NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language and alcohol abuse.
What follows 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 afterward.”
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 laughter.
“What’s funny?” asked Dr. Waters.
“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 season?”
“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, perplexed.
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 late.
“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 much.”
“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 anyway.”
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 my way.”
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.