The Dangers of Mistletoe
Twenty-Eight Days Before Christmas
The night began with a simple philosophical question—is it possible to eat yourself into a cheese popcorn coma?—and ended with reindeer-print boxer shorts draped over the lamp and a total stranger passed out and coiled up like a conch shell on my couch.
When I got home from work, I found a package waiting for me in the entranceway of my brownstone walk-up apartment building. It was a Thanksgiving present from Aunt Lu. Every year she sent a giant vat of popcorn in a decorative tin right around Thanksgiving. In theory this was a nice gesture, but as a single woman who had no self-discipline whatsoever, this was actually a very dangerous gift. Brimming with excitement (I loved presents! Even ones that would make my thighs bloat up like the cheeks of a chipmunk at a nut convention!), I took my booty, raced up the rickety green stairs to my apartment, tore off my many layers of winter outerwear, and opened the box to reveal a tin that was bisected with a sheet of spongy cardboard to separate the two flavors, cheese and caramel. I sat on the couch, turned on the television, and began shoveling cheese popcorn down my throat from my popcorn trough. The first few bites were ecstasy—the decidedly unwholesome neon orange cheese powder melted on my tongue in a manner that was thoroughly delightful. Soon, however, I was no longer actually tasting anything; I was merely shoveling food down my throat as if my snack were a timed event and the buzzer would go off at any moment. I was riding a giddy wave of excess and loving it. At some point I realized my stomach was rumbling and I felt slightly ill but there was more cheese popcorn to consume and I was powerless to stop myself from bringing yet another bite to my mouth. It was only when my doorbell zapped that I put a lid on the tin, dashed to the sink to wash off the radioactive orange powder from my fingertips, and temporarily concluded my popcorn orgy. I peeked out the window to see my girlfriend Chrissie standing on the steps below with an entourage of cute guys.
Wasn’t it every single girl’s fantasy to have cute guys simply show up at her doorstep? It was up there with winning the lottery without having to buy a ticket. And the crazy thing was, it was something I fantasized about a lot. Every time I got home from work, I would get a small flutter of hope that my life might have changed while I was gone—I’d have a message from a new client who would end up becoming my husband or I’d get a steady gig at a salon so I didn’t have to make money exclusively with clients I found on my own. Or maybe there would be a message from that guy I met at the coffee house last week and suddenly I wouldn’t be a romanceless, sexless schmuck anymore. I hoped to come home to a letter with a giant check in it from some mysterious tax rebate or something. The fact that none of these things ever happened did nothing to diminish my hope that something exciting was just around the corner. And look, here I was, with a bevy of cute guys suddenly on my doorstep.
I took stock of my appearance: I was wearing my hair back in a ponytail, which was somewhat unfortunate. It could look cute in a ponytail, but lots of guys told me my hair was my best asset—it was long, wavy, and butterscotch-colored—so I usually wore it free when trying to impress. But if I pulled it out of the elastic band now there would be an unfortunate tell-tale crimp, so the ponytail stayed. Other than that I didn’t look too awful except for the bright orange powder glittering across my chest. I quickly brushed it off and bounded down the stairs to open the door. (My building was too old for fancy advancements like being able to buzz friends inside.)
“Hi,” I said.
“Merry fucking Christmas,” Chrissie said cheerfully. She held aloft a fifth of spiced rum. I sensed danger.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Are you going to let us in? It’s freezing out here.”
“Oh. Sure. Come in. Um, my place isn’t clean since I wasn’t expecting . . .”
“Your apartment is never clean. Never fear. We won’t judge you.”
I stood back and let my guests in. “I’m Scott,” said a good-looking guy in a baseball cap and navy blue Patagonia ski jacket. With his dark hair and caramel skin he looked like Kelly Ripa’s husband what’s-his-face who used to be on All My Children.
“Yo. I’m Vince,” said a dark-haired guy.
“Brian,” the blond guy said.
