Observing Christmas TraditionsbyKennyWright©
The happy disaster of Christmas morning at the Anderson's was almost over. Thank God. Wrapping paper lay bright and torn around the living room. The tree, still twinkling in the gray light of a rainy morning, had that empty, hollow feeling now that it had been looted and plundered. Laying about the tatters were the Mitchells and the Andersons, splayed like drunken revelers at the end of a particularly debaucherous night. And yet it wasn't over.
"Who's that one from, Claudie?" her mother asked as she turned the latest gift in her hands—her last gift.
"Charlie," she said a bit sheepishly. She didn't need to look for the card with his name on it. She knew it was from him based on the wrap-job: the comic section of a newspaper she didn't even know was in print anymore. She turned it one last time, pushed her finger into the seam along the back, and split it open.
The ritual of opening had become a tradition in these two families—one of many. No one was quite sure when or why it had started, but each present was opened one at a time, with each member of the group looking on to watch the unveiling. Claudia figured it must have been fun, once upon a time, when the presents were limited to the two sets of parents and their two babies. Thing was, it didn't scale. Like, at all. Now, between her parents, Charlie's parents, their siblings, a boyfriend and a girlfriend, gift-opening had become an epic ordeal.
Charlie watched, feeling a nervous flutter trill in his stomach. He tried convincing himself that it was because of the gift and some kind of fear of rejection or disappointment. But that wasn't it. He was confident that he had a sure-thing in that newsprint. No, the nervousness had been there since he'd arrived at the Andersons' country home, Echo Creek Farm, and laid his eyes on Claudia for the first time in more than five years.
The creatively lazy part of him could have said that the awkward girl that he'd grown up with had become a true beauty, a butterfly emerging from her cocoon and all of that nonsense. But in fact, Claudia had always been stunning; Charlie had just forgotten it over the years. Even now, wearing no make-up and dressed down in flannel pajama pants and a gray, hooded sweatshirt, she was as perfect as a sketch of a princess from an child's illustrated fantasy book.
"Is this..." Her sing-song voice tapered off as she realized what he'd given her. Claudia gingerly pulled back the hardback cover and ran her fingers across the words, "First Edition." She looked up at him, her dark blond ponytail whipping over her shoulder.
Charlie stopped himself from looking too proud of himself. "I found it at a yard sale. The owner had no idea what he had."
Claudia had always been a huge Alice in Wonderland fan. When the two of them were kids, they'd spent a lot of time in this house, pretending parts of it were the fantastical world that Lewis Carroll had envisioned. When he'd found the first edition of the children's rendition of the book—the same one she'd read all those years ago—he'd bought it on the spot without thinking. That was three years ago and he'd all but forgotten about it until his mom told him that Claudia would be at Christmas, too.
Charlie watched her page through the volume. "That's quite a gift, Charlie. Thank you," said the man sitting next to Claudia; the only man not wearing some form of pajamas. Charlie cringed at the man's assumption, suppressing a protective instinct in him that he hadn't earned. It's not for you, it's for her, he wanted to say.
But he kept his cool. "You're welcome, Robert." The man's name felt like gravel between his teeth. "She loved that book when we were kids." Wonderland wasn't real and their childhood was a long time ago.
"I am so glad we're all together," Charlie's mom, Deana Mitchell, clapped. She'd made the observation at least a dozen times already, but this time felt more like she was trying to clear smoke from the air. Charlie's dad picked up on it.
"And I'm glad we're done with presents!" Andy Mitchell said. Everyone else groaned in agreement.
All of this was a tradition, even the joke made at Deana's expense—even laughing at the joke made at Deana's expense. It signified the end of this part of the day. Since Deana Mitchell befriended Carol Anderson in the maternity ward of St. Augustine Medical Center, the two of them pregnant with Charlie and Claudia respectively, they had been establishing traditions that would haunt the families for the next 23 years.
"I have one more gift I'd like to give," Robert announced. Half the family was already on their feet, ready to move on. Claudia's boyfriend's words had the effect of dragging a needle across a record. Even she cringed.
The parents looked at one another in silence, settling back down. He pulled out a small box, wrapped in glossy red paper, and handed it to Claudia. She had large, expressive eyes to begin with, but when she accepted the little present, they were tea cup saucers. She could feel everyone watching her. She didn't dare look at Charlie.
