First Christmas Eve

Don’t let anyone ever tell you Christmas in New York is magical. Sure, there’s the humongous tree with the televised lighting ceremony, and the department store windows that get more elaborately beautiful each year, and the Rockettes kicking away at Radio City, but you know what else there is?

Slush. Massive, unavoidable puddles of it.

Seriously, visit New York in winter sometime and try going a block without getting your feet wet. Even with supposedly “waterproof” boots, it’s impossible, because not only are the puddles wide, they can be a foot deep, and you can’t tell how far down the frigid hell goes until you’ve stepped in it. Plus, the snow that doesn’t turn into slush is gray with dirt or yellow with…other stuff.

And have I mentioned the tourists? Ugh. On second thought, don’t visit. You’ll just walk slow and hold the rest of us up.

Okay, sorry, I’m sure you’re not that kind of tourist. Give me a second to take off my jaded-New-Yorker hat, and I’ll be right back with you.

My point is, Christmas here is just like Christmas anywhere else: cold, messy chaos, punctuated with fuzzy feelings of generosity and love, and hopefully by the end of the day you wind up happy and you get something you actually wanted instead of another pair of socks.

Although new socks certainly do come in handy after an encounter with the slush puddles.

…I’m getting off track again, aren’t I? I think was going to tell you about how Quint and I spent Christmas.

Right, because it started with the Christmas Eve walk to Zeg’s townhouse from the parking spot we found a couple of blocks away, and by the time we got there my feet were swimming in their own personal lakes. Zeggy, wise woman that she is, greeted us at the door with a towel and slippers. Quint took the towel and knelt down to dry off Jagger’s paws, saying, “Theo, put those slippers on, please.”

“You think you have to tell me?” I asked him. I was already toeing out of my shoes and peeling my sodden socks off.

“Give them to me,” said Zeggy. “I’ll put them by the radiator to dry out.”

I gladly handed them over and glanced around for Lyra and Griffin, who normally would’ve tackled me or Jagger by now. “Where’re the monkeys?”

On cue, a shout came from above, drowning out the Christmas music that was playing through the house.  “MOOOOMMMMM, GRIFFIN IS BUGGING ME!”

“LYRA WON’T LET ME PLAY ZELDA AND IT’S MY TURN!!”

“IT IS NOT!!!”

Sighing, Zeggy called, “Hun?” over her shoulder. Ike walked out of the kitchen, nodded at Quint and me, and went upstairs. The fighting we could still hear stopped a few seconds later. I have no idea what Ike says to them – mostly because he hardly says anything to anyone – but it seems to work.

We moved from the entryway to the living room to sit on the couch, and the twins were both all smiles when they came down to join us.

“Hello, Uncle Quint, Uncle Theo,” Griffin said, offering his hand to each of us in turn. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.” He’s been on this kick lately of acting like a little business tycoon, reading the Wall Street Journal when his father’s done with it and everything.

“The pleasure is all ours,” I answered. Lyra was less formal, darting from Quint to me for quick hugs and then devoting herself to rubbing Jagger’s belly.

“Careful,” Quint told her. “His paws might still have some dirt on them.”

“Okay,” Zeggy said, “who wants marshmallows in their hot chocolate?” Immediately, both kids and I shot our hands in the air. She grinned. “Coming right up, and no hanging ornaments until I get back, all right?”

Ike had set the tree up in their big bay window a week ago, and wrapped it in lights, but tradition dictated that the rest of the decorations didn’t go on until Christmas Eve. Lyra was bouncing with impatience by the time Zeggy returned. Okay, I might’ve been too. A little bit.

“Here we go,” she said, setting a tray with six mugs of hot chocolate down on the coffee table. Four of them had marshmallows, and she took one of those for herself. “Now, who wants to hang the first ornament?”

“We do!” Griffin said.

“Yeah!” Lyra agreed. “We want to hang our baby ornaments that Uncle Theo bought us! Can we, Mom?”

“Yes, just be careful because they’re breakable,” Zeggy said. “Ike, can you hand them their ornaments?”

Ike located the two little boxes that safely held them and took a frosted glass globe out of each one. Griffin’s had blue polka-dots, while Lyra’s had pink, but the cartoon monkey face painted on each was identical. Beneath each monkey, the corresponding twin’s name was written, along with “1st Christmas – 2006”.

