A Christmas Carol

By Anel Viz

 

Jacob was gone.  He’d left, cut himself off entirely.  He gave no reasons.  “It’s over.  There’s no point going on,” he said, and moved out and disappeared, leaving him hurt and bewildered.

At first he lost his appetite and would wake up several times during the night, always after a dream he couldn’t remember.  Now he was eating again and had begun sleeping through till morning.  He thought he’d got used to Jacob’s absence, that he’d put it behind him and moved on.  His mind acknowledged the fact that for the first time since he was a young man he would spend Christmas alone.  But his heart evidently would not accept it.  As the holiday approached some part of his being rebelled against his loss.

Just for the sake of buying gifts, he went Christmas shopping for his sister and nephew, no easy task, since he hardly knew them – didn’t know them, in fact – and found himself thinking about what to get for Jacob, imagining how this shirt would look on him, trying to remember if he needed new gloves, wondering if he’d read this book, looking for the card that would make him laugh.

For as long as he could remember, Christmas had meant him and Jacob.  Just the two of them.  Jacob had no family, and his would have nothing to do with him after he told them about his homosexuality.  Freddy was two years old then, the last time he saw him.  He never saw his parents again either, and his sister only once, several years later, when his parents died in an accident and their lawyer sent for him to hear the will read.  A mere formality; it didn’t mention him.  Nancy sat as far from him as she could in the little office and wouldn’t look at him.  Her husband spoke for her as they were leaving.  “Don’t come to the funeral,” he said.  “They wouldn’t want you there.  You chose not to be a part of our lives.”

Then, out of nowhere, Freddy had shown up at his door.  He didn’t know who he was.  At twenty-five his nephew looked nothing like what he did at two.

He was all smiles.  “Uncle Evan?”

“Freddy?  What are you doing here?  How did you find me?  Does your mother know you’re here?”

“Yes and no.  I’ve come to try and renew contact.”

“Nancy doesn’t want to see me.”

“You’re wrong; she does.  She’s not at all like what she used to be.  All that changed when I came out.”

“You’re gay?”

Freddy nodded.

“And she still accepts you?”

“She fought it, but in the end she had to rethink everything she thought she believed in.”

“And your father?”

“Mom and Dad divorced long ago.  I’m not out to him.”

“Why didn’t she get in touch with me herself?”

“I think because she feels guilty.”

“I won’t make the first step, you know.  Not after all these years, not after what I’ve had to endure.”

“Then let me.  Come to dinner at my place.  I’ll tell her I’ve invited you.  If she comes, then she’ll have made the first move, right?  If not, then at least we can get to know each other.”

“Is Jacob invited too?”

“Is he your partner?  Of course.  I’ll jot down my number.  Give me a call when you feel ready.”

Evan didn’t call.  A week later Jacob was gone.

That boy – he couldn’t be more than three – sitting on Santa’s lap, wailing in fright while his mother tries in vain to calm him.  He felt the tears rise up in his own breast.  Of grief, not fright, unless fear of the unknown, the realization that his life had become foreign to him, was mingled with it.

The tears never reached his eyes.  He hurried away, his heart racing, his breathing labored, and braced himself against a wall.  Was this what they called a panic attack?  What a stupid idea, to look for Christmas gifts for total strangers, people who meant nothing to him!  How would that help him?  He’d do better to throw his money into the Salvation Army Christmas kettle at the entrance to the store.  No, not in the mood he was in.  Too much in keeping with the holiday spirit.  Maybe someone would just steal it from him; they’d put up signs all over the store warning you to watch your wallet.  There were always people out to pick a man’s pocket every time it got close to the twenty-fifth of December.

He’d read somewhere that the number of suicides skyrocketed during the holiday season.  It made sense to him now.  Not that he felt like killing himself.  The idea didn’t even tempt him.  What would it accomplish, other than to decrease the surplus population by one?  He closed his eyes, struggling to get a hold on himself, blocking out the piped-in carols and the noise of the holiday shoppers who walked right by him, oblivious to his distress.  Their words muted to a faraway hum, a pedal point droning beneath the turmoil inside him.  He hoped no one noticed.

