“Mommy, why does Santa only come once a year?”
Oliver’s words burst through my stale thoughts.
“Because he can only make so many toys, sweetie. Those poor elves would never get a break if there were two Christmases,” I tell him in my chipper mommy-voice. I sigh, hoping my answer satisfies the four year old boy genius at my side. At home, in the peace of my own living room, snuggled on the sofa with him and a book, I might be inclined to come up with something more creative. Perhaps I would tell him all about the North Pole and Santa’s workshop and the eight or nine reindeer and all of the other bullshit that goes along with the secular Christmas story. Right here, right now, I’m more likely to pull out a semi-automatic weapon and start letting rounds fly into the mall crowd. And then the speakers, playing the endless loop of holiday music. Those would be the next to go.
Oliver scrunches his nose and puts on his thinking face. He holds my hand gently, and it calms me momentarily. A gin and tonic would do the trick even better. I stick my head out of the squirming line of moms and dads, toddlers and heathens, and peer around the people in front of me. He’s been surprisingly patient, Oliver has, and I should be grateful. But it takes willpower of steel to do so, considering we’ve been in line to see a fat man in a red suit for forty-five minutes. My lip hurts from biting it and it pisses me off that I’ve been tapping my boots to “Little Drummer Boy”, even after telling myself to stop. I rub the indentation where my wedding ring should be, absently wondering how much it will cost to have it repaired.
“I want the biggest racecar ever. No, the biggest racecar and a new bike.”
“How’s he going to get them down the chimney?” I ask, trying to distract myself from the screaming toddler behind me.
“We don’t have a chimney Mommy.”
Oh great, now the bribing has begun with the toddler. If you’re quiet you can have a candy cane.
“You’re right son, I almost forgot.”
Silly me. I also seem to have forgotten my soul. Somewhere inside, I know this would be the perfect opportunity to launch into the lecture about the real meaning of Christmas. The one that my parents shrugged off, but that my in-laws won’t let me forget. The whole Jesus thing, with shining stars and Bethlehem and such. Not that I don’t believe it, but if I start thinking about it too much then I feel dirty. And petty. Better to just pretend that the jolly, round man is what Christmas is about, and then I don’t feel so guilty. For a moment I think I see my mother-in-law watching me nearby, head shaking with disapproval.
The line inches forward. It’s not much, but we’ve come this far. To leave now would be to admit defeat. The slithering, whining, bitching creature of a line tried to strike us down, but this year I was determined to conquer it. The husband has a way of making me feel like an ass when it comes to some things. Why do you always have to make a fucking big deal out of things? I can hear him say.
And now I’m just three obnoxious kids away from plopping my child onto a stranger’s lap, putting on an absurd smile, and snapping a quick photo for the scrapbook I’ll probably never have time to finish. The husband’s done it every year since Oliver was born, and never once failed to make me feel like a shitty parent for hating it. Not this year though. I’ve almost done this.
An ear-piercing wail jars my prematurely victorious thoughts. The man behind me has lost his leverage, and the cry that only the child’s parent could tolerate drowns out “Santa Baby”. I never thought I’d long to hear that one.
And now the embarrassed, and noticeably quieter, threatening begins. If you don’t stop crying then Santa won’t bring you a present.
A chuckle escapes my throat. I’ve used that one before. And the one about the spanking, and the one about no dessert, and the one about taking away the toys, and the one about the alien that will come and take you away if you don’t stop crying. And even though I could probably toss the toddler across the torture chamber that we call a mall, and then take a bow and demand applause, part of me feels for the dad. I’m lucky Oliver is having a good day. He’s a bright boy, and most of the time I enjoy his company more than that of my adult friends and family. But he has his moments. And it’s when those moments happen with what seem like thousands of witnesses around, that you do anything and everything to get them to end. Short of chucking them across the mall, of course.
Another shriek indicates that the child is in full-blown tantrum mode. The hairs on my neck stand up and I’m pretty sure that I heard glass shattering somewhere down near Victoria’s Secret. Oliver twists in his puffy black jacket to look up at the devil-child behind us.
“Mommy why is that girl crying?” he asks. “She’s making my ears hurt.”
“Yeah sweetie, I know, mine hurt too,” I reply.
A little too loudly, obviously, because the man leans in toward my ear and says in a deep and slightly scratchy voice: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into her.” His breath sneaks around my cheek and into my nose, and I smell food-court pasta masked with peppermint gum.
