Surviving a solo Christmas in the City of Sin during one of the worst years of my life: May my past misery bring the lonely reader camaraderie, and maybe even joy.
The holidays magnify certain emotions. Nostalgia is one of the more obvious. Excitement. Joy. Gratitude.
Still, anyone who has spent the holidays solo knows that the copious warm tidings and cozy familial television specials can highlight personal isolation.
I have spent just one Christmas by myself, technically speaking. There were several celebrations in my twenties that had plenty of lonely moments, but the ’06 Christmas witnessed a confluence of events seemingly inspired to make me endlessly aware of my solitude.
Suffering through the multiple disappointments of that woeful holiday stretch almost crushed me. And though I believe I emerged stronger for the suffering, that growth was in no way immediately apparent.
What instead seemed clear was that I teetered on the brink of needing prescription medication. Not good.
So in an effort to salvage that experience and repurpose it into something meaningful, I offer the following testament of solidarity as a buttress to others who may be experiencing their own version of what I have come to call the Waco-Vegas Disappointment.
That my thirteen months in Waco, Texas were a string of trials and tribulations of the personal and professional variety is no surprise to anyone who knows me. A twenty-three year old is a resilient being, but everyone has limits. Overworked and underpaid hardly captures the reality: I regularly worked 60+ weeks, teaching five different subjects and coaching two junior high teams in sports I never even played.
I was also in the midst of a full-time Master’s program.
And I was making just under $27,000. This, with a fifty-mile one-way trek to work each day. At the height of gasoline prices.
You could say I was saving on rent (I got my place on the cheap: $350/month), but saving is a slippery word. Would I have shelled out an extra hundred if it meant freedom from ants in the kitchen and worms along the floorboards?
I would have indeed, but a ground floor apartment in Waco will have its resident insect population, no matter the industrial-grade poison you willingly inhale in the hope of being rid of the little buggers.
I began counting down the days to my trip home to Colorado somewhere in early October. Whenever life became more or less unbearable – the humidity or the cock-roaches, the piles of grading or midnight trek from an away volleyball game – I reminded myself that civilization and siblings were around the corner. Denver! You big, beautiful city of friends and fun memories!
I’ll be on my way soon.
My flight was scheduled for December 21st, which would give me at least a few days at home to gingerly knead myself into some kind of holiday spirit before the 25th officially dropped.
On the 20th, a snowstorm hit Denver. The 4th-largest blizzard in recorded state history, five-foot drifts shut down the roads, the mail service, and…the airport. I couldn’t get an airline rep on the phone, so I schlepped myself up to Dallas to stand in line at the ticket counter, waiting to hear what fate awaited me. Several people ahead were told they would flat-out not be in Colorado before the 26th or 27th, and this possibility made my knees weak.
Dear God, I prayed, please let me get home for Christmas. Please. I’ll do anything.
The clerk and I locked eyes, and he must have seen the months of defeat accumulated there in bloodshot desperation. He asked if I’d be willing to fly from Texas to a third party location, which could then jet me into Denver.
Wichita, Chicago, or Vegas?
Wichita: too boring. Chicago: too expensive. Vegas: everything anti-Christmas rolled up into one blinkering, gambling, boozy desert blackhole.
Sounded about right for the year I had been having.
I flew out on Christmas Eve. The three days between are a mirage of aimless driving and sheer emotional determination to survive. All other Baylor students had long since left for home, so I had the flat campus pretty much to myself. The few friends I had were gone. If something had happened to me, not only would there be no one to call, there was a very strong possibility no one would ever know.
This is such a terrible reality to contemplate, that I believe I holed up in my little bedroom and watched Bad Santa on repeat. To be honest, I have no idea what else I did for those 72 hours. Tears were a likely companion, but I can’t say for sure.
I was excited to head to the airport, not so much because I’d soon be in the City of Sin, but because I would be leaving Waco. I thought anywhere else would be an improvement.
I’ve been wrong often in my life, but rarely have I been quite so in error as I was in believing Las Vegas would somehow be more festive than central Texas.
One mistake was to book a hotel off the strip. I didn’t realize the Hard Rock sat so far from the rest of prime action. This would have been totally irrelevant, except that in an embarrassing and futile attempt at pep, I had “decided” to make this unplanned holiday detour “fun.”
I had bought myself a ticket to a comedy show.
So I checked into the Hard Rock, read a little bit, then hopped in a cab, wholly oblivious to the payment policy Vegas cabbies abide by.
Upon arrival, the driver shook his head at my proffered credit card. “Cash only!”
Naturally I had picked that evening to travel light, leaving my debit card back at the hotel. So the driver and I did our little back and forth dance until he realized I really was as broke and depressed as I appeared, and told me to get out of his car already.
I complied and then called my best friend in a panic about how the bleep I was going to get back to the Hard Rock. Could I knowingly rip off another cab driver? Could I explain up front that I didn’t have cash on me, but if he’d just wait while I ran up to my room, I really would be back to pay?
Ah youth. The endless, idiotic incompetence. My patient best friend explained that in Vegas, ATMs are ready to accept credit for cash.
She was right, and I walked happily through the lobby to the comedy show, twenty dollars in hard cash now in my pocket.
The comedy aspect of that show was, alas, a complete bust. Maybe it was the crowd. Like me, everyone seemed like the walking embodiment of human defeat. How can you laugh at an understudy improv group when your own life feels like you have little leading lady status?
I don’t think anybody even chuckled.
I rode back to the hotel, dejected. As they would, my sinuses had been growing increasingly congested, culminating that evening in a colossus head cold, the severity of which I’d ne’er seen, before or since.
Alone in my hotel room, A Christmas Story running itself blithely on through the television screen, I looked in the mirror.
I had gained at least ten pounds since leaving Denver, and my clothes were ill-fitting and out of date. My roots were at least five shades darker than the rest of my hair, and the blonde ends were all ripped and frayed, hanging there at my shoulders like so many splintered threads. My nose was red, eyes puffy, skin dry from the sudden exposure to desert winter air.
Everything in that mirror looked exactly how I felt inside, which provided a strange and disquieting sense of justice. If I was alone, here was the reason. Here stood a young woman who had clearly lost control of her life, and was shuffling about in confused and not very attractive disarray.
Why would anyone want to be around that?
The next four years saw no snowstorms shutting down airports. I trained for a half-marathon, started running regularly. I moved to Austin, got a higher paying job. I bought better clothes and made it a point to get my hair done at least every six months.
One of the biggest takeaways from that Vegas-Waco catastrophe is that things change. Perhaps this year does suck for you. If that is the case, may I suggest a Bad Santa viewing. There is a lovely catharsis to watching Billy Bob Thornton say every misanthropic thing you’ve ever felt during the holidays, and then say much more, and then say something even worse.
It’s even better that he utters these profanities in a Santa suit. I promise.
But may I also offer the hope of better days ahead. That this holiday is difficult does not mean every holiday going forward will be the same.
Looking back, I also wish I had looked around more. There I was in Vegas, surrounded by people who were obviously trying to escape some reality. Not all of them, okay, true. But many of the faces looked a lot like mine.
I should have spoken up, said hello, offered to buy somebody else a drink (okay, more realistically: offered a few cents for the penny slots… I didn’t have the money to buy my own drink back then).
I just wish I would have glanced about outside myself and invested in other people, even if they were strangers. It would have been character-building, and it would likely have proven enlightening.
So if you find yourself alone, lonely, miserable, or otherwise grinding your teeth and suffering through the next seven days until it’s all over, know that you’re not alone.
And know that next year might just be a whole new holiday.
Photo: Flickr/nestor ferraro