On Christmas Eve I wandered around my mother’s house looking for things to wrap. For the last three days I’d been slamming doors and doing cocaine and forgetting that it was the season of giving, nominally because my girlfriend, Melanie, had left me hours before our trip north to visit our respective families. If I was being fair—which I wasn’t—Melanie’s decision made sense: Why wait until after the holiday disasters? It was one less thing to hold against each other forever. Downstairs, my sister Patricia hollered for scissors.
I opened the game closet and tried to find something without too many pieces missing. First Down! NFL Challenge was unopened but twenty years old. Warren Moon was an Oiler. The Oilers existed. Was it nostalgic kitsch yet? It went in the “maybe” pile. I heard Patricia pound up the back steps with Yoshi’s little dog claws clicking behind her.
“You’re wrapping, yeah?” she said. “I need paper, tape, and scissors.”
“Everyone’s got problems,” I said.
She looked over at my gift pile: a VHS copy of Con Air, a dusty martini shaker, a ceramic pig.
“Maybe some of your presents can be from both of us,” I said.
“Somehow that doesn’t seem fair,” Patricia said. My sister was in recovery and therefore disapproved of my selfish, histrionic drug binge.
“I’m doing my best,” I said. Yoshi nuzzled my leg because she loved me and wanted me to be happy.
“Give me the wrapping stuff and I won’t call you out on how full of shit you are,” Patricia said.
When I finally came back with the things she’d asked for, Patricia was examining the underside of a massive pink conch shell that I’d found in my closet.
“Souvenir of a lifetime, St. Kitts ’96,” she read. “Do you remember that trip?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither,” she said. “Those vacations all blur together. I guess we were probably fucked up.”
“We were, like, children in 1996,” I said.
I followed her downstairs but took a detour to the back deck to smoke a cigarette. There was some new snow out there that crunched under my feet in a not-hostile way. Someone had put cows in the field behind the woods, and I could hear them moaning. This was New Jersey, Princeton, for Christ’s sake. The cows knew they were far from home.
The last night I’d spent with Melanie had been in her little house outside Durham. That night it had rained so hard I thought the roof was going to come down on us, and when we had sex, Melanie wouldn’t make a sound no matter what I did. In the morning, over pancakes, she told me she was unhappy, that she needed time to think. Then, half an hour later, while I sat drinking coffee in a diner down the street, she called and told me that, actually, she’d thought about it enough. The rain turned to snow near the fourth tollbooth in Delaware and kept at it for the next two days.
My mother opened the porch door.
“I don’t care that you’re smoking,” she said. “As long as it’s just for now.”
My mother didn’t actually care. If I caught my kid smoking, I’d make him smoke a whole pack or hang a burning cigarette around his neck for twenty-four hours like a dog that’s killed a chicken.
“It’s just for now,” I said.
My mother sighed. “You know, if you don’t go to bed, Santa won’t come.”
“Ma, it’s only nine thirty.”
“Not in the North Pole it isn’t,” she said. “How does Patricia seem to you?”
“A little on edge,” I said. “But straight.”
“And you?” my mother said.
I flicked my cigarette toward the trees. It landed, still lit despite the snow, in the middle of the yard. “Similar.”
When I went inside, Patricia was wrapping presents at the kitchen table.
“I hate to see you like this,” she said.
“Would you drive me to the train?” I said. “I want to go to New York.”
“No,” she said.
“Would you shoot me in the head?”
“Help me wrap this,” she said. I sat down across the table from her and put Yoshi in my lap. She squirmed and whined but I held her tight.
“This is what I got Mom,” Patricia said. It was a jagged chunk of shiny blue rock. “It’s from Brazil. I always get her books so I thought, This year, make it a rock.”
“The heart’s love is priceless,” she said.
Patricia was twenty-six, three years younger than me. She’d been in and out of rehab since college but finally seemed to have pulled it together. I’d never been to rehab myself, but until recently we’d taken turns being the one with a substance problem. Now it was all up to me. She lived in New York and wrote lyrics for Off-Broadway musicals; I was a freelance radio producer, which lately meant recording pieces about the Research Triangle’s homeless population and then being told to send something less depressing. Tricia was and always had been much more talented than I was, and I was proud when I wasn’t furious about it. She and her writing partner were hard at work on a musical about Helen Gurley Brown, of Cosmopolitan fame. It was a mercenary project—Tricia wasn’t really into that shit—but it seemed destined for success. Sex in the City plus Mad Men plus singing till your fucking eyes fall out.
