Mask Me for a Date

They met on Bumble.

After a brief stumble through the no man’s land of Tinder douches and bots.

It was time for a change.

Neither one had come close to finding a date on Tinder

Not even close.

But they both had a similar overall excuse: a global pandemic.

And a handful of specific individual excuses.

Then there was the quality of content out there. Neither one was impressed.

It was time to seek greener pastures. 

Though they were both masked up in their profile pics, it was clear that they were both attractive from the top half of their respective faces. It was a natural assumption that the other half would follow.

Though both would deny that there was any sort of political message in their masked pics…there was certainly one subliminally Like silently waving a flag, without getting too far out of hand. Of course, it was an assumption on both of their parts.

In truth, they had a much more obvious motivation for wearing their mask. But neither one could have possibly guessed it.

When they matched, they hit it off right away. And though initially hitting it off on a dating app wasn’t that uncommon, he rarely had the courage to actually initiate contact, which is why he liked Bumble. He later came to realize that the issue wasn’t so much him – he just wasn’t meting anyone worth opening up to. And she rarely messaged anyone herself, even after matching. But unlike Tinder, Bumble gave her full control in this regard when it came to first contact.

In this instance, they both felt an instant connection. The competition wasn’t much to write home about, but even with that in mind, they both knew they stumbled upon someone special.

Neither seemed judgmental or disinterested in one another’s dating bios – the highlight reel one brings to a date to showcase their best selves. Of course, the real trick was to do it in a way that didn’t so much come across as bragging.  

Both came across to the other as humble, yet confident and abundant with talents and passions and aligned politically and even religiously.   

She even fell for his cheesy pun: “May I mask you out on a date?” – if only because of her love for all things cheese.

It would be their first date since Covid. And even pre-Covid, It had been almost a year for both.

And though they both felt rusty, they both felt like they found a match worth jumping into the deep end with – not to mention worth the potential Covid exposure, despite both being recently vaccinated and ready to mingle!

They agreed to meet at a coffee shop. He proposed a drink, but she didn’t drink. Normally, this would be a red flag for him, but he was trying to drink less, anyway. So naturally, he saw it as a sign.

She suggested a new French-inspired café that felt like it was right out of a Wes Anderson movie. It was the kind of place where you feel compelled to order a double shot of espresso so you could drink out of one of those teeny cups. And then choose among an immaculate display of pastries and tortes that resembled enlarged Victorian doll house pieces. The fork and spoon were as dainty as the cups their espressos came in.

Somehow, she even laughed at his incredibly awkward joke upon entry: “The little girl in me is excited.” In fact, from the moment they met in person, it felt as though they had known one another forever.

They ordered.

He offered to pay. She insisted they split.

He added the tip.

They then headed to table. And the time for the great unveiling of the lower face had come. They would finally see one another’s full face – a sign of the pandemic times. And they were both dreading it

 He noticed that she seemed reluctant to take off her mask, yet not wanting to make a scene about it. Perhaps she had lower face acne, too? If so, she certainly wouldn’t be alone.

She lowered her chin, as though to hide, then slowly removed her mask     

In solidarity, he looked away, then removed his, before looking back up.

Only to see a grotesquely disfigured face starting back…

…at his.

It was as though they were both staring into a mirror.

Coffee Shop

Emily’s fantasy cliché of meeting cute was bruised, but not broken. Her romantic yearnings were part of her DNA, implanted by a healthy (some might say unhealthy diet) of Disney films and The Princess Bride

She was eager for another shot at love (but not the likelihood of missing out at said shot).

Emily was comfortably perched in her favorite cozy, indie coffee shop where everyone is creative and full of life and purpose and ideas. Though outwardly conservative, she always felt more at home among these “type” of people, despite the realization that they were likely to see her as the outsider –a plain Jane. Of course, she knew there was more to her than that. Rarely, did others see it. If only they could hear her playlist.

Even in her own social circle, she was an enigma. Her liberal friends found her too conservative. And her conservative friends found her too liberal. So, where did this leave her? One would think being smack dab in the middle would make her feel at home anywhere, but instead, she felt adrift in a no man’s land, never quite good enough for either side, uncomfortably doing the splits with one foot in one door and another foot in another door.

At least she felt like she had a safe haven at this coffee shop, eschewing Starbucks in favor of supporting small business (though, admittedly, she preferred the big chain coffee over most indie brews). She felt even better about the fact that was using a mug, rather than wasting a paper cup. Two levels of guilt killed in one stone.  

Aside from her primal need for caffeine and finding the man of her dreams, she was here to study, work on sketches for her art portfolio, and hopefully if she had time – read her hard cover copy of Lord of the Rings that she got from her parents for Christmas – one of those collector’s editions from Barnes & Noble.  

But, of course, she was always on the lookout for his Prince Charming – no scratch that, her Westley to her (albeit nerdy) Princess Buttercup.

 And this is why she was single.

But then suddenly…

She first spotted him standing at the front of the line from her vantage point in the back of the café. She could tell he was flustered about his order. She turned down the volume on her music to listen in. She immediately noticed that he was going out of his way to be as polite as possible, despite the inconvenience. Being assertive probably wasn’t his strong suit because he hated coming across anything other than ‘nice’. Some might see this as a weakness. She saw it as enduring. She hoped he knew that.

