Observing Christmas TraditionsbyKennyWright©
Before he could pull away though, Claudia whispered, "So you like a soft touch, huh?" Even through his thick sweater, she could feel his solid torso against her back. It felt good, to be enveloped. She wiggled her hips against his and felt him stir. Her breath caught. They shouldn't be doing this.
"Sometimes," he replied, wishing he could stay there forever. Instead, he did what was right. He backed away and went back to chopping pecans. "So once you have that rolled out, you're going to stretch it into the pie plate. Then repeat for the other."
They worked silently for a spell, although both stole secret glances at the other when they thought they could get away with it. Charlie loved the way Claudia furrowed her brow when she concentrated on spreading out the crust. Claudia just liked watching Charlie work.
"So, how long have you guys been dating?" It was the inevitable subject, but one both were kind of hoping to avoid.
"We met last year, at a New Year's party."
"He seems like a good guy." Christ, this was awkward. "He's going to be a doctor? Your dad must like that."
She nodded, wanting this conversation to crawl back into whatever hole it had come from. "All done with the crusts."
"Great!" Charlie said, happy for the short lifespan of the subject. He carried the sugary pecan mixture to her pie mold. "Let me," she offered, reaching for a spatula and scrapping the thick filling out as Charlie held it. They glanced at one another, smiling. This was nice, they both thought. This was something they could get used to.
"Now we just let that bake for 50 minutes, serve with ice cream, and accept compliments at will."
Charlie and Claudia were the last to join the family at the long table, which was already raucous with too much wine and too much holiday.
"Wait, wait!" someone cried as they passed under the arch of the dining room. "Mistletoe!" another laughed like they'd been caught in the most clever prank ever been visited in families.
Charlie felt himself redden. At first, he figured he'd ignore it. But as silence descended on the room, he realized that his hesitation had only fueled the teasing. They glanced at each other, sharing the embarrassment like a hug.
"Um..." Claudia was keenly aware of Robert out there, watching her. Studying her. Could he see how much she wanted to kiss her old friend? Did her blushing face betray her?
As much as Charlie wanted to sweep her into his arms and kiss her, a shaggy-haired Ret Butler to his blond Scarlet O'Hara, he resisted. He couldn't play-kiss her because as soon as his lips touched hers, she'd know. "Merry Christmas," he whispered, bending down and planting a soft kiss just behind her jaw.
"Awww..." The peanut gallery moaned when Charlie released Claudia with a soft kiss on the cheek. Red-faced and cringing, they joined the bunch at the table and the feast of Christmas past, present, and future was devoured.
The Andersons and Mitchells talked about it all. The past—that snowstorm that had extended Christmas at Echo Creek Farm an extra week, or the time the Christmas lights had blown out the fuse box and they had their Christmas feast under candlelight. They talked about the present at great length, and how great it was to have everyone together for the first time. Charlie talked about his time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia; Claudia talked about her post-grad classes at Yale. That, of course, led to talk of the future. And her husband-to-be, Robert.
Charlie excused himself to the kitchen, mouthing that he was getting the pies. It was too much to watch Claudia and Robert's recount of how they first met on the New Haven Green. It felt like a story that he should have been telling with her and his worst fear was that she'd see that unmerited jealousy.
He should be happy for his long time friend, and he knew that one day, he would be, but right then it just felt so cruel. He was a treasure hunter who'd stumbled upon a cache of riches he'd forgotten he was even looking for, only to find it empty. So close, yet so very far.
"Need help?" It was Claudia's sister, Maggie, pushing through swinging kitchen door.
"Um, sure..." he said as she sauntered across the black and white tiled floor to the ovens. He'd been so caught up in how much Claudia had grown up that he missed her spunky little sister's transformation. If anything, it was even more dramatic.
Maggie possessed the same lithe athleticism with some added curves. Her hair was a few shades darker—pushing her into the brunette category—and she wore her make-up like a true college coed: a little too heavy around the eyes in a way that Charlie shouldn't have liked, but did.
"Want to talk about it?" She pulled on a hand cozy and nudged Charlie aside as she bent to pull the pies out.
