Milk and CookiesbySpotInTheSand©
Thanks to my editor, AnInsatiableReader, for helping my clean this up. Also, thanks to my fiancee, for putting up with the time it takes for my neurotic ass to write, and for helping me clean it up, too.
This is my entry in the 2012 Winter Holidays contest. Vote, comment and send feedback!
"Now I know what he likes for a late night snack, for years now it's been bringing him back, milk and cookies..."
I kept my voice mostly to myself, but I still sang along to Clint Black's tribute to midnight snacks as it rang out over the speakers in the store. I was picking apples off the tray and putting them in a bag, but I stopped long enough to check the contents of my shopping cart. There was the milk, and there were the Chips Ahoy.
Milk and cookies were not only my favorite snack, but I had something of a personal history with them, as well. Before I could reflect on that, I heard a young girl's voice call out behind me.
"Mama," she said. "Santa Claus is kinda fat. I think he needs to go on a diet."
I couldn't help but laugh. I turned around to see what looked to be a 5-year-old girl holding a package of carrots up for her mother to see. Looking at the mom, I wasn't surprised her daughter was thinking that way. The woman was built like a gymnast, with a tight body that looked like it had never so much as seen a cookie, much less ingested one. The ginormous rock on her left hand probably weighed more than she did.
She was so busy laughing that she hadn't yet answered her daughter's question, so I decided to help.
"What do you think will make Santa give you better presents?" I asked, and the girl turned to look at me. "Cookies or carrots?"
The girl flashed me one of those big, cheesy smiles that only little kids can mean sincerely. Obviously, she'd not yet had the 'stranger danger' conversation with her parents. I hoped I wasn't coming off like a letch, but her mom smiled at me and eased my concerns.
"Uh, cookies," she said, like that was the most obvious thing in the world.
"I think so, too," I said. "Why do you think I have cookies and milk in my cart? I'm hoping Santa will bring me some good stuff, too."
Of course, I had no intention of leaving anything out for Santa Claus, but if the cookies survived till Thursday night, it probably wouldn't take much work for a jolly old fat dude -- or anyone else who might be breaking in -- to find them in my kitchen.
The girl started telling me all the things she wanted Santa to bring her. She barely noticed her mom take the carrots out of her hand and put them in the cart.
"Very cute little girl you have there," I said. "I hope you both have a very merry Christmas." She thanked me, and they both returned my salutation as I walked away.
When I decided to head to Wal-Mart on the way home from work, despite it being two days before Christmas, there was a not-so-quiet voice in my head doubting my intelligence. I was pleasantly surprised with the lack of mass humanity present in the store thus far, though. The freak ice storm probably had a lot to do with that, and it was also just after 3 p.m., so a lot of people were probably still at work. Still, I figured my luck would run out sooner or later, and I wanted to get out before the crowd thickened up.
"Milk, eggs, butter," I said aloud, double-checking the contents of my shopping cart against a list in my head as I pulled into the shortest checkout line. "Bread, hamburger, noodles, apples, peanut butter, cookies, cat food, beer. Yep, that's everything."
Just as I turned to face the register, a voice called out behind me.
"Ah, but you forgot something."
I turned toward the unfamiliar voice just as a pretty blonde pulled her half-full cart in behind me.
"Oh?" I asked. "And what am I forgetting?"
"Breath mints," she answered with a mischievous grin in her eye. I couldn't help but laugh.
"Really?" I put my hand over my mouth and exhaled, and then sniffed my palm. "Even back there, it's still pretty bad, huh?"
"No, no," she said, blushing when she realized the unintended insult. "It's just... your breath can never be too fresh, right? You never know when you might have to put it to good use."
I smiled at the obvious come-on. I'm not the smartest guy in the world by any means, and my IQ dips even further when dealing with the opposite sex. But even I couldn't miss that one.
I'd passed her a few times while shopping, but this was the first chance I had to get a good look at her, so I tried to subtly size her up as I loaded my items on the conveyor belt. She was somewhere in her early 20s and was pretty short; I guessed 5'2, maybe 5'3, tops. It looked like she had a pretty athletic body, although with the subfreezing temperatures outside, she was so bundled up that I couldn't really tell. Her streaky blonde hair hung in loose curls around her face and shoulders, and her face showed a trace of Hispanic descent.
