I put out a call for suggestions for my next blog post on Twitter. @SStaatz suggested that I write about romances after the Christmas period. There are plenty of romances leading up to Christmas, but few set in the immediate period after Christmas.
I decided to not write a how-to article. Instead, I wrote a romance set in the after-Christmas period. The characters are fictional and are not based on any real person.
Alice Nowak packed her white Christmas tree in its box. Tall enough to be on a table without touching the ceiling and eye-catching enough to not be burdened by dozens of ornaments. A few blue and red glass decorations were enough to make it shine.
Box placed in the basement for another year to collect dust, she climbed up the stairs and sat at the kitchen table. She dared not open the fridge with the ten pounds of leftover turkey and the Tupperware container full of nuclear-holocaust-proof cranberry sauce.
She’d pick away at the food over the next few days. Eat three meals a day of lean meat coated with red sugar. A diet of sorts, one weaning her off shortbread cookies, chocolate, rum, and pumpkin pie.
Her house was still. The noisy nieces and nephews riding sugar highs on little sleep returned to their parents, a form of a thank-you gift for having run amok for three days and two nights in new territory. No combination of Netflix, Xbox, or snowball fights could subdue their boundless enthusiasm.
She reviewed the texts on her cellphone. All thank-you’s and Merry Christmas’ and group photos of the same shot from slightly different angles with slightly better or worse cameras.
Like all she wanted was fifteen photos of little Bobby sitting on grandpa-turned-Santa’s knees, too shy to ask for his present but too proud not to smile for the camera.
Ah. Gone were days spent scribbling on the backs of photos and placing them in photo books. Welcome to the days of Google Photobooks with unlimited storage, unnamed photos, and the constant reminders of ‘best memories of October’ and ‘best memories of November’. Like the pictures from inside the carwash and the heap of leaves texted to a sister were the best days of her life.
Well. Maybe. They were her best days in the past three years.
She spent three days picking at leftovers in sweatpants and extra-warm socks that pulled up to her midcalf. Feet propped up on the coffee table, she watched every Christmas movie made since the dawn of motion pictures. She knew the lines, the scenes, the actors, the ups and downs. Yet, she watched. Part tradition, part boredom, and everything to do with not wanting to move from her comfy couch.
New Year’s Eve came and went. A few friends came over to celebrate, each with a bottle of wine in hand, all leaving having spent the night in the spare bedroom or couch or inflatable bed and left with no appetite and a headache.
Jeans tighter than they were two weeks prior, house clear of excess alcohol and sugar, she put on her snow boots, tucked her sketch pad into her purse, and trudged up the snow-filled sidewalks to the nearest café.
Hot chocolate in hand, she sat on a bench in a café overlooking the street.
The bubble of Christmas and New Year’s popped. Everyone hurried to make up for five weeks of slacking off—Christmas shopping, preparation of parties, parties with friends, parties with coworkers, parties with children’s friends, parties with that group of friends, parties with this group of friends who shouldn’t be left out, standing in line to buy presents no one wanted and more food than anyone could eat.
Now the stack of bills that flooded email inboxes. Now the dings on the credit cards that lowered credit ratings. Now the anticipation of meeting family and friends for the first time in months, gone.
Long, exhausting, frustrating lines at bus stations, train stations, and airports. Oh. And the clogged highways of impatient, likely still hungover, drivers, honking and cutting their way into lanes, inching that much closer to the end of the holidays crash.
Psychological, emotional, financial, and physical crash.
First day at the office. Inundated by reality.
She sipped her hot chocolate. Her last refuge in the not-quite-done holiday period, Alice sketched the car in front of the café. A late four-door model with snow on the bumper and side mirror. She drew two children clad in snowsuits collecting snowballs and throwing them at the window in front where she sat. One snowball landed with a splat, the other child would up and was poised to throw. His striped tuque flopped on his head in a where’s-Waldo-impersonation.
“That’s really good.” His voice was scratchy, walking-in-from-the-cold-and-hadn’t-yet-had-a-chance-to-sip-coffee, scratchy.
“You think?” She eyed her work, thinking it needed something across the street. Perhaps a shop with a Christmas tree or a mannequin in a winter dress in its window.
“Yeah. It captures playfulness and mischievousness.”
“What if added an elf hat on one of their heads?”
“It would ruin this. This is a winter drawing, not a Christmas sketch.”
She nodded. She held her pencil over the head of one of the boys and pencilled in a regular tuque with a pompom.
There. Both boys had moms who dressed them warmly.
“Cartoonist?” he asked.
“Of a type.”
She smoothed out a pencil line and softened the edge of a boy’s chin. “It’s more of a hobby. I sketch and sell them online.”
“Yeah. I sell them through a print on demand service. People print them on tee-shirts, coffee mugs, keychains, that sort of thing.”
“They sell well?”
She shrugged. “Well enough to buy a box of candy canes and peppermint hot chocolate.”
He chuckled, a little higher pitched than most men but more sincere.
Silence blanketed the conversation. She flipped a page and sketched her hot chocolate mug. To its right was a man’s hand, with a bit of hair on the back, cupping a mug of coffee.
“What will the caption of that one be?” he asked.
Her hand sliding to his to hold it, trace the lines of his fingers, the curve between his index and thumb. Not quite a Hallmark caption, more of instructions for her.
“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “I let the customer pick what the caption is going to be.”
“How about ‘post-Christmas present to self’?”
She laughed. “That’s about all most can afford.”
“Don’t forget the design the barista would put in their coffee.”
“He drinks it black.”
She glanced at him for the first time. He had an interesting curve of his nose. Not a regal or large nose, but a proud one. A thick scarf hung loosely around his neck, and black stubble pebbled his cheeks.
She returned to her sketch to keep from drooling hot chocolate over him. “Escaping the wife?”
“No wife. Needing a break from the parents.”
Relief spread through her chest, but she didn’t release the pent-up sigh. Forty-three and divorced didn’t equate desperate for a date. No way at all. Not that it had been a year and a half since her last semi-decent date.
Eager, not desperate. There was a difference, so her battered pride said. “Spared of the kids?”
“They’re at the ex’s this Christmas. Two provinces away.”
“Must be lonely.” She missed her two children, an hours’ drive away. Not that she would tell them to their face. Then she’d never regain control over the house.
“I miss them, but I like an empty house, too.”
She nodded. She smoothed the edges of the candy cane and added a twig of holly. It was a bit too Christmas-y for her sketch, but she balanced it out with a notebook and a cellphone.
He sipped his coffee. A strong, bold scent wafted over her. Bitter in scent, even, but his company was kind.
She flipped to a new page in her notebook. She looked out of the window at the passing traffic. A few taxis drove by. A woman in too-high bootheels pushed a too-expensive stroller. Add a pair of ostrich feathers and a fox shawl, and she was the perfect leading lady in a 1930s movie.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Other than sit in coffee shops staring into oblivion?”
“It’s three days into the new year. It’s too early for oblivion. You’ll need something stronger in your coffee to call it that.”
“It’s a triple expresso.”
“Explains how acidic it smells,” she said.
“It keeps me awake.”
“It keeps me awake.”
He laughed, rich and bold, just like the smell of his coffee. “Sometimes you can’t, you know?”
“You’ve got three pots of that sludge in you, and you wonder why you can’t sleep?” She sketched his hand, no coffee mug, no table, no hot cup of hot chocolate, only his hand with his wide wristwatch.
“Caffeine’s never prevented me from sleeping.”
“And what does?” she asked.
A moment’s pause, long enough for him to drag a sip from his mug and put it down again. “Life. Its twists. Its turns.”
“You mean a series of dips, dives, and crashes.”
She sketched his forearm, encased in a thick wool sweater, the kind worn by fishermen in commercials. A manly sweater with a thick collar.
“Waiting for someone?” he asked.
Him. “No. Trying to regain my sanity. I forgot what it’s like to spend a family meal with everyone together.”
“Not close to your family?”
“I’m close to them. Just not all at once. I see my brother a few times a month to watch a hockey or baseball game. Parents every other weekend for dinner. Easy. Simple, bite-sized pieces of them when there’s booze or an activity to distract. Preferably, both at the same time.”
“Can’t just be any booze. Has to be top-shelf stuff as a reward for enduring.”
