A Christmas Card to Three Women
by Amie M Johnson
I know that once I get there I'll be glad I came, but right now I'm dreading it, just a little. I quick-glance at my red-haired, brown-eyed reflection in the rear-view mirror to make sure my eyes aren't puppy-dog pathetic. Not too pitiful, but I know they'll ask the question. Do I Want To Talk About It? Because they care about me. Because they know I need to talk about it. It's one of the reasons we're getting together tonight. Not the only reason, though. My friends have their own respective Do You Want To Talk About Its. And when I remember that they might need me too, I relax my grip on the steering wheel and lift my chin a little. Because it's not just about me.
I spend the remaining five minutes of my drive giving myself a pep talk so I don't ruin the evening with my unseasonal mood. It's Christmas. Try to be upbeat. No bah-humbugs. Don't be a wet blanket, Em.
The place looks warm and cheery from the outside. Wreaths and lights and ribbons, shine down from the walls and promise me that the bread will be just as good as it was the last time we met here. I smile a smile so small only I would know it's there, if there were anyone here to see me. At least I have that one thing to look forward to.
But when I see Gloria waiting for us at “our” table, I know that's not true. I would look forward to spending time with Gloria and Nikki even if the restaurant was out of their delicious bread and the hostess told us we had to stand in the ally. My smile is noticeable this time and Gloria seems to sense my slight thawing. She looks up at me and smiles back. Gloria's smiles are like chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven. I have seen total strangers blink with pleasurable surprise at one of her smiles. A smile from Gloria is like a compliment and I feel it soothe a little of the sting in my soul. But there's something else. Under my friend's smile, there is stress.
She stands to unwrap me from my coat and scarf then hugs me a little longer than usual. She doesn't ask How I'm Doing yet and for that I'm grateful.
Gloria settles back into her chair with a sigh. “I'm so glad we all could find the time to get together. I really need a break. I still have so much to do!” She begins to straighten the silverware and water glasses on our table. It's hard for Gloria to relax. She has three sons and two daughters at home. I imagine she's always organizing or cleaning someone or something and she's been doing it so much for so long that now she doesn't know how to stop. She picks up the menu, even though she always orders the same thing, and I study her while she skims it as she catches me up on her family. Gloria has always had rather wild something like curly hair a lovely hundred colors of gold. There is a soft roundness to her and her hazel eyes would never allow her to tell a lie, if she were the sort of person who told lies. But she isn't and that's one of the million reasons I'm glad Gloria's my friend. She updates me on her husband, Mike, and her twin girls. She's telling me about her two year old Phillip's latest word (solemn) when Nikki breezes in.
“Sorry. Am I late?” Gloria stands to go through the hug/unwrap routine with Nikki while I answer.
“No, you're fine. We haven't even ordered yet.”
Gloria settles back into her seat and Nikki leans down to give me my hug. She finds her chair and fixes her glasses that have slipped off her left ear during our squeeze. She's looking disheveled but cute, her brown hair in a knot skewered with a pencil. I wonder if she remembers she put it there. Instead of pointing it out to her I decide to wait and see. I know it won't be long.
She turns her wonderfully blue eyes on me and smiles. “I'm famished. What are you having?”
And with good fortune our waitress appears at our table. She sets down a basket of the bread I've been thinking about all day. Nikki grabs a hunk and begins to butter it.
“Hey, girls, ready to order?”
“The usual,” says Gloria, handing over her menu.
“The chili, please, with the BLT,” Nikki smiles.
“Hi, Barbara .” I say.
“Hi, Emily. What'll it be?”
“I think I'll have the pasta.”
She winks at me “You got it, hon.”
Barbara is one of those waitresses that never writes anything down but never forgets anything and somehow knows you hate pickles even when you forget to ask them to be left off your burger. I knew her in high school when we were in choir together. She sang like an angel back then, but has since smoked her voice to a crackle. The thought of that loss tugs my heavy shoulders down another notch and for some reason reminds me that before dessert I will have talk to my two best friends about Alex. They know, of course, what happened. But they want to know How I'm Doing. I try to shake it off and tune back in to what they're saying.
Nikki is gesturing animatedly with her hands, but she's still holding her bread so a few crumbs fall onto the table and punctuate her words.
“So she doesn't know it's him slipping notes under her door, she thinks it's her boss so she's afraid to say anything to anyone because she's afraid he'll fire her and, you know, ethics or fraternization or whatever, but it's not like the letters are rude or anything. And it's really awkward and she's thinking of quitting, but I can't decide whether her best friend knows or not. Dave thinks I should kill her boss, but I don't like doing that.”
Gloria smiles at her which, of course, causes her to relax a little. “You always figure it out.” She sips her water.
“Thanks,” Nikki smiles. “Are you ready for next week? Oh! I have an idea! I've got to write it down.” She grabs up her bag, takes a small notebook out and asks “Does anyone have pen?”
Gloria and I laugh as I reach over and remove the pencil from Nikki's hair.
“Oh yeah. Thanks.” We watch her scribble something, sigh with satisfaction, then she looks at Gloria again. “So? Ready for Christmas at your house?”
Gloria's expression becomes a little strained. “Mostly. I've got the gifts all sorted into piles in my sewing room, but they need wrapped. The house is a mess and I don't know when we'll get it picked up because we'll hardly be home. Sometime I have to make cookies...” She trails off and we know it's because she feels like her list is endless. “It'll be fine,” she tells us. “Mike and the kids will help.”
There are fifteen seconds of us just sampling the bread and enjoying being in the same place at the same time. It doesn't happen very often, but we love being together and we love this place. The food is good, and the prices aren't pricey. It's cozy and we even like the music they play softly in the background. Tonight they play Christmas carols. Then they both look at me and I know the moment has come.
“Emily...” Nikki's voice is so full of compassion. So void of patronization that it nearly breaks me.
“You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to, sweetheart, but I think you should.” Gloria says, her hand covering mine.
I exhale and more of me leaves. “I know. And I want to. I do. It just...”
“We know.” Gloria says softly.
“It hurts.” Nikki finishes for me. “Have you talked to him?”
And so I tell them. They already know I met Alex at a mutual friend's birthday party and we missed the singing, the blowing out of the candles, and the gift opening because we were talking on the front porch swing. They know that he called me the next day, and the next ten days after that, until we had our first date. Then he called or texted me several times a day. They know that he was the first guy I had ever told 'I love you'. They know we dated for a year and a half before he asked me to marry him. The mutual friend, forgiving us for skipping out on his party, had lent Alex the porch swing for the proposal.
My two best friends know that a month ago I sat beside him, not on a porch swing, but a concrete step in front of my apartment, when he told me he didn't love me anymore.
What they don't know is that he's seeing someone else now. That he'd been seeing her before he sat with me on that cold November concrete. I tell them this awful, humiliating, thing and they gasp in anger and surprise and something else. Something that looks and feels like pity.
I look away and blink a few times.
“How?” Nikki whispers though her fingers. “How do you know?”
I shrug and trace a drip of condensation down my water glass with my finger. “Lucas told me.”
A quiet groan escapes from Gloria's throat. Lucas is, un-funnily, the porch swing friend.
“He didn't like telling me but he said he thought I should know.”
“Here you go, babies!” Barbara has shown up unnoticed with our food. She serves Gloria and me then places Nikki's meal in front of her. “And chilli with a dollop of sour cream.”
Nikki looks up at her with surprise and a little wonder. “But I didn't-”
Barbara winks at her. “I knew what you meant. Holler if you need anything, girls.” she rasps. Then she's gone and the silence presses me down into my chair.
I'm looking down at my food, but I can feel their eyes on me. I can feel them waiting for me to pour myself out.
“I'm upset, yes. I'm hurt. What else could I be? But it's better this way, right? Better than marrying him and then finding out what he's like. I don't want him back or anything, it's just hard to be alone and wonder if I'll always be alone.”
There's a moment of quiet and Gloria offers to pray over our meal.
They let me unload for a little longer. Offer more prayers and I start to feel a little better. The ache in my chest has started to ease, but I know that when I walk into my dark apartment tonight the cold will settle in again. I try not to think about it right now.
For a few minutes we just eat quietly. A couple of tables over sit a young group of giggly college students and sometimes parts of their untroubled conversation drifts over to us.
“...I, like, could not believe she said that to me...”
“...are you seriously texing him again?”
Then Nikki picks up where we left off. “Just give yourself some time,” she says. “When you're ready I bet Dave will set you up with one of his friends. Tell us about your type, Emily. What are you looking for in a man?” And she must have another brainwave because she suddenly scribbles herself another note then turns back to us as if nothing happened.
I blink at her “My type? Don't you find that odd? That people have a type? I mean, really, don't we just meet someone and decide whether or not we like them? It's not like in the movies where during the cute-meet the guy shows interest in the girl and she tosses her hair and says all smug and condescending and adorable 'oh I don't date cowboys or astronauts or pastry chefs or whichever thing he, of course, already is, and you know they're going to end up together. But really? Is the pool of her prospective suitors so vast that she can eliminate an entire occupation right off the bat? She can click boxes like an advanced search on a recipe website? Ugh. Please don't put that sort of drivel in your stories, Nikki.”
“Wouldn't dream of it.”
“Who wants dessert?”
We're again surprised by Barbara . I don't know how she does it. She should work for the FBI and spy on bad guys.
We order dessert, she refills our water glasses offers more terms of endearment and leaves us again to our conversation.
“I'll be fine. Really. Thanks for listening. Can we talk about something else now?”
And we do. Nikki tells us more about the story she's working on. Gloria tells us about how her family is doing. We enjoy our time together.
It isn't Barbara who brings our dessert. A young man, whose name tag tells us his parents named him Chase, is here instead. He stays long enough to plunk the plates down, mumble something about “Barbara ” and “smoke break”, smile vaguely at a spot somewhere over my left shoulder, and then he's gone.
“Wow. I miss Barbara ,” Gloria says as she takes the apple pie in front of her and hands it to Nikki who passes the cheesecake to me. I give Gloria the chocolate mousse.
Finally it's time to leave and I feel a chill settling over me again. Nikki is scribbling and Gloria sorts the checks to make sure we each get our own.
“Well, this is strange.”
Nikki looks up at her. “What?”
“This. It was with the checks.” She hands a small Christmas card to Nikki who reads it and frowns. “Huh. It's like that old movie. 'A letter to three wives' I think it was called. Someone sent them a letter telling them she stole one of their husbands. This is cryptic, but cheery instead of creepy”. Then she passes it to me.
It's just a simple card with a picture of a lighted tree on the front. Inside the handwriting is uninteresting but legible. It's not signed.
“Someone at this table will have her Christmas wish come true.” I read aloud.
I look up at the two of them. “What does this mean? One of us is getting our wish?”
They obviously don't understand it any more than I do. I turn the card over but there's nothing written there.
I don't even know what I want for Christmas.
I don't realize I've said it out loud until I see their expressions. They both have that upset/sympathetic look again. It makes my throat ache.
“I wish there was something I could do to help, Emily.” Nikki says. “I'm sorry you're unhappy. I feel so bad about Alex.”
I hold up my hand. “Wait! It's not like I want Alex back, I just-”
“Oh, I know!” She says quickly. She sits up straighter and her eyes flash, “Do you want me to write him into one of my stories? I could write him into my next mystery and have him-”
“No, no. Don't do that. He's doesn't get to be in any of your stories.”
She nods at me for a moment but then her attention focuses on the card I still hold in my hand. A crease forms between her eyebrows. “But what does it mean? Maybe it's for you, Gloria. What do you want for Christmas?”
Gloria sighs. “Oh girls, I'm a mom. All my Christmas wishes are my kids' Christmas wishes I don't have time for my own. It's not for me.” Then she smiles one of her smiles at us and it almost makes us forget how stressful this time of year is for her.
“Well, Nikki, that leaves you,” I say. “Maybe you're getting what you want. Is Dave getting you a red corvette or something?” I tease.
She gives me a half shrug and looks away. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Wow, it's later than I thought! I've got to get Jen and Joy to their practice and I promised Priscilla I'd help her measure all the angels for their wings.” I see the tension begin to darken her face like a storm cloud and I know that her time with us has been a much needed, too-short reprieve from all she has to do before Christmas in just a few days.
It's quiet in my car and even quieter in my cold apartment when I get home. As I look through the mail I wonder if it's too early to shower and crawl into bed. I keep thinking about the mysterious message left on our table. If someone was trying to make a joke it wasn't funny. What Gloria wanted for Christmas was probably a long nap. Not likely to happen. If I could have whatever I wanted, I'd wish for this ache in my chest to ease. I told my friends the truth when I said I didn't want Alex back, but there's no denying that my heart is still broken. And as for Nikki...I don't really know what she wants this year. I feel bad that she never really told us. Did we ask her? Really?
I want to make sure we didn't ignore her so I decide to call her but she beats me to it. Before I can dial, my phone chirps and the display screen tells me that it's Nikki.
I open my mouth to ask her if she's okay but I never get the chance.
“Oh, Emily, I can't believe it! You won't believe it! I'm the one! It's me! It's me! I don't know who it was or how they knew, and oh I'm sorry, but I'm getting what I want for Christmas! Well, it's later I guess, but-”
“Nikki! Slow down and breathe! What happened, did you just get a writer's epiphany or something?”
