A Rose for ChristmasbyYDB95©
'I won't be bitter for Christmas.'
Paul Curtis had said it again and again through those dreary weeks alone in his one-room flat, with the miserable Northern European winter just outside and his empty broken heart inside. Now, for the most part, he figured he'd succeeded: he wasn't bitter. Much. Alone, distrustful, and still plagued with memories of the recent hard times, but less bitter than he'd felt in weeks at least.
Of course, he mused, he now had plenty of reasons not to be bitter -- thousands and thousands of reasons, most of them in the bank -- and only one reason to still feel down. And that one reason was hundreds of miles away now, messing with another woman's husband. Besides all that money, sipping on a hot apple cider in a cozy pub at an elite Swiss ski resort with revelers from all over the world was a very good reason to forgive and forget and enjoy the holiday season. And just because they called it a season of togetherness hardly made it a crime to be alone.
It wasn't a crime, Paul knew that. But it still wasn't easy, especially at this time of year. Still and all, Paul had been telling himself for two months that he would never trust a woman with his heart again. If he could get through Christmas with that resolve holding, it ought to be easy from now on.
Serène -- Paul's lost belle -- might well be shacking up with her professor right that minute, but she was back in the rainy, depressing town they'd been living in while he was here! Those many late, sleepless nights spent day trading online just to keep his mind off his miserable existence had paid handsomely indeed. His great escape from their town had come at long last that morning, with a first-class flight -- his only regret was that it was only two hours -- followed by a bus ride through the picturesque Alpine town that looked like a scene from a Christmas diorama, ending at the magnificent resort where he'd been lucky enough to score a last-minute reservation. He'd arrived early enough for an afternoon on the slopes, and that had more than lived up to his expectations. Easy to say for a boy from Nebraska when it came to skiing, Paul admitted to himself, but nevertheless. This was truly the life, and Paul Curtis had arrived!
But nothing had filled his wounded soul with the joy of the season like his after-dinner visit to the hotel pub was doing now. Tasteful yet pervasive splashes of red and green, silver and gold all over the cozy room, a delightful essence of cinnamon and spice in the air from the snacks that were kept well-stocked on the tables, the classics from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra on the radio (it was Paul's third Christmas in Europe, and he had long since discovered how pervasive the American songs were this time of year, even over here), a brightly lit spruce tree in the corner with an electric train wending its way through a maze of wrapped boxes below, a roaring fire in the fireplace across the way from the bar -- it looked for all the world like the cover of one of his mother's old Christmas record albums, which Paul had always wanted to crawl right into. Now he felt he had.
This was what Paul had envisioned for himself as a kid in Omaha when he had promised himself he would one day spend the holidays in Europe. It was this moment that had driven him to practice his French in school while his friends were all falling asleep in class, and push for that scholarship that had brought him over here after college. It was what had kept him from turning tail and running back to America last fall when he'd suffered the double whammy of his internship not working out and his beloved Serène ditching him for her academic advisor.
And it was what had sustained him through the prison-like experience he'd endured in the few months since then, too broke to go out much and too afraid to see Serène out and about with her new love in their small city, with the weather too nasty to spend much time outside anyway. Seated at his computer, hour after hour into the night and sometimes all night, studying trends and financial news and waiting for just the right time to buy and sell, his one solace was that a little luck might find him out of his personal hell in time for a proper holiday in the mountains.
And it had. Oh, how it had!
The one and only thing missing from his joyful triumph tonight was that, back home when he had daydreamed of a holiday like this, Paul had always imagined there would be a beautiful woman there beside him. And there almost had been. But then, Paul mused once again, would he have been able or willing to spend so many hours racking up the cash over the past couple of months had Serène been with him? Not likely! Besides, one couldn't have everything, so there was no need to think of romance or sex just now.
"Another drink, sir?" came a voice in French.
The barmaids' sexy plaid dresses would not make it easy to keep Serène off his mind, as she had worn a plaid skirt on their last date. He hated himself for remembering that, just as he hated remembering the adorable things they had said to one another in those precious two weeks or so that they dated. But she was back up in the rainy miserable north with her married professor and the chance his wife might turn up anytime, and he was free to admire the barmaids. No bitterness allowed, he reminded himself.
"Yes please," Paul answered, also in French.
"Oh, you are English!"
"American. Pardon my accent."
"No, you speak very good French!"
"Thanks a lot!" And he meant it. The people here were much friendlier than he had been led to believe.
"Is it your first time in Switzerland?" she asked as she poured his cider.
"Yes, and I love it. Merry Christmas!" She replied in kind and set the refill before him. 'Okay, Paul admitted to himself as another swish of plaid skirts behind the counter piqued his attention once again, 'perhaps I am a little bitter. But bitterness can be fun. Maybe I'm alone, but that means I'm free to look at anyone I like and think anything I like. And looking is safer than feeling anything anyway!' With the pain of his loss still fresh in his mind, Paul did not find the idea of love any more appealing now than he had back in that jail cell he called his flat anyway. Nothing was worth risking that again!
Whatever his interests, Paul liked to think he was a gentleman. Not wishing to make the barmaids uncomfortable with his prurient interests, he turned around to survey the other ladies of the barroom.
Though he had been living in Europe for two years, Paul was still prone to the occasional bout of feeling like a hick simply because he was American. To avoid that feeling on this trip, he had gone on a shopping spree with his newfound wealth and purchased a new wardrobe of elegant looking sweaters and tailored pants. He was wearing one such ensemble tonight, and found himself in good company among similarly dressed gentlemen from all over the continent (judging from the many languages he overheard) and women in suitably warm winter dresses. Any fears of sticking out or of feeling overdressed were now forgotten. Indeed, among the crowd, he saw only one couple who were more casually dressed. He'd noticed them at dinner earlier: the parents, evidently, of two young girls who had been quite well-behaved at dinner, or so it had seemed from across the room. Americans, Paul feared from their jeans and plain shoes, though he'd been seated too far from them to hear for sure.
The drink now taking a hold of his judgment, Paul absentmindedly found himself staring at the couple and wondering about them -- were they indeed the Americans he'd feared he would be? The girls were now off somewhere else while Mom and Dad were joining the better-dressed revelers. Paul realized a bit too late that he'd been absentmindedly checking out the woman in her tight jeans. She was built -- pleasantly plump with large breasts and round hips that filled out her jeans and white sweater quite stylishly, even if they were too casual for the setting. She sported brownish red curls and a pleasant everywoman's smile that Paul realized too late was directed at him.
"Good evening," she said to Paul, sidling up to the bar beside him. British, Paul realized to his relief -- and his titillation as well. A delightfully strong working-class accent, refined just enough to hint at the tale of how she and her husband had done well enough for themselves to join the elite party here, and still deliciously exotic for a boy from Omaha. From up close, he saw that she also wore a touch of makeup, and fruity perfume. Plain clothes or not, this would be fun, he knew.
"Hi there. Sorry I was staring there. Too many drinks, I guess. I'm Paul."
"I'm Rose." She shook his hand, soft to the touch with a firm grip. Paul liked her very much already. "And this is my husband, Don."
"Hullo Paul," Don said as they shook hands as well. "Admiring all the scenery are you?"
"I guess so," Paul said sheepishly, relieved that Don didn't seem to mind the crass young American checking out his wife. "Just got in this afternoon and I haven't been out much lately before this trip. And it's kind of exotic for me, being surrounded by so many beautiful people, you know?"
"Oh, we know!" Rose said. "Isn't that right?"
"Yeah, we haven't been out much lately either, saving up for this bloody trip!" Don grumbled. "Worth it, though, to get out of the rain a week. You've come a long way, though, haven't you?"
"Not as far as you think," Paul told them. Then, after another swig of his drink, he managed to name the city he was living in with just a bit of distaste.
"Oh my, they have dreadful winters, don't they?" Rose asked. "We stopped there once for petrol, didn't we?"
"Think so," Don agreed. "Can't remember much about it."
"Wish I could say the same," Paul said, drawing a laugh from the both of them.
"Bitter, are we?" Rose asked with a sympathetic grin.
Though stung by her use of that word, Paul kept his cool. "Sorry. I guess I am a bit. I feel dirty just saying that with all this Christmas cheer around, but it has been a very difficult couple of months for me. Lost job, lost love, and here I was halfway around the world from home."
"Oh my dear! You poor thing!" Rose's expression had changed completely.