No one said anything for a moment. I was trying too hard not to look at Scott again in any obvious or carnivorous way. Finally I realized they were waiting for me in the artic cold. “Oh . . . I’m Amber. Amber Taylor. Follow me.”
“We brought rum for the eggnog,” Chrissie said as she charged up the stairs. Chrissie’s long strawberry blonde hair curled in Shirley Temple corkscrews. I imagined that when her hair was wet it must have reached her ankles. She had tons of it. She often attempted to push at least part of it out of her face with a headband or a network of barrettes, but tonight she wore it loose and it bounced as she walked.
When everyone was in my microscopic apartment, Chrissie began rooting through my cabinets for a pitcher to whip up a deadly concoction of eggnog and rum.
I went to massage therapy school with Chrissie. Being a massage therapist is my twenty-eighth “career.” I’ve also been a sushi deliverer, the personal assistant to an eccentric writer, and, of course, cliché of clichés, an unemployed actress. I came to New York to pursue acting, but I couldn’t even get parts in unpaid theater roles let alone roles in movies or on TV. As much as I enjoyed rejection and poverty, when the office I was temping at offered me a full-time position in event planning, I pretty much gave up on acting and took it. I’m not a detail-oriented person, and event planning is all about detail, but I managed to do all right on the job for almost two frazzling years. Amazingly, I only messed up at work a few times, and my getting fired wasn’t about my mistakes: half the company got the ax due to a severe budget shortage. Still, when I got laid off I felt like I’d gotten a divorce—betrayed and hurt. It was worse than breaking up with a boyfriend. I’d worked so damn hard for the company, and my reward for my sixty-hour weeks was getting canned without a dime in severance pay and no place to go. I packed all my things into a box and walked out of the office feeling like I’d been cheated on. After reeling from being let go, I simply couldn’t bring myself to get another job doing the same thing. Anyway, being an event planner had never felt like a calling.
That’s why I went to school to be a massage therapist. I needed a job that made me feel like I was making a difference. If a person was in pain, it affected every other part of his or her life. In this field I could help people feel better physically and spiritually. I enjoyed being a massage therapist, but since I was just starting out, the money wasn’t exactly rolling in. Plus, I was still paying off my student loans from getting a bachelor’s degree in theater (what was I thinking? A degree in button-making would have been more lucrative), culinary school (which I sort of flunked out of due to the fact that cooking school teaches you not only how to cook, but how to calculate how much food to buy and how to run a successful restaurant—no one told me there would be math involved in cooking school!), and massage school. Despite the fact that I gave the federal government a hefty chunk of my monthly salary, I was on the you-will-die-well-before-you-can-pay-off-your-student-loans payment plan. Though I wasn’t making much money, at least I knew that as my own boss, I could never get fired again.
As Vince, Scott, and Brian made themselves comfortable in my living room, I said, “Um, so how do you guys know Chrissie?”
“We met atta bar,” Vince said, shrugging not just with his shoulders but with the entire length of his arms, his palms facing up, as if to say, you know how it goes. “Brian and Scott, these are my guys.”
I nodded just as the phone rang.
“Excuse me for just one sec,” I said, walking only a few feet into what passed as my bedroom. “Hello?”
“Tell me you have your ticket.” It was my sister, Emily.
“I haven’t exactly bought my ticket yet.”
“Christmas is a month away. You should have bought your tickets weeks ago. Prices are going to go through the roof.”
Emily, of course, would have had her tickets back in July even with a wedding to plan and a house to buy. “Well, you know, sometimes if you wait you can get those last-minute bargains.”
“What are you going to do if you don’t get a last-minute bargain?”
I exhaled at the same moment Chrissie thrust a cup of eggnog in my hand. The girl was a tornado—an unstoppable force of nature.
I mouthed the word “thanks” to Chrissie. Aloud I said, “Emily, don’t you think it’s a little silly to spend hundreds of dollars so we can see each other for just a couple of days?” I took a sip of the spiked eggnog, which could better be described as rum with a splash of eggnog. It nearly singed the hair off my head it was so high octane.