“Jeez, I remember buying those like it was yesterday,” I said.

“So do I,” said Quint.

“You were there when he bought those?” Zeggy asked. “Wasn’t that before you two were together?”

“Only because he was being stubborn,” I said with a grin and a pointed look at Quint.

Christmas Eve, 2006

Theo hoisted his guitar case in one hand and carried it downstairs. At the bottom, Zeggy glanced up from the couch, where she was folding a pile of tiny onesies.

“You have band practice today?” she asked.

“No, I thought I’d go see if I could strum up some extra cash,” he said. “People shopping at the holiday market are usually pretty generous.”

Zeggy frowned and stopped folding. “You’re going to busk outside? Sweetie, it’s fifteen degrees out there.”

“I’ll be fine. If I get too cold, I’ll move to the subway.”

Subway platforms were usually Theo’s preferred winter venue, but playing outside factored heavily into his plan to keep bumping into Quint until the man finally caved and agreed to a date. They’d run into each other in the square so many times since meeting in November already, it had to happen eventually, he thought.

Zeggy, meanwhile, was thinking how best to put what she wanted to say without hurting her best friend’s pride. “You know, I’ve been feeling guilty that Ike and I don’t pay you for all the babysitting you do.”

“Zeg, no,” said Theo. “You’re letting me live here rent-free and eat your food, and besides, you tell me all the time that I’m family, right?”

“Of course you are.”

“Well, family doesn’t get paid to babysit,” he said.

“Yes, but family also helps each other out if they need it,” Zeggy replied, carefully.

“I don’t need it. I swear. I’m good.”

“Okay. Wait, here, take a scarf at least,” she said. She stood up, took one of Ike’s off the coat rack, and draped it around his neck. “There.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Theo teased. “I’ll see you later.”

*

Unpacking the few boxes that were still stacked around his new apartment had filled Quint’s morning. For the afternoon, he decided to take a walk down to the square. Only because it was a beautiful, sunny day and he could use the exercise. Not because he was hoping to run into a certain musician again.

The problem was, the musician in question never seemed to be far from his thoughts. From the very moment he’d met him at the dinner party his med school roommate’s friend Zeggy gave last month, there had been something about Theo Calhoun that drew Quint in against his better judgement.

There was his voice, to start. He’d heard him singing a lullaby to Zeggy’s infant twins before he’d even seen him. He remembered thinking that voice should belong to an angel.

Theo, though, had a definite unangelic gleam in his eyes at times. It came out later that night, just before he’d pressed Quint up against a wall and kissed him. No angel would know how to kiss like that.

You’re forty. He’s only twenty-three, Quint reminded himself sternly. Practically young enough to be your son.

That fact didn’t bother Theo, evidently. When Quint saw him busking in the square a week after the dinner party, he winked and started singing “And Then He Kissed Me.” Quint could be blind to come-ons, but it was hard to mistake his meaning.

He tried not to encourage it. The invitation to get coffee had been meant as an apology for the awkward way he left after the kiss, and he made clear that the subsequent invitations were platonic as well.

He did want to be friends with Theo. The younger man was funny, full of energy, and easy to talk to, and there were times he lost his usual confidence and emanated a vulnerability that squeezed Quint’s heart. As long as they stayed just friends, it would be fine.

Once again, he heard him before seeing him as he entered the square.

When it snows, ain’t it thrilling,
Though your nose is a chilling,
We’ll frolic and play,
The Eskimo way,
Walking in a winter wonderland.”

He was standing between the holiday market booths and the subway entrance, his guitar case open at his feet and a small group of last-minute shoppers gathered around listening to him play and sing.

It’s a beautiful sight,
We’re happy tonight,
Walking in a winter wonderland,
Yeah, walking in a winter wonderland.”

Theo spotted Quint the moment he joined the audience, and felt the skip of pleasure the doctor always elicited in him. Should he tease him again? “Baby Let Me Kiss You” got a blush out of him last time. Christmas carols were definitely the crowd’s favorite, though, and he needed to keep their interest, and money, flowing in. Smiling, he changed chords.

I don’t want a lot for Christmas,
There is just one thing I need,
I don’t care about the presents
Underneath the Christmas tree,
I just want you for my own,
More than you could ever know,
Make my wish come true,
All I want for Christmas is you.”

