It's like a candy-coated war zone. The stuttering gridlock of westbound I-4 traffic the Monday after Christmas hiccups in tryptophan-laced fits and starts while all around, fiberglass and plastic relics of purchased escapism don't so much glow as burn holes into astigmatic retinas focused on getting around it all. Little sideshows to sideshows abut motor lodges with free-eating kids; ramshackle takes on knee-jerk impulses to race this or ride that virtually cackle in the face of stammering automotive progress. For all intents and purposes, I'm a renegade platelet in a rather loopy circulatory system, pushing or being pushed, as life would have it. But where exactly am I going? It can't be good.
"OK, I'm down here by the escalators," my mother's womb sends out an emergency throb from somewhere in between up and down. "So where are you?"
"I'm right behind you." I gaze through the sniveling snot of a Touristan anthill and into the back of my maker's head. "I'm the gay one. The gay one at Gaylord Palms."
Every year my mother and stepfather take pains to swing by Central Florida for a timely check-up on her spawn separately — my opposite brother douses fires in Clermont, so there's that — but this year they've decided to dabble in a touch of whimsy and incorporate an attraction into the affair. It's a wise move, given the distraction required from the obvious (my life has recently become an unmitigated shambles, one to which they've been at least partially party) and the fact that historically I've treated these little meet-ups with a pickled haste that even I wouldn't want to be around. So this year we're doing it like family. This year we're doing it on Ice!
"I went ahead and bought you a Chill Pass." My mom knows no irony. "It better be worth the money."
Ice! — apart from being one of few illicit substances with which I have never shared an artery — is the exclamatory demarcation for a frozen resort installation meant to inject a "cool pinch of irony," according to the event's website, into the otherwise climate-
challenged holiday mood of Florida. From what I can gather, it's a morgue playfully stacked with ice sculptures through which nuclear families are frozen, processed for photographs, pushed down a slide, then kicked out to thaw in some vague appreciation of what love and life really are. But that's just me. To my parents, this is something to see, and therefore requires not one but two cameras: a point-and-click for candids, a Flip video device for continuity.
"Are you going down the slide?" My mother blinks in a manner that makes me think she wishes I weren't the post-drunk 37-year-old faggot standing before her, but rather the promising twig from the church handbell choir she once understood.
"You have no idea," I slip.
Initially, there's the awkward grumble-grumble of "let's see what this is all about" crowd immersion. A holding pen with three giant flat-screen monitors overhead makes it even less appealing. On one screen, a hot guy who might be a Jewish carpenter minus the carpenter part gets overexcited about nothing, eventually volleying his acting chops over to a brunette lady tragedy on another screen. Her Botox severity simply screams, "I should have gotten that Lexus of Orlando commercial. Was it my face?" On the screen in between them, the gray ghost of a dead Santa (or some variation on the Snow Miser) mediates their troubles, none of which can be made out by the gathering throng. Oh, Orlando.
"I wonder if I'm supposed to understand what they're saying," my mother wonders aloud. "Because I don't."
"You aren't," I hurry things along, because it's starting to get cold and there are no words.
Inside, where the temperature is advertised to be 9 degrees ("Not 6?" my mother separates), we're fitted with knee-length, hooded blue parkas by underpaid minions and effectively shorn of our identities.
"Be nice to Ice!" a sign reads, ridiculously. "Thank you for not touching, licking or sitting on the Ice!"
"Annnnnd, thank you for not touching, licking or sitting on my …," my nervous hatch battens itself.
I wish I could say that once the enormity of the climate shock and mob-moving technicalities wore off, a shimmering palace of beauty and satisfaction revealed itself, well-worn familial bonds strengthening and flourishing in the brushes of loving shoulder to loving shoulder as each worked its way through the maze with a common purpose, but I can't. Yes, I love my mother, my stepfather as well, but a numb nose and blue lips won't do anything to improve on all of that. So I just play along.
"How do you think they got the color into all of those sculptures?" My mother's amazement makes me want to be a father, somehow.
"Food coloring." I ruin everything because I always do.
We pass the Ice! slide without anybody even making a motion that we endure its 3-foot-high, 20-foot-long, push-your-kid slope and end up frozen in some kind of transparent and cold Nativity scene.
"So this is it," I shiver on my mother's shoulder. "This is dying."
Over dinner, I'll do my usual bean-spilling about every frayed nerve being featured in this year's self-defeating line of hair shirts — "My life is much harder than you might think," etc. — and they'll nod along, saints so unabashedly proud of me that I'll think of myself as the little boy in that Christmas photo from 1977, dressed as a little angel with his arms stretched out, frozen in their minds like that forever. There is something to this.
"We're just so glad that you're taking better care of yourself, and that you seem so much happier," my stepfather says into my ear as he hugs me goodbye.
And on I-4 on the way back home, weaving through fresh bits of candy-colored fiberglass and plastic from crashed bumpers, it doesn't feel like such a calamity at all. These are the things that you get through when you're on the road, when you're going somewhere. Veins may be blue, but there's red firstname.lastname@example.org