The tree, the ficus and the journey towards an ampersand

xmastreeThey 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

Winter Break

This story was written for the Wordsmith Studios December Fiction Fest

Emma could have gone to her parent’s house for Christmas Eve, but there is nothing more pathetic than a 33-year-old woman standing next to her mother wearing a matching holiday sweater. She could hear her mother’s voice, explaining to the neighbors in a loud whisper, “She’s getting divorced. A least there are no children.” Like that made her feel any better.

Instead, she sat on the sofa watching old movies while drinking heavily spiked eggnog. Season’s Effing Greetings, she thought. She wondered what Grant was doing, if he was busy assembling bikes for Kristin’s kids—Kristin, Grant’s coworker with two kids just like the ones Grant insisted he wasn’t ready for. “I’m such an idiot,” she said out loud then downed the rest of her drink.

The television cast its cold light across the darkened room. She’d turned the sound down to a low murmur. The happy dialogue didn’t match her mood. Wrapped in her blanket, she could still feel the cold seep through the sliding glass door. She’d have to put plastic over it. Good. It would give her something to do tomorrow.

She was finding lots of tasks to keep her busy with the new apartment. Putting up a Christmas tree, however, hadn’t been one of them. In the great divvying of belongings, she’d taken possession of the lights and ornaments, but they were in one of the many unpacked boxes stacked along her walls. She’d moved in two weeks ago, but was in no hurry to get settled. It would only make the break feel more real.

holiday lights 2With the snow swirling outside her window, it was like being inside a snow globe. Greetings from Divorce Village! Instead of a tree and presents, however, hers had a sofa, a television and a half-empty bottle of red wine, which she’d get to that once the carton of eggnog was empty. It might take a while. She had a couple of pints in the fridge. It helped her sleep, or maybe it was the bourbon.

Baxter raised his head from his place on Emma’s lap, his bushy eyebrows forming a curious V. Emma chuckled, and rubbed the terrier’s ears. Baxter was their child; she and Grant would joke to their friends. He was as destructive and costly, with the same propensity to drool and chew. Grant magnanimously offered to let her have the dog, as Kristin’s oldest was allergic.

Baxter whined. It was an axiom of nature, Emma mused. The worse the weather, the more the dog wants to go outside. She stood and looked out the window. It would only get worse as the evening went on. The lamp lit snowflakes cast a sharp edge of between light and dark, ending in bright pools on Main Street.

Baxter knew once Emma stood, they’d be going out, and padded towards the door. She sighed, went to the closet and pulled out her boots. She’d need full gear tonight. Baxter sat, tail whipping back and forth while Emma pulled on her coat and hat, then fastened the leash on to his collar. “Let’s go,” she said, and the dog happily obeyed.

Emma expected the cold to hit her like a slap, but she was surprised that the air felt almost soft. What struck her more was the quiet—the sense that the whole world had stopped to watch the snow fall. Baxter tugged on his leash and Emma began to walk. She started up the street, past the church, then cut over towards the park. Baxter loved the park, the one remaining piece of home he had since Emma and Grant sold the condo. She probably could have stayed, but thought that moving on would be easier without the memories chained to her ankles. Now she wasn’t so sure.

There is no Christmas for single people. Not after thirty. She walked faster. She was relieved to cross over Lee. The park had no decorations, thank God, but she couldn’t help herself and looked over at the gingerbread houses iced with snow, electric icicles dangling from their eaves. All except for one—a dark unlit space among the line of tastefully decorated homes. One of these things is not like the others.

When Emma looked away, it was worse. All she could see was the snow covered play structure. She breathed in the cold, took it deep into her lungs, closing her eyes against the sting. Baxter tugged, but Emma’s feet wouldn’t move. A sob caught in her throat.

“It’s too bad dogs can’t tell time. Or maybe they can, and just have a perverse sense of humor.” Emma whipped around to see who spoke to her. The man was elderly, dressed in a dark wool coat and checkered cap, a plaid scarf around his neck. He was smiling. He looked harmless enough. If he was planning on attacking her, he would have done it already.

“It’s payback for making them wear little sweaters and do tricks for food,” she said.

He knelt down and Baxter began to jump. “Aren’t you a friendly little fella,” the man said as he scratched behind her ears.

“He’s rather indiscriminate with his affections,” Emma said, “although I’m sure you’re very special. At least that’s what he’ll tell you.”

He chuckled and stood up. “It sure looks like Christmas out here. Even the houses are joyous.”

He must have seen her admiring the houses. Emma watched the lights blinking, winking at her, in on the joke. “I’m very happy for them,” she snapped, then felt guilty for being rude.

“I’ve had years like that,” he said. “It gets better.”

“God, I hope so,” she laughed, shaking her head. “I’m Emma,” she extended her hand. “I’m getting divorced. At least that’s how my mother would introduce me.” She pointed to the dog. “This is Baxter.”

“I’m Thomas. My wife died six years ago. That’s how the women in my church would introduce me.”