Quint sighed and shook his head, but he stayed there, letting Theo sing to him as the December sun started to set.

When the song was over, Theo said, “I’m going to stop for now, folks. Have a merry Christmas.” He took the guitar off, lifting the strap over his head, and rested it on his foot while people dropped dollar bills and coins into its case and moved away. He made sure to thank each one of them. Finally, only Quint remained. “Coffee?” Theo asked him. “My hands are frozen solid.”

Quint arched an eyebrow. “Didn’t you say you were going to buy gloves?”

Crouching down was necessary to gather the money out of his case, and had nothing to do with wanting to avoid Quint’s look, Theo told himself.

“Yeah,” he said, shrugging, “but something came up. And you can’t play guitar with gloves on anyway, so.”

“Well, at least you have a scarf now,” Quint said. Theo decided not to let him know it was Ike’s.

With the cash he’d made carefully counted and tucked into his wallet, he laid the guitar in the case and snapped it closed. Quint watched him, wishing he could offer to pay for the coffee without it seeming like a date or charity.

“Come on, let’s get inside where it’s warm,” Theo said, leading the way across the street to the little cafe.

They sat by the window after ordering. Theo wrapped both hands around his mug to let the heat seep into his fingers and said, “So, what are your plans for tomorrow?”

“I’m working, actually,” Quint replied. “Most of my colleagues have family, so I volunteer to take their shifts around the holidays.”

“You don’t have any family to celebrate with?” Theo asked, and then winced. “Sorry, that was insensitive.”

“No, it’s fine,” Quint reassured him. “My parents are in Boston, but the last time we celebrated a holiday together, I was probably ten years old. We’ve never been very close, so it wasn’t a hardship.”

“Where were you for all the rest of them?”

“With friends, or I stayed over at my boarding school.”

“Let me guess,” Theo said, smiling. “It had ‘Academy’ in the name.”

Quint nodded. “Phillips Academy, but it’s better known as Andover.”

“Of course. Followed by an Ivy League college?”

He laughed. “Harvard, both undergraduate and med school. Is it that obvious?”

“Yes,” Theo said, and took a triumphant sip of coffee.

“What about you?” Quint asked. “Did you go to college?”

Swallowing, Theo set his mug down and started to fiddle with the sugar packets on the table. “Um, yeah, three semesters at NYU, until I lost my scholarship. I’d like to finish a degree sometime, but.” He shrugged one shoulder. Between his financial situation and the difficulty he always had with staying on top of schoolwork, he couldn’t see it happening.

Quint studied him a moment. Under the attempt at indifference, he could see that insecurity again, coupled with longing. “If you really want it, you shouldn’t give up,” he said. “It’s never too late to go back.”

“Some people aren’t made for college,” Theo said quietly.

“True,” Quint agreed, “and it’s not necessary to have a successful and fulfilling life, but I don’t believe you’re one of them.” Theo gave him a quick, darting smile, but didn’t reply. After a few seconds, Quint asked, “What about your plans for tomorrow?”

The conversation flowed from there, to an update on the twins (Lyra had started babbling and Griffin was getting steadier at lifting his head up during tummy time), to favorite Christmas movies, and by the time they’d agreed It’s A Wonderful Life was the best, both of their mugs were empty.

Theo glanced out the window at the market’s candy-cane-striped booths, and asked, “Hey, do you want to help me find presents for Lyra and Griffin? I haven’t been able to decide on anything yet.”

Quint hesitated. It was too tempting to say yes and spend the evening with him.

“Please?” Theo asked, putting on his best puppy-dog face.

Despite his misgivings, Quint smiled. “Do you really think that look is going to work on me?”

“I’ve had good luck with it in the past,” Theo said. “It’ll be completely platonic shopping, I swear.”

The wickedness in his eyes suggested otherwise, but Quint found himself saying, “All right.”

Even this late on Christmas Eve, the market was bustling with people. The shoppers walked slowly under the garland and lights strung between the booths, studying each one for hidden treasures, or they dashed from one to the next in a panic. Some tried to haggle with the vendors, while others asked for gift wrapping services. Christmas music was coming from speakers somewhere. Theo automatically drummed his fingers on the handle of his guitar case to the rhythm of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

“What type of gift are we searching for?” Quint asked beside him.