“Can we at least go to a bar?” I said.
“Steven, it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Tucker’s will be open,” I said. A couple of Christmases ago I’d passed out at a table in the bar and woken up on the bartender’s couch, naked, but, I concluded, inviolate.
“You should think of this as an opportunity to pull yourself together,” Patricia said. “You still have a choice.”
“If I stay in this house one more hour I’m going to lose my fucking mind,” I said. “I did a lot for you when you were in bad shape.”
“When I was an alcoholic,” Patricia said. “You are begging an alcoholic to take you to a bar.”
“Right, but you’re okay now,” I said. “I’m not.”
“It’s called enabling,” she said. “Didn’t you ever listen on visitors’ day?”
I really didn’t want to go alone. I’d been having waking nightmares about Melanie, thinking she was behind me, hearing her voice in the room. And the idea of driving, after the ten-hour tear from Durham, gave me the shakes. I fled to my room and put on a Beatles record. “It won’t be long, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” I cut out a line on my desk with my debit card. This was the decent stuff I’d gotten from a friend in Durham, which I’d been trying to make last by alternating it with the bad stuff I’d picked up from a kid in town. I should put here that I don’t know anything about cocaine.
I heard a soft knock at the door and opened it a crack.
“Look, you don’t need to be secretive about what you’re doing in there,” Patricia said.
“Sure I do.”
“Well,” she said. “Is it any good?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Okay, look, could I . . . could I have some?” She held out her hands like Oliver Twist.
“You shouldn’t,” I said.
“I know, I know,” she said. “But I’d love to have just a little. It’s Christmas, you know?”
She was so sweet about it, her voice gravelly and poignant. This wasn’t the old junkie sis, chugging vodka out of a water bottle before dinner; this was Tricia when we were kids, asking if she could come up into the tree house. No, this was not my finest moment.
“Will you drive me to the bar?” I said.
I let her in, cut the line in half, handed over the loosely rolled ten-dollar bill. She tightened it up like a pro and bent down over the desk.
“Oh man, it’s been a while,” she said.
“Savor it,” I said. “Because you aren’t getting any more.”
She sprawled back onto the bed. “This is all’s I need.”
I did mine—one more hit of cool, damp cave—and put my hands on her shoulders.
“To Tucker’s,” I said.
“Can I have just a little tiny bit more?” she said. “Since I can’t drink?”
Well, we’d gone this far. I cut her a line from the bad stuff.
“That one burned,” she said. “Yuck.”
WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN, I was sent off to the boarding school my father went to and found myself scared and lonely twenty-four hours a day. I was a good student but my friends were the bad kids, the ones who were smart enough not to get expelled but still spent most of their time stoned. At a school like that, where everyone was training to die of a heart attack on a yacht in the Bahamas, there was something noble about the opt-outers. I cried at night from homesickness, even in my third year. I was the favorite of my first housemaster and a scourge upon my second for the same reason: I wouldn’t leave him and his family alone. I could never fall asleep.
One weekend in the fall of my senior year, Tricia came up north to see me. It was against the rules, of course, but we stayed in a Marriott paid for by my father, who called and told the school that he was staying with us. Tricia was sixteen and had gotten a bottle of vodka somewhere. We sat in the hotel room drinking screwdrivers and watching HBO for two days straight, eating delivery pizza and Chinese food because I was afraid of being seen by someone from school if we left the room. We came up with movie ideas and argued about the merits of Bright Eyes and drank until we threw up and then drank more. Tricia seemed to understand what my problem was even though I couldn’t explain it. She made me feel better. When we said good-bye at the train station on Sunday afternoon, the thought of going back to school alone made me cry.
“You’ll be home soon,” Tricia said, and rubbed my back.
“I don’t want to go home,” I said. “I don’t want anything.”
“Don’t be dramatic,” she said.
Back at the dorm that night I finished the handle of vodka by myself and passed out on the communal bathroom floor. By some miracle my friend Landon, and not an adult or a snitch, was the one who found me, and he managed to get me back to my room. I woke up with puke in my bed and scared myself into not drinking until I went home for Thanksgiving.
And then at Thanksgiving . . . actually, that’s enough.
NOW, TRICIA’S CAR REEKED of old cigarettes and French fries. We lit new cigarettes to cover it up. The radio was playing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
“I wish they’d play the Italian Christmas donkey,” Patricia said. “You remember the Italian Christmas donkey song?”
“It might be too racist now,” I said.
