Like a lot of gay men, I have a bizarre, tumultuous relationship with my mother, one that often borders on hero-worship. The best way to understand this is to simply meet the woman. She’ll extend her hand – not for a hand-shake, but as if cupping an invisible drink – and smile: “Thérèse, as in” – and here she raises her invisible drink – “to-raise-a-glass”. Only then may you shake (though a hug is preferable).
Friends of mine will whisper in hushed tones of Thérèse, accents and graves included: of her stringent dinner party rules (a time will be set and must be met), her extensive planning capabilities (written on page after page of recycled notepaper, clipped and saved from her work office), her dogged determination and affection marred only by those around her. Of her dance skills (far superior to my own), and the time a lesbian friend of mine declared her to be “hot” (an occurrence she still boasts of). She has a definite Way in which things must be done, and that’s the Right Way. (I like to claim that none of this has rubbed off on me; but the older I grow, the farther away from drunken house parties I become, the more I realise there is a hostess of biblical Thérèse-ian proportions growing inside me, waiting to claw its way out of me like a chest-burster of good cheer and hors d’oeuvres).
Christmas, accordingly, is optimal Thérèse-time, and she’s in her prime: tinsel-earrings and party dress on, Santa soap in the guest bathroom (been used just enough to rub off part of his face – when urinating during the festive season one gets the uncanny feeling of being watched by an unfortunate plastic surgery victim), and festive music in the CD player. All the hits, of course: Marina Prior Sings (which really, we knew – it’s getting her to shut up that’s the true Miracle of Christmas), the Oxfam Christmas Cheer Album, and the CD that will live in infamy: the Jose Feliciano Collection, bought one sunny October day some five years ago for one track and one track alone: Feliz Navidad.
The build-up was palpable, and a surefire set-up for failure. Jose remained tucked away in the disc drawer throughout October, November and December, waiting for the solitary day when Christmas music (Spanish or otherwise) was deemed appropriate listening material. At the age of 20, I wasn’t particularly enamoured with the track (or Jose, or his sunglasses), and by that point Christmas itself was less about presents and more about an excuse to stuff my face with various meat-substitutes (my vegetarian phase was in full swing) and a vat of alcohol before nodding off to sleep while the sun was still up. Accordingly, I took December 25th as a day to sleep in. I was wrong.
I woke that morning to the closest I will (sadly) ever get to “Mommie, Dearest” no matter how hard I try: Thérèse in full swing, neck to wrist to ankle in pink, wool-imitation bathrobe, matching towel around her hair, silhouetted perfectly in my doorway.
Groggy with sleep and mildly disgruntled, I attempt to ask what’s going on, but manage only to grunt: “s-gorn-on?”. A beat.
Then Mum: “Where is it?”
I am unsure – both as to what “it” is, and where “it” is. I attempt to explain so, but am cut off as she makes her way into my bedroom. Clamouring through the mess – somehow still perfectly robed, not a hair out of place – she begins to rummage through the bomb-shelter of my room, my cries of outrage falling on deaf ears (though, really, by that point there wasn’t much to shock her – I’d already had my year-long totes rebellious smoking phase and she knew I liked boys so the collection of pseudo-porn gay “culture” magazines were par for the course). With the delicacy of a bulldozer on high speed, she made her way through my clothes, my desk, and then finally – my CD collection.
By this point, I’ve woken up enough to muster, once more: “What’s going on?”.
She turns – “It’s not here.” – and sweeps out of the room.
Downstairs my father and brother, slightly bemused, are sitting on the couch reading day-old newspapers in an attempt to look busy. Christmas breakfast remains half-made on the counter, and the silence is frank and terribly awkward. A few minutes pass – the sound of various rooms being deconstructed with increasing speed – and Mum appears once more, padding towards me.
“You. You like CDs.”
I can’t lie – I do. “Yes,” I reply.
“Well!”, Thérèse barks – then quietly, controlled: “I’ve been waiting to play Feliz Navidad and now – now! – it’s gone.”
“So?”, I reply, ever the little shit, confirming my apparent guilt.
“And you like CDs. You’ve taken it to rip it or burn it or whatever, you’ve taken it and lost it, where is it?”
“I haven’t,” I reply – dumbfounded to be on the verge of punishment for something I (for once in my life) hadn’t done. Justice in the Bryant household was swift and full-on (see, “tonne of bricks”) but rarely if ever unjust.
Thérèse: ”Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m – I’m not!”, I reply, but she’s swept out of the room once more.
Nobody dares say a word. Christmas is ruined. Over. Crumbling around our ears. There are twenty, thirty people on their way, but they can all just turn around and go back where they came from if they think they’re having a Christmas lunch without Jose. This year we are not having a Merry Christmas, we’re having a Feliz-goddamn-Navidad.
And then, I spot the CD cover. Jose – his face pressed up against his guitar and smug grin mocking our festivities – and below his name, emblazoned: ¡THREE CD COLLECTION!.
Trembling, I reach out to pick up the hallowed discs. Sure enough, I read: DISC 3, TRACK 17: Feliz Navidad. I open the first gate – DISC ONE and DISC TWO are there, sure enough, snug in their spools – and an empty space behind DISC TWO where the illustrated booklet sits. I open the second gate. There it is. DISC 3. Audio gold.
Mum sweeps back in and I waste no time, offering the CD up in sacrifice.
She stops dead in her tracks. Looks at the CD, at me, the half-finished breakfast, my father, my brother.
“I didn’t have it, it was there all along”, I say, then: “The packaging’s a bit deceptive.”
A beat. She pulls the CD out of its casing, places it in the player then turns to me: “Well, you’ve taken other things of mine in the past, so.”
The song plays.
The following Christmas began much the same way, only I had stayed at a boyfriend’s house the night before. Once more, I fished out the disc and explained to her the situation, this time before the croissants in the oven could burn from neglect.
The year after that, come Christmas Eve, I pulled out Jose after my parents had gone to bed – his smug face still staring, barely weathered from his one-day-a-year commitment – and left the case open, DISC 3 up, on the kitchen table, my own version of Santa Claus.
Something Thérèse will never quite understand is why I continue to bring these stories up. I do so actually out of a weird sense of pride, admiration and respect. If I had the perfect timing she had, or the ability to cook three things at once while looking party-ready and managing to micro-manage a small sweatshop of helpers, I’d be pretty damn pleased. In a sense, she’s like my own enraged, pink and fluffy Santa Claus; spreading Yuletide Cheer so long as you don’t touch her CD player.
So, like Santa Claus, let Thérèse live on in legend. As you all sit down to your Christmas lunches tomorrow, do me a solid and play some Jose.