His proximity startles me, and I jump. And though I’ve envisioned ninja-kicking every single one of these people in line, I can’t bring myself to be outwardly rude. “Don’t worry about it. I know how it is,” I say over my shoulder with a sympathetic smile, nodding my head to indicate my own little one, be it an angelic version of him at the moment.
The man returns to his original position, and I turn to fully face him, surprised to see a modern day Adonis standing before me. I actually don’t even know what that means. But he’s beautiful. Wavy brown hair, dimple in his left cheek. A light blue sweater with an orange spot by the neckline. Spaghetti probably. He rocks the girl in his arms, the poor thing rubbing her eyes and trying to stop the sobs racking her chest.
“Looks like you’ve almost made it,” he says, jutting his chin forward. The line has moved again. Two more to go.
The next child skips to the imposter Santa, pigtails bouncing, and hops onto his lap. The pretender gives a pained laugh and starts into his spiel for the five hundred and forty-eighth time today.
“Thank God this is almost over,” I say to the man behind me.
“You’re telling me. We tried this earlier this week. Would you believe that Santa got sick and had to leave before we got to him?”
“No!” I say. The line, the music, the kids, the non-stop crowd; it’s barely manageable as-is, and given that it’s a Saturday afternoon, I’d say that sadly, things are going without a hitch. I can’t imagine if Santa were to up and leave for a bad case of the squirts. Abandoning us where we stand, minutes and hours and sanity lost, never to be gained back. That semi-automatic weapon scene might very well occur if the jolly fat man pulled that one.
Beautiful Man laughs and nods. “Yep. A half-hour for nothing.” I chuckle politely and admire his grin. We exchange names and a handshake.
Oliver pulls on my hand and twists in place. “Mommy, I need to go pee-pee.”
Santa can have a lap full of piss, child. We are almost there. “Son, we are almost there. You can hold it for another few minutes, right? You don’t want to miss your chance with Santa, do you?” I say through gritted teeth. Almost there. Almost there.
There’s a flash of light, and the girl with the pigtails jumps off of Santa’s lap. He shamelessly adjusts his crotch where the girl pegged him earlier, and his helper elf cheerfully calls for the next child.
One more to go.
Oliver does the potty dance at my side.
The girl in Gorgeous Man’s arms sniffles.
Almost there. I’ve got this. So what? Do you want a fucking pat on the back? The husband’s voice is as clear as “Jingle Bells” blaring from a nearby speaker.
You should take him to church more, the mother-in-law clucks in my mind. You should be teaching him the real meaning of Christmas. Of course her son can do no wrong. I’m the mother, and the wife, and if I was a proper one then I’d be rounding up my happy little family to sit at the Sunday service each week.
Almost there. Then I can stop thinking about Santa and horrible ideas of massacre and guilt over not going to church enough. I can go home and putt around the house pretending that I love my husband and believing that whether I go to church or not, Jesus might still love me.
“You want to get some coffee or something after this?” the man behind me asks. I’ve bitten my lip raw now, and a slow ache is building in my temple, right where the husband and mother-in-law hammer away at my self-esteem. At Sexy Man’s voice though, they vanish, and I’m left rubbing the void on my left ring finger.
“Coffee?” I squeak.
“Or whatever. The park. Drinks, later?”
The infant ahead of us has decided she doesn’t like this imposter Santa, and lets out a terrified series of cries. The elves and the parents put on their goofy faces, their sympathetic faces, and jingle keys to calm the child down.
Oliver continues his pee-pee dance.
“Mommy I think I want a guitar. Do you think Santa will bring me everything I want?”
I’m about to hyperventilate. “Only if you’re a good boy, and don’t go potty until we’re finished with Santa.” Christmas shouldn’t bring on this type of stress. But it does. Every single year, as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is carved and the Black Friday ads are circulating among greedy hands at the dining room table, the anxiety begins. The excruciating discussions with the husband about what to get this person on sale, or the bartering with parents and in-laws about what time Christmas dinner is at whose home. And of course, the seemingly harmless invitations to go to midnight mass.
Now, here, within the confines of this mall prison, my blood pressure is so high, and pounding away within my skull so hard that I wish Santa would just call off Christmas season. Because here, among the chattering crowds toting their bags and bags of sale items, with the blaring version of “Silent Night” by a scantily clad pop star, and Gorgeous Man tempting me to an inappropriate cup of coffee, I realize that there is not an ounce of Christmas in any of us. Or so it would seem.
“Look Mommy!” Oliver shouts above the din, “It’s my turn!”