“I’m not sure,” said Theo. “I just want it to be something special, you know? Not clothes they’ll outgrow in a couple of months, or toys they’ll only play with for maybe a week.”

Quint nodded. “A keepsake.”

“Yeah. And I have forty dollars, total, to spend on both of them.” He saw a ceramic piggy bank under a sign that read Handmade with Love, picked it up to look at the price tag, and swore. He’d been avoiding going into the market for exactly this reason. Everything in it was beautiful, artisanal, and expensive. “This is useless,” he said. “Never mind, let’s go.”

“Hey,” said Quint, blocking his path out and holding him by the shoulders. “We haven’t even started looking yet. Why don’t we at least walk down this row before we try somewhere else?”

“Because I’m not going to find anything I can buy?” Theo suggested. Quint raised his eyebrows at him, and he sighed. “Okay, fine, one row.”

“Thank you.”

They passed booths selling handcrafted jewelry, skincare products made with Dead Sea minerals, art ranging from sculptures to paintings, leather goods, knit hats, wooden toys, and more, but nothing like what Theo had in mind. He was discouraged and about to give up again as they reached the end of the row.

That was when he saw the ornaments lined up on stands in the booth just around the corner. Intrigued, he stepped closer.

“Hi, how are you guys tonight?” asked the woman sitting in the booth. “These are all painted by hand, and I can do something custom or free personalization, too.”

“How much are they?” Theo asked.

“The standard two-and-a-half-inch size are twenty dollars each, and the others vary depending on how complex the painting is. Everything has price tags, though.”

“Do you have any in the standard size for baby’s first Christmas?”

“Of course! Over here,” she said. Theo followed her to the other side of the booth. Quint watched him examine the choices. He looked so serious as he bent over the glass globes, with his hands tucked into his pockets and his breath coming out in puffs of steam. Then, all at once, he was grinning from ear to ear.

“These! Look, Quint,” he said, pointing. “Because I call them ‘monkeys’ all the time.”

Quint smiled back. “I remember. Those are perfect.”

“I need one in pink and one in blue,” Theo told the woman. “They’re for twins.”

“Oh, how cute!” she said. “Why don’t you write down their names for me and I’ll do the personalization real quick?”

He took the pen and paper she offered and bent over them, printing in careful block letters, and then watched as she took out her supplies. His attention was so focused on her, he didn’t notice Quint slip away to another booth for a minute.

Quint returned with his purchase hidden in his coat and found Theo counting out forty dollars in singles as the woman boxed up the ornaments.

“Thirty-nine, and forty. If you want to count that again, go ahead,” he said, exchanging the bills for the boxes. “Sorry to be a pain. And I swear I’m not a stripper, by the way.”

She laughed and said, “I was thinking waiter, maybe. This saves me from getting change for awhile, so it’s no pain at all. Enjoy the ornaments.”

“Thanks!” He turned to Quint. “Did you want to look around some more?”

“No, I’m all set,” Quint said. “I’m glad you found them.”

“Yeah,” said Theo, but his happiness was dampened somewhat by the idea of leaving. What would be a good excuse to say a while longer?

Like he was reading his mind, Quint glanced around and saw a park bench under a streetlamp not far off. “I didn’t see them finished,” he said. “Why don’t we go sit down over there and you can show them to me?”

“Okay,” Theo said. Quint followed him to the bench and sat down beside him. One at a time, Theo opened the boxes so they could both admire the gifts, and then gently packed them away again.

They sat in silence for a few seconds afterward. Quint was debating the wisdom of his earlier purchase, and had nearly decided to return it when Theo blew on his palms and rubbed them together for warmth. “Here,” said Quint, pulling the little bundle out of his coat and holding it out. “Merry Christmas.”

Theo’s mouth dropped open slightly. “Quint,” was all he could manage for a moment, looking down at the fingerless leather gloves. “Thank you, but I didn’t get you anything.”

“Don’t worry about it, just take them,” Quint replied. He was already uncomfortable enough.

Gingerly, Theo reached out. The leather was soft and supple, with holes cut out over the knuckles for maximum flexibility. “No, I’m going to give you something,” he said, knowing these couldn’t have been cheap. “It’ll just have to be a little late.”

“If you insist,” Quint said. “You should try them on and make sure they fit before we leave. I can exchange them for another size if we need to.”