“America can suck my dick,” said Patricia. “This is the Wacky Races, Dick Dastardly and Muttley. No room for moral hypocrisy here.”
There was joy in me for the first time since I got dumped. We, the Christopher kids, were single and high and going to see the sad people in the bar on Christmas. We would tell them, like that angel, what’s his name, to rejoice and be glad.
“Yo, we should pick up some candy canes,” I said. “To distribute unto the drunks.”
“Eh, I’ve got a bag of Hershey’s Kisses from Halloween in the trunk,” Tricia said. “No trick-or-treaters this year. As usual.”
“Did you know candy canes are supposed to be shaped like shepherd’s sticks?” I said. “Crooks, rather? And the red stripes are the blood of Jesus? I guess everyone knows that.”
Patricia rubbed at her cheek. “My face is itchy,” she said. “Does my face look weird?”
I turned on the light in the front seat and, yikes, her face did look a little weird. There was a fiery blotch spreading from her nose up across the side of her face.
“It’s a little red,” I said.
“It itches,” she said. “I’m not allergic to coke. I used to do it all the time.”
“Maybe you’re allergic to the other stuff in it. You’re not really allergic to things, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
I’d done plenty of that lousy batch I gave her and I didn’t feel anything.
“It’ll probably go away.”
I turned off the light and hoped for the best.
“Bad things always happen to me in cars,” Patricia said. “Tom broke up with me when we were driving home from Cape Cod. Then I crashed my car and had to go to rehab. Cars are a real problem area for me.”
“Trains are good,” I said. “I’d live on a train if I could.”
We were at the parking lot of the bar, which looked dark but open, with a few beat-up cars out front.
“Okay, my face is officially fucking on fire,” Patricia said. She turned on the light and flipped down the driver’s side mirror. Her face was a mess. The right side was so swollen that her eye was almost closed.
“Oh, Stevie,” she said. “I think I need to go to the hospital.”
“Maybe the bar will have some antihistamines or something,” I said. “Don’t worry. If something really bad was going to happen it would’ve happened already.”
I patted her on the shoulder and she jerked away. I hustled into the bar and immediately felt better in the bleach-smelling dimness. The front area was a liquor store, half lit and empty, and a couple of guys were slumped at the bar in the back of the room. Maud was looking up at a TV playing It’s a Wonderful Life. It was the scene where Jimmy Stewart abandons his new wife to calm the run on the bank. The blonde girl whose name I can never remember was standing behind her wearing a waitress apron. As if they needed a waitress tonight. Maybe she had a bad family life and wanted to be my new girlfriend?
“Maud, I came to celebrate the birth of Christ with you, but I wonder if you have any antihistamines?”
“What a nice tradition this is!” she said.
“My sister’s having an allergic reaction,” I said. “She’s all anxious about it.”
“That’s a shame,” she said. “I think I have some Advil.”
“Let’s give it a chance,” I said. “And some ice in a cup and some water?” And. “And a couple shots of vodka?”
As she got the stuff, an old guy at the bar turned to me. “Crap Christmas,” he said.
“I’ve got some candy in the car,” I said. “You like Hershey’s Kisses?”
He worked his grizzled jaws like he already had that chocolate in his mouth.
“Don’t you have a fucking family to bother?” he said.
I took down my shots and gathered the supplies from Maud. “Couch is free, kid,” she said.
“Did you expect me to pay for it?” I said.
“The drinks aren’t.”
“On my tab,” I said. “And tip yourself extra holiday bucks!” I didn’t have a tab.
In the car, Tricia was leaning back in her seat with her eyes closed. She was mutating before my eyes. “Steven?” she croaked. “You need to drive me to the hospital.”
“Take this Advil,” I said. “You’ll feel better.”
Going to the hospital would be the worst bad thing. It would be brightly lit and filled with terrible Christmas decorations and one sad paper menorah. It would be another unhappy installment of the Christopher-kids story: the time they spent Christmas in the hospital from bad drugs. It would take its place next to the time Patricia passed out backstage at one of our father’s speeches, the time we missed our aunt’s funeral because we were too stoned to drive, the time Patricia broke the first-floor windows of our father’s girlfriend’s house, which was also the time she found out that our father had a girlfriend. Couldn’t this be the time that Patricia’s immune system saved the day?
“My throat is swelling,” she said, and she sounded awfully convincing. I raised an Advil up to her lips but she shook her head and closed her eyes, laid her head back against her headrest in defeat. Fine.
“Didn’t they move the hospital?” I said.
“It’s a new one,” Tricia said. “It’s off 95 by the West Trenton exit, I think.”