She brought her pencil-holding hand to her mouth and laughed. The tip of her pencil smudged across her top lip, and she wiped it away, but she laughed some more, smearing more charcoal. She reversed the camera on her cell to wipe away her Charlie Chaplin moustache.
“Come here.” Tyler hooked his finger under her chin and angled her face to him. “There are a few smudges.” He ran his thumb along the corner of her mouth and traced a finger along her top lip. “There you go.”
She smiled, shrouded with embarrassment. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Beautiful espresso-black eyes met hers.
Her heart fluttered like she was on a first date with a promising man. Only this wasn’t a date, and he was just whiling away the time until his children returned.
She slurped her hot chocolate. She dabbed her index finger over her lip, clearing away the foam.
He laughed. “You like moustaches?”
“Have to confess. Ned Flanders was my favourite cartoon character.”
“It shows.” He dabbed her upper lip with a napkin.
“I can’t do this.”
“Walk around without a moustache?”
She shook her head. “This. Flirting. Fun.” Another f came to mind.
“Two kids to shuttle around from ski hills to band practice, friends, doctors, dentists. I’m more nurse and chauffeur and cook than mom.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” he asked.
“It means they come first—with time, money, and problem-solving. It’s a lot of mental effort keeping the house organised.”
“I know. Mine come first, too. They’re visiting their mom, but they live with me.”
He nodded slowly. “She’s a regional salesperson. Never home more than two days at once. I work nine to five. If traffic’s good, I have dinner at the table by six.”
“And if it’s bad?”
“It’s a call to the local pizza place on the way home. Dinner’s on the table by six-thirty.”
He lifted a shoulder in a slow, self-effacing shrug. “It’s worked so far. Both have good grades and enough energy to play sports.”
“Guess,” he said.
“One girl, one boy.”
“The girl plays basketball, and he plays lacrosse.”
His eyebrows rose a little. Less than an arch, more than a twitch. “How’d you guess?”
“You’re tall and thick in the shoulder.”
“But not a hockey player?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No. You don’t seem like the kind to like the cold of an ice rink.”
She hooked his scarf with a finger. “You’ve been here thirty minutes and haven’t taken it off. Can’t see you skating around a rink.”
“Could never stand the cold. And yours?”
“My kids don’t mind so long as there’s snow to ski.”
“Or cross country. It doesn’t matter to them. Snow. Snowboards. Skies. It works.”
“And you?” he asked.
“What sport do you play?”
Bed sport. “Not really athletic. Hurt my ankle in elementary school, which kept me out of soccer. Tried rugby in high school and that worked for a while, but I hurt my shoulder.”
“I bike in the summer, walk in the winter. You?”
“Golf in the summer. Wait out the winter.”
Her cheeks lifted in a smile. “Probably head south to play golf in the winter.”
“Only if the sales are good that year and if I have the kids. It’s not fair to them for me to go on vacation without them.”
“I’m always fair.” He finished his coffee. “And what’s fair to you?”
She stopped sketching.
Fair. Fair was a foul word. Fair was honouring marriage vows. Fair was child support payments paid in full and on time. Fair was showing up on time to pick up the kids when it was the ex’s turn to have them.
Life wasn’t fair. Life was some twisted game of how unfair it could be.
“Fair’s keeping your word,” she said.
“That sounds right.”
She waited for a counter-argument. More silence.
The coffee shop emptied. They were the last two patrons.
“Another?” she asked.
“Sure. Double expresso. Black.”
She returned with a hot chocolate and a double expresso. “How do you sleep?”
“I like to think.”
“About?” she asked.
“Everything. The twists, turns, angles, and systems.”
He inclined his head. “That obvious?”
“You’re too much in your head.”
“I don’t live that much in your head.”
He cast her a sideways look, and there was nothing but amusement in his eye. “What do you do?”
“Office manager. Part-time sketcher.”
“I can’t afford to go out. Not for another month and a half.”
“Neither can I. Dinner at mine? Mid-February.”
She laughed. “My kids have ski-club on Thursday.”
“That work. My daughter’s got ringette and my son band.”
“Thursday, at yours at six.”
“Bring the napkins.”