One movie that they show a lot this time of year is Home Alone. I remember it as a cute enough movie, but rewatching it now? It’s actually kind of horrible. Because Kevin is going through all that trouble merely to protect his family’s televisions and other electronics. There’s nobody in the house, and he could have gone elsewhere. He is not defending his family or himself or even the Christmas spirit. He is defending his stuff.
When you think about it that way, Home Alone is really depressing.
Also, one of my very first crushes was on a boy named Kevin who looked just like McCauley Culkin looked in Home Alone. I was in second grade, and this Kevin and I went to the same afterschool daycare, which was in the basement of a big stone Presbyterian church downtown. Kevin was both kind of a dick, and also one of the most popular boys in the daycare (if not at school).
He was in charge of the daycare’s Nintendo. Every day, all the boys would line up and take turns playing Mario. Everyone got to play until they died, then they went to the back of the line again. I’d never played Nintendo, and I was fascinated, so I used to take my turn in the line. But I was at a disadvantage — I didn’t have a Nintendo set at home, and none of my friends had one, so the time I got to spend with the Nintendo at the daycare was the only practice I had. I never got the chance to sit with it awhile and figure out how the controls worked.
So after waiting in line all afternoon, Kevin would bark that it was my turn, and I’d be overcome with excitement – at last, at last! – and I’d take the controller and the music would start and Mario would immediately take a header off the nearest mushroom and plummet headfirst into a chasm. Boop-be-doop-doop-DOOP. And Kevin would send me right back to the back of the line.
Given all that, you might wonder why I had a crush on Kevin. I think it was partly that he was such a powerful figure. He was also the embodiment of all-American moneyed blondness which was very rewarded and admired in the tiny community of which I was then a part (and, well, in every other community everywhere).
Kevin was not even remotely interested in me, but of course, I assumed that he was because I was interested in him, and so I read a layer of deep and significant meaning into all of his actions. If he made fun of me, he was teasing me because he liked me. If he seemed entirely unaware of my existence for weeks on end, it was because he was intimidated by how attracted he was to me. And so forth.
At one point, I recall attempting to grab the game controller from his hands, whining that it was unfair I never got more than a five-second turn because I didn’t have any experience with Nintendo.
“It’s because you’re a girl, and girls suck at video games. That’s not my fault,” explained Kevin. “You’re lucky that we let you play at all.”
“Oh yeah?” I replied adorably. “Give me the controller, and I’ll show you.”
We tussled over the controller in what I thought was romantic roughhousing.
“Let go of it right now,” Kevin said. “You can’t possibly get it from me, I’m much stronger than you.”
I giggled fetchingly and smacked him on the arm, purposely pulling my punch as it were, to further demonstrate my feminine weakness.
“Don’t ever hit me,” said Kevin. “Or I will hit you back.”
“You can’t hit a girl,” I said.
“Sure I can, especially if she hits me first.”
“I bet you won’t hit me,” I said, absolutely thrilled at how swimmingly this first foray into flirting was going, and how I’d managed to sustain close physical proximity to Kevin for like five minutes now.
I smacked him again and he popped me one right in the face.
Looking back on it now, I can hardly claim that his signals were mixed.
This was but the first instance in what would become a long career of romantic misunderstandings in my life.
The other interesting thing that happened at that daycare was that I nearly died.
I had a frenemy at daycare, a girl called Stephanie, who was two years older than me but still hung around with me because every other girl at the daycare was either even less popular than I was, or popular enough that they wouldn’t just do whatever Stephanie told them to do like I would.
One day, Stephanie told me that we were going up to the street level to play because she was bored. We weren’t allowed to do that without permission, but we did anyway. The basement steps came up near a breezeway that had a pair of huge iron gates at either end. The gates were always open, pegged into the ground with an iron sort of doorstop.
“Let’s swing on one,” said Stephanie. She pulled up the doorstop on one of the gates and hopped onto the bottom rim of it. I got on the bottom rim facing her on the other side of the gate and we started to swing back and forth, kicking off the ground in turn to get some satisfying speed.
