Illustrated by Eve le Dez
I’m a nice guy, ask anyone. My coworkers will tell you that I’m always willing to help with their projects, and I never complain about staying late at work or coming in early. I even work holidays. I have a few friends — well, acquaintances, no one really close — but I’m sure they would say that I’m fun to be with, always up for a good time and generous about picking up a check.
As I said, I’m a nice guy. It’s only at one time of the year that people avoid my company. I’m not sure what their problem is. For the most part, you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant companion than me. Can’t I be excused for hating Christmas?
Well, I suppose it’s not that I actually hate Christmas, not really. It’s more like I wish it would just go away. I mean, Christmas is such a pushy holiday.
Sure, July Fourth is just as colorful and has its noisy celebrations too, but even fireworks aren’t as intrusive as the constant bell-ringing, carol-singing ho, ho, hoopla that goes on for weeks before the actual day of Christmas even arrives. Let’s face it, no one is safe from the barrage of “good will to men,” or at least good will to consumers, that has the nerve to begin even before the ghosts of Halloween are decently laid to rest.
Before you know it, there are bells and tinsel and everything is red and green and sparkly. That’s when people start to turn away from me. I guess they learned their lesson that year they assigned me as Bob’s secret Santa and I gave him a real surprise present — an exploding cigar. Well, everyone says tobacco is bad for you, don’t they? And didn’t Bob quit smoking? And, hey, his mustache grew back, right?
To tell you the truth, I’m rather glad not to be bothered. An added benefit of that incident was that everyone quit calling me “Scrooge”… at least to my face.
I sighed, peering out my apartment door and down the hallway as I bent to pick up my morning newspaper. It was only November first and already half the doors were decked with something Christmassy. They were all different: a wreath, an angel, some tinsel, a strand of colored lights.
Bah, humbug. Scrooge had the right idea.
By an effort of will, I closed the door without slamming it.
Getting ready for work, I determinedly put the upcoming season out of my mind. I showered, dressed in slacks, shirt and sweater, grateful that I didn’t have to wear a suit every day like so many office workers. Then I remembered that today was the wrap-up presentation for one of my current projects. Muttering under my breath, I went back to the closet and started all over again. A little frisson of nervousness had gone through me at the memory: today’s presentation was for them.
I shook my head. Nope, nothing to worry about, unless… I found myself staring intently into the full length mirror. Would he be there? If he was, what would he think of me? Should I wear my best suit instead? I glanced at my watch. Damn, if I didn’t hurry now I’d be late. What a great start to the day.
I gave myself a last check in the hall mirror before running out the door. As usual, my hair had lost its neatly-combed look somewhere between the bathroom and the hallway. The usual red-brown strands were straggling over my forehead. Oh well, I hadn’t time to re-comb; the way I looked would just have to be good enough.
Resentfully tugging at the tie that felt more like a hangman’s noose, I arrived in the office at last. Late, but not by more than a minute. My secretary, Anne, had a cup of fresh coffee for me, which was a life-saver. I smiled at her in thanks, but I couldn’t miss the little wreath pinned to her lapel and the snowman on her desk next to the keyboard. I sighed. I couldn’t escape Christmas anywhere. I closed the door to my office, looking around for any well-meaning decorations Anne might have left there, before sitting down to enjoy my coffee and review the presentation.
I’d done my usual professional job, which might have surprised some people, because this assignment had everything to do with Christmas. I’d been able to forget that though, and just concentrate on the sales aspect, as evidenced by the neat charts and photos.
Anyway, people bought toys year-round these days, didn’t they?
I suppose it’s mostly that Christmas is so family oriented. I mean, anybody can celebrate the Fourth of July with just a flag and some sparklers, and a turkey TV dinner takes care of Thanksgiving, but for Christmas you need people who love you, and preferably a couple of kids.
Well, it wasn’t likely I’d ever have kids, and my love life was almost non-existent, one reason for that being that I worked a lot of overtime; this was a good job and I wanted to keep it. Any spare time I had was spent reading or trolling the local pickup bars, the two best ways I know to relax. I hadn’t had a steady romantic relationship since college.
I sat back from the desk, relaxing for just a minute. College… those had been the days. I was young then and out on my own for the first time. I’d always kind of suspected I was gay; I didn’t moon over the girls or drool on the Playboy centerfold like the other guys. While they stared at the glossy photos, I stared at their backsides, but of course I couldn’t let them see that. I wasn’t big and strong enough to defend myself if some guy took offense. In college it was different. My roommate was a nerd, like me, and after initial shyness on both our parts we began to talk and soon became friends. No, Dave wasn’t gay, but his older brother was and knew where to look for guys. Dave even went to some gay-friendly parties with me so I wouldn’t feel so alone. He was there the night I met Charlie, and that meeting opened up a whole new world for me.
Charlie and I tried to be discreet while on campus, but before long everyone knew we were an item. We went everywhere together, spent so much time in each other’s company it was almost like being married.
I loved it.
I was dumb enough to think it was forever — until Charlie came back from Christmas break and told me he would be marrying the girl next door when he graduated, and did I want to come to the wedding. Shit, that was a great holiday.
