“The tree lighting will happen in just a few minutes! Stick around because Santa will be making an appearance afterwards as well!” Mayor Fredricks said into the microphone from her spot on the stage in front of the crowd that had grown in the center of Williamsburg Central Park. Her long brown hair was tucked back in a braid under her red hat that matched her coat perfectly right down to the hue. She smiled out at the crowd as the live band next to here, The Outlanders, began to play another round of Christmas songs through the loud speakers that had been set up around the park earlier today. In the crowd, families sang and dance to the beat of the music. Families of mothers, fathers and children stood together. I could hear the excited chatter from the kids around me as they talked about the jolly fat guy in the red suit that was supposed to be here.
Glancing up, I took in the towering pine tree that was planted in the dead center of the park. It had been placed there well over fifty years ago, allowing the town to keep up with the tradition of stringing it with long strands of lights and beach ball sized ornaments. I could make out the shape of the bulbs from the glow of the light from the ground and could tell there was a star on the top of the tree. They had placed it there with a crane yesterday afternoon, providing quite the show from my office window as I watched them. They had barely made it up there, almost dropping the crystal tree topper from the top of the tree. Miraculously, they managed to harness it to the top safely. It felt like it was a mile away from where I stood on the ground.
“Daddy! Are they going to plug the tree in?” A little girl asked her father. She was perched on his shoulders, her long blonde hair flowing down her back as she looked up at the tree. She was wrapped in a bright purple winter coat and her hands were shoved in white mittens. Her father glanced up at her, smiling. He also had blonde hair and wore a long black coat, looking as if he had just gotten out of work. He wore leather gloves on his hands that were firmly on her legs.
“Yep! With a really big plug.” He replied. She let out a squeal of laughter at his joke as the two of them walked farther into the crowd. I smiled to myself as I held my spot on the edge of the group, not wanting to be too apart of the mass. The air was chilly around us, causing me to shove my hands into my black pea coat pockets. I had forgotten my gloves at home, perched on the table next to my front door. I had meant to grab them, but my mind had been else where as I left. I hadn’t planned on being here. The holiday festivities were the last things on my mind these passed few days. The bottle of wine chilling in my fridge had been my plans for the evening along with my couch. However, my plans changed when the sounds of the band playing made their way into my apartment. I couldn’t bring myself to break my yearly tradition of coming to the tree lighting, regardless of how miserable I felt.
The band changed from one song to another, the fading melody of Deck the Halls transitioning into the chords of a slower moving song began. The lead singer of the band, a man dressed in warm black clothing and a bald head that shined brighter than the lights on the stage, stepped up to the microphone. “I don’t want a lot for Christmas…” He sang, closing his eyes as he did.
“Why? Why aren’t I good enough for you to be with? I’m good enough for you when you’re lonely or if you want someone to spend the night with. Why can’t you just man up and admit you have feelings for me?” I asked, tears welling in my eyes. His present crinkled in my hand as I gave him an expectant look.
“I don’t know what you want from me. I thought we were doing good. Why do you need to put a label on this?” He replied, running his hand through his hair.
“It’s been years. I just want to know how you feel about me! I’ve been nothing but honest with you about how I’ve felt since the beginning. I have been in love with you for so long, it’s almost like breathing to me. But now, it’s like I’m suffocating because of everything that’s happened.” I sighed, letting my shoulders slump.
“I…I can’t give you what you want. I’m sorry but I don’t feel the same way about you.”
Shaking my head, I closed my eyes to stop the tears from falling. I couldn’t let myself thing about that right now. It’s all that’s been on my mind since it happened Tuesday night. The passed three days have been nothing but crying and wishing the pain would just stop. It was like living in my own personal Hell, waking up to it each morning was like getting hit with a truck. I’m not sure what I expected out of a man that had never been able to open up to me in the ten years I knew him. His history of avoiding all things that resembled emotions was outstanding and gut wrenching at the same time. He knew just what to say to get what he wanted but to also leave me feeling like I had been used. Being in love with him was the only thing I had managed to do consistently since I was a teenager. Now, it was just something that made me wish I could cut the feeling part of my soul out of my body to end this hurting. And even though I knew I wasn’t the only one who had gone through something like this, it felt like it was. I had no one I could talk to about it because it was a secret we were hiding from everyone. Including his wife.
