Content Warning: Implied Domestic Violence.
We retreat to the places we call home, bearing gifts, sharing a single thought: please, nobody bring up politics. It's the most wonderful time of the year!
The 2016 election is fresh in our minds, but it's time to put our differences aside and bathe in homemade eggnog underneath twinkling lights.
I rescue my most beautiful ugly sweater from the depths of my closet, whip up my most indulgent recipe, gift-wrap a thoughtfully selected White Elephant contribution, and head to our annual generic-holiday Friendsgiving dinner, fashionably early. I've missed you guys so much!
I squeal as I squeeze the host! We pour golden potions into flutes. We chat and giggle as acquaintances file past. Here we are! The clique, reunited! Aside from a single missing link; but we don't mention it. She’s probably on her way... It's just so good to see you.
Boxes and bags patterned, red, green, white, metallic, form a mountain on the table closest to the embellished tree. Steaming glass pans and plates, piled high with treats, cover another near the crackling fire. I marvel at the land of abundance.
Jessica and I fly through the room to catch up with everyone. What is it you do now? What city are you in again? Oh my god, do you love it?
And then Lila finally arrives. She has a black eye.
I’m certain she has a story ready, but nobody asks.
No one really knows her boyfriend, who bestows a bottle of whisky upon the potluck and forces small talk with the few who introduce themselves.
The last time I’d run into my old companion, her face was also bruised.
My rugby buddies show off their rainbow welts like trophies, but she’s not one of them. She’s never been an athlete. She’s demure, sweet – and sure, sometimes a bit clumsy – but this looked worse than a sports injury.
When I'd pointed it out the last time, she immediately diverted eye-contact. She told me that she fell off her bicycle.
I considered questioning how one achieves such a specific facial injury, in that particular scenario, without cracking their skull open. Not to mention, why were you riding a bike in this weather?
But she didn’t laugh when she said it. So I didn’t laugh either. And we changed the subject.
The time I’d seen her, thus prior, she ranted to me about her then-ex, who has curiously reappeared today.
The only foregoing story I’d heard of him was accompanied by snapshots of my friend's torn clothing and wrecked apartment. She seemed embarrassed, and also high, drunk, or both, as she swiped through the pictures.
I’d babbled every cliché but genuine piece of advice I could spew.
I remember telling her, “We accept the love we think we deserve”. I was trying to suggest that she deserves better; stuck – for too long – with a man who makes her feel contrary.
In retrospect, I don’t think that message was received as intended. It might’ve made her feel like it was all her fault, even more-so than she may have already.
I also said “I’m proud of you [for leaving him]” followed by a promise that I’d always be there for her, whether she needs a ride, a bed, a meal, or just a listening ear.
She assured me, “I’m done with him”, and never took me up on my offer.
That was over a year ago.
More familiar faces file into the party, and I’m still not sure how to greet my once-a-big-hugger, now-barely-a-head-nod friend. She isn’t very close with any of us anymore.
I approach the motley buffet, hover towards her, and say “so glad you could make it”. She returns a soft smile.
I awkwardly glance around the bustling space and assess where to sit.
One of my best guy friends from childhood is in attendance.
Mike “likes” my Instagram photos - most often the ones featuring my hot friends. That’s the extent of our relationship these days, outside the occasional group event, like this – which of course, was also orchestrated on social media. Hooray for technology!
I did notice, in one of his more recent posts, a sidekick donning a bright red Make America Great Again hat. I literally resisted the urge to unfollow him in an instant. A bit rash, I know.
As that image crosses my mind, I think, perhaps, the congregation should set some ground rules to maintain a civil evening. For example, please, nobody bring up politics.
It’s a hypocritical thought, as I am often so tempted to speak on issues myself.
How can we move forward as a society without gaining and sharing knowledge and insight from the unique education and experiences of others... right? RIGHT?!
But it seems there’s an embargo on communication in our society. As far as I’m concerned, the only loophole is empathy, which apparently, is not plentiful in the land of abundance.
