Equal Parts Hatred and Christmas

We were in life’s early limbo, mumbling between the freedom of adulthood and the restlessness of youth. We could drive, but only reasonable distances. We could smoke, but we couldn’t drink. We could legally move away, but most of us hadn’t. We were forced to be content sitting on a stoop downtown, talking, yelling, annoying tourists; powerfully dreaming of when we’d leave our shithole town. Emotions ran high and weird.

One night I was there with Brandin, a friend who was wise beyond his years. I felt closer to him than a lot of my friends at the time: we had both gone through The First Major Heartbreak shortly after we met, and we’d helped one another balm the wounds. It was mostly about numerical safety assuring survival.

That night we huddled on the stoop, smoking cigarettes and yarning to our sensitive violin sound bites beneath the December night, the Christmas lights reflected in the windows and our eyes. Every now and again a horse-drawn carriage would clop by, a pair of lovers cuddling in the back and some asshole with a top hat at the reigns.

“Fucking Christmas,” I said. “So annoying.”

I mostly meant the holiday influx of tourists in our hometown. Brandin’s family were born-again Jehovah Witnesses, so his callous for the holidays had begun to soften over the years from non-practice. His folks kicked him out when he told them he was losing faith in God and I feel like being buried in Yuletide was a sort of symbolic victory for him. He’d said he also enjoyed watching all the dazed shoppers wandering around town during the day, buying physical manifestations of what they didn’t have the words for. Sort of another religion for Brandin to marvel at from the outside.

I watched the buggy moving around the corner and my attention was arrested. Up the street. It was her, my ex-girlfriend. And she was walking down the hill with Him, The Guy. My replacement. My spare tire. They weren’t holding hands, but they moved close enough to one another to make my stomach flinch. “Goddamn it,” I whispered. Brandin looked up. He let out a laugh similar to when you’re watching an exaggerated death scene in a horror movie.

“I gotta take a piss,” I said, and crossed the street to the Café Mecca. I walked into the restroom and saw a small, framed photo on the wall. It was of a couple that looked irritatingly dapper, standing on the side of the street with a piece of cardboard that was scrawled with the words, Will Work for Lattes. I wanted to either cry or hit something. I thought of my ex coming in here with That Guy, joking about how clever it was. “Oh, that’s totally me. I’d kill someone for a Mocha Frappa Carne Whatever The Fuck in the morning.”

I left the restroom feeling like a bag of sand was attached to my waist. I never wanted to escape so bad, and I was certain I would see the two of them nestled against one another in the bay window. As I walked through the café, I noted that they weren’t in there and deduced that they were currently being sat at Friar Tuck’s or one of the other fancy restaurants that people with jobs ate at.

I went and sat down next to Brandin. Lit a cigarette.

“I hate Mecca,” I said.

He let out a chuckle. “Why? I mean… obviously. But why do you say that?”

“There’s this horrid picture up in the bathroom for fancy coffee people. Like it’s some sort of inside joke how addicted they are to caffeine.” I described the photo. Ignoring the hypocrisy, I took a drag of my cigarette. “’Oh my goodness, don’t talk to me before my first cup of coffee! Know what I mean?’”

He laughed. “’Oh I know. I’ll totally rip your balls off.’”

I smiled and hung my head, thinking about how her hair smelled. That Guy could probably smell it right now, and here I sat in my own swarm of cig smoke and a drifting sense of the future. We were quiet for a minute, both in our own head; then he stood up. “I gotta piss.” He went into Mecca.

I looked up the street and waited with a general sense of unease for her to emerge from a shadow. I felt like a bug floating in the middle of a pond, with no idea how to right myself and swim, nor the sense of which way to go if I did. I would have yelled if I wasn’t so self-conscious.

Brandin came out of Mecca and crossed the street just as another horse-drawn carriage was going by. “Hey,” he said. I looked at him as he reached inside his jacket. “Merry Christmas.” He pulled out that picture from the bathroom and smashed it on the sidewalk. It felt like the world’s record player skipped and everything became still and mute and I couldn’t be happier. I looked at Brandin in awe (not for the first time) just as the door to Mecca opened.

“Brandin!” It was a girl whose name I could never remember, the one who’d worked there forever. “Seriously?!” She pounded across the street. “Did you just take our goddamn picture out of the bathroom?!” She looked at the glittering glass on the sidewalk and in the street. “You asshole!” She bent down and grabbed the picture.

“Oh, I think that was Gabe,” Brandin said. “He just left.”

Right.” She started to head back inside the coffee shop. Just before she went in, she turned around. “You’re buying us a new frame.” She said it matter-of-factly, like an older sister.

I looked over and smiled. I felt a sense that the two of us knew some secret that nobody else was keen to, and whenever anyone tried to act better than us, we just had to try and remember that. Whenever a girl tore me to shreds, I’d just remember this night and become partially invincible.

But we were never invincible.

About a year later, Brandin was killed in a car accident. He was the first close friend I’d ever had die and it felt surreal. I remember thinking about that night on the stoop after I found out.

Fuck the sadness—that shit will always be golden.