I knew what I was getting into when his name popped up on my screen last summer. We hadn’t spoken a lot in the previous year and he was looking to catch up. We quickly did, talking about the past and what we were doing in life now. He was on his way to becoming a lawyer, hoping to land partner by the time he was thirty. I had just landed a spot at the Social Services office in our town, helping kids find foster families. It was something the both of us had planned since we were kids, banking on being successful friends. When we were younger, I had always known I had feelings for him. So did he. We never really dated but we did do a lot of first things together including kissing and taking things to the next level. He was my best friend and the only person I knew I would be able to love. I just waited around like a fool for him to realize I was the one he was meant to be. After high school ended though, I realized that it might have only been apparent to myself. He found a girlfriend and I went away to college. We did our best to stay connected, but it fizzled after his wedding. I had been invited but I couldn’t bring myself to attend.
Chatting online turned into phone calls and texting. We met up for coffee after that and things started to feel like old times. In my mind, I told myself to not think too much about it. He was married now, and I was moved on for the most part. Soon, our chats turned into flirting. He stopped telling his wife when we would hang out. I would stay up all night talking to him on the phone. That’s when things turned a little heated. I started having an electronic affair with a married man. I felt so guilty after the first couple of pictures. Not because I had helped him go behind his wife’s back. I was guilty because I didn’t feel bad about it. I was finally smiling and feeling those happy emotions that I remembered feeling in high school when we would flirt and spend time together. The affair went from being online to in person, him waking up in my bed the morning after my birthday.
It was never planned. Sometimes, he would come over just to hang out. Others, I knew what he was there for the moment he knocked on my door. And it wasn’t just sex. We’d watch movies, eat junk food and just hang out. Stuff that couples did. It felt nice until his wife would call, or he realized he needed to get home before she realized something was going on. He’d leave, telling me he’d see me next time or would text me a sweet message after he was home. As horrible as it sounded, I enjoyed being his other woman. The person he would rather be with than the woman he promised his life to. I imagined that someday, he would realize I was the one he was supposed to be with and he would break up with her. We would finally be together.
Months went by. Then a full year. He gave me a necklace on our friend anniversary. Something began to change between us though. He would tell me not to text him first. To let him contact me to avoid his wife seeing. I would go days without hearing from him. When he would talk, it would be short answers. The sex stopped along with the other things couples did. Getting him to hang out with me was like pulling teeth. I was beginning to realize that like before, I was in love with a man that refused to tell me how he felt. That he was just using me to get what he wasn’t getting at home. That I was his second choice when his wife wasn’t making him feel the way he wanted to be. I had fallen back into that man trap that I had clawed so viciously out of before.
The week after Thanksgiving, I confronted him. I hadn’t seen him in about a month and our contact had been limited. I begged him to meet up with me, so I could give him his Christmas present. Christmas had always been a special time for us. The year my mother died, he spent Christmas Eve with me to make sure I wasn’t alone. He had always been like that on Christmas. I reminded him that it was our holiday. He finally agreed. When I saw him, he seemed to be impatient and wanted to be anywhere but there with me. I asked him to tell me how he felt. Begged and pleaded for him to admit his feelings for me after all these years. All he could do was tell me that he couldn’t be the man I wanted him to be. I threw his present at him and stormed away. I haven’t talked to him since. I don’t even know if he’s tried to contact me since. I blocked his number and have avoided social media like the plague.
The bald singer finished his ballad, turning the microphone back over to the mayor. Smiling over at the crowd, she waved up at the dark tree. “Alright! On the count of three, let’s light up the Christmas tree!” She rhymed. “One, two…three!” The crowd counted down with her, gasping as they reached three. The tree light up suddenly, the colored lights twinkling like rainbow colored stars in the sky. Kids oohed and ahhed at the sight, pointing at it to show their parents. At the top of the tree, the star shined the brightest. The crystal was lit up with white light, making it stick out compared to the colors. Flashes of cameras came from around the crowd as people took pictures of it. “The tree is beautiful this year! Thank you everyone for coming to the ceremony. If you make your way over to the hall, Santa is waiting for all the good little boys and girls!” Mayor Fredricks said, pointed off into the distance where the legion hall was located on the other end of the park. The band began to pick up their equipment as the crowd shifted to head towards where Santa was rumored to be.
