I have a part-time job where I fly around the country reviewing companies for an accreditation agency. At least I did until the coronavirus hit. I may get back to it someday. Back in 2018 I was reviewing an agency in Alabama. I finished up and had about a three hour wait for my flight in the Birmingham airport. I gotta tell you, there ain’t much to do in the Birmingham airport. But I had my laptop with me. It was November 16 and airport was all decked out for Christmas. I was feeling the Christmas love and this is the story that flowed out. I got it all on paper (or at least in a computer file) and dressed it up the next day. A little magazine picked it up and it was printed in Down in the Dirt magazine (awful name, I know) in the May 2020 issue.
After my first marriage fell apart, I was in a very dark place. What began as a trial separation became permanent. I went through a depression, shut myself off, stopped eating, that kind of thing. It wasn’t all bad; I lost some weight. With the help of a counselor and a support group, I survived it all. I remember the turning point vividly. I was in my company’s offices, standing outside my office, looking down the long hallway. People were arriving for a meeting. I noticed one of my coworkers coming down the hallway. She was about six feet tall, in skintight white Capri pants, high heels and a flowery top (yeah, inappropriate for a business meeting). Her long hair was curled around her shoulders. It bounced around as she strutted down the hallway like it was a fashion runway, smiling and greeting others, basically owning the place. She just had that kind of personality. I was never really attracted to her, but at that moment I noticed how vivacious she was, how full of life. It was as if a fog lifted. It was like in The Wizard of Oz when the film went from black and white to color. A seismic shift. My life was Technicolor again.
Now that I had returned to the Land of the Living, I felt I was ready to venture out and meet people again. Friends recommended the Long Branch Bar where most nights people went to actually socialize and dance, not just hook up. So, I took myself there. First night, the first two ladies I asked to dance turned me down. My already bottomed-out self-esteem took another beating. I just hung my head and skulked out of the place. But I came back, made friends, and became a regular. I honed my already fairly good dance skills and became a desirable dance partner. Oblivious as I always am, I didn’t realize that I was apparently already desirable real estate. Once I got some new clothes that fit, a new haircut and a new attitude, one woman in my office said the other ladies had deputized her to let me know that I was officially hot. Wow. Glad this happened before #MeToo. I’ve never thought of myself as attractive. I was a nerdy kid and now figured I was just a nerdy adult. It was a kind of heady moment.
Over the next year I went through a succession of romances, each a bit bizarre in its own way. At one point, I faced a choice between a woman eight years younger than me (28) and a lady eight years older than me (44). I went out with both of them for a while. I determined eight years is just over the limit for generational change. Kay just had a different mindset than me, plus a son only ten years younger than me. Jenna, on the other hand, just hadn’t matured yet. She was all about the party. However, I followed my hormones and stuck with Jenna for about 8 months. It did not end well. I’ll just leave it at that.
Then there were the Silent Stalker and the Game Player. I may be attractive, but I was definitely attracting the wrong type. They reminded me of a comment by a comic that the difference between Charles Manson and the women he dated was that at least Charlie had the common decency to LOOK crazy. At this point I got the feeling that I was just finished with women. I needed to take a break. My gay friend offered to introduce me around the gay club, but that wasn’t the kind of break I was looking for. Just a brief hiatus from women. I decided I could be happy with my own company, go where I wanted, stay out late and do the things I liked. It was very freeing in its own way. Who knew a smile would capture me?
That’s what started it all. A smile that just lit up the room. Well, that and the Martin Luther King Jr holiday and a lame horse. Lena was an avid horsewoman. She would ride her horse mornings before work. That particular January her horse was lame so she couldn’t ride. She had a Monday off for the King holiday with no plans for Sunday evening. A friend suggested she try the Long Branch. She went, and she found she enjoyed it, and so kept coming. I didn’t notice her at first, but we ran into each other in February when she asked me to dance. When I saw her later across the floor, she smiled. Her whole face lit up like one of those Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. She totally captivated me. After weeks of being one of my regular dance partners, I realized I wanted to explore more. To hell with my hiatus from women. Biology trumps all.
Lena turned me down on my first four requests for a date. Each one she claimed the same thing: she had a house guest coming into town and couldn’t be available. Well, I’m not an idiot; I know when I’m getting the brush off. I decided I could settle with just being friends. Then she asked me out. She later told me that she really did have house guests and realized that I probably wouldn’t ask her out anymore, but she was interested. She invited me to a baseball game. It turns out the game got rained out before we even left her house, so the date turned into an evening sitting in her living room just talking. Probably actually a great way to start a relationship.
That summer was pretty wonderful. We saw a lot of each other, tried fun new things, went to the beach, picnics with the symphony, and the State Fair, just datey kinds of things. By the fall, I was in that place where you begin to wonder where this is going. Was she just a convenient partner for doing things or was there more going on? I’m sure everyone recognizes that point in relationships.
My birthday came in early December and I received a birthday card from her. This was back before Facebook. Getting a card by mail from someone who wasn’t my mother or grandmother was its own kind of intimate. She came over to visit me on my birthday and I told her I would go out on Sunday to pick up a Christmas tree. My family always put up the Christmas tree the weekend after my birthday. My mom said it was important to separate the two holidays. Lena expressed surprise that I was getting a tree. I was living in a small apartment and would be gone most of the holiday time visiting family. As far as I was concerned, that didn’t matter. I said as long as I am able, I will always have a Christmas tree. It’s my favorite holiday, not for any religious reason, but as a symbol of happiness and childlike wonder at the magic of it all. Peace on Earth, goodwill to all; that kind of stuff. My depression was gone, I’d just had a hell of a good year and was ready to celebrate. I told her I had gotten custody of half the Christmas decorations and if what I had wasn’t enough, I’d go out and buy more. I’m all about Christmas, no Grinches allowed.
So, Sunday, I bought a six foot Frazier fir and set it up in my little sun room. Soon the entire apartment smelled like Christmas. That aroma always brings back enchanting memories of Christmases past. I pulled out my allotment of decorations. I strung the lights I had and stood back, considering if that was enough or if I needed more lights. As I stood wondering, there was a knock on the door.
I opened the door and there stood Lena with a box filled with vintage Christmas ornaments.
“Can I play?” she asked. I pulled her in and we were like two kids decorating that tree with ornaments from our childhoods, stopping frequently to explain the important memories attached to each. When we finished, the tree was full, was gaudy and was gloriously Christmas. We stood back to admire our handiwork. I looked at her and though we were alone, the moment seemed sacred enough to require a soft voice.
“Merry Christmas, Love,” I murmured.
“Merry Christmas, Sweetie,” she replied. We sealed it with a kiss. What happened next is none of your business, but we validated Christmas as my most favorite holiday. But we weren’t just celebrating the holiday. We were celebrating each other. How through all the twists and turns and ups and downs we had ended up together in this moment. How lame horses and Monday holidays, Madonna smiles and bad romances had led us here. How through it all we had each found someone worth sharing a Christmas tree with. It was so unlikely. So unexpected. So random. Yet, so perfect.