“Uncle Evan, is that you?  I thought I recognized you.”

He opened his eyes and saw Freddy and a slender, pale young man standing in front of him, their arms full of packages wrapped in bright paper.

“Hello, Freddy.  What brings you here?  Don’t answer that.  It was a stupid question.”

“Why didn’t you ever call?  Have you lost my number?”

“I have it around somewhere.  I’m sure I could find it if I looked.  I just decided it was better to leave things as they are.  What good would it do to rake up the past?  It won’t heal.”

“Why shouldn’t it?  You see, I’m an inveterate optimist.  Aren’t I, Tim?”

“Freddy won’t admit you can’t make something right, and he’s not often wrong about that.”

“That’s because he’s young, and young people think they can change things.”

“And why shouldn’t we?” Freddy asked.  “But I’m being rude.  Uncle Evan, this is my partner, Tim.  Tim, my Uncle Evan.”

“I’m glad to meet you.  Freddy’s told me about you.  Sorry if I don’t shake your hand.  I don’t have a free one.”

“What does Freddy know about me to tell?”

“Not much, I admit.  Only that he has an uncle who’s also gay and who he wants to get to know.”

“To change me, no doubt,” he said, not ready to drop the topic.  “When he gets older he’ll learn that it isn’t so easy to change when you’re old.”

“Oh, but it is!  You just have to decide you’re going to do it.  Look, Tim and I are having a party Christmas day.  Won’t you and… I forget your partner’s name, but you will come, won’t you, if only for half an hour or so?”

“Jacob and I aren’t together anymore.”

“I’m so sorry.  That must be very painful.  But it’s all the more reason to come.  No one should be alone on Christmas.  Here, take my card.”  He fumbled for one in his shirt pocket, by some miracle not dropping all his boxes in the process.  “Take it.  We’ve told people to come at two, and it’ll go on all day.  Tim’s father will be there.  He’s another gay unattached man.”

“I don’t want people trying to set me up with someone.”

“Who’s trying to set you up?  Bob – that’s his dad – would throw a fit if he thought we were cooking something like that up.  You don’t think we’re throwing some kind of Christmas orgy, do you?  And don’t go thinking that everyone at the party will be gay, either.  Far from it!  The world has changed since Stonewall.  Have you let it pass you by?”

“I’m post-Stonewall too, remember?  I came out nearly four years after Stonewall and it didn’t make a damn bit of difference.  The world didn’t change as quickly as you think.  But I don’t know.  Maybe I – we – did let it pass us by.  We were pariahs to the whole world in those days, and kind of fell back on each other.”

What was he doing, unburdening himself to this happy, handsome young man, radiant with life, who seemed never to have regretted being born the way he was, never to have felt the anger and despair of rejection?  How could he understand what it was like to withdraw from the fight because you knew you couldn’t win, and how the taste of defeat poisoned you forever?  His own mother!  Freddy was lucky to have been spared that trauma.  Just think of it – to be loved so much that people will overlook anything because they can’t stop loving you!  Who but Jacob had ever loved him like that?  But you can’t expect a sister’s love to be as fierce as a mother’s.

And how much his mother’s son Freddy looked!  He ought to have known who he was as soon as he opened the door.  The same dark hair and light skin, the same self-confidence and trust in people, the same energy that nothing could contain, the same laugh.  When she heard he was gay, the laugh had faded on her lips, and her face, distorted in disgust, slammed shut like a bank vault.  He never dreamt that Nancy, too, would turn away from him.

“Uncle Evan?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.  Look, I have a lot of shopping to do.  I really don’t have time to stand around chatting.”

“Neither do we.  But you will come, won’t you?  At least promise you’ll think about it.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You said that last time.”

“And I did.  I thought about it.  Don’t worry.  I’ll hang on to your card.”

Watching Freddy and his partner disappear into the faceless throng, he noticed that Tim walked with a limp.

