When the man who is large takes your hand you must go, your mother at your back like a shovel. Scuffing your shoes, you gain balance and enter The Mouth, as you consider it, a structure in the shopping center parking lot which is pretend shoe or boot or sno-cone or shed, red inside and out. On a crate in this cave a fan rotates.
The Elf pinches your waist in handing you over to Christmas, who tucks you under his beard on his lap.
Your list you’ve purely forgot, so when Santa asks what you want you’re struck silent. The fan curls his beard-wisps to tickling your cheek. Your hat has been tied tightly under your chin; it saws into your neck a penance if you squirm. Santa pets you down the back of your coat, There, there, not at all the way Daddy jiggles a pony ride for you. The balloon inflating inside his Santa clothes enlarges his lap as his gloved white fingers rub your knee where tights cover you, toes to underpants.
His flushed face, his steamy spectacles, heat swelling up from his thick-as-a-carpet costume, and still he clutches you close. “Mother,” he says, “I think it’s all too much for our little girl today.”
Mother plucks you from him, brusquely, efficiently, with embarrassment and a specific hatred, as those gathered and waiting hear, “What is wrong with you?” Shakes your arm in its socket. “I thought this is what you wanted.”
While you were on his knee she shifted a candy cane from the treat basket to her coat pocket. “It’s yours,” she says, but the contraband burns your lips and your tongue, makes you want to die. You remove it to examine where, how can it be hot? “Eat it” she says.
Uncle William is your cousin’s husband’s father; he’s nothing to you. At the wedding, Daddy’s suddenly pals-y with Uncle William, they two bluster-smiley, loose, drunk, they spin from table to table of guests. Large and loping, Uncle William, the head on a parade float, bobs and leads with his chin to entice you: “Come dance with me, girl.” Not Daddy’s fault Uncle William with his booming voice wants you.
Their lasso-ing arms will not be satisfied. You cry, “I don’t want –” as Daddy drags your ninety pounds from your chair and puts your hand in Uncle William’s paw, doing what he thinks is a friendly thing for his new best friend. Uncle William lowers his massive head in your face and shimmy-shakes fire.
You shrink, screaming, “I said I don’t want to!”
You hair’s long enough to whip, and your daddy snares some to still you. “What’s wrong?” He’s genuinely puzzled.
You break loose, flee down the hall and press to the floor of the coat check, tallying the rest of time by the whoosh and collapse of the bathroom doors, the guest patches coming and going. With a safety pin through your nylons you draw blood on your leg.
It’s a wonder you make it home to Thanksgiving your first year of college. No one would believe a taxi driver stowing your suitcase in his trunk as you stand in the train station feeling robbed.
You tell him, “I need the airport.”
“Flights canceled til morning,” he says, like bad weather’s your doing. Those on your same train from the city to its outskirts are carried away into the snow-dusk by friends. At the train-plane connection, you have no waiting friends, no hotel money, hardly enough cab fare (and no tip), just the sole driver with a once-broke nose moving in on you before you’re sure of what, his Silly Putty face, his neck puddling into a corduroy coat collar. Why is he alone out and about? He is for you.
He battles snow while you wonder each turn of the wheel how you’ll have to pay. Finally he banks among snow drifts, sighing: “I suppose you’re meant for my dashboard then, eh?”
You give him a quizzical, most innocent look, but he replies with gruff: “You know. Just a kiss for first, eh?”
He and his stubby fingers draw you close, his foreign accent and his Polish parts crowding the taxi, blocking the snowstorm’s eerie luminosity. From his cheek to his lap, he is a continent shifting, and you a layer of earth to be pressed down.
You imagine yourself screaming, flying out of the car, dead on an outer service road of the snow-socked airport. None of this is meant for you. As machinery noises grind up the far-off world, your boots melt to the car mat, and over the dispatch nothing but static like a ladder for your mind to escape.
Later he drops you in the idling lane at the terminal, withdraws your suitcase from his trunk, winks when you retreat from his try at one more kiss. You can’t even claim your luggage had been stolen, and who could you tell? And anyway, is it such a big deal that your belongings have been riffled, examined and re-arranged?
Your cousin’s groom declares, “I married the wrong one!”, shouts right out across the Easter dinner table and fifteen relatives, drunk as his father was at his own wedding. Uncle William, long gone, wish him well, the son-of-a-bitch. Your tongue tastes like peppermint, like cleanser, like the perfume of your dear widowed mother, who expects your kiss at the long table of relations. She hides a hat pin in the beret on the head atop her fragile neck, and she’s not above sticking you.
Her hot breath in your ear: “Paste on a good face.”
Flower out among them then, hello, hello. The nubby wool of sports coat collars on your fingers as you lean in and greet, palm shoulders in silk dresses that will shred when dry cleaned. They have saved you a seat. Ears shaped like your ears perk up. Rumors are passed around with the meat plate: what, what, who’s this hoity-toit, isn’t she ours?
Of course, you are theirs and they are yours, to deny or drink up. Forgive these goldfish who can’t help themselves, myopic, bug-eyed, with little sense and certainly no regret over anything they’ve done, blockheads who keep curving just short of the world.
Your cousin’s husband calls out, “Here’s to the one that got away!” And when he winks at you, he looks as mole-ish as a squinty-eyed taxi driver.
A too-sweet wine’s what they serve, what they’ve always ever poured.
“With food you need drink,” your mother says.
Matriarch of matriarchs down there at the end of the table, she shrugs her shoulders, implying give in and go with it. You have always expected a special message from her, but she leans on social gibberish from her own girlhood and bygone oddities. As usual she crushes you, as usual you allow it. But since you last gathered with these you’ve learned how to bring things to your mouth and feign participation. You know you don’t have to swallow all at once.
© Donna D. Vitucci
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty]