“Poor As I Am” (A Modern Tale of Christmas Eves)

David Rodeback, Poor As I Am

“Poor As I Am”
(A Modern Tale of Christmas Eves)

by David Rodeback

Copyright 2016
All rights reserved.

 

Two grad students, wrestling with real life on limited budgets, spend Christmas Eves together. Each year (and sometimes in between), something momentous happens. Along the way, they learn about themselves and each other and Christmas.

One reader writes:

“A lot of writers invent a fake world, maybe because the real world isn’t worthy of them. This writer focuses on the real world and allows the reader to lose herself in the beauty and breathtaking quality of real life. Because real life is beautiful, even if it has rough edges.”

“A gentle, unassuming, powerful story.”

“In an endearing, utterly captivating way, I was brought into the lives of two people who felt too real to be fictional.”

Author's Note
Two Decembers ago, I started writing a Christmas tale, and I’ve returned to work on it annually since then, when in a holiday mood. It’s longer than a short story but far shorter than a novel. (The right word would be novella.) It may get another revision someday, but I think it’s ready for readers. It’s fiction, and I hope reading it is at least half as enjoyable as writing it. Comments are always welcome.

Merry Christmas!

1. Our First Christmas Eve

Our First Christmas Eve

It didn’t start when Anya chewed me out in the lab on Christmas Eve. That was probably when it began to end.

Maybe it started when my parents decided they wanted a child, who turned out to be me. Or when I stumbled across a high school teacher who both diagnosed and nurtured what he called my gift for chemistry.

When I wasn’t so discouraged that I blamed it on my very existence, or so nostalgic that I reflected on having had a fine teacher years before, I traced the beginning of my trouble to the first weekend of December in my second year of graduate school, when I needed a date for a Chemical Engineering Department party.

I asked Laurie, the girl from the bus. As far as I knew, she was the only girl who had smiled at me in months, outside the office or lab or some sort of customer service relationship. Every morning, she was on the bus before I got on and still there when I got off, but I never sat with her. At that hour the bus was empty enough that we passengers would each take a whole seat, using the extra space for our backpacks or laptop cases. Since the rows directly in front of and behind her were never empty, I had never sat near enough to talk with her. But sometimes, if she was looking up when I got on, she smiled at me.

This time, someone got off and left the seat in front of her empty, so I switched seats. She smiled again when I asked her to the party, even though I wasn’t much to look at. Then she said yes. We agreed to meet at the party, in a building on campus.

A week later, when I asked her to a free movie on campus and a late dollar-menu dinner at Wendy’s, she smiled and said yes again.

Laurie was a first-year grad student in Bioinformatics. She wasn’t short or tall or fat or skinny. Her straight, light blonde hair didn’t quite reach her shoulders, but curved cutely around her face. When she was concentrating on a textbook, she puckered her lips very slightly and appeared oblivious to everything and everyone around her – including me, as I sometimes watched her on the bus. When she wasn’t studying, she smiled a lot, so it meant nothing that she smiled at me, except that it helped me summon the courage to ask her out.

Because she rode the bus and always had a sack lunch, I expected her to understand when I said that all I could afford for us was the dollar menu. She did understand. She was a kindred spirit.

There was a sense of “we’re all in this together” among the grad students who rode the city bus to the university every day. Bus passes were free to students, which was good, because free was exactly what we could afford.

There were other students on campus, mostly undergrads, who could afford sports cars and parking passes, and for all I knew, their own private jets. They dressed differently and shopped a lot more. The two groups didn’t mix much socially or academically, and we only paid attention to each other when we were teaching them. The perfect symbol of our separateness was that the graduate and undergraduate libraries were in separate buildings hundreds of yards apart. Or, if you chose a different unit of measure, they were worlds apart.

On our second date Laurie and I both had chili, French fries, and a cup of water. She asked for an empty salad bowl and turned her dinner into chili cheese fries – the cheese on the chili was optional, but no extra charge – and I ate my fries and chili separately, with extra crackers because she gave me hers.

Then her phone rang. Even poor students had cell phones.

“Do you mind?” she asked with apologetic eyes. “It’s my mom.”

“Of course not,” I said. “Go ahead.”

I tried not to listen, but she was sitting right there. There wasn’t much to hear, because her caller did almost all the talking. Eventually Laurie said, “Sure, Mom,” and reached into her purse. She pulled out an American Express Card of a color I had never seen before, looked around cautiously, then softly read the number into the phone, including the extra four-digit code.

Then she said, “No problem. ‘Bye, Mom,” and ended the call.

“Sorry about that,” she said to me. “Mom wants to buy something online, and she left her card downstairs. So she’s using mine.”

Later, as I walked her home, I said cautiously, “I’ve never seen a black AmEx card.”

“I don’t see it much either,” she said. “I almost never use it. But Mom and Dad insist that I have it. More for status than emergencies, I think.”

“What is it?”

“It’s the Centurion. It’s not even made of plastic. It’s actual platinum. The annual fee would pay four or five months of my rent, and it’s for people on the if-you-have-to-ask-the-price-you-can’t-afford-it rung of the economic ladder. You have to be invited, I think.”

Before that moment I didn’t know I could be made to feel so small so quickly.

We had dined at Wendy’s from the dollar menu.

On a date.

While she carried God’s own credit card in her purse.

Charge card. Whatever.

“How rich are you?” I asked, more in self-defense than from curiosity.

She looked at me soberly for a moment, and I expected her to say it was none of my business.

“Rich enough that I find it obscene,” she said with a casual tone that surprised me. “Not rich enough that my parents do. Or my sister.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be. Money’s not a bad thing, all else being equal. I just don’t like the life that comes with having way too much of it.”

“I meant, I’m sorry I couldn’t afford a nicer dinner for our date. Looks like you could.”

“What you need to know is, if Mom uses my card today, it will be the first time it’s been used since I bought my plane ticket to come here. It drives my parents wild that I won’t spend their money the way they do. And I don’t have a trust fund or a big, fat offshore bank account. Or a big, fat onshore bank account, for that matter. They want me to live on money they control. And control is the key word in that sentence.”

“What do you live on?”

“My fellowship, plus what I earn from work, which also drives them wild. For some reason it’s wrong that their daughter should have to work to eat.”

“I don’t understand. If you have money, why not use it? It wouldn’t be unusual. People do it all around us every day.”

“That’s not the crowd I want to fit into, I guess.”

“You want to fit in with starving students like me? Not that I’m actually starving. Almost.”

“Yeah, I guess I do. It’s not poverty itself that’s attractive, though. I want to fit in with people who care about something else more than money – who care enough to be committed to something else. By the way, I’m on an academic fellowship, just like you.”

“I still don’t get it.”

She looked pensive for a moment, then asked, “Why did you ask me to your department party?”

“I needed a date, and you seemed nice. And smart.”

“Why did you ask me out tonight?”

“Because you are nice, and you are smart, and I wanted to see you again.”

“It had nothing to do with my parents’ money?”

“It couldn’t. I didn’t know. And I won’t tell anyone, by the way.”

“Thanks for that, and for demonstrating my point. I want people to see me, not my parents’ money or a black piece of metal. And speaking of things that aren’t made of plastic, to compete for the guys they think I should be dating, I’d have to be into plastic surgery – more and more of it, if I actually caught one of them and wanted to keep him. Or wanted to throw him back and catch another one. With a lot of those guys, a lobotomy would help too. They seem to need to be the only smart ones in their relationships.”

Maybe I should have thought twice before commenting on such things, but I didn’t think once. I just said, “That’s crazy. You don’t need plastic surgery.”

She positively glowed at me. If I hadn’t been wallowing in my humiliation, her smile might have melted my rational, dispassionate engineer’s heart. “There it is,” she said. “I want to date guys who think that.” She took my arm as we walked. “And who think I might enjoy a free movie and dinner from the dollar menu.”

It was gradually dawning on me that she was serious.

“So you’re actually okay eating from the Wendy’s dollar menu on a date?”

“Perfectly. It was fun. Besides, I mostly eat at home, because that’s what I can afford. So going out is kind of a treat.”

“I don’t know if I could do that,” I said.

“Do what?”

“Have money and not use it.”

“Easy to say when I could have it in large quantities, I guess, but it’s not that big a deal. Sure, too little of it gets in the way of a lot of things. But so does too much of it. Too much money doesn’t change people, by the way. It just makes it more obvious who they are. I don’t know whether that’s true of people with too little money, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Well, thanks for letting me pay, even if you have a card in your purse that could buy the whole restaurant.” I still felt very small, but I was glad she was being nice about it, and I thought I managed not to sound bitter.

We had reached her very plain, very ordinary apartment building. “Thanks for paying,” she said. “And for a nice evening.”

That’s when she kissed me for the first time – on the cheek, not the lips, but still . . .

She disappeared inside, leaving me no opportunity – and clearly not expecting me – to kiss her back.

*****

The day after our second date was the first reading day before finals. Nobody’s schedule was normal, and reading days came and went, then finals did the same, without Laurie and me seeing each other on the bus a single time. Part of me was sad, but another part of me was relieved.

I knew from our conversations that she was flying home for a few days between finals and Christmas, then flying back to school on Christmas Eve, while her parents left on a long Christmas cruise. They had invited her to go along, but she had refused. She would return in time to spend Christmas alone, in her apartment.

In the days before she left, I thought about calling her a hundred times. Maybe a thousand times. A few times I even dialed, then immediately cancelled the call.

I liked her. Maybe I even had a crush on her. And she didn’t seem to mind my company, which was unusual for college women in my experience.

Okay, I totally had a crush on her. But I also felt so small that I couldn’t bring myself to call her. Her black platinum card and everything it symbolized were too much for me.

My mind told me that her money and my lack of money didn’t make me unworthy of her, but my heart was convinced that it did. And my heart – which wasn’t so rational and dispassionate after all – won every round. I didn’t call.

Still, I watched the calendar day by day, knowing when she flew home, and thinking of her flying back on Christmas Eve. I wouldn’t be home for Christmas either, but in my case it was because neither I nor my mother could afford the fare.

I knew my poverty was temporary. Eventually, I’d finish school and get a job, and my field paid well. Until I met Laurie – or until I met her AmEx card – I didn’t know I cared so much about money. I didn’t want to care that much, and I tried not to. And sometimes I thought I was succeeding, right up to the moment when I cancelled the call. Because I did care.

*****

By 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve I had cared myself into a dark place, literally and figuratively – and I didn’t want to stay there. I needed music. Christmas music. And light.

The only remedy I could devise was to dress up a little and walk several blocks to the cathedral downtown, where I knew there would be Midnight Mass. I wasn’t Catholic – I wasn’t anything, really – but I had seen information about the Mass on the cathedral’s little sign when I walked past, and I knew there would be music and light.

I had nothing else to do, so I was there before 11 p.m. – an hour early, but it wasn’t like a concert, where they opened the doors half an hour before starting time. The church was always open. I took a seat near the back, at the end of a pew, near the side of the cathedral. I didn’t want to take a better seat away from a real Catholic. I looked at the evening’s program, opened a hymnal, and thumbed through it until I found the Christmas hymns. I started reading them while I listened to the musicians warming up. I could already tell that I had found the proper antidote to my evening.

I closed my eyes and listened as the choir worked on a difficult passage for a few minutes, so I didn’t notice someone sitting beside me in the mostly-empty cathedral until she spoke.

“Hi!” the voice said softly. “Is it okay if I sit here? Or are you saving seats for someone?”

I wanted to be annoyed at the interruption, but a conundrum distracted me. What was the right answer? She had asked two questions which required opposite answers.

Without really looking at her, I scooted the last few inches toward the end of the pew, as if to make more room. I wondered why she even had to ask. I felt completely alone, and it seemed like that should have been obvious even to strangers.

Then I realized that I knew the voice. Actually looking at her confirmed that she wasn’t a stranger.

Laurie. My Laurie, said something inside me. She was looking at me, radiant but quizzical. Quizzical but radiant.

“Hi!” she repeated.

“Hi,” I said, mentally scrambling for something more to say. “How was San Diego?”

“Warm outside, a bit cold inside where the parents were. In other words, normal. Are you sure you don’t mind if I sit by you?”

“I don’t mind.”

She hesitated before continuing. “Because you never called.” It wasn’t an accusation. She sounded sad. “I was hoping you would call.”

I looked up at her for a moment, then stared at the pew in front of me. “Sorry. I thought about calling.” A thousand times, I didn’t say.

“Why didn’t you?”

A family sat directly in front of us, which threatened to ruin our private moment. They consulted each other, then moved toward the front – but not before Laurie leaned closer and switched to a whisper. The warmth of her breath did strange, magical things to my pulse.

“Why didn’t you call? I was hoping you would.”

I shrugged.

“I thought we had a good time together,” she said. “Both times.”

I nodded.

“I sneaked out of my parents’ house the other day and drove to Wendy’s for chili and fries, and I thought of you. But the chili’s better when it’s cold outside.” After a moment’s pause she added, “And it’s better with you.”

I finally looked at her again. Beautiful, shining Laurie. She belonged in a cathedral.

“I’m really not worth thinking about,” I said.

“Why?”

I shrugged.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I was starting to think you liked me.”

I looked down and blushed.

When I didn’t answer she said, “You do like me.”

I nodded.

She was silent for a moment. Then she whispered, “Is this about my money?”

I shrugged.