His grief had subsided.  He elbowed his way slowly through the overcrowded store, an island of indifference in a sea of happy excitement.  He considered buying a few little gifts for himself and asking customer service to gift wrap them without telling him what was in each box.  A silly idea, and demeaning too.  He left empty-handed, and when he got home he put Freddy’s card in the fruit bowl on the dining room table.

A couple of days before Christmas he received a book in the mail, sent directly from the publisher.  He took it out of the envelope and saw it was gift wrapped and had a Christmas greeting from Freddy taped to it.  “Probably some dumb self-help book,” he thought, and left it on a chair in the entrance way.

Rather than brood over being alone, he went to bed early on Christmas Eve, expecting to sleep through the night, as he had for the past few months.  Instead he had three dreams, all of which he remembered, and he woke in a sweat after each of them.

His first dream was a memory, vivid and accurate in every detail.

The bell in the church tower down the street struck one.  Only it must have been one in the afternoon, for it was daytime.  Christmas day at home.  Nancy had just become engaged and was acting all bubbly, fussing over her future husband, who’d come to spend Christmas day with them.  His family would arrive later.  At Nancy’s insistence, they had planned “an old-fashioned Christmas”, with roast goose, plum pudding and rum punch.

“Ours will be the best goose in the neighborhood!” she boasted.

“Ours will be the only goose in the neighborhood,” their father snorted.  “There’s nothing old-fashioned about this Christmas of yours.  It’s just British.”

“What could be more homey than a traditional English Christmas?” Nancy countered.  “Don’t you think so, Ev?”

“Huh?”

None of this meant anything to Evan.  The skinny teenager had his mind on other things, like trying to forget his secret for a while and look cheerful.  He thought he was making a good show of it, too, until Nancy said, “Didn’t you hear?  I asked you a question.  What are you so glum about, anyway?  You’re supposed to forget about your worries on Christmas.”

“Do I look glum?  I’m not; honest I’m not.  I was just thinking.”

“What about?”

“Oh, you know.  Stuff.”

He wasn’t glum, really.  He felt elated, yet at the same time terrified.  A week or so before he had finally put his fears aside and had sex with a man.  Or was he right to think he’d put his fears aside?  He wanted to blurt it out to everyone, but he didn’t dare.

It had been good, better than good, a positive experience in every way.  His dream moved into his thoughts and relived his first time.

He couldn’t remember how they met, or when he gave the man a silent nod and found himself following him home, searching wildly for an excuse to break it off, wondering what would happen if he did, wondering what would happen if he didn’t.  And then they were inside his apartment, and they were kissing, and thought melted away.  Pressed up against him, he became aware of the degree of his own arousal.  How could he have walked all that way with his cock straining to burst open his jeans?  Then he felt himself being undressed, and the mouth moving down his chest, and knew that he would submit to anything and return every ounce of pleasure given him to the extent his clumsy inexperience would allow.

When they finished, he lay beside him in bed smiling inwardly and gazed at the man who had possessed him.  Funny, that being a woman for someone should make him feel he was now a real man.  Happy, replete, he raised his head to place a kiss on his nipple, then, leaning on an elbow, he ran a finger down his body.  An ordinary man’s body, a few years older than his, nothing special about it, neither firm nor flabby, but to him a wonderment.

He tried to remember his name.  Surely he knew it at the time, but there were so many before Jacob, all of them so long ago!  The man shrank before his eyes, and the dark blotches of Kaposi spread over his skin.  He turned away and saw other, later memories standing in the doorway, equally nameless, wasted with the disease, stumbling hopelessly forward, their arms stretched out to him in supplication, trailing their IV tubes behind them.

He woke, his sheets in rumpled disarray like those on which he’d been lying with his first lover.  He heard the last chime of the church bell resonating in the night.  How many times had it rung?  Twice?  He didn’t have the heart to look at the clock.  It would be hours before he could fall back asleep.

He got up to get a glass of water.  On his way back from the bathroom, he noticed light streaming from the living room and heard voices laughing and talking loudly.  Who on earth was there, and who the hell had let them in?  Common sense told him to be frightened, but it seemed perfectly natural to go see who they were and what they were up to.

