I take a lot of things in my life very seriously and one of them is Secret Santa. Sure, currently on the corner of my desk sits a pile of essays about 1960s-style film antiheroes that I should probably grade and there are definitely recommendation letters I need to write so some of my students can get into good colleges and not eventually have to live on the street or get a job at SUR. I should also possibly carve out the time to call the parent of an eighteen year old in one of my classes who sits directly in my eye-line and picks his nose and then eats it. (This is something that really happens. The first time I saw it, I was quite certain that I was hallucinating. I was not hallucinating; the dive into the kid’s nose was real and it was not just a one-time thing. This event happens daily and I fear I might never be the same again. Also, should this kid’s final average turn out to be a 12, I am still passing him just to get him out of my sight.)
Anyway, with all of my actual responsibilities piling up, I made what I think is the very adult decision to prioritize that which is truly important – and this week I have decided Secret Santa is where I should place the lion’s share of my focus. I run the event. I sent out the “Who wants to play?” email a few weeks ago. Then I sent out a follow-up email because some people suck balls and therefore find it impossible to respond to a colleague who is just trying to make the workplace a little bit more festive. Once the players were finally in place, I sauntered around a huge building in five-inch heels carrying a small box that was loaded with names written on small slips of paper. “Here,” I’d say, shoving the box towards someone while he was in the middle of teaching eleventh graders about the recurring theme of solitude in Into the Wild. “Pick a name. If it’s yours or someone you hate, you can choose again.” There were a handful of times people tossed the original name they picked back into the box. There was also the moment I said to a good friend, “You pick first. Anyone you want in particular? I have no guilt in cheating here,” and his response was that he wanted me and that was quite sweet, though it also totally ruins the game by eliminating the element of surprise.
One person was signed up to participate by someone else. I was aware of that and I didn’t think it would be any sort of big deal, but what I didn’t know is that participating in a three-day Secret Santa is apparently against everything this guy stands for and, when I appeared in his room and thrust the box of names towards him, he began to shake and stammer like I had randomly decided to turn Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery into something real and he was singlehandedly choosing the name of the poor sucker who was about to get stoned – and not in the good way. I let him off the hook because horrified people tend to make very poor Secret Santas, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t still weirded out by the whole thing.
As for me, I didn’t cheat – and that’s a first. I randomly selected a name and I bought that person all kinds of presents and I wrapped them this weekend in festive gift bags that have color-coordinated tissue paper shoved inside to make them look extra pretty and I lined them up on my dining room table so I wouldn’t forget to bring them to work because the only thing worse than a Secret Santa having a nervous breakdown just by picking a name from a box is a Secret Santa who forgets to bring a gift. I’ve always taken gift giving rather seriously. I’m not a wait-until-the-last-minute kind of shopper and I keep lists in my phone throughout the year of maybe-presents to buy certain people. And though the person whose name I picked is not someone I’d really qualify as my friend, I respect my role as her present giver. As such, magnetic poetry featuring the words of Charles Dickens, her favorite writer, is coming her way and she can affix all sorts of fragmented sentences about Dickensian poverty and misery to her refrigerator all vacation long. I hear she’s also a Fifty Shades of Grey fan and I did consider getting her some Christian Grey magnetic poetry too, but it is the holy season after all and she’s kind of religious so maybe it would be unseemly for her to create sentences out of words like “cock” and “fisting” this week. I settled instead on the Dickens gift and a few ornate picture frames and some chocolates and the most gorgeous handmade soap you have ever seen. And I only hope my own Secret Santa – whose identity was compromised before the fucking game even started – puts as much thought into his gifts for me and finally gets me that baby otter I have always wanted.
With thoughts of mistletoe and candy canes and Christmas morning running like reindeers on crack through my mind (which makes perfect sense and all since I’m Jewish), I can’t help but consider which gifts I’d choose for my favorite Vanderpumpers had we all participated in a raucous game of Secret Santa together – which, I’m imagining, would take place on the most frigid day Hell has ever seen. And while I’d probably open anything some of them give me with sterile gloves just as a precaution, I do love receiving presents and I’d look forward to unwrapping whatever it is that Jax was able to steal from SUR to bestow upon me, though I really hope it’s a half-burned candle and not one of the place’s illustrious and not-at-all discerning hostesses he’s convinced to get shoved into a box.