I snap out of my random cognitive trance when I notice Mike waving me over.
Just as I scoot into to a seat next to him, I hear a musical, high-pitched “White Elephant!!!”
Jessica enthusiastically announces the start of our favorite tradition, now that everyone has made a plate and is settling into the living room.
Mike smiles and embraces me with one arm, then looks to Jessica, who is explaining the rules of the exchange to the newbies of the group.
Everyone anonymously donates a single wrapped gift. We agreed on a twenty dollar maximum value. (It was five when we were kids, then ten in high school, and now we’re adults with jobs, so it's twenty. Living the dream.)
Jessica always picks out the first gift, partially as an example. She makes a show of unwrapping it. We always laugh. She always pretends she loves it, no matter what it is, just to get us excited.
She then picks names from a Santa hat, one at a time, to determine the following picking order.
The next person (and so on) has the option to either “steal” an opened gift, or to choose a new mystery one. The game goes on like this until everyone has something to take home.
There are always a few universally coveted items in the mix, like nice alcohol or gift cards, as well as some gag gifts, just to up the ante.
We always chat, consume, and do whatever else during the event, because it can take all night if there are a lot of steals. Not to mention, the pressure of everyone watching one person at a time is way too intense for a chill holiday party.
But we all watch Jessica’s opening act, at least.
She twirls around with a medium-small gift box in her hands, held up like the Lion King for us to adore. She slowly pulls the ribbon with the very tips of her long, painted nails, then tosses the shiny strand over her shoulder.
She is so dramatic, I love it.
Mike nudges me and whispers “she picked the best one... I brought it.”
Hello, rule breaker! I wish he hadn’t told me.
“Did your mom wrap it for you?” I tease him.
We watch tiny scraps of colored paper fall to the floor. The ordeal is always in slow motion.
We sit in exaggerated suspense, waiting for Jessica’s infamous delighted shriek.
But her face changes unexpectedly.
Her mouth falls open a little. And no sound emerges.
Behold! A Make American Great Again cap! It's just like the one Mike’s unfamiliar friend wore in that photo.
After an extremely brief moment of silence, a man’s voice emerges from a far corner of the room: “this White Elephant party was just crashed by a red one!!!”
Portions of the room howl with laughter, while others can’t help but cringe and make the ugliest, most sour faces. I am part of the latter. Jessica is part of the latter. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her break character during this game. She can’t even pretend to be impressed.
I make compulsory eye-contact with Lila.
I try not to focus on a single, black-mascaraed, brown eye, surrounded by fading purple and green. She quickly turns to her cackling guest to make soft conversation. I presume she is trying to distract him from an impending debate.
I shoot Mike the dirtiest look.
“Let me guess: another feminist thing?” he questions me, still laughing. My eyes widen.
He attempts to redeem his smugness with sort of a backhanded compliment. He says he trusts me – as an aspiring writer – to respond to eloquently.
He continues, “I just hate talking to man-hating feminists who never make any sense.”
Jessica audibly scoffs towards Mike, but addresses the crowd. She plasters on a terrifying grin, says “please, for the love of God, take this from me” and yanks a name out of the hat.
I look back towards Lila. She’s already shimmying on her coat. Her boyfriend stealthily grabs his unopened bottle. He pulls her softly towards the door.
White Elephant continues through rowdy banter, while Mike is still oblivious to the real elephant in the room.
I have yet to redeem that last piece of “advice” I gave my brown-eyed girl and she’s sneaking out the door. I want to chase after her, but I don’t want to make a scene.
I don't know how to talk to her anymore. I don't really know how to talk to anyone. My mind constantly runs a million miles per hour, but I never know which words to release from the confines.
The door shuts.
I face Mike.
“Don’t you want your future wife to be a strong independent woman?”
He cannot stop laughing. “The girls I date aren’t feminists… they’re cool.”
And suddenly, I’m scared for them.
© 2017 JULIET FESSEL ALL RIGHTS RESERVED