Charlie gets a running start as soon as I set him down in the kitchen. It’s 5:30 AM (Charlie is part rooster) and we have just come down stairs from our long winter’s nap. I’m thinking about coffee as I lower him to the kitchen linoleum.
What happens next is not an exaggeration.
My 1-and-a-half-year-old son shoots across the floor like one of his wind-up toy trucks — a perfect beeline across the living room floor towards the Christmas tree, which is all plugged in and lit up.
“Charlie! NOOOOOOO!” I holler. But it’s too late. It’s always too late. The whole thing is a losing holiday battle.
He slams his head right into a plastic reindeer ornament and tries his damnedest to give this fat, prickly blue spruce a bear hug. The whole thing convulses and sways and tilts with earthquake vigor as I hold my breath and imagine myself running in slow-motion across the house and diving through the air to shield my tiny wild animal from the tree that is surely about to land on his little body.
But nothing happens.
I luck out again. WE luck out again. And Charlie being Charlie, he turns around and glares at me, his rapscallion smile erupting all over his beautiful face, and hurls the ornament in my direct with one single word.
Charlie, you see, seems to have been born unto this Earth for one reason and one reason alone. To harass and destroy Christmas trees.
You can’t blame a toddler for wanting to dig his paws into this lit up tower of gleaming joy in the middle of his living room. It’s the wild man mentality that makes little boys so great.
And so yeah, that’s my problem.
I stand at the kitchen island sipping my first cup of coffee, a hawk on a limb. My eyes narrow and I bite my lip as I watch Charlie move past the tree a few times on his way in and out of the playroom.
We both know what’s up.
It’s a charade; he’s decoying me, trying to act all nonchalant and occupied with his plastic school bus as I stand ready to pounce.
My defense of our Christmas tree is also my attempt to maintain control over things. As a recently divorced dad to three young kids, I have this ridiculous determination to keep things happy and joyful for my children when they’re here in this house with me. I MUST preserve the uplifting spirit of the holidays. Therefore, I MUST guard the tree and all of its ornaments and lights and garland as if it were the radiating epicenter for all the happiness in our lives.
That’s how nuts I’ve gotten about it.
That’s why it’s all so funny as hell.
Charlie strolls past the tree again and I spot him checking me out.
“Hot!” I shout, my lame attempt at keeping my own boy away from the tree. “Hot, Charlie! HOTHOTHOT!” He knows “hot,” you see. I’ve taught him that to keep him away from the oven door. He hears my “Hot!” and he rolls back, probably more alarmed at his dad’s neurotic blast of voice than he is at the prospect of a burnt finger.
But that’s me these days; I’ve taken to using the “Hot!” trick to get him to hurl himself away from the Christmas tree instead of into it.
It doesn’t work though. The dude is sharp — he’s totally on to me. He doesn’t care what I say. And get this … I think he’s immune to the prickly needles too. Twelve days ago, standing in the middle of a thousand rows of pine trees, I aimed my phone at the sky for a signal and Googled “Christmas trees with most painful needles.” Boom. “Blue spruce” was what I came up with. So that’s the tree we cut down.
Charlie doesn’t give a crap. He’s Teflon. He’s armored. He must have blue spruce friggin’ blood in his veins somehow because even though I hate touching the stupid tree and decorating it was like making out with a porcupine, Charlie seems unfazed by the sting.
I stare at him out of the corner of my eye as I feign pouring some more coffee into my cup. He’s falling for it. He stops in his tracks and thinks I’m distracted. I clink my spoon, Academy Award-winning moves. It’s part of the bizarre thrill that has become our Yuletide life.
Charlie, my sweet lovely Charlie Boy, he makes his move. My heart races! OMG! He’s going for one of those cheap dollar store plastic apple ornaments! So brazen! So bold! What a criminal! I chomp down on my tongue; mustn’t pounce until the deed has been done!
Wait for it!
Spoon clink! Fake stirring! His hand is reaching towards the tree!
“HOT!” I spin around in a flashing whirl of single dad madness dressed up as law and order!
“NO CHARLIE! HOT! NOT FOR CHARLIE! DON’T TOUCH!! BAD BAD BAD!”
I lay it all out there just as Violet, 6, ambles into the kitchen. She’s staring at me and I can feel her wonderment as she watches her daddy pretend he’s some kind of Wild West sheriff. I’m immediately knocked down a couple of notches. Her soft brown eyes bore a hole into my left cheek.
But I can’t/ won’t/don’t stop!
And that’s all I’ve got.
I aim myself at Charlie and the tree just as he turns towards me, his thousand-mile mischievous grin catching me square in the nose. I’m moving slow motion across the room now, my daughter staring at me, her jaw dropped, me floating across the living room floor, my voice wound back — deep, guttural cinematic — “HAWWWWWWWTTTTTT!” as my little fella holds the fake apple up above his head and then takes it back down to his mouth and pretends to take a big old bite out of it, his eyes never leaving mine. His smile never wavering for even a moment.
For a second there, he is the best thing that ever happened to Christmas anywhere, anyhow. Our eyes meet. I break out in smile. He wins. He knows he just won. I give up.
For a long second we stand there smiling at each other as Charlie holds the cheap plastic apple an inch away from his mouth as if he’s waiting for me to watch him bite into it. I’m so in love with him already but just like that: I fall a little deeper. And so I turn and walk away, resigned to let the kid mess with the tree all he wants as long as he doesn’t put the lights in his mouth or eat more than two or three spoonfuls of tinsel at a time.
I always though Christmas trees were supposed to be left alone.
But man was I wrong.