She got the sense he was the type of guy who was too humble to ever take a compliment well.

Whatever the problem was, he appeared to be doing everything in his power not to appear like an asshole – the type of guy who was used to putting up with shit – probably a bullied kid. An ugly duckling who blossomed into a beautiful, humble swan prince. In other words, the male version of herself.

As it would turn out, she couldn’t have been more right.

She rarely got such a strong sense of someone’s character. It was as though she already knew all there was to know about him. Although she was admittedly never a good judge of character, this time just felt so…different.

So, what could she do about it?

For starters, she hoped he wasn’t simply taking his coffee to go. But even if he stuck around, then what? Probably nothing. Why should today be any different?

So even though she was unlikely to find the courage to approach him, what was the likelihood he would approach her? As much as her past shook her confidence, what was more upsetting was the unlikelihood that another guy would ever attempt something like that again.

For what it was worth, she got a similar vibe from this guy as she did on that fateful night. Again, she realized this probably meant nothing. But she was hopelessly devoted to her internal hopeless romantic.

 He certainly didn’t strike her as the type of guy who would hit on girls in a bar – let alone a coffee shop. But as much as she saw this trait as a plus, her inability to convey any sign that was interested made the probability of finding someone like this problematic. Somebody would have to break character.

So why not her?

She devised a plan. She would stand behind him in line with the hope he would somehow notice her. At the very least, she could settle for being noticed.

But she was tired of settling dammit!

And knowing her track record, even if she got noticed, it would be by being awkward. It was her modus operandi.

So, what she could do to end her streak of bad luck? Like she promised herself and her friends?

First, she would wait to see if she stayed in the cafe, or took his coffee to go. If he was leaving, she would have to act far more quickly. If he was staying, she would have time to game plan.

Hypothetically, if he did happen to stay in the café, perhaps she could sit closer to him. Leaving nothing to chance, she gathered her belongings and hopped into line. She needed a refill, anyway.

But as her luck would have it, it was just in time for him to get his order straightened out, along with a coupon for a free drink that he thoroughly thanked the barista for, going as far as to tell her that she didn’t have to do that.

He turned around, making direct eye contact with her.

“Excuse me,” he politely said as he sidestepped her, heading toward the door as “Another One Bites the Dust” played.

No, please don’t leave!

  But he wasn’t leaving! Instead, he veered off to a window table.

 Phew!

And it just so happened that there was a table open right next to him. It was all working out so perfectly! It was all but written in the stars!

But now what?

Even though she was next in line, she debated leaving it so she could grab that table, but she also really needed more caffeine. Besides, it would have been odd if she didn’t have a drink with her after sitting back down.

Would anybody even notice?

She could always set her stuff down, then get back in line. That wouldn’t be so weird, right?

She continued eyeing the table like a hawk. She noticed him watching her.

Oh my God! He saw me. Is he on to me?

Was it possible he would even know why she moved in the first place?

She pretended to be scoping out the rest of the room, neglecting to realize that it was her turn to order.

 “Miss?” the barista nudged.

“Oh, sorry!”   

Panicked, she went ahead and ordered.

“Yes, can I please have a refill. Almond milk. Little bit of sugar.”

 Rather than waiting for her order, she bee-lined it toward the table next to her crush du jour, but was suddenly cut off by another customer who swooped in and took her seat.

 Fuck!

“Order for Emily!”

  She frantically grabbed her drink, nearly knocking it over as she realized that not only had somebody already taken the table she was previously sitting at, but there was not a single table left at all.

So now what? She looked around helplessly, hoping she didn’t look at panic as she felt.

Was she really going to have to leave?

At the very least, she wanted to get work done.

But she would probably have to do so at home.

She turned to head toward the door, bumping into another customer and spilling half of her coffee – and the customer’s.

“So sorry!”

The customer was clearly annoyed and walked away. She couldn’t even clean up her mess if she wanted to, as she had nowhere to set her stuff. Embarrassed and paranoid that she was making a scene, she continued making her way back out into the cold, cruel world.

But then, across the room, she spotted a customer exhibiting signs of the universal language of getting ready to leave.

She made her way over there, struggling with the balancing act trying to keep a respectful distance, but also signaling to others that this territory was being staked out. Same principal applied to parking spots. However, she was trying to become more assertive. She lost way too many spots over the years. This was a sign of progress.

As the customer continued on gathering his stuff, she asked just out of common courtesy:

 “Just checking, are you heading out?”  

“Yep. Will be out of here in just a second.”

“Thanks!”

“All yours,” the man said with a warm smile.

She sat down. It wasn’t ideal, but at least she had a spot.

As she got herself settled in, she kept a periodic eye on her Westley at all times.

Would he even notice me way over here?

  But then, a customer got up from the table directly next to him!

  Fate was certainly testing her.

She wasn’t going to get up again, was she?

Was she trying too hard?

Maybe she should just stay put to avoid drawing even more attention to herself. Then again, maybe being too obvious would be a good thing? Moving closer might be the only way to get his attention.