"What?" He tried, and failed, to keep his eyes off her ass. She wore a tight pair of skinny jeans tucked into her Uggs and a fuchsia, cashmere sweater that would be considered "snug" in even the loosest of definitions. As she leaned down, the hem of the sweater rose and the jeans pulled tight.
"How you're in love with my sister," she said cheerily, sliding a pie out and straightening.
"I'm not... in love..." He stumbled, tearing his eyes off her butt before she caught him looking.
Maggie rolled her eyes and went back for the other pie. "Sure you're not." When she set this one next to the first and slammed the oven shut, she didn't move away. Instead, she rested a hand on her hip and leaned against the counter. "Guys are always like that. In denial." She stared at him with the same sky blue eyes that Claudia had. For maybe the first time in his entire life, he saw her as more than the bratty younger sister of his crush. "Believe me, I know what it feels like to want something and not be noticed."
Charlie blinked and Maggie giggled. Same laugh, too. "Close your mouth, dear. We have pies to deliver."
Meanwhile, in the dining room, Claudia and Robert dutifully fielded questions from the Mitchells. Robert's bright charisma had been what had first attracted her to him and it seemed to be working for Charlie's family, too. She studied them, though, wondering if beneath it all, there was disappointment. Had they always imagined her with their son? Was that disappointment lurking beneath their smiles?
Or was she just projecting?
The pies, of course, were a success. When Charlie revealed that Claudia had helped, everyone—her parents in particular—didn't believe it. "Our Claudia?" her mother asked skeptically.
After dinner, they scattered. Most filtered into the living room to play motion games on a Playstation owned by Charlie's younger brother, Lucas. Unable to resist watching Claudia swing the baton like a golf-club or the way her face screwed up when she got competitive, Charlie hung out quietly as long as possible. On the other side of the room, however, Robert had engaged in some kind of medical banter with Claudia's father—also a doctor—and couldn't stay. OK, so the guy's perfect for her, he granted, but he didn't need to be happy about it.
"Look, a man leaves the video games!" Carol Anderson said, elbowing his own mother, who was washing dishes next to her.
"Look at that."
"Oh, that's just because he doesn't like video games," Maggie defended.
Charlie's eyebrows lifted in surprise. How did she know that? "Watching them was fun, but it's true. I was always the kid who wanted to play in the mud outside. I guess Lucas played enough for the both of us." His mother smirked at that.
Carol looked outside, where the cold rain hadn't let up. Night was falling. "Well, there's plenty of that outside now, although I wouldn't recommend it." She set her last dinner plate in the dishwasher and turned to his mom. "Dee, want to play a few rounds of golf on Lucas's new toy?"
Deana looked at Maggie and Charlie. "It's why we had them, right? To clean up after our messes?" The mothers high-fived as they left the room.
"Come on, I think there are more dishes in the dining room," Maggie said with an exaggerated eye-roll.
The two of then shuttled the rest of the plates into the kitchen and sorted the huge amount of leftovers into their appropriate sizes of Tupperware. Charlie became keenly aware of just how closely Maggie watched him, and how hard she pretended not to. He felt her eyes on him when he faced the sink to rinse dishes, and every time he reentered the kitchen, swinging that door before him, he'd watch her look up at him, flush a little, and quickly avert her eyes.
It was a funny feeling, really, to finally realize the crush. Now that he knew, it seemed so obvious. He began to look at her outside of the "sisterly schema." She was now a young woman, and an attractive and fun one at that. He started imagining the potentials.
So on their last trip into the dining room to wipe down the long banquet table, what came next seemed natural, although Charlie cursed himself afterwards.
"Wait a minute, mister," Maggie said as they returned to the kitchen. She held her arm out in front of him, blocking his path enough for him to look up. They were beneath the mistletoe. "I think we need to honor this tradition." She sounded confident, but judging from the way her eyes kept darting away, Charlie guessed she'd been rehearsing this exchange since they'd gotten started. After all, this wasn't the first time they'd passed beneath this spot.
Charlie smiled. It was cute. Turning to face the pretty coed, he nodded. "Tradition, of course." He ran his fingers up along her cheek. Her face was soft and surprisingly hot. Pushing his fingertips beneath the silky curtain of her just-brunette hair, he drew her close. She stepped freely, pressing her lithe body into his.