The crowd was gone after a few minutes, leaving me standing alone as I gazed up at the tree. It reminded me of decorating the family tree every year when I was a child. After my mother died, it lost it’s sparkle though. He did his best to bring it back to me. Every part of me wanted to hate him for what he’s done to me. I just cast him out of my life and look forward to the rest of it. I couldn’t though. No matter how hard I tried, my heart still hurt for him just as much as it wished he would just vanished. I loved him with every fiber of my being, making me want nothing more than to see him under my Christmas tree this year. It made me wonder for a second if I could make a special request to Santa over at the legion. I knew though that not even a Christmas miracle could help me. If he wanted to be with his wife, there was no way I could change that regardless of how I prayed I could. And who was I to wish that on the poor woman who was still in the dark about the whole thing?
“Did I miss the tree lighting?” A voice asked behind me, causing me to jump slightly.
“Yes. They just lit it.” I replied, turning to face the source of the voice. My heart stopped though when I saw him standing there. His tall slender frame was dressed in his brown leather jacket and blue jeans. The tree lights reflected off his glasses as he gazed over at me. All my nerves tingled, trying to tell me to either run or faint. I wasn’t sure what to do but the sensation to vomit was present. I swallowed, pushing it away. “What are you doing here?” I whispered, turning my attention to the toe of my boot.
“I went to your apartment, but you weren’t there. Then I remembered what tonight was. I figured I’d find you under the biggest Christmas tree in town.” He replied, stepping slightly closer. “How are you?” I snorted.
“Oh. Just fine. And yourself?” I asked in a sarcastic tone.
“I deserve that.” He muttered.
“You deserve a lot more than that, but I just don’t have the energy to give it to you right now. I think you should head home to your wife though. She’s probably wondering where you are.” I replied, shifting to face the tree.
“No, she isn’t. She’s probably at her mother’s house reading over our divorce papers.” I didn’t want to seem interested, but I looked at him anyway. “I admitted to her about the affair. Obviously, she wasn’t too happy about it but wanted to work on things. I couldn’t though. So, I served her a few days ago.”
“You’re divorcing her? Why?” I asked, eying him suspiciously. He shrugged, shoving his hands into his pant pockets.
“You ever been Christmas shopping and you just couldn’t find that perfect gift for someone?” He asked, gazing up at the tree. “Well, I had that problem a few days ago. And then it just hit me.”
“Why does everything have to be a game with you?” I muttered as I turned to walk away from him.
“Wait.” He said, causing me to stop. Everything in my mind told me to keep going but no matter how hard I willed myself to go, my feet stayed rooted to their place in the snow-covered grass. “Do you remember when we were kids and I told you about how my parents used to fight all the time before their divorce? How that just wrong look would send them into a three-day fight, me stuck dead center in the middle of it no matter how much I tried to avoid it? After they finally split, my Dad sat me down and told me that the only way to be happy in love was to not be in love at all. And I believed it. I mean, look at all of our friends. The only one whose parents weren’t divorced was yours. If our own parents didn’t believe in love lasting, how were we supposed to?” Sighing, he adjusted his glasses. “When I found you online, I didn’t think it would turn into something like this. I thought that we would just pick up where we left off as friends. I can’t really explain it though but after a while, something changed. Every time your name would pop up on my phone, it made me smile. Just hearing your voice brightened my whole day. It made me think of when we were kids, and nothing really mattered, you know? I’d spend the day thinking about the next time I was going to see you again. I must have been dumb and blind to not see what was happening. My wife on the other hand, not so much. I think she saw it coming a mile away. Explains why she kept giving you the cold shoulder each time you came over to our house.”
“Not that I blame her. I was the other woman after all even if she didn’t know entirely.” Biting my lip, I peered over at him. “Why don’t you want to work things out with her?”
“It’s funny. I thought this whole time that I was the luckiest guy on the planet. Not only did I have this awesome job, a wife to come home to and a bright future ahead of me but I also had this amazing girl who was there for me when I needed her to be. If that’s not the picture-perfect definition of having your cake and eating it too, I don’t know what it. Something always felt off though. I guess you could call it guilt. It wasn’t about what I was doing to my wife though. It was what I was doing to you. Don’t think for a second that I didn’t realize what it did to you each time I left to head back home. I get it. It wasn’t fair that you only got to have a sliver of the type of relationship you wanted with me. I was stupid though. I only thought with one part of my body at that point and the other half of me was trying to tell me how pig-headed I was being. When it finally clicked in my brain, I thought that the right thing to do was to cut you off. To stop answering your messages and to stop leading you on. It killed me to do that, but I thought it would help you get that clean break you needed. It about killed me though. Every time you name appeared on my phone or each time you popped up on my computer, I just wanted to answer and sweep in like a hero. I knew I couldn’t though. And then when you asked me to meet up to exchange presents, I couldn’t help but cave in. I decided that maybe telling you that it meant nothing but a fling to me was the best way to end everything.”
