“Only babies believe in Santa,” Lloyd taunted during recess a week before my seventh birthday. “It’s your parents, stupid!”
“I know that,” I shot back and rolled my eyes. Heart pounding, I turned from our game of hopscotch and scurried to the school bathroom. I sat on the toilet, sweaty and slightly nauseous. Lloyd’s claim made perfect sense. My head spun as the scaffold supporting my suspension of disbelief came crashing down around me. I mean, I lived in Puerto Rico. We didn’t even have a chimney. A row of dominoes tumbled in my mind as I extrapolated: Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Three Kings. Fake. Fake. Fake.
I pulled at my pigtails in frustration. Stupid Lloyd. Why did he have to tell me? I wasn’t ready to forgo candy-filled Easter baskets, trading baby teeth for cash, or getting gifts from mythical creatures. I received presents from my family and from Santa. Would I now only get half as much at Christmas? And worse, Santa brought all the special presents. I envisioned future Christmases when I’d hold my gifts despondently, a nightgown, a package of socks, Maja soap, and maybe a Lladró figurine for my room. Nope. No way.
Clearly, I needed to keep this new knowledge to myself. Raised by strict adherents to the ostrich-with-its-head-in-the sand approach to life, I was thankfully well versed in the art of keeping secrets. Ever since I could recall I’d wondered why I lived with my grandparents. Why did my mother have her own apartment? All my friends had fathers; where the heck was mine? Questions abounded, but I knew not to ask. Abuela had drilled that lesson into me early on. Young me had been coloring a Cinderella scene, trying to keep the magenta crayon within the lines, while Abuela chopped pumpkin for soup in the steamy kitchen. Done, I held up my artwork and said, “Abuela, I’m going to dress like this beautiful princess when my Papi comes.”
Understand that Abuela was hardly your sweet cookie-making granny. She was short in stature but formidable, and chupacabra-scary when inflamed. She turned toward me, arm extended, her massive, razor-sharp chef’s knife pointed at my head. Her face contorted into a landscape of rage as she spat disdain in her raspy smoker’s voice, “What do you mean ‘your Papi?’ Your Abuelo is your Papi. Don’t you dare disrespect him like that, you little pila de mierda.” She ordered me to take a bath, as if I’d soiled myself by bringing up the topic of my father. I immediately understood: if something seems off in this family, pretend it’s normal and never speak of it. Don’t rouse the Abuela beast again.
So continuing to pretend I believed in Santa came easily, and I maintained the charade until well past the age when children logically figure these things out. Nobody asked and I didn’t tell, and by my eleventh Christmas, my family naively thought I still expected Santa to deliver. We attended the annual Benitez Christmas Eve soiree and consumed copious amounts of fritters, morcillas, lechón, rice with pigeon peas, pasteles, and for the adults, rum and Cokes. Fully sated, I dozed on the ride home and sleepwalked to my bed where I dared to dream of opening Donny Osmond’s new album in the morning. For the rest of my family, however, a nightmare awaited.
After ensuring I was asleep, Abuela, Abuelo, my mother, and my aunt, hurried to arrange Santa’s gifts under the tree, ready for bed themselves. I imagine Abuelo’s face blanching, his body breaking out in a cold sweat upon realizing my presents were still in the vault. “The vault” was not a euphemism for “excellent hiding place.” My gifts were literally inside the vault at the savings and loan where he presided, and that vault was impenetrable, hermetically sealed until 8:00 am on December 26th.
Abuelo did not handle crisis well. Once when an actor yelled “Fire!” during a play, Abuelo sprang from his aisle seat and, without a backward glance at Abuela or me, sprinted toward the exit. The blood loss when I broke my chin open in a fall had him running in circles, arms windmilling. His panic that Christmas Eve must have reached heart-attack proportions. The rest of the clan, I’m sure, flung blame at him in shouted whispers. I envision crying and accusations, followed by creative plotting as they tried to find a solution to this untenable situation. Because, as usual, the truth was not an option, no matter my age.
The next morning I padded over to the artificial Christmas tree, crusty-eyed and breathless with excitement. With a jolt, I registered the giant piece of paper covering a third of the tree. It was…a note? I read the bold black lettering: “My Dear Friend Peggy, My sleigh broke. As soon as I fix it, I will send your presents.” Signed, “Santa.”
Wait. What? I was confounded. Where was my stuff? What had happened? My imagination failed to come up with a single plausible scenario for the lack of presents from Santa under that tree. Flummoxed, I pretended to accept the situation and sat down to open the “lesser” gifts from my family. Everyone oozed relief.
I never got those Santa presents. Abuelo did bring them home, where they taunted me daily from the back of a little used closet. But I simply couldn’t bring my preteen self to ask, “Do you think Santa’s sleigh is fixed yet?” It was beyond embarrassing. I imagine my grandparents were equally chagrined, and with both parties experts at avoidance, we entered a permanent standoff. Eventually the gifts disappeared, probably donated to a charity.
The next Christmas my mother approached me solemnly ready to break my little heart as she revealed the truth about Santa Claus. “Yeah, yeah,” I waved my hand in her surprised face, “I’ve known for a while. But, Mami, what happened last year?” And, perhaps because I’d saved her from the horror of having a difficult conversation, she told me the vault story. It may or may not be true.
Margarita Barresi’s work has appeared in Acentos Review, Pink Ink, Boston Accent Lit, Drowning Gull, and Your Teen Magazine. Her recently completed first novel, A Delicate Marriage, is currently under agent representation. It’s a historical fiction tale set in Puerto Rico during the first half of the 20th century and earned her a writer’s residency spot at Noepe Center for Literary Arts in Martha’s Vineyard.