"Well, I guess when you put it that way," I said, plucking a container of Ice Breakers from the shelf and tossing it onto the case of Samuel Adams. "But, you know what they say. What's good for the goose..." I grabbed another pack and offered it to her.
"Sure," she giggled, and I tossed the mints into her cart. Among the items already there were a ham, two boxes of stuffing, a can of sweet potatoes and several cans of cranberry sauce. That was no surprise, what with Christmas on the horizon. There were also coloring books and a box of crayons.
"Christmas dinner, huh?" I asked, motioning to her basket.
"Yeah," she answered, and frowned when she surveyed my things sitting on the conveyor belt. "You already bought yours, I guess?"
"No, but I'm about to," I replied. "Christmas dinner means making Hamburger Helper from scratch instead of using the box." I held up the hamburger and noodles for emphasis. "And for dessert, milk and cookies. And of course, beer."
I noticed a slight twinkle in her eye, a sharp contrast to the face she made, sticking her tongue out in the process. I couldn't help but notice the small stud that stuck out on top.
"That's Christmas dinner for you?"
"Yes, ma'am," I answered.
"Wrong answer," she said. "I believe your next line was supposed to be 'Bah humbug.'"
"Who, me?" I asked, feigning indignation with my hand clutching my chest. "No. I like Christmas just fine. I sent presents to everybody, and I have a couple under my little tree at home. I even decorated my house this year, sort of. But I'll be by myself, so there's no point in even attempting to botch a real Christmas dinner. Hamburger, noodles and some seasoning -- even I can't mess that up."
It wasn't entirely true, but it was close enough.
"Alone on Christmas?" she asked, sounding sad. Her eyes hit the floor. "No one should be alone on Christmas."
I silently agreed with her. This would be a first for me.
"Eh, I've done it before," I lied. "It's not that bad."
She didn't answer. Maybe she saw through my bullshit, or maybe she was just sad about the idea of spending Christmas alone. I was too.
I'd been facing her for so long that it caught me by surprise when the clerk asked to see my ID for the beer. He was already halfway through scanning my items. I'd be done in a few moments, but something about the woman made me want to keep talking to her. So, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"So do you color inside the lines?" I asked her as I handed my driver's license to the clerk. "I'm more of an outside-the-lines kind of guy myself."
She seemed confused for a second, until she took the coloring books from the cart and put them on the belt, right behind the little bar that separated her things from mine. I noticed her blush.
"Oh, these," she said. She took a deep breath, and then exhaled. "They're for my daughter."
"Last minute Christmas shopping?" I asked. She kept loading her things onto the belt, and I noticed that she wore no wedding ring.
"Just stocking stuffers," she said. "Her Christmas shopping was done by last weekend. Do you have any kids?"
I smiled wistfully. "No," I said. "Just a couple of nieces. I love hanging around kids, though," I finished, hoping I didn't sound too creepy.
"I saw you over there in the produce section," she said. "The way that little girl was beaming at you, I guess she liked you."
"She was trying to feed Santa carrots on Christmas Eve," I said. "Imagine the global consequences."
She giggled, but didn't get a chance to reply before the clerk cut in. "That will be $37.82, sir," he said. The girl was really very pretty and I found it hard to turn away. I did, though, and I swiped my debit card. He handed me my receipt, and I loaded the few bags into my cart.
"Well, enjoy your proper Christmas dinner," I said to the blonde. She looked like she had something to say, so I waited a few seconds. When she said nothing, I figured it was just my imagination. I pushed my cart into the front aisle, toward the door.
"You too, Mr. Hamburger and Noodles," she answered. "Remember what I said about the breath mints. They work wonders."
"You're going to give me a complex," I answered, laughing. She smiled at me brightly, but then turned that smile on the clerk as he started scanning her things.
I tried to think of a way to stay there and talk to her some more, but nothing that wouldn't make me blatantly obvious came to mind. So, I waved at her and pushed my cart from the store.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm not shy. But after a very recent, very bloody divorce, I wasn't really sure how to play the game again. I wasn't really sure I even wanted to. I had most of the next week off from work, and my plans involved watching football, drinking beer and really, not much else. I didn't feel like going into my vacation with a fresh memory of firm rejection.