“You won’t even talk to me? You just nod and shrug?” She didn’t sound angry, just hurt. “At least we could talk before.”

I looked up, summoned my courage, and tried to explain. We were still whispering. “I had a wonderful time with you. I do like you. But I took a girl with a black Amex card – seriously, does God even have one of those? – I took you to Wendy’s for the dollar menu, because that’s all I could afford. I’m sorry, but it was humiliating. And every time I wanted to call you, I relived the humiliation.”

She bit her bottom lip for a moment, then whispered, “Thanks for telling me.” She looked toward the front and took a deep breath. “Let me see if I understand. I’m not judging you for being poor, but you’re judging me for being rich? No, wait. You’re not judging me. You’re judging yourself for being poor.”

I started to whisper something, then something else. Finally I just said, “I guess so.”

I waited for her to reply, but she didn’t. She didn’t move, either. She just watched the musicians up front.

The cathedral was almost full by 11:25 p.m., which surprised me until I saw in the program that there was half an hour of music before the Mass.

At 11:26 she asked, “Is it still okay if I sit by you during the service? I don’t know anyone else here.”

I nodded.

“Thank you,” she said.

At 11:29 she asked, “Are you religious?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to hear some Christmas music.”

“Me too. And I guess I’m a little bit religious, at least enough to like the religious carols better than the other ones.”

We listened to the music without speaking again, until it ended and the service itself was about to begin. In the brief interval she whispered, “Do you have any money?”

“Five dollars.”

“What are your plans for it?”

“I thought I might put it in the collection plate.”

“I have five dollars. If I put it in the plate for both of us, will you spend some of your five on me tomorrow?”

“On Christmas?”

“Yes, I do believe tomorrow is Christmas.”

“Okay, if you want me to. How? Where?”

“Well, I don’t see myself being in the mood for fries tomorrow, but I was hoping you would take me to Wendy’s for a bowl of Christmas chili. Two bowls, actually. One for each of us.”

“That sounds okay. But why?”

“Because you and I need to have a serious chat, and during Mass it would just be rude. That, and I want to spend part of Christmas with you.”

She wanted to spend Christmas with me. Some of it, anyway. Part of me was delighted. I wanted to take her in my arms and gaze with rapture into her eyes. But another part of me found her affection for me impossible, or at least profoundly unlikely, and required an explanation.

So I said seriously, “As opposed to . . . ?”

“As opposed to alone in my apartment,” she said equally seriously.

I had the presence of mind to act as if the impossible were possible. “Okay,” I said. “How about 2:00?”

“Perfect. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

I mostly watched the Mass after that. The solemnity and the novelty of it, and maybe the joy and reverence of it too, intermittently pulled me away from the confusing mix of thoughts and feelings Laurie inspired. I was better with books, computers, equations, data, theories. People were another matter – and I had very little experience with women who were interested in me.

I stole a few glances at her. She watched the service with rapt attention, but she caught me looking at her a couple of times and smiled.

Some of the Christmas music brought tears to her eyes. Later, as I walked her home, she babbled enthusiastically about it – all of it, piece by piece. What moved her most was the choir singing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” a cappella, and our singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” with the whole congregation standing, the orchestra playing at the front, and the organ roaring behind us. I thought it was impressive too, but it didn’t move me the way it moved her. I didn’t sing the congregational hymns with her abandon, and my cheeks didn’t show the tracks of tears when it was done.

“I’m more of a believer at Christmas,” she said. “For some reason, when I sing ‘O come, let us adore him’ with a thousand people and a big organ, that’s what I want to do, come and adore him.” She shrugged. “But I’m not a very good believer, I guess, because then it pretty much wears off until the next year.”

“I like the music,” I said, “but I don’t think I could call it a religious experience for me. Tonight was my first Mass, so it was partly just a curiosity.”

We reached the front steps of her building and stopped. “Are you glad you went?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She hesitated, then asked, “Are you glad I went?”

I probably should have smiled then, but I just looked into her eyes and said, “Yes.”

She smiled enough for both of us. “Thanks for walking me home.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“Pick me up here in eleven and a half hours?” It was 2:30 a.m.

“Okay.”

“It will be fun.”

I nodded and finally smiled a little.

She looked up at me a little shyly, I thought, and said, “If I turn my cheek toward you like this, will you know what to do with it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Prove it.”

I kissed her awkwardly on the cheek. She beamed.

“Your turn,” she said.

I turned my head slightly and leaned down a bit. Her kiss was somehow both firm and gentle, and I wished I had shaved before Mass.

“Merry Christmas, Rick,” she said.

“Merry Christmas, Laurie,” I echoed.

“Good night,” she said, then giggled. “I mean, good morning!” She disappeared into her building before I could reply.

2. Our First Christmas

Our First Christmas

I floated away in a happy, exhausted haze. Laurie was the only date who had ever kissed me, even on the cheek, and now she had done it twice. I had never kissed a date before. And it seemed likely that both of those things would be happening again soon.

When I got home, I was too tired to think for very long about the girl who liked me enough to be hurt that I was put off by her money – and liked me enough to do something about it. And to kiss me. And to want me to kiss her. I was also too tired to wonder whether my response to her wealth was anything more than foolish pride. I just fell asleep.

When I awoke in late morning, it was time to open the gifts Mom and my sister had sent me, so I would know what they were before I called them at 12:30, as scheduled. I had no Christmas tree; the gifts were stacked atop a pile of books near the wall.

If I could have afforded a Christmas tree, I wouldn’t have had room for it. Calling my place a studio apartment was an injustice to studio apartments. There was room for a bed, a desk, and a small bookcase. The closet was as small as my wardrobe, the bathroom was adequate but not much larger, and the corner which passed for a kitchen was just enough for me, which wasn’t saying much.

I had a decent chair for working at my desk, plus a secondhand folding chair for my guests, but I never had any guests. It usually held books.

The rent was right, the location was good, the Internet connection was reliable, and the other tenants in the building were quiet enough that home was a good place to study. It was everything I needed, with room for very little that I didn’t need.

Mom’s gifts were about what I expected: a used book of some interest, a scarf she had crocheted herself, a framed photo of her and my little sister, a generous batch of snickerdoodles which had mostly survived its time with the Postal Service, and a Christmas card.

My sister’s gifts were a pound of European chocolate bars, which I knew must have set her back a few hours’ babysitting wages, and a chatty letter about her life as a ninth grader. Dori – short for Theodora, a family name she didn’t hate as much as everyone thought she should – began her letter with characteristic candor.

“Dear Dufus: Life was more fun when you were an undergrad and lived at home. I miss you, especially at Christmas. I’d tell you that you totally suck for running away from your little sister to go to grad school, except that wouldn’t be true, because you don’t suck. At least not totally. So anyway . . .”

I would read and reread the entire letter, but first I skipped to the end, at the bottom of page five, to see how she had signed it. “Love, Dorki,” it said. I had called her that for about half of her lifetime, though not lately. I knew that she liked her friends to call her that – partly so other people wouldn’t think it was funny to call her dorky.

I set the letter aside to read over breakfast – well, lunch – and looked at the picture. It was recent, I could tell, because Mom looked a little older than I remembered, and Dori looked a little more grown up. It was the whole family, except me, because Dad had been gone since Dori was a toddler. The last time I had been home for a family picture was the day I left for grad school, almost a year and a half ago – and Mom had sent me that picture the previous Christmas.

I propped the framed photo on the bookshelf, in front of some books, next to last year’s photo.

I looked at both images, comparing this year’s Dori to last year’s. Last year she was cute. This year she was almost pretty – and she would have been, if she’d put any effort into it. I wondered if the guys at school noticed anything more than her intelligence and her sarcastic wit. I wondered if there were guys who liked those things in her, and who could see past her perfect GPA, her refusal to use makeup, and her utilitarian haircut, to see the beautiful person she was becoming.

She had Mom’s looks. I had Dad’s. The opposite would have been bad, at least for her.

For lunch I had a bowl of plain oatmeal – my usual breakfast – and too many snickerdoodles for dessert. But it was a big batch, so even after my little binge I could ration and enjoy a cookie or two a day for a couple of weeks.

Then I called Mom and Dori and talked for most of an hour. They’d said that’s all the gift they wanted this year, but I had also sent them a small gift certificate, so they could go out for ice cream, and two stickers with my school’s logo.

At 1:45 p.m. I left my apartment, then went back in to get the scarf. I didn’t wear scarves, but it was cold, and I could at least wear it once, so I could tell Mom I had done it. I procrastinated actually putting it on and stuffed it into my coat pocket instead. My other pocket held four snickerdoodles in a plastic bag – dessert for our dollar menu lunch.

At 2:00 p.m. sharp I rang Laurie’s bell. I heard someone on the stairs inside, and then she opened the door and came out. Bounced out, almost. “Hi! Merry Christmas!” she exulted.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, smiling but not bouncing at all.

“What did you do today already?” she asked, so I told her. She was disappointed that I hadn’t brought the picture with me.

“I could have called my parents,” she said. “They have a satellite phone. But I thought I’d wait and see if they call me. They probably won’t.”

“Did you open any presents?” I asked.

“Four. One from myself, a book I’ve been wanting to read and finally found at a used bookstore. Three from my roommates: some chocolate, a video, and enough microwave popcorn to get me through the video.”

“That’s nice, but nothing from your parents?”

“Not today. I opened a couple of things early when I was in San Diego, but I left them there. I can’t really use them. What I could have used was a scarf. I lost mine last week. I may have to break down and buy one tomorrow. Good thing it’s sunny this afternoon.”

That was when I decided that Fate was a romantic, even if my ego wasn’t. She caught me smiling about that.

“What? You think it’s funny that a rich girl doesn’t have a scarf?” Her tone was gentler than her words, but I assumed she wasn’t just teasing me.

“No, it’s not that.”

“What, then?”

My smile grew. “Mom made a gift for me, which I will never use, unless I wear it just once so I can say I did. I want to give it to you.” I pulled out the scarf. “Compliments of my mother and her son. If you like it, you should keep it.”

She took it and examined it. It was blue and green, and there was something about the yarn Mom had used that made it shimmer in the sunlight. “Your mom made this? It’s beautiful!”

“Thank you. She’s a beautiful person.”

“You won’t get in trouble for giving it to me?”

“Nope.”

“Are you sure?”

“If I tell her that I was on a date with a girl who had lost her scarf and was cold, and I gave it to her, and she loved it, so I told her to keep it, she’ll be even happier than if I sent her a picture of me wearing it. Besides, it will look a lot better on you.”

She put it around her neck, adjusted it just so, and glowed like it was Christmas – which, of course, it was.

“Do you have anything else up your sleeve, or shall I give you your gift?”

“She sent me a batch of snickerdoodles. I have four of them for our dessert.”

“Perfect! Anything else?”

“Nope.”

“Then here’s what I brought you. I noticed you needed gloves. These are work gloves, technically, even though they’re just cloth, but they’ll be warmer than nothing, and they don’t take up much space in a pocket or a laptop case.”

“Thank you. I can definitely use these.”

“They’re the best I could do at the convenience store this morning – within my budget at least. They were only $1.99. And they’re not nearly as wonderful as this scarf.” She stroked it with her hand. “This is beautiful – and warm too.”

“Do you always tell people how much you paid for their gifts?”

“Oh, I can’t believe I did that. No, I don’t. Ever.” Her look was partly chagrin, but partly amusement at herself, which I thought was adorable. “Until today, I guess. Anyway, I hope you like them, even if I did tell you the price.”

“If you promise not to tell my mom, I’ll tell you something.”

“What are we? Five years old?” She laughed. “I promise.”

“I like these better than the scarf. And I’ll actually use them. Thank you!”

Over lunch we talked about our parents, who weren’t very much alike, and our sisters, who were alike in some ways. She wanted to hear some of Dori’s letter, if I didn’t mind, and I had brought it with me, so I read her the whole thing. She smiled while she listened, and I caught her brushing away a tear or two.

I hoped she would tell me what she was thinking, but she didn’t, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask her. If she had wanted to tell me, I thought, she wouldn’t have focused so intently on her chili, when I finished reading.

Finally she looked up for a moment. She smiled a little, but she seemed sad, or at least far away. All she said was, “Thanks for reading that. Dori must be an amazing sister.”

“I like her a lot,” I said.

We ate slowly, but it wasn’t as if anyone was waiting for our table. Wendy’s was mostly empty. I broke out the first two cookies, and we savored those slowly too. She must have liked hers, because it wasn’t long before she asked me, “Didn’t you say you brought four cookies?”

“I think I did say that, yes.”

“What would a girl have to do to get you to pull out the other two?”

“I’m glad you like them.”

“I do like them. But you didn’t answer my question.”

“I don’t know. Ask, maybe. No, wait. Didn’t you say we need to have a serious talk?”

“I guess I did.”

“So let’s have that talk, and then we’ll have the other two.”

“That’s fair,” she said. Her face and her tone became serious. “I kind of like you. You know that, right? I mean, I don’t want to be too forward, but I’ve tried not to leave much room for doubt.”

I tried to ignore my heart and be calm and rational. “You’ve succeeded. In what ways do you like me?”

“You’re kind and gentle and smart. You study hard. The geek in me loves your dry, geeky sense of humor. I like talking with you. And here’s a new one from today: I like the way you talk about your mom and your sister. I can’t imagine my sister talking about me that way, but I wish she would. It’s like they really matter to you, but you don’t have to keep saying that. It’s just obvious from the way you talk about them. And I like your family too. I guess you noticed that Dori’s letter made me cry. I’m a little bit jealous of you having a family like that. More than a little.”

