It's on days like these that I do my best to resist. My parents chat right beneath the old mistletoe, but they don't kiss; they never do, at least not anymore. My sister's with her boyfriend out on the patio, smoking a cigarette under the orange glow of the paper lanterns while our younger cousins roam the lawn, their light-up sneakers reminiscent of ambulances, their laughs undeniably innocent.
The house is filled to the brim with alien relatives, and I remember that when my sister and I were children, we used to call them UFBs —unidentified flesh and blood— and offer them the same smile and rehearsed lackluster greeting as soon as they stepped into our home. "How do we know them again?" she'd ask later in the night when our family members were obnoxiously loud and drunk.
I walk over to my sister. The air around her smells of chlorophyll, nicotine, and menthol. "Looks like Dad cut the lawn," I say, leaning over the wooden railing with my head aloft over the freshly manicured grass. She nods, unable to think of a way to continue the conversation.
My sister's boyfriend coughs, and we turn our heads, expecting him to say something. His doe-eyes make him look frightened as if our unified glare were enough to turn him to stone. "I'm going back inside to get a beer. You want one?" he asks, looking to my sister and then to me.
"I'm good," she answers.
"And I don't drink."
He knits his brows. "Really? Since when?"
"Since last year."
Dad and his brothers taught my cousins and me to save the cans during each holiday party or family gathering. "Round them up," they'd say while calling over any one of us kids to grab an empty cylinder on the table, by the poolside, or on top of the hoods of their cars.
I'd watch my uncles go from sour to sweet, their rigid, restricted postures loosen. I would notice how my mother, along with the other wives, would tie their hair up, flock around each other like magpies while the cool and sweaty glasses in their hands twinkled under the sun.
We organized the cans, keeping them in perfect triangles like bowling pins as if drinking were a game, and we were the scorekeepers of our parents' fun. They congregated like a church choir, speaking in tightly knit prayer circles while laughing it up. The other kids and I would stuff our faces with chips and soda, soil our clothes, or turn on the TV and host videogame tournaments, boys versus girls.
Our family's as expansive as a banyan tree, with branches permeating through several generations of cousins, of grandaunts and granduncles, and their sons and daughters. Dad alone had six brothers, each with their own children, and Mom was the youngest of three siblings but was the first to get married and start a family.
"Line them up," someone would always say, and that was our cue to get the cans.
It always happened before sunset, when the sky was pink like grapefruit and the adults sober enough to drive. My uncles would set the containers on the fence and ground while Dad went into the garage to grab our slingshots and BB guns.
Shooting, just as drinking, was also a family tradition. My cousins and I were taught to aim and fire from a young age, hearing the stories of how our ancestors derived from hunters, how they lived off the land. We shot palettes at the cans, heard them clink and clank as our fathers rooted and cheered with pride.
"That's my boy," Dad would say. "Way to go, son."
I was twelve years old the first time I got drunk. Every year our family would hold a lottery to see whose house we would spend New Year's eve in. The reunion took place at my uncle Rufus's and aunt Sally's ranch, where everyone could be rowdy and binge as if they were all in Woodstock.
The girls played inside the house, doing each other's make-up or playing with their Barbies while the boys started a private club. I, along with my older cousins, constructed a wigwam in the backyard, and Billy, who, at the time, was fifteen, brought in a champagne bottle that he stole from under our parents' noses. "Let's play cards," he said. "Go fish. Losers need to drink."
I don't remember how many games I lost or won, only that we started with sips and yucks before finally taking big gulps. I laid on the ground, felt the space around me swaying like a sailboat. "You're drunk, kiddo," Billy said with a foolhardy smile.
"Am not," I returned, feeling the weight of my dry tongue inside my mouth.
"Cody's not looking too hot," our cousin Diego commented, and as we all turned our attention to him, he rolled to his side and threw up.
We shrilled, bolted out of the hut, hearing the sound of Cody hurl while the acrid scent of his vomit invaded our noses.
"Cody, are you alright, man?" Billy asked.
He crawled out of the tent, stretched himself on the floor in starfish formation, "Yeah, I'm actually feeling a lot better."
"Phew," Diego let out while Billy snorted and laughed.
My cousin and I hung out on weekends, and when he was seventeen, his old man, my uncle Rufus, bought a new car and passed down his Chevrolet Celebrity to Billy. We drove out to the outskirts of town, where the houses were shoeboxes. We bought iced tea from a gas station and parked the car on a hill close to the phone towers.
We watched the sunset behind the urbanized backdrop as the lights from our town sprung to life like lightning bugs. "Open up the glove compartment, will ya?" Billy said. Under the car's documents, he grabbed a lighter and two plastic baggies, one with marijuana and the other with the Adderall he took for his ADHD.
Billy placed the rolling paper across his thumb and index finger and told me to crush up the capsules. He spread the weed, I handed him the baggie with the pulverized meds, and he sprinkled the grainy powder over the joint like snow over a seedbed.
He lit the end of the roll, took two hits, and only allowed me to take one. "Hey, no fair," I said.
"Sorry, kiddo. You're still a bit young."
I remember paying an awfully amount of attention to Billy's face, how he had an ugly smile that revealed his gums, and acne scars on his cheeks that reminded me of craters and moon rocks.
"You alright?" he asked, his breath sugary and peachy from the iced tea.
"I think I feel it coming."
"Stay cool, kiddo," he chanted. "Stay cool."
I inclined the car seat, felt the existence of my own eye sockets as if they were two golf balls circling around the same hole. Billy placed the joint right on the tip of my mouth, and as the fumes flooded the vehicle's interior, I imagined I was underwater. "It feels like I'm drowning, Billy."
"Nah, you're floating."
Aunt Sally started having chronic pain right around Billy's freshman year of college. "Come on, kiddo, my mom needs her meds," he'd say, pulling up on the driveway so that we could both head to the pharmacy.
We'd smoke two joints in our round trip, one plain and one laced with OxyContin on our way back to his place. The weather was terrible, murky, and cold, and the interior heating of Billy's Celebrity was busted. Billy took off his jacket and threw it onto my lap, "Warm yourself up, kiddo."
And I threw his jacket over my chest while he turned on the radio. "You know, I'm not some little kid anymore."
"Could have fooled me," he returned.
His jacket smelled mossy, herbaceous like a forest, reminiscent of campsites and drunken field trips with our fathers and cousins. Billy looked over to me, shined me a smile with his white teeth and flared gums.
"Billy!" I shouted.
And two lights consumed us in a sterilizing glow.
"Have you really been clean for a year now?" my sister asks me.
"Eleven months. Officially, it'll be a year in the second week of January."
She takes another drag out of her cigarette, blowing a smoke cloud opposite my direction. Our cousins are running back towards us. "Where's the fire, guys?" but they don't stop to look at me, not even for a second.
"They probably have no idea who you are," my sister comments as the kids stampede into the house. She puts out her cigarette, dabbing the end, as if it were a cotton swab, against the railing, then blows the ash away.
Inside my parents' house is a noise factory, an uproar of laughs and music, of people drinking their year down the drain. The last time I was at a family get-together was years ago when my sister was just shy of turning fifteen, our older cousins still didn't drink or have kids, when Billy was still alive, and I wasn't clean.
"It must be hard for you to be here," my sister lets out. "You know, with everyone here," she stops and makes a drinking movement, raising her hand up towards her mouth.
"It's okay, really. It's better than spending the New Year alone."
"Well, maybe next year we could do something else, travel or something."
"As long as you're not bringing your boyfriend," I say, chuckling.
"It's time!" I hear someone shout from inside the house.
"Time for what?" I ask my sister, thinking there's going to be a shoot-out.
Our cousins stomp out, racing down the patio with rockets and bottle-like missiles. The children plant the fireworks on the ground.
"Time?!" one of the kids asks.
"Thirty seconds," another one answers. "We need a lighter or something.
My sister gives me a tap on the shoulder, and we hurry down the lawn while our relatives trickle out of the house, some walking, others stumbling.
"Out of the way, kiddos. Leave this to your superiors," my sister says in a mocking tone. She tosses me her lighter. "Want to do the honors?"
I smile, "Sure."
I squat down onto the ground, wave the flame over the rockets' strings, watching the rears light up in white, sparkling tails.
"Step back, everyone," my sister advises, and our cousins run back to the patio right as the projectiles whistle and race into the air, one after another.
The sky bursts into a flurry of dandelions, sounding off in gunfire, echoing in rapid booms in the atmosphere. Our younger cousins jump and cheer, their parents, my older cousins, beam, hug, and wish each other a happy New Year.
"To another year clean," my sister says.
I nod. "To another year clean."