*The following is a fictional exploration, an attempt at a universal truth through short story, of “the dance” we do in long term relationships and the pretense that can come at the holidays.
If the calendar said June, his behavior might have been irrational and misconstrued. As it was his movements fell perfectly in place with the falling snow. He noticed the silence of his boots in the fresh powder as he carried the wrapped boxes past the chocolate store to his car. He smiled. He noticed the white lights in the trees that cozied the dark street, the vibrant reds and greens and sparkly ribbons in the store windows coaxing him to buy more than he could afford, and the smell of freshly baked pastries and peppermint cocoa wafting out the door of the bakery seemed to wash away the difficulty of the previous months in a glittering parade of promise. Time to give gifts and attend parties and send cards of hope to the people he both liked and disliked. Time to be charitable to the homeless and gracious to his neighbor. Time for Christmas.
The gravel crunched under the tires as he pulled into the driveway. He sat for a minute in the warmth of the heater, admiring his handiwork. Santa and his reindeer smiled, frozen mid-flight on the roof. Frosty sat beside a lit sign wishing passers-by Merry Christmas. Strings of white and multi-colored lights lined the eaves and a fresh green wreath with a red bow hung on the front door. Satisfied, he turned off the motor and got out. His breath swirled in the air under the bright moon as he carried the boxes up to the house, slowly. She was home.
As he stomped his snowy boots on the mat the door opened.
“Here, let me take those so you can take your boots off.” She didn’t like it when he traipsed through the house with wet boots.
She stood in the doorway, her arms quickly wrapping around her to shield the cold. Tall and slender with sandy brown hair, she was dressed for dinner in a blue dress; his favorite. She took the boxes and was walking away before he could look her in the eye. That was okay. His wife’s face was a reflection he didn’t want to see; all his failures were recorded there. Her hips swayed in perfect rhythm to the Christmas music coming from the television and the curls falling down her back gave a slight bounce with each step. He turned his back to the long horizontal mirror down the wall of the entryway—determined not to look at himself— and removed his boots and heavy coat, equally determined to bring Christmas to their hearts.
“Smells delicious,” he said padding across the wood floor in his socks to the kitchen. “Can I try one before you box them up?”
She gave a slight smile. “You’ll spoil your dinner.”
“I’ll take my chances,” he said reaching for a cookie on the tray.
She watched with her arms crossed as the cookie fell apart and the chocolate stretched and made a gooey mess on his fingers.
“You should wait til they cool,” she said with a slight purse of the lips.
“They’re better this way.”
She rolled her eyes and poured him a small glass of milk as he licked his fingers and made grunts of delight. He ate another cookie and took in the tranquil scene from his barstool: the garland on the brick fireplace, the light of the fire flickering on the walls, the Christmas cards hanging from a string like laundry on a clothesline. And his wife. Still beautiful as the day he stood behind her in line at the coffee shop twelve years ago. Now, in the kitchen, the sink wasn’t the only island between them.
“We have to be at the Carmichael’s in one hour,” she said as she put another tray of cookies into the oven. “Wear the brown dinner jacket with the blue shirt.”
He looked again at her blue dress and brown boots; they would be matching. He reached for another cookie but she moved the tray before he could grab one.
“If you eat them all we won’t have any to take with us. Did you buy the set of coasters for Mary?”
He pointed to the stack of boxes beside the Christmas tree. “The small one.”
Bing Crosby started his rendition of White Christmas. He wanted to take his wife in his arms, tell her he loved her, tell her he was sorry for the life they had, the hurt that wouldn’t go away. But her heart was in a box; what if she responded in anger rather than reciprocating his emotion of Christmas… the smells, the lights, the music. It was all so intoxicating. He didn’t want to chance ruining the most wonderful time of the year.
“Did you send the year-end checks to the charities?”
“Yes. Did you buy gift cards for the volunteers?”
“Yes. Can I have another cookie?”
She turned to look at him, spatula high in the air in her right hand and left hand on her hip.
“It’s Christmas. Hand it over,” he said with a smile and finally brave enough to look her in the eyes. For the first time in several weeks he saw vulnerability staring back at him instead of contempt. This caught him and he hesitated for a slight second, his eyes pouring deep into hers, passed the cold gray of hurt and into the warm deep blue of her soul. The reflection of her longing made him dizzy. He blinked. She turned away. After a moment she lifted a cookie with the spatula and handed it to him.
“Only because it’s Christmas.”
He stared at her but she wasn’t lifting her eyes to his. “Do we have to go to the Carmichael’s? Why don’t we stay here, just the two of us, by the fire?” he said.
She plopped the cookie down on the napkin in front of him and turned away. “You know we can’t do that. The Jamison’s will be there to say their good byes before leaving town and you promised Walt you would give him a hand with the table he broke and they’re all counting on these cookies.” She paused and her shoulders slumped. Her head bent toward the counter and she leaned on her hands to steady herself.
He got up from his barstool and went around the counter to stand behind her.
“Elizabeth?” She didn’t answer. He picked up the back of her hair and breathed in the fresh scent. She still didn’t move. He put his arms around her and she softened into him. It had been months since they touched. They stood there like that for several minutes before she picked up a warm cookie from the tray and turned to face him to put it in his mouth. The chocolate smeared on his lips.
“Elizabeth, I’m sorry,” was all he could manage as he reflected on the harsh words spoken between them, the pain of decisions past. It all seemed ridiculous; the argument at the lake, the friend that came between them, the loss of…so much. He looked into her eyes and his chest fluttered. Bing Crosby switched to Silent Night. He wanted her. He needed her.
She kissed the chocolate off of his lips, lingering, as if trying to decide to stay. The oven timer beeped.
“You should go get ready,” she said, pulling away. “We can’t be late for Christmas.”
–Tara Schiro is the author of “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live” NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble http://www.NoArmsNoLegsNoProblem.com