As for other kinds of family, I never knew my father; he left us when I was three. I remember that my mother made a real fuss at Christmas, popcorn balls and paper chains and stockings hung with care. That was back when I had a mother. I suppose I was lucky to be able to remember her at all; I was only five when she died. There were no aunts or grandparents around, so the state took over to find me a good home, just like the ASPCA does with a stray dog.
I’m willing to allow that some foster homes might be okay, but not the ones I went to. Out of the four places I lived before they sent me to the institution, only one woman thought of us kids as anything more than walking paychecks. And by the time I came to live with her and her family, I was so angry at the world and made such a pain of myself that her husband wouldn’t let me stay there for long. That’s when the authorities decided I was incorrigible.
I and every other kid in the state orphanage knew that Santa Claus was nothing but a lie. I only stayed there until I graduated high school. Superintendent Jones thought I was too smart to spend my life flipping burgers, so he helped me apply for grants and scholarships. I still had to work nights and weekends to make it through college.
I learned a lot from all my bad experiences, though. I learned that it doesn’t pay to let your feelings show. Its better just to go along with what people ask of you, be a good citizen, as the school superintendent always said, and then people quit worrying about you, quit noticing you, and leave you alone. What a blessing, just to be left alone. I still preferred my own company to anybody else’s.
After learning my lesson with Charlie, I kept to myself. It wasn’t that difficult. I wasn’t gorgeous and, like a typical nerd, I even wore glasses.
That’s not to say that I hadn’t had some encounters. I was healthy and male, after all. Charlie had been my one slip into so-called romance, but that bit of pain also taught me how much fun sex could be, and I found I needed it from time to time. I’d discovered where and how to find male companionship in our fair city, and did it discreetly enough that no one at the office even suspected I was gay.
Hang out at the right bars, meet someone — almost anyone — and go back to his place for a couple of hours. Simple, no commitment, just the way I liked it. I never brought anyone back to my place. My home was my refuge, where I could relax and be myself, and nobody was welcome within those walls but me.
As soon as I graduated with my business degree and found a decent job, I’d looked for a little apartment I could buy. I found one that met almost all my requirements — the only thing it didn’t have was a fireplace — and took my time furnishing it. The comfortable things I had weren’t overly expensive, except for the stereo and my books. I bought a few good prints to dress up the walls, but there were no “personal” touches. Specifically, I had no photos of my early life. As far as I knew, there weren’t any.
But… it was normal to have family photos, I told myself. Everyone did, and I guess I wanted to feel normal. I finally settled for hanging a couple of pictures of happy families cut from magazines: dedicated looking parents dandling chubby, smiling toddlers. Maybe in time I’d convince myself that the kids were me.
I did put up one photo of Charlie: my last happy memory of him, taken just before the Christmas he dumped me. After looking at his sincere recorded smile for a while, I draped a black ribbon over the corner of the frame… in mourning. As far as I knew, Charlie wasn’t dead, but our relationship certainly was. Sometimes I thought of taking the photo down altogether, but better bad memories than none at all, right?
But back to the presentation.
It was only the first of July when the boss dropped the big manila envelope on my desk.
“Here, Adam. This one should be right up your alley. New clients want us to hype their hand-made toys in time for Christmas.” He grinned, knowing how I felt about that time of year, and he was right — I would treat the assignment just like any other. The boss could depend on me not to get hung up in some soppy, seasonal sentiment.
I had scanned the file he left me. Traditionl Toys Inc., a family-owned business, it said, a real mom and pop operation. Hah. What century were they living in? Even with the help of our advertising firm, how could they hope to compete with today’s cheap imports? Did people even buy rocking horses and stuffed animals and wooden building blocks anymore?
But I dug into the problem and, after a little research, I was amazed to find that their prices seemed competitive. The info was a little vague on some points, like where their factory was located. Somewhere outside the mainland United States, but where? Mexico? China? It didn’t matter to me. I turned my brain to “slogan” mode and got to work.
Nothing that wasn’t cliché suggested itself and, after an hour, I thought maybe I should wait for the next step in the process. The clients would be arriving later in the afternoon for the initial meeting. Then I could connect with someone on their staff and make arrangements to actually see and photograph some of their products.
Both ends of the big conference table were full that day. Either Traditional Toys was a huge operation, or the clients had brought along every copy boy and office assistant they could find.
I’m sure my boss, Mr. Anderson, made introductions, but all the clients’ names just flowed right past me without registering. I did remember to smile occasionally as I talked my way through the brilliant plan I invented on the spot for our firm to market their products and, as the end of the presentation neared, I saw some faces smiling back at me. After a few semi-intelligent questions which I fielded easily, everybody shook hands and nodded as they began to make their way to the door. Like their names, the faces were a blur — all but one. I was busily shoving papers back into my briefcase, listening to comments from members of my own company, and then, suddenly, I saw these eyes.
You’ve got to understand, that’s not usually the first thing I notice about a guy. Most often I start my looking below the neck, sometimes below the waist, and sure, I get to the face eventually but, well… this was different. They were nice eyes, a blue so dark they were almost black, kind of startling because his brows and lashes were light, pale blond. That led me to his hair, the same pale blond color, longish and curling over his ears. His mouth was a real cupid’s bow with a funny downturn to the corners that made his smile unique. His clothes were ordinary enough though: black slacks and a gray sports jacket with a bright red tie. The tie tack was in the shape of a little sprig of holly, but I decided not to hold that against him. His body, as he stood near the table laughing with someone from his group, was slim and somehow delicate. His cheekbones were high, matching a pointed chin and just a shade too much nose. Not that it kept him from being attractive… not at all. I realized I was staring, almost frozen in place as he walked by me, close enough that I caught the cinnamon scent of his aftershave. Then the door closed and he was gone and the big boss was patting me on the shoulder and telling me he wanted me to head the ad committee for this project.
I think I said the right things. I must have because everyone went on smiling. But all I could think about were those eyes, and the deep-down twinkle in them that said the blond guy knew all about me, inside and out.
Anne offered congratulations when I got back to my office, and I thanked her absently. She didn’t even blink when I asked for a list of names of all the people who had come to the meeting. I didn’t know why I wanted to know his name, I just knew I did. I spent the afternoon moping at my desk, trying to work but wondering instead if he really had winked at me just before the door closed.
Anne brought in the list the next morning, and I all but snatched the paper out of her hand. She huffed as she left my office, but I barely noticed. Intently, I scanned the page: Albert Cross, Dolores Parks, James McEwen, Christopher North, Taylor Davidson, Terry Moore, Justin Sanchez… how was I to recognize his name when I saw it? And then there it was — Nicholas Lieder. I didn’t know how I knew, but it had to be!
I took a deep breath, putting the list down on my desk with shaking hands. I had to get hold of myself. What in the world was I thinking, obsessing like this over a perfect stranger? I tossed the paper carelessly into the waste basket and turned to my “in” box. I was far too sensible to let a chance encounter take over my life.
My phone buzzed. When I picked it up, Anne reminded me that the clients would be arriving in ten minutes and I should get my ass to the conference room. I thanked her and packed up my briefcase. Suddenly I was nervous. Nicholas. Would he be there today?
I stopped at Anne’s desk on the way out. “How do I look?”
She stood up, checking me over critically, then moved closer to brush off a few invisible specks and straighten the conservative blue-striped tie that went with my conservative blue suit. Anne was only a year or two older than me, but sometimes it pleased her to treat me like a not-too-bright little brother. “You’ll do fine, boss,” she said, smiling. Anne and I got along well, after some initial ground rules had been laid. The second time she tried to set me up on a blind date, with a girl, of course, we’d had a bit of a blowup that led to a mutual understanding. She took care of appointments and coffee and anything else office related, and she kept her nose out of my personal life. Today I found myself rather sorry about that, almost wishing I could ask her for advice. Instead, I walked slowly down the hall.
The list had still been there at the end of that day; I only had to dig through a few layers of trash to find it. His name, Nicholas Lieder, was still there too, but no address or phone number. Of course, I had a number for the company, but what excuse could I come up with for calling and asking for him specifically? I didn’t know if he was an office boy or a vice president. Well, maybe he wasn’t a vice president. He didn’t look much older than me, maybe even a few years younger than my twenty-nine.
The boss always left me contact information so I could arrange to take pictures of the client’s products. He knew that seeing what I was selling was usually enough to inspire my creative juices. Not knowing how else to find the blond man, I called the number first thing next morning. It was answered right away. Probably a secretary, I thought, a male one with a nice voice. “Hello,” I said hopefully, “could I speak to Nicholas Lieder? This is Adam Wolford from Giant Advertising. Your firm has hired us to… “
“Yes, Mr. Wolford. This is Nicholas Lieder. What can I do for you?”
It was him!
What could he do for me? That question sent all kinds of possibilities cascading through my brain. I adjusted myself a little, glad no one was there to see, and cleared my throat. What the hell was the matter with me? If I was desperate enough to be turned on by a voice on the phone, I’d have to make a trip to my favorite bar as soon as possible, maybe this evening.
“Uh, yes, Mr. Lieder. I’d, uh, like to make an appointment to see your… I mean to photograph your…” I cleared my throat again. “Your company’s products.” Great, now that sounded professional. But he didn’t seem to notice.
“Of course, when would be convenient for you? I am at your service.” Oh, god, there went those images again.
“Well, the sooner the better. It’s only July, but the season will be here before we know it.”
I could hear the smile, like a warmth in his voice. “My family’s company thinks about Christmas the whole year ’round, Mr. Wolford. We’re anxious to get started with the campaign. Would this afternoon work for you?”
His family’s company? Perhaps he was a nephew of the boss or something. I cleared my throat for the third time. “Um, sure, that would be fine.”
We made the appointment for 4 p.m. It crossed my mind to ask him out for lunch but… he couldn’t look as good as I remembered, could he? Better to keep things as businesslike as possible, at least for now.
So what made me run to the men’s room to check my appearance? Staring at the familiar reflection, I pushed my glasses higher on my nose. Sure, I was just under six feet, and kept my body toned, if not muscular, by regular swimming and running, but glasses make you look nerdy. I wished I’d gone for contacts, like the optician suggested, but it was too late now.
What would he think of me? Nicholas… My mind savored the name. It had a delicious feel, like peppermint candy in my mouth. Mmm…
I rolled my eyes at my mirror image’s soppy expression. What the hell was I thinking? Even if he was as gorgeous as I remembered, he couldn’t be gay; I just wasn’t that lucky. Geez, I thought, I must really need to get laid.
I half-heartedly worked on other accounts until three-fifteen, then borrowed a camera from the art department and headed across town.
“Won’t you come in?” His office was no bigger than mine; he must not have been a relative of the boss after all. He offered me a seat, and gestured over to a little table under the window. “Can I get you a cup of coffee? Or perhaps some hot chocolate?”
Hot chocolate? In July? Was he kidding? “No, just some water, if you have it.” My throat was dry. He looked every bit as good as I remembered, maybe better. Today his blond hair was lit up by a sky-blue shirt and white tie, and he still smelled of cinnamon.
He produced a chilled bottle of mineral water and a glass, handed them to me with a meltingly sweet smile, poured himself a large cup of steaming chocolate from a carafe, meticulously adding three marshmallows, and eased into the chair across from me.
“So, what kind of toys do you make?” I asked, pouring water into the glass. It wasn’t what I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t very well start out with an indecent proposal. I tried not to stare, but I was busily memorizing how he moved, imagining the tight butt under those khaki slacks, focusing on every detail of him. Today his tie tack was a silver snowflake. Looking at it didn’t make me feel any cooler.
“Many kinds,” he said, in that musical voice. “Dolls, trains, rocking horses, puzzles, trucks…”
“No computer games?”
“No, we don’t bother with those. There are plenty of companies out there already making computer stuff. We’re Traditional Toys, remember?” He twinkled his eyes at me.
I swallowed hard, remembered I had a glass of water in my hand and drank some. “Um, can I see some samples, maybe take some pictures?” Of your ass, I was thinking but didn’t add.
“Of course.” He touched a button on his desk. “Helga, could you please bring in one or two of our sample toys?”
The door opened a moment later, revealing what appeared to be a floating rocking horse. I blinked and saw that it was carried by a very short woman, plump, possibly in her forties, and wearing a dark green dress printed with tiny red dots. “Luther is coming with the train set,” she said in a deeper voice than I would have imagined as she plunked the toy down at my feet. The wooden horse was beautiful, perhaps three feet high, and had been carved very realistically, then stained a dark chestnut brown. Its mane and tail were flaxen and the miniature saddle was brown leather with brass hardware.
Unable to resist, I stroked the smooth curved neck. I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d had something like this when I was a boy I might have even believed in Santa. But I hadn’t because, of course, he didn’t exist.
“I’m sorry,” Nicholas said, popping up so close that I almost fell out of my chair.
“About what?” I asked. But he only smiled. Surely I hadn’t spoken aloud?
“Here’s Luther now.”
This time it was a very short man with longish brown hair wearing a red plaid vest over his dress shirt and pants and effortlessly holding up a sheet of plywood on which small tracks were attached. He lifted the board onto the desk, which was almost above his head, thereby flattening all the pens and papers on it and almost upending the cup of hot chocolate, which Nicholas snatched at the last moment. Unperturbed, the man proceeded to add train cars, one at a time, from a box tucked under his arm. When he had them all in place, he pushed a button and the tiny train began to chug merrily around the track.
“Will these two examples be enough for your photos?” Nicholas asked, still hovering near my ear.
“Um… sure,” I said, wiping nervous sweat off my forehead with the back of my wrist. Clumsily, I stood, held up the camera and snapped a few photos, hoping I got the focus right. Being this close to him was driving me crazy, and I kept telling myself I had to make some sort of move. He might not be gay, and if he was gay he might not be interested in me. But how would I know if I didn’t ask? Damn, I never had this much trouble picking up guys in bars. “Um… Mr. Lieder…?”
“Nicholas, please,” he said, in that chocolate-covered voice.
“Thanks, uh… Nicholas…” God, saying his name made my tongue shiver. Nicholas… I couldn’t imagine ever calling him Nick.
“Would you, uh, care to have dinner with me tonight? To discuss the ad campaign, I mean.” I wanted to smack myself on the forehead — way to chicken out.
“I’m sorry, but I’m dreadfully busy these days.” He smiled wryly. “It won’t matter if your campaign is successful if we have no toys to sell, will it?”
“But you have to eat,” I exclaimed, surprising myself.
Nicholas’ mouth quirked. “I suppose I do. I was planning to have a sandwich here at my desk.” He gestured toward the train and plywood covered surface.
I had completely forgotten about Luther, but he was standing there wearing a benevolent smile. “I could run down to the deli and get sandwiches… for both of you.” The little man looked up at me with a twinkle of his own and, right at that moment, I could have kissed him.
Nicholas chuckled. “All right, Luther… that is, if Mr. Wolford will be content with a sandwich for his dinner.” He turned to me. “Are you content, Mr. Wolford?”
Not yet, I wasn’t, but… “That would be great, Nicholas. But call me Adam, okay?”
I thanked Luther and tried to hand him a twenty, but he pushed it away. “My treat,” he said, grinning from me to Nicholas.
“Luther is a treasure,” Nicholas said when the door had shut behind the little man. “One of the best workers in the family.”
“Family? Are you two related?” I didn’t see any resemblance.
Nicholas smiled. “Not really. We think of our company as a kind of family.”
I nodded, helping him move the train set off his desk. That explained the “family” thing, I supposed, just a ruse to keep the employees happy. I snagged a couple more pictures of the rocking horse while we waited, one with him holding it. “Just for background,” I assured him, against his protests. “No one will ever see it.” No one but me, I added silently.
The little man was back with the sandwiches — lovely deli meats and cheeses on fresh-baked, warm rolls — all too soon. We ate them at Nicholas’ desk. I even let him talk me into accepting a cup of the hot chocolate for dessert, which was flavored with mint and left me feeling oddly cheerful, or maybe it was just his company. There was no reason for me to linger after that, and I still hadn’t managed to say anything at all personal.
We had flattened the paper sandwich bags, for recycling, Nicholas said, and our eyes met over the desk. It was now or never. “Nicholas,” I said, my voice quivering a little, “if you’re free on Friday night, I know this nice bar where we could…” But he was shaking his head.
“I’m so sorry, but we’re almost working around the clock here. Getting the company off to a good start, you know. I just can’t take the time.”
I tried a sickly smile and nodded, feeling like a total fool. “Of course, I understand.” For whatever reason, he wasn’t interested; I should have expected it.
I was almost out the door when he stopped me, a warm hand on my shoulder and cinnamon breath in my ear. “But please ask me again later… Adam.”
Standing in the hallway outside the conference room, I shivered, remembering the touch of his hand and the thrill I felt hearing my name on his lips.
I had asked him again, but we’d only shared a few more hurried meals in his office, take-out brought by me or sandwiches fetched by Luther or Helga, and we never spoke about anything but work. I’d meet him with a personal agenda in mind but, at the last minute, my courage would fail and things never went as I planned. Still, there was the occasional friendly touch, just enough to keep me hoping.
Now it was the first of November, Traditional Toys’ ads had been up everywhere for over a month, and I hadn’t seen Nicholas in three weeks. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door.
The conference room wasn’t as full as last time; there were only my boss and a couple of guys from the art department with the latest layouts. On the client side of the table was their CFO, Chris North, the pleasant round-faced man who had signed the initial contracts for Traditional Toys, a young blonde woman taking notes on a laptop, and two men helping themselves from the coffee bar at the back of the room. My heart rate climbing, I did a double-take. One of them was Nicholas.
I doubt that the smile on my face was exactly businesslike, but Mr. Anderson waved me forward, and I went into my spiel as though the sight of Nicholas in tan slacks and a cranberry red jacket with matching tie wasn’t making my pants too tight in the crotch. I kept sneaking glances at him and having to drag my eyes back to Mr. North, but no one seemed to notice or care. Somehow I got through telling them how we’d now fulfilled the original contract and how pleased we were to have them as clients and how much we hoped that association would continue in the future. I was glad I’d said that sort of thing so many times before. It didn’t require thinking; by now, it was almost second nature.
The boss smiled at me when I finished, and there were nods and congratulations all ’round. Everyone was shaking my hand, but I hardly noticed until I came to Nicholas.
“Hello,” I managed, as breathless as if I’d just climbed all sixteen flights of our building’s stairs.
“Adam,” he said, giving my hand a little extra squeeze.
The Traditional Toys folks were leaving, but I held on tight. “Can I see you?” I asked, a note of desperation entering my voice.
He frowned. “Well…”
“Still busy?” I asked, my tone now almost petulant.
“Only for a little while longer; I promise things will be better soon.” He reached to pick up his briefcase, the tiny bell on his tie tack tinkling.
Except for us, the room was empty now. I moved to block his path to the door. “Just tell me one thing,” I begged. “Do you like me at all?”
Nicholas’ gentle laugh was more musical than the bell. He reached out, stroking a warm palm down my cheek. “Very much,” he said softly. “Never fear, we’ll see each other when the time is right.” And somehow he was gone.
I don’t remember driving home that night, or eating dinner, or anything but sitting alone in the dark. My life was just the way I had arranged it: occasional anonymous sex, no commitments, plenty of security and solitude. What was driving me to threaten all that by pursuing some guy I didn’t even really know? Desperately, I tried to make sense of my scrambled thoughts. Sex was never a problem for me, no emotion involved, just scratching a normal biological itch for both parties. I definitely wanted Nicholas in my bed, and it was frustrating that I hadn’t gotten him there, but since I’d met him, I hadn’t gone home with anyone else either. Every time I thought about picking up some guy, I’d remember that quirky smile, and the idea of any other man would fade away.
What was wrong with me? Why did I want to mess with my perfectly happy life? Maybe it was time to seek out that psychotherapy I’d always avoided.
Again, as I did every night, I went to the computer and brought up the photo of Nicholas I took with that blasted rocking horse, and then the copy I’d edited to show only his face, his tilted smile enigmatic and sweet. I loved looking at him, but I hated it too. His face was a reminder that there was someone out there I could feel something for. After Charlie I had never wanted to feel that way again. Now I wanted Nicholas. Why didn’t he want me in return?
