It’s Christmas Eve, his first with the family in six years. He’s welcomed back like the Prodigal Son, wrap him in hugs and kisses, remind him they love him unconditionally because for a few days, they can. He’s served a hot meal prepared with love and they eat together while Hallmark Christmas movies play in the living room. It’s louder than he’s used to, a house full of siblings and in-laws, cousins and all their kids. He’s nieces and nephews climb all over him and everything else they’ve been warned not to. Family can be overwhelming when you’re used to living on your own. Like his phone, his batteries were running low and needed space to recharge. He takes mom’s car for a drive in the sunshine saying he’d be back in time for the family Christmas party.
She’s sitting at the bar of a Mexican restaurant in the company of her outdated screen splintered iPhone and an overly attentive bartender who slides her a second smoky margarita before she could ask. It’s the time of year, a long one at that, that you realize how many people have flocked to the city from elsewhere. She’s grateful for some peace and quiet to reflect and scheme for the upcoming year.
He’d spent numerous Christmases similarly, alone in the city, roaming as aimlessly as he pleased, enjoying the subdued pace and solitude. He sat at the corner of the bar watching basketball sipping a whiskey on the rocks that steamed his belly like the fogged window beside him. He didn’t think he was lonely, but felt loneliness in the miserable silence that accompanied the other men who strolled in with no where else to go. In the way they drank quickly, heavily, slamming their empty glasses on the counter, begging for another. He wondered how different they really were. He’d check his phone from time to time, not that he expected anyone to text or call, but he was ready if anyone decided to.
He sends her a meme, a screen shot of a texting conversation. The first person says, “Wait, did you just flirt with me?” The other responds, “Have been for the past year, but thanks for noticing.” They’d had a conversation before he left clarifying that he had, in fact, been flirting with her. She laughs and says, “you’re such an incognito flirt.” He smiles, glad to strike up a conversation.
She can’t seem to find the bottom of the margarita, and isn’t complaining. The bartender and his friend have become her friends. She says farewell, then finds her way into another bar neighborhood where she can sit and they can carry on their conversation about what it’s like being on your own to pursue your dreams in a distant city most their families members will never see, a life they can’t imagine because they’d never stray to far from home.
An older gentleman asks if the seat next to her is taken. Within minutes he’s divulging his life story, broken and crying, yet hopeful and strong in his faith. She’s made a new friend, “God gives me huge blessings sitting at this bar,” she tells the man. “People to touch. People whose lives touch mine.”
“Sometimes,” he responds, “people just need to know there’s someone out there who will listen for a few, looking out for them, to know they’re not alone.”
There’s more food than counter space at the party. Pots, pans, trays and dishes full of tamales, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, all kinds of dip, cheeses, chips, crackers, salads, and cakes, pies, fruit, and cookies. Refrigerators, ice chests, and tubs are stocked with beer, soda, and Capri Suns.
He’s become one of those old guys telling impatient little cousins that he remembers when they could barely walk and now they are flailing all over the place like tiny maniacs.
She messages him, “Don’t know why, but I just got lonely.”
Grandma began the tradition of praying the rosary and singing Christmas hymns between Joyful Mysteries on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, a candle is passed around and, anyone who’d like to, can share what they are grateful for. It’s nice, the structure, the consistency, having everyone together in one room.
Tears are shed as the candle is handed from person to person. Gratitude for strength during the struggles they’ve faced throughout the year, for the support from the family around them, and for those that made it back this year while missing and thinking of those who couldn’t be. His parents and brother get choked up saying how much it means to them having him back and everyone together.
“I’m grateful,” he pauses staring into the flickering flame to gather his thoughts, “for this,” he gulps, “to be here, spending Christmas with you, all of you, even you,” he teases his cousin to get a laugh and keep from tearing up, “to have a place I can come back to… where I’m welcomed back with open arms and more food than I can ever possibly eat and more love than I can handle. I’m grateful for the constant support from the whole family when I can’t be here. I have a lot back in the city, but what I have there is nothing like what I get when I’m here; when I’m home I’m full. Mom’s right, it’s been too long. I’d just like to send comfort to the those who couldn’t make it back and to those who have nowhere to go and are on their own.”
The night reminds him of the all the Hallmark movies he’s watched since being home. All that feel good cheesiness when someone finally learns the “true meaning of Christmas” by reluctantly being with their loving family and after years alone finds love and someone they want to share their crazy family with.
After the rosary, it’s game-time. The object is to unwrap a rugby-sized wad of cling wrap as fast as you can, without ripping it, to get to the big prize at the end. Along the way there are prizes, lotto tickets, chapstick, candy, tiny single shot bottles of booze, gift cards. As someone unwraps, everyone else takes turns rolling two die and when someone rolls doubles, they get to unwrap and keep whatever falls out. The game causes a frenzy, there’s laughing and screaming, and cling wrap and prizes are flying all over the place. He walks away with a tiny bottle of Jack Daniels and three lotto tickets. He hands one to his brother, another to his dad, and they scratch them off together.
“Did we just win $1,000?” his dad asks.
“No, there are only two $1,000s.”
“What about this one?”
“That’s a $100.”
“Oh, so nothing… what about you?”
“Nothing either, it was fun though.”
He disappears into the garage as the rules for the next game are being explained to give her a call. She’s alone in her bedroom watching Hallmark Christmas movies. She laughs and confesses that they make her eyes watery.
His sister-in-law opens the garage door to grab a drink. “What are you doing here?” she asks.
“I’m on the phone,” he says.
“Ohh with a girl…” she lights up.
He laughs, “Yes, a girl.”
“With a special girl…” she pries.
He considers it, “Yeah, she is.”
“Oooh! Take all the time you need!” She smiles and gets back to the festivities.
She asks what’s going on. He explains the games. She says it sounds fun. He tells her he wishes she could be here. That she’d have a blast. To book a flight to get in tomorrow morning so she doesn’t spend it all alone and he’d pay for it with money he doesn’t have, but he’ll figure it out. She says his family sounds great, completely different than hers. He tells her they are. He’s lucky. They’d love her. They talk about family and home.
When they’re done he returns to the party. Cousins revisit childhood memories. Grandparents watch fondly as grandkids open gifts. Parents collect trash to keep everything under control and take pictures and videos of their kid’s reactions.
His phone vibrates while he’s leaning against the doorway soaking in the evening.
“Careful,” his sister-in-law warns, “you’re standing under the mistletoe! You might have to give someone a kiss!”
It’s a message from her, “Thanks for calling and the company, I needed that.”
“Anytime.” He smiles. “Wish you were here.” Sometimes people need to know there’s someone out there looking out for them, so they know they’re not alone.