I Turned Off the Christmas Lights

D.T. Robbins

Everyone swore that if I followed through with the divorce, I would without a doubt fuck up my kids for the rest of their lives. Guaranteed. No exceptions. But right now, they’re happy. The happiest I’ve ever seen them. All smiles and stars in their eyes. My six-year-old is drawing a picture of Santa and Jesus fighting off zombies in the name of Christmas with the crayons she found in her stocking and sitting in the pink desk Santa got her, the big gift, the one Santa almost lost because he didn’t see the email from Target that said the desk was ready for pick-up until the day he got another email from Target that said the desk was supposed to be picked up three days ago and Target is shipping it back to their warehouse if he didn’t come get the desk by the end of the day. So, Santa left work early without telling his boss because there was no way he was going to fuck up my daughter’s Christmas and give everyone another reason to call her dad a gigantic piece of shit. Nice save, Santa. My three-year-old is playing with his dinosaurs. The dinosaurs have a speech impediment because my son has a speech impediment, and I have no idea what they’re saying but the dinosaurs keep going back and forth between growling and laughing so I take it that he likes them. Santa didn’t have an issue with getting the dinosaurs. Good job, Santa.

My daughter says she really wishes she could take her new desk to her mom’s house but decides she’d rather it stay with me because carrying it from my place to her mom’s place and back to my place seems like a lot of work. She asks if Santa is still coming to their mom’s house tonight or if last night, December 23rd, was their only Christmas Eve. I tell her Santa is coming to their mom’s house tonight and that he’ll leave different gifts for them there. I tell her Santa had to do the same thing for me when I had two Christmases with my mom and my dad. She says she hopes Santa brings her a desk just like this one for her mom’s house too. I don’t tell her Santa got the last of this particular style of desk in stock at Target to keep at my house, so probably not.

Their mom, my soon-to-be-in-a-few-months-when-the-court-signs-off-on-the-paper-work-ex-wife texts, asks if she can FaceTime the kids. She doesn’t need to FaceTime them right now because I’m literally dropping them off at her house in the next hour. I’m not trying to be an asshole. She’s their mom and she should be able to talk to them whenever she wants, but she knows that this is the only time I get with them for Christmas this year, and my time is almost up. We’d fought about it a few days ago the same way we fight about almost everything, over text. I wanted to keep the kids until noon today. She wanted them at her house by 9am sharp because that’s when her family planned to open gifts. And, like most of our fights, I caved. I don’t know why. Maybe I should’ve fought harder, told her no, told her I’ve already given her the goddamn holiday so stop fucking fighting with me about three more hours. Six months ago, when I told her I wanted a divorce, one of the first things we talked about was the holidays, and one of the first things I told her was that she should have the first Christmas and Christmas Eve because I didn’t want the kids missing out on the Christmas Eve party her dad and her stepmom threw with all the cousins and all the nieces and nephews just because their dad didn’t want to be married to their mom anymore. I wanted things to be as normal as they could be. Even though normal was never really a good thing when it came to our marriage, so maybe normal isn’t the right way to put it. Fair? No. I don’t think fairness had anything to do with it. Maybe I was just trying to be kind. That makes more sense. I didn’t need to be kind right now, though. I ignore the text, put my phone on silent.

The kids and I sit around the kitchen table, eating our biscuits and drinking our chocolate milk. The Grinch is playing on the television. They’re in their Christmas pajamas. These sort of onesie things in red and green with reindeer and snowmen on them. Brenda Lee is singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on the radio, turned down low. The tree lights are twinkling rainbow because my son likes these colors better than the bright white ones. I hate it but what the hell. It’s Christmas. The apartment smells like pine or syrup or something super festive. Jesus Christ is smiling down on us right now. Happy Birthday, buddy.

“I really love you guys,” I say.

“We love you a lot,” my daughter says.

My son gets up from the table, sits on my lap, wraps his arms around me.

Like I said, happiest I’ve ever seen them.

Their mom is waiting in the driveway when we pull up. The kids hop out of the car, run to their mom, jump in her arms. She tells them how much she missed them, how happy she is that they’re home. She tells them to say goodbye to me. They hug and kiss me, tell me they love me. I squeeze them, try to sneak them into the pockets of my jean jacket without my ex noticing, bring them back home with me, drink all hot cocoa and eat the rest of the Christmas cookies and keep them forever. I let go instead.

“Thanks,” my ex says.

My daughter opens the front door, throws her arms in the air, goes, “Merry Christmas to us all, everyone!”

Like I said, happy.

There’s an unopened bottle of bourbon next to the fridge. I pour a glass and drink it. I pour another, drink that. I do this as many times as it takes until I’m good and drunk enough to cry. But really, I don’t need any bourbon to cry. I’ve already been crying. I cried in the car on the way home. I cried when I opened my door and didn’t hear their voices. I cried when I walked down the hall and saw my son’s toys on the floor. I cried when I placed my daughter’s crayons back into their box. I cried when I put their clothes in the washing machine. I cried when the apartment got so cold that I could see my breath. I cried when I felt my heart stiffen, corrode, break into a million pieces. I cried when I felt the Holy Ghost leave me. I cried when my mom called to check on me, to see if I was ok. I cried when I told her I’m staying drunk until after the new year. I cried when I thought about how happy my kids are now, how they’re always smiling now, how my daughter has found this confidence she never had before and how my son is making huge strides in speech therapy. I thought about how everyone who told me I was going to fuck up their lives by divorcing their mom was full of shit. I cried when I wondered if part of the reason my kids are happy is because they finally see me happy for the first time in years. I cried when I thought about why I was unhappy and how it wasn’t because I hate their mom or anything like that but because I knew we weren’t good for each other and got married for all the wrong reasons, the kind of reasons people who call themselves Christians get married for but don’t really know what the fuck they’re talking about. I cried when I thought about how maybe I was a shitty father before and maybe now I’m becoming a better father. I cried when I thought about how next year they’ll be with me for the holiday. I cried when I thought next year might be a little easier, how the anger and the bitterness and all the shit that comes along with divorce might subside. I cried when I realized they’ll be another year older, that I’ll be older, that time will have done its work on us all and maybe we’ll all be okay. I cried when I thought about being with them, next year.

I get up from the table, turn off the Christmas lights, and go to bed.


D.T. Robbins is the author of Birds Aren’t Real (Maudlin House, 2023) and founding editor of Rejection Letters.