This time, after several hours of painful contemplation, I decided I’d had enough of this foolishness. My obsession was now at an end. I was a grown man with control over my own life. There would be no more mooning over the reluctantly busy Nicholas.
The next few days were a constant struggle, but every time thoughts of Nicholas broke into my head, I’d distract myself with work, music or a good book. After a while, it seemed to be working.
And I had other things to think about.
There was a potted plant in the hall outside the door of my apartment. It was pretty in its own way, resembling a small palm tree, and it had been there when I moved in. The building didn’t seem to have one of those plant maintenance companies, or if they did it was a piss-poor one. More often than not, the leaves on the plant were drooping. God knows I didn’t own the thing, but I took it upon myself to water the indoor bit of greenery, douse it with fertilizer, and prune the occasional dead leaf with shears I’d bought specifically for the job. Silly, but I felt a bit of pride when I looked at the now flourishing plant; it almost made me feel like I had my very own garden. Then one day there it was: a shiny red glass globe hanging jauntily from a familiar branch. It irritated me that someone was messing with “my” plant, and my first impulse was to toss the ornament in the trash. Or stomp on it. But on second glance, I had to admit it did look kind of nice hanging there, red against the green. I imagined the plant might enjoy its bright decoration even if it did have to do with Christmas. I wouldn’t blame it. What could a plant possibly know about that?
But I’d barely reconciled myself to one ornament when another appeared, this time a tiny angel with a white cloth body and wings and a halo of twisted wire. What the hell? In the three years that I’d lived here, no one had ever decorated that plant.
I thought about questioning my neighbors, but I didn’t know any of them enough to speak to. Besides, I told myself, it wasn’t really my plant. So I left the things alone, averting my eyes when I walked by. What did I care if Christmas decorations hung in the public hallway? The inside of my apartment, my fortress, was still undefiled.
The days grew steadily colder and, paradoxically, the firm began work on summer sales campaigns. Writing copy about swimsuits on sunny beaches made the snow outside my office window seem almost surreal. But those half-naked tourists had little to do with me and my routine laps in the pool at the Y. Advertising those frivolous things was only my job. When I worked on a pitch for romantic Caribbean cruises, I never thought of taking one myself.
Thanksgiving arrived. I would have preferred to be at work, but the entire office always closed down. I was up early anyway, and the parade was still the main thing on television. No matter what channel I turned to, there he was, Santa Claus himself, the jolly old spirit of Christmas, surrounded by his elves and reindeer. I couldn’t even watch the news; hype of the coming big event was everywhere. I turned off the TV, put on some classical music, and spent the day cleaning. After folding the laundry, I decided I needed more socks and underwear.
So on Friday, another day off, I made my way to the local mall. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was still a shock to find my favorite department store decked to the halls with lights and tinsel, and absolutely crawling with customers. I’d shut the season out so completely I hadn’t considered it when I decided to shop.
Unwilling to abandon my errand after finding a parking space in the jam-packed lot, I made my way down crowded aisles until I neared men’s clothing. The store had reorganized things for the holidays, so the expanded toy department was now right next door, complete with a fake Santa on a plastic throne and lots of screaming kiddies. I was irritated until I saw one of the advertising banners I’d designed. Beneath the glossy photo of a huge tree surrounded by rocking horses, blocks, toy trucks and smiling children, was the slogan, Traditional Toys – what Christmas is all about! I had been rather proud of that one.
On the counter under it was a set of their electric trains. It was only a small set, like the one I’d seen in Nicholas’ office, quite basic, but it still included a green-painted steam engine that puffed real smoke, two yellow freight cars, and a jaunty red caboose, all circling an oval track. The orphanage had been close to the train tracks outside of town but, rather than it bringing back bad memories, I found the sight and sound of trains almost comforting. Maybe it was that I had often fallen asleep with their rough clickety-clack music in my ears.
I’d been standing there quite a while, just watching the little cars go ’round and ’round, my need for boxer shorts quite forgotten, when the saleswoman finished with her last customer and came over to me. “Good afternoon, sir,” she said pleasantly. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Oh, no,” I stammered, “just looking.”
She smiled and nodded. “They’re lovely little trains, aren’t they? Nicely made, and selling quite well too.”
“Are they?” My slogans were evidently doing their job.
“Oh, yes. We’ve had to reorder them already. That’s the very last set you’re looking at.” She glanced up at me. “I could put your name on our waiting list, if you’ve a special little someone who’d like them for Christmas.”
Blinking, I turned away from her kind face. “Thank you,” I said. “I’ll have to let you know.” I walked quickly toward the exit. My shopping could wait.
It wasn’t the brilliantly blinking galaxy of lights, I told myself, nor the good cheer of everyone around that bothered me. I just hadn’t time to stand in line; the push and shove of the crowds would be too much.
And who would I possibly know who’d want a set of toy trains? The last real Christmas gift I’d ever bought had been for Charlie, a nice watch I’d saved all year for. I’d never given it to him. After he told me about his marriage plans, I’d gone out and thrown the brightly wrapped box into a dumpster.
Threading my way through bunches of happy people, I sighed. Deny it though I might, that was the worst part of Christmas for me. No matter how hard I tried to block them out, each new season brought back all the unhappy memories of Christmases past.