I quickly loaded my things into the truck and headed out. As I passed by the front door, I saw her come out, her cart full of bags. I was hoping she would look up and notice me, but she was looking down at her purse and talking to herself animatedly. I waited as long as I could for her attention to swing my way, but it didn't, and I couldn't hold up traffic anymore.
Once I turned onto Broadway, my phone rang. It was the only woman I really had left in my life.
"Hi, Mom," I said. This probably wasn't the smartest idea, driving on icy roads while talking on the cell phone, but I only lived a half-mile from the store.
"Kevin, will you please get over yourself and come home for Christmas?" That was my mom, all right -- always blunt, never wasting words.
"Mom, I told you," I said. "I need to do this by myself."
"No one needs to spend Christmas by themselves. It's not like you can't afford the plane ticket."
"I wouldn't even have to get a plane ticket, mom," I said, chuckling. "Seriously, I'm going to be spending a lot of days by myself now. I need to get used to it."
"Christmas isn't a lot of days," she replied.
"You'll get no arguments from me."
I pulled up to a red light and heard my mom sigh audibly into the phone. She meant well, and I knew that. My parents still lived in my hometown of Salisbury, Maryland, and my mother didn't like it that I planned to spend the holidays 2,000 miles away in Texas.
"Is it because Kira moved back here, honey?" she asked.
"Mom, so little in my life has to do with Kira now," I scoffed. "That's what happens when you get divorced."
As I knew it would, that lit a fire under my mom, and she started cussing. My mom was as kind, caring, nurturing and sweet as any other mom. But my mom also came with a mouth that would make a whole carrier full of sailors turn maroon. I still tried not to cuss around her, but the effort wasn't mutual.
"It has nothing to do with Kira," I said when my mom finished her expletive-laced tirade. "I haven't ever spent much time by myself. There have always been relatives, roommates, friends, or girlfriends. Or a wife."
"What about your bosses? You can't spend Christmas with them?"
I figured this was where she would take it. She knew better than to bug me about finding another woman, especially this soon after my marriage had exploded all over the DC beltway. But I'd flown her out to Dallas not long after I moved here, and the two guys who ran my company had made it a point to meet her. Apparently, they'd both made a big impression.
"Brad is taking his fiancée and another of their friends to Cancun for Christmas," I said. "And Tim did invite me over, but he's spending the holiday with his fiancée, too, and while being the third wheel really is one of my favorite things in life..."
"I know, Kevin," she said. "I just wish you wouldn't isolate yourself like this."
"It's not isolation, mom," I said, knowing I was full of shit. "It's called self-identity. Learning how to depend on myself."
"You know, you're a very stubborn kid," she answered.
"I'm damn near 30, mom," I replied. "Can I get an upgrade to 'very stubborn man?'"
"You're only 28; quit adding years to your age. You make me feel even older," she said. "And besides, you're still my kid."
"I know," I answered. "Mom, everything happens for a reason. You taught me that. There's a reason I'm divorced, and there's a reason I'm spending this Christmas alone. I don't know what those reasons are, but they exist nonetheless."
"I know what one of those reasons are," she fired back. "You inherited your father's thick skull."
"Yeah, because you're the least stubborn person I've talked to in, oh, at least the past 30 seconds," I answered, drawing the faintest of chuckles out of her. "Mom, please don't worry about me. I'll be ok on my own. I'll definitely call you on Christmas, and I know I have a trip to DC sometime in late January. As soon as I know when, I promise you'll be the first person I tell."
"I damn well better be," she answered, and I just had to laugh. "OK, honey. I need to go before your sister kills your niece. Merry Christmas, Kevin. I love you."
"I love you too, mom. Tell Janet and the kids I love them."
As with most mothers, mine knew me better than I did. She was exactly right -- it had little to do with wanting to spend time by myself. I just didn't want to be around anyone else, either, because I didn't want to dampen their moods.
There was just one more turn, and I found myself pulling into my garage. I'd hung a huge snowman on the inner door as part of the half-ass Christmas decorating I'd done before leaving town four days ago, and I chuckled at that -- after all, it was only visible from the garage, and no one but me had been in the garage since I'd moved in. But still, it made me laugh, so I guess it was worth it.
