When my 35th birthday came and went without any sign of the erratic behavior, anxiety, trepidation or bitterness that so often accompanies this milestone, I relished the idea that I was perhaps moving past my hyperbolic years and surfing into an age of Enlightenment and Reason. That, or at least maybe I'd find a job I loved which also included health care benefits. Thirty was good. It was empowering. No more bullshit. I could tell people what I wanted and how I wanted it. I knew who I was and where I was heading right until the fortnight of pre-Christmas festivities/hooking up began. And rather than receive a light shelling of postage-stamped cheer as I had in years past, I got Nagasakied.
Everyone (without my noticing) had gone and co-habitated, which begat marriage, which begat holiday cards sent by friends who, when single, put as much thought into Christmas as at what hour and with whom they'd be making out under the mistletoe. If I ever get to the altar (and I might be in a wheelchair holding my own pee bag by the time this happens), I will abscond from the part of the marriage contract that decrees, "You are now man and wife, and thou shalt send holiday cards."
But apparently the newly wedded are bound to a higher, law-abiding order because day after day, I opened envelope after envelope: the red, the green, and the non-denominational "We live in Brooklyn, so let's not offend anyone's feelings" blue card. Photographs, some posed, others ad libbed, were glued or four-cornered to the exteriors of the cardboard pup tents that littered my kitchen counter. Newlyweds with glowing, joyous smiles turned into pretentious snarls that seemed to be saying, "Look how happy and fulfilled we are in our lives," while others held aloft their angelic newborns, not one of which had oversized ears, a flipper or any other redeeming birth defects.
There was the card of the couple lying on a bearskin rug, toasting with champagne glasses in front of the fireplace where two stockings were hung with care. There was the card of a couple in front of their newly acquired seven-figure house -- the wife gazing up at her husband holding the "sold" sign like he was the pro quarterback who'd just thrown a Hail Mary pass that clinched the Super Bowl. Then there was the card of the couple that decided it would be funny to dress up as Mr. Clause and Mrs. Clause and turn their baby boy into an elf. This was not quirky nor was it cute. It disturbed me -- the implication being that my friends had become the people that use every holiday as an excuse to attire themselves and their child -- who has no legal say in the matter -- in a costume. When it's Easter, the kid's in a bunny suit, at Passover he's the only goyim with peyas and a yamaka, and when MLK's birthday rolls around, he'll be holding up a peace sign dressed in blackface.
Vacationing Christmas cards were also abundant; they featured ice hotels, undisturbed beaches and giraffes in locations so remote the couples could only get there, or so they mentioned in their annotations, by helicopter, parachute or private yacht, or a combination of the three.
My all-time favorite best worst "Christmas card" was not a card at all. It was a piece of paper that listed family members' jobs, promotions, travel, births, marriages, and other sordid accomplishments. I don't know why this couple sent me their resume unless, of course, they thought I was looking for the most accomplished family in the world to be my assistant and so, naturally, they put themselves in the running. But I knew better. Because anyone that intent on painting themselves in such a positive light was probably hiding some serious dysfunction-and by highlighting the family's high points, they hoped it would diminish the low. For example, when the letter said, "Sam took a semester off to attend Outward Bound," in reality I knew "Sam failed out of school and needed rehab," and "Aunt Tilly took a three-week wine tour in France," translated means that "Aunt Tilly is a rich drunk."
I became completely unglued when Lisa, a former work colleague I spoke to only on an as-needed basis, sent me a card. I hadn't seen her in years, and there she was with her husband of six months perched in matching ski regalia like some rayon nightmare on the peak of Aspen's mount. I knew this because the inside of the card read, "Happy holidays and trails from Aspen." I was perplexed why she'd even sent me a card, but was more puzzled by the fact that she was skiing at all, because I distinctly recalled her mentioning that she liked to ski about as much as she liked to give BJs, which is to say, not at all.
Much like the maligned high-achieving Facebook posts ("Gstaad for New Years! Holla!"), these Christmas cards of mine also read as hyperbolically aspirational. But instead of laughing it off as I had in the past, a deep sense of anxiety coupled with shame swept over me. It's that same feeling I get when I see photos posted of friends at a party to which I wasn't invited or when the threesome I was asked to join quickly turns into a twosome.
I wasn't Bitter Betsy, exactly, it's just that by the time I conquered 35 with aplomb, I had finally prevailed against the archaic but pervasive notion that with no one around to zip up the back of my dress or impregnate me, I was somehow incomplete. But this phalanx of cards flung me into a well of insecurity about my single life that had once seemed so full and dynamic. I began to reconsider that perhaps my singledom was just a poor excuse for being commitment-averse and self-centered. Or perhaps both.
Having rubbed some of the tarnish off my life's silver, I went back to my trove of Christmas cards and they seemed changed -- or, at least, my perception of them did. My friends' photographic exhalations weren't aspirational; their happiness was, in fact, their reality: memories clicked during moments of glee, sharing the joy of parenthood, genuine expressions of love. And the resume card writer? He wasn't writing fictional biographies, he was simply describing what he saw: the best in every single one of his demented family members. Despite their flaws, or because of them, he embraced and embellished them all with loving panache.
When I saw the joy in my friends' joy, the tears pushing at the corners of my eyes was a proclamation that perhaps yet had finally arrived and my initial aversion to the holiday cards wasn't actually loathing, it was my sadness's reaction to longing. A tugging in my gut that whispered, I wish I had that, too.