As long as she didn’t look too desperate.

She also considered: what if the customer wasn’t actually leaving? She didn’t want to get caught in a no man’s land between tables. 

 Next thing she knew, she was heading over there. It didn’t even feel like she had control of her body at this point!

She waited awkwardly, knowing that her mere presence was putting added pressure on him to hurry up, which was only half-true. Should she say something? Or, would that only make it worse? While she waited, she contemplated which side of the table to sit on. Did she want to sit opposite him? Or, parallel to him? What would give her the best shot of being noticed? What would be less awkward?

Just as she arrived into prime position, the customer did an unexpected bait and switch and sat back down. She either changed their mind, or never planned on leaving to begin with.

What a ruse!

Not to mention embarrassment.

She turned around to head back to the other table she had just abandoned. By some divine miracle, it was still available!

But right on cue, she knocked a book off a customer’s table. At least this time, it wasn’t a cup of coffee.

She picked up the book and continued her journey back to her table, but just in time to get cut off by another customer who swooped it and took it.

Part of her felt the urge to claim what she thought was rightfully hers. But by the same token, it was all her own doing!

She accepted this fact: fate was telling her to throw in the towel and leave. She gave it a worthy effort. It just wasn’t meant to be. As she headed toward the exit, with her tail between her legs, a voice beamed out, as thought through parting clouds.

 “You are more than welcome to share my table.”

The man of her dreams.

Is this really happening?

  “Are you sure?”

            An employee rushed to the scene with a mop bucket.

            “So sorry,” she said to the employee, who either didn’t hear her, or ignored her.

            “Thank you so much.”

            “No problem.”

            She settled in awkwardly into her spot.

            “Thanks again. I feel like I am taking up space you need.”

            “Seriousyly. It’s fine. I’m very flexible.”

            I’m sure you are.

            She felt frazzled and embarrassed and could feel her heart racing. She would have been shocked if he didn’t notice, which, of course, only made her more nervous.

            To ease her mind, she pulled out her book, but quickly realized she could only pretend to read it, taking nervous sips of coffee and trying to control the butterflies that were trying with all their might to escape from her belly. Adding more caffeine to the fire probably wasn’t the best idea.

            The words in her book might as well have been in a foreign language.

Meanwhile, her future husband appeared to be far too engrossed in his work to even glance in her general direction – perhaps out of politeness, as to not encroach up on her limited space.

            Again, she considered the possibility that he not only did he not noticed her at all, but that he simply didn’t care. Yet, she couldn’t help but sense his gaze on her. She was too nervous to look back, thus limiting any chance she had at making a meaningful connection. And as much as she wanted him to notice her, she was also equally self-conscious about it.

When then she somehow found the courage, she realized he wasn’t looking at her at all – he was deeply immersed in whatever it was that he writing in his tattered composition book and lost in whatever he was listening to on his headphones. Which also made her realize the possibility that he was a writer. Which, in turn made her fall in love even more.

At least he seemed pretty settled in for the long haul.

Wishful thinking?

Of course, there was no way to know how long he would stay, but he seemed pretty engrossed in that notebook. It was as though she wasn’t even there at all. But she should have expected otherwise? Perhaps it was her time to make a move.

For now, she decided her best course of option was to get busy with her own work. But all she could do was fake it, fixating instead on what he could possibly be writing in that notebook.

As much as she wanted to continue taking secret peaks at him, her shyness prohibited her from diverting her eyes away from the book she was pretending to read.

  But then she thought of a low-risk way to get his attention. She stood up and turned toward him:

“Excuse me, but can you just keep an eye on my stuff while I go to the restroom?”

   “Oh, of course, no problem.”

  She always found asking people to do this was pointless. Did this security measure actually ever prevent a theft? Maybe people only did it in the context that she was doing it? A subtle form of flirtation

 She headed toward the restroom and immediately regretted her method. Because this now meant that his first interaction with her painted an image of her using the restroom. Nothing she could do about it now.

 She entered the restroom and realized she really did have to go. She could feel her heart racing and realized how utterly ridiculous she was being. She couldn’t help but wonder  whether he had any ulterior motives with asking her to sit with him? Or, was he just being nice? Would he have done the same if it were a guy? Or, a less attractive woman?

Why am I so hopeless?

But it didn’t have to be. Hadn’t she already learned her lesson? She had complete control of her destiny. Well, as in making a move. If he didn’t reciprocate, there was nothing she could do about that.

The question remained: what was she going to do about it? Leave it to chance? Risk letting the potential love of her life walk out the door with the likelihood that she would never see him again? She couldn’t let her past dictate what she was likely to do in this situation. She would have to be proactive. But realizing this didn’t necessarily mean she would follow through on it. In fact, it probably meant there was a greater chance she would crack under pressure.

But there was only one way to find out.

She headed out of the stall, washed her hands, and took a long, last look at herself in the mirror, before realizing that the longer she spent in the bathroom, the more likely he would think about what she might be doing in there.

With a deep breath, she headed back to her table.

 “Thank you,” she said with a smile.