Inside, everything was as I left it. There was a three-foot tree sitting on an end table next to the couch, with a few presents underneath the table. I'd hung two stockings on the wall by the enormous flat-screen TV -- one for me, and one for my cat. There was some tinsel strung over the fireplace, and the tree was somewhat well lit.
It wasn't much, I knew. It was nothing like my mom and dad did in Maryland, and it wasn't even half of what Kira and I did for the three Christmases we were together. Still, it was something, and I was glad I'd gotten off my ass and at least made an attempt at making the house look festive.
Chester, my large gray and black striped cat, bounded into the room when he heard me enter and immediately started rubbing against my legs. This was a ritual for he and I -- I'd go off on a three- or four-day trip for my job, and then I'd come home and he'd act like I'd been gone for a year. I left a key with the neighbor, and she sent one of her kids over every day I was gone to feed him and play with him, but Chester was a social cat. Four days of very little human interaction did not sit well with him.
I put the bags and beer on the table, grabbed one of the brews, and turned the TV on as I slumped into my recliner. It was nearly 4 p.m. now, so I figured there had to be some sort of sports on. Sure enough, I found a meaningless bowl game to watch.
I collapsed back into my chair, and my mind briefly drifted back to the pretty blonde at the grocery store. I knew she had a daughter, but in today's day and age, that didn't necessarily mean she had a husband or a boyfriend. The worse she could have done was turn me down, and while that would have definitely bruised my ego, I still regretted not sticking around or at least trying to get her name and her number.
Ah, well. There was nothing I could do about it now. In my mind, I knew I just needed a little more time before I had the courage to get back on the horse, so to speak. Kira had wrecked me, but she hadn't killed me. I felt closer than ever to being ready to move on.
Soon, I thought. Very soon.
My attention shifted back to the TV. The bowl game was in New York, everyone's favorite place to spend four hours outdoors two days before Christmas, and I'd only heard of one of the teams. Still, it seemed like as good a way as any to kill off a few hours. Only a fraction of one had passed before my phone started chirping again. I checked the Caller ID, half smiled and half rolled my eyes, and answered.
"Hello," I said.
"Kevin Collins," the voice on the other end responded. "How you doing, man?"
"Boss?" was the indignant reply. "Jesus, Kevin. You know I have a name, right?"
"Yes, Tim, I do know that," I said. "You had a name when I worked for you six years ago, too, but back then you kept insisting I call you 'Captain."
He laughed heartily. "That was a different time, and you know it."
I did, but I ignored it. "Besides, true or false -- you're calling to give me an assignment. If so, that would fall under the category of being my boss."
"Actually, that would be false," Tim said. "I called for two reasons. The first is to thank you for dropping everything and handling that last-minute flight up to Montreal for us. That was huge."
"Tim, you understand that in order to drop everything, there must first be something, right? And besides, you know me. Can't get enough of Canada."
"I'm sure you had something else you'd have rather been doing," Tim said. "That's all I'm saying. Brad and I appreciated it."
"No problem, Tim. It's the holidays, and you guys have families here in town. Me, not so much. If my hopping on a plane helps you stay in town with your families, I'm happy to do it."
"Speaking of you not having anyone around this year... that's the second reason I called." I instantly knew where this was going.
"Tim, I'm good, man."
"Dude, Julia threatened to show up unannounced at your house at 7 a.m. on Christmas morning if I didn't call you and beg you to come out to the lake for dinner."
"You mean, beg me for the third time to come out to the lake?"
"The answer's still the same, Tim. I appreciate the effort, but I'm just going to hang out and try and get some things done around the house."
"Yeah right," he scoffed. "You're going to mope."
"It's not moping. Going to watch a metric asston of football, drink about that much beer, and just chill with the cat. I have a computer desk to put together and some tile to lay in the upstairs bathroom, so if I can find a sober moment between all the drunk ones, I might actually get those things done."
"And you'll be doing this all by yourself."
"That's the plan, yeah."
"And the difference between that and moping is?" Tim asked me.
Not much, I thought. "I promise, the feeling sorry for myself portion of the program will be kept to an absolute minimum."
"Dude, just come over here for dinner. Just for an hour or two."
"Tim, I appreciate it. I really do. But I need to learn to be alone. It sucks that I'm doing that over the holidays, but it's something I need to do."