Fiction

Secret Santa

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 FICTION




When Sabra and I figured out that one of the boys’ Resident Counselors was sleeping with both of us, we struck up a plan whereby Sabra would tell Pierce that she was pregnant and needed an abortion, then split whatever money he gave her and use it to go Christmas shopping. Even though she wasn’t really pregnant, I was jealous that she got to be the one having the fake abortion. By my calculations, I’d been sleeping with Pierce for at least a month longer than she had, which seemed like it should’ve given me some kind of edge. According to Sabra, however, my fanatical birth control (rubbers and pills) was statistically no match for her own method of just plain rubbers. What could I say? We went to a math and science high school. We’d each taken a statewide exam to prove we were worthy of free tuition and board, and if the two of us knew anything, it was our numbers.
    Sabra was my best friend, though I’d felt a little distant from her ever since she’d gotten back from her junior year in Berlin. I thought she was using a phony accent, and she’d picked up this habit of wearing the same clothes twice in a row. If it happened that she introduced a new outfit on a Friday, rest assured she’d have it on again the following Monday. “Do you have to be so exact about it?” I asked her one day at lunch. “I mean, sure, I wear the same thing a couple of times, but not so people would notice.”
    She was sitting across from me in her black turtleneck and red tartan skirt. Her blond hair was a little greasy at the roots and I wondered if she’d altered her bathing schedule as well. “In Deutschland,” she enunciated, “nobody cares. Why should they? Aren’t there more important things in life?”
   