“No problem,” he said. “I had to fight someone off with a stick, but other than that, no issues.”

She laughed.

Oh my God, he talked to me!

Granted, he was only replying to my thank you. Probably just being polite. Can’t possibly mean anything.

  So now what?  

Since reading wasn’t in the cards, she took out her sketchbook to work on her portfolio. Last, but not least, she put on Enya to settle her nerves.

 Her Enya obsession was one of her dirty little secrets. In fact, she made sure her phone was turned so he wouldn’t notice. 

But even with the soothing melodies of Enya pouring into her ears, she still couldn’t concentrate. He was like a magnet, erasing all of her data. She got the sense that even if he did leave, the regret of throwing away a chance for romance would dominate her thoughts for weeks.

  And then…

. “Excuse me…?”

 At first, she didn’t realize he was talking to her, but then she saw the way he was leaning.

  She removed her headphones.

  “Hi, yes.”

“Okay, your turn. Mind watching my stuff?

  “Hmmm, let me think….sure, I guess?” she said with an unexpected coy smile.

“It’s okay” he said sitting back down. “Guess I’ll have to hold it in.”

He’s totally playing along! Is this really happening?!

  “Okay, but what should I do if someone tries to steal it?”

  “Want my stick?”

He’s not only playing along, he’s using innuendo.

   “Oh, my God, that sounded awful,” he said, blushing. “I honestly—”

  “I know,” she said, laughing. “It’s even funnier that you didn’t mean it.”

She actually found herself wishing he meant it. But was more impressed by the fact that he didn’t. Perhaps, on a subconscious level, he did.  

She watched as he headed to the restroom. She couldn’t help but wonder: did he feel self-conscious, too?

  And what was supposed to happen next when he came back?

  If she went by her track record, she knew the answer to that question: nothing.

She would find out one way, or another.

 What she really needed to be doing was studying for her upcoming exam. Or, work on her portfolio. But she knew it was useless. She was relishing being the female lead in a romantic comedy and she had to play the part. And the part was that of a nervous, awkward, hopeless romantic.

 But when wasn’t she?

  The only difference, she now had a seemingly willing co-star.

   She looked up. He was already on his way back! It wasn’t even a minute!

   “That was quick!”

   Seriously?! That’s the best I can do?!

    “You were timing me?”

  “Sorry. I can’t believe I said that.”

    “Don’t be,” he laughed. “And I owe you a big thank you.”

   “For what?”

“Well, everything seems to be accounted for.

   “Oh, yeah. But only because I fought off five people with your stick.”

    “Knew I could count on you.”

   “Glad somebody can.”

   “It’s funny how we feel the need to ask someone to watch our stuff when we go to the bathroom. Because what does that really mean? Has anyone ever had anything stolen? And has anyone ever had to defend somebody’s stuff?”

  “Exactly!”

  “So why do we do it?”

  “You tell me.”

  “You tell me.”

  “And if it were to happen, like what does the person doing the guiding do? Signal for help? Address the thief directly? Call 911?”

   “I bet it’s never happened before. Ever.”

  “Yet, we do it anyway.”

“Sometimes, it’s the only way to get someone’s attention,” she said coyly.

“Now who would do a thing like that?”

They both smiled.  

“James,” he said, offering his hand.

“Emily.”

They shook hands.

 “So, Emily, tell me, what do you do when you are not hanging out in coffee shops?

“Hanging out and drinking coffee at home. But mostly sleep. And study.”

 “Oh! What do you study?”

“Art student.”

“Oh, that explains the sketches!”

“Oh, you noticed?”

“Maybe?”

“You?”

“Marketing student by day. Failed musician by night.”

“Accordion?”

“Bassoon.”

“My second guess.”

“Guitar. Singer songwriter.”

They both laughed at their breezy interplay.

“But the failed musician thing. The artist in me cries.”

“But I can’t quit! Hence, the song writing I’m going. And got a few possible gigs coming up. So, by ‘failed’, I mean, the idea of making money off my art. But I have learned that making money is not what counts the most. Sure would be nice, but not the end all.”

 “I know what you mean. And that’s why I am pursuing a teaching degree to fall back on – even though there’s a part of me that want to get rid of my safety net.”

  “I know what you mean. Sometimes, it feels like my naive childhood dream is all but dead as I get closer to finishing my degree. Can’t help but feel that career is looming. Hoping to at least land something in entertainment marketing, so I can at least help other people’s dreams. And maybe make the right connections to help mine.”

 “Well, that sounds nice at least.”

  “But I will never fully give up on my dream. My philosophy is “Just keep doing your art. No matter what.

“You make it sound so easy.”

“Well, looks like that’s what you’re doing.”

“Yeah, well…it just feels like I’m spinning in my tracks after what my parents call my “pipe dream”.

“Don’t listen. Or, listen and use it as fuel to prove them wrong.”

“Trying.”

 “That’s all we can do.”

 “Well, I will let you get back to your art. And Enya.”

She realized she had turned her phone over!

  “Oh, how embarrassing.”

    As embarrassing as it was, she was honored that he took the time to not only notice, but remember.

 “Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures,” he laughed.