Her heart fluttered as she unwrapped the velvet box. Or maybe it was her stomach? Robert looked a lot like Charlie had moments ago: a man with the smug assurance that he'd found the perfect gift. Her fingers shook as she brushed her thumb across the fuzzy, black parcel. She took a deep breath before opening it.
For Charlie, he felt like someone had pulled a secret lever that opened the floor beneath him. And that someone was Robert. Who proposes on Christmas day, in front of an extended family he'd never met? Weren't these things supposed to be done in a romantic setting, with candlelight and rings at the bottom of champagne glasses? Or at least, you know, in privacy?
"When I first met you, I honestly thought you were a little snobby..." As Robert began his trite and predictable tale, Charlie felt sick to his stomach. It was irrational and illogical—he hadn't seen Claudia in five years, after all, and they were never more than close friends—but not completely invalid. At least not to him. "...Carol and Jack, I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to ask your permission, but it just feels so... right..." The thing that killed Charlie more than anything was the way Claudia looked at the guy. Her beauty shined, bright and alive. Emotion threatened to overwhelm her svelte body.
It was the way he'd always fantasized she'd look at him some day.
"So, I guess I'm asking... will you spend your life with me, Claudia?"
Claudia opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Charlie didn't know it, but she was right there with him, falling through a trap door that had opened up beneath her. This rabbit hole, however, felt more uncertain than wondrous.
She had been seeing Robert for nearly a year now. He'd be the perfect husband to her perfect life. A Yale grad just like her, already into his second year of med school. He had ambition, a great sense of humor. He was good looking, great in bed, and seemed to possess a never-ending pool of patience with her. He was the perfect...
So why was she hesitating?
"Yes," she said at last, finding her voice. She felt tears stream down her cheeks and she threw her arms around him and kissed him softly on the lips. Watching Robert's boyish face split into that so-familiar wide grin made it all worth it. Right?
When she looked up, Charlie was gone.
After the gluttony of gifts came the gluttony of food. Charlie decided to throw himself into the preparations of the feast. It was easier than thinking about what just happened.
He helped his mother baste the turkey. He hefted the 23-pound monstrosity from the oven. Already, it was a rich gold, the sizzling smell causing his mouth to water. That smell brought him back into his past. Even the kitchen felt frozen in time, an installation at a Julia Child's museum. Sea-foam green and glossy white dominated the old era cook room. It hadn't changed since he'd first started forming memories of it.
"Thanks, hon," his mom said, then grabbed him for a tight hug. One thing felt different. His mother felt small against his six-foot frame now. He had to stoop a little into the embrace. "It's so good to have everyone here." This time, the phrase didn't carry the rote delivery of tradition. It was genuine and as he squeezed her back, he echoed the same.
When she surveyed his face and asked, "Are you okay?" he almost broke down.
She nodded skeptically, but let it go. "I heard my big boy was making pies? Should I be worried?"
"Mom!" Charlie laughed. "I'll start after I change."
Echo Creek Farm wasn't a farm anymore and the over-sized farmhouse was now surrounded by a copse of trees where once, presumably, were worked fields. The encroachment had happened long before Charlie's time. To him, this place was a diorama: a locale that meant nothing much beyond Christmas time. But during these few days of Yule, it was packed with meaning and memory. He felt like he could come up with a story for every dark floorboard in the place. He passed through the living room, where the dads were straightening up the gift-wrapped disaster, before taking a right for the stairs.
The estate had been in the Anderson's family for generations—along with a few others scattered throughout the country—although they never let on that they were wealthy. Charlie didn't even realize it until he was around seven and able to understand things like that. And by that time, he was so enamored with Claudia that he could have discovered that the Andersons were child-eating werewolves and it wouldn't have mattered.
As he passed Claudia's room, he heard the sound of the bath running. His room shared her washroom and he realized that he'd need to find somewhere else to brush his teeth and clean his face. He also realized that her door stood open a crack.
Charlie couldn't resist. Glancing in, he caught her reflection in the cheval mirror in the corner. He froze. Her smooth back was turned to it, naked and ethereal like an adult version of that sketched illustration he'd thought of earlier, colored in with faded watercolor. She slid her thumbs into the waistband of her flannel pajama pants and eased them over her slender hips. Charlie blinked when he saw the plunge of her white thong.