If my Secret Santa recipient turned out to be Jax, first I would (obviously) curse the universe at large. Then I would buy him twelve sessions with a tattoo artist and I would insist that each and every tattoo be either a picture of his own face where his nose is swathed in a filthy bandage or some of the words that have fallen from his mouth over the years like poetry that committed suicide. I want quotations like, “Whatever…nobody died and nobody got pregnant” tattooed across his temples forever like he’s Mike fucking Tyson. Merry Christmas, Jax.
As for James, I would happily hand him an envelope that contains a round-trip ticket to Siberia! I have given this present a great deal of thought. While I realize that tickets to the Russian wasteland will not come cheap, I have enlisted Sir Andy Cohen to chip in with me for the gift – and he was happy to kick in some cash after the repulsive way James behaved on Watch What Happens Live. For the record, my first suggestion to Andy Cohen was that we hire a hitman to take the DJ out, but he talked me out of it while muttering something about how his contract includes a clause that he must not participate in the murder of any cast member on any of his shows. Legalities are so confining. Anyway, our new plan is that the return ticket from Siberia will be counterfeit so nobody will allow James on a plane to return to the United States. Of course, it’s incredibly hard to outsmart George Michael’s godson (who will have Faith that his Father Figure with help secure his Freedom), so should the dickhead burrow his way out of the snowy plains, at least the debilitating coldness he had to experience for a while might finally encourage him to slip on a button down or a hoodie or one of my own fucking bikini tops or really anything besides one of those awful tank tops he wears, all of which show off more cleavage than I do on a Saturday night.
Then there’s Kristen. What do you get for the girl who has everything? (Oh…important note: the word everything now means having unwavering alcohol-induced envy, limp hair, and the kind of bravery that allows you to continue to insert yourself into situations with people who have told you directly to your face that you are the single worst person who has ever slithered free from the depths of the underworld.) Since she’s already so blessed, I am going to go simple with Kristen and buy her a nice leather journal so she can record all of her thoughts and feelings and hopes for her future plans. I believe this journal will work twofold as it will one day undoubtedly serve as excellent evidence in her murder trial while also offering her just a tiny bit of momentary catharsis.
I’m going to bestow upon Katie a list of wedding gown designers who refuse to make dresses that have crop tops because I worry that her new bond with Scheana might cause her to contemplate wearing a two-piece on her big day. I will also gift Katie with a mirror that she should gaze into daily in an effort to remind herself how good her hair looks right now so she will never again snap or lose consciousness or do whatever caused her to dye her hair that terrible shade of orange a few seasons back that still haunts me in my darkest dreams.
I’m giving Schwartz my phone number.
The threats made against her thus far this season are nothing compared to those made on camera last season (several of which involved Mack trucks heading directly at her face at full speed), but I still worry about Ariana’s physical wellbeing when Kristen exists in the world. To that end, I am going to give Ariana certificates to classes for kickboxing, sword throwing, and Krav Maga so she can learn to protect herself. Additionally, I am going to throw in a lesson with a former student of mine who is a current gang member who might be able to teach Ariana how to successfully hide a body. (The kid did not learn that skill in my class, but he does now know the difference between a dissolve and a cut on form. Editing always matters.)
I will buy Scheana the factory that produces her mile-long false eyelashes so she never runs out and a session with a therapist who can explain to her both verbally and through charades that her husband – the guy with the addiction issues – probably shouldn’t drink at all regardless of the fact that she feels it’s no fun to be married to someone totally sober. As for Shay, I’m going to buy him some more sessions at that gym so he can learn to grind against the floor with as much expertise as Sandoval.
