Mario J. Gonzales
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
New Mexico Highlands University
“a starfish at the top of the tree”
Somewhere in LA you say this to yourself as you notice there are no presents under the tree. In fact, there is no tree. If there were, it would be artificial, aluminum, made to look like fresh snow had fallen on its body as if you were in Oregon in a cabin before a fire, the odor of spruce and pine needles everywhere.
To get that aroma within the city limits, she used to hang pine-scented car fresheners, the ones shaped like evergreens, throughout the alloy branches. The house you shared together would smell like a slightly used car and the presents, too. The candles and the stockings, the wreath on the door all took the scent of a forest surrounded on all sides by a highway.
While you were together it was great and you try not to remember the fights on Christmas Day and you certainly don’t remember what they were about. It must have been something important you think.
It doesn’t matter now.
You’re way beyond that.
You’re older now and you’ve grown, matured.
At some point in the past, you roamed grocery stores at midnight, the kind that look like giant warehouses. One night you were in a store called 24-Hour Foodz, only several fluorescent street lights away from your home in a neighborhood of shoddy one-bedroom apartments. On that night you walked the wide aisles and it might have been Christmas time for all you knew. There was tinsel everywhere and music that suggested dappled joy.
Men like you were there. Some were college-aged and you thought they might be drunk or high. They seemed happy, anyway, running in packs and avoiding you. Unaware of any existence you once claimed. And yet who could fault them, with you who couldn’t even bother to distinguish December from July.
There was a woman in the store shopping. She was like you: lean, with difficult years on her face. You exchanged smiles. Yours, a reflex, made you feel slightly intact for a moment, knowing that on the surface your teeth were fine, not too crooked, fairly white. Knowing, too, that you were signaling your availability for something beyond a smile at midnight in a grocery store where apples were the size of an angry man’s fist.
What you really wanted was to eat, love and breathe with an appetite because that told you life is real and that the hours were more than the exchange of day for night.
She spoke. You didn’t listen because she was like you but so much more. In her past there must have been children. You could see the small chaos of their birthday parties and watched them open their gifts on Christmas Day. There must have been a real tree there you imagine. Perhaps even a fire. Maybe even the absence of rancor.
She invited you over the next week. Some coffee and day-old rolls. And hours later you were still talking in her garden. A pattern of light was emerging, born exclusively for you and her. You began to feel life may turn any time now, portions once forgotten could be remembered. At dinner the following week, she laughs at your jokes. You wash the dishes while she sings songs in Greek near a broken radio. Her voice is unfinished but you don’t care. Colors brighten and the full force of this moment is made whole somewhere in your heart.
In Los Angeles the ocean is only a car ride away and you take her. Each time you step on the waves and write your names upon the water counting the days by sun and sea.
With her you felt fluent and she said next to you she could sleep. After so many years lying awake, she is at rest as long as you stay.
In conversations after sex you hear she has had cancer. Her husband left her once he saw what chemo does to the body. Long ago she had a daughter. Her child is now a grown woman living in the south. They speak once a month, mainly about the weather and how all politicians are crooks.
She tells you her family had an artificial Christmas tree. It was pink and white and her mother claimed it was made from flamingos.
This made her want to cry and she did.
You became lovers for a while. She lived with you and you shared a life with her. Bought a car, made plans to go to Hawaii, tilled the soil for a garden together. In spring you talked in the shade of trees and in the winter you watched her bathe sometimes, noticing the surgical scars written like canceled time across her chest.
You were together for only a while because nothing lasts forever in Los Angeles. She told this to you as the days grew shorter in December and she began to feel unsteady.
While it lasted it was nice and who can predict when illness will return and why it does. You’ve heard the saying that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice but that is just a myth as far you’re concerned. It hits even harder the next time around and very quickly it does its job.
The time together was nice except for each Christmas Day and you’re not sure why. Her mother and father sent her holiday cards which she never opened. And wasn’t it strange how she rarely mentioned her parents, as if she had none.
On Christmas Day she grew restless. You exchanged gifts and she would open hers very slowly, expecting, perhaps, an empty box. Or so you thought, watching anxiety in eyes, her hands, the breath that left her body and never returned. She would always say thank you and slip the gift back under the tree, where it would stay until it was time to put Christmas back in the closet for another year.
Christmas Day was the only day she drank and by nightfall she was drunk. She was unreasonable by then but so were you and perhaps even more so because you matched her drink for drink and everyone knows you don’t take your alcohol well. Even now, everyone can see how mean you become after tossing back a few.
You thought maybe it was something about having an artificial tree. Still, she insisted you buy the tree from the Sears catalog. Nearly seven feet tall, it was called Evergleam. You raised no objection even though it was a pain in the ass to assemble and year after year it grew shabbier and you can’t even remember where the tree is now. You may have given it away or sold it for three dollars to that Indian woman who had never seen a real Christmas tree.
You have. You grew up in Oregon and there were Christmas trees everywhere. You helped your father bring them into the house and made sure it stood straight and you can still see his belly, hairy and large, exposed as he struggled setting the tree in the house.
And once done, your sisters would drape the blinking lights around the branches. The presents under the tree you touched, studied the wintery patterns on their wrappings, felt the creamy texture of the bows and ribbons. Your father’s gifts always looked like they were wrapped by an elephant and yet they were dressed with the most colorful paper and somehow you knew he took the greatest care with the things he loved.
Your mother would make gingerbread people, men and women, holding hands, about to get married, she would say. Next to her was your grandmother who spoke what you thought was Russian but later learned was not a language at all. It was gibberish. She was loony as a flamingo, your father told you after her death.
Knowing this made you want to cry but you never did.
Christmas doesn’t seem to last too long in Los Angeles and you’re glad about that, much of the time you can’t even tell which season it is. When you go by the beach in December sometimes a man wearing a Santa suit is there, walking by the edge of the ocean. Every Christmas someone sets up a real pine tree on the shore, ornamented with shells, driftwood and rocks polished by the waves. Sometimes they even manage to get a starfish to the top of the tree.
Seeing this makes you feel a little less hopeful, a little more sad, a little more likely to slip into the dream of a Christmas morning where you have come to realize there is no return.