Things were going to be festive if it was the last thing I ever did. Even if I had to sacrifice a Christmas goose to Santa to get them that way, I was going to create the best Christmas I could, under the circumstances.
Florida weather wasn’t particularly Christmasy, to say the least. Midway through December, and we were still in the high eighties. People slathered on sunscreen and had holiday pool parties. It was downright weird. The winter darkness with the summer weather was really screwing with my seasonal depression, though thankfully, not for the worse. It was relieving to have energy in December for a change. The Christmas spirit, however, was noticeably lacking.
It was fine, I told myself, pulling into the parking lot of my apartment complex. I had a tree, had festive decorations, even had presents (wrapped ones! Not just boxes from Amazon! Amazing) to put beneath the tree and bring everything together. So despite not having snow, or family, or even my closest friends, at least my apartment would look cheerful.
I hauled the box with my tree under one arm, the bag with new ornaments and decorations over my opposite elbow, and made my way up to my apartment. I smiled at people who passed by, though I didn’t really register who I was looking at. I hoped as I trudged down the hallway toward my door that no one had tried speaking to me. I really wasn’t in the socializing mood anyway. I wanted to put up my decorations, maybe drink some hot chocolate (or whiskey, whichever) and bask in my festivity. I was going to sprawl out under my Christmas tree and soak in the artificial light until every inch of me radiated with holiday cheer.
As I unlocked my door, I realized that I was being too bitter about this whole ordeal. I strode into my tiny, one bedroom apartment, setting– more like dropping– the boxed tree in the corner where I wanted to set it up, and huffed, blowing the wispy hair that had escaped my ponytail out of my eyes. That wasn’t the way to go about Christmas decorating. I thought bleakly about my family up north, and felt a twang of… I supposed it was nostalgia, maybe homesickness. I couldn’t afford to fly home, and they couldn’t afford to come see me; my mother wanted to stay with her parents as their health deteriorated, my brother had work. I hadn’t even heard from my father or my sister, not since Thanksgiving (and god, that had been lonely and awful, I did not want a repeat of that on Christmas). My friends, of course, would be spending the holidays either working or with their families, as they should have been. Even my roommates were ditching me, although their families were considerably closer than mine, and they could afford to go visit.
So it seemed tree, wreath, and carols were going to be the best I could do this year.
My bitterness turned sharply to sadness, and I sighed. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen my family recently. I wished I hadn’t– at least, not for the reason I had seen them. Visiting a grandfather who didn’t even know his own name half the time, let alone mine, was by far the hardest thing I’d had to do this year, even harder than saying goodbye to my family and moving (half on a whim) to Florida. On the other hand, I was going to see them come New Year’s, as they’d planned a not-so-surprise Disney trip for the lull after the holiday rush. It wouldn’t be the same as having them for Christmas, but it would be something.
I turned on the light in the living room, then set up my laptop on the coffee table, pulling up the Christmas music on my iTunes. The silence was killing me, so why not play a little something to put me in the decorating mood? Run Run Rudolph rocked out of my speakers, lifting my mood instantly, and I grinned.
Dancing, I set out to make myself that hot chocolate, and a snack to graze on while I put up the tree. I sang along and twirled, not even bothering to keep quiet. If someone didn’t have the Christmas spirit, they could come to my door and actively fight me.
Still singing with the upbeat tunes, I unboxed my tree and set about assembling it. Though in all honesty, it was more like wrangling it. Every branch had to be unwound and spread out into a sort of droopy fan pattern to even begin to resemble a real tree, and there were several parts to it. “Why on earth did I go with the plain tree?” I asked myself sourly, realizing that once I was done manhandling the tree itself, I’d have to wind endless lights around it. I whined, vaguely to the tune of the song that was playing. Stupid tree. Stupid lights. Stupid Christmas.
Nearly an hour later, my chocolate cold and forgotten, the sky dark, and my bra tossed across the room in a fit of discomfort and frustration, I was finally getting somewhere with the lights. I had reimagined the lyrics to nearly every song that had played, swearing profusely halfway through lines, muttering in the rhythm of the lyrics and promising the tree a swift death. I finally understood why my mom had dropped ninety bucks on an LED tree. No lights, no fire hazard, the branches changed colors, it could be set on a timer, none of this untangling, bulb checking bullshit…
My singing/swearing combo got cut off by a sharp rap on my door. Throwing back my head, I squeezed my eyes shut, praying to achieve the level of patience I needed to apologize to whichever neighbor had finally gotten tired of me belting Christmas music (and shouting curses). They didn’t deserve the backlash of my decorating frustrations, I reminded myself as I went to the door. Maybe I could even sweet talk them into helping me with this catastrophe.