“Of course. It’s ludicrous. Christmas is ridiculous in every way. But if you don’t come, Mom will kill you.”
I moaned. Emily was right. “You’re right. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“But I just saw all of you at your wedding in August.”
I had no money in my savings account whatsoever, and I had abused my credit cards so badly I couldn’t even charge a ticket to Denver. Why had I ever left home to move to New York? Everything was so much harder out here. My rent on this five-hundred-square-foot hovel nearly bankrupted me while Emily just moved into her first home. Her place was three times the size of mine, yet she paid two hundred dollars less on her mortgage payment each month than I did on my rent.
“We’re your loving family. It’s not like we can see each other only once a year. And let me reiterate my main point, which is that you’ll never hear the end of it from Mom if you don’t come home for Christmas. You know she’s psychotic about the importance of this holiday. She will torment you every day for the rest of your life if you don’t come.”
“She will, she will.” My mother really could be a broken record at times. When I lost my job in event planning, she would call day after day and tell me to get a real job. I’d think, Mom, I get it. I’d like to find a real job, too. Then, three minutes later she would say the same thing in a different way. Something like, “You know, you could work in an office and wear pretty suits. Wouldn’t that be nice?” Yes, Mom, if only I could find a job I’d love to wear pretty suits.
I huffed into the phone. It was so unjust to be thirty-two and still letting my mother tell me what to do. “Why is she so weird about it? We’re not religious. We’re not traditional. I don’t get it.”
“I don’t know why, but the point is that she’ll make your life a living hell if you don’t get out here. Even if you make it to every Christmas for the next thirty years, Mom will be pestering you about how you broke her heart because you didn’t make it to the first Christmas I’m hosting in my life.”
“You’re right. You’re right.” I took another sip of my eggnog-flavored rum. I loved my mother, but she could be such a pain. Still, making her happy made my life so much easier. How the hell was I going to miraculously come up with the money for plane ticket? Maybe I could sell some of my organs off. Did I really need two lungs?
“Plus,” Emily continued, “Mom said she’s going to make some big announcement.”
I paused. “What kind of announcement?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think it could be?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“You think she and Mork are getting a divorce?” (“Mork” was our nickname for our mother’s husband, Jesse Moss. He looked just like Robin Williams in his Mork days, with straggly longish hair. That, combined with his obsession with suspenders, had caused us to call him Mork ever since Mom began dating him way back when Emily was twelve and I was ten. How were we to know Mom was actually going to marry the guy? Mom didn’t know about our secret nickname for him. We loved him, but secretly we were happy he was her second husband and not our Dad because we both preferred having the surname “Taylor” rather than “Moss.”)
Emily made a noise that roughly equated to, “I don’t know.”
“Well, she’s too young to retire and anyway she loves her job,” I continued. “Maybe she’s secretly gay. Maybe we’re really adopted. I know! We’re secretly wildly wealthy and Mom and Dad hid the money from us when we were growing up because they didn’t want to spoil us but now we’re going to come into our inheritance!”
“Yeah, right. Anyway, don’t you want to see Luke’s and my new house?”
“Why won’t she tell us the secret early?”
“Because she wants us all there in person.”
“We’re going to become wealthy, I just know it. I bet she’s won the lottery and is buying a boat and going sailing around the world and taking us with her!”
Emily sighed in exasperation. “Just get your ass out here.”
“Fine.” I sniffed. “I’ll keep checking Priceline and hope for a miracle.”
“Why don’t you just ask mom for the money?”
“Because I can’t bear to have her lecture me on how it’s time that I got a husband and a ‘real’ job. I’d thought that with you getting hitched she would lay off, but no, it’s only made her even more determined to get me married off. She acts like I’m beating men away. I’m trying to find someone.” Mom did sort of have a point: The truth was, I got asked out a lot. I was the queen of the first dates. The problem wasn’t that the guys didn’t like me but that I didn’t like them. There was never that spark I longed for. It was nice having men take me out to expensive dinners and shower me with gifts, but I wanted to find a guy who made me light up when I saw that he’d left a message on my voice mail or sent me an email. Usually I cringed when I got a call from a guy because I knew I’d have to give him that “I’m not into you” speech.
