My most memorable Christmas was my 26th. I had ended a five-year marriage to a woman and, after a year of sexual experimentation, had moved in with my first male partner, Rick. But I was still very ambivalent about my sexuality.
We lived in Augusta, not far from James Brown's house on Walton Way. Brown was famous for decorating his front yard with illuminated plastic statues of the holy family and Santa -- all spray-painted black. The effect was less than racially convincing but so kitschily fabulous, I visited nightly. One night I was approached by a guy a few years younger than me, George.
"I seen you every day," he said. He turned out to be the clerk at the 7-Eleven store near our complex. George had also seen me at the city's lone gay bar.
A few days later, when I stopped at the store to buy cigarettes, George, wearing a tan smock imprinted with the 7-Eleven logo, pressed a note into my hand. It wished me a merry Christmas, flattered my appearance and asked me for a date.
"The 7-Eleven clerk thinks I'm hot," I told Rick.
"It must feel good to be able to walk into a convenience store and have your way with the cashier," he shot back.
"He's a nice guy," I said. "I don't want to hurt his feelings."
The next day, when I went to buy cigarettes, George was waiting for me with a Christmas card. He looked at me with such innocence, I got tongue-tied as soon as I tried to explain that I was involved with someone. I took the card and hurried out. Like the first note, its handwriting was childlike. "I know I'm black and you are white," it said, "but I think it doesn't matter."
"He'll think I'm a racist if I tell him I'm not interested," I told Rick, who rolled his eyes and said I needed to be straight with the kid. I decided I would just stop going to the 7-Eleven. I would buy my cigarettes elsewhere. "What's wrong with that?" I pleaded. "Why make it hard?"
But that night, as I was loitering amid the murkily painted figures in Brown's yard, George appeared. His face was glistening. "I hoped I would see you," he said, handing me a pack of cigarettes. "If you could have anything for Christmas, what would it be?"
I looked around the yard. "I think I would like one of these baby Jesuses," I joked. Actually, I had been collecting religious kitsch, including some magnificently trashy church neon, for several years. And Rick and I had already raided a church créche to steal its star.
"That's all?" George asked. "I could get you a baby Jesus."
I laughed, feeling suddenly like Hazel Motes, who is promised a Jesus by Enoch Emery in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. I explained my laughter to George, who looked and me blankly and said, "Really, I could."
I decided I would also have to stop my nightly visits to Brown's yard. It was only a few days till Christmas, anyway. I was feeling depressed. I wasn't going home that year and I knew Rick would be spending the day with his own family. I would be alone in the apartment most of the day.
The separation of couples at Christmas, often mandatory because disapproving parents don't welcome a child's partner into their home, is one of the cruelties many newly "out" gay people have to confront. I was sad that day and I only got more depressed when I called my mother, who was distraught that I'd not come home but who clearly wanted to hear nothing of my changing life. Visits home had become painful performances.
The doorbell woke me from a nap. There was nobody there, but when I looked down, my eyes met a plastic baby Jesus, his face turned away, an electric cord emerging from a hole in his back. I picked him up, laughing. The black spray paint was flaking off his face so that he appeared to have a skin disease. His mouth was frozen in a little smile.
George moved into view, smiling.
"You didn't really steal this from the Godfather of Soul ... ."
"Don't ask," George said.
"This will look great on the back of the toilet," I told him.
I invited him into the apartment and got out a bottle of bourbon. We plugged baby Jesus into the wall and turned off the other lights. I explained that I was involved with Rick. He said he figured that but wanted to give it a shot. We played cards all afternoon and I forgot my sadness.
I kept the "Godbaby of Soul," as I nicknamed the plastic baby Jesus, for many years. George's innocent eyes still haunt my memory every Christmas, as does Rick, who was one of the first men in Georgia to die of AIDS. I never pass a créche without smiling and thinking how terribly odd and unexpected -- how persistent -- kindness can be.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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