“Well I guess it’d be good to know what the new scene is like,” I said. “The more you know, right?”
I got out and guided her around to the passenger seat. I clanged the driver’s seat back and jammed out of the lot. She started wheezing in a spooky way, so I gunned it to eighty on the highway and rolled down my window to let the cold winter air fill the car and drive out the bad spirits. I thought about calling our father, but what was he going to say? Go to the hospital. Then he’d show up there and I’d have to deal with him.
“Okay, Trish?” I said.
No answer. I looked over and her eyes were closed, but I could hear her rasping, slowly.
So I slowed down to follow the signs guiding the way to the hospital and parked in an emergency parking zone, then dragged Patricia out of the car and shuffle-stepped her to the door. Her face looked like a half-deflated basketball and her breaths had gotten shallow.
The lady at the front desk—mountainous, sleepy—told me to have a seat.
“Shit’s on the verge here,” I said. “Look at her.”
“Sir,” she said. “Everything is on the verge of something.”
The whole gang of waiting-room people was there: a wild-eyed white guy with a mustache and a chest wound, an obese black man who seemed to be wearing a floral bedsheet, an Asian woman exhaustedly clutching a comatose child. I declined feeling like a part of the cosmic web that contained them. If they were anything like me, they had brought this on themselves. But I was wrong about the Christmas decorations: there weren’t any. Tricia took slow, labored breaths until a nurse came and put her in a wheelchair.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said.
She wheezed something that sounded like “blood traffic.”
I sat there and looked at pictures of Melanie on my phone—Melanie holding a pumpkin, Melanie next to a stranger’s miniature husky—until I’d scrolled back to the beginning of our relationship, represented by the dim, interior shots of my apartment in Durham before I rented it. Then I turned my phone off, in case my mother woke up and tried to call me.
“CHRISTOPHER?” THE NURSE SAID, an hour later. “Brother? Would you come back with me please?”
I followed her through the swinging doors. Patricia was in a bed with railings, hooked up to an IV, eyes closed. A gawky young guy in a white coat was standing next to the bed. A doctor, I guess.
“So, Steven?” he said. “Your sister’s had a serious allergic reaction to something in the cocaine she was using.”
“Right,” I said. “How is she?”
“She’s stable,” the doctor said. “We’ll see how things look in the morning.”
“Can’t we go sooner?” I said. “Like, now? It’s Christmas.”
“Are you a drug user, Steven?” the doctor said.
“On occasion. Recreationally, I mean.”
“Well, you might want to think about that. If your sister hadn’t come to see us, she could have ended up in a very bad place.”
“Let’s just say it wouldn’t have been good.”
“No, seriously,” I said. “I’d like to know the full fucking extent of my negligence.”
The doctor kept a patient smirk on his face.
“Sure, she could have died,” the doctor said. “Lucky for her she has such a responsible brother.”
Well, that triggered my despair, which I have a real problem with.
“I’m sorry,” I said, to Patricia, who couldn’t hear me, and to the doctor, who didn’t care. I thought of our mother, asleep at home, soon to be confronted with this. She’d try, with good reason, to get Patricia to quit her show and go back into treatment, which she wouldn’t do. I sat in the padded chair next to her bed and watched her breathe, each breath like an accusation. I fell asleep sitting there.
At seven she woke up.
“Oh fuck,” she said.
“How do you feel?” I said.
“Terrible. I feel terrible.”
“God, I’m so glad you’re all right.”
“Well, I’m a junkie,” she said. “Have you talked to Mom?”
“I thought that could be your job,” I said.
“Jesus, she’s probably out of her mind. Give me my bag.”
She pulled her phone out and dialed.
“Hi, Mom? I’m okay. Yes, I’m okay, I promise . . . ”
I walked to the waiting room and chugged a Diet Coke from the vending machine. Christmas morning.
My mother arrived a half hour later. She had dark circles under her eyes and she was wearing a bright red sweater with an enormous green bow on the front, a joke Christmas present from last year that had apparently been appropriated into unironic holiday wear. The doctors told us they wanted Tricia to stay in the hospital for a few more hours. I got my mother some coffee from a machine and sat down next to her.
“Do you ever think about how I’m going to feel when you kill yourselves?” she said.
“It was just bad luck,” I said. “This is the last time for this. We’re done now.”
“Why do you even come home?” she said.
“For you?” I said.
“Well, thanks, Steven. Really.”
“I’ll be gone soon enough,” I said. I was trying for ominous but I didn’t make it past petulant.