Emma felt her cheeks burn despite the cold. “I’m so sorry.”

“Me too, Emma. Me too.” She didn’t know what to say. Luckily, Thomas continued. “The first year is the hardest. That’s what I thought until the second year, anyway.”

She laughed despite his depressing assessment. “Then I have something to look forward to.”

He chuckled. “Holidays are never the same, but they can still be happy.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” She took a deep inhale. “I’m barely going through the motions.”

“Family far away?” he asked.

“Not really, not that it matters. I really wasn’t up for hanging with Don and Trish while drinking crème de menthe and watching It’s a Wonderful Life in reindeer sweaters.”

“Too holly-jolly for you?” he asked.

Emma shrugged. “Instead, I was sitting in my apartment drinking eggnog watching White Christmas. No reindeer sweater though. I have my standards, just no Christmas tree.” She shuffled her feet and Baxter ran around her in circles, wrapping his leash around her legs. “I thought it would be easier, but I’m regretting it.” She coaxed Baxter to run in the other direction before she was totally bound and helpless.

“Well then,” Thomas replied while laughing at Baxter’s antics, “we are going to go get one.”

“You’re joking,” she said. Thomas smiled. He was serious.

“How will we get it home?”

Thomas brushed off her excuse like a pesky gnat. “We’ll carry it, but I’m an old man, so think small, Emma.”

She didn’t even have her purse with her—just keys and emergency coffee money. “I only have ten dollars in my pocket,” she countered.

“Then you’d better think really small,” he said.

“This is insane.” Baxter started to tug at the leash. He’d tired of sniffing, and Thomas was no longer petting him.

“This, Emma, is Christmas Eve.”

Emma thought about refusing outright, but decided that maybe, just maybe, he was right.

They passed by several churches on their way to one of the tree lots that sprung up every December, much to their neighbors’ dismay. Churches were even more prevalent than Starbucks around here, Emma mused. In a college town surely there are far more coffee drinkers than faithful. Perhaps she was getting cynical. She didn’t used to be. But then again, she was walking the streets of Evanston to buy a Christmas tree with a man she didn’t even know.

They reached the lot, but looking at the selection Emma’s face fell. The trees were mostly sold—after all, it was Christmas Eve. All that was left were the stragglers that no one wanted—lopsided, with broken branches and loose needles. They were getting ready to load them up and shut down until next year. She felt at home among them.

Thomas, seeing her expression, said, “You have to look at them with kind-heartedness.” Emma raised a brow.

“It won’t kill you,” he chided her. “Isn’t that what we all need? To be seen through loving eyes?”

Emma closed her eyes and thought about how the night had begun, the snow, the quiet of the night, the warmth of Baxter’s weight on her lap, the surprise of friendship. She was alone, yet, unexpectedly, not. She had married Grant on her happiest day, but at the same time her saddest. They coexisted; it all depended upon what she chose to focus on. She opened her eyes, and saw the little tree, stunted and lopsided, like the one in the Charlie Brown cartoon, and she smiled. “That one,” she said.

Thomas looked at the tree. “I said kind-heartedness, not pity,” but her smile showed him her mind was made up, and his showed her that he agreed with her choice.

The manager of the lot was incredulous that she chose the scraggly little tree. He told Emma to put her money away, saying he couldn’t possibly sell it to anyone else. No one would be that desperate, not even on Christmas Eve.

Thomas helped her carry it home, each one holding an end, Baxter trotting alongside, his leash looped around the trunk. A car passed by and honked at them as they walked, opening their windows to shout “Merry Christmas.” With every step, she felt the jagged edges soften, the broken pieces finding their place. She wasn’t healed, but it was the most whole Emma had felt in months.

By the time they reached her apartment, Emma was tired, hot, sweaty and at peace. They loaded the tree into the elevator, leaving a trail of pine needles behind them, along with a small pile in front of her door where the branches brushed the frame on the way through. She located the box with the decorations and pulled out the stand. Thomas helped her set the tree up in the corner.

They untangled the lights and strung them around the tree. One by one, they hung the ornaments while Baxter ran in circles around the trunk. When they were done, she wouldn’t have recognized it as the tree they carried through town. Emma squinted, and the tree looked larger, perhaps even dazzling. To be seen through loving eyes–the gift she needed most, yet never expected.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked.

“Do you have any eggnog?” Tom answered.

Emma smiled. She might get to that red wine after all. “As a matter of fact, I do. Bourbon?“

“Is there any other way to drink it?” Emma brought out their drinks, and they stood back to admire their work. “Once they’re dressed with lights and baubles,” Tom said, “you don’t notice the imperfections.”

Emma agreed. “Because compassion gives joy the space to grow.” She raised her glass in a toast. “Merry Christmas,” she said, “To the beauty of the imperfect.”

“Merry Christmas Emma,” he replied. “Maybe next year we can get matching holiday sweaters.”

“Bring the crème de menthe and you’ve got a deal.” Baxter turned in circles under the tree, then settled in for a nap. He’d found a place to rest, and so had she.