Speaking of Sandoval, I’m just so thrilled that he hasn’t worn a beanie or wept into a camera in close-up yet this year, so I’m going big for the guy. I will buy him a sprawling house on a mountaintop that’s too steep for Kristen to even crawl up. This home will come equipped with a home gym, a screening room that plays Zoolander on a loop, and an ornate fountain that spews Vanderpump Sangria instead of water. Such a fountain will be befitting for the man I’ve decided to make the official model for the beverage – and yes, I know that he and Schwartz want to get out of modeling and try their hands at business, but let’s face it: neither of these guys can formulate a sentence when they’re under pressure so perhaps the business world is not the right place for them. I hope Sandoval will peacefully come to terms with the fact that he’ll never know nearly enough to be able to pull off a Ponzi scheme and that he’ll spend his languid evenings rocking slowly in the golden hammock in his backyard while Kristen – refusing to give up – tries to scale the terrain using just her nails and her knuckles for support.
I’m giving Lala nothing. I prefer to believe that she doesn’t exist.
The thing is, even the shitty gifts – like permanent exile wrapped in a shiny bow – that I’d hand some of these people are nothing compared to the things they give one another. They bequeath grief, deceit, fickleness, and fury to their friends and alleged loved ones with the same air of casualness that I tried (and failed) to master when I handed the booger-eater a tissue. And none of them even break a sweat.
This episode begins with the lovely dinner Lisa threw for charity ending and some conflict beginning because the guys are planning to leave for a trip to Vegas. Neither Ariana nor Katie wants their men to go gallivanting off to the Land of Sin with a chaperone like Jax – and if I know anything about men, it’s that they love to be told that they’re not allowed to do something. Katie believes that Schwartz lost his Vegas privileges when he hooked up with some stranger last time he was there (the girl’s got a point) and Ariana refuses to allow anyone to leave Los Angeles proper within sixty hours of the day of her birth.
In a tree-lined corner of the restaurant, Peter and Jax approach Lisa to ask about getting some time off for their No Girls (That We’ve Promised Anything To) Vacation. Lisa reacts like she doesn’t know this request is coming, an act I can’t quite buy being that she’s an executive producer of this show and probably has this trip already written on a calendar somewhere because it does require some planning to send a camera crew off to Nevada. In any event, she pretends to be flabbergasted by why they’d want to go after all the messes they’ve gotten into in Vegas in the past, like that one time Jax got a random girl pregnant while he was in a supposedly committed relationship. She also tells them they’re idiots to bring Shay with them seeing that he’s married and maybe not in the best position to run wild in a setting that beckons bad behavior. Still, she lets them go. The woman is no idiot; she knows what will make good TV. (Oh…another quick note about a change in language. “Good” can now be defined as bland debauchery engaged in by douchebags. I’ll alert Webster’s.)
At the hostess stand, James approaches Lala with a smarmy greeting and the news that neither one of them has yet to be invited to Ariana’s birthday party. Who cares, wonders James. He doesn’t want to go anyway! It’s just gonna be Silverlake hipsters and he hates those fucking people and none of them even own a tank top or can make music with their phones so he doesn’t need to attend! Lala, however, is not so cool with being left out of festivities thrown by people who are not actually her friends. She’s also not being all that smart here because she’s allowing James to make her feel vulnerable and like he’s the only person in all of SUR who cares about her. I have no doubt: she will come crawling back to him and start nibbling on his scrawny pale forearms by sundown.
I get why Lala is upset that she’s not invited to Ariana’s party because this is a fiesta with gift bags! Unfortunately, tied into the candy bags is a shit ton of resentment because Ariana is so not cool that her boyfriend is heading off to Vegas instead of wanting to be by her side the day after her birthday. Katie’s not thrilled either and Schwartz appears terrified to bring the whole thing up to the woman to whom he has yet to officially propose. Both Katie and Ariana summon up some strength and put the official kibosh on the trip – which means the guys will be leaving bright and early the next morning for Vegas.