She doesn't seem to hear me. “I did it this morning, you know, like it says, but I only looked just now and there were two lines! The last three times there was only one, but this time there two! Oh, I can't believe it!”
And I'm beginning to understand. “Nikki,” I gasp “Are you...?”
“Emily, I'm pregnant! Oh, it's just what I wanted.”
I think she realizes I'm crying before I do.
“Did I upset you? I just had to tell someone. Oh, I should have called Gloria first, but she's measuring angels and I'm wasn't thinking. Dave won't be home till tomorrow morning and I want to tell him in person. I'm so sorry, sweetie, are you okay?”
“I'm fine, Nikki, don't worry. I'm just emotional. I'm so happy for you. I'm glad you're the one who's getting what she wants for Christmas.”
She's suddenly silent. For a moment I think maybe the call has dropped but then I hear her say, “But it shouldn't just be me. What about you? What about Gloria?”
For a moment I don't know what to say. And then I get an idea. Nikki and I are going to be The Grinch. The Grinch after his heart grows three sizes and breaks the little golden magnification device. “You know, Nikki, Gloria's not home right now. I still have my key to her house.”
“If I get there first I'll use mine,” she says.
I make a quick stop by the store to buy some really nice bubble bath and a family sized frozen lasagna, then thirty minutes later I'm standing in Gloria's living room with Nikki. She now has two pencils stuck into her hair and her gorgeous blue eyes nearly scorch me with their intensity. “I think we have at least two hours before she gets home.” she says. “Let's do it!”
The first thing we do is put on a Christmas CD, then we mix up the cookies so they can bake while we turn ourselves into Gloria's Sugar Plum Fairy Godmothers. I put the lasagna in the fridge and the new bubble bath next to the tub and offer to clean the bathroom and kitchen while Nikki wraps presents. Then I vacuum while she unloads the dishwasher. We fold the laundry and Nikki makes me laugh telling me about one of her newest characters. He's loosely based on the history professor the three of us had in college who sometimes fell asleep in his own class and somehow found a way to mispronounce every single one of his students' names. Even names like Emily, Gloria, and Nikki.
We remember to arrange Gloria's favorite nativity set on the mantle then pause a moment to admire it. Her tree is only half-decorated so we hang the paper chains and homemade ornaments and slowly become covered in glitter as we discuss baby names.
“I really like old-fashioned names,” I tell her. “What do you think of Rachael? Or Claude?”
“I'm thinking Charlotte for a girl and Brontë for a boy. What do you think? Too pretentious?”
She makes me laugh, just like she wanted to. The smell of cookies, the sound of Bing Crosby, and being here with Nikki is such a gift that for a little while I almost forget my heartbreak. It's never really gone, even my dreams are troubled, and I feel like the deepest parts of me have been fractured. I carry the damage around with me like a satchel. But here in Gloria's living room laughing with my friend who uses words like nelipot, I am granted a brief probation. I know it is temporary. I know I will probably cry again tonight while I wait for sleep to fasten itself around me. But I am so grateful for this reprieve.
When we've done all we can and it's nearly time to leave, everything looks and smells and feels like Christmas. I feel a deep satisfaction with what we've accomplished. Nikki and I have agreed to offer to take the kids out soon for something fun like ice cream or a movie so Gloria can spend time with Mike and rest. I'm glad that she, like Nikki, is getting her Christmas wish, and I think again of the strange note.
I'm so happy for my friends, but a small part of me is sad, too. I feel a little like Dorothy when the professor is handing out courage and brains and a heart. There's nothing in that black bag for me. But then from under the dark cloud that has drifted back over my head, I see Nikki yawn, her eyes heavy.
“You need to go home and rest,” I tell her.
Her face is childlike as she looks over our work. “I wish I could see her face when she walks in.” she whispers.
I nod. “She's going to love it.”
Nikki goes home to bed to dream about velvety soft dimpled hands and tiny perfect toes, but I'm not ready to go back to my apartment yet. Instead I drive to church. As soon as I get out of my car I can hear the sweet sounds coming from inside. Somewhere Bekah and Christina are practicing a duet and the lyrics float out to me. “..the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing...”
I see Gloria's old SUV and smile to myself a little when I think of her and her family walking into their house tonight. I'm sure that she and Mike and the kids will know it was Nikki and me. The thought warms me a little as I sit on the chilly bench and gaze ahead of me at the lighted nativity that sits in the churchyard.
What do I want for Christmas?