The kiss didn't feel awkward, or sisterly (whatever that was supposed to feel like). It was nice, and wet, and warm, and when Maggie pushed her tongue past his lips, it became arousing, too.
"You know, after all those times we've passed under the mistletoe, I think we owe tradition a bit more than a kiss."
Charlie, still cupping Maggie's face, wanted to entertain the offer. The twitching in his trousers was proof of that. But as he looked down into those bright blue eyes of hers, all he saw was her sister.
Before he could mouth his "I'm sorry," he heard glass shatter to his right. Their heads wiped around to the noise and Charlie felt like he'd decided to jam a fork into the wall socket and hold on for dear life. Standing there, looking just as stunned as Charlie felt, was Claudia.
"I'm, um, sorry..." she stuttered, suddenly wanting to look everywhere but at the two of them. With Maggie's curves against him, guilt rolled over Charlie in waves.
"Everything OK in here?" Robert asked, running into the room to round out the most awkward foursome any of them had ever felt. He took in Maggie in Charlie's arms. And Claudia's thunderstruck expression. And the broken glass on the ground.
"I... shit..." With her eyes glistening, Claudia raced out of the room.
"I'm sorry, Maggie. We can't. I can't." He felt bad for rebuffing the pretty young Anderson, but it was the right thing to do. He didn't want her harboring all these feelings for him like he had for Claudia. It wasn't fair.
"I know," she said sadly, studying the floor. Her lip quivered a little, but she didn't cry. Throwing on that brave smile he recognized when she'd bruise her knee as a kid, she added, "It was a nice thought though."
He thought of saying something brotherly, like how she was going to make some boy really happy some day, but decided against it. The last thing he wanted to do was patronize.
"You know, I kind of lied earlier. When I said that thing about wanting something and not being noticed." Maggie took a deep breath. "My sister notices. And she's just as in love as you."
"I know. But I can't do that, either. She's engaged—" He stopped when she rolled her eyes. "What? They're probably upstairs right now... making up."
Maggie was thoughtful. "I don't know about that. I mean, Mr. Yale is a mistake and she knows it. Maybe this'll help her realize it." Charlie sighed, feeling skeptical, but held his tongue. "Thanks for helping me clean up," she said, going up onto her tiptoes to kiss him one last time. "And don't give up faith just yet."
Shock fueled her flight until she'd made it to her room. It wrapped itself around her like a constrictor snake, squeezing her until she could hardly breath. Until she started seeing stars. She sucked shallow breathes, fighting for air that was never enough.
The squeeze didn't release her until she hit the plush comforter of her bed. Next was a bitter cocktail of anger and sadness. Anger for her sister. Sadness that it hadn't been her.
And that wasn't fair. She'd never been an option. She was someone else's now. It was the way it had to be, right? And if Charlie couldn't be hers, why not her sister? Better Maggie than some skank he met somewhere else, right?
"Claudie, sweetheart, are you OK?" She felt Robert sink onto the bed next to her. Sweet, kind, perfect Robert.
Wiping tears from her eyes, she peeled herself off the mattress and glanced at him over her shoulder. His eyes were sad. Disappointed. She'd only seen that look once before: the very first time he'd asked her out and she'd said no. Back then, she'd done it for Charlie, as silly as that was. She saw the potential danger in this man; of getting close to him. She should have stuck to her resolution.
"No, I don't think it is," she said quietly. God, what was she doing? This wasn't happening, was it? Reaching for the ring she'd so recently put on, she twisted it off and handed it back. "I'm sooo sorry..."
Robert didn't make a move to reach for it. Not at first. In her gut, she felt the pain in his face. He'd been so good to her for so long. He'd done everything right.
But he wasn't Charlie.
At last, Robert nodded. "I love you, Claudie, and I'm not going to pretend to like it, but... I'm glad you told me now, and not when it was too late." He brushed her hair back one last time and for a weak moment, she wanted to grab him and kiss him and tell him it was all a giant mistake. But it wasn't.
"I love you, too, Robert. And... thank you..."
Claudia sat on her bed for a long time. She felt like crying, but every time the tears started to develop, she thought of Charlie and found strength. Outside, she heard a car door shut and an engine begin to turn over. Standing, she went to the window just in time to see Robert's car pull away from the house and wind its way down the lonely, tree-lined drive.