"But I guess that you're here now means things have turned around?" Don asked.
Paul nodded and sipped his drink. "I can barely believe it myself. But hey, it's a time of year for miracles. I got everything back but the girl, and why let that bother me now?"
"And that's how you ended up in this bloody playground for the holiday, is it?" Don grumbled.
"Oh, stop that, you!" Rose chided him. "You'll have to pardon my husband, Paul. He doesn't handle anything festive any too well."
"Paul knows what I mean, I'm sure," Don said. "It's all so girly here!" He looked up the bar to make sure the barmaids were all out of earshot. "Those plaid dresses, those are really the last straw. Don't you think, Paul?"
"Actually," Paul admitted. "I really like them. Always thought it was terribly unfair how we associate plaid skirts with little girls. They look terrific on an adult if she wears the look right, I think."
Rose looked delighted. Don didn't. "Oh, you're one of those touchy-feely yanks, are yeh?" Don smiled, but it looked forced to Paul. "Not me. I say the world is too feminized already. I don't need my nose rubbed in it on holiday." Paul could at least guess why Rose was wearing jeans now. "I mean, we came here to ski, and Rose here is wanting to get all dolled up, and I'm like what on earth for? We're just going in to drink and then it's back to our bloody room anyway."
"Don," Rose said firmly. "If you're feeling cranky, maybe you should just go back upstairs. I'm sure the girls could use the company anyway."
"Bloody overpriced holiday!" Don set his glass down firmly and stood up. "I'll leave the feelgood social hour to you ladies!" And he stormed out of the bar.
Paul was embarrassed to look at Rose at first. When he did, she looked hurt but defiant. With a gentle smile, he asked her, "Shall we ladies enjoy a drink or two?"
"I was hoping you would ask." Rose managed a smile. Then she noticed a table in a corner by the Christmas tree that was just opening up. "Let's go sit over there."
"The holiday was really for him anyway," she explained to Paul once they were seated. "We've been on again off again for a few years now. He's got real problems with commitment, if you know what I mean. I've about had it with him, really, he's always making dumb comments like that one. But for the girls...you know. And one shouldn't be alone on Christmas." She realized her mistake an instant too late. "Oh, Paul, I'm sorry!"
"It's fine," Paul assured her, though the comment did sting. "And yes, I think I know. I've had my own recent experiences with people making dumb choices in love."
"Yes! The girl back home you mentioned. So things didn't work out?"
"They didn't just not work out. She dumped me for her married professor, if you can believe that! That's why I'm here on my own, and honestly, I'm not sorry about that. I'm good at being alone and after what I went through this fall, I'm fine with staying that way."
"No! Oh my, Paul. Well, obviously she's a bloody fool. No doubt she thinks he'll be true to her as soon as he leaves his wife."
"Exactly what she said," Paul admitted. "'He's going to leave his wife any day now, and my future is with him,'" he mimicked. And he launched into the tale he'd been forced to replay in his head every night for all those weeks when trying and failing to sleep: how they'd met by chance at a favorite coffeehouse, and struck up a conversation about how cozy the place was and it would be perfect for snuggling with a willing partner all winter if only they weren't single.
"That line worked?!" Rose asked.
"If you're a touchy-feely type like me, it will always work," Paul said.
"No, I know! I am one too, Paul. That's why I'm surprised it worked on her!"
"Oh!" He laughed. "Well, yeah, it did." And he continued the tale. A week and a half of wonderful late dinners at nice dark restaurants, movies with lots of hand-holding and both of them bursting for more than just that, but nothing physical happened just yet...and then one night the story of her own past: an affair with her academic advisor, but she'd broken it off because he was married, only now he was talking of divorce.
"The bloody fool," Rose said with a sympathetic nod.
"Exactly." There'd been just one more date after that, at her favorite café deep in the Old City. "She wore plaid that day, too," Paul said with a sad smile. "I guess that's what the barmaids' uniforms made me think of."
"But you seemed to like them!" Rose protested.
"I do, I admit. Plaid skirts are my greatest weakness. It's none of my business, but I'm shocked your husband disliked them so much."
"He doesn't like much of anything these days," Rose replied drily. "But anyway, this silly girl, Serène, she comes to your date in a plaid skirt?"
