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Christmas is, at best, a painful, guilt-ridden ordeal to get through. Just go home and go shopping and go to church and open things and smile and nod and stretch your stiff eyes into a smile and smile and smile. And go into your bedroom and shut the door and cry.

I drive down sixteen hours to North Carolina. I love driving. I am just out of finals week, cold and stressed and malnourished and cold and thinking the whole way, singing at the top of my lungs or falling into silence or talking to myself. Talking to myself in my head, apprehensive. I don't smoke anymore, so I don't have extra things to do with my hands. I keep the windows open, stay conscious in the cold. I don't have to do anything but not stop.

The last stretch of I-40 is always beautiful, the plum heather sky unrolling over me at tenthirty as the clouds begin to clear. I put on cruise control, take the pressure off my leg.

Then I get into town, and home, and the subdivision opens up wealthy and snobbish and terrible before me.

Inside, there is milk and toast and a hug. My parents are going to bed, saying how good it is to see me, how good to have you back, yawning, going upstairs. And I go into my room and see the stacks of bills everywhere, the cards they haven't yet sent out. I readjust the lamps and bed and table. I set down my bag.

I stay up until two or three, talking to my two little brothers, seeing their new programming projects or the quicktime movie they found the other day or the specific Penny Arcade they most agree with. And then we get to the topic of parents, and I hear what's been going on lately, what new developments in ongoing fights, what new controversies there have been. It always starts out so civil.

In the morning I have to run out shopping for hours. There has been no time before, and anyway I don't know what to get. So I am in the mall in coastal North Carolina, with eight billion other people, sorting through the assortment of nothing. I decide to get my parents wine again: they have everything else. Everything. I go to the used cd store with Brian and Kevin, pick out things we'll give each other, discuss them in detail, take them home to wrap for each other. Then I go look for other things for them alone. Sometimes this works. It certainly works better than shopping for my parents.

I eventually go to the beach, at Fort Fisher. It is December 21st, 35 degrees and misty. I sit on a rock or walk out on the bar. The trees hold their twisted trunks against the wind like they always have.

At dinner, my parents try to make conversation. They have no idea what I have been doing. I have not told them. I have been going to school, teaching class, grading papers. I have been living with someone. I have been eating lots of potato soup and bread and cheese sandwiches and drinking tea. I have been waking up from four hours of sleep, frozen, feet against the wall, to get up even more frozen and walk into the snow in my Birkenstocks and socks and heavy wool coat every day. I have been drinking with my friends until two a.m. on Monday. I have been thinking things my parents never think, doing things they never do. They can't talk to me, and I can't talk to them, and I am too burnt out to maintain a façade. But when one of us makes a joke or has an opinion and my dad gets angry at it, I try to stay civil. It may even work for a few days.

We all try so hard. It is CHRISTMAS and it is going to be CHRISTMAS this year. It is going to be Christmas. It is. We try and try.

We drink heavily spiked eggnog. We wrap presents, shut in our rooms. We decorate.

A couple years ago, my parents decided they weren't going to get a tree. I really didn't suspect, since my dad always goes as late as possible. But when I asked on Christmas eve morning, he said no, he said we decided not to this year. And Brian and Kevin and I gaped and gaped and gaped, horrified--this is the only part of Christmas that still seems real, that has any positive effect on me, and they want to end it?--and then went out and tried to find a tree lot. We couldn't find one, ended up at Wal-Mart buying a little tropical evergreen. We left it in the car, smuggled it in under cover of darkness late at night, decorated it with the lights we'd bought, because we couldn't very well hide an expedition to the attic. It was part of our presents to them, in a damn-you-determined fashion. Do you want to kill it entirely?

Neither Brian or I want to go to church. Kevin doesn't either, but he is the youngest, and the most cynical. He will just go so as not to have a fight--it's easier, better to give in. I will go sometimes. Brian will not. We fight with mom over this at least once, no matter how calmly we state our positions, no matter what we do. Out, you hypocrite.

We open presents. No one is excited. Instead we are apprehensive.

There are almost never any nice surprises. No one has known what to get or what to do for each other, especially our parents. We get shirts and headphones and good colored pencils. We smile at each other. Brian and I exchange a variety of covert looks. We all thank each other. None of us wants what we have, or what anyone else has. Everyone knows everyone else is not happy. But we smile and smile in an uncomfortable fashion. We drink coffee and wear robes. We try hard. Outside it is soggy, green and beige. Maybe Brian or Kevin or I have gotten one of the others something really good, something that they want. I got Brian a 70s leather coat a couple years ago. He loved it, and I felt good about the morning for about five minutes. Then my mom said, "that's a WOMAN'S coat! It buttons on the wrong side! You can't wear that!"

He wears it anyway.

We take our stacks of shirts to our rooms, leave them on the dressers, still in their boxes. We have some bacon and eggs. Then we separate. Brian and Kevin to the computer, mom and dad to the kitchen and tv, me to my room.

Everyone looks at their things and feels guilty that they don't like them. Then we feel guilty that we haven't been home enough, that we haven't been talking to each other, that we don't know our parents, we don't know our children. Mom keeps knocking on my door to ask me things, and I put down my book, a book I brought from home, and talk to her. I come out to peel sweet potatoes or make the cranberry sauce. The kitchen is warm and bright and covered in detritus. The tv is on, blaring The Bells of St. Mary's at us. We talk. Sometimes mom even seems happy.

Dinner is fairly regular. No one wants to fight, so we try extra hard. Don't say anything, don't do anything controversial. Introduce neutral topics, things that everyone likes. Ask for the gravy. Eat a lot.

Then we separate again.

The next day, I feel too guilty to keep the things I don't like. This is terrible, since then I have to go ask about returning things. It hurts my mother more than anything else, but I can't keep them. I can't keep anything they spent money on. I can't do it. Brian tells me I am being stupid, I should just pretend I like them, it's better for everyone, just leave them in your closet, just take them back to Michigan and ignore it and never mention it again. But it was money, and I can't keep their money. I will just feel a sick kind of terrible, and they will just make me feel worse about it later. I have to give it back. And so I talk with my mother, and see her eyes wilt behind her face, and I say I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

None of us know how to put it back together. This is the frightening thing. Our parents do not want to hear who we really are. We don't know how to tell them, and even if we did, all mom would do is deny it, and all dad would do is fight about it. I never want to come home. I always want to come home. I always come. I come home.

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