Why you should care

Because sometimes the holidays are as hard as marriage.

Samantha Schoech is a writer in San Francisco and the program director for Independent Bookstore Day.

It was our first Christmas Eve as a married couple, and we were attending the annual party at the bookstore owned by my perfect new husband. The party went like this: You ate spring rolls from the Vietnamese place down the block and drank champagne. The godless young urbanites were allowed to smoke in the store. There was one of those white elephant gift exchanges, to which, on that particular year, we contributed a T-shirt that said: “It’s not going to suck itself.”

The night progressed; we all smoked and drank more. The spring rolls wilted. The booksellers entered into macho conversations about Kierkegaard and literature in translation. Porn for nerds, except they all probably liked real porn, too. I held my own among them, but I was always scared someone was going to want to talk about literary theory, or I would get roped into a conversation in which I would be exposed as the kind of person who can never remember who came first, Aristotle or Socrates.

I smoked until my skin turned gray and I smelled like a hooker motel. I drank until everything I said seemed to glint like gold.

Because I was slightly nervous, and because we were all engaged in the act of making merry, I began to drink too much: champagne at first, then bourbon. I ate too few spring rolls. Not a single butter cookie. My perfect new husband — He reads! He runs! He swims around Alcatraz in 55-degree water! — was busy being the magnanimous host. I was busy smoking.

I smoked and smoked. I smoked until my skin turned gray and I smelled like a hooker motel. I drank until I didn’t care which philosopher came first, until everything I said seemed to glint like gold. Then I drank and smoked some more. Finally, it was 2 a.m. and the godless young urbanites went home to their futons. All there was left to do was wait for Santa. And cover Golden Gate Park with streams of my body’s rejected bourbon, champagne, and spring rolls. Like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, my puddles of vomit led the way home.

Trying to describe a hangover is like trying to describe an orgasm. It’s universally familiar and yet nearly impossible to properly put into words. But the point is, I’ve literally never felt worse, not physically with the flu, and not emotionally after the world’s worst breakup, than I did on that Christmas morning. First Married Christmas isn’t really any sort of benchmark, but when you are in the throes of hungover self-flagellation, it carries a certain weight. So I fixated not only that I was ruining Christmas, but that I was ruining our first-ever married Christmas.

I actually knew in advance that it was going to be a trying holiday. Pete had bought me a big surprise gift. Only, I knew what it was. Because it was hard to miss: a giant, banana-yellow, two-person kayak from L.L. Bean, as long as a pickup truck. It was stored in our garage, under a tarp.

It stood for what felt like a giant misunderstanding between me and the early-riser with whom I was going to spend the rest of my life.

And I didn’t want it. I had only a mild interest in kayaking. And an aversion to “gear” of any kind. I certainly didn’t need a $1,200 kayak.

But its worst offense was not that it was huge and wrong-headed, but that it was earnest and kind. It stood not only for a waste of money, but for what felt like some sort of giant misunderstanding between me and the athletic early-riser with whom I was going to spend the rest of my life. If he bought me a two-person kayak for Christmas, did we really even know each other at all? Not only would I have to pretend to be both surprised and thrilled by the gift, I would have to go kayaking.

That morning I tottered behind Pete in my bathrobe as he led me to the garage for the unveiling. I manufactured delight before heading back to bed. Later, at dinner at my mom’s, I had to tell everyone about the kayak. They pretended it was a brilliant and thoughtful gesture on the part of my new husband. But anyone who knew me well knew I wanted shoes and weekends away for Christmas. Pete hadn’t caught on quite yet.

We used the kayak twice. Eventually, we sold it to two discharged Marines who planned to use it to paddle their girlfriends around the bay. Good luck to you all, I thought, as they drove off with my giant boat strapped to their roof.

But even now, 14 years later, that hungover Christmas morning marks a turning point. My accidental aversion therapy ended my cigarette habit once and for all. And even though the memory of the kayak still stands as a big yellow reminder of me at my worst, of all the ways we remain unknowable, of all the missteps we make in a relationship—it can also, when I’m feeling magnanimous, remind me that I can love and be loved even if I never live up to that kayaking wife my perfect new husband mistook me for.

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