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I stared at my pineapple JELL-O quivering in its Styrofoam bowl. “I guess.”
    “Have you ever visited a concentration camp?” she asked me, knowing full well that I hadn’t.
    “No.”
    “Well,” she said, “after you do, things change.”
    “Stop lording it over me,” I said.
    She paused, then said, “Sorry,” and I knew she meant it. This was the old Sabra. The one who cared about the world, yes, but also the minutiae of human life. The one who would never have made fun of me for fretting over what unfair grade I’d gotten, or whether my pottery would crack in the kiln. The one I missed.
    We’d met in photography class in tenth grade. For her assignments, Sabra liked to stage pictures of campus rule-breaking: kids smoking hand-rolled cigarettes meant to be joints; kids making out in their dorm rooms; kids cheating on exams; kids vandalizing the lavs. I usually played the kids, since Sabra said my face had a genuinely scared and guilty quality. When we found out about Pierce and I couldn’t stop crying for two weeks, she took my picture then, too. “This is for a new series I’m calling Statutory Rape: the Aftermath,” she said. Maybe I should’ve reminded her that I was practically eighteen, but I didn’t. My only consolation in the face of losing Pierce was that Sabra was paying a little of her old attention to me.
    Of course, she thought I was ridiculous to cry over Pierce, who I’d known since freshman year. In my very first week of school, he’d found me bawling in a dormitory stairwell, having lost some of the textbook money my father had given me in a poker game. “You’re Irene, right?” he’d said, which confused me, since with his smooth, tanned skin and shoulder-length brown hair he was easily the best-looking R.C. on campus. There seemed no reason why he should know my name.
    I nodded and he asked me what was wrong. When I told him, he reached for his wallet and gave me a twenty-dollar bill. “Don’t gamble anymore, okay? You’re not very good at it.” He winked and walked away, and I was stunned at how little it hurt to be called a failure by him. Nothing like when my father said it and I found myself unable to look people in the eye for days afterward.
    From that point on, I began going to Pierce with my problems, as opposed to my own R.C. When I was late for work detail in the cafeteria, he made up all kinds of stories to tell my manager, most of which involved him corralling me into some civic-minded chore that had run overtime. When I couldn’t sleep at night, he walked the flat, modern campus with me to try to tire me out. When I ran out of tampons, he drove me to the drugstore.
    I leaned on Pierce even more in my junior year, while Sabra was away. My college résumé was decent, but my father wanted it better, so Pierce sent him reports from a made-up club called The Restoration Committee, which, under my leadership, was doing a bang-up job of planting a small stand of baby pines just beyond the gymnasium. In fact, a crew of workmen were planting trees in that area — they just didn’t know I was getting the credit.
    When Sabra’s letters from Germany arrived, I immediately ran to Pierce’s room to share them. They were filled with hilarious stories of wrong trains taken, nude public bathing, Steffi Graf sightings. And then there were the pictures. Sabra was never in any of them, but as with her assignments for photography class, they oozed juvenile wrongdoing. “Look at this,” I said, holding up a shot of Sabra’s host family drinking in a beer garden. “This kid here can’t be more than fifteen years old!” Pierce reminded me that the boy I was pointing to was probably legal in Germany, since the drinking age was lower over there. He said we could probably learn a lesson or two from the Krauts.
    Then Sabra came home with all her strange new ways, not to mention calling me dumkoff and hurrying me across campus with rapid-fire commands of “Mach schnell!” So I started spending more time by myself in the art room. Pierce’s twenty-ninth birthday was coming up in October, and I got it into my head to make him a ceramic box for his Jack Daniels. The box itself wasn’t so difficult (my teacher helped me with the hinge), but I’d painstakingly decorated it on three sides with cowboys on horses, their hands reaching up for their hats. By affixing the cowboys to the base of the box, then adorning the lids with their hats, I’d hoped to create the effect of a gentleman tipping his hat as soon as the lid was opened. This worked only initially, since once the lid was all the way up, it looked more like the cowboys had tossed their hats in the air and were waiting for them to come back down.
    Pierce opened and closed it, opened and closed it. He put a bottle of Jack Daniels inside, said it fit perfectly, then took it out and offered me some, just this once. We passed the bottle back and forth a couple of times, until he said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and sat down at the edge of his bed to screw the cap on. I got up from his desk chair, meaning to join him, but was sidetracked along the way by the strangeness of my hands pulling my shirt over my head; my unbidden fingers at the waistband of my jeans. Neither he nor I seemed willing or able to stop me. On his nightstand, the ceramic box sat open, its cowboys in a permanent state of chivalry.
    It was all so confusing. I loved him because I knew he would never return my advances, yet if he’d rejected me in that moment, I would surely have felt betrayed. It took a long time for him to make his decision, to allow himself even to blink. When he finally let his eyelids fall, the lashes came back wet and shiny. “Jesus, Irene,” he whispered, “I’ve really failed you here.” He stood up then, returning the whiskey to its ceramic box. He rescued my clothes from the floor and started getting me dressed again. Even so, he continued to fail me, touching all my parts, putting his mouth on some of them, easing me face-down onto his bed as a way to fasten my bra. While his fingers worked the hooks and eyes, I felt one of his knees between my thighs, gently clearing a path for himself. I wasn’t a virgin, but all of this ached; all of it made me fear for a time when I’d be back in bed with teenage boys, who had no concept of how to make all their taking from me feel like giving.

I didn’t tell Sabra about my affair with Pierce, afraid that she’d make it small like she did with everything else in my life that felt important. And she didn’t tell me about hers because people in Germany have affairs all the time without making a big stink about it. I was jealous of her reason, which seemed way more grown up than mine. I was jealous that she hadn’t been the one in the humiliating position of pointing out the evidence.
    Every year, Pierce played Santa at the school Christmas party. He’d burst into the cafeteria hoisting a laundry sack filled with leftover Halloween candy he’d gotten on sale in early November. Sometimes the chocolate had that dusty white coating and stuck to your gums like candle wax, but no one seemed to care. Though we all felt ourselves to be too old for trick-or-treating, there was a certain free-floating sadness about the dorms on October 31st, made bearable only by what we knew was coming in December. And Pierce wasn’t stingy. He bought a lot of old candy — enough to make sure that everyone had at least a couple of shots at digging in deep with both hands.

