Dave Rice 1:52 p.m., May 23
Before April became my ex-wife, she worked at a hair salon in Pacific Beach. As Thanksgiving approached, the owner of the salon was suddenly overcome with feelings of civic philanthropy and decided it would be a splendid idea to sponsor a less fortunate family for Christmas, not to mention the positive publicity it would generate for her salon. The chosen family was having a difficult time monetarily, and to make their Christmas a happy one, throughout the month of December, the salon collected food, household sundries, and presents for the mother, the father, and all three children. April volunteered to drop the gathered food and presents off at the adopted family’s home on Christmas Eve.
When Christmas Eve day arrived, April, our two-year-old daughter, Daisy, and I were going to spend the night at my mother-in-law’s house and decided to drop the gathered food and presents off at the adopted family’s home, since it was on the way. A time for the drop off had been arranged a few days earlier, and we left our house on Bacon Street around eleven in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, we parked in front of a modest little white house in Bay Park. I waited in the car with Daisy while April unloaded the donated treasures from the car’s trunk. It took her two trips. She placed the first armful of goods on the front porch and then retrieved the remaining loot before she closed the trunk and then returned to the porch and rang the doorbell. April performed these tasks with great enthusiasm. She was very excited about being the representative of the charitable salon that was responsible for making the Bay Park family’s Christmas possible.
I knew in April’s mind she saw herself as Santa Claus, not arriving by mere Toyota but by magical reindeer pulled sleigh descended from the sky to make this blessed family’s Christmas dream come true. She would bestow upon them food and presents and, much more importantly, hope for the future. “Thank you! Thank you!” they would cry. But soon, as if the passing of time were unfairly accelerated, it would be time for her to leave. The grateful family, however, would not want her to go.
Oh, but she must, she would insist, she had her own engagements to attend, her own commitments to meet, her own loved ones to embrace, didn’t they see? “You must learn to enjoy yourselves without me, my darlings!”
But before the obligations of time and family forced her to leave their home, she might envision the family gathering thankfully around her, encircling her like a jolly living yuletide noose, the smiling children collectively hugging her in a freeze frame moment as if it were the closing scene in a heartwarming made for TV Christmas movie.
I watched April on the unfamiliar porch in her long dark coat with the faux fur collar and cuffs as she gleefully waited for the grateful people behind the door to spring forward in a holly and mistletoe laced explosion of anticipated joy. Momentarily, an average looking women, who appeared to be in her late twenties, opened the door and then helped April lug the bags of food and presents into the house; the woman was not smiling as she lifted the bags and then closed the door behind them.
I sighed. I was hoping what was taking place inside the home wouldn’t be as uncomfortable as I was imagining it, with low lighting, lots of indirect eye contact, some nervous fidgeting, and, of course, the family’s almost tangible desire for April to leave so they could truly enjoy their donations in candid, unencumbered, guiltless, comfort, but as soon as I saw April disappear into the house, I knew it would be. After a brief moment, the door opened and April walked out closing the door behind her. Now she was not smiling and her shoulders drooping. April opened the car door and got in. “So, I asked hopefully, “were they happy about getting all their Christmas stuff?”
“If they were, they sure didn’t act like it,” April spat. “The mom never smiled and hardly looked me in the eye. The kids were all huddled together in the kitchen watching us, but they never said anything either, or even bothered to come out of the kitchen. And the dad? I don’t know where the hell he was.”
Probably keeping himself busy in the garage until the smoke clears, I thought. Just like where I’d be if the circumstances were reversed.
“She didn’t seem even remotely thankful to me that all of us at the salon selflessly took the time to collect these donations for her and her family. And it was painfully obvious she just couldn’t wait for me to leave.” April looked at me. “You know,” she said pointedly, “they’d be eating ketchup soup and their kids would be opening presents from the ninety nine cent store if it hadn’t been for us.”
“I know, April,” I said. “Some people just have a feeling of entitlement and expect everything to be handed to them.”
“Yeah,” April agreed, looking away, “they do.”
I didn’t add anything and neither did April, and except for briefly bitching about it a half hour later to her mother and sister, I never heard about the ungrateful family again.
I believe I knew why April was treated the way she was. But I also knew how defensive April could get, so I didn’t bring it up before or after our arrival at the little white house in Bay Park. For once, I wanted a nice quiet Christmas with no arguments developing or stewing between us.
If I had been unfamiliar with April’s character or a novice in relationships with passively angry women, I might have warned her not to expect a hero’s welcome when she delivered the presents.
“Oh?” she would say, the single word question urging me to go on but also warning me to tread carefully.
“Sure, they’re struggling,” I’d say as I blindly ran full speed ahead through the minefield. “They recently both lost their jobs, and they’re trying to keep their heads above water while raising three kids. I assume they’re proud working people, and this is probably the first time they’ve ever been in this situation. They’re not use to accepting the generosity of strangers. Nobody likes being pitied, and charity is one step away from pity. These people are prideful and embarrassed about being someone’s charity case. My advice to you is don’t go inside, just quickly hand them their stuff at the door and leave. If they say, “thank you,” don’t say, “you’re welcome.” Just say something like, “have a great Christmas,” and then hotfoot it out of there as fast as you can. And don’t linger. They’ll think you’re lording your hierarchical position in society over them as if you’re the queen of the land handing the peasants some crusts of bread and a handful of twigs and pebbles for their children to play with and then expecting a ‘thaaaank you, your majesty,’ while they bow and curtsy submissively.”
An uncomfortable silence would develop between us. And then:
“You don’t think I know that?” she’d fire back. “It’s no secret you believe you’re intellectually superior to me, but do you really think I didn’t think of that? Of course I did. I know they’re embarrassed, I know that. And I know they don’t want to accept charity, but for their kids’ sake they did.” April’s voice begins to rise and the first of the manipulative tears make their appearance.
“And do you really think I’m that vain? Do you honestly think I crave or need anyone’s adulation so much that I’d linger in their living room or on their front porch waiting to be thanked and fawned over? Do you?”
Answering yes, or even no at this point would be no different than tossing a 40-ounce bottle of gasoline into a stolen Costco pallet bonfire. Like a lizard in the wild, I try not to move lest it draws undue attention to me, and I sit there in an isolated silence that will last for a very long time.
And so our Christmas would begin.
The vision of what could have been fades from the foreground of my imagination, and I feel fortunate that I’d kept my mouth shut. “Want a Hershey’s Kiss?” I offer, pulling a few foil wrapped desserts from my shirt pocket.
“Sure,” April says, taking a Kiss from my hand by pinching the little paper Hershey’s tail between her thumb and index finger. She skillfully unwraps it with one hand and pops the chocolate drop in her mouth. A moment later I notice a faint smile developing on her lips, and I know she’s thinking good thoughts and putting the bitter memories of the thankless Bay Park family behind her.
“Merry Christmas, April,” I say softly, but she doesn’t seem to notice. Daisy giggles from her child safety seat behind me for no reason other than that she’s simply excited to experience the all-encompassing bliss of her second Christmas here on Earth. April’s smile broadens. She’s lost in her own world, and I know it really is going to be a nice family Christmas.