“If I don’t find the right guy soon, my eggs will have rotted away and I’ll never have kids. But I can’t just marry the first sperm-carrying male who crosses my path.”
“Since when have you been all hot and bothered to start having kids?”
“It’s the holidays. They make me think about what my life is going to be like twenty years from now if I never get married and have kids. Mom will be dead and I’ll be all alone for the holidays.”
“You’d always be included in my Christmas.”
“It’s not the same. I’d be the pathetic spinster tagalong. It’s too depressing. The other day, I saw a commercial for The War of the Worlds. It’s a movie about Earth getting attacked by aliens, and when we’re under attack, all the families come out of their houses and hug each other while watching the battle rage. Don’t you see, Emily? If we get attacked by aliens, I won’t have any family to hug and console. You and Mom are all the way in Colorado. I’ll be all alone.”
“Amber, if we get attacked by aliens, you’ll have bigger things to worry about than whether you’ll have family to hug while the planet is being destroyed in a blaze of alien fire. Anyway, you get asked out on dates all the time. You either turn them down flat out or only give them a few dates before you give them the ax. How are you going to find someone if you don’t give anyone a chance?”
“If you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it.”
“This has everything to do with your fear of commitment. This is just like you flitting from job to job.”
I groaned. “I told you, I couldn’t get work as an actress, I got fired from being an events planner, and the other jobs were just too mind-numbing for words. You sound just like Mom.” I could picture Emily clearly. She would be wearing freshly washed pajamas—actual pajamas rather than a tank top and sweats like normal people—her straight honey-brown hair would be perfectly neat in a sleek bob that cradled her face. Her nails would be short and neat and trim, and her skin would be flawless as always because a zit would never dare try to break out on her face because Emily simply didn’t tolerate disorder.
“I’m sorry if I sound like Mom, but it would behoove you to think of her wrath if you don’t get your ass out here.”
My stomach rumbled irritably and I felt a sharp pain. I moaned and clutched my unhappy gut.
“Spending time with your family won’t be that bad,” Emily protested.
“No, that’s not it. I got my yearly tin of popcorn from Aunt Lu and I devoured like half the cheese popcorn in a single sitting. You think popcorn is some light and healthy treat, but I’ve looked at the nutritional information on the bags of cheese popcorn at grocery stores, and the stuff has a jillion calories and is loaded with fat. Yet I’m utterly powerless to resist.”
“I know. I could eat the entire thing of caramel popcorn in a single sitting. When I got the tin in the mail, I refused to open it. I’m waiting for my office holiday party and I’m going to give it away to the person I’m the secret Santa for.”
“Wow. What willpower. If you were here, I’d gladly give you all my caramel popcorn.”
“If you came out here for Christmas I’d give you all the cheese popcorn.”
“No. The last thing on this earth I need is more. Thanks anyway.”
I really did want to figure out a way to get home. I was dying to see Emily and Luke’s new place, and I always liked hanging out with Emily and Mom. Plus, now that Emily was a stepmother, I had a step-niece and nephew I couldn’t get enough of.
“I assume you’re not going to Dad’s this year for Christmas either?” Emily asked.
Since our parents were divorced, we always had two different Christmases. I usually missed the one with Dad because he was understanding about the difficulty of me flying to California the weekend before Christmas and then flying to Colorado the next weekend. (Mom always got the actual holiday; Dad got the weekend before, mostly because he understood that the important thing was to be with your family, not the exact calendar day you did it.) Also, I’d never been particularly close to Dad. He always worked a lot when Emily and I were young and now that I was an adult, we just didn’t have much to talk about. He didn’t get my world and I didn’t get his. It wasn’t that we didn’t get along, but our relationship was formal and distantly polite.
“Nope. Dad even offered to pay for my ticket, but I told him I can’t afford the time off from work.”