After a bit of this, an old minister walked by and told us to stop it, that swinging on that gate wasn’t safe.
“We’re sorry,” we chorused, pausing long enough for him to disappear around the side of the building, and then we started to swing again.
And then Stephanie yelled “watch out!” and I looked up and saw that the bolt that attached the top of the gate to the sort of iron tube thingy that held it to the wall was working its way out of the top of the tube thingy, as the gate swung back and forth.
And then the whole enormous gate came apart from the wall, bounced twice on the concrete floor with a horrible banging sound, seemed to consider, briefly, which of the two of us to squash, and then loomed in my direction.
I immediately turned around, curled into a ball, and covered my head with my arms, which I was later told was what saved me. And then I was underneath a giant gate.
What followed is one of my more terrifying (and unreliable) life memories. I remember that there was an echoing, thrumming sound in my head while I was under the gate, kind of like being at the bottom of a pool. I remember Stephanie screaming bloody murder but not going anywhere for some reason (I later learned her ankle got trapped under the gate when it fell and she couldn’t get out). I remember the minister coming back, surveying the scene, and then telling us gravely that God was punishing us for our disobedience (this almost certainly did not really happen). I remember one of the women who worked at the daycare happening by, looking at me, and screaming and screaming and dropping her keys (this probably did happen).
I do not remember getting out from under the gate, but I am told that it was such a heavy gate that they had to find six men to lift it up enough for someone to drag me out from under it. I remember being held by one of the daycare workers and noticing that she was absolutely covered in blood and apologizing to her for ruining her shirt (probably happened). I remember being on a gurney, and I remember a bunch of kindergartners lined up and staring at me in shock (I really think this did happen but I am told it did not). I remember Kevin running up to the gurney in tears and telling me that he had always loved me, and that if I lived, we would be boyfriend and girlfriend (most assuredly did not happen).
Then, I was in the emergency room at the children’s hospital, and my mother was there, and I was getting my head sewn up with only localized anesthetic which isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy. Then I received a CAT scan which revealed that I had no broken bones, which was so inconceivable to everyone that they actually gave me a second CAT scan to confirm. And then I was in the ICU.
The ICU was a giant warehouse of cribs full of screaming children. I was humiliated by being kept in a crib, because I was a second grader. I worried that the other children (all surely much younger than me) were judging me for being there in a crib like a baby.
My parents came in sometimes and read books to me. I remember thinking it was selfish of them to look so dreadful and haggard when obviously I had just been through far worse than whatever could had happened to them in the last day or so.
A nurse spoon-fed me Cream of Wheat, and I told her several times that I didn’t like it, and she said too bad, and then I projectile vomited all over her scrubs.
Another nurse came by and told me that every kid in the ICU gets a treat box, and she put it down by my feet in the crib and told me I could open it later when I had more energy and left. I had energy right then, but I couldn’t sit up, so I spent the next hour or so trying to kick the box up to my hands by stages. When I finally secured it, it turned out to be a toothbrush and a Christmas tree ornament shaped like an angel, so not really worth the effort.
And then I was released to my own private room where I got to eat hospital food in neat little containers (a cup of juice with a foil lid, a single slice of green pepper in a waxed paper envelope), and watch cable TV which we didn’t have at home.
The only fly in the ointment was that when I tried to sit up for the first time in days, a million knives stabbed me in the back and I collapsed in severe pain and vowed never to attempt to sit again. But of course the next few days would be all about me trying to sit, and then standing, and then walking, and it was all just really incredibly painful, and I wasn’t accustomed to having to do anything difficult.
At some point, someone helped me into the bathroom, where I saw in the mirror that half my head had been shaved and the shaved part was covered in some kind of goo and was stitched up in a long, ugly, puckering, furrowed track with bits of black wire sticking out like whiskers here and there. This was one-hundred percent without a doubt the most traumatic part of this entire experience.
For the rest of my stay in the hospital, my Dad took me on slow, halting, laps around the ward. I was bent double at the waist like a hunchbacked old woman and every step was agony.
