On Christmas Eve 1973, I was hyperventilating beneath my Charlie Brown sheets, thrashing in the dark, my salivary glands in overdrive. This was my first anxiety attack, triggered by the worry that I would hear my mother placing presents beneath the tree, thus officially obliterating the Santa Claus illusion.
I already knew the truth. I was eight years old, soon to be nine, and I’d seen the remote controlled car I’d requested from Santa in my mom’s closet. Even before that, science had captivated me, and I couldn’t square the technology requirements for the sleigh, among other things. But I had yet to admit my crisis of faith to anyone. The dreamer in me, the believer, was still strong, and, due to particularly hard times, I was desperate for dreams and magic. More than ever, I desired the illusion of Santa’s visit. To experience that, I needed to fall asleep.
I gotta get to sleep, I told myself, again and again.
1973 had been intense. It was my first full year of fatherlessness. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother had not taken my older brother and me to Dad’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.
In the wake of my grief, I’d befriended an impish boy named Kemp. While dumpster diving behind the A & P, Kemp and I had discovered a brown bag full of Penthouse magazines, which we secreted away in our plywood treehouse in his family’s backyard. We pored over them, fascinated, titillated, and scandalized. The explicit photos and erotic stories alternately aroused us and freaked us out.
Perhaps in response to the porn, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends named Antonio and Joe, who were elves. We swore to each other that Antonio and Joe were real, indulging our fantasies in a kind of sad pact. We ginned up excitement at seeing them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees.
Sweet, yes. But our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.
In retrospect, I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, at age eight, I was intimate with death and sex, or rather depictions of sex. I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement these ever-intimate twins evoked. I was winging it. In my bed on Christmas Eve, the air around me was heavy with mystery both tantalizing and scary.
Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel. Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.
Mom was bustling around in the kitchen, waiting for me to fall asleep. I smelled her freshly lit cigarette, heard her boiling water and padding in bare feet on the old linoleum, familiar sounds and smells that usually gave me comfort. It was well past 2 AM, and my brother slept soundly in his room at the other end of the house.
My mother came to my door to check on me. I called out.
“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”
“You’ll be fine, you’ll fall asleep, I promise.”
I resented her calm. “If I don’t fall asleep,” I said through sobs, “this will be the worst Christmas ever.”
She recoiled a little but recovered quickly, took a drag on her cigarette, the burning tobacco crackling as she filled her lungs. “You’ll be fine, honey,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep. I love you. Merry Christmas.”
She headed back to the kitchen, and, according to my ears and nose, she made a cup of Constant Comment tea in the crockery she and my dad had received as a wedding present, stirring in honey with a tarnished silver spoon. Sometime after that, I finally drifted off into wild dreams in which the Hippie Angel flew between the synapses of my fevered brain.
I bolted awake at dawn, having slept an hour and a half, energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room. There, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.
My brother woke easily. We did not speak of Santa, but rather said to each other, “Look! Look what I got!” We put the Partridge Family Christmas Card LP on the turntable and tore into our gifts, a familiar ritual we’d engaged in for as long as we could recall – just the two of us, wide-eyed, intoxicated with sugar, avaricious as pirates.
I took my remote controlled car into the street to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm that Christmas Day, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street with no fear, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept, and I heard no traffic, just the birds heralding the new day.
My car zipped along on the cracked concrete as my hands played across the remote. I was happy, but my huge chocolate breakfast and lack of sleep were taking a toll. The sun poked over the pines and my head drooped. I could barely concentrate on my toy.
A woman screamed and my head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a speeding automobile, swerving to avoid smashing into my head. It skidded to a stop a few feet away. I was running for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten, when I heard a woman’s voice.
“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”
I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird. A young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress was walking toward me on slippered feet. She stopped below a naked old oak. She shook her head, panting just like me. A bearded man was slumped in the passenger seat, rubbing his eyes. The scent of burnt rubber wafted over us.
“I almost… I almost hit you kid,” the woman said, pushing hair behind her ears. “I could have… Look. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but you shouldn’t be playing in the fucking street, kid. Please. Never do that. Never.”
I nodded, transfixed. The bearded man got out of the car, lean and lank-haired, and retrieved my toy, which he handed to the woman, who handed it back to me. It was warm.
“Merry Christmas,” the bearded man said, smiling. A frisson of energy passed between them, quick micro-expressions shared. I shivered.
“Be careful, kid,” said the woman, on the verge of tears. “You can be a little wild, but… You got a long life ahead of you.” I nodded again. I would never play in the street again.
Just before she dropped back into her car, she smiled and held up the index and middle fingers of her left hand. “Peace, kid,” she said. “Peace.”