“I’m so sorry, I’ll turn it down–” I hadn’t even opened the door all the way when I started talking, but when I saw the man on standing on my threshold, my brain stalled. “Nick?”
I worked with Nick. He was a friend outside of work, too, but not a very close one. A head or so taller than me, a little on the wiry side in build, he swayed slightly back and forth, having to actively look down to meet my gaze. “Hey.”
I just stared at him. How in the actual hell had he found me? Also why, that was another question I’d like answered, why had he found me and knocked on my door? Realizing that I was being profoundly awkward (and probably rude), I forced a smile to my face. “Hi! Good to see you, come on in.” I stepped back, allowing him to enter, and realized what an utter disaster my living room was. “I’m decorating– if you can call it that– so everything is kind of everywhere.”
“Decorating,” Nick said, grinning at me and making air quotations. I shrugged. “And singing, apparently,” He said, leaning down to see what song was on my iTunes. I’d completely forgotten about the music and tuned it out, but suddenly realized that a Muppets’ cover of Little Saint Nick was rocking out of the speakers, and I smiled.
“Yeah, I love Christmas music.” Okay, this was just awkward. It didn’t help that I found him distressingly attractive; I was actually ready to pinch myself to see if I’d fallen asleep and started dreaming that he was here. “Go ahead and have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Meh.” He shrugged, but didn’t move to sit, standing in the middle of the room, his hands in his pockets. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Kay.” I frowned as I caught sight of my bra laying awkwardly behind a chair. He probably couldn’t see it from where he was sitting, but he could see me without said bra, and that was downright weird. “So ah.” I gestured awkwardly to him. “How?”
He gave me an incredulous look. “What?”
“How are you here?” Stunningly polite, I thought to myself. “And why?” Why, indeed. More like gee, Zoe, why are you a human disaster? Why can’t you talk like a normal person? Why are you so awkward?
“I live right upstairs,” Nick said, as though it were obvious. He’d even pointed up to prove his point. “You didn’t know that?”
“If I’d–” wait, no, sarcasm was rude, I’d already been rude, tone it back. “No, I didn’t.” Better than I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known at least. “That still doesn’t answer why you’re here.”
“You were swearing– loudly, by the way– so I figured you could use help.”
Figures. I’d lured him down like a siren, but rather than my singing, it had been my less-than-spectacular vocabulary. “Oh. Yeah. I ah…” I waved my arm at the tree. “It wasn’t cooperating. It’s still not cooperating. It’s a hot mess.”
“You’re a hot mess.”
“What?” I turned, startled, and he gave me a decidedly blank look.
“What?” He parroted, and then looked back at my tree. “It’s short.”
“I’m short,” I reminded him, breezing past him to continue my light winding adventure. “And it’s my tree.”
“That’s just sad.” I stuck my tongue out at him. “Real mature.”
Taking a deep breath, I fisted my hands on my hips and turned to face him, glowering at him. “Did you actually come here to help me, or did you just recognize my voice and think, ‘Oh, I’ll go fuck with Zoe, that’ll be entertaining’?”
“Believe me, if I’d come here to fuck with you, you’d be wearing less clothing.”
Typical Nick response to a question that had been completely innocently intended. I dropped my face into one of my hands. “You’re impossible, do you know that?” When I looked back up at him, he was grinning at me, mirth lighting up his eyes. “You’re damn lucky I like you, or I’d have already kicked you out. I’m still thinking about it.”
“Nah you need my help too badly.” Cocky, Nick strolled past me and picked up the abandoned string of lights that lay on the floor, dangling from the tree branches.
“I’m sorry, was ‘Jesus Christ you useless piece of shit, no don’t fall off the tree I just put you on’ not a cry for help?” He delivered it so casually, without even mocking my voice, that I felt my irritation simmer down.
I waved him on. “Fine, if you think you can get them to follow orders, be my guest. I’m gonna start putting other decorations up.” I turned on my heel, sweeping my bra up off the floor with a strand of garland as I headed toward my bedroom, leaving him to sort the god-forsaken tree lights out.