One day, we met a tiny boy coming along with his mother. The boy was emaciated and had purple rings around his eyes. He was doubled up at the waist like me, and his limbs were so thin and transparent that they looked like dental floss.
He got really excited when he saw me.
“Ooh,” he said to my father, and paused to hack up a giant blood clot into a handkerchief his mother was ready with. “Does she have [insert name of some horrible wasting disease here] too?”
“No, honey, she just sprained her back a little,” said my dad.
If this were a Christmas movie, I would have at this point been enlightened by how other people’s struggles dwarfed my own, and I would have been suffused with love and pity for the whole human race, and my childhood solipsism would have evaporated, leaving me clear-eyed and saintly and ready to work for the good of all.
But this wasn’t a movie.
“Look at my hair, though!” I wailed at the boy, who was now convulsed in a fit of wheezing. “I’m ugly! My life is RUINED!”
Eventually, I got out of the hospital and went home. I’d been declaring for days that I couldn’t possibly be expected to go back to school until my hair had grown back, but when I got home there were cards from everyone in my second-grade class and I had an epiphany: people were going to have to be nice to me! Everyone was going to have to give me everything I wanted and act like they liked me! For probably the rest of the year, or at least until my hair grew back!
So back to school I went, and honestly I don’t remember any embarrassment attached to my head wound. I’m not sure if I wore a hat, or what, but it seems I handled it somehow. And then it was my first day at afterschool daycare — the very scene of my tragedy, where everyone would surely want to hear my story and would give me pride of place in all things, where I would be a conquering hero returned from the very grave.
Stephanie would apologize, weeping, for making me break the rules and swing on that gate, and I would graciously forgive her. Kevin would let me play Mario all afternoon, and might even teach me how, and would probably tell me (even if he didn’t mean it) that my new scar was that one perfect flaw that made my beauty complete.
When I walked into the daycare, I was surprised that nobody really seemed to take much notice. They did not rise as one to lead me to a chair and sit at my feet and beg me to tell them everything. They glanced up from whatever they were doing, and then went back to it.
I found Stephanie. Her sprained ankle was in a splint and there were crutches leaning on her chair.
“So I’m back,” I announced.
“Ah,” she said. “You know, it took them days to clean all your blood out of the breezeway. Days.” She actually sounded pissed at me, and we never did hang out after that, for whatever reason.
Undaunted, I approached the Nintendo console.
“Hey Kevin,” I said. “I’m back.”
He gave me the briefest of nods, studying the game in progress as if it were a moon landing and he a commander back on terra firma.
I tried gracefully to slide into the line between the current players and the first boy waiting. The line erupted.
“No cutting! Back of the line!”
Huffily, I took my place at the back of the line. Surely, I thought, in a last-ditch flash of optimism, I’ll be allowed to play more than once.
But when I finally assumed the controller, it was boop-be-doop-doop-DOOP and “Ok, that’s your turn!”
Nothing had changed at all. Nothing ever would.
Really, if you think about it, there were a thousand things that Home Alone Kevin could have done that would have made more sense in his situation. He could have called the cops, for one thing. Or he could have stayed with the old man and let the robbers take his stuff — I’m sure his parents were insured. Or he could have stayed with a friend. I mean, really, did his family not know a single other family in town?
Had he done any of those things, there wouldn’t have been a Home Alone, true, but we would also have been spared the travesty that was Home Alone II.
I wouldn’t want that, though, and here’s why: I never got a Nintendo, but at some point, I did get a Gameboy.
Granted, I never managed to get very far with Mario for Gameboy either. And when I was a high school theater nerd, I had the exact same damn experience of endless waiting in a line of boys only to suffer immediate death every time, this time with GoldenEye 007.
But there was one video game that I managed to win, and that was Home Alone II for Gameboy. It took me about a full year of solid trying and I only beat it once, and the ending made no sense at all (you had to get to the top of this tree and defeat this floating lady who was dropping apples on you), but I did beat it.
I only wish Kevin had been there to see it. So that I could have rubbed it in his beautiful smug little bitch face.