Well, technically it’s the day before Christmas, because actual Christmas is reserved for my side of the family, my mother and siblings and so on. But Lisa, my quirky and never-boring girlfriend, wants to honor a long-standing Panzica family tradition by gathering her whole family, almost, at the Carl’s Jr on Lincoln Boulevard in Buena Park. They celebrate the Yuletide at a fast food restaurant, as they have for most of her adult life.
For me, though, it’s a peculiar custom, this business of commemorating Christ’s birth with a side of fries. I feel like I’m intruding, somehow, on an event I don’t fully understand.
“I’ll have the Teriyaki Six-Dollar Burger and a medium soft drink,” I tell the counterman. “Uh, Merry Christmas.”
Lisa gets the fish taco combo and Josh, her developmentally disabled son, gets a Famous Star with Cheese and a strawberry milkshake. Josh enjoys Christmas. He’s in his mid-twenties, taller than I am, but with the brain function of a second-grader. We’ve just picked him up from the group home where he stays with other, similarly challenged young men, under supervision from the county. Today he’s showing off his new haircut.
“Haircut,” he says, preening.
“Josh, have some french fries,” Lisa says, spreading them out for him. He digs in hungrily. I’m a little uncomfortable with this big, man-sized boy, but we seem to get along anyway.
Lisa’s cell phone rings. It’s Brittany, her daughter, reporting they’ve gone the wrong way on Lincoln and they’re in Anaheim, not Buena Park. They’re U-turning and should be here soon. Meanwhile, Lisa’s mother and brother are heading up from their home near Disneyland, which is closer, but they’re chronically late and today’s no exception.
While we’re waiting, we eat. The burger’s good. It’s not your traditional pre-Christmas dinner, but the savory combo of pineapple, teriyaki and ground beef gives a holiday zest to our fast food vigil. Josh makes short work of his burger and fries, and Lisa wolfs her fish tacos. We’re finishing up when a white SUV pulls up outside.
And a parade comes into Carl’s Jr.
First comes Brittany, a stunning girl with olive skin and raven hair who’s fiercely outspoken, even more than her mom. Her partner is Ivan, who’s tall, strong as a bull, and scrupulously polite – at least, in front of Lisa. The kids are Aiden, age three, who’s clever and loves to scream; Ariah, age almost-two, who’s got an impish smile and is constantly falling off things; and Autumn, age six months, who watches the world through solemn, steel-gray eyes.
Ivan carries Autumn in her portable carrier. In his other hand, he’s got a bag of Christmas presents so overstuffed it would make Santa Claus hesitate. They troop in and commandeer three booths, perching Autumn’s carrier on a plastic seat, jamming Ariah in between them so she doesn’t tumble off and hurt herself. Aiden runs between tables, checking out what the other diners are having. Brittany embraces Josh and says, “That’s a great haircut, Josh.” The presents are jammed on the seats, on the tables, under the tables, wherever they’ll fit.
“So where’s your mom?” Brittany asks Lisa. “How could we get lost and still beat her here?”
Discretely, Ivan says nothing.
In time, Lisa’s mother arrives. They call her Emma, which is not her name, but rather a corruption of “Grandma,” as mispronounced by her grandkids. She lives with her son Nino, Lisa’s brother, who’s off-the-charts brilliant but painfully shy.
Lisa gives him a kit to make a Star Wars lightsaber. He loves it, with the true devotion of a lifelong fanboy. Josh gets Lakers memorabilia – gloves, slippers, a visor cap, all emblazoned with the Lakers emblem. He says “Lakers!” with obvious delight. Emma gets a lovely angel figurine; Ivan gets DVD movies; Brittany gets a gift certificate at Sephora. And I get a Doctor Who coffee mug, being something of a fanboy myself.
But the kids’ presents are the most fun.
Aiden’s favorite is a battery-operated Buzz Lightyear figure, which shoots light beams and cries, “To infinity and beyond!” Or it would, if we had the right batteries. Aiden doesn’t care – he starts acting out galactic warfare scenarios, annoying people as only a cartoon-obsessed three-year-old can.
Ariah is a tougher sell, fitfully crying for no obvious reason, unconsoled by the french fries Lisa keeps shoving at her. But when her presents are unwrapped – starting with a plush Minnie Mouse in a hot pink dress – her mood quickly brightens. They say Minnie (and Mickey) are appealing to kids because they’re drawn from circles, the simplest of shapes, and Ariah’s sudden upswing seems to confirm it.
I don’t know if baby Autumn understands about the holiday, but she loves her new Snow White doll, grasping it with small, plump fingers, flashing a loopy, clown-faced grin. Christmas is a hit with all three kids, washing away their seesaw moods and outbursts, turning even this glorified burger stand into a place of magic and miracles.
Which I find oddly depressing.
I have a knack for that, finding gloom when others celebrate, but this time there’s good reason – I’ve never had kids of my own, and always wanted some. Now it’s too late, probably, and I look at Aiden and Ariah and Autumn with a certain sad jealousy, all examples of the kids I might have had but somehow never managed. I’m sitting apart from them at the last table, watching their meteoric sorrows and delights, wishing Lisa’s family could be my own.
And that’s when it hits me – they are.
I’m welcome here. This peculiar, over-the-counter late lunch holiday is for family members only, and I’ve become part of the clan. Munching burgers and shredding gift wrap is part of the family DNA, as surely as their hot-blooded Italian temperament, and I’ve earned a place at the hard plastic table. I always help Lisa with the babysitting, making Autumn grin and Ariah cry (no matter what I do, she’s always crying), trying to contain Aiden as he catapults around, spreading glorious three-year-old chaos. As for Josh, the grownup kid – don’t tell him, but the Lakers stuff came from me.
In short, their story is my story, partly, something I’ve never fully appreciated until this weird, wonderful, teriyaki-flavored Christmas Eve at Carl’s Jr in Buena Park. Hallmark it’s not, but I’m pleased to belong to whatever the hell this is.
Merry Christmas, everyone!