Only, it wasn’t a guilty pleasure. But she wouldn’t let on.

But was he being sarcastic? Or, genuine? Or, genuinely sarcastic? She couldn’t tell.

“Yep, so true.”

“Take me, for instance. I love Hall & Oates. Without shame.

“Okay, maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad.”

“In fact, I’m listening to them right now.”

He put his headphones back on.

As they both got back to “work”, she was a bit disappointed that their conversation was over. For the time being, at least.

As much as she wanted to keep talking, she didn’t want to be a pest. Perhaps he was very busy. He looked busy. And she was supposed to be busy, too. But she gave up on focusing. She just had to fake it.

 A half hour later, he began packing up his stuff and she realized it was over.

 But then he put a folded Post-It note in front of her.

 “It was nice meeting you, Emily,” he added.

 “Nice meeting you,” she mumbled.

Then he was gone.

  She looked at the note: “Call me if you ever want to get coffee sometime.”

Followed by a smiley face.

She smiled right back at it.

The Thing About Leaves

They enter our lives in the spring

and greeted with great fanfare.

In the brilliant pastels of the season.

A promise of re-birth.

New life.

And better days ahead.

A reminder of the life cycle that we are all part of.

Spring leaves, heralding the arrival of

summer’s warmth and breeze.

We soon take the leaves for granted,

with the distraction of summer’s endless splendor,

even while seeking shelter in their shade.

Before we know it, summer fades into fall,

and we return our attention back to leaves,

who cry for attention with their vibrant cornucopia of color.

Our world is once again filled with color,

but a warmer palette to blanket us from the cold.

An echo of the distant spring from which they arrived.

And we embrace them with wide-open vigor.

But then one by one, they drop from their limbs.

And we mourn both their sudden absence,

but the oncoming dead of winter.

And then we rake and we rake

and we moan and we moan,

now seeing what was once so beautiful as a burden,

fallen from their heavenly loft,

as they lay in their mortal slumber on earth.

Only to be disposed of. And forgotten.

Something that was once so young…

…so comforting.

And so beautiful.

Santa’s Swan Song

There are few greater barometers that mark the end of childhood than the realization that there is no Santa Claus. For some kids, it’s as simple as a switch being turned off. One moment they believe. The next moment, they don’t. For others, it’s a slow evaporation coated in the frost of denial. One way or another, it’s an inevitable part of growing up, like losing baby teeth, or learning how to ride a bike.  

For parents, the notion that the magic of Santa Claus would one day run out was always a sobering reminder of how quickly youth and naïve innocence fades. It is easy to take for granted the finite nature of childhood and become complacent about the inevitable truth. That it is a necessary and rational transition into the next phase of life – a foreshadowing that life is full of letdowns and disappointments, often at the hands of the things we most cherish.

Nick Frost knew this better than anyone. 

His daughter, Lucy, stopped believing just short of reaching 10. It was probably only a matter of time before she slipped and spoiled it for her little brother, even though she promised not to (unlike some kids who seemed hellbent on running Santa for their younger siblings). Charlie was six.          

If there was any saving grace, it was that Charlie’s deep devotion to the man in red hate was like Teflon. His patented stubbornness only made him cling harder to his unwavering belief.  

Though Nick was initially hopeful that his kids would believe as long as he did (he was 12 ), he knew he was being naïve, especially in the digital age. Also, he knew that 12 was simply too old for a kid to still believe. He remembered how badly he was teased and taunted by his heathen classmates who had stopped believe two, three, or even five years before. He was the last kid standing. And he refused to back down. Especially when motivated by the irrational fear that he wouldn’t be able to get presents anymore if he no longer believed. It was becoming increasingly evident that the sugar plum doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Ever since his first born, Nick actually was Santa at their extended family’s annual “Dago Christmas” party.

At the peak of his Santa duties, 15 believers eagerly awaited for their present to be hand-delivered from Santa himself. It was the closest he would ever feel to being a superhero.  

As the years went on, each child stopped believing, one by one. And when you actually are Santa, you can’t help but feel your powers being drained – and there is nothing you can to stop it. And even though each child would eventually realize that Santa was really Uncle Nick, they knew not to tell those who still believed. And in return, they still got a present.

 And before long, there was just one: Charlie. He wasn’t even the youngest, but the two younger ‘uns had stopped believing the previous year.

Though he had no way to be sure, Nick couldn’t help but feel that this was the last year.

He knew that it was inevitable that this day would come, nothing could prepare him for the sadness he felt. Being the neurotically nostalgic person that he was, it was consistent with the other things he “clung” to. Giving up the Santa “lie” was no different than giving up the crib, the toddler bed, the pacifier, the stroller, and even baby teeth. This was the same man who never threw away a ticket stub and saved candy wrappers from his high school girlfriend.  

 From the moment he found out his wife was pregnant with their first, there were three things he as most excited for: first baseball game, movies, and most of all, Christmas.

Christmas was such a big deal in his family and he wanted to impart the tradition onto his children. His wife, not so much. It wasn’t that she disliked Christmas. But to her, Christmas meant more clutter in the house (many of his beloved holiday décor remained in boxes year after year). There were many times she threatened to get rid of them all together.

