The party is winding down and it’s time to make your exit. You stand in the living room mentally preparing for the torrent of goodbyes you’re now socially obligated to initiate. It is Christmas Eve.
One hand holds a piece of gouda cheese and the other a cup of warm cola. You trash the half-eaten cheese (you were only holding it so it looked like you were doing something), gulp down the rest of the cola, and turn your attention toward your two aunts – Mary and Sarah – sitting side by side on the living room couch. Not only are Mary and Sarah isolated from the rest of the partygoers (currently spread out in the various hallways and rooms), but they also happen to be quite old. This makes them the perfect farewell warm-up; as no third party will see an error if it’s made, the goodbye procedure is standard (a small kiss near the corner of the mouth), and due to their age neither Mary nor Sarah will notice if you make a minor mistake.
During your slow saunter from the cheese table to the sisters’ couch you take special notice of the contours and marks and blots and all the imperfections covering each ladies’ mouth region. Luckily for you, the blemishes are modest – and each ladies’ face is totally free from the dried saliva and food remnants that can sometimes adorn the mouths of the elderly. You are ready.
You lean down toward Mary, releasing a “great seeing you!” during your descent, and plant a perfect goodbye kiss; and with Mary you are truly perfect – the kiss is placed right off the corner of the mouth, the feel is light but noticeable, and the noise it makes only she can hear.
Feeling confident you immediately begin your descent toward Sarah – emitting the same “great seeing you!” – and plant yet another perfect peck.
The warm-up complete, you turn away from your lovely aunts and peer down the hall. You notice your Uncle Sal munching intently on a cracker with one hand while attempting to zipper up his coat with the other. Uncle Sal, based on precedent, is a man who shakes hands and nothing else. No after-handshake-hug. No half-handshake-half-hug. No pat. No tug. And certainly no kiss. One simple handshake, up and down and done. And barely any up and down at that – really with Uncle Sal it is more of a two second hand hold than anything else. There’s still room for error (a faulty clamping, a weak grip, the extra embarrassing wet hand, etc.), but these errors are generally rare and generally minor.
It is with that in mind that you march over to your Uncle Sal, tap him once on the shoulder, and exclaim “See ya later.” You shoot your right hand toward his abdomen and he meets you with his own. Clamp and release. Perfect.
With your Uncle Sal taken care of, you now have a clean view of the hallway which leads to the den. The Den. You must make it there. You are dreading it. Yes, for a moment the fantasy enters your head – how wonderful to stand at the entrance, make one grand wave, and shout “great seeing all of you!” with a tone of voice that communicates you obviously must be leaving hastily and have no time for any solo goodbyes. But you know this would be a disaster of unimaginable ramification – the type of faux pas that is spoken about for years afterward – and let the thought roll out of your mind. You must make your way to The Den and say your goodbyes to each and every person present.
Standing between you and that goal is little Cousin Paulie, little Cousin Johnny, and Aunt Jenny. They’re preparing to depart, but it’s not happening quietly. Aunt Jenny is clearly preoccupied with the two youngsters; attempting to ensnare each one in their own personalized winter ensemble. You think about finding another path to The Den, but the fear that you may bump back into your Uncle Sal – and have to deal with the complexities of a post-goodbye interaction – keeps you moving forward.
You push yourself into the whirlwind of laughs and yells, twirls and swirls, and Aunt Jenny quickly enacts a goodbye herself – barely finishing a canned “nice seeing you” before her attention is back on the kids. You’re pleased that the decision-making process has been taken out of your hands, but unsure if you should be offended by the lack of importance placed on your departure. Was Aunt Jenny merely, and understandably, preoccupied with her two rambunctious children? Or, rather, was this lackadaisical and spiritless goodbye an unforgivable act of brazen disrespect? You will think about this thoroughly over the next few days – at which point you may develop a seething disdain toward your Aunt Sally. But this is a problem for later and you direct your attention back toward The Den.
The entrance is now wide open and you dash forward. Three steps to go, two steps, on- UNCLE GORDON.
His hand slaps your chest as he pops out from behind the stairwell. Uncle Gordon’s salt and pepper hair covers a rugged face sat upon a stout body.
“Ohhh– Uncle G-”
“Great seeing you…”
He’s coming in for a kiss… a kiss? Uncle Gordon? Maybe this is a close hug. You lean forward yourself, placing your right hand on his shoulder. He keeps coming closer. Your faces are too close now for anything else – this is a kiss. You pucker your lips and move quickly, your head juts forward and you plant it oh no oh no, you plant it, the kiss…you plant it right on Uncle Gordon’s ear lobe.
His face oscillates between bewilderment and disgust at what seems to be hypersonic speed.
There’s nothing to say and you turn away as quickly as possible. Your mind is spinning as you stumble into The Den.
The room is in a frenzy with everyone in their own world and doing their own thing and they hardly notice you and to be honest you hardly notice them as you brood in confusion and horror at the irreversible mistake you’ve just made on a grown man’s earlobe.
You are now grabbing hands and planting kisses without care or precision. Uncle Jim, Grandma June, Cousin Greg…goodbye, thanks for having me, see ya later. Once, twice, three times you say your Cousin Brian’s name before you get his attention – and this embarrassment does not even resonate with you. Your mind is on the earlobe and the earlobe only.
You limp out the room and your Uncle Gordon stares as you pass. Hat, scarf, coat; you throw them on straight away and dash to the door.
Grasping the cold brass doorknob you feel the full brunt of your failure and despair.
It will not be until next Christmas that you’ll have a chance to properly redeem yourself. But you will be ready.
Tyler Plofker is a writer living in Manhattan. He is focused primarily on short stories and flash fiction.