Ghost of Christmas Present
December 22, 2009 in Storytime
Betty had invited me to her Christmas Eve party weeks ago, and I had given her my usual noncommittal assurance that I’d be there. We were friends from long ago, going all the way back to college. She was an energetic, whip-smart, sassy, and all-around caring person, who saw through the bull of ordinary life with some kind of inner X-ray vision. Nothing seemed to trouble her, and I envied that immensely. She could brush off the downturns in life, and revel in the good times, having a knack for knowing how to have a good time in any circumstance. I knew her party would be a happening affair, with booze, and conversation, and games, and all sorts of interesting happenings.
I really didn’t feel up to it.
But the apartment was sterile, save for my small, table-top Christmas tree and some cards from family adhered magnetically to the refrigerator. Despite my desire to be alone, I knew this wasn’t the place to be. There were worse things than a party. I pulled on a clean shirt, put on my good corduroy slacks, slipped on the matching jacket, and ran my hand through my hair in a vain attempt to look presentable. I rummaged through my cabinets until I found an unopened bottle of Bailey’s; it was bad form to go to a party empty-handed. I shook on my overcoat and trundled off into the cold to see what the night would hold.
A cab would have been the norm on a cold, blustery evening such as it was, but for some reason I felt compelled to walk, to take the cold air into my lungs, perhaps to shock myself back into reality, rather than remain in the dank cell of my loneliness. The night was clear, though street lights made it impossible to catch more than a glimpse of the brighter stars in the sky. The sidewalks were still a muddle of snow, slush, pavement, and dirt, now freezing solid in the night, making for treacherous going. Sometimes I could walk, sometimes I skipped, occasionally I was forced out into the street by snow banks that had been inconveniently left in the way, but I walked briskly, and despite the cold nipping at me, I felt lighter than before. I did not seem to notice traffic or the odd fellow pedestrian — my walk was a blur, impinging on my consciousness only where decisions needed to be made about crossing streets or possible poor footing.
The blocks went by, and shortly I saw the small park that marked to the corner where Betty’s brownstone was located. I slowed down, prepared to turn the corner, when melodious and boisterous laughter assailed me, and I recognized it instantly as Betty’s. This could only mean she had retreated outside to smoke; though the brownstone was hers, she felt compelled to keep the home smoke-free, so she would always accompany acquaintances outside to light up, ever the gracious host. No amount of nagging had ever convinced her to stop, though she had cut down. I decided, in the spirit of friendship — and because I loved gotchas — to slow down and sneak up on her. I reached the corner, and was prepared to peer around…
“So what’s up with your pal, Jack?”
I was startled to hear my name. The voice was not instantly familiar, but it was obvious it was someone who knew me somehow. Betty responded, no doubt after expelling a large burst of smoke.
“Oh, the usual. He’s a great guy, Paige, a real primo catch, but he gets too wrapped up in himself sometimes.” She paused. Paige was one of Betty’s newer friends from work, and I had met her a couple of times at parties. She was the typical friend, someone Betty liked to hang out with, who challenged her and made her think. Betty collected friends like some people collected artwork, and her tastes were eclectic. “I’ve known him forever. Sweet guy, really nice…”
“So what’s wrong with him?” Paige wanted to know.
“Wrong? Why, nothing really.” I was curious to hear her analysis of my behavior. “You see, he had a bad break-up five years ago, the kind that gets under your skin… well, anyone’s but me!” She chuckled. “He was planning on asking her to marry him, but she broke it off, and on Christmas Eve, of all times. Heart-breaker, that.” I felt a lump form in my throat, as the earlier events of today, and that moment returned, briefly, to my consciousness.
“That’s crappy,” Paige replied. “Still, makes me wonder — if he’s so great, why didn’t you go after him, Betts?”
“Who says I didn’t?” She laughed, and the lump dissolved, as I wracked my brain, trying to think if she ever had, but before I could pull anything up, I had my answer. “God knows I wanted to, but he was always the social butterfly, the girls really liked him — though not enough to keep him — and I was always there to pick up the pieces when he fell. We’re good friends, we really are, and…” Betty’s voice tailed off and suddenly my brain radiated waves of annoyance, trying to coerce her into finishing the sentence.
Paige must have picked up my mental vibrations. “And? Come on, Betts, you can’t just drop it like that… spill!”
A nervous chuckle. “We’re good friends. He’s my best friend, really, because I can be way out there, and that turns a lot of people off, but he’s always there. I put up a brave face a lot, but sometimes even I need someone to talk to. He’s that someone. I’m just not sure…”
“Sure of what?”