In fact, for his daughter’s first Christmas, “Santa” went totally overboard and bought a smorgasbord of presents behind his wife’s back. On Christmas morning, she was shocked beyond disbelief to see the heaping pile of presents that he blamed on Santa. She knew better. And he should have. It almost ruined his marriage. He never made that mistake again. But his holiday spirt would soon payoff: when the family’s elders decided to incorporate a visit from Santa at the annual Christmas party, it was an anonymous decision to appoint Charlie.

Year after year, none of the kids ever seemed to notice that Uncle Charlie was conveniently missing during Santa’s visit. But if they did question it, the answer would be simple: Uncle Charlie was in the bathroom. Nobody would be surprised.

This year, Charlie had a sad, sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was the feeling that a chapter was coming to an end that he wanted to see last forever. And there was nothing he could do to stop it, short of stopping time. Not even Santa himself could do that.

After dinner, Charlie slipped into an upstairs bedroom and put on the Santa outfit (which had certainly seen better days based on both sight and smell). He couldn’t help but wonder: would this be the last time he donned the suit?  Soon, it would be hidden away in storage, like so many toys brought by Santa that now sat collecting dust in the basement, or had already been donated or given away.

Waiting for him in the corner was a garbage bag filled with the presents that parents brought for their children. He realized he never did get a real Santa sack. It was all but too late now.  

  After slipping into Santa’s boots, it was showtime!

  “Ho, ho, ho!” Nick shouted with glee, as he made his way down the steps and into the basement where everyone was gathered.

With his son being the lone believer left standing, he no longer felt obligated to make eye contact with every child as he made it a point to do so in the past, and was therefore able to keep most of his attention on his son, who stood transfixed, brimming with delight as he did every year with visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in his head.

If only he could stop time. Nonetheless, it was a moment that would exist in the photo album of his mind.

And then it dawned on him. Just maybe he would get another year out of this after all. But even so, this much was certain: time was running out.  And he continued to have a hunch that this year would be it. Either someone would spill the beans, or Charlie would figure it out on his own.

He took solace in the idea that someday, he might have grandchildren and he could relive these memories all over again. But he didn’t exactly want to get old.

 But for now, he still had this moment. And a kid who still believed. Nothing could take that away from him. 

Well, except time, of course.

As much as he wanted to embrace this moment, he couldn’t help but think of the sadness hangover he would feel when it was all said and done, especially as he lay wide awake at night wondering where the time had gone.

But in this moment, he was Santa Claus. And to remain jolly, he had to cast these melancholy thoughts behind and get to the task at hand.

He passed out all the gifts to the non-believers who still believed in the magic of Christmas presents. He saved Charlie’s present for last.

“And last, but not least, Charlie, who had been waiting ever-so-patiently. Here ‘ya go, Charlie!” Santa said handing his stars-struck son his gift, knowing full well that there was no way he could ever possibly make this son this happy minus the suit.

Charlie opened the gift. A stuffed Curious George – his favorite character. He gave it a giant hug. In that moment, there was nothing more special for either of them. Unlike other toys, he had a feeling that this one would be cherished for the rest of his life.

And just like that, the moment was over, as all the gathered for their annual picture with Santa. And though the magic was gone for everyone but Charlie, the tradition wasn’t.

It was finally his son’s turn to jump into lap.

“Have you been a good little boy?” Santa asked.

Charlie nodded his head.

“You always are!”

“Sometimes, I get in trouble, though.”

“But you are always sorry. And that’s important.”

 “I love you, Santa,” Charlie said. “And I will always believe in you. I’ll never stop believing.”

With that, he gave Santa an enormous hug. Bigger than the one he gave to Curious George even.

Thank God for a big white beard to both conceal and sop up the tears.

“I love you, too,” Nick said.

Charlie jumped off his lap. Nick watched him run off to join his non-believing cousins, for whom the magic had ended. But for one more year, it didn’t end for Charlie. He hoped to God nobody would spoil it. At least, not on this night. Then again, the moment was already preserved for all time no matter what happened.

It was the type of magic that could be live forever.

  If you let it.

Wrapper

Joe Smith was the kind of man who lived his life by a strong moral code. He didn’t have an ego about it. It was just how he was wired. He was a devoted family man, only drank for social occasions (and never too much), always said no to drugs and most importantly, never cheated on his wife. In fact, his only vice was a voracious sweet tooth, but otherwise ate clean and healthy. And his once vice was the very thing that nearly did him in!

“What is this?,” his wife stormed into the room, holding what looked like a torn, gold piece of a wrapper.

“Looks like some sort of wrapper.”

“I found it in your pocket when I was doing laundry.”

“Sorry. At least it wasn’t Kleenex this time.”

“Don’t play dumb.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, confused. “But I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“What is this all about?”

“ It’s a condom wrapper.”

“It’s a candy wrapper!”

“Bullshit.”

“I can prove it!”

  “How?”

He remembered eating Haribo gummy bears the other day. Their packaging did have the same look of a Trojan condom wrapper, he supposed.

“I ate a package of gummy bears the other day.”