This isn't a movie. It's not like I want Alex to walk up and speak to me. Ask if he can sit. Take my hand. Say things that make it all okay. It can never be the way it was and I know it.
Then I hear his voice.
“Would you like some company?”
After a half second of recovery from being startled, I smile at him. “Hi, Pastor Joe.”
He sits down next to me. “Merry Christmas, Emily. What are you doing out here at this time of night? They've mostly finished rehearsal and everyone is inside having cocoa. Carrie saw you from the window and sent me to invite you to come join us.”
“Tell her I said thank you, but I just came to think a while.”
He doesn't say anything for a moment. He just nods. His wooly ear-flapped hat shifts comically with the motion of his bald head and I stifle a giggle.
He notices and pretends to be offended. “Well! I came to check on you, not be mocked, young lady. Not everyone is gifted with such lovely red insulation on their pates as you are.”
“Sorry Pastor Joe,” I say meekly.
“Well, that's quite all right,” he says primly.
I giggle again. I've always appreciated Pastor Joe's quirky sense of humor. But he didn't come out here to make me laugh. He's only trying to lighten my spirit a little before he asks, “Would you like to talk about it?”
Another verse carries over to where we sit and we listen to the timely words “and ye, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing: O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”
He already knows about Alex and me. He and his wife, Carrie, had been giving us our premarital counseling. And so I tell him about the strange card. I tell him how each of us were uneasy about it, knowing that what we wanted wasn't some thing that could be bought online. I tell him about Nikki's joyous news (he promises to keep her secret so she can announce it to everyone later) and how we wanted to give Gloria something she wanted, too. I tell him I feel like a heel because I'm a little jealous that the card can't be for me too.
“But it is for you, don't you see?”
I shake my head. “Not really.”
“Your gift is like Nikki's, in a way. She's going to have to wait a while for the real gift to come to pass. A child! Why, that's a lifetime of gifts isn't it? You are healing. It will take some time.”
I say nothing but he knows I know he's right.
There's a sudden burst of cheery noise as the front doors of the church open and Pastor Joe and I watch as Gloria's whole family spills out into the parking lot. They don't see us as they bounce, trudge, and stumble their way to their vehicle. They pile in and drive away and the quiet closes in again. I feel a wiggle of happy excitement in my stomach. Only a few more minutes.
He points in the direction the family has just disappeared. “Your gift is like Gloria's, too. What will she think when she gets home tonight?”
“Um... What do you mean?”
“Will she wonder who did it? This wonderful, beautiful gift? Will she know?”
I don't have to consider his question. “She'll know it was us,” I say softly.
“Because you love her. She knows you love her.”
“And she knows we have keys to her house.”
He chuckles. “That, too.” He nods at me for a moment. “Do you know what I think you want for Christmas? I think you want to be reminded that you are loved. Chosen. And you are. You have been wounded and rejected, and you might wonder if it's because you are not lovable. But you are loved. Your friends chose to spend the evening, even during this busy time, with you. When Nikki found out that she was expecting a baby she called you! Their hearts are hurting because you are hurting and you are being prayed for by them and many, many others. Some of them are inside right now drinking cocoa. My wife saw you out here, sent me to you and I came out to sit in the cold. Now why do you suppose that is?”
“I'm beginning to get the picture,” I say, dragging my the heel of my hand over my eyes.
“And then there's Him.” He points to the lighted nativity. “He traded paradise for a manger. To be wounded and rejected. To suffer an unspeakable death. To conquer that death. Because he loves us. Because he loves you. Alex's foolishness and selfishness cannot undo any of that. You are still profoundly loved.”
After a moment my phone chirps and I answer.
“Oh, Emily, thank you,” she says softly. “I can't believe it. I love you so much.”
Pastor Joe laughs and nudges me with his arm. “See there? You get to have your Christmas wish, too!”
A couple of months later we're back at our table at our favorite place. Barbara stands over us and smiles. “So you girls have a nice Christmas?”
So we tell her about our Christmas wishes and ask her if she knows anything about the card. Barbara laughs a shoulder shaking guffaw and smacks her hip.
“Well that explains it!”
“What?” we all ask.
“Chase. That kid that works here? He served you your dessert that night, right? The last time you were here he was talking about some girl sitting at one of his tables,” she points vaguely away. “He said he wrote her a cute note about a Christmas wish, thinking she'd want him to ask her out, but she never said anything! Ha! Well, I'm sure glad it was you honeys that got what they wanted instead. Wow, it's like a miracle. Merry Christmas, sweeties!”