I shook my head. I wouldn’t think about it any more. I’d just go home and put on an old Bogart movie: the African Queen, maybe. Nothing Christmassy about that one, and I could sneer again at the absurd idea of two strangers falling in love.
I nodded to myself. That’s right; the holidays had nothing to do with me. All their bullshit would be over in less than a month and then I could —
I collided with someone, so hard that I bounced back and almost fell. Looking up, a few choice words ready on my tongue, I stopped dead. It was Nicholas.
He steadied himself on a display window, his face lighting up when he saw me, and my traitorous heart made a little leap inside my chest. “Hello, Adam,” he said, and I was lost in those deep blue eyes.
I seemed unable to speak, and his head tilted as a look of concern came over his face. Then he reached out and one strong hand took my elbow as he steered me into a chair at a miraculously empty table in the food court.
“Nicholas,” I breathed, blinking at the figure in a dark green sweater, his gray topcoat open over matching gray slacks, a jaunty green knitted cap perched on his blond head, a trace of snow on his polished boots. “What are you doing here?”
He smiled brightly, sending cascades of goose bumps down my back. “I come in often to check on sales. Sometimes I even get to talk to a happy customer. Did you know that many of the children who visit the store Santas are requesting our toys? It must be your ad campaign.”
I scarcely heard what he was saying. He was so beautiful — a vision. I knew at once that I’d only been fooling myself. Of course I still wanted him, but I couldn’t believe the desperate words that fell out of my mouth: “Will you come home with me?”
His eyes widened. “Adam…”
“Please, I mean, you know how I feel about you, don’t you? I just want to see you, have you all to myself for a while, it doesn’t have to lead to anything if you aren’t interested, but I need…” I babbled, unable to stop.
He put three fingers against my lips. “I will, I promise you. Just not today. The holidays…”
I stood up. “That’s what you always say. You’re here now; you could come with me if you wanted to!”
I’d finally found a man I truly wanted for more than a one-night-stand, even enough to ask him back to my sacred apartment, and what kept us apart? Christmas! Bah and double humbug! Fuck Santa and all his stupid reindeer!
People were staring. Nicholas pushed me back into the chair, his hand warm on my chest. “You have to please your boss if you want to keep a job, Adam, and I have a boss too, you know,” he said, smiling in the face of my anger.
“A slave driver, huh?” I asked, calming down enough to smile in spite of myself.
“Not at all, it’s just that I’ve worked for him a long time, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint him.”
Amazingly, I felt a stab of jealousy. “You and him… have you ever…?”
Nicholas’s eyebrows climbed for his hairline and then he began to laugh aloud. “Me and the boss?” he chuckled again, wiping his eyes. “No, to the best of my knowledge, he is completely straight.”
“That’s what they all say,” I muttered. Who wouldn’t want Nicholas if they had the chance?
“This is our absolute busiest time, Adam, but I promise you I’ll be free after Christmas Eve.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he suddenly leaned down and kissed me, a sweet, soft, closed-mouth press of lips. My brain fizzed like cherry soda, and I forgot to wonder if everyone was staring. I grinned when he stood up. No one seemed to have noticed at all, not that I would have cared.
I did manage to stretch our meeting to a hamburger and fries, reminding him again that he had to eat, but I was still cheerful when Nicholas said he needed to go. I finally felt that we were on the same track, especially when he promised to stay in touch. Less than a month to wait for something more. I could do that.
But I had plenty of time to wonder at myself that night and in the days that followed. Never had I invited a guy back to my apartment. I wanted Nicholas badly, but did I really want him enough to let him inside my fortress of solitude? Well, I had time to decide. After all, he’d never asked me where I lived.
Somewhere in the middle of December I opened my apartment door to find it hung with a full-blown wreath and a big red bow. Glancing at my plant, which hadn’t yet sprouted any more decorations of its own, I wondered. Who was this phantom decorator, the Grinch’s good twin brother? But someone had gone to the trouble of attaching sprigs of holly berries to the fresh pine boughs and then wrapping it all in red ribbon. The wreath looked cheerful and smelled fresh and good… I left it.
But the day of Christmas Eve found me doubting again. I hadn’t even had a phone call from Nicholas in the last week. I’d tried calling him, but was always told he was away from his desk. What would I do if I never heard from him again? Survive, I decided, the same as I always did. Even another seriously fucked-up Christmas wouldn’t get the better of me.
The resolution didn’t help much. There was the usual party in the office that afternoon, which I celebrated in my usual way: by ignoring it. Anne, however, surprised me by appearing at my door and handing me a paper cup of eggnog. Looking at her quizzically, I held it to my nose and sniffed. “That’s right,” she said. “It’s laced with brandy. You’ve been so jumpy today, I figured you needed it.”
I tasted the mixture. It was actually pretty good. “Thanks, Anne. Sorry if I’ve been moody the last few days.”
She shook her head. “I bet you would have felt better if your friend from Traditional Toys had called. He’s always so cheerful.”
I blinked. Well, Anne did answer my phone; it was only natural she would have talked to him.
“He has such a lovely voice,” she went on in a dreamy tone. “Nicholas… what a perfect name for a man who makes toys.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“You know, like Saint Nick, the other name for Santa Claus?” She giggled and I wondered how much eggnog she’d had already. I nodded as though I understood, but I was grateful when she left without adding “Merry Christmas.”