Betty cleared her throat. “I’m not sure if we’d ruin what we have. But then again, I feel like there could be so much more…” Another pause, and wheels began turning in my head. “Look, he’s free game. I’m not going to sit here and be jealous of every woman who falls for him, because I know I’ll always have a part of him for myself, whether he comes around, or not.” The sudden clop of heels told me someone was snuffing out a cigarette. “Anyway, enough analysis… there’s a party going on!” With that, a door opened, the sound of music and laughter poured out, to be extinguished as the door closed again.
Another moment, where I was lost in a bubble of my own thoughts, and time seemed suspended. Betty had deeper feelings for me? How come I didn’t notice? Again, there was no spectral apparition to guide my racing thoughts, or put them into perspective. Betty was my friend, had been forever it seemed, always there, no matter what. I enjoyed her company; she enjoyed mine. We’d done it all: museums, dinners, movies, concerts, the lot. She was always there with a smile, or a joke, or a comforting word, and I always felt good around her. How was it possible I had failed to notice someone right next to me? Nothing made sense suddenly, and I had a deep suspicion that this was not the place for me to be. I wanted to turn and leave, my brain eager to get moving. This time, my heart seemed to have the upper hand, refusing to let me budge. A chilled gust tore at the collar of my overcoat, and the sudden coolness snapped me from my reverie.
I stood, no doubt with a dumbfounded look on my face, frozen like a snowman. Feelings, thoughts, and desires were churning away inside, doing battle for my attention, but I could not grasp at them without them slipping from immediacy. I was conscious of the bottle in my hand, the breeze on my cheek, the tip of my nose being cold, and the quiet on the street, save for the wind. I did not know what all of this meant, my being here, being privy to what were no doubt Betty’s inner thoughts of me, which she surely never meant me to hear. Had I been so blind?
Cold gripped me and shook me again, and I realized that I stood at some kind of emotional crossroads. I had been locked away from the world inside my haunted chambers, besieged by my past, unwilling to look out to where I was and what was around me. I was never mindful of things I had, only the things I had lost: jobs, money, youth, love. Somehow, until this moment, it hadn’t dawned on me that the only true loss was in ignoring the present, ignoring what was right in front of me, for some ephemeral future. A ghost of the past could not love me, or change that past one iota, for those were the things that had been. Here, now, I had a chance to chart a new course.
Resolute, I turned the corner, bottle in hand, giddy with anticipation. I did not know what the night could hold, but I did know that I would never find out unless I explored what was there. I ascended the steps of Betty’s brownstone, noting the cigarette butts in the little tin pot by the door, still smoldering, then pressed the doorbell. Seconds ticked off interminably, and I felt as if the bottle were gaining mass. I went to stretch my finger out to the doorbell again, when the door flung open, to reveal a burst of heat and noise and the smell of a fire. And standing there, framed in the light, was Betty, whose eyes seem to sparkle in the dim light outside. She was surrounded by an aura of holiday cheer. Her long-sleeved, green velvet dress clung to her, and her short stature was enhanced by the heels she wore. Dark, curly hair was covered only partially by a Santa hat, and her lips had been painted a similar color to the hat. She smiled, and that smile burned away any doubts that might have remained about being there.
“Jack!!!” She shrieked with excitement, no doubt never expecting to see, perhaps enhanced by the fact that not a few minutes earlier, she had been speaking of me. She threw her arms around me, and the hug was inversely as massive as she was diminutive. She stepped back, face aglow, and our eyes locked. Not a word was spoken in that instant, but volumes were said. “I see you decided to emerge from hibernation long enough to pay me a visit!”
I laughed, a heartier laugh than I had managed in a while. “How could I turn down an invitation from my best friend?” I echoed her words, and I saw the look on her face waver, only slightly, as she recognized them. “I come bearing alcohol,” I said, thrusting the bottle toward her. Her hand reached up to grab it, our hands touched, and there was a little electric shock, which startled us and caused us to laugh. I made to enter, but she planted her other hand in my chest.
“Sorry… you can’t enter without paying the admission price!” Her face grew stern, and as I backed away from her hand, the index finger pointed up, over my head. I leaned back, and there over the doorway: mistletoe.
“Of course. How silly of me…” I stepped forward, slipped my hands around her face, pulling her lips to mine, and holding her there as we shared a soft, slow kiss. I held it perhaps longer than would normally be exchanged by friends, before releasing her face and pulling slowly away. She looked up at me, blinked one, then twice, then her smile broke broadly over her face. “Can I come in now?” I pleaded, kiddingly.
“You sure can…” Betty said softly, and as I entered her home, her slipped through mine, and I could tell it was about to be an excellent Christmas Eve.