“You and your damn candy.”

“I’ll get another bag and you will see it’s the same color!”

“How would that prove that it’s not a condom?”

There was only way to prove it.

By first going through the trash. He opened up the cupboard where the trash can was stored, before realizing he had already taken the trash outside. Which would mean it would be in his building’s dumpster. At least trash pick-up wasn’t until tomorrow.

He headed outside and proceeded to go through his apartment building’s dumpster. At least it was cold enough to keep things from stinking too much.

Through process of elimination based on bag type and color, he narrowed it down to likely candidates before finally finding the right bag. He immediately began sorting through it until lo and behold: Eureka! He struck gold (wrapper)!

He quickly threw his mess back into the dumpster, then raced back inside to prove his innocence, like the prince with Cinderella’s shoe.  

The pieces were a perfect match. He was acquitted and praised for his efforts to prove his innocence in order to save their marriage.

He was just that sort of guy.

Enya 4-Ever

Everyone has embarrassing dating stories. Some of us just have more than others. I have enough for an entire book.

 Among the highlights: following a break-up with my high school girlfriend, the first girl I asked out in college was a lesbian. In fact, my entire college dating resume involved one gaffe and foible after another – like having a crush on someone who invited me out with her friends, which included a boyfriend that she had never mentioned. And finally asking out a barista that I had a crush on by writing her a note asking her to go out with me – complete with checkboxes! She was married. And though not certain, I presumably became a laughingstock at my favorite coffee shop.

Yet, I have never lost hope.

My checkered college dating life was further hampered by the fact that I didn’t go away for college. Instead, I attended a commuter college in my hometown. So, it was sort of an extension of high school, especially taking into the fact that I was still with my high school girlfriend – who was literally still in high school for my first two years of college.

Then came along Sara, who I met in my linguistics class. This class was by far my least favorite class in my English degree. As I quickly realized, linguistics is the math of English. And I suck at math. So naturally, linguistics was a struggle. As it was for Sara, of whom I had a raging crush on. And per usual fashion, I had no way of knowing if she had a crush on me. If I could do the math right (which I couldn’t), chances are she didn’t. And chances are, I would end up in the friend zone. Always the bridesmaid…or, more like the straight “gay best friend” – the perpetual guy girls felt safe around because I would never attempt to make a move.

We quickly became good friends, bonding over being in class neither one of us wanted to, combined with our mutual love for Detroit techno.

After floundering in class for several weeks, we decided to have a study session (operative word: session – not date).

Maybe things would be different this time. Maybe it wouldn’t only be a study session, even though my parents would be home. I couldn’t have been more wrong. But not for a lack of trying!

 She came over on a chilly October Sunday night. The fact it was a Sunday should have been my first clue of my chances. That didn’t stop me up from dressing up way more than necessary. As in, I wore a tie. She, on the other hand, came in sweatpants and an old, tattered sweatshirt.

 Dressing up was one thing…but lighting way more of my mom’s Yankee candles than necessary was a whole other thing. Looking back, not even one candled was necessary. I lit at least five.  But the cherry on top was putting on Enya’s “Orinco Flow” album – not my mom’s mind you. Mine.

All of this while my parents in the next room. And did they try to stop me? Nope. Just like they didn’t try to stop my Sea-Monkey and Grease II obsession.

When Sara arrived, I awkwardly introduced her to my parents, then lead her to the back room where my study pleasure palace awaited, aglow with candles (which on second thought, was not enough light to study with) accompanied by the otherworldly sounds of Enya.

How could she possibly resist?          

“Is this for me?” she asked, quivering with appeared to be fear.

“For us. To help us study.”

She responded by bursting into laughter.

“Oh, my,” she added.

And just like that, I knew my chances were over. It was clear that her emotions were split evenly between disturbed and amused.

“So, do you like Enya?” I asked.

“No. She fucking sucks.”

I shut the music off..

“Also, these kind of candles trigger my allergies.”

I promptly blew out the candles.

Apparently, she was also allergic to cats. We had two of them.

When it was all said and done, we did manage to study. And we both passed the test. So, all wasn’t lost.

We never hung out again after that night. Nor, did I blame her. Adding insult to injury, she even stopped sitting next me in class.

If only I knew now what I know then. Wait. What am I talking about? I could totally see myself doing something like this today.

But I have no regrets. I was true to myself – a hopeless romantic. With an unabashed loved for candles. And Enya. (I mean, could any two things go more hand in hand?)

 Till this day, I still have Enya in my master playlist. In fact, I am listening to her as I write this.

Got a problem with it?

The Witch in the Field

Credit: Phil McMullen

Ever since I was a little boy, I have had a recurring dream where I am approaching a witch standing on the edge of a field. An old-fashioned Halloween witch. Pointy hat and all; a cauldron by her side. Her back is always turned away from me. And I never see her face.

Each time I have this dream, I seem to get one step closer to her. And each time, she slowly begins to turn around, but I always wake up before I can see her face, drenched in sweat and with a feeling of nausea I couldn’t shake for the remainder of the day.

