They were exchanging gifts before they had exchanged the words, which made choosing difficult. To give too much, or too little might ruin everything. If they got it just right, it might cement an ampersand between his name and hers.
Him&her, her&him. Us.
She’d wrapped the Ficus in blinking lights, thinking it festive, but it shed leaves in protest. Fending off the cat was indignity enough. To prove its point, the tree chucked a bauble at her feet.
He bent down and picked up the ornament, his face reflected in the surface, smile broad and open. “I don’t think the plant is feeling it.”
“I knew I should have decorated the palm instead.” She played with the bow on the box. She wasn’t the careful sort, more inclined to rip through the wrapping like a toddler than worry the tape as not to tear the paper. The moment, however, hovered in the space between before and after, and she didn’t want to rush to conclusions.
I hope he likes it.
I hope she likes it.
“You need a real tree,” he said, and she agreed.
They walked into the velvet evening. The city hushed as if it had stopped to watch the snow fall. The lot wasn’t far, only a block or two, and they followed the floodlight like the homing star. She breathed in cold and pine and hope as they wove between the trees, looking for their future hidden among the branches.
“This one.” They’d pointed at the same tree.
It’s a sign.
Definitely a sign.
They carried the tree back to her apartment, each holding one end of the trunk. Snowflakes settled on her hair, melting into tiny gems, her face bright and rosy as she turned back and smiled at him.
He matched his pace to hers, not wanting to push too hard, or hold her back, asking her from time to time if the burden was too heavy.
“I’m stronger than you can imagine,” she said.
“I don’t doubt it.” His imagination was infinite.
He let her choose which end to carry, so she opted for the end with the branches. He would try to carry most of the weight, it seemed his way, but she could bear the scratching needles. Ever prepared, she’d worn gloves. The bag holding the stand dangled from the trunk, the contents jostling with every step. She could almost hear sleigh bells.
They crowded into the elevator, the three of them, then pushed their way out, down the hall and through the apartment door. He stood the tree while she set the Ficus free. It shivered with pleasure, shedding a few last leaves to remind her to never, ever impose in that manner again. It sneered at the prickly new neighbor. Sucker.
The pine wouldn’t dignify the Ficus with a response as it received the lights and ornaments with open arms.
When they had finished, they lay under the tree and gazed up through the branches. Unwrapping boxes could wait. They had ampersands to exchange first.
Photograph : Christmas 2013 by Ed Suominen © 2013 Creative Commons/Flickr