Santa Claus… Nicholas? Did she think that meant that Toys ‘R’ Us was owned by elves? Ridiculous that an adult could even joke about such a silly thing. I rolled my eyes and drank the rest of my spiked eggnog.
But the brandy had worn off by the time I left for home. After Christmas Eve, Nicholas had promised. I resigned myself to one more evening alone, changing into an old pair of jeans and settling back with a favorite book. The early dusk had come and gone and I was dozing when there was a knock at my door.
“Hi,” said the man of my dreams, looking somehow sexier than ever in a red Santa hat and tight blue jeans. His shoulders were dusted with a sprinkling of fresh snow, and he had a wrapped package under one arm, as well as one of those little live trees, completely decorated, of course. “It’s Christmas Eve, Adam,” he announced, waving a sprig of mistletoe in the air between us. And then, softer: “Merry Christmas.”
I just stood there for a moment, book forgotten in my hand. The man I’d been pursuing showing up at my door when I had vowed never to bring a guy home with me? Now that’s irony for you. I couldn’t see me kissing him, right there in the hallway where anyone might see. But what was I going to do? Send him away? Not likely. Dazedly, I shook my head, stepping back to open the door wider. “Come in,” I said. And he did.
That mistletoe stuff really works. We tried it out in the living room and again in the hallway. It ended up tacked to the headboard of my bed, where it kept on working for the rest of the night. It was a good thing that the next day was a holiday because, after the night we had, I didn’t open my eyes until noon.
And what a holiday it was! We started out with breakfast in bed. Nicholas cooked and I can’t remember what was on the menu, but I know it was delicious. Anything would have been when it was served by a waiter wearing nothing but a Santa hat and a red apron. Then Nicholas insisted I open the present he’d brought.
“I can’t take this,” I protested. “I don’t have anything for you.”
“Shh…” Nicholas placed gentle fingers over my mouth. “I’ve already got my present.”
There was only one way to respond to that, and afterwards, I opened the package. Securely nestled in cardboard and tissue was a Traditional Toys train set — and not just the basic one. This set had three more cars as well as do-it-yourself scale models of a station and houses to sit alongside the tracks. There were enough sections for a figure-eight layout; I was going to need a large sheet of plywood.
“Nicholas…” I didn’t know what to say. How had he known the exactly right present? I felt my eyes growing moist, but he chose that moment to distract me in the best possible way.
We’re coming up on our first anniversary, and Nicholas is working overtime again because it’s almost Christmas. I think of our anniversary as Christmas Eve, because that’s the first time we made love. Yes, made love, not “had sex.” I guess I’ve changed my thinking about a lot of things over the past year.
You wouldn’t know the apartment. We’ve got tinsel and lights on the door now, as well as a wreath, garlands on the walls, candles everywhere, and there’s a tree, the same one from last year except it’s grown a few inches. The little pine is almost weighed down with strands of cranberries and popcorn and sits in the place of honor on the dining room table.
There are presents all around the tree. A lot of the packages have my name on them, but some are for Nicholas from me, I bought them myself. Mistletoe is hanging above the front door, with more of it in the bedroom, where it will do the most good, Nicholas says. Of course, there’s no proper place to hang stockings, but when Nicholas holds me at night, I dream of a fireplace. The logs are crackling, cheerfully warming the room and everything in it, stockings overflowing with all the candy and toys I never had as a child.
We even have a Christmas tradition. Every year I used to send money to the orphanage anonymously, in hopes that the children might have a slightly better holiday because of it. Last year, I asked Nicholas if he could arrange to get toys wholesale for them and, of course, he was more than happy to do it. This year, I’m going to deliver them myself. Nicholas offered to lend me his Santa hat, but I laughed and told him not to push his luck. Can’t believe how much I’m looking forward to seeing those kid’s faces. I just hope I don’t cry.
I know Nicholas works for a toy company, and I suppose it’s natural that he’s busiest at this time of year, but why does he have to be away so much? I’ve asked him about the weekend and overnight trips, but he just smiles and puts his cold nose in my ear, which gives me the shivers and leads to other, even more distracting things.
I’m keeping busy in his absence, though. I volunteered to plan this year’s office Christmas party. I admit I got some funny looks at first, but everyone was all right with it after I solemnly promised that nothing would explode. I hope Anne likes the sweater I bought for her.
Nicholas has promised he’ll take lots of time off after the holidays, maybe take me to visit his family in the spring. When I ask where they live, he just says “up north.” I’m guessing Canada.
I wanted us to take an anniversary vacation, maybe even a Christmas cruise, but Nicholas won’t hear of it. He says a New Year’s cruise will be just as much fun, perhaps even more. And I guess he’s right. Celebrating Christmas Eve at home with my lover is no hardship for a fellow who never used to celebrate Christmas at all.
I have lots of Christmas presents now but the first one, Nicholas, is still the best and the only one I really need.
Being with him is like having Christmas all year long… and I love it.
~~~ As always, many thanks to my precise and faithful editor, Jim Kennedy – also known as Rock Hunter. I couldn’t do it without you, buddy. ~~~