I knew I should have felt and said something sympathetic, but I was more selfish than that. I just smiled and hoped she’d keep listing things she liked about me.

“And I’ve already told you that I like how you seem interested in me, not my money.”

My smile probably faded a little just then. Her money was still a painful subject.

“You’re welcome to talk too,” she said.

I could smile at that. “I’m not going to interrupt a girl who’s listing all the things she likes about me. I’m not stupid.”

“Suppose I tell you that was the whole list?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Is it?”

“No, but it’s all you’re getting now.”

I nodded. “Therefore, what?”

“Therefore what what? I don’t understand.”

“You like me, and I like you,” I said. “Therefore, what?”

She looked at me with big, beautiful, serious eyes and took a deep breath.

“Therefore, I need to know if this money thing is going to be a problem for us.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, I guess, are you willing and able to set aside your pride or whatever and believe that I’m actually happy and content to be living on a shoestring, and I’m not slumming and planning to fall back on my parents’ money as soon as things get inconvenient? And I’m not making some sort of political point?”

She shrugged and continued. “I just want a different life from my parents. I want to be happy, and I can’t do that living their life. I’ve tried. I was miserable. Right now, I want to study hard, earn my degree, and go on dinner dates to places with a dollar menu. And after that, well, I want a normal life with normal problems and surrounded by normal people.”

She laughed, and her eyes sparkled playfully. “Or people like you. Normal isn’t everything.” Then she was serious again. “So what do you think?”

I smiled briefly at her teasing, but then I said soberly, “I don’t think it will be easy. It hasn’t been so far. But I think I’ve made some progress since yesterday. I’m willing to try. You’re worth it. I really like spending time with you.”

She didn’t sound pleased by my declaration. “You’re willing to try, if it means spending time with me?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Not good enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“Trying isn’t good enough. I don’t want you to try. I want you to succeed.”

I was going to have to man up and fight for her, I realized – fight myself for her.

“Okay, I’ll succeed,” I said with determination. “When I said I’ll try, I meant I’m not sure I’ll be perfect right away. But I’ll keep trying until it’s not a problem any more.”

“And if you’re tempted to relapse?”

When I’m tempted, I’ll try harder.”

“Whatever it takes?”

“Whatever it takes, for as long it takes. Even if you have to chew me out again,” I said earnestly.

“Because I’m worth it?”

I smiled. “Because you’re worth a lot more than that.”

Her gaze softened, but she still looked concerned.

“What’s your next worry?” I asked.

“That I’m acting like a spoiled rich girl and badgering you until I get my way. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the dominant one in our relationship. If we’re going to have a relationship.”

“You want me to be the dominant one?”

“No,” she said. “Does one of us have to be?”

“I don’t see why,” I said. “Equal partners?”

“Perfect.”

I tried to look puzzled, so I wouldn’t have to feel brave. “Does this mean we’re dating?”

She was deliberately obtuse, and it was adorable. “We’re on a date. It’s not our first,” she said, as if thinking things through with great care. “We might be dating.”

Brave would be better, I thought, and I smiled. “Does this mean we’re dating seriously?”

Her eyes held mine for a long moment. Finally she said, “I am willing to be as serious as you want to be, as long as we don’t go too fast, and as long as we can both be serious about our studies at the same time.”

“Be patient and get to know each other?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Take it slow?”

“Yeah.”

“And then?”

“And then . . . I’m open to the possibilities.”

My mind was still trying to catch up with everything, but my heart was fine on its own for a while. Maybe I could do this after all. She was worth it.

“So am I,” I said.

We looked at each other, and I hoped my eyes held as much fondness as hers. If my heart had any say in the matter, they did.

“Is that all the serious conversation you wanted to have today?” I asked softly.

She nodded.

“Okay. Give me your hand.”

She held out her hand – shyly, I thought, and I smiled at the realization that things had changed for us in the last few minutes, to the point that I could ask confidently for her hand. I put a cookie in it.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Give me your other hand. Please.”

I put the other cookie in it.

“Isn’t one of these for you?” she asked.

“No, they’re both for you. I ate about dozen of them for lunch.”

“I am not sitting here and eating two cookies in front of you, while you eat none.”

“I guess I could eat another one. For you.”

“That’s better.” She handed one back to me and lifted the other. “Thanks for dessert.”

“You’re welcome.”

When the cookies were gone, I cleared the table and helped her with her coat. Before we went out the door into the cold, I tried to arrange her scarf the way she had, and she actually let me. Then I pulled out my new gloves.

“Give me your hand again,” I said.

“I’m not wearing your new gloves while your hands freeze.”

“If we’re going to be dating, we need to learn to trust each other.”

She held out her right hand, and I put the glove on it. Then I put the other glove on my left hand.

“Now give me your other hand.” She did, and I took it with my bare hand, and interlaced my fingers with hers. “Is that better?” I asked.

She nodded happily. “I feel like I should share my scarf somehow.”

“That sounds like it might be dangerous.”

“Yeah, I guess it does. You’ll just have to think warm thoughts.”

“That won’t be problem,” I said. And it wasn’t.

We held hands all the way to her place, enjoying what felt to me like an important conversation about utterly unimportant things.

As we approached her front steps, I mustered my courage again and said, “I don’t see any mistletoe, but if we’re officially dating, we don’t need it, right?”

“Hold that thought,” she said, and stood on the first step, so that we were eye to eye.

She took the glove off her hand and put it in my pocket – a small intimacy which thrilled me. Then she took my face in her hands and said, “Thank you.”

“I haven’t kissed you yet. Sure you’ll want to thank me after I do?”

She smiled gently. “Thank you for the best Christmas I can remember.”

“You’re welcome. It’s a pretty good Christmas for me too.”

“You miss your family more than I miss mine.”

“Yeah, I guess so. But I got some nice gloves.”

“And a girlfriend?” she asked.

“Not sure I was expecting that, but that’s even better.”

“You mean it?”

“Better than a pair of gloves? Yeah. Maybe less practical,” I teased.

“I can be practical. And I’m warmer than a pair of gloves.”

“I take it back.”

“I was pretty forward,” she said tentatively.

“Just forward enough, I think.”

A guy could get lost in her big, earnest eyes, I thought. And I was about to.

“I was afraid you’d push me away,” she said.

“I think I’m done doing that,” I said.

She smiled. “I like that even more than I like this scarf. And that’s a lot.”

“I’m glad. I’m going to kiss you now.”

Her eyes twinkled. “Thanks for the warning.”

*****

On our fourth cheap date, on the day after Christmas, she asked me, “So what do you want to do with your degree when you grow up?”

“Engineering, maybe some teaching.”

“Husband and father too?”

My pulsed quickened. “I thought we were going slowly,” I said, but I liked our direction of travel.

“We are. We’re just getting acquainted.”

“Okay. And yes.”

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think you need a woman for that. And speaking for my gender as a whole, we’re not exactly falling at your feet. You should probably get to work on that. You’re not getting any younger.” I loved her impish grin.

“I only need one,” I said.

She smiled.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“I want enough of a career that I can work from home while I raise some children, then go back to it. I don’t have to be CEO or anything. And I refuse to be a single Mom, so I guess I’ll need a husband. As you say, I only need one. And maybe I’ll like being a mom so much that I won’t want to work if I don’t have to. But if I have to, that’s good too.”

“A little different from your own mom.”

“Yes, but a lot like Nanny Marie.”

“First you have to finish your degree,” I said.

“Because things don’t always go as planned,” she said. “Plus I love it. And I’m good at it.”

“So not the life of a wealthy heiress, then?”

“No. If they haven’t already written me out of the will, it probably won’t be long. It’s like we’re from two different planets, but they think I should live on theirs, and they’re not above crass manipulation to get me there, or punishing me if that doesn’t work. For my own good, of course, even if I can’t breathe in their atmosphere.”

“I’m sure they’re not all bad,” I said.

“No. We’re just different. Irreconcilably incompatible. They expect me to do my duty to the family and be their little rich girl, and the only part of that I like is girl.”

“I’m glad you’re a girl.”

She smiled. “And just in case you missed my not-so-subtle subtext,” she said, “I’m happier here than I ever have been or ever could be in their world. I’m even happier here with you.”

“I still don’t completely understand that. Or very much at all.”

“It used to be mostly rebellion, I think, when I was, like, twelve. But it’s not that any more. I never liked who I was when I was in that world, and there was never anything there that I wanted to be. I hope you don’t think I’m narcissistic when I say this, but I love this me. I love who I am now. It is who I am. And here I can see the path from who I am to who I want to be. I can’t do that in their world.”

“You think maybe they accidentally switched babies in the maternity ward?”

“I actually used to think that. I said it to Nanny once, but she said it wasn’t that. It was that I . . .” She blushed slightly and shook her head. “Never mind. I can’t say it.”

“Yes, you can.”

She looked at me silently.

“But you don’t have to say it if you don’t want to,” I said.

“I think I want to.” She took a deep breath. “But only to you.” She put her head on my shoulder.

“Nanny is devoutly religious. She told me that every two or three generations, God sends a misfit into a family, someone different and good, who can save the family, if they want to be saved, or who can at least escape its gravity. Well, help God save the family, she said. Apparently, God does the actual saving. In my family she thought that was me. That’s why she stayed with me even after she could have retired.”

“May I tell you something?” I asked seriously. I was feeling something I couldn’t remember feeling before, something light and warm.

“Of course. Is my self-image completely out of control? You can tell me. I deserve it.”

“No, it’s not that. And you know I’m not religious. But I believe her about you.” I held her tightly and wondered if she was sent to save me too. “I believe her.”

She slowly raised her hand to cover her mouth, and she looked down. I saw her start to blush again, but then it mostly went away.

Finally she looked up at me and asked, “Do you know you who are?”

“That’s debatable,” I said. “Who am I?”

“You are absolutely the sweetest man I ever met. You’re much too good for me. And you’re about to be kissed.”

She was right about that last part, at least.

3. The Next December

The Next December

The following year, in mid-December, Laurie and were having one of our countless library dates. As far as we could see, we were the only ones on the floor, and it was still an hour until closing time.

She yawned discretely. “If I try to read one more sentence, my eyes will roll back into my head and probably get stuck there forever,” she said.

“I’ve been staring at the same page for at least half an hour,” I replied. “Are you ready to go home?”

“We could do that, or . . .” Her eyes twinkled.

“Or what?” I asked unnecessarily.

“We could sit on that couch over there and talk for a while.”

“Talk in the library?” I asked. “Or is that a euphemism?” On our study dates we sat on different sides of library tables, so we could study something besides each other.

“Making out in the library would be fun, but let’s just sit and talk for a while. I’m pretty sure we can talk about anything we want and no one will hear us.”

When we were comfortably situated on the not-very-comfortable sofa, with my arm around her and her head on my shoulder, I asked, “So what did you want to talk about?”

“Whatever,” she said. “As long as we can do this while we talk. If we fall asleep here, do you think they’ll wake us up at closing time?”

“If not sooner. But we haven’t seen any of their anti-romance patrols tonight.”

“Not that much to patrol after finals and before Christmas, I guess, except at our table. But we probably looked like we were studying.”

“We were studying.”

“Of course we were,” she said. “That’s why we looked like it. But we were studying with romance in our hearts.”

“They probably couldn’t see that.”

“We look a little more suspicious now.”

“We could try for a lot more suspicious,” I said.

“I like you,” she said with feeling, looking up at me.

A few minutes later, she leaned back on the sofa, closed her eyes, and said, “I like kissing in the library. It feels naughty. But I guess there are some things we could actually talk about.”

“If you talk, I’ll listen.”

“Okay, first of all, you know how we both say ‘I love you’ when we say goodbye, and once in a while at other times?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Next time I tell you that,” she said, “I want you to remember something.”

“Okay. What?”

She looked at me. “I want you to remember that this year with you in it has been the happiest year of my life. Thank you.”

I just looked at her for a minute, speechless. I wondered if it even made sense that we had been together for a year, and I was still amazed that I was the one she loved, the one she wanted.

“I should be thanking you,” I said quietly.

She shook her head. “I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

She glared a little.

“Okay. You’re welcome.” I paused. “You really are. But it’s a happy year for me too, thanks to you.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “Do you mind if we talk about the future for minute?”

“Not at all, “ I said. I didn’t feel ready to talk about the future, but I couldn’t say that.

“Okay, well, I have two years left to finish my degree. You have two years left to finish yours.”

“Maybe three,” I said.

“Or maybe three. Where do you see us after that?”

I dodged the question. “Where do you see us?” I asked.

“You want the whole truth?”

I hesitated. “I’m not sure. Do I?”

“Let’s find out. How can I put this? I see us having better places to snuggle than the library. I see us not having to stop it and go home at an appointed hour, because we already are home. I see a simple ring on my finger, with one small but pretty stone, and an even simpler one on yours. And since neither of us would cheat on a spouse, it follows, if we’re going to be snuggling, etc., that we’ll have given each other those rings.”

We had talked before about having a future together, so there were no surprises in what she was saying, but hearing her say it helped my joy drown out my terror. I was still a coward, so I replied to the most trivial part of what she’d said.

“You don’t want a big, elaborate ring? Isn’t that what girls dream about?”

“I did want that, briefly. I was young and foolish. Now I’m a little older and a lot happier. Is this about my money?”

“Not really. More about my lack of money, I guess.”

She didn’t chew me out, even if I did deserve it, and she didn’t look hurt. That was good. She just said, “Our lack of money.”

“Okay,” I said. It was time to be less of a coward, I thought. “Are you proposing that we officially merge our possessive pronouns?” I asked. I intended the question to sound less serious than it was. Or more serious. I wasn’t sure.

She was silent for a moment. She probably wasn’t sure how serious my question was, either. Then she said, “My proposing would be sort of backwards, wouldn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“What I’m saying is, there’s no great rush, and we both have degrees to finish, but when you feel like you’re ready, I’m open to the possibilities.” She smiled – almost mischievously, I thought. “Well, I’m saying that and one other thing. The other thing is, I dream of changing my last name to yours, setting up housekeeping in some cozy little cottage with you, and raising our babies together. If that’s what you want too. And I’m still not proposing. I’m just telling you my thoughts.”

I was feeling better and better about the future – and about discussing it. “When you said candid, you weren’t kidding,” I said appreciatively.

“True.”

“You could keep your last name. People do that.”

“I don’t really love my last name, inasmuch as I got it from my parents.”

“That makes sense. Any more candor for me?”

“How about this? Before we can raise our babies, we have to make our babies.” She giggled. “You’re blushing.”

“You’re not.”

“I feel like I might blush soon, if that counts for anything.”

I chuckled. “Not really.”

“And I don’t mean to hog all the candor, if you have some for me.”

She made me want to be candid too. And brave.

“Okay,” I said. “I dream about that too. And I won’t always be poor. I’ll have a good job. That’s sort of the point of the degree. But I’ll probably never be rich. And sometimes it still really eats at me that I can’t even afford to take you to a decent restaurant once in a while.”

She sat up suddenly and took my face in her hands – not violently, but not tenderly either. Firmly. “Okay, stop it!” she said. “We’ve been seeing each other for a year now. I need you to get it through your thick, macho skull once and for all that I don’t care about my family’s money. I don’t have it. I don’t care that I don’t have it. No, that’s not true. I love that I don’t have it.

“I don’t care that you’re a starving student. Those Wendy’s dollar-menu dates we can barely afford are amazing. So are these library dates. And if I have to live on a shoestring for the rest of my life, that’s wonderful too, if it’s with you.”

There was a fire in her eyes that I hadn’t often seen.

“My parents started on a shoestring,” she said. “Then they got some money, and I got a nanny. They’re not criminals, as far as I know, but they’re useless. They’re worse than useless. They’re parasites. And as parents go, they’re petty, manipulative, and only intermittently interested. They didn’t used to be like that.”

“When you do candor, you really do candor.”

She visibly relaxed. “I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. I just have to try not to say most of it to my parents. But the larger point is, I love you. I love that you love me. We can’t let money change that – the money we have or the money we don’t.

“Okay,” I said.

“Just ‘okay’?”

“No, not just that. But I feel like I’m smaller than you deserve. Socially, economically, you know.”

“And I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. But the idea that money still comes between us? That’s in your head, not mine, and it might just break my heart.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just promise me that it won’t break my heart.”

I looked into her eyes again, which was good medicine for just about anything that might ail me. “I promise. And for what it’s worth, the relapses are getting less frequent and less severe.”

“Thank you,” she said. Then she kissed me. Eagerly, urgently, at length. I happily did my part.

“I love you,” she said, when we came up for air.

“I love you too,” I said. “And I have a confession to make.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “A happy one, I hope.”

“I think we have to consider it happy, in view of the promise I just made.”

“Now I’m curious.”

“I’ve been saving money for an engagement ring.” I shrugged. “But it’s going to be a while.”

Her smile was dazzling, unrestrained.

“I can wait,” she said. “How much have you saved?”

“Not enough,” I said.

“How much is enough?”

“I have no idea. But it has to be more than $573. I mean, there’s the engagement ring and the wedding band too.”

“Don’t forget your ring. I’m saving for that. $342 so far. That’s my little confession. But I don’t know how much is enough, either.” She grinned. “I see a ring-shopping date in our future, if only for research.”

“Soon?”

“How about when I get home from my pre-Christmas trip to see the parents? December 23, maybe? What a fun thing to do at Christmas!”

“Shop for things we can’t afford?” I smiled, so she wouldn’t think I was having another relapse already.

“No. Shop for things we can eventually afford. Besides, it will give me something to look forward to while I’m in San Diego. I can use that.”

“Okay. Dollar-menu date?”

“Maybe. Let’s shop first, then decide. Maybe we’ll want to give the ring funds a tiny little boost instead.”

It was closing time, so I walked her home. The weight of my relative poverty was noticeably less crushing than before.

*****

Two days later, during our daily call, she announced, “I have a little surprise for you. I’m not sure it’s a happy one, but it’s definitely a surprise.”

“Okay.”

“How would you like to meet my parents tomorrow?”

I was silent for a moment. “Sure, I guess.”

“But what? I thought I heard a ‘but.’”

“I sort of thought you were hiding me from them.”

“You really need to get to know me better,” she said. “I’ve been hiding them from you.”

“I think I understand.”

“Thank you. You’ll understand a lot better after spending some time with them. Here’s how it works. They come to town, stay in the nicest hotel they can find, invite me to brunch the next morning, complain about the hotel the whole time, invite themselves to my apartment, forget about the hotel when they see my little studio flat, tell me I should be living somewhere bigger and nicer because they can afford it, take me shopping for things I don’t want or need, then – here’s where you come in – take us out to dinner someplace really nice where there’s not enough food but it’s really fancy. And expensive. That’s the crucial part.”

“Sounds like fun,” I said, even though it didn’t.

“It’s not. But it’s necessary. And whatever they buy me that I don’t need, I’ll return it, if I can, and donate it to our ring funds.”

“Then I hope it’s something really expensive,” I said. “But I doubt they’ll like me.”

“They won’t. They’ll already have walked me through a short list of their rich friends’ sons, guys I should be dating. And I’ll have told them I am dating someone. That’s why they’ll invite you to dinner. Before they meet you, Dad will have said, ‘I hope you’re being careful.’ Mom will have asked if it’s serious, and at some point she’ll have wondered aloud if we’re sleeping together.

“Maybe I’ll say, ‘No, Mom, we’re not fooling around. We’re more serious than that about school and about life.’ And she’ll wonder if that’s snarky daughter code for ‘No, Mom, I’m trying not to be like you.’ She’ll be right, but we won’t argue. That comes later.”

“At dinner?”

“No, I hope not. The next morning, before they leave, Dad will say, ‘We were watching you two at dinner. You’re obviously very fond of each other.’ I’ll interrupt and say it’s more than that. We love each other. He’ll say, ‘There are more important considerations than love. You need to end this.’ Mom will give me a speech about won’t I be happier marrying someone more like me? I’ll say no, I’m not a lesbian, I’m not marrying a rich girl. She’ll very patiently say she meant someone of my own class.

“I’ll be much happier that way, Dad will say.

“I will say no, they’ll be happier. I’ll be miserable. And I’ll tell them you make me happy, and you have plenty of class for me. Which is true. I’ll try not to say that you have a lot more class than they do, which is also true.

“Then there will be yelling. I might do some of it. They’ll do more. Mom, mostly. Then it will be time to leave, and Dad will want to make peace before they do. So we’ll stop arguing and say a few kind words about looking forward to my visit next week, and I’ll wish them a safe trip, and we’ll be done. Lucky you, you only have to be there for dinner.”

The funny thing, or maybe it was a sad thing, was that it went almost exactly as she foretold.

I had a full twenty-four hours to imagine what her parents would be like. They couldn’t be as bad as she said, I thought. How could parents that bad have a daughter so wonderful? I would try to see some good in them. I would try to find some resemblance.

I was plenty nervous when they picked me up. What made me even more uncomfortable was that Laurie and her mom were sitting in the back seat, and I sat in front with her dad. But the ride to the restaurant took only a minute or two, and within a couple of minutes of arriving we were seated at adjacent sides of a square table, where at least we could hold hands. I was across from her dad, and she was across from her mom.

Her parents seemed friendly and genuinely interested at first, as we began to get acquainted. They might have been ordinary parents, just getting to know the guy their daughter loved. But eventually I noticed a subtle shift in their conversation. At the same time a look appeared on Laurie’s face that I knew was sadness, mixed with displeasure at her parents.

They weren’t just asking about me and my family any more, or my studies and my aspirations. They were comparing me and my plans for an advanced degree and a decent career to their own exemplary hunger for wealth and power, when they were young. They found me inadequate in numerous ways. They didn’t list those ways outright, but their disapproval wasn’t subtle enough that I could have missed it or misunderstood.

Their manner wasn’t hostile, but by the time the waiter came to ask us about dessert, it was dismissive, as if I was no longer worthy of their sustained interest. They did try to talk me into an $18 dessert, which I would have rejected on principle even if it had sounded good to me. They were flaunting their status.

Before I had to refuse them outright, which would make things even more uncomfortable, Laurie squeezed my hand and looked at me. Her eyes were trying not to be sad, and her mouth was trying to smile. “Would you help with me my dessert, please?” she asked, as if it would be a considerable favor.

What I hoped she would see in my eyes was that I would do a lot more than that for her. What I said was, “Sure, if you want me to.”

At that she really did smile a little. She looked up at the waiter and said, “We’ll share the grilled pears à la mode. Two spoons, please. Thank you.”

She turned to me. “They’re really good,” she said.

Her parents each ordered the same, and I wondered if it was an attempt to make some degree of peace with me – or with her. But she didn’t give us a chance to find out. She hadn’t said much during the meal, but now she began to chatter happily. I realized that she’d pulled us out of my cold but civilized inquisition and into our own happy little world. I wanted to be holding a lot more than her hand, just then – not just because she would do that for me, but because she could and did.

“Nanny used to make this for me,” she said. “She’d take slices of fresh, ripe Bartlett pears, drizzle them with a buttery, sugary sauce straight from heaven – it had some vanilla in it too – and then she’d grill them just right and top them with vanilla ice cream right in front of us, so the pears would still be hot when we ate them.”

I smiled at her burst of happiness and her enthusiasm, and she beamed a little more brightly at me. Then she bit her bottom lip adorably and shrugged. “It’s . . . possible . . . that I love them as much as I love you, and I’ve loved them a lot longer. Sorry.”

Later I wondered if her saying she loved me in front of her parents was her retaliation for their disdain for me, besides being true. But all I knew at the moment was that the look we shared then was as intimate as any kiss I had ever experienced.

Then dessert arrived, and we looked away. Her parent’s eyes had grown as cold as the ice cream, but it didn’t seem to matter any more.

I looked back at her, and she smiled again. She picked up my dessert spoon, filled it with equal portions of grilled pear and ice cream, and fixed me with her gaze. She moistened her lips subtly but seductively, with a flick of her tongue that her parents might not have seen, and moved the spoon to my mouth.

It tasted as if it really had come from heaven. She smiled when she saw that on my face.

It really was that good. But I wondered if the look in her angelic eyes wouldn’t have made a spoonful of sawdust taste wonderful too.

I wondered if she wanted us to feed each other, right there in front of her parents, but she was smarter than that. After my first bite, she handed me my spoon with a smile, and we fed ourselves.

When a single bite remained, I pushed the plate toward her slightly.

I didn’t actually hear her words, but I read her lips as she said, “Thank you, but it’s for you.” Her eyes sparkled as she pushed the plate back toward me.

“Thank you,” I mouthed. Then I enjoyed the last bite as much as the first.

On the way back to my apartment, we sat in the same seats as before, but it was okay. My heart was safely in the back seat with her, and hers was up front with me.

Her parents were mostly silent, even when I thanked them for dinner and the ride. When the car stopped in front of my apartment, Laurie got out too.

“Laurie, I didn’t realize you’d be staying the night here,” her mother said. Laurie told me later that her mom was socially, not morally, offended.

“I’m not,” Laurie said. “I’m only five blocks from here, and it’s a beautiful evening, and I want Rick to walk me home. Breakfast in the morning?”

Her parents didn’t protest.

“The element of surprise,” she said as they pulled away. “Sometimes it works.” After their rented Lexus SUV turned the corner and was out of sight, she said, “Honey, I officially apologize for my parents. You were perfect, thank you. And I’m going to learn to make that dessert for you someday. I’ll get Nanny to teach me.” She was trying to smile, but her chin was trembling. “And I need a really big hug.”

“Want to come in?” I asked.

“I need it sooner than that.”

We hugged for a minute, then set off for her apartment. As we walked under a street light, I saw tears on her cheeks. That always did . . . wrenching things . . . to my heart.

“You’re crying,” I said.

“It was a hard day.” I felt more than heard a little sob. “And I just spent more than an hour trying not to do three things I really, really wanted to do.”

“Three?” I asked.

“Burst into tears, explode at my parents, and get up from the table and run away with you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. My life is as perfect as that dessert, except for my parents. They’re terrible. Look at how they treated the man their daughter loves. I wish something in me weren’t wired to care what they think.”

She smiled through her tears. “Sharing dessert with you was a beautiful moment, and you should know that I did what I did because I love you, not to upset them. But it did upset them, and my walking home with you has to have upset them more. They were going to take their time leaving, when they got to my place, and I was going to get an earful. There’s about a one-in-three chance that we’ll find them waiting for us when we get there, and I’ll still get my earful.”

“Do you want to go somewhere else?” I was not looking forward to that scene. Her parents were already making her cry, and that made me angry. And nothing good could come of an angry confrontation with them.

“I already told them I’m not staying with you tonight, so I can’t sleep on your couch. Also, you don’t have a couch.” She sniffed. “There’s nowhere else to go.”

“We could hang out at a bar or a coffee shop for a while, or just walk,” I said.

“No, I’m not going out of my way to infuriate them. And things will go better if I’m brave.”

Her sad, resigned voice had been steady enough, but it trembled when she said, “If I’m brave.” My heart ached for her.

I let go of her hand, put my arm around her waist, and squeezed. I didn’t know if it was possible to transfer courage to someone that way, and I didn’t know if I had any of my own to give. But at least I could try to reinforce the idea that I was with her as much as she was with me. She wasn’t alone.

It might have worked. She took a deep breath, and her voice was steadier when she said, “Let’s just walk me home.”

When we arrived, they weren’t there.

“Oh good,” she said, sounding happier. “There’s always breakfast tomorrow, but it’s easier when I’m not so tired. Want to come?”

“I’m not invited.”

“I just invited you. So come if you like, even if they won’t want you to. It will give them a chance to flex their good manners muscles. Or not. You never know how cold things will get when they don’t get their way.”

“I’ll come if you think it will help you, but I don’t want to go out of my way to infuriate them either.”

She thought for a moment. “I guess it should be just me,” she said. “Which makes me sad. But I’ll be fine. I’ve had the same parents all my life. Well, Nanny Marie mostly raised me. But the same biological parents. And we’ve had pretty much the same arguments for years, long before you were in the picture. I cry a little afterward, but I’m okay.”

She was already in my arms, her head nestled on my shoulder and her breath warm on my neck. One of my arms was around her waist, and my other hand gently pressed her head to my shoulder. I wanted to put myself between her and all her troubles, but I knew I couldn’t, no matter how much I loved her.

“Yeah, you’re tough as nails,” I said.

I was teasing her a little, but she looked up and said, “I have to be tough. Not so much with you. You get my gentle side, most of the time.”

“I love both sides.”

“I thought you loved the gentle side and tried to avoid the tough side,” she said with a hint of a smile.

“I’ve been thinking about our shopping date and some of the implications, and I’ve decided I love the tough side too. I’m afraid you’ll need it with me.”

Her voice trembled again. “Tell me we’re not still talking about money,” she said.

“No, we’re not. Just real life. That’s tough enough.”

“I can do real life,” she said. Just that quickly, the tremor was gone.

“I know you can.”

She brightened. “Speaking of Nanny Marie, I’m visiting her in Las Vegas on the way home from San Diego, just for a couple of days. I’ll miss you a little longer, but it’s been a whole year since I’ve seen her, and I miss her a lot more than I miss my parents.”

“I wish I could go with you,” I said.

“I wish you could too. But don’t worry. I promise to think about you a lot, and Nanny will insist on hearing all about you, and us, and I will love telling her.”

*****

While she was in Las Vegas, I arrived home from campus to find a note on my door.

“Richard, this is Andrew Martin, Laurie’s father. I’m back in town and need to speak with you. Please call. Let’s meet for dinner whenever is convenient. Don’t tell Laurie, please.”

At first I was worried that something had happened to Laurie, but he wouldn’t have come to town to tell me that. It didn’t take a genius or even a chemical engineer to guess that his daughter and I would be the main topic of conversation.

I dressed up a little, and we met at the restaurant in his hotel. The food was good, and he made small talk about business, the town, and my studies for a while. If I hadn’t known it was all just a prelude, I might have enjoyed it. As we finished our entrees, he finally got to the point.

“Young man, you are fond of my daughter, and she is fond of you. That much is obvious. But surely you can see that she should marry someone who is more nearly her social and economic equal. She can’t do that as long as she’s seeing you, because she won’t date anyone more suitable while you are in the picture.”

He sipped his wine, and I studied his face. He had sharp, narrow features, not at all like Laurie. He was balding, and what hair he had was cut short. His dark eyes, narrow nose, and thin lips gave him a look of intensity.

He spoke calmly and firmly, as a man who was accustomed to getting his way without argument. He fixed his eyes on me and continued. “If you really care for her long-term welfare and happiness, you’ll move on, so she can move on.”

I just stared at him and didn’t speak. I was struck by the realization that my own concerns about her money and my lack of it had seemed just and honorable, but his concerns about the same thing seemed hopelessly shallow and small to me. Maybe that’s how mine looked to her, I thought. That would explain a lot.

“I’ve checked into you and your family,” he said. “You were never wealthy, of course, but since your late father passed, your mother has struggled mightily to make ends meet at all. You yourself live on a shoestring here – not because you choose to, like my daughter does in her current rebellious phase. You do it because you have to. I’m sure it’s all very admirable. But even when you finish your degree and take a job, you will never be well off. You don’t have the drive I had, the will to succeed at all costs, to succeed beyond all limits and expectations. Surely you can see that my daughter deserves to marry someone who does, for her own happiness and for the long-term good of the family.”

He looked at me expectantly, and I finally spoke. “Sir, if I thought that, your daughter would have absolutely no interest in me.”

His eyes flashed, and he replied more sharply than before. “Surely you don’t believe that she can be happy in the lifestyle your middle class income will support.”

There should have been a lot to say to him, but there wasn’t. Nothing would change who he was or what he thought of me or of Laurie. There was no point in my thinking or speaking of anyone but her.

“Where Laurie’s happiness is concerned,” I said, “I’ve learned that I should listen to her instead of making assumptions.”

His businesslike expression had returned, and he looked at me for a long time. Then he pulled something from an inner pocket of his suit jacket. When he reached across the table and placed it in front of me, I saw that it was a cashier’s check.

“The payoff amount for your mother’s mortgage is a hair under $35,000. You’ll forgive me for looking that up. Another $20,000 will buy her a decent new car. Your sister’s college fund could use $20,000 as well, I’m sure. And $75,000 for you will put far more money in your own bank account than you have ever seen in one place, I suspect. So stop seeing my daughter, help your family, and get something for yourself in the bargain.”

I probably should have been upset that he had looked into my family’s finances, or that he was using them to pry me away from his daughter, but what he thought didn’t matter any more, and I was too busy thinking that I could have been in a bad movie. He was actually bribing me to break up with his daughter! I was pretty sure I’d be offended later, but for the moment I was more shocked than anything.

I picked up the check. It was made out to me for $150,000. I put it back on the table, face down. It really could have been a movie, because somehow I knew my lines.

“Some things aren’t for sale, sir,” I said calmly. “I’d think that you’d want your daughter to be one of those.”

“I will write you a personal check for an additional $100,000 right now,” he said with equal calm.

“I agree that you lowballed your opening bid. But there’s nothing up for auction here, sir.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, clearly trying to be ingratiating and firm at the same time. “I need to make a call for a few minutes – not about you or my daughter – so I’ll excuse myself briefly. While I’m gone, you think about how much good you could do for your family today, if you get this right. You could make it a Christmas to remember.”

He put a credit card – not a black AmEx – in the folder for the server to pick up, then left and went outside. I dropped my grocery money for the week – it was $30 – on the table to pay for my half of the meal and part of a tip. Then I took out a pen and wrote “VOID” in large letters across the front of the check. I left it face down on his side of the table, grabbed my coat, and walked out of the restaurant by a different door.

My walk home took over an hour. I laughed and fumed and shook my head at each new layer of irony I uncovered as I thought about Laurie and me and her parents. I was pleased with myself for speaking calmly to him of his daughter’s immeasurable worth, when he tried to put a price on her.

I didn’t regret rejecting the check – or checks – even if the money would have helped Mom and Dori. They wouldn’t want help on those terms anyway. What I regretted was leaving my $30 on the table. I’d still be able to eat that week, but I wouldn’t eat much unless I dipped into my meager emergency fund.

When I arrived at home there was still most of an hour before Laurie’s scheduled call. I spent it sitting motionless on my bed, wondering if I should tell her, and how and when. I couldn’t not tell her, I realized after failing to persuade myself otherwise. But should I tell her in person or on the phone? What were the words to use? Would she cry, laugh, rage?

Maybe all of those, I thought.

My phone rang, and I thumbed the green button. “Joe’s Bar and Grill. Joe speaking,” I said gruffly.

The game would go on, with each of us saying progressively more outrageous things, until one of us broke character and burst out laughing – which I did, as soon as she giggled and said, “Joe, I was calling for my boyfriend, but you sound a lot sexier. Are you available?”

It felt good to laugh.

“It’s good to hear your fake voice,” she said. “And your real laugh.”

“It’s good to hear you too,” I said. “How are you?”

“I’ve been catching up with Nanny and telling her about you, so that makes me pretty wonderful,” she said. “But I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“I got an earful from Mom on the phone today. I guess the daily earful she gave me in person wasn’t enough. So I wanted to ask, do you know how to cut platinum?”

“There’s a laser at the lab that will do it. Or a saw, but the laser’s more fun. Why?”

“My phone’s dying. I’ll call you back from Nanny’s house phone in a minute, okay?”

She hung up. Less than half a minute later, my phone rang again. I answered, and she picked up where we’d left off.

“I overnighted my AmEx card to Mom and Dad and told them I wouldn’t be using it any more. She says they’re sending it back to me. Next time, I want to send it to them in pieces. I’d love for you to help me.”

“Ouch. What brought this on?”

“I’ve decided that this was my last trip to visit them, and that’s all I was willing to use it for anyway.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I. But I might be apologizing to you sometime soon. Something Mom said, or maybe it was the way she said it, makes me think you’ll be hearing from one or both of my parents. They’re determined to break us up.”

“What do you think they’ll do?” I asked. And how will I tell you what they did? I thought.

“Well, I guess they could threaten to hurt you or your family somehow, but that’s not really their style. Maybe they’ll try to persuade you that it’s for your own good, or mine, which it’s not, and if you still won’t dump me, maybe they’ll offer you money.”

“That’s sick,” I said, and I meant it. “How much do you think you’re worth to them?”

“Low six figures, if I’m lucky.” She was trying to sound lighthearted, but her quick laugh was strained.

“You really think they’d do that?” I asked, wondering if it was wrong of me to pretend, even briefly, that they hadn’t already done it.

“I’ve been asking myself the same question ever since Mom and I talked this afternoon. And yes, I think they really would.”

I took a deep breath.

“I wish you were wrong about that,” I said. “A girl should be able to respect her parents.”

“I know, right?” Then she was silent for a moment. “Wait. Did you just say . . . They already did it, didn’t they? I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

I told her about her dad and his offer. I heard her crying softly, and I wondered if she wanted to ask me what I’d decided. She had the right to doubt me, I knew. I’d earned that. But I told her my response before she could ask.

Instead of laughing or raging, she just kept crying.

Finally she said softly, “Rick, I love you. You are my hero. Thanks for showing Dad what a real man is like. I wish Mom and Britani had been there to see it too.”

“I love you,” I said, “and you’re welcome. And if I really am your hero, then that’s the best thing I’ve ever been.”

“You’re sweet. Where did you get the $30?” she asked.

“It was my grocery money.”

“Will you starve? I can share.”

“No, I’ll be okay.”

“I’ll make you dinner anyway, at least twice.”

“I’d like that.”

“You will, too. Especially when you experience dessert. I know I’m your favorite dessert.”

Just the thought of kissing her stripped away some of the evening’s accumulated distress.

“Honey, I have to go,” she said. “Nanny and I are baking cookies for someone. And no, it’s not you. Sorry. And don’t get the idea that I know how to bake. I’ll see you soon. Warm up that laser. I love you.”

*****

Three days before Christmas, she came home and introduced me to Nanny Marie, who had decided to join her for a quick visit. We met for a late lunch at Wendy’s, and then we went to Laurie’s and talked into the night. Mostly, I listened to tales of Laurie’s childhood, but they also coaxed plenty of my own memories out of me.

I had a chance to talk with Nanny alone for ten minutes or so before I left for the evening. There was something I wanted from her for later. She offered it even before I asked.

Two days before Christmas, we went to the lab, where we cut up Laurie’s platinum AmEx card. At the campus post office we dropped the pieces into an envelope and mailed them to her parents. “I hope there’s a penalty for destroying the card,” she said. “I hope it’s a big one. Sorry if that’s childish, but I am their child. Somehow.”

There was no one to see us, so as soon as the envelope disappeared into the mail slot she turned to me, threw her arms around me, and kissed me for a whole minute.

“I was going to ask how you were feeling,” I said, “but I guess I know. You feel really good,” I chuckled. “So do I.”

“You feel wonderful,” she said. “I feel liberated. Exhilarated. A little bit scared, because I basically just disowned my parents. At least that’s how they’ll take it. But they’ve certainly earned it.”

“Good thing you still have Nanny,” I said. “You’d be an orphan.” I was instantly afraid that I had said a bad thing, but she took it with a smile.

“You would still love me, if I were an orphan,” she said.

She was right.

4. Our Second Christmas Eve

Our Second Christmas Eve

On the day before Christmas, we met for an afternoon of pricing rings. I was looking forward to the company, but it was difficult not to be discouraged, when I thought about jewelry I couldn’t afford.