She felt terrible for him; terrible that she'd put him through that. They had some great times together and she'd miss that. Yet as sad as it was to watch the red tail lights disappear around a bend, the feeling of relief was overwhelming. No more excuses. No more games. At last, she was free.
Evening had arrived, and with it, the whistling of wind against the shutters outside. It was a sound Charlie associated with this place and the past, even when he heard it from his little New York studio. Now, the nostalgia made him sad.
He ascended the stairs to what was now the library, where his best memories resided. He felt like wallowing right now. He stood just inside the door and inhaled the inviting scent of books. When the families had first gotten together for Christmas, this had been the room they'd set up the tree and opened the presents. That was before Lucas and Maggie had come along and they'd run out of room.
It was back when they were kids that his favorite tradition had been borne. As Christmas came to an unwelcome end, he and Claudia used to fall asleep under the tree, hoping to wake up and relive the day all over again. Their parents had encouraged the "camp out," saying that having the kids sleep under the tree was the best present they could get.
The tradition had stuck, even in the later years when Mr. Anderson had turned the space into a library to house his extensive book collection. He'd passed his love of books down to his daughter, who'd in turn passed it down to him. The smell of books and Christmas would always remind him of Claudia, and right now, he wanted to feel that pain.
Aside from the books, the room housed a great, stone hearth on the far side. It was drafty and cold right now, but that fit Charlie's mood. He crossed the room, curling his toes in the thick carpet. The wind sounded louder up here, battering against the bay window that looked out over the farm. Rain dappled the double-paned glass. Without city lights to illuminate the stormy skies, all he could see was darkness beyond, and the reflection of the door to the stairs across the lightless room.
He set about building a fire. With care, he piled kindling on crumpled balls of newspaper before going for the larger logs. He thought of how he and Claudia used to do this, dressed in their pajamas, a makeshift bed of heavy down comforters all laid out before it. The last time they were up here, things had been said that Charlie masochistically brought back to memory.
They were in their last years of high school, just 18, and worried about what the future would hold. Charlie had gotten an early acceptance to Berkley and wasn't sure about making the long trip across the country for the next Christmas. Claudia was afraid she'd never see him again. So they made a promise. It was one of those silly things kids did in hyper dramatic moments, but Charlie had been carrying it around ever since. If neither of them were married by the time they turned 35, they'd find one another and settle down.
What Charlie had come to realize as he went through college, then into the Peace Corps, then home for job hunting, was that he didn't want to wait until he was 35. He wanted her now, and was tired of waiting.
Apparently, he'd waited too long.
On a table to the left of the window and chairs was an old record player. He thumbed the tops of the records that were lined up below, knowing exactly where the Christmas albums were stored. Breathing in the smell of books and vinyl, he selected his favorite: a compilation of Christmas carols. Fitting the record into place and gingerly setting the needle, he went back to the window as the chords of "White Christmas" began to play.
It was perfect except for one thing...
A shadow passed across the lighted reflection of the library's pocket doors. Charlie smiled and looked up without turning his head. It was the silhouette of a woman, long and slender, her hair gathered in a loose coif. Right on cue.
Claudia hesitated before joining him by the windows. She listened to Bing Crosby's deep, soothing voice. I'm dreaming... She couldn't agree more. This was their place. It had been for so many years, but... she was worried that maybe she was no longer allowed here. Just like the ones she knew before?
"Merry Christmas," she said, kneeling down beside him and folding her hands in her lap.
"Merry Christmas." They watched the rain for a moment. "Not very white though."
Claudia laughed weakly. "Agreed." She got up and lifted the needle onto the next track: "Let It Snow." She laughed again. "Not much of an improvement, but I like this song."
"That's my Claudia, always concerned with what's appropriate," Charlie teased.
"About that..." she said a little testily.
"You don't have to explain. I'm just being a little emo here. It'll pass."
Charlie froze. Was his mind playing tricks on him? He didn't even dare look at her. "What did you say?"
"I... I broke it off with him." Her laugh teetered on wet emotion. "Shortest engagement ever, huh?"
"Claudie, why?" The empathetic part of him kicked in. At last, he turned and pulled her into a comforting hug. It felt good. It felt right.