The first time I ever drank rum was on Christmas eve. I was twelve. I had snuck downstairs to check out the gifts that might have been placed under the tree. A glow emanated from the living room entrance, and as I stood there under that arch, that fake plastic mistletoe dangled above my head. He stood there in fuzzy red suit, trimmed with white fur, and soot smeared across his face. White locks of hair hung down from underneath his stocking cap, curly loose tresses falling across his red cheeks. His nose was bloodshot, with dark capillaries trailing out from his nostrils like a map of Boston’s streets.
Walking over to me, Santa bit off a chunk of shortbread cookie; the crumbs dangled in his beard. As his teeth munched, his lips smacked hollow and wet, a loud disgusting sound. Approaching me without a word, he patted me on the head with a slow deliberate movement, as if each drop of the hand required much concentration. Running his hand down my cheek, he put his fingers under my chin, and lightly pulled up so he could peer into my eyes. Turning my face from one side to the other, he inspected me, like a judge inspects cattle at the fair. Stepping back, he sized me up, his hand now rubbing his own chin in pensive thought.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a bottle. It’s neck was long and thin, with a cork wedged into the smooth glass mouth. Putting that soft, squishy stopper between his yellowed teeth, he yanked back on the bottle, and with a pop, the cork stayed between those coffee stained chiclets hidden behind thick red lips. Staggering back, he plopped on the couch, and with large sigh, hit the cushion, spilling stringent smelling liquid on his chest.
His breathing was heavy, and beads of sweat ran down his forehead. Putting his fist to his chest, he beat it a few times, and winced with each thrust of his enclosed hand. Putting the bottle to his mouth, he upended its contents, and I watched the amber liquid bubble and froth, as it slipped down his throat. He held it there for what seemed like an eternity, but was really only four or five seconds. The bottle half empty, it sloshed as he put it on the arm of the chair. Looking at me, he patted his knee, and motioned with his hand to move toward him.
Walking across the floor in my socks, I maneuvered around the boards I knew creaked, hoping not to awaken my parents. Finding his leg, I sat upon his knee, and looked up into his face. He had a strange smell to him. It wasn’t dirty or disgusting, but alien, as if the same liquid he drank also functioned as cologne. It had a bite to the senses, like my father’s Old Spice, but not as pleasant.
His eyes were red, tired looking. He rubbed them with an obsessive frequency as he looked at our lit tree. The lights seemed to illuminate his eyes, but they were milky, and did not reflect the bulbs dangling from each evergreen branch. There was a vacancy to his gaze. The twinkling seemed to hypnotize him.
Placing the bottle in my lap, he motioned for me to take it. The glass felt cool under my fingertips, as they wrapped around the skinny neck. Motioning with his hand, he wanted me to take a drink. I peered into the top of the bottle like through the scope of a gun, squinting with one eye closed; as if I couldn’t see the contents through the glass itself. It was Santa though, he wouldn’t steer me wrong. He was the most pure thing that existed. Joy followed him like a cerulean sky follows a midsummer sunshower.
A fire shot down my throat as the liquid met my stomach, making me gag and retch. I coughed and sputtered, feeling as if I would be sick. This was by far the worst thing I had ever tasted in my life up to this point. Pickled herring had held that privilege for years, but now this liquid reigned supreme as most vile taste in my 12 year old mind. As I suffered and winced from this betrayal, all Santa could do was put a finger to his lips and shush me.
And then Santa spoke in a whisper, harshened by a gruff tone.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time…A long time. I’ve seen the world change. Do you know what that’s like? To see the world transform around you? I’m a freaking god for Christ’s sake. I’m immortal, but eternally doomed to repeat this feat every Christmas eve. When you’ve lived as long as I have, it becomes a lonely mess of disgusting humanity.”
This was all he said. Santa seemed to stare vacantly at the shimmering tree. He put the cookie to his mouth as if he were a automaton at Disney World, the same motion, same time spaced out between each bite, same amount of jaw movements to masticate the sugary treat. It was as if he were in a trance. Reaching down, Santa put the bottle to my lips, and turned the bottle upside down. The amber liquid spilled down my gullet and burned my stomach. When he stopped, and took the bottle away, I gasped for air as if I had dove too far down under the lapping waves of the ocean, miscalculating the distance to the surface, clawing through the murky cold waters panic-stricken and afraid that my breath would not hold, and as I hit the surface burst my lungs wide open in fits of hypoxic gasps.
I could barely get words out between fits of coughs. “Ugh. Enough.” That was all I could stammer between spasms as my diaphragm jostled, forcing air up my lungs and out my trachea. Putting the bottle to his lips, he finished it off, as I sat coughing with tears streaming down my eyes. A swirl of bubbles and air frothed as the liquid gulped and sloshed down his throat.
“Now be a good lass, and march over to that cabinet and fetch Santa another bottle. Anything with the word Scotch on it will do.”
Standing, the world felt obscured to me. I felt dull and awkward. A heaviness had descended upon my limbs. Reaching into the cabinet, I grabbed another and placed it in Santa’s hand. Wedging the bottle into his pocket, he then stood, and thanked me with a slow silent nod of his head.
Walking toward the fireplace, he picked up his red velvet bag, and heaved it over his shoulder. The satchel slung on his back, he turned toward me. My head was fuzzy, and I felt a thickness to my tongue. I tried to speak, but all that came out was a slur of incoherent babble that scared me. My words stumbled out of my mouth and landed hard on the floor with no coherence. Those syllables and sentences looked at me with derision. Santa chuckled with a big “Ho, ho, ho,” grabbing his sides around his stomach, a large bulbous globe hanging over his belt.
“Tomorrow. When you wake, take two tylenol, two Alka Seltzer, and drink plenty of water. And above all else, throw up when you need to. Hangovers are a bitch.”
Touching his finger to his nose, he was pulled up the chimney as if by a vacuum tube in a mail room of some large high rise in New York City. The fire leapt and sucked up the flue for a brief few seconds and then died down to the small amount of flickering red tongues that danced upon the burning logs.
The last thing I remember. The darkness consumed me.
I awoke the next morning on the living room floor in front of the Christmas tree. An empty bottle of scotch was next to me, and a pile of vomit had worked its way from my mouth in the middle of the night. I was lucky I didn’t go full on Jimmy Hendrix. My mouth felt frowzy, as if I hadn’t brushed me teeth in weeks, with a thick coating of dry film over each tooth as I dragged my sandpaper tongue along each one to understand what it was I felt.
My parents were so angry at me they yelled and wagged fingers at me. I tried to explain it was Santa who made me drink, but this infuriated them even more, they not wanting to say, “there is no such thing as Santa,” in front of my younger brother. So they pulled me up to my room, gave me a waste paper basket lined with a garbage bag, and a glass of water.
As they left the room, muttering to each other about how I could have gotten to this spot so early in life and why, I yelled out to both of them. “Can I get two tylenols and two Alka Seltzers.” The elevated tone of my own voice rang like a bell inside my head.
My parents spun around and looked at me like I had just done a headstand while reciting the Gettysburg Address. In utter disbelief that I even knew what those things were, they just shrugged their shoulders and said, “ok.”
I survived my hangover. That Christmas. That grounding.
I learned two things that year. Never drink with Santa, he’ll put you under the table. And hangovers suck.
Every year after that, I would sneak down before the night was over, and Santa and I would share a drink. I’m in AA now, but I feel like I’ve got a handle on my drinking. Now I put my token away just on that one night of the year, Christmas Eve. Hell, we all need a nip once in a while. And its Santa, he wouldn’t steer me wrong.