     

  

©2000 Alicia Erian and Nerve.com

 FICTION


    When we got back from the costume shop, Pierce changed into his suit. He said no matter what he did while he had it on, he always felt like a good person, and he liked to get as much wear out of it as possible. The red velvet trousers looked worn, like a couch that needed reupholstering, and even doubled-over, Pierce’s flat foam pillow came nowhere close to stressing the buttons of his fur-trimmed coat. The beard, however, was magnificent. A faux muff held in place by two elastic bands hidden beneath his triangular red cap. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said finally, turning his desk chair outward and easing himself into it. “Come and sit in Santa’s lap.”
    “That’s stupid,” I told him, though I couldn’t deny my pleasure at the invitation.
    After I’d arranged myself across his thighs, he said, “What would you like for Christmas, little girl?” I knew he was looking for sexual answers, and I wanted to give them to him, only for the first time in my life, I was actually considering the question.
    “Hmm?” he said softly a few moments later, his right hand roaming my chest as if I really were a little girl, with no breasts to speak of.
    “I want you to visit me at college,” I said finally. “I want you to write to me. I don’t want you to like any other girls.”
    He nodded sagely, as if these were all givens. “What else?” he murmured, and I told him, and he asked if I wouldn’t mind helping an old man off with his belt.
    Back in my room, I pulled a few silver beard hairs from my navy blue sweater and stored them in my jewelry box. A few days later, when Sabra and I were studying in the library, another of these shimmered at me from her own shirt. She was on day two of a plum V-neck and flat-front khakis. “What?” she said, catching me staring at her. She looked down and brushed at her chest. “Did I spill something?”
    “That’s a Santa hair,” I whispered, remembering how close I’d had to get to Pierce to snag my own.
    “What?”
    I reached over and plucked it off her shoulder. “From Pierce’s beard.”
    I offered it to her from the palm of my hand and she accepted, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger. Her eyes crossed slightly as she dangled it between us for examination.
    “I have one, too,” I said, and she looked at me like I was crazy, like you had to go to Germany first and wear dirty clothes and not care about anything except catastrophes to be sleeping with an R.C.
    “You do not,” she said. We got into it and the librarian told us to take it outside.
    In the privacy of the loading dock, I ascertained that I was the aggrieved party, having climbed into Pierce’s bed roughly a month before Sabra. “But how could I have known?” she asked, and, not having a reasonable answer for this, I simply ignored it. “Don’t you see?” she went on. “He’s the asshole here, not me.”
    “That’s not the issue!” I yelled, terrified that it probably was.
    “Okay, then what is?”
    The issue was that I hadn’t been sufficient. That after sleeping with me, he’d felt the need to go and look for someone else. The issue was that even though he’d done this, I’d never once noticed that he liked me any less, or treated me any less kindly. The issue was that he could like both me and Sabra at the same time — that in some way, we were all the same to him.
    “Just tell me what happened,” I said finally, and she launched into the story of how she’d walked by Pierce’s room one day and heard Lead Belly on his stereo. “Who’s Lead Belly?” I asked, not caring that I was playing right into her hand, the one that was always forcing me to display how much I didn’t know. Happy for this small victory, she went on to explain about the troubled musician whose mastery of the twelve-string guitar had once earned him a pardon from the governor of Texas. “Where’d you learn all that?” I demanded, and she said how funny, Pierce had asked her the same thing.
    She’d learned it in Germany, of course. People in Germany knew way more about America than Americans, and Pierce agreed with Sabra that this was pathetic. He went on to say that I’d shown him a bunch of her photos, and that he thought she was a real artist. She started stopping by his room more and more after that, her entire collection of photos in tow. When they hit the one of her host family in the beer garden, Pierce said that she must really miss it over there. Oh yeah, she told him, especially the beer gardens. You have no idea what it’s like to be legal for a year then have that taken away from you. A second later, he pulled this funny-looking box out from under his bed and offered her a sip of whiskey, just this once.
    “I made that box,” I said, not wanting to hear anymore.
    “What?” she said.
    “For Pierce’s birthday,” I said. “As a gift.”
    “Oh,” she said. “Right.”
    “That was how it started with us,” I said, since she hadn’t bothered to ask.
    She nodded.
    “I guess Pierce likes artists,” I concluded, and when Sabra didn’t agree, I knew it was because she didn’t think I was one.
    In the end, we decided not to let him get the best of us; to commit ourselves to despising him. Already he’d suckered Sabra into visiting his room only in the mornings, while I’d always been told to come at night. No wonder I’d eaten so many breakfasts alone, and she so many dinners. It was out of this cuckolding that the fake abortion plan arose. Surely it was better to take revenge on Pierce than each other, though as Sabra outlined her fitness for pregnancy, I couldn’t help but feel a little of her wrath.

