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Bad Santa

Love looks forward
hate looks back,
anxiety has eyes all over its head.

— Mignon McLaughlin

Everything had been going so well. The Seattle sky was uncommonly clear for December. The overall atmosphere was festive and convivial. With a cup of Bailey’s-spiked coffee in hand, I pranced around the gallery answering questions and volunteering information about David, the star of the show. For most of the evening, I was on — speaking energetically about David’s work, explaining his process and adding my own flourish (“When he took this one, I stayed in the car so I could avoid mosquitoes and play Scrabble on my Treo”; “He had to brave 11-degree weather in the middle of February in New England to get these two shots”; and “David’s modest about his success, but I’m not — his work is sold in galleries from L.A. to New York and from Zurich to Tokyo.” Gallery employees made their rounds, greeting visitors and keeping people from accidentally backing into the artwork by regularly announcing, “You scratch it, you own it.” Two hours passed like minutes; the lights were dimmed to signify the end of the show, and the crowd was asked to leave, save for the chosen guests who would retire upstairs for the private reception party. I was looking forward to getting off of my feet, relaxing with a glass of wine, and chatting with new and old friends over the meal that had been prepared by the gallery’s owner. I was on my way to do just that when a flash of red caught my eye. It was the shimmer of a Santa hat, shaped stiff and tall like a dunce cap, covered in red glitter and perched atop the head of a tall, wiry man. He was older, his silver hair and beard trimmed close, his gray suit tailored, his Converse sneakers red to round out his festive attire. At a glance, he appeared to be a distinguished gentleman with a playful pinch of panache.

My first inclination that something was wrong came just after the man did a little hop-skip-and-a-jump and then stepped back as if to bow to the lady before him. From where I stood, nothing seemed amiss. But then Nina, a gallery employee, darted over and led the unconstrained man away from the pictures he had come close to “owning.” My body tensed in apprehension as the sloshed Santa made his way to the private event, and my eyes widened in horror as, watching him greet people along the way, I realized that he had been invited .

I don’t see anything wrong with getting tipsy, especially in the winter season of eggnog and brandy, but it was 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and this guy was already more plastered than the gallery walls. A friend handed me a glass of champagne, and I turned to take stock of the hors d’oeuvres that were on a table. The hairs stood on my neck when the sparkling red cone popped into view. My stomach turned as I watched the soused Santa lean over and plant his face just millimeters away from the platters of food as he sniffed and examined each offering. I decided I could hold out until dinner.

I didn’t have to wait long. An announcement was made for the 20 or so guests to go back downstairs and help themselves to the buffet. I was standing to the side, speaking with Nina, when I felt an elbow at my back and stepped forward. When a second offending nudge followed, I interrupted Nina and said, “We need to move, I can’t have someone pushing on me like this.” As if on cue, the man in the festive dunce cap, who turned out to be the source of the back jabs, came around to face me. Unsteady on his feet, he leaned in too close and blathered, “You know these are called temples,” then lunged for my red-and-black frames.

“Hey! How about you don’t touch me?” I snapped, taking a step back. He continued to ramble about temples and eyewear, to which I said, “Great, sounds good, whatever it is you’re saying. I’m going over there.” I rolled my eyes at Nina and put some space between myself and the inebriate.

From a few feet away, I watched the disaster unfold as the guy tried to negotiate the buffet table. First, he knocked all of the plastic knives onto the floor. Then he grabbed the long serrated bread knife and stabbed at a loaf. I couldn’t keep myself from intervening, “Hey, you — the last person in here who should be holding a knife — there’s a big basket of bread already sliced right in front of you.” After missing a few times, the man finally seized onto a slice and slurred a thank you. I grimaced as he confronted the butter and then watched him stumble to a seat, after which I quickly collected my food and hustled to the opposite end of the building where I parked myself on a couch with David’s sister Michelle. David sat on a chair across from us, and everyone began to eat.

I thought the worst was over. I thought that once I was away from that guy everything would be fine. I took a bite of my food, but it turned to dirt in my mouth and I spit it into a napkin. A woman sat in the chair next to Michelle and struck up a conversation with the siblings. I winced as a stabbing pain began to shred my abdomen, and pasted a blank smile on my face as I bit the inside of my cheeks to distract myself from the agony in my belly. I dropped my plate on the table and sat back. At one point, Michelle turned to me with a conspiratorial smile on her face, her lips moving. I mimicked her smile, sensing her intention to share an inside joke, but I hadn’t heard what she’d said. In fact, I realized, as my heart began to beat faster, I hadn’t heard anything — the room was full of moving mouths, but my ears were inundated with a resounding silence, interrupted only by the voice in my head, which sounded strangely like my own, saying, “I need to get out of here. I need to get out of here,” over and over and over.

“Are you okay?” It was David. I hadn’t heard the words, but the question was written all over his face. I shook my head, left to right.

I heard Michelle as if we were underwater, “I’ve never seen you look so flushed before, Barb. Your face is beet red. Are you hot?” My eyes widened, my jaw remained clenched. Without saying a word, I stood and walked through the dining room, down the back stairs, and into the gallery storeroom, where I could be alone with my thoughts, the first of which was, What the hell is wrong with you? I wondered if I was having some kind of allergic reaction to the food and then remembered I hadn’t swallowed my first bite. My body seemed to be under attack, but if that were the case, where was my attacker? I’d heard of “panic attacks,” but I always thought that was when someone freaked out over some irrational fear. My evening had been wonderful, full of great conversation and incredible compliments to my man — what was there to be afraid of?

I breathed deeply, savoring the solitude. Once I relaxed, I decided to go back upstairs, but the mere thought of rejoining the party caused me to double over in pain as my insides twisted in protest, and I felt the blood rushing back to my face. Suddenly, the image of the man in the Santa hat popped into my head. I noted that his appearance at the gathering had coincided with the onset of my discomfort. But why? Why would some drunk guy upset me to the point of needing to hide in a storeroom in order to breathe? Neither of my parents was an alcoholic. As I thought about it more, I realized it wasn’t the alcohol on his breath that had disturbed me — it was his behavior, his sloppiness, his apparent inability to control himself.

Maybe I had been afraid of something after all. Maybe seeing that man reminded my nerves of the one dread I have above all others — the one that causes me to alternate my feet over the cracks in the sidewalk, that requires me to methodically burn the tips of my other nine fingers should the tenth have foolishly brushed against something hot, and that compels me to arrive two hours early for a movie so that I can be assured of sitting in “my” seat — my fear of losing control.

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