some reason. So, is it supposed to cheer me up?”
“I don’t believe in magic bullets.
I’m sorry if you thought that memory would automatically fix
something. The point of our work here is
to help you gain insight into yourself.
So tell me: is the point of your
story that you felt you didn’t need anybody?”
“I never said that. I don’t know
if the story has a point. Unless you see one.”
“One interpretation, one that I would support, is that as a college kid
you came to the mythical conclusion that you no longer needed anybody.”
“Oh, like I was delusional!
Really! Tell me more!”
“The happy part of the story seemed to be you reveling in this sense of
self-sufficiency. But I can’t help but
think you weren’t self-sufficient at all.
For instance, the night before, in your drunken, naïve state, you felt
you could walk a mile to your friend Micky’s house in the middle of the night
when it’s five degrees out. That would
have been a really stupid thing to do.
You might have gotten tired, or dizzy, and maybe you’d have decided to
rest awhile in a snow bank and then you could have passed out and died of
exposure. Happens all the time. Instead your friend’s dad showed up and gave
you a ride, and it never dawned on you, even after you’d sobered up, that he
may have saved your life.”
“Oh, I see, and you think it was also stupid to run through the snow to
my dad’s house?”
“No, that’s totally different because you weren’t drunk, and if you did
have a problem it was morning and somebody would have found you.”
“Okay, so I was young and drunk and almost
made one bad decision. That erases
all the joy of my story?”
“No, that’s only one way in which you were deceiving yourself. The other is that you were euphoric at
solving your own problem, with the wet jeans, and you proceeded from that idea
to a larger sense that you didn’t need anybody.
But in that moment you didn’t consider that, even if the old Christmas
rituals wouldn’t be observed, you were still on the way to be with your family. Yes, you had the burden of divorced parents
to deal with, but being with those two, and your brother, would be far better
than being alone. Your epiphany seems to
have been that, due to your growing independence, you’d never end up alone in a
bar on Christmas Eve. But that’s a
delusion. Really, you’d only escape such
a future—if you escaped it at all—because
of your family, not because of your own strength as an individual. That’s what I get from the story.”
“Oh, well, aren’t you clever! But
how can you even say that? Who are you to say whether my broken-up
family was better than nothing?”
“That’s not just my conclusion.
You knew that yourself, at least at one time.”
“What are you even talking about?!”
“You said yourself, your original plan was to stay back at school and
blow off the holidays altogether. But
you realized you didn’t really want this, that you’d be lonely spending all
that time by yourself. It was so
important to you to go home, you paid for the airfare yourself!”
Nick bit his lip. He stared at Dr.
Waters. “That wasn’t to be with my
family. That was to be with my friends.”
“Let me ask you. Paul and Micky …
are you in touch with them anymore?”
“Well, thanks a lot, Dr. Waters.
That was the happiest Christmas story I knew, and now you’ve spoiled
it. That really helps me feel better about the holidays.”
“My goal wasn’t to spoil your story.
I was hoping you could figure out what made a past holiday season at
least somewhat joyful, and try to replicate that.”
“Okay, but I can’t, right? Because
my joy then was a delusion, as you’ve so helpfully pointed out. Maybe joy is always a delusion. Maybe that’s why I hate the holidays so
“Well, that’s one conclusion.
Another conclusion might be that you could have been more grateful that
you had somewhere, anywhere, to go to besides a bar.”
“Okay, fine. I wasn’t grateful. I took my family for granted. But how many times to I have to say it: I was young!
I was just a stupid college kid, okay?”
“So do you think, as an adult, you’ve become more insightful? You’ve put that naïveté behind?”
Nick snorted. “You tell me. You’re the expert. What do you think? Am I still delusional?”
“I don’t think I can answer that simply.
But I’m suddenly reminded about the dream you described earlier. Setting aside what I said earlier about interpreting
dreams, that one might shed some light.”
“Okay. You saw this barracuda, and
you were terrified because you didn’t know which way to flee, right? And there’s the sudden depth of the
ocean. You could swim all you wanted,
but for all you know you’d just be heading further out to sea.”
“Exactly. That’s what makes it
such an awful dream.”
“Well, you—the you in your dream—seems too panicked to think
straight. You don’t seem to have had the
simple insight to stop looking down, through the mask, and just pull your head
out of the water. You couldn’t have been
that far from shore, right? You just
locate the beach and swim toward it! Right?”
Nick said nothing.
“Maybe you have this dream again and again because your subconscious is
trying to get it right. But you keep
waking up before having that crucial insight, that you’re not as lost as you
seem, that you just need to stop fixating on what you think you need, and try
to look at things in a new way. Again,
we can only guess at the meaning of dreams, but maybe this is a useful metaphor
Nick swung his legs around to the floor and sat on the edge of the
couch. He held his head in his hands and
stared at the floor. After awhile he
looked at his watch. “Dr. Waters, we have
five minutes left but I think for now I just need to think. If it’s okay with you I think I’ll just be on
Dr. Waters nodded and rose to his feet.
He crossed over to the door and opened it. “Very well, Nick. I’ll see you next time.” As Nick shuffled out the door Dr. Waters
patted his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Nick said.