“Do you know what that did to me?” I asked in a soft voice, glaring at him. “It was like getting stabbed in the heart. And then every time I thought about it afterwards, it was like that knife kept getting deeper and deeper in there. I haven’t thought of anything else since that moment. It’s like getting that toy you’ve always wanted on Christmas and then Santa decides to take it back just because he felt like it. Do you know what that feels like? You are the only person on this entire planet that I want to be with, but I’ve only ever been a back up plan for you. I’ve never been your first choice and that’s what hurts the most.” I felt tears swell in my eyes, so I shifted my face away from him.
“I know. The shit I’ve put you through is ridiculous. I’m surprised you’ve hung around as long as you have. I wouldn’t have. But, that’s how I know you are a better person than I will ever be. After you left that day, I went home and all I could see when I closed your eyes was your disappointed face. It pained me to know that I had done this to you. Again. I thought about it day and night. Finally, I decided that I couldn’t live like that anymore. I confessed about our affair. My wife wasn’t very happy about it as anyone could understand. I give her some credit though. She was super pissed about it but then said we could try marriage counseling to fix what was broken. It was the first time I felt truly guilty about what my actions had done to her. She hadn’t done anything to deserve what I had done to her either. That’s why I couldn’t agree to work on things with her. I couldn’t be with her, knowing that my feelings for you would always be more important than anything I thought I felt for her.”
I locked eyes with him, not speaking. MY heart raced in my chest as he took a step closer to me. Snow crunched under his feet and big white fluffy flakes began to drift down from the sky above us. What was he saying? Could he finally be telling me what I’ve been waiting to hear since I was a preteen? My heart begged me to listen to him while my mind screamed all the reason why I shouldn’t still be standing here with him. The two argued loudly in my soul as he gave me a small smile.
“This entire time, I’ve always known it was you I belonged with. I’m not sure if I was just scared about what would happen if I actually admitted it or if I just didn’t really see it. When we were kids, it was always just a thought in the back of my mind that I chopped up to teenage hormones. But now, I can see that I’ve always been in love with you. I just didn’t know how to tell myself that. I think that I was afraid of what would happen if I did tell you. What would happen to our friendship if things didn’t work out? You were the one stable person in my life. I couldn’t risk losing that if I did something stupid.”
“That’s what loves about though. It’s about taking chances and figuring out if it’s worth the risk or not.” I replied. “I should know. I’ve rolled the dice a couple times about you. Haven’t hit that winning streak yet though.”
“Yeah. Odds revolving me haven’t been the greatest yet. I’m working on it though. Thank you for my gift, by the way. I loved it.” I shrugged, feeling my cheeks tint pink as I blushed.
“I thought you’d like a picture of us for your desk. I found it when I was looking through some boxes.” I lied. The picture I had given him was a copy of one that had hung on the wall of my bedroom since the moment I moved in three years ago. It had gone to college with me as well.
“Well, I think it will look great there. I brought your present with me. I didn’t get a chance to wrap it though.” He said, stepping towards me. He was only about a foot away now. I could feel the warmth from him. I considered stepping back. He was saying everything I wanted to hear. Was I dreaming? I must be.
“You didn’t have to get me anything.” I replied. Hell, it’d be the first time he actually bought me something for Christmas. Except for the necklace he gave me, gift giving had always been one sided between us.
“I mean it’s not much. And I would understand if you don’t want it.” He whispered. “But, I think you are just the person it belongs to.”
“Yeah? And what is it?” I asked softly, gazing up into his eyes. Like usual, the negative feelings dissolved as he smiled down at me. This felt different though. For the first time in a long time, I could tell he was being honest with me. His face and words were genuine when he spoke.
“My heart. Just promise that you’ll take better care of it than I did.” Leaning in, he pressed his lips to mine. Pulling away, he wrapped his arms around me. I smiled up at him.
“That’s funny cause all I want for Christmas is you.”