“Then you definitely need to come out here.”
“I know. I miss you.”
“Oh, by the way, don’t forget to send Luke a card. It’s his birthday next week.”
“Of course I won’t forget.” I had forgotten; thank goodness she’d reminded me.
“What was that sound?”
“I have some friends over.”
“Ahh. I’ll let you go, then. I love you. But promise me you’ll be here for Christmas. I had to suffer through Thanksgiving with Mom and Mork and Luke’s mother all by myself. I can’t bear to be on my own for another holiday.”
“I’ll do my best. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
After hanging up the phone, I rejoined my guests in the living room. I sat on the floor because Vince and Chrissie were on the couch. Brian and Scott sat on the two chairs from my microscopic kitchen table. I owned very little furniture as I couldn’t afford it and didn’t have room for it anyway. The television was propped on two cement blocks covered in a batik blanket. That was all the furniture I had except for the mattress in my coffin-sized bedroom and a small, used dresser for clothes. My place was messy and cluttered, but I blamed that on the matchbox size of the place.
“How do you two know each other?” Scott asked Chrissie and me. He sat with his legs parted with his hands on his blue-jeaned legs. He had an easy confidence about him.
“We went to massage therapy school together,” I said.
“So you’re a message therapist too, huh?”
“Do you give happy endings? Chrissie claims she doesn’t,” Scott said.
Immediately, my jaw involuntarily clenched and I felt a wave of irritation. If you were going to make a living as a massage therapist, you had to be ready for some guys to think you were little more than a prostitute. A “happy ending” was something that apparently enough female massage therapists offered their male clients that some men came to look forward to them. I’d only had to deal with a few men with hard-on’s and unrealistic expectations, but the stereotype of massage therapist as prostitute irritated me to no end.
“No,” I snapped.
“There’s no reason to get defensive,” Scott said. “I just think a massage is incomplete if you ignore that area. It would certainly help a guy relax.”
“He can go relax that part of his body any time on his own. Did you ever notice how you can’t tickle yourself and you can’t really massage yourself, but on that area of your body, things work just fine when you’re solo?” I took a defiant swig of my eggnog-rum and nearly stripped the lining of my esophagus—it was like drinking Draino.
“It’s better if somebody else does it, though,” Scott insisted.
I glared at him. Unfortunately, he was so good looking, I found it difficult to maintain my righteous indignation. Plus, I realized I was allowing myself to become irritated. Nobody makes you angry; only you allow yourself to become angry. How many times had I read that in one of my eight zillion self-help books? Reading these books were all part of my plan to become a better human being who was at peace with humankind and in a perpetual Zen state of mind and all that kind of shit.
As I looked at Scott and tried to calm myself, I realized he looked familiar.
“Scott, have you and I met before? You look familiar to me.”
“Scott was in that Verizon commercial,” Chrissie said. “Do you remember it? It was the one where . . .”
“Oh yeah, I remember you! I know the commercial you’re talking about,” I said excitedly.
Scott’s face flushed. “The residuals helped me pay my rent for the last few years.”
“That’s so cool. I feel honored to have a semi-famous actor in my apartment.”
He shrugged. “It’s been a while since I’ve gotten any work.”
“Still, it’s great that you got the part. I tried to be an actress and failed miserably. You must be so proud.”
“He’s being modest,” Chrissie insisted. “He was in a couple movies, too. Have you ever heard of Red Rose?”
“Uh, no. Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was in the theater for like, ten minutes.” He shrugged.
“You were in a movie. That’s awesome,” I said, genuinely impressed.
I was distracted by Chrissie’s shriek as Vince pulled her onto his lap and thrust his tongue so far down her throat he could probably taste whatever she had for dinner swirling around in her stomach.
This was Chrissie: making out while I was stuck staring at two strange men and feeling decidedly awkward. I glanced at Scott again. Scott was so comfortable in his skin, so confident. I really wanted not to like him. He had that sort of alpha male arrogance about him that successful businessmen, college athletes, and men who have always had power seemed to have. But I found that Scott’s sureness of himself was strangely intoxicating.
