It’s axiomatic the holidays are complicated. The combination of diminishing light, inclement weather, family entanglements, copious food, myriad booze and, oh yeah, religion, makes the real holiday miracle the fact we still often enjoy ourselves. But of all the sights and sounds unfurled during the season—snow, candles, gifts, parties, carols, gingerbread, turkey—rarely does onanism make the list. I’ve never heard someone say, “You’ve got to hear my holiday masturbation story!” Unless, of course, that someone is me.
Before I proceed, I should note I have plenty of holiday tales that fit snugly alongside Rudolph and elves and such. I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life and have giddy childhood memories of climbing the giant Santa that was erected each year in the square across from what is now Westlake Center, of eagerly waiting for the downtown Bon Marché, now Macy’s, to light the giant star on its southeast corner, of wearing my pink bed sheets to play the Virgin Mary in my Catholic grade school’s Christmas pageant.
Though I’m full-blooded Greek, my mom’s side of the family came to Seattle a century ago, and our holidays have always been a festive and delicious hybrid of the best of both cultures. Unexpectedly, however, this combination is exactly what led someone to “deck the halls,” as it were, with a bough other than holly. And just as we’ll recall a fly before the rest of the soup, this sole tale of soloing leaps to mind before all the nights my mom and I baked candy-cane-shaped cookies.
It was two weeks before Christmas in 1984 and I was a junior at Blanchet High, where my brother Gus, a freshman, was already known as the funniest kid at school. In marked contrast, I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But I had my first real boyfriend, Phil. Over lunch in the fluorescent-palled cafeteria, we discussed Dylan Thomas poems and whether peace in the Middle East was viable. In the evening, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone. I was in love.
My father was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and my mother was a deputy prosecuting attorney with the same office, so it had taken them all of a nanosecond to deduce I was seeing a boy. They insisted on meeting him. I was and am close with my parents, but the thought of introducing them to Phil snarled my insides like a box of last year’s tinsel. I feared this proposed summit would be more of a cross-examination than a casual introduction.
“You have two choices,” my father announced over dinner at our kitchen table, which was decorated with embroidered holiday placemats and ceramic salt and pepper shakers of Santa and Mrs. Claus. The decor was more joyful than the collective mood. “You can invite him here of your own volition or I can run his license plates and see what I find. You decide.”
“Ha! This is going to be good,” Gus said and laughed.
“Shut up, Gus,” I said.
“Don’t say, ‘Shut up,’” Mom chided.
“What’s your decision?” Dad asked me, undeterred.
“Can’t you just meet him eventually? Does it have to be right now?”
“Okay, then. I’ll run his plates tomorrow morning. He better not have the slightest infraction.”
I knew Phil had recently gotten a speeding ticket. Two of them, actually. So, I caved.
“Fine! This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled and ran to my room.
Later that night, Mom convinced me it wouldn’t be so bad. “Tell Phil you want to bring him home for a traditional Greek holiday meal. Teenage boys love food. We just want to get to know who you’re spending time with.” And then she employed her go-to phrase in instances like these, “Don’t worry. I’ll see to it your father behaves himself.”
After school two days later, Phil loaded his books into my used white Mustang and we cheerfully drove the five miles to my family’s corner brick house. He hadn’t been so hard to convince. (As Mom had predicted, food proved a tempting lure.) “My dad’s an attorney, too,” he said, somewhat boastfully. “I can withstand some questioning.” When we pulled up to the garage, I marveled at how beautiful our home appeared. Red and green lights laced the roof’s perimeter and elegant holly cut-outs dotted the large bay windows. Dusk enveloped us, lending a romantic air to the task at hand. Who knows? I thought. This might be fun after all.
Once inside, we set our book bags near the entryway and looked at each other a bit shyly. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for two hours and my brother had soccer practice. It appeared Phil and I had the house to ourselves—a glorious if somewhat daunting prospect for a pair of sixteen year-olds who had bonded while deciphering Michael Stipe lyrics like they were Kremlin code.
Finally Phil asked, “Why don’t you show me your Christmas tree?”
“Okay,” I said and guided him to the living room. “Here it is.” The tree was festooned with multi-colored bulbs passed down from my grandmother and, also, ornaments Gus and I had collected since we were kids. Blushing, I clumsily tried to regale Phil with anecdotes about the glass Seahawks helmet, plastic cut-outs of the Peanuts gang and lovely gilt angels we’d picked up on a family trip to Switzerland.
Phil took my hand. “Why don’t we sit down?” he asked and gestured to the long brocade couch against the wall facing the tree.
I was hoping he’d suggest this. “Okay,” I said again, not wanting to seem too eager or discouraging. Plus, I suspected no guy actually wanted to hear all that much about blown glass and liquid gold.
We sat on the couch and Phil put his hand on my knee. “You’re my other half,” he said and I couldn’t quite tell if he was looking down in shyness or scoping out my chest. Then he kissed me and I suddenly felt both more relaxed and excited. But as we proceeded with this newly initiated make-out, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew in sound and intensity.
To my horror, I realized my brother wasn’t at soccer practice after all.
From down the hall, Phil and I heard a door fly open and Gus charged into the room.
“Aaaahhhhh!” Gus yelled and ran toward Phil. His hands were coated in viscous white liquid and he waved them around maniacally.
“What’s wrong with him?” Phil asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.
“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued and chased Phil into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s potted Christmas cacti knock into a wall.
By now, I knew what was going on. Gus, in full-blown, younger brother smart-ass mode, was hazing my first boyfriend. Poor Phil had no clue.
“Damn it, Gus! Leave him alone!” I shouted, sprinting into the kitchen where I caught Gus by his striped oxford shirttail and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Phil cried.
“Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid.” Gus said, his laugh now verging on a cackle.
What happened between Phil’s torment and my parents’ arrival has been obliterated by time and weapons-grade mortification. But later at dinner, Phil fielded my parents’ questions with aplomb. He complimented my mother on the lamb chops, cucumber, tomato and feta salad and warm koloura bread with kasseri cheese. He and Gus discussed school sports as if they hadn’t just wrangled with kitchen solvents mere hours prior. I kept a straight face and, being the only person at the table who knew everyone, finessed the different conversations. Despite its off-kilter start, the meal was a success.
Yet the next week, Phil left me for a gangly cheerleader with a bi-level haircut who was willing to go to “third base”. While that was no doubt a factor, I can’t help but think that, somewhat understandably, Phil preferred his Christmases white, not Ivory.
Illustration by Tom Dougherty