Ryan Lee

Ryan Lee: The gift of rejection: a Christmas story

In the early hours of last Christmas, as the crowd at Bulldogs was exiting onto Peachtree Street and Santa was approaching Hawaii, I programmed into my phone the number of a handsome guy with whom flirtatious glancing had turned into conversation, and conversation had turned into dancing that paid homage to concept of immaculate conceptions.

At a dignified hour later that day, I sent him a text message and received an auto-reply indicating an invalid number, my humiliation confirmed when I called and reached an error message. By miles, it was still the best Christmas Eve I’ve had in more than 25 years.

Being gay is often considered a complicating factor during the holidays, with angst over whether to bring a partner home, or enduring the company of family members whose relationship with you makes the North Pole feel balmy. As someone whose estrangement from family is unrelated to sexual orientation, my homosexuality is a seasonal lifeline.

I don’t hate Christmas in the traditional sense. I listen to holiday music in July, and even prefer carols with intensely religious lyrics despite being a non-believer. I like crowded malls and garish decorations, television standards and spiked egg nog, wishing strangers happiness and feeling the sincerity of those who wish the same for me.

The distance between me and my family, most notably my mother, is something I also usually try not to bemoan. I feel assured she knows I love her, and I have never doubted her love for me, but we both recognize the benefits of being apart.

It feels like I manage these emotions and voids sufficiently enough throughout the year that my holidays are not filled with dread and loneliness. But then Christmas Eve comes along, and the closing of Kroger at 6 p.m., starts the most difficult 24 hours of my year; there’s something about a ’round-the-clock grocery store being locked and darkened that amplifies my solitude, and lets me know that I am supposed to be, expected to be, elsewhere and with others.

Christmas Eve used to serve as a de facto family reunion for the Lees, and receiving presents from relatives I barely knew embodied the material luxury of my early childhood. There is a video of one of these gatherings, when I was 10 years old, which is so beloved for its hilarity that my family would watch it during any gathering until we stopped gathering.

The day after the video was shot, Christmas morning, I awoke and saw my mother, for the first time, with a black eye and gashed lip. It is as definitive a date as any to the end of my childhood, and the Christmases that followed rarely felt less emotionally brutal, primarily due to my parents’ drug addictions.

The Christmas traditions of my adolescence are situational homelessness and, “I’ll take care of you and your sister when I get my tax return.” My adult holiday ritual is stocking up on survival supplies, hunkering in my apartment and hoping the next 24 hours pass as fast as Santa races around the globe.

I was about to enter this emotional fortress last Christmas Eve when one of my friends invited me to Garden Lights at the Botanical Garden, and afterward we met other friends at Bulldogs. Atlanta has always felt like a ghost town when Kroger closes, so I was comforted by how crowded the club was, and grateful to be among family, in the gayest sense of that word.

Meeting a guy with whom I shared a mutual attraction had me feeling like a kid on Christmas morning, and my disappointment when I learned he hadn’t given me the correct number was a nice distraction from the melancholy Santa usually brings.