My father is obsessed with the lights on our Christmas tree. Every year he rearranges the bulbs until he finds “optimal coverage.” His favorite thing to do is make my mother stand approximately five feet from the tree and squint, to see if there are any holes in his lighting arrangement.
“All right, ready? Here we go.” My father plugs in the lights and stands next to the tree with an expectant look on his face.
“There’s a little hole on the top, George,“ my mother says, squishing her eyelids down.
My father rearranges the bulbs. “How’s that?”
My mother, still squinting, gives him a thumbs-up. “Perfect,” she says.
He beams brighter than all of the tacky bulbs on the tree, and I’m not sure if it’s the lights or my mother’s approval that’s fueling his happiness. My parents are the kind of people who live to make each other happy, the kind of people who never fight, who have inside jokes from 25 years ago, who seem to appreciate every second they have because they have each other. I love them forever, but right now it hurts to be around them.
“Is Ari coming over for Christmas?” my mother asks, and my eyes fill with tears. The tree becomes blurry and the bulbs turn into rays of light.
“You missed a spot on the left,” I tell my father before heading off to my room to try and figure out how the dead keep living.
I guess I should have seen it coming: Whenever I asked Ari about Christmas, she’d change the subject and go on and on about the best kinds of chocolate cereal or how people should go back to wearing fancy hats on the reg or how people should stop buying those tiny grain-of-rice necklaces with their names on them because painting them must contribute to the spread of carpal tunnel syndrome.
We began officially dating about a month after we met in the theater. After she miraculously survived two weeks of repeated Billy Bear viewings (“Some of the best naps of my life,” she’d said), we exchanged phone numbers and started hanging out outside of the theater, which was the greatest, not only because it meant we got to actually spend time together, but also because I could wear like, actual clothes as opposed to my truly toolish movie theater uniform. We never met at Ari’s house; either she drove to my house or we met at a “safe place” like a restaurant or club or somewhere her parents would never go. It sucked, but I understood: Everybody’s parents aren’t as great as mine.
Ari’s parents had caught her making out with her ex-girlfriend, Madison, about three months before I met her. They kicked Maddie out of the house and told her to never come back. Then they sent Ari to a psychiatrist.
“We had a family session,” Ari told me on one of our first dates. “And at the end the doctor was like, ‘I need you to understand that there’s nothing wrong with your daughter.’ And my father just stared at the floor, you know? And then my mother says—and I’ll never forget this—she says, ‘Well, maybe not mentally, but spiritually.’”
“Fuck,” I said. We were sitting on the couch in my basement with the lights off and the music on. My parents were upstairs. I’d never felt so much love and so much hatred at the same time.
“Yeah, well, she threatened to send me to one of those camps, you know, where they ‘fix’ you or whatever. So I just started pretending I’d miraculously become straight, because there’s no way I’m going to go through that bullshit. I’ll be 18 in November, anyway. Then I’m fucking out of there, forever.” She put her head on my shoulder and her hair scratched the side of my face. She smelled like violets and peanut butter M&M’s.
“Do you ever talk to Madison?”
“No,” she says. “She moved to Chicago, and I haven’t seen her in forever.”
“Yeah, well. What can I say? I’m a mess. My own mother thinks I need to be ‘fixed.’”
“There’s nothing to fix about you,” I whispered. “You’re perfect.”
“Tell it to my zits,” she said, laughing.
“OK.” I started tracing her face with my finger, going over the tiny bumps near her chin. “You’re perfect,” I said again.
“Eww,” she laughed. “It was an expression!” She grabbed my hand but didn’t move it from her chin, giving my index finger a tiny peck. I leaned in and kissed her the way I’d wanted to since the first time I saw her: slow and dreamy and seemingly forever. Two hours later, I heard knocking on the basement door.
“Midnight,” my mother yelled down.
“We’ll be right up,” I yelled back.
Ari fixed her hair and threw her hoodie back on. I walked her upstairs and out to her car. Before she drove off, I asked her what I’d eventually come to ask her after every time we hung out: “Where did you tell your parents you were tonight?”
“With Bruce,” she said. “I told them we were hanging out with his family.”
“I hate Bruce,” I said.
She buckled her seatbelt and started the car. “Babe, from here on out,” she said, “you ARE Bruce.”