It was someone else’s living room, one he had never seen before.  Some kind of party was going on, no doubt a Christmas party, because a large tree hung with ornaments stood in the corner.  There were about twenty people, sitting, standing, socializing.  He didn’t recognize any of them.  He kept to the doorway in open-mouthed astonishment, apparently invisible.

“Why can’t they see me?” he wondered.  “Am I a ghost?”  Then he remembered how in the store a crowd of people involved in their own lives and plans for Christmas had looked through him as if he wasn’t there, a lone, unsmiling man disconnected from his surroundings.

A slightly overweight man about his age with a ruddy complexion moved from group to group making conversation.  “Hey, Freddy,” he called out, “where’s this famous uncle of yours?”

“Not here, Bob.  I told you not to count on him showing up.”  His nephew turned to face him.  So he was at Freddy’s party!  Rather, he was there in his own absence.

Freddy was not at all put out at being stood up, to judge by his expression.  Perhaps his face was incapable of doing anything except smile.

“Why wouldn’t he, when he doesn’t have anywhere else to go?  Doesn’t he care that it’s Christmas?”

“Obviously he doesn’t,” Tim said from the chair where he was sitting.

“I’ll never understand people like that.  Christmas means something to everyone.  It’s part of our childhood.”

“I’m not surprised, Dad.  He struck me as a sour old codger when I met him.”

“Well, I feel sorry for him,” Freddy said.  “He’s more sad than sour, if you ask me.  He’s one of those lost souls who’ve been hurt and shy away from people.”

“Don’t remind me, Freddy,” said the woman seated next to Tim.  “I can’t say I was looking forward to seeing him again.  Because of me, you understand, not because of him.  I mean, what would I say after everything we did to him?”

“I’m sorry.  Forgive me.  I didn’t know any better.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It is easy, Mom!  Remember, Tim, the first time we met and I made fun of your leg?”

“You’ve never made fun of my leg!”

“Well, not your leg, but I told that stupid joke – I can’t even remember how it goes – about people who limped, without realizing that the cute guy sitting next to me had a bum leg.”

“I didn’t take it personally, but you were so embarrassed!  I thought you were going to sink through the floor.  Did you really think I was cute?”

“I thought you were gorgeous.  And there I was, trying to work up the nerve to hit on you, and I go and open my dumb mouth.”

Everyone laughed, none harder than Freddy.

Was that really Nancy, her hair cut short and dyed dark blond?  He supposed it would be gray now if she let it grow out.  Older, of course, but not so very different, now that he looked at her.  Except her smile.  What had happened to her smile?  Not that she’d smiled the time he saw her in the lawyer’s office.  Still, she looked pleasant enough, sitting next to Tim, but subdued, not at all the old Nancy he remembered from when they were kids.

“You were thoughtless,” she was saying.  “We weren’t.  We were cruel, intentionally cruel.  I’m ashamed to say it, but we were.  I only realized how cruel much, much later.  Cruelty has no excuse.”

“You were ignorant, Mom.  Not many things can be as cruel as ignorance.”

“I don’t think anything has made as many victims as ignorance,” Tim said.  “Not just the people they hurt, but the ignorant people themselves.  They’re victims too, in a sense.  Or am I being too generous?”

Freddy leaned over and kissed him.  “Too generous?  No, not when it’s Christmas.  Christ’s message was about forgiveness.”

“It was about love, Freddy, not forgiveness.  Forgiveness is just a part of it.  Ignorance makes people hate, and it’s unforgiving.

“Should we forgive people who hate?” Bob asked.

“We didn’t hate Evan,” Nancy murmured.  “We thought we were right, and that we shouldn’t tolerate something we thought was so very wrong.  But it’s never right to be cruel.”

“That just goes to show how much harm ignorance can do,” Tim said.  “Ignorance always thinks it’s right.”

“Aren’t you forgetting greed, Tim, and poverty?  There are more victims of those than of ignorance.”

“I’m not so sure of that, Bob,” Freddy answered him.  “Poverty and ignorance go hand in hand.  The one breeds the other.  And let’s face it, it’s easier to fight poverty than ignorance, or it would be if it weren’t that ignorance condemns people to poverty and keeps them there.  Hell, it condemns people just for being poor!  Didn’t Christ say that too?  The first beatitude. What do you think, Mom?”