When she told Pierce the news, he apparently cried and said, “I’ll give you whatever you want. You kids are so important to me. All you kids!” I felt guilty for being a party to making him so upset, especially since I still believed it, that we were important to him. He drove us to the mall in his old Beetle when the buses weren’t running; gave us lessons on his standard transmission; would claim to be the uncle of anyone wanting to see a rated R movie. Even if you were also sleeping with him, as I was, he never cheated you out of your daily dose of attention. “How’s it going, Irene?” he’d ask, whenever our paths crossed on the small campus, and I’d say, “Oh, pretty well.” One time I told him I felt old. We were doing our laundry in the basement and no one else was around. “Oh yeah?” he said. “How old?”
    “Your age, I guess.”
    “You shouldn’t feel that old,” he said softly. Then he said, “Here, give me that,” and he took the T-shirt I’d just pulled from the dryer and began folding it for me. “Here,” he said again, slipping his hands beneath my armpits and lifting me onto the washer. His own clothes agitated warmly beneath me as I sat there watching him fold the rest of my stuff, never once acting funny about a pair of underwear.
    On the day of the Christmas party, Sabra and I took a city bus to the mall. “What’re you going to buy with your half?” she asked me. Pierce had given her four hundred dollars in twenties from his ATM machine.
    I looked out my big square window as the front right corner of the bus deflated in order to take on an elderly passenger. “I don’t know.”
    “Well,” she said, “I’m going to get my parents a globe. Their geography sucks.”
    At the front of the bus, an old woman flashed the driver a pass, then settled herself in a seat kitty-corner to him. He asked her how she was doing and she said fine. A few seconds later, she asked him how he was doing, and he said he couldn’t complain. I wished I was up there with them, saying unimportant things, not having to worry about when to press the buzzer since the driver probably knew my stop.
    At the mall, Sabra got sidetracked by a rack of spaghetti-strap nighties at Victoria’s Secret, flipping through it for her size. “What are you doing?” I said.
    “Just looking.”
    A saleslady approached and asked if we needed any help. “Actually,” Sabra said, holding up one of the nighties, “you don’t seem to have this in a small. Are there any in back?”
    “I’ll check,” the saleslady said, walking off.
    “It’ll just take a minute,” Sabra told me.
    “I’ll meet you in half an hour,” I said. “In front of Sears.”
    “Can’t you just wait a second?” she asked.
    “No,” I told her, and I left. I passed a map store on the way, with a globe in the window, and wondered if Sabra would have enough money for it after she was done outfitting herself in lingerie. And why shouldn’t she buy lingerie? I thought bitterly. She was the one Pierce really liked — the one he’d seen fit to supplement me with. Ever since we’d discovered that he was two-timing us, I’d racked my brains, trying to figure out what he could possibly want with her. What did I want with her? We’d become friends by default, it now seemed. I’d posed for a few of her photos, then, instead of parting ways, we’d stayed together. Why? Suddenly I didn’t know, which made me worry that there’d been no good reason at all. That I’d been coerced, even. But I could remember laughing with her; missing her while she was in Germany. Before she left, she’d superimposed the face of a boy who’d called me ugly onto the body of a dog who was taking a poo, then posted the picture all over campus. Clearly we’d once meant something to each other.
    At Sears, I found the section with all the La-Z-Boys lined up in auditorium rows, then sank into a blue one and flipped up the leg rest. I closed my eyes and ran my hands along the velvety arms, pretending they were Pierce’s Santa suit.
    “May I help you, miss?”
    I opened my eyes to find an older gentleman in an ill-fitting jacket standing above me, hands clasped together. “Oh,” I said, feeling a little embarrassed. “I guess I was just wishing I could afford this chair.”
    “It’s a beauty,” he agreed.
    “I only have two hundred dollars,” I told him.
    “Well,” he said, “just keep saving. Then you can come back next year.”
    “I won’t be here next year. I’ll be in college.”
    “There’s always layaway,” he offered.
    “All right,” I said, and I filled out the paperwork and ordered the chair to be delivered to Pierce once it was paid off.