He drank in her beauty. The length of her toned legs. The dimpled muscles of her lower back. The texture in her dark blond hair as it fell loosely across her bare shoulder blades. The sketch moved. The fantasy woman on the pages of his mind became real, and suddenly he realized she could catch him.
Claudia held up her hand and light caught in the diamond ring. "It's beautiful," she said.
A moment later, Robert's tall stature invaded the frame, collecting Claudia's slender body in his arms. Charlie heard them kiss as he skulked down the hall, remembering that not everything in this house was a storybook, and some things would now remain in the past.
"Not here," Claudia said, pushing her boyfriend away. No, not boyfriend anymore. She brushed her thumb across the warm band of metal that now adorned her left hand and reminded herself that she was happy.
"Come on, baby, let's celebrate," Robert persisted, pushing his hands beneath the elastic of her thong. It felt good to be enveloped in his arms and she felt herself tingle. She'd been with her parents for the holidays and Robert had just come in this morning. It had been nearly two weeks since they'd be intimate and she felt her resolve begin to erode. A man's lips kissing her neck tended to do that.
The sound of a door closing somewhere else in the house snapped her out of it. "No," she said. "I can't. Not here. Not in this house."
Robert groped her one last time before surrendering. He kissed her softly on the lips. "Of course. Must be a little weird."
Claudia nodded, ushering him to the door. It was weird, but not for the reasons he thought. She'd fooled around with past boyfriends out here—some of her craziest experiences were had when she'd driven out here to party. But Charlie had never been in the house during those times. And that was a secret she wasn't about to share with her newly minted fiancé.
Alone, she stepped into the honeycomb-tiled bathroom, where steam sweated on the white subway tile and clouded the windowpanes, shutting out the gloomy day. This was a personal ritual of hers. Every Christmas, after gifts, she took a long hot bath. So much of this house was old and quaint and a younger, more spoiled Claudia had always whined when she had to leave the comforts of her family's suburban home to come out here. But this tub always made up for it. Easily big enough for three and set against the wall like the stage of an off-Broadway show, it was glorious. She'd made a past time of lounging in it: soaking, reading, thinking. In the later years, her thoughts tended to center on one thing... Charles Clark Mitchell.
She thought of his broad shoulders and muscled body as she stepped into the tub. Those shoulders were part of the problem. He'd grown up in the past few years. Filled out. Let his chestnut curls grow long and shaggy. He'd become the man she'd always fantasized that he would be. But even that wasn't the heart of it. His heart was the heart. His thoughtfulness. His kindness. She'd never met a boy—a man—like him and after being out of touch all these years, she'd begun thinking she'd made it up. Then he went ahead and got her that damn book.
Claudia ducked her long, wavy hair beneath the water and reached for the strawberry-smelling shampoo. She scrubbed it into the fine strands and felt the suds tickle her skin. It felt like a lover's soft caress. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced that lover to be Robert, but her subconscious gave way by the time she squeezed body wash onto her sponge. It was part of the ritual, she reasoned; this was tradition, and Charlie had always been the one running his hands across her soapy body.
Claudia stood up in the tub to scrub her body, trailing the sponge around her breasts and down her flat stomach. How many times had she imagined him watching her like this? For him to be in the tub with her, looking up as she soaped her naked curves. She pushed the rough surface between her legs and stifled a moan. She glanced at the white, paneled door that led to Charlie's room. Was he there now, getting dressed?
She finished scrubbing and lowered herself back into the tub, cringing a little as the water splashed about. She felt exposed by the sloshing. Could he hear it? Was he thinking about her? Her body tingled. Self-consciously, she cut on the whirlpool jets. Of course, that led to another distraction.
This was the other reason she loved this bath so much. Bracing her feet against the edge of the tub and leaning back, she let the firm current rush between her thighs. She closed her eyes and breathed through her nose, teasing herself with her hands. She allowed herself to think of Charlie for the first time in years as she tweaked her nipples. His image came to her, foggy and humid like this steam-choked room. His thick arms. His dimpled smile and squared off jaw. The only thing she could imagine clearly were his eyes, big caring brown ones that seemed to always be on her. She rocked her hips up, nearly getting swept away in the more direct contact of the jet.