“That this is getting too philosophical for me.  But yes, Ev was a victim of my ignorance.”

“Well,” Bob said, “since he’s not here, the least we can do is drink a toast to the guy and wish him a merry Christmas in his absence.”

Nancy was first to raise her glass.  “To you, Ev.  Merry Christmas.  And I never hated you.”

Nancy.  He’d seen her and passed over her, hadn’t known who she was until Freddy called her Mom.  He was older, too, and it had to show on him. Would she recognize him?  He never really saw his face when he looked in the mirror to shave.

He waved to her and called.  She looked up as if she’d heard his voice, but instead she got to her feet and headed in the other direction to refill her plate at the refreshment table.

“I’m not here,” he thought, “and I’m not missed.  Unless I’ve changed that much.”

As he headed back to the bedroom to take a long, careful look at himself in the mirror, the church bell struck three.

In spite of the winter cold, he’d kicked off all the covers.  He felt himself burning with fever.  He pulled his tee-shirt over his head and flung it aside.

“What was it I meant to do?” he asked himself.  “I have this feeling there’s something I haven’t done.  It was what woke me up in the first place.”  Then he remembered the party, Nancy, and the mirror.  It had been years since he really looked at himself.  Well, he might as well see all of himself, do an honest assessment head to toe of what he’d become and where he was going.  He kicked off his boxers, turned on the light, and went to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the closet door.

He saw pretty much what he’d expected to see.  He knew he was older.  He also knew how much he weighed, how tall he was, and that his health was good.  His hair held no surprises.  He saw himself from the forehead up every time he combed it.  His had good teeth, too, as he knew.  He always inspected them carefully after he brushed them.  There was no part of him he hadn’t seen recently.  Even his toes got a careful going-over when he clipped his nails.  It was his face as a whole and how his arms, legs and torso all fit together that he had to take stock of.

Yes, he was still the same old Evan.  The same older Evan, rather.  His chest and arms were losing their tone, and his skin hung more loosely on him.  He wasn’t flushed, though.  Maybe he didn’t have a fever after all.

But how sad he looked!  Evan Ether, a pathetic, naked old man, with a more pronounced pot belly than he thought he had and his neglected sex hanging limp between the sagging muscles of his thighs.  Use it or lose it, they said.  Just an expression.  He’d find it more than serviceable if Jacob ever came back to him.  He was always rock hard in the morning; it wasn’t about to fall off!  But Jacob wouldn’t come back, not ever.  If he met someone else then.  That didn’t seem likely; he’d become too much of a recluse.

His whiskers, though.  He’d shaved the previous morning.  Where did all that stubble come from?  And surely he’d had a haircut more recently than that.  His wrinkles seemed to deepen even as he looked at them, as if he was watching himself age before his very eyes.  The room behind him reflected in the mirror didn’t look right either.  Dusty, untidy, things not put away.

Who was that stranger with the blank eyes staring back at him, and what was he doing in his apartment?  He’d ask Jacob.  Jacob would know.  Where was Jacob, anyway?  Must be in the living room.

He wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the living room until a silent figure in the corner draped head to toe in black lifted a bony finger to point the way.  Halfway there, he realized he felt different.  Why, he didn’t have anything on!  How could he have forgotten he was naked?  Well, Jacob had seen him that way often enough.  He continued in the direction shown him, slowly shuffling his feet.

The living room showed signs of a not-so-recent party.  Why hadn’t anyone cleaned up after it?  They ought at least to have got rid of the desiccated, yellowing Christmas tree with cobwebs on some of its branches.  You’d think it had been standing there for years, waiting to be thrown away.  And where did they get that furniture?  He didn’t recognize any of it.  He sat down on the frayed, unfamiliar couch, and looked around him.  He heard the chimes and counted.  One, two, three, four.  Was that supposed to mean something?  Uncertain of who he was, where he was, of how he’d got there or what he was supposed to do next, he wept.