Laurie didn’t seem bothered by it, and I didn’t tell her I was.

“First, we find the right ring,” she said as we approached the first store. She was both businesslike and cheerful. “Something simple. Then the stone. I don’t want a diamond.”

“At least you have to let me buy you a diamond, not a fake. So it’s real, even if it’s small.”

“We’re real,” she said, “but that’s not my point. I want an emerald.”

“Don’t people use diamonds for this?” I asked.

“Mostly. So what?”

“So why an emerald?”

“I’ve wanted one for a long time, but I have a new reason too. You have beautiful eyes,” she said. “Beautiful emerald eyes. When you’re not around for me to look at, I can look at my finger and see a piece of you.”

Okay, maybe I could catch the spirit of this after all, I thought.

“Not a ruby?” I asked.

“Red?” she asked.

“For bloodshot grad student eyes.”

“Very funny. And no, not a ruby.”

We spent three hours visiting four different shops. We almost skipped the fifth one, because it didn’t look like much. It occupied a small stone building along the town square. A brass marker declared the building historic.

We loved walking together on the town square, where paved walks wound through snow-covered trees. Only the occasional statue or monument reminded us that it wasn’t just a park. We decided we could resist its allure long enough to visit one more jewelry store.

That’s where we found our rings. Even the sizes were already right.

With a small emerald, the price would be $1210 for the engagement ring and the matching wedding band, which they would solder together for free after the wedding.

That was more money than I had, but it was an attainable goal. And there was no rush. We had come only to look and to research prices, after all. I told Laurie that I was encouraged.

In fact I was more than encouraged, because I knew something she didn’t know. Three things, actually.

They were having a 40 percent off sale for Christmas. She hadn’t noticed that.

Mom had put $230 in my bank account from selling my two old bicycles.

And I had brought my checkbook, just in case.

Laurie excused herself to use the restroom, and I decided it was time to be bold.

“If I buy these right now,” I asked the jeweler, “how long would it take you to mount the emerald? It’s Christmas Eve, I know, but I’ve decided to propose tonight. With or without the ring, but with it would be better.”

The jeweler smiled and said, “As you see, I’m not busy this afternoon. Come back in two hours, just before closing. If she’s with you, tell her you need a restroom. I’ll meet you in the back, and I’ll have everything ready. You can come back for your band when you’re ready, and I’ll give you the same discount. Good luck proposing. She’s a beautiful girl.”

We walked and talked and window-shopped for the rest of the afternoon, while I tried not to be – or to sound – nervous with anticipation. I arranged for the jewelry shop to be on our way home from our walk.

This was going to work, I thought. Fate was clearly a romantic.

“Oh, look!” she said. “There’s the shop with our rings.”

“Just in time too,” I said. “Now I need a restroom. I hope they’re still open.”

“Looks like they are.”

We went in. Five minutes later, we were crossing the street to walk through the town square.

“Did you look at rings again?” I asked.

“Yes. I didn’t see my ring, but I’m not sure they had it in a display case before, either.”

“If that’s the one you want, I’ll give it to you someday.”

She beamed. “That’s the one I want. When we can we afford it.”

“So someday, when I propose to you, am I supposed to have your dad’s permission first?” I asked.

“That is so century-before-last,” she said. “I’m a person, not their chattel. In a perfect world, I guess you’d ask both my parents for their blessing. You won’t get it, but maybe you should ask. But write them a letter, don’t visit. So they can’t kill you so conveniently.”

“Okay. Am I supposed to kneel?”

“When you talk to my parents? No.”

“Not then. When I ask you.”

“Oh. Well, you could, but don’t do it if we’re in public somewhere. You don’t have to kneel.”

“Good,” I said without thinking, “‘cuz the snow’s a little sloppy.”

“What?”

I figured I had two seconds, tops, before she figured it out, or ten seconds if I kissed her. So I kissed her.

Then I said, “Every really significant thing happens in the winter for us. There will probably be snow.”

“Oh, I guess you’re right.”

I stopped us amid the trees, when no one else was near, and pulled her into a hug. “For example, it’s winter now, and the trees and snow are beautiful, and you are even more beautiful, and I’d really like to kiss you again. And that seems significant.”

“You know what we need?” she asked.

“What?”

“Fewer speeches about kissing, more actual kisses.”

A blissful minute or two later, she said, “Now, will there be anything else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. I guess if you wanted to make a romantic little speech now, it would be okay, but only until we catch our breath. Then you should kiss me again.”

“What would you like me to say?”

“Whatever comes to mind. You could list some of the many things you love about me.” She grinned innocently.

“Okay, I guess I have one idea.”

“I’ll be honest,” she said. “I was hoping for more than one. But hurry up and say it. I’ve almost caught my breath.”

“May I take your glove off? I have a romantic thought about your hand.”

“One hand or both?”

“One’s enough, I guess.”

She held up her hands. “Your choice.”

I acted like I was trying to choose. “This one, I think.” I took her left hand and removed her glove. First I kissed her hand, and then I pressed it between my hands.”

“This is nice,” she said, “but does your little speech come with any words?”

“Yeah, it does. I love your hands. I don’t exactly know what makes a hand pretty, but yours are pretty. And holding your hand, and you holding mine, is almost enough to make me believe in heaven.”

“That’s a good speech.”

“I’m not finished yet.”

“Okay.”

“Will you marry me? Because I have this ring here that would look a lot better on your finger.”

Her jaw dropped and her eyes went wide. “What? How? How did you . . .?”

“First things first. Will you marry me?”

“Yes, I will!”

I had been confident of her answer, but my relief was still almost overwhelming. We just stood there and smiled at each other for a minute. She was radiant, and I remembered another time when she had been radiant, and something inside me had said that she wasn’t just Laurie. She was my Laurie. Now she really would be.

“Give me your hand,” I said softly.

Her eyes twinkled, and she held up her right hand. I kissed it.

“I meant your other hand.”

“I know.” She held it up.

The ring still fit perfectly. She looked down at it, then up at me.

“Come with me,” she said, taking my hand. A few yards further down the path, there was a stone border along one side, several inches higher than the path itself. She stepped up onto it, so we were eye to eye. Then we were kissing – as long and as ardently as we dared in a public place.

When she pulled away, it was only a quarter-inch or so.

“I’ve never had a fiancé to kiss before,” she said. “This is nice. Thank you for picking a time when there’s no one else in the park.”

Her breath brushed my lips as she spoke, and it was all I could do to reply in words before I kissed her again.

“That was just a lucky accident,” I said, just before our lips met again.

Time stood still for a moment. Then we heard voices approaching.

“To be continued,” I murmured. “Thank you for saying yes.”

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”

We set off slowly down the path, each with an arm around the other.

Then I had to tell her about the 40 percent off sale she hadn’t noticed at the jewelry store, which wasn’t enough and she knew it, so I also told her about the money Mom gave me from selling my bikes. And I told her how the jeweler worked extra quickly to mount the stone.

“I love Christmas Eve!” she exulted. “Almost as much as I love you.”

“I don’t have your parents’ blessing, and I never will,” I said soberly. “But I will write them a letter.”

“That’s more than enough,” she said.

“Actually, it’s less than enough. That’s why I asked Nanny Marie for her blessing when she was here.”

“And?” Her eyes were dancing.

“We have her very enthusiastic blessing.”

“No wonder she was so aglow. And so tearful. I thought it was all just part of saying goodbye.” Laurie looked up at me, beaming. “When shall we get married?”

“Yesterday?” I asked.

“Sorry. We’re too poor for a time machine. But you seem eager to get your hands on me. For the record, I approve. Next suggestion?”

We said things like that to each other sometimes, but early in our relationship we’d discovered that we both wanted to save some physical intimacies for marriage. The funny thing was that we agreed about that from the beginning, but for different reasons – I mostly because Mom had raised me a certain way, and Laurie because her parents and their friends – and her friends – had no such scruples, and she’d grown up watching the effects, and sometimes fending off unwelcome advances. Some things were just too consequential to play with, she said, and I agreed.

“I think we should discuss the possibilities,” I said, “including what kind of wedding you want, and then decide.”

“Tonight?”

“We can’t get a license that fast,” I said. “But I like the thought.”

“I mean, do you want to discuss it tonight?”

“Not really. We should consider it when the euphoria wears off.”

“What if it doesn’t?” she asked with a smile.

“Well, a little of it might. We’ll make better decisions that way. And right now, I’m content just to enjoy the fact that you said yes.”

“Were you nervous?”

“Very.”

“Even though you pretty much knew what I would say?”

“Still nervous.”

“I love how you did it. Total surprise, beautiful setting. It’s going to be a wonderful memory.”

“I’m glad.”

“What kind of wedding do you want?” she asked.

“One with you in it. What kind do you want?”

“Small, simple, nice. Doesn’t have to be in a church. Something we can afford, because my parents won’t be helping. They probably won’t even come.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. But it’s their choice. Besides, Mom would want a royal wedding, and Dad would want a terrifically expensive one to impress all the right people, which adds up about the same. Soon or later, do you think?”

“I’m open to the possibilities,” I said. “Are we talking about this now?”

“No, this is just the pre-meeting. What are the possibilities?”

“After graduation. Next Christmas Eve. Fall. Summer. Spring. Groundhog Day. Whatever works. I can wait, if we decide that’s best, as long as life with you is what I’m waiting for. Any thoughts?”

“Yesterday, but I guess that’s off the table. After graduation sounds sensible in one way, almost unbearable in some others. Christmas Eve would be fun, but it might be hard for the people we want to come. And I guess we have to make it possible for my parents to attend, even if they won’t. Lots of equations with lots of variables.”

“We’ll solve them together,” I said.

“And we’ll have fun doing it. I love you. And let’s err on the side of sooner rather than later,” she said, squeezing me tightly.

“Agreed. And I love you too.”

We went to Midnight Mass that night and hardly said a word. We just sat together, held each other, watched and listened, and sang the congregational hymns.

For Christmas dinner we went back to Wendy’s. We knew from experience that we’d feel terribly sorry for the people who had to work on Christmas Day, so we took them small gifts. They said no one had ever done that before. When the manager overheard us talking about wedding dates and realized we were newly engaged, she treated us to large Frosties on the house. It was an unimaginable luxury.

By the time we’d been engaged for twenty-four hours, we’d decided that Presidents Day weekend was our first choice for the wedding, so we could enjoy the long weekend together without school. Our second choice was the first weekend in March. Laurie had checked her parents’ calendars online, to make sure we picked dates when they could come if they chose to.

I told Mom and Dori the joyous news in our Christmas call that morning. After lunch Laurie came to my apartment for another call, so I could introduce her. Dori was happy and bouncy. Mom was happy, kind, and tearful. Laurie was gracious and smiled a lot. Then we called Nanny, and that was wonderful too.

We were still deciding whether I should send that letter to her parents before or after she told them she was engaged. Maybe both letters in the same envelope, she said, and her parents wouldn’t like either of them.

5. Our Third and Fourth

Our Third and Fourth

Exactly 364 days later, we were at the hospital. Laurie was scared, and I was practically frantic inside and trying desperately not to show it.

She’d worked through the summer to finish her degree ahead of schedule, because, as she put it, morning sickness had set in a year or two earlier than we had planned. She took that surprise like she took every challenge in our life together: more cheerfully than I did. I did my best to mimic her good spirits, and I helped her as much as I could.

Her defense was right at the end of her second trimester. She felt great, and it went well. With that, her degree was finished.

Then the doctor found a problem. The bottom line was, neither Laurie nor our little girl was likely to survive a normal labor.

“Mom had trouble with me too,” said Laurie solemnly. She had told me about that before, but I hadn’t given it a second thought.

“It’s often hereditary, but not to worry,” said the obstetrician. “We’ll schedule a C-section at 37 weeks, and we’ll be fine.”

“What if labor starts even earlier than that?” I asked.

“We’ll suppress it and do the C-section early,” she said. “But it probably won’t.”

Surgery was scheduled for December 28. If all went well, mom and baby would be home to start the New Year.

She went into labor during the afternoon of December 23. By evening it was clear that it wasn’t false labor, and the drugs they usually used to suppress it had stopped working.

There would be no calm, conveniently scheduled C-section. There would be an emergency, late-evening C-section, starting within minutes and involving a mom who was already exhausted and a baby who, according to the monitors, was beginning to be distressed.

When the doctors and nurses talked to Laurie, they spoke only of the baby’s welfare. When they talked to me, they seemed more worried about Laurie. I was scared for both of them – and for myself, when I considered the possibility of living without either of them. Or telling either of them what had happened to the other.

Or losing them both.

The orderlies came to wheel Laurie to the OR, but she put them off for a minute. “I need a minute with my husband.”

“It can’t be more than a minute,” said the nurse. “We’re running out of time.”

She nodded. “I know.” She turned to me. The first part of the anesthesia was starting to take effect, and her voice was too calm for her words. “Honey, I’m scared. Not just for Baby. I’m scared for me.”

I nodded.

“I know this fuss isn’t just about Baby. What if I don’t make it? What if the life I wanted with the man I love is over when it’s barely started?”

I had to speak. “Then you will be in heaven, and I will be the loneliest man on earth.” Later I would wonder if the latter part was a terribly selfish thing to think and say at that moment.

“Yeah, that too,” she said tearfully. “What if . . .”

