The Interview was first published in the Story Orgy Anthology, And The Prompt Is Holiday edition two years ago. It was released as a single last year, and after being re-edited this year will be a single as well.
Copyright Dec 2011 By Lee Brazil
The notes of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" wafted through the air. It seemed that no matter how many spritely and cheerful Christmas songs there were, I never heard any but the melancholy ones lately. Those that weren't blatantly sad served to remind me of what I was missing this Christmas. Who wants to hear about couples cuddling in front of the fire when they're spending the holiday alone? And who cares if Parson Brown asks to marry them when you couldn't get your boyfriend to commit to living in the same state?
I tugged my red wool cap down farther over my ears, shoved dark glasses on to block the sun from my aching eyes and headed to the library. I wanted to snarl at whatever idiot had his music playing so loud in the staff parking lot, but it wasn't worth the effort of speaking. Today was the last day of classes before winter break at the university, and I had exactly six hours of work at the library before my holiday, such as it was, started.
My boots crunched on the salted sidewalks as I wove my way between beleaguered students. The last finals were today, and the stress showed on everyone's faces. When the third student with his nose in a book nearly slammed into me, I darted from the semi clear sidewalk and tromped through the new layer of snow. I took a bitter satisfaction in marring that pristine sparkling surface with my boot prints. I didn't even care that this little side excursion might ruin my leather boots. Who cared? They were sleek and sexy, not real cold weather boots, but if no one was going to admire me in them, then what was the point?
Six miserable hours that I wished would drag out for four more days. I wasn't looking forward to going home at the end of this shift and spending the next few days being reminded that I was alone. I'd have way too much time to think about Cris and our years together. He should have been there. We'd planned for him to be there. Except, last weekend he'd called and told me about a new offer he had for an excellent position, great benefits, no more traveling. I could tell he really wanted that job.
I really wanted him to be around more, too. So I told him to go for it. Then the other shoe fell. I should have known there was a catch. There's always a catch. Turned out the only time he could interview for this position was Christmas Eve.
I'd assured him it was fine, that all would be well, that my family would keep me busy and I'd barely miss him if he stayed in California for the interview. After all, we weren't kids. He could arrive on December 26th and we could celebrate just fine.
But I was lying and he damn sure should have known it. Cris just accepted it though. Accepted and carried on as we always had, calling and texting and emailing and having our lovely long distance, open relationship.
The one I was beginning to loathe with all my being.
The familiar chirp of my cell phone had me reaching into my pocket, pausing near some evergreen shrubs just outside the library. I pushed my hair back over my shoulder as the wind whipped around the corner and sent it flying. Thin strands clung to the Chap Stick that I'd lined my lips with. Ordinarily I'd have used my favorite lip maximizer, but I'd been so down, I hadn't bothered to go through my usual winter ritual of applying mashed papaya paste to exfoliate and soften my lips. Which I guess is kind of crazy, because the whole purpose of the ritual was to keep my lips kissable in appearance and texture despite the dry cold, and just because Cris was arriving four days late didn't mean there wouldn't be plenty of kissing when he got here!
"Hello." I should have checked to see who it was before I answered. It was Cris, and I had to pretend to be cheerful and brimming with Christmas spirit when I was anything but.
"Hey Ben, I just called to remind you to get the tree after work today. You said last night that you hadn't gotten it yet, and I know it's one of your favorite things to do."
With you. I held the guilt inducing words back. With Cris, shopping for the perfect tree was my favorite holiday tradition. We made an event out of the whole thing. A thermos of hot cocoa with marshmallows in hand, we would wander through the tree lots looking for the perfect vehicle to display the antique and handmade ornaments that I inherited from my grandmother. We measured the distance between branches, studied every Scotch pine and every blue spruce, knowing all the while that we'd settle for a fragrant Douglas or red fir with its sturdy, widely spaced branches to show off the ornaments better.
I wasn't so much looking forward to finding a tree alone. Or decorating it alone. Hanging crocheted snowflakes, tinsel, and Grandma's vintage glass bird ornaments wouldn't have the same appeal without Cris's firm grip guiding my hand to the perfect spot on the tree. He tried very hard, my Cris, not to let his obsessive demand for symmetry and order mar the holidays, but the twitching always got to be too much. I confess, I deliberately placed an ornament or two in an awkward spot just to feel his hand on mine, the heat of his body close behind me.