He'd always accused her of being prim. What would he think now? She tickled the fingers of her right hand against her smooth sex and felt her muscles flex and tighten. Her arched body surfaced in the tub, buttressed between her folded legs and her shoulders. Was he still there, just on the other side of that door? She'd never once locked it; he'd never once accidentally walked in on her. What if he did? What if he did, right now?
Claudia pushed two fingers into her pussy. "Uh!" she groaned before she could squash it. She adjusted until the water pulsed directly across her clit. She writhed. Water sloshed over the lip of the tub. This time, she didn't care. She rotated her hips against the spray as she fingered herself, thinking of Charlie. Thinking of his lips on her, not her fingers.
Holding her moans to a heavy sigh exhaled through her clenched teeth, Claudia rode her orgasm out in the roiling water. She twisted back, mercifully dipping beneath the effervescent spray. Her muscles unraveled as she melted into the bath. She let out a long, cleansing breath. This was by far one of her favorite Christmas traditions.
Charlie was with his mom, chopping carrots for their Christmas feast. He looked up as she entered, her feet creaking along the old floorboards of the house. She'd been beautiful in her pajamas and no make-up. She was breathtaking in her festive, maroon dress. He remembered it from the last Christmas they'd spent together, but he set about rememorizing it. Between the off-the-shoulder cowl neck and the flaring skirt, it was cinched around her narrow waist by a wide, decorative bow.
She pirouetted like a ballerina, smiling as she completed the spin. "Get enough?" Even her hair, tied up into a loose bun, fit the image.
Claudia liked to think she wasn't the type of girl that wasted a lot of time deliberating on an outfit. She always had her trusty jeans and blouses—a sundress if it was warm and she needed to dress up—a cable-knit sweater when it was cold. And yet she'd done it just now. The most troubling thing was the question that kept repeating itself in her head, again and again: "Who are you dressing for, girl?"
Charlie regained control of his senses and hoped he hadn't gawked too much. A quick glance at his mother told him that he had. "You must be lost. The living room's off to your left."
"Har, har. I'm here to help."
Charlie's eyebrows rose beyond the sweep of his long bangs. "An Anderson... cooking...?"
Anger rose in Claudia, but she let it pass. It was a joke that only Charlie could get away with. Growing up, she'd always had a cook or a nanny prepare foods. It was a very rare occasion for her mother to even enter the kitchen. What few culinary skills Claudia had came from the Food Network and watching the cook prepare things. That had changed in college, though. Well, a little.
"I'm full of surprises, aren't I?" She stepped in and slipped her hands into hidden pockets in the voluminous skirts of her dress. "So, what can I help with?"
"Want to help me with my pies? Pecan and pumpkin. Pretty complicated..."
"You're an ass..." Glancing at Charlie's mom, she added, "Sorry Mrs. Mitchell."
"It's OK. Charlie can certainly be an ass sometimes." She shut the sink off and dried her hands. Pulling off her apron, she handed it to her, saying, "You'll want to wear this. Wouldn't want to get that pretty dress messy. Why don't you work on the pie crust while I check on the boys."
"The pie crust is definitely the hardest—" He stopped, catching the dangerous look in Claudia's face and the warning one in his mother's. He shrugged. Worst case, he had a frozen one tucked away. "Ok, grab the dough out of the fridge..." Satisfied, Deana Mitchell left the room with a nod.
Claudia pulled the chilled blob from their industrial strength refrigerator, which may have looked vintage but certainly was not. She tossed it down with a satisfying plop and reached for the rolling pin. She'd show him— "Wait!"
Claudia jumped "What?"
"Contrary to what you may have seen on TV, rolling out a pie crust requires a light touch." She stared at him over her shoulder, then at the dough, then at the marble pin.
Charlie watched her helplessly fumble about, finally realizing that he really was being an ass. "Here, like this," he said, modulating his voice back down like he was talking to a child. He put his arms around her and gripped the outer part of the rolling pin's handles.
The scent of lavender filled his nostrils. She still used the same shampoo as she had in high school and it filling him with nostalgia. And regret. Why hadn't he said something then? He glanced down at her left hand, where his fingers were almost touching the diamond ring.