“Don’t.” I squeezed her hand and tried to be the strong, optimistic one – because she needed that from me, not because I felt it. “I don’t know the answers to all of your what-ifs, or mine. But I’m going to envision my beautiful wife with my beautiful newborn daughter, because that’s what I’ll see in an hour or two.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I can’t. You know that. But I have to be.”

“Will you be okay while we’re in there?” she asked.

“I’ll pray.”

“You don’t pray.”

“I do tonight.”

She took a deep breath and seemed to relax. I knew it was the anesthesia.

“I love you,” she said, so faintly that I could barely hear it.

“I love you. I’ll see you soon.”

I stepped back, and they wheeled her away.

The next hour and a half were an agonized blur. They told me they would call the waiting room from the OR with an update, and I thought they said it would be within half an hour or so. But half an hour passed, then an hour, and still there was nothing.

Midnight came and went, and I had the surgical waiting room to myself. My awkward, quiet prayers grew gradually more frequent and more desperate.

A worker looked in, saw me, and said, “Hey, it’s Christmas Eve. Have a Christmas cookie while you wait.”

I took the cookie, which was in a little paper bag, thanked him, and watched him go. For a while I just held the bag, before finally slipping it into my coat pocket.

Finally the surgeon came. “Don’t get up,” she said.

She stood in front of me, looking exhausted. I tried to read her expression but couldn’t. I was glad I was sitting.

“Sorry that took so long. I can only imagine what you’ve been going through out here. Your wife and your daughter will be fine. I won’t kid you; it was complicated, and it was dicey for a little while. For a minute I wondered if we were about to lose them both.”

She explained things to a level of detail I would ordinarily have appreciated, and I tried to focus. But I was so overwhelmed with relief that I scarcely even heard her explanation. The next thing that actually registered in my head was a repetition of the good news she brought.

“But they’re both safe, and they’re both out of the OR. Your wife is in recovery, and your daughter is in the NICU. That’s just precautionary, and we’ll probably move her to the regular nursery in few minutes, as soon as the on-call pediatrician signs off. She seems very healthy.”

She put a steady hand on my shoulder. “As long as you’re okay, I think the whole family will be just fine.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” I said. It was all I could say. “Thank you.”

She offered a tired smile and nodded. “Give them a little while to get settled – might be half an hour or more – and then you can see both of them. I’m not sure which will be first, but a nurse will come and get you as soon as one of them is ready.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re more than welcome, Dad. And congratulations. You have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful wife. Merry Christmas.”

She disappeared.

“Thank you too, God,” I whispered. Then I wandered around the empty waiting room, facing the windows but looking inward. Every few minutes, I found myself saying, “Thank you, God.”

The intense, initial wave of intense relief subsided, leaving me drained and exhausted. To stay awake, I sat down and picked up a children’s book. Maybe I could actually read at that level, I thought with a wry smile. Earlier, I hadn’t been able to read at all.

I flipped through a few pages, looking at the beautiful illustrations without really paying attention to the words, except to notice that they were from a Christmas carol. Finally my eyes settled on one line from the song: “What shall I give him, poor as I am?”

I didn’t get past that line. In my head it became, “What shall I give her?” Then, “What shall I give them?” I wondered what I could give my girls, poor as I was.

I could think of only one thing. I could make sure they both knew that I knew that my wife was an angel.

What if the baby was ready first? I wondered. I had no idea what to call her. We’d bounced from one name to another for months, never settling on any one of them for more than a few days. And did I even remember how to talk to a baby? Dori was the only baby I had ever known well, and that was a decade and a half ago.

A middle-aged nurse with an ample figure, a Santa hat on her head, and a jolly twinkle in her eye said to me, “You must be Rick. I’m Susannah, your spirit guide. I’ll take you to your daughter, then to your wife. The baby is out of the NICU, by the way. That is a very healthy girl, unusually so for 36 weeks. Already seems rather opinionated too. Does that run in the family?”

I could only nod.

“Congratulations, by the way. Follow me.”

Five minutes later, properly scrubbed, I was holding my tiny baby girl in my arms.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Dad.”

She looked at me.

I couldn’t think of anything to say after that.

“Give her your little finger,” said my spirit guide. “If you can do it without dropping her.”

She took my finger and held it. I was surprised at her strength.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” said the nurse.

For the longest time I just watched her. Finally I said, “Little one, the only thing I can think to give you for Christmas is this: I will do everything in my power to help you understand what an angel your mom is, and that includes treating her like one. And since you must be an angel too, I’ll treat you that way too.”

My spirit guide was back. I wondered if she’d heard me.

“Ready to take her to her mom?” she asked. “I’ll show you the way.”

“Have they met?” I asked.

“Your wife was pretty groggy, but, yeah, sort of.”

I winced. “Truth is, I really need a restroom. Would you take her? I’ll meet you there.”

“I’d love to. Don’t forget to gel.”

She told me where to find my family, when I was finished in the restroom. I felt like a coward, putting off seeing my girls for even a few minutes. I really did need a restroom, but I also wanted to pray – awkwardly, uncharacteristically, and redundantly, yes, but I wanted to. I wondered if praying in the restroom was blasphemous or sinful or maybe just weird.

A few minutes later, I stood in the doorway of Laurie’s room. She didn’t see me at first. I just watched her, wondering how someone so exhausted could be so radiant. She talked softly and sweetly to the baby in her arms. At some point I started to weep.

I didn’t realize she was looking at me until she said, “Why don’t you come cry with your family, instead of doing it alone in the doorway?” I saw tears on her face too.

“Have you two met?” she asked.

“Yes. We had a good chat,” I said.

“Then I won’t introduce you. I’ll just go straight to, ‘Look what you gave me for Christmas!’”

And vice versa, I thought, but all I could do was smile and nod.

“They said things were rough for a while, but we’re both going to be okay,” she said.

“That’s what they told me too.”

“Good. Meanwhile, you look like death.” She grinned impishly. “Sorry, bad joke. Come sit down. I don’t suppose you brought any food.”

That’s when I remembered the cookie in my pocket. When I pulled it from its bag, we saw that it was a snickerdoodle.

*****

I stayed at the hospital all day and into the evening. At 11:00 p.m. the nurse helped Laurie get the baby settled for the two-hour nap until her next feeding, then left.

“I have to go soon,” I told Laurie.

“Visiting hours don’t apply to you,” she said.

“It’s not that. You need to sleep, though.”

“I can sleep with you here.” She giggled. “You know what I mean. Where are you going?”

“You know what day this is, right?”

I watched her face brighten as she remembered. “I forgot it’s Christmas Eve! We have a Christmas Eve baby! Are you going to Midnight Mass?”

I nodded.

“Not just for the music this time?” she asked.

I shook my head.

A tear appeared on each of her cheeks. She reached for me, and I bent over her so she could hug me. She whispered, “While you’re there, tell God I said thanks too. For everything. But especially for the life he gave me, and the husband he gave me, and our beautiful little girl.”

*****

One Christmas Eve later, I left our apartment for campus at the usual time. My doctoral research was going well overall, but I was struggling to make sense of some data. And the truth was, I couldn’t stay home all day.

The baby had been ill – seriously ill, to the point that we began to fear we might lose her. Now she was home from the hospital, but Laurie was caring for her night and day, and she was beyond exhausted. Another infection while the baby was still recovering from the last one could have been disastrous, so they sent her home from the hospital before we thought she was ready, taught us how to change her antibiotic IV – which scared me – and had us wearing masks at home and taking other unusual precautions.

All this had begun a few weeks ago, not long after Laurie had finally, completely emerged from a postpartum depression that ran long and deep. Halfway through her two weeks of sleeping at the hospital every night with the baby, I complained that she couldn’t catch a break. As soon as she was well, the baby got sick.

“You’re wrong about that,” she said. “I caught a big break. I’m better now, just in time to take extra care of our little girl.”

Part of me wanted to stay home again to take care of them both, but part of me was relieved when Laurie insisted I go to work. The work needed doing, we both knew. And maybe she knew I needed to escape for a while.

She was asleep when I left. That was a welcome excuse not to tell her immediately about the note from the landlord that was taped to the front door when I left. I took it down and read it.

He was running out of patience, and that meant we were running out of time. He expected the second half of the month’s rent by December 26. I couldn’t blame him. By then it would be ten days overdue.

We didn’t have the money; we’d spent it on some expensive prescriptions that weren’t fully covered by insurance. We wouldn’t have money again until early January, when the next semester of my fellowship funded. I crumpled the note, put it in my coat pocket, and spent the next several hours trying to escape it too.

I had to try to do something useful.

In early afternoon, another PhD candidate, Anya, pulled up a chair and sat down near my desk in the lab. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Still not finding it?”

“No, but that’s okay. I’ll figure it out.” I was very good with data.

“How’s the baby?”

“Better, thank you.”

“How’s Laurie?”

“She’s exhausted, but she’s okay.”

“So if they’re both okay, why do you look like somebody died?” she asked earnestly. “It’s Christmas Eve. Be happy!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” I complained. I knew it was the wrong thing to say. But sometimes fear and self-pity overpowered good sense. Lately, for me, they overpowered a lot of things.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You’re by yourself. You don’t have to worry about a spouse or a child. You don’t have to balance school and family. You get to just study.”

She looked as if she wanted to incinerate me by willpower alone.

“What?” I asked crossly.

“What do you mean what? You’re one of the good guys. One of the really good guys. But you’re talking like a total jerk.”

I just looked at her.

“You moron! Don’t you get it? Another way of saying I’m by myself is I’m alone. You have everything. When you get home from school, you have a wife and daughter to adore. Do you have any idea how much I want what you have? I love what I do, but I’d give it up, if I had to, to have that.”

I wanted to . . . say . . . protest . . . something . . . but I didn’t know what, and she didn’t give me a chance anyway.

“So you’re having trouble making the rent for a month or two. You’ll get your degree and your job, and that won’t be a problem any more. And you’ll still have your family – unless you stay stupid.”

She had started to cry. She swiped at her tears and stood up. “I’m sorry. I’m sure I won’t always be alone. And you won’t always be an ass. Merry Christmas. See you next week.”

After she left, I couldn’t even pretend to work. I gave up and left. But I didn’t go home. I just walked.

I walked until I found myself at an import shop on Main Street, looking at a pretty scarf I’d have given Laurie for Christmas, if I could have given her a scarf for Christmas. I started calculating whether I could steal it successfully, and I decided I probably could. On a normal day, I’d no more have thought seriously about that than I’d have cheated on her.

I didn’t steal it.

I stopped in front of a pawn shop and thought about pawning my wedding ring. Maybe it would pay half a month’s rent. But I didn’t know how I’d tell Laurie. So I’d keep the pawnshop as a last resort.

I walked past a few banks, wondering if anyone had successfully robbed an American bank in the last 20 years. Not that I could or would.

I walked by the train station. I remembered Anna Karenina, who stepped in front of a train. That was cowardly and selfish, I thought.

Maybe if I just got on one and left forever, Laurie’s parents would take her and the baby in, and they’d never have to worry about where the next meal or rent payment would come from.

Pawning my ring would at least buy me a train ticket.

That was too dramatic, and I didn’t think I could live that way, not having them with me, knowing I had left them – even if they were okay. I didn’t know whether I couldn’t hurt myself that way, or I couldn’t hurt Laurie that way. I didn’t know any more what was selfish and what wasn’t. But I did know how things had been for Mom and Dori and me, without Dad.

Maybe I was a coward. Or maybe I was just a failure.

I didn’t know what I was.

I found myself in front of St. Peter’s. It was hours too early for Midnight Mass, but I went in and sat in our usual place, at the far end of third pew from the rear. I put my arms on the back of the pew in front of me, put my head down on my arms, and . . .

Didn’t pray.

Didn’t cry, either.

Didn’t fall asleep.

I managed not to think, mostly. It was sort of like resting, and I probably needed that. Once I seemed to hear Laurie’s voice in my head, saying, “You’re exhausted too. It’s not just me.”

I sat that way for a long time. When I finally looked up, there was a priest sitting near me, with maybe two feet between us. He wasn’t looking at me. He was staring straight ahead, as if deep in thought.

“Father?” I said.

He started.

“Is that what I should call you?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, of course. That works. Father Mike, if you wish.”

“Okay, Father Mike. I’m Rick.”

“Look, son,” he said, “I don’t want to intrude. If you want to sit here and pray, I’ll leave you alone.”

“I wasn’t praying. I . . . don’t . . . pray.” I felt guilty confessing that to a priest.

“If you just want to sit here, that’s okay too.”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“So I guess you didn’t see the ‘Catholics Only’ sign at the door,” he said seriously.

“No, I’m sorry, I’ll – ” I was about to stand up, but he put a hand on my shoulder.

“There isn’t one. There never has been. There never will be. You’re more than welcome here.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

“So if you’re not Catholic, what are you?”

“Nothing, really. My mom was a lapsed Mormon. I guess my dad was an extremely lapsed Baptist. My wife’s family was Presbyterian, before they began to worship money. But my wife and I come to Midnight Mass here every year.”

“For the Mass or the music?”

“The music. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I love the music,” he said. “That’s why I’d come, if I didn’t have to anyway. Are you coming tonight?”

“I doubt it.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged.

“So tell me,” he said, “am I just bothering you?”

“No, it’s okay.”

“Good, because I have some chores to do, and talking is a good way to procrastinate them. What shall we talk about?”

“Father, you don’t know me. When you look at me, what do you see?”

