Good friends. Holiday parties. Twinkly lights. ‘Tis the season for all things merry and bright, Including this lovely blog hop hosted by Julia Kelly and Alyssa Cole. I’m thrilled to offer my addition to the buffet of holiday short stories today. Click here for links to all the other delicious offerings.
The butterflies took flight in my stomach as soon I locked the door to my basement apartment. Who came up with butterflies to describe this feeling, anyway? That makes it sound soft and gentle– dainty butterflies with their thin powdery wings. How about bats? Big leathery-winged bats. Anyway, no matter the metaphor, I felt uneasy.
Which was not something that I was accustomed to feeling these days. Six months ago, before I moved here, knotted-up nervousness was more the norm. Now, not so much. I paused at the top of the stairs and looked back at the string of colorful lights I had looped around my door. They were the faux old-fashioned big-bulb kind and they made me smile. Everything about my little apartment just below street level in the brownstone on the corner made me smile. I took in a deep breath of the frigid air.
A drink. It was just a drink with a friend before a holiday party. Never mind that I met this particular friend on the set of a now somewhat famous unscripted kissing video that was really a commercial (which we, the actors, knew from the beginning, just to be clear). We had kissed for the first time that day on camera as instructed, then later of our own persuasion. Then I discovered he was my advisor in the graduate program I had just been accepted to, and there had been no more kissing.
Okay, maybe there had been a little more kissing — he requested I be reassigned to another faculty member and we went out to dinner twice, but then the video went viral and the chatter started. New grad student, young-ish professor, special treatment. All the expected drama (fitting for a Theatre MFA program). I wanted none of it and so we sat down and had a very adult and mature conversation about not seeing each other anymore. I didn’t want to complicate my fresh start. He didn’t want to complicate his tenure. So we didn’t and eventually the chatter subsided– everyone satisfied that there was no story other than two actors in a commercial and a dash of happenstance. Things settled into a simple and unfettered routine.
Except sometimes I could still feel his lips curl into a smile under mine. Could still see the soft up-close smile in his eyes on that cooler than usual August night. And as ridiculous as it sounds, every now and then some little silly thing would happen and I would find myself wanting to tell him. Like last week, when I was walking to class and saw that park squirrel eating a cheese ball (the neon-colored snack-y thing, not an actual ball of cheese) and thought, I really want to tell Jeff about that.
Coincidentally, that happened the same morning that he stopped by the Graduate Assistant office to ask if I wanted to meet for a drink before the party tonight. I’d almost blurted out the ridiculous story while he stood there, nervously shuffling his feet. It was that nervousness that was making the bats take flight in my stomach tonight. It’s not like we never saw each other, never talked. We just hadn’t been alone since very, very early in the semester.
I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck. Leave it to me to relocate to Virginia from New York just in time for the coldest winter they had experienced in years. Thankfully the Jefferson Hotel where we were meeting was just a few blocks from my apartment. Jeff had insisted on meeting here, despite my suggestion for somewhere closer to Dean Foster’s house, where the holiday party was. He explained that he always went at least once a season to have a drink under the giant, over-the-top Christmas tree and hadn’t made it yet this year. He went on to describe the taller-than-imaginable tree and it’s basketball size ornaments in great detail. I didn’t bother to admit that despite the fact it was super close to my apartment, I’d never been inside the historic hotel.
Tonight I was greeted by the twinkling lights strung around the empty fountain outside the main entrance. Cold air. Sparkling lights. Parties. Final projects for the semester turned in. Good stuff. Whatever this was with Jeff, whatever he had to say that was making him nervous– it would not derail me. I would keep things simple and uncomplicated. I took another deep breath and walked through the door.
As soon as I was inside, I realized I had no idea where I was going. There was a restaurant off the lobby, but while it was thoroughly decorated for the season there was no giant tree.
“Dining with us, tonight?” the hostess asked.
“No, no, I’m meeting someone.”
“Feel free to walk around, ” she gestured into the restaurant.
“Oh, actually, is there another bar here? Near a giant Christmas–” I started.
“Annie,” Jeff called from behind me, before I could finish my question.
“Never mind, thanks though,” I said with a little wave to the hostess. She smiled.
“Hey,” Jeff greeted with open arms when I turned around.
“Hey,” I echoed and stepped in to hug him. A friendly, one-arm lean in sort of hug that shouldn’t make the back of my neck go tingly, but it did. Which in turn made me blush. Simple. Keep things simple. The voice in my head whispered. “So where is this giant tree?”
“It’s on the lower level, in the big lobby with the rotunda.”
This sounded familiar now, I do remember the mention of rotundas and grand lobbies in his elaborate tree description.