Ariana’s birthday party is kind of odd. It’s in someone’s backyard and there are balloons and streamers and a bouncy castle and the girls are sequestered inside doing one another’s hair while the boys chatter away outside about how excited they are for their upcoming vacation. But who cares about any of that when Ariana comes outside dressed like a unicorn in a tutu? None of it makes any sense, nor does the shirt with popsicles festooned all over it that Sandoval is wearing, and I feel like I’m high as fuck right now watching this scene and I seriously need to make friends with someone who has her own bouncy castle, though I will need to procure a strong sports bra first.
As the party goes on, Jax and Brittany tongue one another in the pool because, you know, romance, and Ariana plays carnival games on the lawn. There’s sumo wrestling and crowns weaved from balloons and sno cones made out of flavored tequila but there is no Lala. Faith, the other new waitress, made the cut so Scheana explains to the table at large why Lala was not invited while Schwartz breaks the news to Katie that he is in fact taking a stand and leaving for a trip without her. Katie cries that she is always the flexible and giving one in their relationship and I think a lot of us can probably empathize with where she’s coming from.
Ariana, however, will not permit her boyfriend to leave town. Her birthday brings waves of grief her way because her father passed away two years ago and these kinds of occasions remind her of all the things he is missing. I don’t remember Ariana ever shedding a tear when Kristen told her to her face that she’s a whore or that she’d willingly pay a lot of money to watch her die, but she does cry here and it’s sad to see. She wants some constant comfort and companionship and she wants her boyfriend to provide it. Before he can do that, there is some silly string and a cake covered in sparklers, and then Sandoval swoops in to have a chat with the birthday girl who immediately bursts into tears again. This is a person who is still grieving and Sandoval’s eyes fill with tears just seeing this kind of emotion dripping down the face of the woman he loves. He will always be there for her. He will never leave her – except for tomorrow, see, because Peter told him they’re gonna do something in Vegas that involves crushing shit with bulldozers and there’s really no way he’ll miss something so awesome and anyway, she’ll still be crying when he gets back! He can comfort her then!
On the drive to Vegas, Sandoval tries to appease his guilt by saying that he has never given Ariana a reason not to trust him and that’s when Jax – the best friend a guy could ever have – busts in to remind us about Miami Girl, the chick Sandoval allegedly banged in Florida who made very specific claims about what the guy’s dick looked like to serve as proof that she saw it. To this day I wonder about what she meant (I’ve always believed there’s a hairy mole on it that’s shaped like Kristen) and I also wonder why any of these guys spend even a nanosecond of time with Jax, a guy who so clearly has nobody’s interests but his own residing anywhere in his mind.
Back at SUR, Lala asks Faith about the party she wasn’t invited to and right as she’s being told how much fun it was, Katie, Scheana, and Ariana come and sit down with them. Ariana – who looks better as a human girl than as a glittery unicorn – is still pissed, especially since now she has to work all weekend to fill in for the bartenders who fled to Vegas. She’ll get back to her rage in just a moment, but she takes a break when Lisa comes over to quiz Faith on how the sea bass is prepared and to ask each and every one of them how the party was, prompting Lala to say that she wasn’t invited. And it’s not the first time our Lala has been left out! No, she has been bullied for her entire life and she lets us know that despite how devastatingly hot she is, she’s still vulnerable on the inside. Ariana can relate to feeling that way and she feels kind of badly that she put someone else in that position so I think the bonding session between these girls is about to start. Lisa counsels them not to sit back and get mad that their boyfriends took off without them. Instead, they should get all kinds of even and that’s exactly the kind of advice a boss always gives to her workers and again, none of it has to do with driving a storyline. This show could absolutely rely purely on candid and unscripted conversations between the cast because is anything more profound and enlightening than hearing Sandoval advise those around him on the proper way to contour?
Arriving at Dig This, the guys are so excited to wreck stuff. First they have to do a breathalyzer test and all of them blow clean, which is relatively shocking, especially for Jax who has never passed a breathalyzer, or really any kind of test. They are permitted to climb into bulldozers that spin and lift stuff and they all get to live out their construction worker fantasies and none of it has a homosexual subtext in the least so stop letting your mind go to that place.
