CHRISTMAS PARTY, 2013
Written about my family’s 2013 Christmas Night Party but inspired by the style of FIESTA, 1980 by Junot Díaz
One perk of being an English major at UMass Dartmouth was that I was usually the first one out of all my roommates to be done with finals, which gave me a couple of options to handle my newfound free time: I could chill on campus for a week, lounging around like a bum doing nothing but hitting up the gym, or I could pack up my shit a day before class was out, hand in that last ten-pager, and head back to the crib for Ma’s good ’ol home cookin’ as soon as possible. Somehow, by the time finals week came around I was always usually down to seven bucks on my meal card so it was always the latter.
Ricky, seriously? I’m here until the 21st, bro. What the fuck? My roommate, Subash would say.
Sucks to be an engineering major, huh? I’d reply before giving him a dap and telling him to have a nice break.
GPS had campus being a 45-minute drive back home to Boston with no traffic. I always tried to get there in 30. There’s something about switching lanes on the highway like Speedy Gonzales and blasting music that just makes you feel alive. And then there are those clowns that go 20 in the left lane when the limit is 60. I never honk or cuss. No point in it. I just pass them. I always use my signals, though. I can’t stand people who don’t use their signals.
Oh. My GAWD. Yeekie… (The Haitian creole way to pronounce Ricky) You just told me you were leaving, you must’ve been doing 80! Ma would always say as soon as I walked in on my way to kiss her on the cheek.
Maaaan! You here already?! Pops would chime in on cue.
Then mom would go on about how I’d get pulled over and increase my insurance before saying, Let me warm up some food for you.
I don’t speed, ma. I’d always say. I drive with a sense of urgency.
It was December 15 and the tree had already been up since around Thanksgiving. Ma loved to decorate the house with her silver bells and reefs, and her army of miniature teddy bears and gingerbread men dressed in red and green. Taking advantage while she wasn’t looking, I’d get creative and take pictures of them in real-life stills with Pop’s Nikon. I hung a stuffed elf from the light bulb on an ornament, ala Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” and I created a break-dancing nativity scene. It was my Christmas Toy Story.
You know this is my time of year, she’d say. And I knew.
She worked at the hospital on Thanksgiving just to get Christmas day off. I had been stockpiling songs for my Christmas playlist on iTunes for weeks and blasting them while my little sister, Ashley and I helped her set stuff up.
Ashley wasn’t even officially done with finals yet, herself. This was her first year at Boston University, which meant Ma and Pops were living without any of their kids under their roof for most of the year for the first time since my older bro was born in ’86. They were crushed.
I was naturally weary of my lil sis being a college freshmen but was sort of happy too, only because it being her first year was bound to distract my family from asking me the same damn question they’d been asking every year. I hated that question.
I hated it because I never really knew how to answer it. The answer was time-specific and uncertain. It sort of hung over me like the sword of the Sword of Damocles, dangling in the air at birthday BBQs, Thanksgiving, and on Christmas.
I just wanted to get in the spirit, Ash told me when she came home that weekend just to help out. Then we’d all be outside on the verge of frostbite helping Pops set up the lights for the front lawn. All in preparation for what was becoming our annual Christmas party.
If I was low-key then Jamaal was even-lower-key. Ash was the most eccentric out of the three of us. Every year for Halloween she’d dress up as a different version of Michael Jackson. She had the Beat it Jacket, the sparkly glove, and the penny loafers. I made sure “Billie Jean” was in the party playlist because she’d run upstairs, grab her glove, and start poppin’ and lockin’ for everybody. She hit the Moonwalk too. A real holiday ham.
Ma was especially excited this year because Jamaal had started visiting more frequently and said he’d be there. She was always longing for him to return like a lioness whose cub had left the den. I was a little jealous of him because he was on his own. I couldn’t wait to spread my wings and leave the nest, too. He evaded the question altogether when he dropped out of UMass Boston (1 class to go) and started working. He was damn near thirty, now - a manager at a dealership with his own spot but she still worried about him like he was seven.
He’s a grown man, Ma, he can take care of himself, I’d say.
So what, he’s still my child, she’d rebuttal. I’m a mother; it’s my job to look after you no matter how old you are.
That was Ma.
Every time I’d come down from school she made sure to send me back with a mini-supermarket in my back seat. Real Haitian food like rice and sous pwa, griot, fried chicken and bannann, mac and cheese, you name it, it was all packed in clear Tupperware with red lids and name-tags as if I couldn’t figure it out myself.
I don’t know why I write these signs, she’d say while scribbling rice + chicken on white tape, you never read anything anyway.
As much as I kept saying, Ma, I don’t need all this food, (I really did) and I only wanna make one trip from the car, all this stuff is gonna make me go up and down, (one trip, baby!) I was happy as hell to see my fridge stocked with red lids on those nights when I was starving and all the campus grills were closed.
By the time it was Christmas, everybody was in his or her Sunday best for church even though sweet Baby Jesus’s bday was on a Wednesday that year. Pops didn’t come though, he’d stop going to church a long time ago. At least the rest of us showed up on the big days, Christmas, Easter, days during Lent here and there. But my thirteen-year-old cousin Aaron (Ma’s side) was there. I always gave him the basketball sneakers I wasn’t wearing anymore. Dude was thirteen and already my height and size. When the house was suddenly void of children that fall, Ma and Pops made him a house key so he could drop in after school.
He always wanted to come to church with us because his parents never went. His little brother, Aidan was 5 and wasn’t baptized and Ma had opinions.