    On the bus ride home, Sabra showed me her new nightie, matching robe, and feathered mules (she hadn’t even set foot in the map store). Maybe she thought she was fooling me with all her talk of how she’d gotten the lingerie for herself, and how in Deutschland, women didn’t need a man to buy sexy clothes for, but I wasn’t biting. Not even when she started in on what a creep Pierce was, and how his Santa suit had B.O. “So do you,” I told her.
    She looked at me, alarmed. “What?”
    “You smell,” I said. “On the second day of all your outfits.”
    She considered this, then sniffed beneath her armpits. “I do not.”
    “It’s no big deal,” I said. “We just try to stand down wind of you a little.”
    “‘We’?”
    “We,” I confirmed. “People.”
    She sniffed under one of her pits again. “I just can’t smell it,” she said.
    All I could think of when we got back was beating Sabra and her Victoria’s Secret bag to Pierce’s room, which I managed to do, though when he opened his door, I was at a loss. “C’mon in,” he said sadly. He wore a faded T-shirt and pajama bottoms, despite the fact that the Christmas party was only an hour off. Old, scratchy music emanated from the boom box on his dining table, a sad accompaniment to the lightly flurrying snow globe of New York City sitting nearby. My chest caved at the thought of him alone in this room only moments earlier, shaking it.
    “Everything okay?” he asked me, his standard R.C. opener.
    I looked at his single bed wedged into the far corner of the room. The thin blue spread was a little rumpled, the pancake pillow propped up against the headboard. My ceramic box sat open on his nightstand, though with no Jack Daniels inside it, the effect was surprisingly barren.
    “Have a seat,” Pierce said now, pulling out one of the two dining chairs for me, then taking the other himself. I couldn’t tell if he was purposely trying to block my view of his bed, but that was the way it ended up. “What’s wrong, Irene?” he asked me.
    I hesitated only briefly, then said, “I have a bill I can’t pay.”
    “Sure,” he said, reaching for his wallet, until he remembered he was wearing pajamas. At that point he turned in his chair and began scanning the room for his chunky billfold.
    “No,” I said, “it’s not like that.” Then I went ahead and told him the whole story, from the Santa hairs to the La-Z-Boy.
    When I finished, he didn’t say anything for a minute, just took a few deep breaths. “So, Sabra’s not really pregnant?” he asked, looking at me hopefully.
    “We were mad at you,” I explained. “We wanted to get you back.”
    He sighed. “I guess that makes sense.”
    “Are you sleeping with anyone else?” I said. “You must be.”
    He shook his head. “No.”
    “Well,” I said, “I hope you like your chair. I can’t pay for the rest of it.”
    “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll go down and pick it up tomorrow.”
    “But don’t return it, okay? I want you to have it.”
    “I won’t return it.”
    “Can I have some Jack Daniels?” I asked, trying to peer around him at my ceramic box.
    “No,” he said, shifting in his chair. “I’m out.”
    We sat there in silence for a while, until suddenly I heard my name being sung. I turned to look at the boom box’s speaker, as if I might be able to see the words floating out: Irene, good-night/Irene, good-night/Good-night, Irene, Good-night, Irene/I kiss you in my dreams. There was no doubt in my mind that such music had once convinced a Texas governor to set its author free. Just to be sure, I asked Pierce, “Is this Lead Belly?”
    He nodded, his face relaxing for the first time since I got there. “He’s playing your song.”
    I went back to looking at the speaker. Pierce reached out and raised the volume a little, though not too much, perhaps to ward off Sabra. It made me happy to think so, in any case. Between choruses, Lead Belly rambled endlessly about Irene and all she meant to him. Each time he came back to sing her goodnight, he sounded more and more alone. When it was finished, Pierce popped the CD out and told me to keep it. He hugged me without letting me feel his erection, and at last, over his shoulder, I saw the problem. Not only was the ceramic box missing its bottle of Jack Daniels, but the ten-gallon hats had been snapped off the lid. There the cowboys sat, hands up in the air, waiting for nothing. I’d go to Sabra’s room later and demand them back, I thought. Or maybe not. Maybe we were all entitled to our souvenirs.

  

     

©2000 Alicia Erian and Nerve.com