“Ah, so Brian, what do you do?” I asked, trying to ignore the porno audition taking place on my couch.
“This and that.”
I cleared my throat. This was going to be harder than I thought. “Uh-huh. Are you from New York originally?”
“How long have you been here?”
I nodded, then stood. “Why don’t I get us some more drinks?”
“I’ll help.” Scott followed me to the kitchen. “I hope I didn’t offend you with my comment. I was just kidding.”
“No, not at all.” I became very busy mixing the rum and eggnog.
“That’s a really cool necklace.” Scott gently caressed my pendent; the pads of his fingers grazed my collar bone. The heat from his touch shot through my body; I shivered involuntarily.
“It’s a goddess symbol.”
“Are you a goddess worshipper or something?”
“Not really, not exactly anyway, no, uh-uh.” My tongue was stuck on some channel of stupidity. “I just believe there is a power that women have, and when I’m going through tough times, I can tap into that energy. Does that sound New Age-y and weird?”
“No. I get that. I believe that everything gives off energy. You know, vibrations that can be either negative or positive. It’s like how electrons bounce from person to person, from this counter to you, from the counter to the glass. If you give off positive energy, you attract it.”
“Doesn’t positive attract negative?”
“Maybe, but I like my way better.”
I smiled. “I do, too.” I was slightly taken aback to hear his theory. He was classically handsome, and I tended to think that guys who were that good looking didn’t think about much more than getting drunk and laid. Plus, I liked his idea. It was the what-goes-around-comes-around field of philosophy, and I personally believed that if you did good things, good things would happen to you.
He returned my smile. I wanted to whimper with longing.
When we returned to the others, Chrissie finally came out of her lip lock with Vince. “You know what this party needs? Music!” she said.
I surveyed my CDs. In recent years, most of what I’d added to my music collection were compilations of chanting by yogi masters and meditation gurus. All I can say is thank goodness I had crappy taste in music during my misspent youth (which, granted, was only a few years ago), and I had some suitably pop-sounding party mix CDs.
The next few hours involved a great deal more rum and conversation on topics I suspect were less than high-brow.
When I woke in the morning, I found myself on the floor in the living room with carpet lint up my nose. Brian was curled up naked on my couch, and a pair of red boxer shorts with smiling reindeer was draped over my lamp.
Why oh why was Brian naked? I bolted upright and did a quick status check—I appeared to have all my clothes on. Of course, clothes could always be put back on, so that didn’t necessarily mean I was safe. Please, please tell me I didn’t sleep with Brian the monosyllabic wonderboy.
Further reconnaissance revealed Chrissie and Vince in various states of undress on my bed, as if my bedroom karma weren’t—pardon the expression—already screwed enough.
Scott, I noticed, was nowhere to be found.
I looked around for tell-tale condom shrapnel or worse, a used condom lying like a smooshed sea snail in a sad and gooey heap. There was no sign of condom detritus, which either meant I was in the clear or in worse trouble than I thought.
“Chrissie!” I hissed in a whisper. “Chrissie!”
She lifted her head and cracked open one eyelid about a nanometer. “Huh?”
I waved frantically to indicate I wanted her to come over to me. Wrapping the sheet around her, she staggered over. Her hair looked like Medusa’s might of if Medusa had just been shocked by a bolt of lightning.
“Why is there a naked man on my couch?”
Chrissie’s gaze followed the direction my finger was urgently pointing.
“Brian? Brian’s just one of those guys who goes a little crazy once you get a few drinks in him. He started singing Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and doing a striptease.”
“I didn’t mess around with him, did I?”
“He passed out not long after the striptease.”
Chrissie woke up the guys and told them it was time to get going. After my houseguests sheepishly dressed and departed, I straightened up a little.
If only the disaster that was my checking account could be cleaned up so quickly. I was afraid, however, that it wasn’t going to be quite that easy.