And then my shoulder and arm are jerking up and down at Oliver’s frantic happy dance. The helper elf extends a hand to Oliver and offers a weary smile to me. I return it, somehow finding a spare moment to be sympathetic for the guy. Oliver approaches the Santa, and for a second I see what he does.
A jolly man, clothed in the famous red suit patting his lap for little Oliver to sit upon it. A cheery elf stands nearby with a fancy pen and a tablet of paper to write down what Oliver wants most. The awestruck boy pauses to take it all in, and the gleam in his eye makes my throat tighten and my eyes moisten. There is no mall, no greedy shoppers, and no Catholic guilt. There is no stress, only joy, at the idea of sitting on Santa’s lap.
As Oliver rattles off his list of Christmas wishes, the sounds of chaos and hypocrisy seep back into my ears and mind. I sigh at the comforting and yet depressing thoughts of once having been a carefree child myself. My fingers search the pockets of my jacket, my purse full of gift receipts until they find the camera. Oliver reluctantly pauses in verbalizing his wish list and gives a few dimpled smiles while I snap the shutter. He continues once I’ve gotten a few without him wiggling about, and as I’m putting the camera back into my bag, I feel a tap on my shoulder.
When I turn, Adonis is right there, smiling away. The child in his arms sucks her thumb and tries to keep her eyes open.
“So how about that coffee?”
Coffee is harmless, right? I mean, we’ve both just endured the worst holiday event of the season together. What is a cup of coffee with a new friend? I rub the indentation in my left ring finger. Of course, would the husband approve? Not that he put much consideration into what I would think of his coffee dates with his young, attractive co-workers, or the questionable text messages late at night.
“Coffee would be great,” I hear myself say. “I can meet you at the kiosk at the south end of the mall.”
Oliver runs to my side excitedly and starts telling me about his time with Santa then, and the elf, who once again appears more tired than cheerful, beckons for Hot Guy to bring Tired Baby to Imposter Santa. I move to the side.
“Sounds good. Meet you there in ten,” he says, surprising me with a wink and a dimple. I blush.
The other side of the mall is much quieter. There are a few stores under construction at this end, so most people just buzz in and out of the center benches and kiosks, anxious to be getting to where all of the real shopping action is. It is like breathing fresh air, and I take it in and savor it, feeling my mind begin to unwind. I carefully sip on my peppermint mocha and shift Oliver’s too-hot cocoa in my other hand, watching him climb the animal-shaped play equipment in his snowman socks.
That wasn’t so bad. I mean, it wasn’t a fun experience, but I will be able to report back to the husband that I made it through. Without shooting anyone. Wow. Good for you. One year. Congratulations. I do it every year.
“Operation ‘Santa’s Lap’ officially successful for the year,” Pretty Boy says as he rounds the bench to sit. His little girl is running toward the play equipment, shoes thrown haphazardly to either side of the cushioned carpeting.
“Yes, thank God that’s over with,” I say between drinks, letting the smallest smile tug at my lips while noticing the man’s proximity to me. His arm rests on the back of the bench, behind me. Something stirs in my stomach, and I find myself looking longingly at his full lips as he slurps his own beverage, then guiltily averting them and searching for Oliver instead.
“I couldn’t help but notice how much prettier you are when you smile,” he says. The cheesy line makes me groan and roll my eyes inwardly, but I feel my smile widen. Smooth. “Not that you’re not pretty when you don’t smile. I mean, you just looked extremely stressed out in that line.”
Oliver calls for me to watch his trick off the slide, which is to go down on his tummy. I clap and whoop, which seems to satisfy his need for an audience.
“Yeah, well, I don’t do well with crowds. There’s nothing more I’d love to see than his little face light up, but this just seems ridiculous to me,” I say without looking at Adonis. Feeling awkward and excited and not knowing what to do with my words or my hands, I down the last remaining dregs of my coffee and nervously begin sipping on Oliver’s.
My companion chuckles and takes a drink. “Yeah, seems a little opposite of what the season is supposed to be about doesn’t it? The lines, the crowds, the rudeness… all to get a bunch of shit that someone probably doesn’t really need.”
Finally. Someone on the same wavelength. “Yes! Thank you!” I say explosively, and then blush for my outburst. He looks surprised and then laughs. “Sorry, it just seems like everyone is caught up in this mindset where they have to spend a ton of money and trample other people in order to find a gift. And how thoughtful is it, really, when all you’re doing is surfing Black Friday ads? I hate shopping. I hate what the season has turned into.”