“I see darkness and light.”

“Aren’t they incompatible?” I asked.

“That’s why they’re fighting,” he said.

“You’re pretty good.”

“Don’t give me too much credit. I see darkness and light in almost everyone. Occupational hazard. Plus they’re actually there. And they always fight.”

“Do you ever see just darkness, Father?”

“It’s theoretically possible, but no.”

“Do you ever see just light?”

“Yes. In small children. Once in a while in older people, often very old. Do you?”

“I look at my daughter, and I see no darkness, only light. I look at my wife and see no darkness, only light.”

“You are a fortunate man indeed. Not just to have such a wife and child, but to see them that way, as they are.”

“I wish they were so fortunate.”

He regarded me silently for a moment. I thought he was about to ask what was wrong with me, but he didn’t. He asked about them.

“Are they well?”

“The baby has been pretty sick. She was in the hospital for a while, but she’s doing better. Today’s her birthday, by the way. My wife is completely exhausted from taking care of her, and I can only help so much.”

“Do you have insurance?” he asked. He seemed very practical for a priest.

“Yes. Just not rent money, and not that much for food. Enough, I guess. But Christmas dinner might be peanut butter sandwiches.”

He nodded. “Are you a student?”

“Yes. Chemical engineering. PhD in April, if all goes well.”

“So your poverty is temporary?”

“I guess so. But why does it feel so dark? Never mind, I know. There’s a good chance there will be an eviction notice on the door within a few days. How am I going to tell her?”

“She knows money is tight, does she not?”

“Of course. She knows we’re paying half our rent every two weeks, by special arrangement with the landlord, and she knows we haven’t paid the second half for December yet. She doesn’t know what the landlord said in his note this morning. He’s out of patience. We could pay him in January, when my fellowship comes in, but I don’t think we have until January.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I could quit school and get a job, but it wouldn’t pay in time. And it wouldn’t be very smart in the long run.”

We talked for a while after that, and it was probably supposed to help, but the darkness started closing in on me again. Finally I said, “Her parents have more money than they know what to do with. If I were out of the picture, they’d take her back. Then everyone would be fine.”

“Sure they would,” he said, “if money is everything.”

“Right now, it’s almost everything.”

“Christmas isn’t supposed to be like that,” he said.

“I’m not much of a Christian.”

“Okay, but you know the Christmas story, right?”

“Sure.”

“Do you see any similarities between yourself and anyone in that story?”

“Someone called me an ass today.”

Father Mike laughed heartily. “Not the character I meant. Try again.”

“Well, I suppose you’re about to tell me that Christmas is about a baby, a mother, and a husband, or something like that.”

“Mostly about a baby, but yes. Do you think Joseph knew who that baby was?”

“Sure. An angel visited him and taught him, right?”

“Correct. Do you think they could have found a room in the Bethlehem Hilton if they had had money?”

“Of course.”

“Do you think that Joseph wanted his beloved to give birth to the Son of God in a barn – well, probably a cave?”

“No.”

“How do you think he felt about being unable to provide something splendid – or even decent – for them?’

“I know how he felt,” I said. “Humiliated. Frightened. Unworthy.”

“He probably felt the same when they had to flee to Egypt too,” said Father Mike.

“Probably.”

“So what do you do, if you’re Joseph?”

“Father, you tell me, because right now I have absolutely no idea.”

“Okay. Maybe it’s easy to say, but you swallow your pride, rejoice at what you have, and hold them as close as you can and keep them as safe as you can, and someday, probably soon, things will start to get better. They probably won’t get better all at once. God usually works in small steps, not in stunning miracles. But hard times don’t make you a failure, as a person or a husband or a father.

“And son . . .”

I looked up.

“If there’s an eviction notice on your door in the next few days, come back and see me. Maybe we can help. In the meantime, I’ll pray for you and your family.” He smiled. “And your landlord.”

“We’re not Catholic.”

He laughed again. “What a coincidence! Neither were Mary and Joseph. May I give you a stern piece of counsel about your immediate future?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t come to Mass tonight. You’re exhausted. Your wife’s exhausted. There’s a Mass on TV at 10, and a rebroadcast at midnight. The music will be fabulous. Stay home with your wife and daughter. Take care of them. Watch it on TV, if you have one, or the Internet. Or find it on the radio. Or just get some sleep. Then come back to us next year.”

I looked down for a moment. “That’s good counsel.”

“Yes, it is, and so’s this. If you need to pick up a few dollars, Target is short of people to help with returns on the day after Christmas.

“For now, stay a little longer if you want, but then go home to your wife and daughter. They need you – not just your money.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

“Have a little faith, my son.”

He stood, said he had chores waiting, wished me and my little family a merry Christmas, and left me alone in the pew.

*****

I left the church and wandered the streets until it was time for me to be home from school. Things still were not all sweetness and light, but a tired sadness had mostly replaced my desperation.

I still didn’t know how to tell Laurie about the landlord.

Finally I went home and quietly let myself in the front door.

Laurie was sitting in our tiny living room, on our battered couch, feeding the baby with a bottle.

“You’re awake,” I said softly.

“More or less. How was your day?”

“Not good.”

“The landlord came by this afternoon,” she said.

“Uh-oh. He left us a note this morning, but you were asleep.”

“What did it say?” she asked.

“If he doesn’t have the rest of the rent by the 26th, we’re out at the end of the month.”

“Well,” she said, “wait until you hear what he told me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and the knot of fear in my stomach tightened.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said gently. “You haven’t heard it yet.”

“I can imagine.”

“Apparently not. He said he changed his mind. He’d be an idiot to turn out good tenants like us. If we can catch up within a couple of weeks or so, he’ll be fine.”

A strange feeling pushed its way through the fear and shame. It might have been hope. “I’ll have my fellowship by then,” I said.

“I know, right?” She reached for me with one arm, and I sat next to her.

I started to cry. She held me tight.

“Tears of relief?” she asked after a minute or two.

“Partly.”

She nodded knowingly. “You were having a pretty serious relapse of look-what-a-poor-husband-did-to-the-wife-who-should-be-rich, weren’t you?”

I nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Tell me about your day?”

I told her about Anya and Father Mike and wandering the streets. Each of those stories filled her eyes with tears.

I didn’t tell her about the things I had thought of doing, but hadn’t done.

“So are peanut butter sandwiches what you want for Christmas dinner?” she asked.

“That would be okay,” I said.

She smiled. “It really would, too, but I was thinking ham and potatoes and some nice rolls and an assortment of fruits and vegetables, and a nice chocolate cake for dessert. You’ll have to help me with some cooking.”

I smiled wryly. “A girl can dream. Maybe we can do that next year.”

“That’s the spirit,” she said. “But come to the kitchen.”

She stood and pulled me toward our tiny kitchen.

“See?” she asked. “Not next year. Tomorrow.”

A box of groceries was on the table. I could see a ham, a bag of potatoes, and a bunch of other things we couldn’t afford. A homemade card said simply, “Merry Christmas from Santa!”

“Who?” I asked, wanting to cry again.

“No idea. Did you tell Father Mike where we live?”

“No.”

“Must just be a neighbor,” she concluded. “Or neighbors. Maybe the landlord? I guess you never know.”

6. One More Christmas Eve

One More Christmas Eve

Years later, a family from out of town arrived early for Midnight Mass and sat in our old seats. There was a lovely wife, who was aging more gracefully than her husband. He sat to her right, at the end of the pew, gently cradling a quiet, toddler-size bundle on his lap. To her left sat a towheaded boy, about nine, still wearing his parka, looking cranky and sleepy in equal measures. To his left sat a dark-haired girl of about fourteen, looking existentially bored.

The boy turned to his parents and said for the third time in the last hour, “This is stupid. We should be sleeping in our hotel. But where we really should be is home, sleeping in our beds. It’s almost midnight, and it’s Christmas Eve. Why couldn’t we stay home, like we always do?”

“We’re not even Catholic,” the girl said. “And shouldn’t I have some say in where we go on my birthday?” She looked at the bundle in her father’s arms. “At least The Thing gets to sleep through this.”

The dad smiled, ignored the provocation, and spoke softly. “I hope she sleeps through this, but she might not.”

“Mass is long,” the mom added, “and there’s going to be some music tonight that’s pretty hard to sleep through.”

The girl shook her head. “I don’t know what made you two think you needed another baby anyway. And you almost died, Mom, just like when you had me.”

That was an exaggeration, her parents knew. The third time had been less scary than the first.

“Dying in childbirth is so not a good idea,” said their firstborn.

The boy asked earnestly, “Did you almost die when you had me?”

His sister rolled her eyes and glared. “She almost died when she saw you.” She looked at her mom. “Why do that? I mean, you know they invented birth control, right? Were you pretending to be Catholic or something?”

“Honey, maybe that’s not the best way to talk, when we’re at a Catholic Mass.” She looked and sounded amused, not angry, and it had the desired effect on her daughter.

“You’re right, Mom. I’m sorry.”

“To answer your questions, your dad and I—“

The glare was back. “On second thought, Mom, don’t be gross. Please? Why is talking about that in front of us fun for you?”

“Actually, teasing you about it is what’s fun for me, and that’s not what I was about to do. I was going to tell you what we’re doing tomorrow.”

“Not opening presents,” groused the boy. “We left all of those home.”

“Not all of them,” said their mom. “We girls get scarves. The boys get gloves. We all get snickerdoodles.”

He was unimpressed. “So much for the suspense. Do we at least get Christmas dinner?”

“Yes,” she said.

He brightened. “At a restaurant? With ham? And mashed potatoes? And soda? And pie?”

His sister elbowed him. “All you think about is your stomach.”

He looked defiant. “Wrong. I think about my taste buds too.” He turned to his parents. “She hit me with her elbow! Really hard!”

His parents ignored him.

The mom explained, “First we’re going for a walk in a little neighborhood not far from here, where we’ll show you three old houses. We’ll be glad for the gloves and the scarves. Then we’re going to walk through the town square, and then we’re going to visit the university for a few minutes. I wish the buses were running on Christmas, so we could ride them there and back. And we’re going to visit an old priest here, Father Mike.”

“Hey, that’s my name!” said the boy.

“Yes,” she said. “Interesting coincidence, isn’t it? He’s not here tonight, but he’ll be here tomorrow. And we’re going by the hospital for a little while, just to see it. And all day long Dad and I are going to tell you about things that happened when we lived here. Then we’ll go to dinner, before it gets too late.”

“At a restaurant?” asked the boy.

“Yes,” said his dad, clearly amused. “We’re having Christmas dinner at a restaurant.”

“Ham? Mashed potatoes?”

His sister looked exasperated. “You are the biggest of all possible losers.”

“They don’t serve ham there,” said the dad, “and they have a different kind of potatoes.”

The girl looked at him cautiously. “What is this restaurant?”

He smiled broadly. “We’re having Christmas dinner at Wendy’s.”

She searched both parents’ faces for some sign that he was kidding.

“And because the people there have to work on Christmas, we’re taking them little gifts.”

“So my brother is a loser and my parents are weird,” she said. “Not that either of those is news.”

“This is so cool,” the boy exclaimed. “Can I have a hamburger?” He elbowed his sister.

“You may have two, if you’re that hungry,” said his dad. “You kids may order whatever you want, but Mom and I are eating from the value menu. It used to be called the dollar menu, believe it or not.”

The girl was unimpressed. “What does all this have to do with Christmas? Or with you two deciding we needed a little sister?”

Her parents exchanged a warm look, and her mom spoke. “If you listen tomorrow and hear what there is to hear and see what there is to see, and then you still can’t answer that question for yourself, we’ll tell you.”

“This is going to be something mushy about love, isn’t it? Because this is where you were when you fell in love? Can I just stay at the hotel all day? At least it has cable.”

“No,” said her mom. “You’re part of the family.”

“Okay, but tomorrow is Christmas, and none of this is about Christmas.”

Her dad shrugged. “That’s mostly true.”

The girl looked suspicious. “Wait, you agree with me? Mostly?” She looked at her mom. “He actually agrees with me. What’s wrong with this picture?”

“That’s because you’re right,” said her mom. “Most of what we’re doing tomorrow is not about Christmas.”

“Then why are we doing it on Christmas?”

“Because Christmas is about it.”

The girl was silent for a moment. Then she murmured, “Too deep for me, Mom.”

Her mom spoke gently. “Rachel, maybe tomorrow you can be deep enough for it. Now let’s get ready to listen. The music is about to start.”

The boy spoke up. “I forgot my book. Does anyone have a book I can borrow?”

His mom smiled. “I just happen to have a new Christmas book.”

“Will you read it to me?” he asked with the eager confidence of a boy for whom that almost always worked.

“Not during the music or the Mass. For now, read it to yourself. And you may want to notice that, according to the program, the choir is about to sing the same words you’ll be reading. I know you don’t care about this sort of thing, at least not yet, but they’re from a poem by a woman named Christina Rossetti, and we sing them at Christmas.”

What her children didn’t notice during some of the music, but her husband did, was that every so often a tear ran down her cheek. What she noticed, but her children didn’t, was that he shed more tears than she, as the cathedral children’s choir finished its first carol.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

A few minutes later, between songs, and when parental eyes were dry again for the moment, the girl leaned forward, looked down the pew, and whispered to her dad, “Can I at least hold Anya for a while, so I don’t have to just sit here? I won’t wake her up.”

THE END

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