The living room had been swallowed up by all things Christmas.
Garland and strings of multi-colored lights took up space across the sofa and were stretched out like festive snakes from end to end to prevent them from getting tangled. Janie and I had spent at least an hour this morning detangling lights, fluffing garland, and changing burnt-out bulbs. My fingers and the backs of my hands itched and burned from the tiny little pricks from the fake tree needles.
As I studied the Christmas tree in front of our living room, I rubbed at those itchy burns on my hands. They felt like tiny scabs already. I needed some moisturizer.
Janie was under the tree tightening the bolts on the stand. Her pajama pants were riding down, showing the straps of her red thong, but she’d long since stopped caring. This was our third attempt to get the tree straight, and the damn thing was still tilting to the side.
I frowned. “Maybe we should just leave it crooked and say it was a decorating choice.”
Janie’s groan sounded far away as she shimmied out from under the tree and leaned back, sitting cross-legged with her hands braced behind her so she could blink up at the tree. “This stupid thing has never been such a pain in the ass before. We must be doing something wrong.”
“Let’s try one more time. Loosen it up, and I’ll hold it steady.”
“How about you get down here and have a go?”
“I think I’m doing a good job up here.”
Janie stuck her tongue out at me and scowled. “Baby.”
I flashed her a big smile.
Rolling her eyes, she wiped her hands on her snowflake-printed jammies and slid back under the tree with her ass in the air. Playfully, I placed my slippered foot on her rump and gave it a few pats. “Come on, little elf. You can do it!”
“Piss off, Piper.”
“That’s not the Christmas spirit.”
“You know how much I hate this part,” she growled as she untwisted the bolts holding the faux trunk of the tree in place.
I felt it come loose and stepped in close, the branches swallowing me up in a big hug so that I could hold it straight. “Janie, come out of there and make sure I’m holding it straight.”
She pushed out from under the tree and got to her feet. She planted her hands on her hips and looked at the tree. She cocked her head to the right, then to the left. “A little to the right. There. Yes. That’s perfect. What are we fucking up when we tighten it?”
“You’re doing them gradually, right? Like a little bit on one screw and a little bit on another as you go?”
She blinked evenly at me. “Are you sure you don’t want to give it a go yourself, Little Miss Know It All?”
“You’re doing a great job.”
Janie got back under the tree. I held it straight. She tightened. The moment of truth arrived, and she slid back out and stepped back. I released the trunk, and it didn’t waver.
When I joined Janie and we both studied the tree, I nodded. “There. That looks good, right?”
Even if it hadn’t, I had a feeling this was how it would stay. She and I had been at this for over an hour, and the day was slipping away from us. Soon, a car would arrive to take me to Camden’s. I was lucky. I’d be spending the last month of the Casanova Club in my city. Camden lived in New York, and I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to get on another God-forsaken airplane.
I was so done with being in the clouds.
Well, the last flight hadn’t been so bad. Max had definitely made it one to remember. My cheeks burned just thinking about those last few hours I’d spent with him.
“Sorry?” I blinked at Janie.
She had tree lights wrapped around her fist, and she was staring expectantly at me. “No dilly-dallying. We don’t have time. Are you going to help me put the lights on or what?”
“Yes. Of course.”
I hopped to the task of wrapping the tree in lights, ribbon, and old red and gold beaded garland Janie had owned for at least a decade and a half. She’d inherited it from her mother and refused to get rid of it. I’d suggested we replace it with something a little less worn down one year, and she’d nearly blown a fuse.
I’d learned my lesson. All things in the boxes labeled “Janie’s Christmas Decor” were sacred, and it was sacrilege to ever suggest re-homing anything, whether it was weathered old garland or hideous Santa figurines with creepy smiles. Each item held a special place in her heart, and therefore, it did in mine, too.
Janie loved Christmas. I felt bad that I was abandoning her during her favorite month of the year and she would have to spend it alone. We’d been together every December since I’d first moved in, and in that time, we’d acquired and created several traditions.
For starters, we put up and decorated the tree together. It usually wasn’t this difficult.
We also had Christmas-movie nights with eggnog and rum and snacks, and baking date nights where we prepared all our Christmas goodies to give away to friends and family in festive tins, and we also loved going for walks on snowy nights to admire Christmas lights in the park.