Pretty boy nods, and waves to his little girl, who seems in much better spirits than before. “Yep. Well, you and I at least understand. The rest of the world has gone crazy.”
Flashes of Christmases of long ago fill my mind. Baking cookies with my grandmother, singing Christmas carols in the car on the way to cut a Christmas tree, setting up the porcelain nativity set on the mantle. There were so many good memories growing up, ones that I had planned on passing down to my children as they grew up. But, despite his mother’s devotion to church and all things related, my husband’s idea of Christmas time falls in line with that of everyone else here at the mall. Shop, shop, shop. In fact, it was a Black Friday inspired argument that caused me to cut the wedding band off my finger. I tried to pull it off smoothly and throw it at him, and perhaps it was a sign that the argument was petty in the first place, but it stuck on my knuckle, he walked out, and I was left with a mouthful of unspoken reasons for going to church more often. He didn’t stick around past my Black Friday attacks, and how it tears family apart during the holidays. I’d finally conceded that my mother-in-law had a good point, but I didn’t even get to it.
I feel the anger rise and settle in my throat. My cheeks flush, and a thousand things pass through my mind. How I should be teaching Oliver more meaningful things during this time of year. Despite my insecurities about church, I believe in Christmas. The real Christmas. I think about the contemptuous look on the husband’s face as he slams the door, and all the belittling things I’ve heard him say. I think of how I deserve better, how my son deserves better. My body is trembling and flushing and I know I need to go home to calm down. Maybe cry.
Georgeous Guy has been rustling around in his pockets for a few moments when I finally snap back to the present. I search for Oliver and prepare to bid farewell to my new acquaintance, when his voice stops me in my tracks.
“Ah, look what we’ve got here,” he says. I turn to look at him, and catch his eyes upward, over my head, dimple deep and white teeth gleaming.
Following his gaze, I crane up and see a small bunch of mistletoe pinched between his fingers.
There seem to be minutes, if not hours that pass before I finally breathe. My poor mind is torn between punching him and running, and jumping onto his lap. My cheeks warm and I smile, giving him what I hope is a playful yet scornful look.
But then his lips are on my, and I can’t pretend that my hands aren’t curled into his chest. The kiss is warm, and sweet, and seductive, and wrong. I taste peppermint and guilt, and the flavors mingle beautifully for a split second, just long enough to cause something to stir in my gut. By the time it’s over, the mistletoe hand is at the back of my head, and my heart is beating so hard I’m afraid he can hear it.
There’s conflicting sadness and relief when we part ways. My ring finger throbs for some inexplicable reason, and my phone number is coming out of my mouth before I can stop it. He’s asking me what I’m doing later, and I’m giving noncommittal answers out of sheer disorientation, but find myself agreeing to meet him another time.
He stands, and though I’m ready to go myself, I frown and wish he would stay. Why? Who knows. I’m in between guilty thoughts and desperately wanting someone to talk to.
“Are you leaving?” I ask, hoping not to sound too desperate.
“Unfortunately I have to go. I have church tonight with my family,” he says, tucking the mistletoe back into his pocket.
Wait, who carries mistletoe around with them?
“Yes. I thought I told you. I’m married,” he says. The look of shock and unjustified betrayal must be obvious in my expression, because he immediately tries to provide damage control. “It’s not what you think! We’re separated, but we still agree to do some family stuff together…”
Words continue to tumble out of his mouth, but I stop hearing them. I stand and avoid eye contact, both ashamed and irritated and worried that I may kick him in the throat. If only I could get my foot that high. My eyes search for Oliver, hoping to God that he didn’t see what happened moments ago.
“Goodbye,” I say coldly, and toss the cups in the trash.
He pleads only for a minute, and I pray the entire time I’m fetching Oliver that Scumbag-Hyprocrite Man doesn’t actually call my number.
“Mommy, do you think Santa remembers what I told him?” Oliver asks from the backseat. “There were so many kids there, how does he remember them all?”
I take a deep breath between silent sobs before answering him. “Of course son. Santa is a pretty amazing guy. Magical, actually.”
I check the rearview mirror and wipe the tears and salt-crusted trails from my cheeks.
Santa’s magical, alright. Maybe, if I believe enough, he will bring me back my dignity. And my soul. And my husband. Maybe he’ll bring me something that will fix all my troubles.
Then I chuckle, a realization hitting me as hard as I wanted to hit Loser Guy.
Fuck Santa. I guess I really do need Jesus.
Read More about Nicki at Meet The Writers