"Yeah. I'll go when I get done here. Can you call me around four?" It would be a little bit better if I could talk to him about the choices, maybe send a photo of the final product.
"Ummm. I'll try, but I can't promise anything."
So I probably wouldn't even get that solace. "Okay. Call if you can. I have to go. Work awaits."
I hid in the stacks all day, shelving cart after cart of books, losing myself in the scent of leather and old paper. It beat working the counter where the aroma of pine from the decorative evergreen boughs—genuine, despite fire codes—and the peppermint of the candy dish just screamed Christmas. It beat smiling cheerfully and wishing sleep deprived teenagers a happy holiday—because it is a state funded school and Merry Christmas is just too politically incorrect.
In the end, I didn't bother with the measuring tape or the cocoa, just pointed my '67 Mustang straight for the nearest tree lot. Go in, pick a tree, go home and set it up so the branches could drop. I could do this, I didn't need Cris holding my hand to choose a tree.
My confidence in my ability to function as a rational adult was shaken when my first step on the tree lot brought tears to my eyes and bitterness to my heart. The scent of the pine trees made me nauseous, and the laughter of the kids running about chasing each other from Santa's sleigh to the giant snowman cut-out made me weepy. I've never been much of a people person, but I've never felt such a need for companionship either. Being on the tree lot without Cris, I was lonely. Overwhelmingly so.
I didn't have the heart to look around. Cris would have played tag with those kids. He would have coaxed me into the silly decorated sleigh and charmed some passing stranger into taking our picture.
I grabbed the first tree I found that seemed less than six feet tall and more than four. The tree needed to be tall enough to set on the low table in front of the street-side window of my living room. Everything else, I could work around. So what if the ornaments didn't line up perfectly because the branches weren't symmetrical?
I wouldn't say I wound up with a Charlie Brown tree, but the fact that the tree wasn't perfect soothed me a bit. The fact that it cost about half what we normally paid shocked me. Who knew? Somehow I had always assumed a tree for under a hundred bucks was impossible to find. I dropped the change into a bell-ringing Santa's bucket, feeling a bit better about both myself and my tree.
Funny how that works; I hadn't bought a cheaper tree intentionally to donate the rest of what I would have spent to any worthy cause. It just happened. And I felt just the tiniest bit lighter, happier, afterward.
I helped the two lot workers in red and black flannel shirts secure the tree to the roof of my car by staying the hell out of their way and not protesting about my paint job more than twice while they secured the tree with tarp and bungee cords that I provided. Cris would have been all over that, double checking and testing the security.
On impulse, I headed back over to the sleigh, where a weary looking young mom was struggling to get two rambunctious kids to sit still long enough so she could snap a picture.
"I'll take the picture if you want to get in there with them," I offered a bit awkwardly. Hopefully she wouldn't think I was some kind of stalking perv.
"Would you?" She seemed relieved and excited, maybe the rest of the world wasn't as paranoid and leery as I.
"Sure, if you'll snap a picture of me for my boyfriend after." Cris would get his annual photo of me in the Christmas sleigh after all.
She held out her gloved hand. "I'm Debbie Adams. The mischievous angels," she grimaced wryly as I awkwardly took her hand, "are Chad and Brad."
"Ben Cavelli. Twins, huh?" I accepted her camera as she seated herself between the two boys.
With their mom between them, the two demons turned into angels, smiling and snuggling into their mom's down coat, looking up at her with laughing blue eyes. I must have taken half dozen candid shots before mom got the kids positioned the way she wanted them.
Five minutes, that's all the stillness the little ones could take, but I did snap the pic the now smiling mom wanted.
I handed her my phone, showed her how to take a picture with it, and brushed off her thanks. Instead of climbing into the seat of the sleigh though, I leaned back against the painted side of the crimson vehicle and whipped off my dark glasses. I would send the picture, along with one of the tree, to Cris before I went to bed tonight. I wouldn't be looking my best, not without eyeliner and lip gloss, but I'd be genuinely smiling.
Sitting in my car, I laughed to see that the young mother had also taken a few candid shots…one of my ass in the tight denim jeans that was absolutely making the send-to-Cris cut.
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