That didn’t graze the tip of the iceberg. I would be missing the traditions I had with my family, too.
“Do you think you’ll come home for Christmas?” Janie asked as she plugged in the last strand of lights we’d just finished the tree off with. “Or will you stay with Camden?”
It was a good question and one I’d been thinking about all morning. “I’m not sure. I haven’t spoken to Jackson Lee about it. I’d be surprised if I could come home. Camden already loses a couple of days of time with me because the proposal ceremony is at the end of the month.”
“I can’t believe how fast this year went by.”
“You can say that again.”
“How are you feeling about everything?” Janie watched me over her shoulder as she went to a big gray Rubbermaid container and popped the lid off, revealing her collection of Christmas ornaments all wrapped in old tissue and packing paper.
That was a loaded question.
How did I feel?
Trapped. I felt trapped.
I felt like the walls of my life had slowly been closing in around me. I was at the point where they were so close, I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t push them away to create more space. It was as if the fingers of fate were resting upon my throat, and the closer to the end of December I got, the tighter their grip became.
I’d been telling myself all last night and this morning that the feeling was simply because I was afraid of turning all the men down and revealing myself for the wicked, manipulative, money-hungry fraud I was.
But deep down, I knew it was more than that.
Deep down, I knew I was creating a future filled with regret.
“I feel okay,” I said.
I went to the box of ornaments and began helping Janie unwrap them. We worked delicately, mindful of the fragile contents of blown-glass ornaments, thin-ceramic Santa’s, and handcrafted little pieces of art Janie had accumulated over the years at craft fairs.
“Really,” I lied. “There’s no sense in agonizing over everything anymore. I know how it’s going to end. I’ve known it since the beginning. It’s time to reel it in, keep my head down, and just get through it.”
“You think you’ll be able to do that with Camden?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Janie gave me a knowing smile as she threaded a hook through the top of a white ball with a snowman’s face painted on it. She moved to hang it on a branch near the front of the tree. “Because. I seem to recall you saying the same thing about Max before you spent the month with him. And you fell for him. Right smack on your face.”
I swallowed. “That was out of my control.”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t.”
“Then what are you saying?”
Janie shrugged. “I don’t want to argue with you, Pipes. You know where I stand on the whole thing.”
It’s true. I did.
Janie wanted me to choose love.
But it was so easy from where she was standing. She liked the classic movie ending where I got the happily ever after she seemed to think I deserved. But why did “Happily Ever After” have to look that way? Why did it have to be me and the man I loved building a life together?
Since this thing started, my version of a happy ending had been slapping a check for a million dollars in my father’s hand and telling him not to worry, that his baby girl had taken care of everything. Sure, it wasn’t this romanticized idea of love, but it made me pretty damn happy to think about, and that had to count for something, right?
At least, it used to make me pretty damn happy.
Now when I thought about taking the money, the invisible fingers around my throat adjusted their grip.
“It will be nice to see them all again, won’t it?” Janie asked, breaking me from my reverie.
I cleared my throat and ran a hand along my neck. “Nice? I don’t know. Stressful, more like. The last time all of us were in the same room, I ran out in a near panic.”
“Well the ceremony will be… tense,” Janie said, pausing to search for the right word. “But the Christmas party will be good, won’t it? And you’ll see me again before the ceremony, so if you need to work through some things, I can be your sounding board.”
“Work through some things?”
“Yeah. Just in case.”
“In case what?” I asked, fishing for her to just spit out what she was thinking.
Janie placed another ornament on the tree, a fat little Santa holding a snow globe. The top of his hat and his shoulders were dusted in silver glitter like he’d been standing out in the snow. His nose used to be pink, but the paint had long since worn off. “In case you change your mind and you opt for a better ending.”
“Janie, that’s not—”
“I know.” Janie sighed, her shoulders slumping. A frown pulled her lips down, and she pulled another ornament from the box. She handed the ceramic stocking to me to place on the tree and closed her hands over mine. She looked me in the eye and forced herself to smile. “I know. It’s okay, Pipes. I get it. I just… I want you to be okay.”
“I will be.”
I didn’t think she believed me. And how could I expect her to?
I didn’t believe me either.
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