I must have looked confused, he raised an eyebrow in a playful question, “Have you not been here?”
I hung my head in mock shame.
“Don’t you live really close to here?”
I nodded, head still low.
He laughed. “Well, this is a great time to see it for the first time.”
I followed him past the reservation desk to a large carpeted stairway, leading down to a huge open two-story lobby in the middle of which was a tree. The tree.
“Grand, yeah? he said.
I nodded, and just stood there taking it all in.
“You know, I’m going to need to run home,” I said as we started down the stairs, he turned to gauge my seriousness, and visibly relaxed when I smiled and added, “I clearly forgot to put on my best Victorian gown.”
He laughed, “I know, right? Totally over the top.”
“I love it,” I said.
Sure enough, on the right side of the lobby there was a bar, where you could grab a drink and sit there and gawk at the tree to your heart’s content.
While we were waiting at the bar for our drinks he put his hands in his pockets. Took them out again. “You got the Gingerbread Stout?” he asked.
“Have you had it?”
“No, it’s been on my holiday must-do list once all my final papers were in. I’ve heard good things.”
“It’s excellent. Sip slowly though.”
“Why do you say that?”
“High in alcohol,” he explained.
“Ah… thanks for the warning. Wouldn’t want to show up to Dean Foster’s drunk.”
“Not that people won’t.”
“Sounds like there are some stories there,” I commented as we moved from the bar to a table, closer to the tree.
“Aren’t there always?” he said, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Those eyes. Kind and playful and adult. The bats took flight again and I took a tiny sip of my boozy beer, as if that was going to help. “Everything all wrapped up?” he was asking.
“Turned in my last paper yesterday.”
“So how was the first semester?”
“Good. Really, really good, actually.”
“You seem surprised,” he said.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from it all, you know. It’s been a few years since undergrad, so I was nervous about getting back into the swing of things. Plus I’d never taught before so I was terrified about being a TA.”
“I heard nothing but good things about your class.”
I raised an eyebrow, I knew I wasn’t the most popular among my students.
“So you push them hard and have high expectations. You should do that. I didn’t say students loved your class. I meant you did well.”
I smiled and shook my head, hoping I looked less confused than I felt. Did he really just want to reflect on the semester? If so, why the effort and nervousness, why not just ask me to grab a coffee. There hadn’t been any chatter about the whole viral video thing for weeks. We could have conversation at work without causing suspicion.
“Seriously, you’re a natural.” He looked me right in the eyes as he said it and held my gaze just a split second longer than small talk required. There was something more, or I was grossly misreading all the signs.
“Thank you. That means a lot.”
There was more to say. Like I how I had fallen in love with teaching. How I was pretty sure it was what I wanted to do post-graduation, but I didn’t want to continue to work talk. We were quiet for a few minutes, staring at the tree (or sort of beyond it into holiday decorations ad infinitum, in my case).
Finally he spoke, “Right, so I, well, I didn’t just ask you to meet me so I could essentially hold an advising session.”
“No?” I heard myself say over my pounding heart, “I was just thinking the tree was a nice touch. Marty doesn’t have one of those in her office.” I said referencing my advisor and making a bad nervous joke.
He laughed and took a sip of his beer. I swear his hands were shaking.
“I’m not ready to give this up,” he said. Or at least I think he said. He was speaking softly.
“This?” I asked.
He paused for so long I wasn’t sure he had heard me. “Us,” he finally said.
“Yes. Us. You and me or rather the idea of you and me since there never really was a you and me.”
My head was whirring with my heartbeat. He was sitting there expectantly. He still thought about that night too and was saying he didn’t want to stop thinking about it. Which was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. Nothing about this was simple, easy or uncomplicated. This would be one big pile of mess. Except–
“The other day I saw a squirrel, in the park standing under a tree eating a cheese ball.”
His face twisted in confusion. I groaned inwardly; he just told me he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me for something like four months and I answered with a story about rodents and snack food. I lowered my head into my hands, took a deep breath and then sat up again and looked him in the eye, “Which is to say, I want to tell you things. I see little goofy everyday life things like that and I want to tell you. I don’t even know you that well, but some how I know you would laugh about city park squirrels stuffing their cheeks with junk food.”
And then he laughed. That laugh that went all the way to his eyes. The one I remembered from months ago which tonight was filled with joy. And relief.
“Look, it’s complicated, I know…” he started.
“So complicated –” I agreed and then leaned across the small bar-top table and kissed him.
I felt his lips curl into a smile under mine. If this is what complicated felt like, I was done with simplicity.
If you want to go back and read the story of that night that Annie and Jeff couldn’t forget? It’s right here.