L E V E L 1:
The Infinite Trials
of Exchanging Presents
You wake up in the underheated guest room after perhaps two hours’ sleep, alone. You recall the uncomfortable conversation last night during the ride from the airport with your girlfriend, Emily, and her mother, Jan, about sleeping arrangements, which induced a fight between them as you passively kept your distance, your first indication that this trip might have been a major mistake. Exits are to the hallway and out the second-story window.
Emily calls up to you that they’re opening presents.
> GET DRESSED
You have two options: a T-shirt with a hole and jeans, or a highly conservative outfit of chinos and a turtleneck that you can picture a football player wearing as he and his photogenic family wish you happy holidays in a taped segment during a Christmas Day game.
> PICK FOOTBALL PLAYER’S OUTFIT
You feel ridiculous, but it’s not worth incurring more of Jan’s judgment about your lifestyle choices.
> GOTO HALLWAY, DOWNSTAIRS, LIVING ROOM
The family is waiting for you. “You decided to join us,” Jan says without any affect.
> SMILE SHEEPISHLY AND DISTRIBUTE PRESENTS
You hand out presents to everyone. “You wrapped these yourself?” Jan says.
> VALIANTLY OVERLOOK VEILED INSULT TO MY WRAPPING JOB
You nod. “Open yours first,” Emily says, giving you a present. “It’s from the family.”
> OPEN PRESENT, FEEL EMBARRASSED BY ATTENTION FOCUSED ON MY REACTION
It’s an expensive-looking but hideous button-down shirt that you know you’ll never wear.
> FEIGN DELIGHT AND APPRECIATION
“Emily said you’d be quitting that paralegal job of yours soon, so we thought you’d need something for job interviews,” Jan says.
“Mom, I did not say he’d be quitting; I said he was thinking about quitting,” Emily says.
> HURRIEDLY THANK JAN FOR GIFT TO CIRCUMVENT ARGUMENT
Caught in an icy staring contest with her daughter, she fails to acknowledge your gratitude.
> THANK EMILY’S FATHER, TOO
He mumbles, making it clear he had no stake in the gift. Jan takes out the New Mexican turquoise necklace you gave her. “Wow, a necklace,” she says, holding it up. “It’s really interesting-looking.”
> HOLD ARMS OUT FOR HUG
It is not reciprocated.
> GRACELESSLY RETRACT ARMS
You try to make it look like you were stretching, but exacerbate the gesture’s obviousness by slapping your hands on your hips and drum-rolling them nervously.
> STARE CATATONICALLY AT FLOOR FOR REMAINDER OF PRESENT-OPENING, SPEAK (IN MONOSYLLABIC SENTENCES) ONLY WHEN REQUIRED
You manage to largely ignore another fight that springs up around you (over a dress that Emily says is two sizes too small, to which Jan replies, “Maybe after you get back in shape it’ll fit”).
> VOLUNTEER TO HELP CLEAN UP DISCARDED WRAPPING PAPER
Jan denies you the opportunity to be helpful, so she can be the martyr who does all the housework, and tells you to watch football with her husband in the den.
L E V E L 2:
The Den of Lack
of Common Interests
You sit at opposite ends of the couch from Emily’s father in front of a widescreen TV, watching Denver and Tennessee play a game whose outcome you are completely indifferent to. The exit is to the living room.
> NOTE DENVER’S INTRIGUING OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLING
Your attempts to present a more masculine demeanor and knowledge base to the 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound former high-school defensive lineman go painfully awry and are generally met with grunts.
> SILENTLY OBSERVE DURING COMMERCIAL BREAK THAT I AM DRESSED MUCH LIKE BRONCOS QUARTERBACK JAKE PLUMMER AS HE AND HIS PHOTOGENIC FAMILY WISH VIEWERS HAPPY HOLIDAYS
You also realize that this is the only “nice” outfit you packed, which means you’ll have to wear the ugly button-down tomorrow.
> MAKE STIMULATING, ENJOYABLE CONVERSATION
I’m sorry, I don’t know that command. Please try rephrasing it.
> RAPIDLY EXHAUST MY PREPARED QUESTIONS ABOUT HIS LUMBER BUSINESS
He provides minimal answers, and the two of you watch the rest of the game in stifling near-silence.
L E V E L 3:
The Frigid Dungeon
You and the family are seated around the dinner table. The absence of music or lively conversation accentuates the sounds of chewing and scraping forks. There are several exits, but you’ve lost the will to notice them.
> COMPLIMENT JAN ON HOW GOOD THE HAM IS
You do so, then realize you have yet to take a bite.
> QUICKLY SCARF DOWN A PIECE
You do so, and choke. Emily slaps you on the back until you cough it up onto your lap.
You are carrying:
A cell phone with a message from your friends Dave and Paul telling you what a fun time they’re having in the Bahamas
A slowly coalescing escape plan
A piece of ham
Resentment toward Emily for persuading you that visiting her parents at Christmas would be “totally fun”
> STARE CATATONICALLY AT PLATE FOR REMAINDER OF DINNER, SPEAK (IN MONOSYLLABIC SENTENCES) ONLY WHEN REQUIRED
You manage to largely ignore another fight that springs up around you (over Emily’s second serving of ham and Jan’s offhand comment about her “bloated thighs”).
> VOLUNTEER TO HELP CLEAR DISHES
Jan again pulls the martyr routine and tells you to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with the rest of the family.
> MAKE EXCUSE TO CHECK E-MAIL AS FAMILY WATCHES IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, GO TO COMPUTER ROOM, REALLY CHECK TO SEE IF I CAN MOVE MY FLIGHT UP TO TOMORROW
As you read the fine print of the ticket-changing policy, you hear Jan’s heels clicking down the hallway. You shudder in Pavlovian reflex.
> CLOSE BROWSER WINDOW IN PANIC
You do so, leaving behind only a pop-up window for X10 surveillance cameras. That doesn’t look suspicious at all.
Jan stalks in. “I just wanted to say how nice it’s been to meet you,” she says, “even if you’re not exactly what we pictured when Emily said her new boyfriend had been at her law firm for three years.”
> VALIANTLY BEAR PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE COMMENT
Jan says she’s going to watch the movie.
> FEIGN HEADACHE, GOTO LIVING ROOM AND SAY GOOD NIGHT, GOTO GUEST ROOM, GET IN BED
You crawl into the icy bed at 8:30 p.m., mentally calculating how many hours you have left here (38) and regretting passing up the Bahamas.
Final score: 11 out of 213
Play again next year?