Moments later, I returned with my bra on, the garland draped over my arm, and a box of ornaments Mom had let me bring from home. Nick was carefully sliding the strand of lights into the tangle of fake branches inch by inch, and I stopped to watch him. He was so careful, his large hands cradling the fragile lights gently, poking the branches to make them lay a specific way and support the wires. I set my box on the couch and opened it, pretending not to steal glances at him. It was weird having him here, in my home, when we’d never been particularly close– sure, he’d eat lunch with me and a few of the other girls sometimes, or he’d come chat with me on his way to go do something else, but usually we just saw each other and waved or said “good morning” and that was it. I knew virtually nothing about him, had no idea how to act around him. Every time he was around I found myself tripping over my words or going entirely silent, and whenever I actually spoke, he would find a way to tease me, using my own words against me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have compared him to a five year old with a crush.
My music was still going, shifting into some of the slower songs. I had a particular fondness for John Denver and the Muppets’ CD, and started singing as soon as the music began, the nostalgic melodies boosting my energy so that I could decorate despite my shyness around Nick. I didn’t even notice him stop hanging lights as I hung my wreath and stocking, draped garland over the tall doorway, and finished draping garland on the bar counter separating my kitchen and living room (by Command hooks, because I was a Classy Lady). I turned to get a few of the snowflake ornaments I’d bought today and caught him staring at me, his face weirdly serious. My voice faltered. “What?”
Nick blinked at me. “Nothing. I was just listening to you.”
“Oh.” I frowned as I retrieved the box of ornaments. “You looked awfully serious. Lost in thought?”
“Sure.” He shrugged, and I sighed. Conversation over apparently.
I went back to humming as I hung snowflakes on the garland, slowly moving back into singing, and blatantly ignoring Nick as he finished winding lights onto the tree. Just as I had, he occasionally insulted the string of lights, or muttered swearwords under his breath. It brought a grin to my face, though I valiantly suppressed my giggles.
“Your tree is done.”
I turned and saw my sad, sparsely branched tree sparkling in the corner, and gasped. “It’s so pretty!” I set down my last few ornaments and dashed over to the tree, smiling at the warm lights, and feeling somehow as though those lights were inside me, too. “Thank you so much. It looks lovely. And you put the star on!” I pressed my hands to my cheeks. “It’s Christmas!”
“You’re such a weirdo.” Nick reached over and ruffled my hair, pulling more of it loose from its ponytail. “Happy to help, have fun decking out the rest of it. I’m going back up to my apartment. Later.”
“Thank you, really,” I insisted, turning to hug him. I hadn’t hugged him often before, but his hugs were really nice, especially with him being so much taller than me. I was surprised he hugged me back, but he did, swaying me a little. When he moved toward the door, I followed, planning on locking the door behind him, but he stopped. “What?”
Nick pointed up. “Your garland has mistletoe.”
I looked up at it, confused, only to realize that he was right. I’d hung that garland because it had been the right length, and had a bow in the middle, with what I’d assumed was holly hanging from it. Mistletoe honestly made more sense, but that hadn’t been my intention. This was all sorts of awkward. “Huh. I honestly didn’t even realize that was mistletoe. Oops.” Nick snorted. I looked back at him and smiled. “Come here, I won’t bite.”
He frowned, but I’d already raised up on my toes. Leaning in, I gave him a prim peck on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Nick.”
That, I had assumed, would be the end of it. I turned away, expecting him to leave, deciding that locking the door could wait. I didn’t make it far. Nick’s arm came around my waist, and I found myself yanked against him, his lips pressed firmly to mine.
My mind went blank. Completely. His lips were soft, his arms strong. His other hand found its way into my hair, gripping my ponytail and pressing my lips closer to his. My eyes fell closed as my hands came up to grip his shoulders as I forgot myself and gave in. Heat flooded my chest and neck, up to my face. My heart seemed to swell in my chest, so full I was afraid it would burst.
As suddenly as it began, it ended. Nick pulled away from me, leaving me in a kiss-fueled cloud of confusion. I opened my eyes, staring at him in blatant shock as he smirked at me. “Merry Christmas, Zoe.” With that, he strolled out the door, shutting it firmly behind him. I stayed frozen where I was for another few moments, with my hand over my pounding, aching heart.
“Oh,” I managed, a good five minutes after Nick had left. “Okay. Bye.”