Now that they can drink, the shots and the beers slide down their collective gullets and they gamble a bit at the tables. We also get an ass shot of Sandoval and then Jax pulls his pants down in Schwartz’s face and shoves his dick against the glass window of the hotel room. And none of that is weird at all, especially not the lap dance two of them give Schwartz or the way Jax brushes Sandoval’s hair like he’s a delicate pony.
Back at home, Ariana calls Sandoval (who is now clothed) to tell him she’s going to Scheana’s for a slumber party. Before she can get there, James approaches the bar. He claims that the only reason he’s not in Vegas with the rest of the guys is because none of them like him and wouldn’t deign to even speak a syllable to him if they weren’t all under contract to the same show. Oh wait – actually the real reason he’s not invited is because Jax is afraid that James will steal his limelight. As James blunders on and on about how Jax will never win Lala the Prize, Ariana sneers directly in his face. He finally leaves and that’s when Lisa comes over to once again nudge Ariana to feel bitter because her boyfriend left for the weekend. Ariana opens up to her then about the loss of her father and how scary it can be to invest so much of your adoration and caring into someone new, someone who can throw all of that love away like it’s garbage that no one even takes the time to try to recycle. All of this – everything she’s struggling with – is painful and it’s confusing and it’s maybe the most honest human sentiment I’ve ever seen on this show.
Over at Scheana’s house, the walls are still plastered with gigantic wedding photos in sizes like 440x640. The girls arrive for their slumber party and they’ve got limes and alcohol and they’re ready to play some sex question game. (My answer, by the way, is always “swallow.”) We find out that Ariana prefers giving head than getting it and that Katie and Schwartz don’t have sex all that frequently and that Scheana feels badly that Lala wasn’t invited to yet another event. To remedy it, Scheana calls her and tells her to come on over. If she brings James, I recommend that the rest of them freeze her underwear the second she falls asleep after sticking her hand into warm water so she pees all over herself and maybe all of it can happen after the séance to summon the ghost of Stassi finally ends. Lala shows up because an olive branch has finally been extended and she makes it just in time for Katie and Ariana to start kissing while Scheana takes pictures to send to their boyfriends in Vegas. I’m not sure it’s the right strategic move to send your boyfriend a picture that’ll get him hard when you’re not there to help him out and he’s partying at a hotel with hundreds girls who are hammered and not all that discerning, but I suppose it’s drunk logic that’s driving everything here. Lala jumps into the fray next and she kisses Ariana and manages to refrain from sucking on the back of anyone’s arm in the manner to which she’s grown accustomed. Shay gets on in there with a camera as his wife twines her tongue around Lala’s and soon Faith and Lala are full on straddling one another and making out on the couch and it’s so nice that everyone has finally made Lala feel welcome.
They send the pictures and the videos to the guys who become inspired enough to plant kisses on one another that they in turn send via roaming costs to the girls, making the real winner here AT&T. Then they congratulate one another for making it ten hours in Vegas without cheating on any of their girlfriends and they desperately want to make it back to their room before any of their penises can spring forth accidentally from their pants and just happen to land in the vagina of a stranger. Gripping one another for support (or because they are genuinely turned on by one another – not that there’s anything wrong with that), the guys leave the bar. It is three in the morning now and they are drunk and sweaty as could be and they’re shoving carbs into their mouths while Jax asks for a moment of silence to commemorate that his dick stayed in his pants all evening. This, my friends, is growth – or it might have been had they not all gotten up and wandered back out that hotel room door to head back downstairs towards all the temptation.
Next time, Sandoval can’t be found for a while in Vegas, Jax watches James slobber kisses on Lala in a manner so dominating that he should have just pissed on her to mark his turf, and Kristen meets up with Jax to once again announce that she is no longer crazy. Katie – who seems to be taking up the crazy slack – informs Sandoval that it’s so not a big deal and he should definitely invite Kristen along on his birthday trip because she just pinky swore that she wouldn’t try to murder Ariana even once.
I totally believe her. But maybe someone should take a quick gander at the journal her Secret Santa gave her just to be sure.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.