At noon I told my mother I was going home and instead drove into town blasting Enter the Wu-Tang with my windows down, drawing glances of pitying forbearance from the strolling families of Princeton. I did this until the album started over for the third time, at which point my hands were so numb that it was a struggle just to turn the music off. I pulled into the empty parking lot by the bad sushi place.
There were so many choices: I could ask my father for money, drive west, change my life. Stick to weed. Send cards on birthdays and holidays. Learn to love myself and, eventually, someone nice and low pressure. Raise chickens. Forgo procreation. Show up secretly to the premiere of Tricia’s first Broadway show and sit in the back, waiting until after the standing ovation to reveal myself. Be forgiven.
AN HOUR LATER, I SAT in the living room with Patricia and my mother, unwrapping presents. I gave my mother the shell I’d found in the house.
“I remember this trip,” my mother said. “This is a weird present, Steven.”
“Patricia and I can’t remember it,” I said. “We wanted you to remind us.”
I tried to catch my sister’s eye but she was looking at her lap.
“You didn’t go,” my mother said. “Your father and I went for our anniversary. It was nice. Pretty sunsets. You know, a Caribbean island.”
Well, it was better to have never been there, maybe, than to have forgotten it.
Patricia handed my mother her next present, and she unwrapped it.
“A rock,” she said. “How thoughtful.”
An hour later, I knocked on the door of what used to be Tricia’s bedroom. She was sitting on her bed, cross-legged, reading a Jerry Lee Lewis biography.
“I’m heading out,” I said. “Gonna stay with Tommy in D.C. for a while.”
“Now there’s a good influence,” she said.
“Is there somewhere you’d rather I fuck off to and die?”
She went back to looking at her book.
“You’re not going to die.”
Tricia’s walls had once been covered in ugly magazine ads, drunken Polaroids, Clash posters. Not even the ceiling had been spared her chaos. My mother had turned it into a guest room years ago, so now bland flower prints were the only witnesses.
“I guess we’ll see,” I said.
She put the book facedown on the bed and hugged her legs to her chest.
“Don’t die, though,” she said. “Really.”
AND I DIDN’T. After getting kicked out of Tommy’s house, I sublet a dirty prefurnished apartment across the street from the university for the deaf. I got a nearly full-time job working on a janky local-politics show, splicing together sound bites by city-council members into unconvincing denials of corruption. Funny: it made me feel better about my life, and gave me less time to drink. I even handled a few objectively harrowing OkCupid dates without spiraling into the void.
One night, while I was having some whiskey—out of a glass, okay, with ice—and watching an incomprehensible late-night talk show, there was a knock on my door. I knew it was Patricia before I opened it. She was skeletal and green, her eyes unfocused and deep in her skull. She wore a huge camping backpack that hulked around the edges of her torso.
“Okay, I’m here,” she said.
“What happened?” I said.
She stepped into the house. Her eyes lingered on the ratty, plaid-upholstered armchairs and the wood-paneled entertainment system.
“This place is pretty sweet,” she said.
“There’s a little bit of a mold thing,” I said modestly.
I gave her a hug, felt how frail her limbs and shoulders were.
“I know I look like shit,” she said. “But it’s because I’m actually not drinking now and my body’s, like, really not reacting well to that.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“About which part?”
“Any of it,” I said. “You look like you should be in a fucking hospital.”
“Can I put my bag down?” she said.
“What am I going to do, kick you out?” I said it like I was furious with her, though I wasn’t. I was trying to wake her up, maybe, or keep myself from falling back into the old dream. She sloughed off her bag and sat down gently in one of the chairs, crossing her legs like she was waiting to be served tea. She stared at the sweating glass of whiskey on the coffee table.
“I’m working on a lot of things,” she said. “I think, maybe, we need to exercise some collective willpower.”
“What’s going on with your show?” I said. “What are you doing with yourself?”
“Everything,” she said evenly. “Is on. Hold.”
She was still fixated on the whiskey. I carried it into the bathroom, drank down half of it, and poured the rest in the sink. The ice bunched around the drain and I knew, obviously, that it was just a symbolic gesture. But so was a peace treaty, right? So was a funeral.
I set the empty glass on the coffee table and sat down in the wooden chair across from my sister.
“How about something to eat?” I said.
She rolled her eyes, a slow, glitchy process, and shuddered.
“Give me a second,” she said.
I leaned back in my chair and tried to slow down my brain. There was no rush. I mean, it wasn’t like I had any food.