You ever notice Christmas is the most depressing time of the year?
Oh, not for everybody. For some people, it's the best time of the year - all good cheer, ho-ho-hos, and mistletoe and music.
Like this guy Starsky who's in my class at the academy. He's some kind of Christmas nut. Even wore a Santa hat into class just the other day. And later he tried to show the girls some mistletoe, with a gleam in his eyes. Even walking to class, I heard him humming "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
The thing is, this guy is Jewish. So it makes no sense. (He likes Christmas, really? This big, tough, Jewish 'Nam veteran acted like a kid about Christmas?) Whereas I, who was raised on Christmas and should have it in my blood, I'm the one who gets depressed, and just wants to escape the whole end-of-the-year, get-in-the-black rat race.
Not that I have anyone to buy for now, except my parents and sister back home, and they'll be happy with the mandated tokens of affection I already sent. No Van this year, wanting to impress people, making sure we spend enough. No Van, nobody at all.
I was figuring on spending the day holed up in my room. My roommate, who's a few years younger than me, had gone home eagerly to his parents. He couldn't stop talking about how much he missed the dog and the folks, and couldn't wait to see the tree.
Listening to him talk, I felt about a hundred years old. When did I get so cynical, so tired of the whole thing? I used to love presents and snow and carols once, too. But it's been so long, and that part of my life is over. You know what they say, a man grows up and puts away childish things. For me, that's Christmas. I'm over the whole thing.
But I hadn't figured on how depressing it was to skip Christmas, either. It seems that not-Christmas is just as bad as Christmas - or even worse.
I was lying on my bed, wondering how I'd gotten here, what wrong choices or cosmic fates had led me to this place - broken marriage, divorce, disappointment to parents, midlife crisis early, career switch, alone on Christmas, barely any money to my name....
I was just getting into the really deep wallowing when Starsky breezed in. "Hutch!" he said, his voice going a notch higher as if in surprise.
He often calls me that. He's got a sort of melodious voice, an interesting accent. I admit I think he's fun and funny, an all-right guy most of the time, but not with this latest Christmas shtick.
I sat up and glared at him, and put out my cigarette. I'd been trying to quit... but not over Christmas. Couldn't manage that.
"Hutch." He gave me a stern look that mixed a scold and a smile. He reached out and caught my hand, pulled me to my feet.
"Starsky, what are you doing?" I sputtered, trying to manufacture some outrage for being burst in upon like this.
"Can't be alone on Christmas. It's a rule, Hutch." He jerked his head towards the door. "C'mon. There's a few others of us stuck here, and we're having a pahty in the cafeteria. Music, eggnog, everything. C'mon." He tugged.
I resisted. "No, Starsky. Honest. I don't like Christmas. Just let me go."
He gaped at me, distracted enough that I was able to get my hand free. "You don't like CHRISTMAS?" His voice rose on the word, incredulous. Even upset, his voice was sort of cute and melodious, like a kid or something. The truth is, I can listen to his weirdly-told, funny stories for far longer than I could listen to the same nonsense from anyone else, just because he's so good at saying it all, and he has such an interesting voice.
But now I frowned at him defensively. "I'm not a fan of Christmas, all right? I don't know why you are."
"Because! Red and green! Sparkling lights! Trees in the house! Presents, Hutch! Everybody's supposed to get presents."
He squinted at me closer, suspicious now, his face taking on the hard, tough-guy look he sometime gets - but not usually around me.
I hadn't known what Colby was talking about until I saw it for myself. "That guy's dangerous," Colby had said. "Better watch out for him. He's an ex-soldier or something."
And then one day I finally saw it, when one of our classmates - who later dropped out - made a racist crack. Starsky changed from friendly to fierce so quick it was frightening. "I better not have heard what I just thought I heard," he said. Now I regarded Starsky's tough-guy look uncertainly, wondering what I'd done to deserve it. Surely hating Christmas wasn't enough.
"You did get me a present, didn't you, Hutch?" he said.
My first instinct was to laugh out loud, to his face. But something about his expression stopped me. The fierceness was dying away to leave something childish and almost vulnerable. I certainly didn't want to see him looking hurt or anything; he sounded like he meant the stupid question. (Stupid because, I mean, we're not that close. I shouldn't have to buy presents for everyone in my class just because I've known them for a few months.)
But all the same, I found myself not wanting to disappoint him. "Don't be silly, Starsky," I said. "Of course I did."
He looked so relieved, I felt embarrassed for him. I reached out and squeezed his arm, promising myself I would give him something, I would. Maybe that red scarf my aunt sent me. It's not like I wear scarves much anyway.
"So, coming to the party, Hutch?"
I shook my head, and sat down on the edge of the bottom bunk. "Can't stand all that good cheer."
"Well." He stood there, sort of leaning on the top of the bunk, looking down at me, wearing a considering look. "Could you stand some eggnog? I could bring you some."
"Starsk, it's nothing but calories, and it tastes gross."
"Gross? Have you ever had eggnog?"
"Of course I have. And it's gross."
He leaned over, looking down at me, his blue eyes solemn. "Is there anything you do want? I hate to think of you alone in here, smoking in bed and brooding. You'd probably burn the place down if I left you alone."