"Yes, not a schoolgirl one or anything like that, a proper knee-length one, and after lunch she shows me her favorite view of the Old City, just across the way from the café, and it's a beautiful old European view and a chilly day, and we have our first kiss. Absolutely beautiful, like a storybook, you know? I'm thinking I'm in! I've made it! Happily ever after! Next day, though, she calls me to say she has decided to follow her heart and that means she's going back to her advisor." As recently as a week before, Paul knew he'd have been in tears by the last line. But he found it oddly comforting to share with Rose. He could see in her eyes that she understood all too well.
"I'm so sorry, Paul." Rose did look a bit tearful herself, and Paul longed to take her in his arms. But she was married and the bar was crowded, and word would get around. "And you know, I know what that poor girl is in for. I don't expect you to feel sorry for her, but..."
"In a way, I do," Paul agreed. "Of course, it's a lot easier for me to say that now that the healing has begun -- and I'm here!"
"Yes! So just how did you get here? You mentioned you also lost a job?"
"An internship, yes. Silly me, I went there to learn and they wanted someone who already had experience. Didn't find out until it was too damn late. And that happened just about a week before I met Serène, so I was already shaken before losing her."
"I take it you've found a new one?"
"Not exactly." In the first minutes, Paul had felt nothing but sympathy for poor Rose. But as she sat there before him, the twinkling lights dancing on her sweater and her lovely hair, a very different feeling indeed was emerging. "No, well...this is going to sound really depressing, but you can see it had a happy ending. After Serène dumped me, I ended up spending most of my time cooped up at home. I didn't want to go out much because I might run into her with her new man, you know, and besides I was out of a job and didn't have any money to spend anyway. On top of all that, the weather turned really nasty around then, cold and rainy and dark all the time. And I needed an escape, and more money."
"So you turned to something diabolical?" Rose was grinning now, her own troubles forgotten.
"You could say that. Day trading."
"Day trading! Well that sounds positively wholesome compared to what I was thinking!"
"Thanks, I think," Paul laughed. "It was perfect for me, though. I was cooped up in my flat with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and I could sit there at the computer and watch for hours at a time for the right trend and the right strike price. I was real conservative at first -- I just took a thousand dollars from my credit card and did ten bucks here, twenty there -- and the thing is, remember, I couldn't sleep so I was up real late most of the time -- I got to be pretty good at it. Practice makes perfect.
"It must have!" Rose said. "So you'll be able to pay for this holiday easily enough, then."
"Already have," Paul said.
"I'm jealous!" Rose said, then quickly caught herself. "I'm sorry, your finances are none of my business."
"It's fine with me," Paul said. "We're friends now, aren't we? Just us girls?"
"Oh, heavens, I'm so sorry about that!" Rose said. "Like I said, always a comment like that with him. He's such a ladies' man, and yet anything feminine, especially if another man says he likes it, he gets all huffy. It was my choice to come here, but I thought he'd like it too. Some quality time for us and the girls together, to work things out. But he wouldn't even bother with nice clothes for dinner. I should have worn a sodding evening gown just to show him up."
"Or a plaid skirt," Paul said with a chuckle.
Rose laughed hard, and brushed Paul's hand on the table. "Thank you, I needed that! Heavens, how I needed that." A deep breath, she recrossed her legs, and another round of drinks was ordered. The room was spinning pleasantly now, but Rose in her sensible sweater and jeans was in perfect focus to Paul. "So you like Christmas kitsch like this too, do you?" she continued. "I always have."
"I sure have," Paul said. "Back home sometimes we had snow on Christmas, sometimes we didn't, but I always used to imagine lots of it. I'd go to bed Christmas eve and stay up late listening to music on my earphones, imagining I'd wake up the next morning in a place that looked like...well, what it looks like here! Always."
"And you probably imagined an elegant wife to share the holidays with, and lots of wine and proper parties," Rose said.
"How'd you know?" Paul was intrigued -- that was exactly right.
"Because I imagined the same for myself," Rose admitted sadly. "I'd see myself with a lovely little cottage in the mountains, wearing beautiful clothes and with a handsome gentleman by my side, and one Christmas party after another just like you saw on the telly every year..." Her voice trailed away, and Paul reached out and took her hand in both of his. He longed to do a great deal more than that, but this would just have to do, he told himself.