Jimmy, when are you guys gonna do something about that boy?! My mom would yell at her bro, Uncle Jimmy over the phone. Baptize the kid, already!
Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Laurie were laissez faire about it. One out of two was enough, I guess. When we got home it was time to get ready for the party, which meant Ma and Ash running around cooking everything and Pops, Aaron, and I watching the Christmas day NBA games on ABC. Ma didn’t trust us around the stove as far as she could throw us, but that didn’t stop her from saying, I’m doing everything right now, I don’t have the time!
If you tell black people to be somewhere at 3, they’re gonna show up at 4, so we told everyone the party was starting at 3 so they’d really be here by 4-5 how we wanted. Sure enough, our first guests rang the bell at 4.
I don’t know why the hell they’re here so early; Ma said, before she gave them a hug and a kiss and told me to hang their coats.
Before I knew it, it was 5:45 and I was answering the front door every 5 minutes. Family and friends everywhere. My best friends since 6th grade came like Jason and his girlfriend Flourette, Bernadine, Yohannes, Stanley, Shakeema, and Nely and her sister Rachel.
Ma’s side: Cousins Rodney and Zack and Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Lauri with their sons Aaron and Aidan, and Pop’s side: Gee Gee and her husband, John brought her two-year-old son, Chase.
Does he take selfies? I asked Gee Gee.
Haha, yeah, he does, she said.
I knelt down so we were eye to eye and said, Whatsup, lil’ man, how’s being two treating ya? Before reaching my hand out for a low five. Everybody uses baby talk but I talk to kids like their adults just to be ironic. I’m sure they find baby talk condescending, anyway. He came over, slapped my hand, and put his arm around my shoulder as if to take my phone and we posed for the greatest selfie in Instagram history.
By 7 the place was packed and I had to attend to more serious matters – DJing. I didn’t spend hours scrutinizing song choice and order in that damn Christmas playlist for nothing. I mixed in a little bit of holiday – Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Sir Paul’s “A Wonderful Christmas Time,” and the Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick” with some of the more recent stuff to get people out of their seats and grooving. Jay Z (my favorite rapper), Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar. Drake, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Miguel, and Frank Ocean. Old school stuff too, like “Return of the Mack” and “Poison,” Marvin Gaye joints, and Michael of course. I had the house bumping.
I set up my Mac on top of Pop’s speakers – I had this before you and Jamaal were born! He boasted.
I suppose I was bumping a little too much for Uncle Jimmy (Ma’s side).
Hey, why don’t you turn it down a little, this isn’t the club, he said.
So I turned it down. A little.
Ree-Cah-Do’h! (The Haitian creole way to pronounce my full name, Ricardo) I want to hear the bass, turn it up!
Uncle Enst (Pop’s side) said minutes later. So I looked at Uncle Jimmy, shrugged, and turned it up. It was Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On,” I believe.
When people were dancing, and I knew the next couple of songs didn’t need to be changed, I stole to the kitchen to what was left of the food. Ma always showed out, and she’d out done herself this time. Real Haitian food. Black rice with peas, yellow rice with little crab legs, salad, shrimp, chicken wings pikliz, mac and cheese, and my favorite, a giant honey glazed ham. You name it, it was there. She even made her famous pineapple cake for desert with some kremas to wash it down. Doesn’t get any more Haitian than that.
Your mom always throws it down, Jason said.
I know, I replied before stuffing my face.
As time went on and I was making conversation with family I didn’t see in a while, I knew it was only a matter of time before that damn question rose like gas to suffocate my good mood.
Soooo, Ricky, a relative who shall not be named began, Where’s your girlfriend…? That was just the warm-up.
I don’t have a girlfriend, I said. They’re too expensive. I have many quality friends who happen to be women, though, I said with a smirk.
Good answer, Aaron said. Then it came.
And when are you graduating?
The question. That question. The real reason I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. What girl wants to date a guy who’s stuck in the library writing papers all night? I’d ask myself. I didn’t have the time to give somebody the attention they deserved, let alone the funds to take them out on quality dates. I had to buy books and make dorm deposits.
I took a deep breath.
I don’t fucking know! My entire academic career has been held back because I can’t pass a fucking math class to save my life. I did two years at a community college, didn’t pass math, and couldn’t get the associate’s degree so I said fuck it and transferred anyway. I was a psych major until I got on probation because I got an F in stats twice, so I switched majors and now I’m backed up because none of my psych credits will count for English. I’m like a super duper senior. I want to finish and get this degree so I can find a job, an apartment, and start my life. Hopefully some time next year but I honestly don’t know so please stop asking. The emails about gowns and class rings are annoying enough as it is.
Uh, sometime next year. I’ve still got a few requirements to meet, is what actually came out of my mouth.
I grabbed a beer in hopes that it would smooth out the chip on my shoulder and quickly made my way back to my laptop before my thoughts slipped out unfiltered.
One of my dad’s friends asked me if I had “Outstanding” by the Gap Band and I gave him the dude-I have it all-look before I played it. He lost his mind.
I love music. From the Beatles to the Motown era to 80s rock, 90s pop, and all of Hip Hop and R&B and everything in-between. And I love knowing that anyone can scroll through my library and find something they’re gonna enjoy. It makes me feel good, and as a DJ, nothing makes you feel better than knowing the song you just dropped got everyone up out their seat.
Once I dropped “Zouk La Sé Sel Médikamen Nou Ni” by Kassav it was a wrap. It’s the Haitian anthem.
I survived the question for another year and everyone was dancing at our Christmas party.