They were lined with thin, warm wool that might’ve been cashmere. Theo snapped the buckle on each around his wrists, made a fist, and then stretched his fingers out straight. “They’re perfect.”

“Do you think you can play guitar with them on?”

“Let me see.” He leaned over to open the case he’d laid on the ground and took out his instrument. Sitting up again, he balanced it on his knee and tried a few chord progressions. It was out of tune from the temperature change in the cafe, and the gloves felt a bit odd, but they didn’t get in his way. “Yeah, I’ll have to practice with them first, but I think so.”

“Good.”

As Theo pivoted to smile at him, he saw Quint’s gaze drop to his mouth, and suddenly the atmosphere shifted. “Where’s the mistletoe when you need it?” he murmured, moving closer and angling his head.

It took the feeling of Theo’s warm breath on his lips to make Quint come back to himself. He turned away in the nick of time, thinking, What the hell am I doing?

Next to him, Theo went absolutely still for a moment, and then drew back. “You really need to get over this age difference thing,” he said. “I’m younger than you, so what?”

Quint didn’t – couldn’t – look at him. “I don’t want to feel like I’m using you.”

“You’d only be using me if you didn’t care about me at all, and I think we both know that’s not true.”

The frustration was clear in his voice, but Quint just closed his eyes and sighed. “Theo-”

“Give me one reason that’s not related to our ages, and I’ll drop it.”

This wasn’t getting them anywhere. “I have to be up early tomorrow,” he said, standing. When he looked down, Theo had his arms crossed on top of his guitar and a stubborn set to his chin. Quint sighed again. “I should go.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said. He waited for him to get several feet away before quietly calling after him. “Quint.”

Reluctantly, Quint stopped and looked back.  From this distance, the glow of the streetlight on Theo’s auburn hair almost seemed like a halo. He tilted his head, and the light glinted in his eyes.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, sadly.

Walking away was one of the hardest things Quint had ever done.


Christmas Eve, 2014


Sometime later, the stockings were hung by the chimney with care… or they would have been, if Zeggy and Ike had a chimney. Instead, they were hung on their sideboard, which is okay, I suppose. Lyra and Griffin had gone to bed, leaving us free to put the presents under the tree.

“How about some grown-up hot chocolate now that the rugrats are gone?” Zeggy asked.

“Yes, please!” I said.

“Quint?”

He shook his head. “I’m good, but thank you.”

She was about to pick up the tray when Ike beat her to it. Zeggy smiled at him, and they went into the kitchen together.

I stood back and scrutinized the tree at the angle the kids would see it from when they came downstairs in the morning. “It looks like there’s more presents on this side,” I said. “Hang on, I think if I move this one…” Kneeling down, I rearranged a few of the boxes, and then stood up again and studied the effect. “That’s better. What do you think, Quint?”

“Hmm?” he said, sounding distracted. When I looked over, he was standing on the other side of the tree with a weird expression on his face.

“Quint? Something wrong?” I asked, moving over to him.

He glanced at me and wrapped an arm around my waist, pulling me closer. “No, angel, everything’s fine,” he said.

I noticed he was looking at the monkey ornaments, hung next to each other at exactly the twins’ eye level. Resting my head against his shoulder, I asked, “Then what is it?”

“I’m just thinking how lucky I am that you didn’t give up,” he said quietly.

I knew he wasn’t referring to our search for the perfect gift eight years before. For a brief moment, I let myself consider how my life might’ve turned out if I had let him convince me that he was too old for me. It didn’t bear thinking of. Then I grinned and kissed his cheek. “I’m reminding you that you said that, next time you tell me your decision is final.”

He laughed and quirked an eyebrow at me. “I don’t recall ever saying my decision was final back then.”

I thought back. “Dammit, I think you’re right!”

“Mmm-hmm,” he agreed. “Because when I say my decision is final, I mean it.”

Behind us, Zeggy and Ike walked back in. “Oh, that looks wonderful,” Zeggy said. “I think our job here is done.”

“Yep,” I said. I pulled Quint with me to the couch and curled up against his side as we all sat down to sip spiked cocoa and admire our work. From the entertainment center’s speakers, Mariah Carey belted out a familiar tune.

I just want you for my own,
More than you could ever know,
Make my wish come true,
Baby, all I want for Christmas is you.”

It had taken a bit longer than I’d hoped, but I did get what I wanted for Christmas after all.

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