I rolled my eyes. "Hardly. And I don't want anything, Starsk."
He sat down beside me on the bed. "It's not natural. You've got to want something for Christmas. Everyone does."
I let out a loud, aggravated sigh. "Fine. You know what I want? I want to be accepted as myself, the way I am. I want just once for someone in the whole wide world to-to love me the way I am, and not the way they want me to be. And I want a little peace; I want Christmas to be over and done with."
He looked at me, his eyes serious and unreadable. And then he nodded. "You got it, Hutch. It's over tomorrow." He stood up.
"Yeah? And how about the rest?" I asked him sarcastically.
He gave me a nod, and his face broke out into a grin. "Hell, you got that, too." He slapped his thighs. "Now, you ready for your present? I'll get it for you - and - you get me mine, too, okay?" He gave me a big, sloppy grin, back to being the eager child, and left the room with a rolling, bouncing step, whistling "Frosty the Snowman."
I stared after him. A present. Of course he got me a present.
I was still trying to figure out what he meant, granting my wish like that. Almost like the guy was dismissing me. Christmas would be over tomorrow: big deal, I still had to deal with today, didn't I? And as for the rest - I guess I shouldn't have said anything; he wasn't a genie or something (although that would explain his oddities, I suppose). Anyway, he couldn't just grant me my wish. I felt irritated with myself for trusting him with something so personal - and with him for dismissing it.
Then I frowned, and got up. He would return expecting his gift. It was going to have to be the scarf.
I barely had time to rip the nametag off the box, and scrawl "Starsky" on the outside instead, before he returned.
He grinned, and shoved a carefully-wrapped package (sure enough, red and green), into my hands. "'Cuz I know you love to read." He looked at me eagerly, his eyes large and expectant.
I turned over the book-shaped object. "Starsky, you're not supposed to say what it is."
"You couldn't tell?" His eyebrows rose. "We may have to work on your detective skills, Hutchinson." He gave me a swat on the side, and danced past me. "Where is it? Where's mine? Oh!" He spotted it on the bed, and in two seconds, was sitting there ripping it open.
"A scarf!" He draped it around his neck, and grinned up at me. "How do I look?"
"Cute," I said, before I could stop myself.
He laughed, perhaps a little self-consciously. "Nah. You're the cute one. I've got the old Paul Muni charm. C'mon, open yours." He grinned up at me.
The truth is, he did look cute in that scarf. This guy, I still couldn't figure him out. He had this mixture of things going on - one minute as old as the world, wise beyond his years, and the next you'd swear he's a little kid. The scarf, and the excitement in his eyes, brought out the kid. For a second, I wanted to swing him towards the ceiling, or lifted him up to help him reach the top of the tree, to put a star up. I wanted to pull him into a hug and promise him the moon, to go with the stars in his eyes.
"Open it, Hutch!"
"Huh? Oh, yeah." I bent over my package, glad he couldn't know of the sudden warm burst of affection I'd felt for him. I got the paper (and ribbon) off and found... not one book, but three. All three were thin. All three were... perfect. "Principles of Plant Care," I read on the title of one, and beneath it - "Guitar Classics." The third was a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth. I remember mentioning just last week that I'd been planning to re-read it.
I stared down at the books, rendered speechless. He gave me these thoughtful presents, and I gave him... a re-gifted scarf.
"Like it?" He sounded uncharacteristically quiet, even a little shy. I looked at him, and struggled to find the words to thank him. He hitched the scarf up, flinging the floppy edge over his shoulder.
"Starsk, I love it. They're perfect."
After that, there was no dimming his grin. He looked at me in the quiet lighting of the room. He looked at me like he was really seeing me, not the 'me' he wanted me to be, just me -and liking me anyway.
And I realized something. This guy was for real. He wasn't just some classmate. He was my friend. He had to be, to put up with me like this. To buy me presents that took thought. To care that I was alone on Christmas.
"Thanks, buddy," I said softly, and darn it if I didn't feel a little Christmassy just then, too.
He gave me a shy nod. "Thanks for the scarf, too. I like it."
We grinned at each other for a second. Then he smiled and hopped up, rubbing his hands together. "And now, Hutch buddy, you have your work cut out for you. You can try to beat me at one of these games: checkers, Monopoly, or cards. But I warn you, I'm a dab hand at all three."
Well. Let me tell you something. He might be a dab hand at checkers and cards, but he completely overestimated his skills at Monopoly.
I beat him soundly.
For some reason, he loved the red scarf.
He wore it wrapped around his neck for weeks, sometimes picking up the end and waving it at someone while grinning, other times swinging it over his shoulder in an especially broad gesture to whack the person behind him in the face. Once he wore it tied double around his waist, the long ends swaying with every step he took, and called himself The Sultan Starsky.
However he wore it, he looked far better in it than I would've done - red was his color, I guess - and, when he wore it around his neck, it sort of softened his face, somehow, even when he looked grim and serious. (I think the girls liked fixing it on him, too.) As for me, I read the plant book he'd given me, and Macbeth, and played him some of the Classics on my guitar.
And next year, I told myself, I'd buy him a real present.
Already, I was sure there would be a next year. Because I think he was telling the truth when he granted me my wish. I think there is one person in the world who likes me just the way I am: Starsky.