The morning sun shone brightly on his face.  Outside the air looked crisp and invigorating.  He must have slept through the alarm.  He’d be late for work.  No, he didn’t have to go to work today – today was Christmas.  How could anyone forget that?  He must be losing his memory.  It seemed to him that he’d lost it last night, and with it everything else, including his identity.  He remembered going to look for Jacob, of all dumb things.  Jacob was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.  He’d just have to find a way to celebrate Christmas without him.  To go on living, too.

He had looked ahead and seen the Christmases in store for him, and had caught a glimpse what his Christmas could be like this year, too – Freddy’s party, going on without him.  What did he have to gain by being morose and stubborn?  He would not let this be the first in a long line of Christmases spent alone.

Freddy and Tim had an apartment in one of those new luxury high-rises, with a doorman who asked you to check in before he’d let you back to the elevators.  Evan told him he’d come for the party, and asked him not to call up and announce him.  “I’m his uncle.  I want to surprise him.”

“Yes, he said you might be coming, but he didn’t sound all too sure about it.  A surprise, eh?  Can you at least show me some ID?”

Standing in the corridor listening to the guests through the door, Evan regretted his decision to come.  He hated being with surrounded by people he didn’t know, having to be introduced, to make conversation when he didn’t know what to talk about.  He was right not to let the doorman announce him; he was going to chicken out.  He would call Freddy in a couple of days, apologize for missing the party, and get to know him at his own pace, without a lot of strangers around.

He rang the bell out of habit.  Tim answered the door.

“Uncle Evan!” he exclaimed, as if being Freddy’s partner made him a relative.  “We weren’t sure you could make it.  Freddy will be delighted.”

“I wasn’t going to come.  You see I’m unprepared.  I haven’t brought anything.  I should have, for you two at least, it being Christmas and all.”

“Presents!  Do you think Christmas is all about presents?  What matters is that you’re here.  You couldn’t have given Freddy a better Christmas present.  You can’t begin to imagine how happy it will make him.  Freddy, come see who’s here!”

Freddy stepped into the vestibule saying, “OK, I give up.  Who is it?” while looking back to continue some conversation he didn’t want to interrupt.  The words died on his lips, his eyes grew wider, and his perpetual smile expanded in unmistakable pleasure, lighting up his whole face.

“Uncle Evan!  I was afraid you’d forgotten us!”

“Not forgotten, Freddy – avoided.  We don’t have to pretend, do we?”

“Did you like my present?’

Evan looked at him, momentarily puzzled.  He’d forgotten all about it.  It was still on the chair.

“Didn’t you get it?”

“No, no, it came, thank you.  It’s just that I haven’t got around to opening it.  You see, Jacob and I used to open our presents together Christmas morning, and now that he’s gone…”

“I understand.  It’s not important.  I’m sure you’ve read it already – I mean, who hasn’t? – but it seemed somehow appropriate.”

He thought he could guess what the book was.  How Freddy could have known about his dreams before he had them was another matter.  “I don’t mind rereading books.  I do it often, and I’m sure it will be something I like.”

“Well, what are you waiting out here for?  Come in, come in.”

“Is Nancy here?”

“Where else would she be on Christmas?  Come.  Won’t she be surprised!”

Evan hung back.

“You’re right,” Freddy said.  “I’ll go get her.  She should come to you.  And you should patch things up alone out here, just the two of you.  Not in front of strangers.  Tim, don’t you dare let him go anywhere.”

Evan answered for him.  “Don’t worry. I won’t.”

So he was going to see Nancy again, after almost a quarter century.  What would she look like?  Like the Nancy he’d seen in last night’s dream?  And would she say what Freddy told her to say?  “I’m sorry.  Forgive me.  I didn’t know any better.”

What answer could he give to that?

“I’m sorry, too.  I shouldn’t have refused to see you when Freddy came looking for me.  I was just too pig-headed to realize that the one I was hurting most was myself.”

But she didn’t apologize, not immediately.  All she said when she came into the vestibule was “Ev!”  Then she fell into his arms and began to cry.

(© 2008 by Anel Viz. All rights reserved.)

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