There was a time when this all fit together more nicely. For every off-key rendition of "Carol of the Bells" and post-supper immersion into How the Grinch Stole Christmas there was always a place beyond the immediate — behind the left eye, perhaps — of utter strategy. There, neurons kept tabs on gestures of influence, monitoring the entire month of December in calculable diagram form for minute changes, senses always on hand to reel the variances in, eventually pulling everything into its desired tangential curve: a sideways cursive "V," with the peak landing right around 4 a.m. on Christmas morning. It was a commercial campaign, really, geared at achieving futuristic gadgetry before cynicism and technology would render it worthless within three weeks.

One parcel, one key gift, would sit there among the ruins of underpants and wristbands as a trophy for time served and a signifier of a better life to come. A watch, a stereo, anything with circuits beyond the standard realm of this-makes-that, its stealthy operations concealed by a backboard requiring a screwdriver, would be enough to run to, and eventually run on. The year ended like a budget surplus spent with bloodshot eyes and brazen shouts of "I'll take it! I'll take it all!"

Somehow, after 37 years of chemical mismanagement, the whole thing has turned in on itself. That parcel in the behavioral crosshairs now sits atop a rattling carriageload of empty whiskey bottles and coal (crack?) rocks, its graying wrapping paper stabbed at with innumerable cutting implements, its ribbon knot frayed and losing threads. The tick-tock punctuation of a year fading into the holiday eggnog swirl of emotions is not a countdown to joy on a fancy new watch, but rather a metronomic march toward inevitable doom. "Whatever you do, do not open the package," warns the attached card in Chinese script; "and avoid holiday parties at all costs, especially those with drinks," asterisks a footnote far too small to see. OK!

By all appearances, this year's yule seemed to be going fine. The race toward a new year, a new decade(ish), a clean slate was taking care of itself rather nicely: clock in, clock out, pass out and pretend nothing is anything, family tucked neatly into geographical compartments, drama simmered down into a syrup of the routine. No alarms, no surprises, please.

Even the Great Annual Orlando Weekly Holiday Incident typically known for uncomfortable lap dances and occasional dust-ups (cough) came and went without too much memorable fanfare. Tinny wafts of Wham!'s "Last Christmas" shifted curry Waldorf salad and ham scraps around conference-room paper plates, before an early happy hour over at downtown's One Eyed Jack's steered itself just far enough away from salaciousness to not leave a mark. Sure, there was talk of vaginas feeling like bean bags and giant cocks and gay twin-sized mattresses soaked with menstruation, but those were just socks and wristbands left hanging there to dry beneath the city's most horrible framed installation: a painting of a monkey bent over, with "ALOHA" written across its ass, the "O" marking the void into which all such bonhomie is screamed simply to echo. This holiday was really working out for me.

Then Brittany Murphy died.

"That is such a tragedy," intones Jen, the straight wife of used-to-be-gay hairdresser Chris, into my Sunday fall-apart feed. "Bring olives. We're going to need Grey Goose martinis." Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.

Chris and Jen's palatial estate already displays all the trappings of a good time I shouldn't be having before I even open my mouth. There's an upside-down Christmas tree, a whole room dedicated to functioning carnival miniatures like bumper cars and up-and-down balloons, a cute bartender, the flighty din of cosmetologists with cosmos clacking from clique to clique in an overture of take-your-job-home-with-you empathy and overstatement. Everything here is my missing piece, the piece that I'm supposed to be missing by decree of medical doctors and my increasingly impatient internal psychiatrist. It is, in short, how I would imagine Brittany Murphy's wake were I in the business of Hollywood imaginings. It's a foreshadowing with eye-shadowing.

"Can I get you something to drink?" comes on cue, as I settle into my demise.

"You're only sipping, right?" my own hairdresser, Joel, cocks one inebriated brow.

Off in the distance, the clickity-clack-jangle of a bumbling wagon hits speed bump after speed bump, getting almost close enough to climb upon, then swiftly fall off. I pretend I don't hear it, choosing rather to pop with the wood ash by a pit fire outside and oblige the evening's lazy arm choreography of "Rollin' With My Homies" — Clueless by design, like a girl not even about to be interrupted.

"This one's for Brittany," I sip, and sip again.

The carriage arrives just in time to drop its parcel and all its overthought, sickly innards onto the floor in one giant mess of embarrassment. Initially, its contents are relatively harmless — a room-clearing karaoke take on Wham!'s "Everything She Wants" ("Why do I do the things I do?" indeed), some shuffling from room to room with surface conversations about what really matters. But like most bad gifts you should have been careful about wishing for, the pathos within spreads out and multiplies, ending in salvos of suicide, alcohol, sexual abuse, plane crashes, puppy deaths, broken pancreases and all of the other dots on the poisonous matrix of a life poorly lived. This is what's left of childhood ambition, that dog-eared catalog of devices meant to turn December into an escape to make life bearable: a fried circuit board and a drinking problem. This is what I asked for.

"You're not leaving, are you?" Jen's eyes don't see the mess my mind's eye does.

"Yep," I sweep myself out the door. "Next year I'll be better."


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