Would I ever see her face? Part of me sure hoped not – the mere thought of which filled me with a level of dread I had never quite felt before – in both waking life…and dream life. Yet, there was a part of me that wanted to see her face. Maybe that would put an end to the dream once and for all.

The fact that I would have a recurring nightmare about a witch shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. Ever since I first saw Wizard of Oz at the age of four, I had a phobia of witches. This fear was compounded by seeing a live stage version of Snow White. I was so afraid of the witch, my grandma had no choice but to leave the play before intermission. The only thing more frightening to me are clowns – a fear of which I could be traced back to being paed into the hands of one at the age of two at my hometown Memorial Day parade.

The field itself featured in my dream was a real location I knew all too well – a campground my parents would take us to every year until our teenager years took away the ability to appreciate what we had.

The field from my dream was situated next to a bathroom on the edge of the camp. I dreaded going to that bathroom, but it was the closest one to our campsite. Every time I approached it, I would try not to look toward the field, as I truly believe I would actually spot the witch in reality. Sometimes, I wondered if I were actually dreaming all along. Even as I entered adolescence, the fear of the witch did not diminish.

Every year, my family gathered in that field to watch a parade of dozens of hot air balloon soar past just on the horizon.  It was a spectacular sight, but it was marred by the threat of the witch. Just sitting in that field made me nauseous. In fact, one year, I threw up from the stress. I was too afraid to head to the bathroom.

As I have become older, the dreams have become less frequent, but the witch still visits me on occasion. And each time, I still wake up overcome with nausea. It is one of the few things from my childhood that still remain. I still get sick if I so much even think about it.

The camp itself has been long-since abandoned. However, a headline caught my attention a few years back that chilled me right to the bone. The body of a missing child was found in that field, strangled to death. No arrests were ever made. In fact, there wasn’t even a single suspect.

Recently, following a rough year both personally and professionally, I decided to go on a nostalgic journey back to my roots, re-tracing my steps back to stomping grounds that used to make me happy.

On a crisp, grey autumn day, I headed back to the site of campground. Hardly anything remained. It was mostly just empty land, peppered with the occasional rusty piece of playground equipment. I realized coming here was only making me more depressed. I wasn’t even quite sure what I even expected to accomplish by coming back here.

Though I tried to avoiding it, I found myself drawn to that field. Though most of the landmarks surrounding it were gone, I knew the route like the back of my hand. All that remained of the bathroom was its footprint. And the moment I saw the field, I could feel the same sense of dread I felt as a kid. With each step, I grew more sick to my stomach.      

I noticed something on the horizon. A small, red dot. I knew exactly what it was: a hot air balloon. Then another one appeared. Followed by an another.

Then I saw it – the witch. Her back was turned to me as usual. I wanted to turn away, but I felt drawn to her like a magnet, against my will, until I was mere inches from it. It smelled of rotting flesh.

I threw up.

And then it began to slowly turn around.

I finally saw its face.

And then there was black.

Home Security

Shortly after Tommy turned six, he became obsessed with making sure all the doors and windows in the house were locked. He would go around the entire house checking several times a day. His parents tried their best to assure him that they always made sure the doors were locked every night, but it was no use.

Nor, was it any use when they reminded him that they lived in a safe neighborhood and that they didn’t have anything burglars would want, as they were not rich.

Somewhere along the way, the concept of burglars got into Tommy’s head – another notch toward a child’s inevitable loss of innocence. Though his parents shielded him from the local news, he presumably came to an understanding of his concept from the shows he did watch.

Each night after he was tucked in, he would insist on going around one more time to double – and sometimes triple – check the doors.

Over time, he added a fear of being kidnapped. Once again, he was reminded that they lived in a safe neighborhood.         

It got the point that every time he saw a car he didn’t recognize parked in the street – or even in a neighbor’s driveway – he would assume the worst, begging his parents to call the police. Once, he was so insistent on his parents doing something about it, they pretended to call the police just so they could get assurance that the cars belonged there.

Then began his demands for a watchdog – a no-go since both of his parents were allergic to dogs. Though, they did consider getting a home security system to mollify their son’s peace of mind – as, well as theirs by extension.

But after pricing it out, they decided to see if this phase would pass any time soon. But it wasn’t looking likely.

Weeks passed by. Then months. And his obsession worsened. Lately, he had been fixating on a particular car that was often parked across the street. He found it odd that a man was sitting in it. His parents reassured him that there was nothing to be worried about.

 A few weeks later, while driving home from a family function, Tommy fell asleep, which he used to all the time, until it became a thing of the past. Playing with his cousins must have wiped him out!

He was so passed out, they couldn’t even wake him up when they got home. His father carried him upstairs to his bed. Just like old times! (only now, he was so much heavier).

The next morning, Tommy was still asleep after 8, which was a big shock considering that he normally woke up before six on weekends (which was earlier than he usually did during the school week). Though he was probably just worn out from the family gathering, they couldn’t help but wonder: was he getting sick?

When 9 o’clock rolled around, Tommy’s parents went up to check on him. But he was nowhere to be seen. They frantically called his name, looking around the entire house to no avail. He was gone.

And then they realized something that made them freeze in their tracks: the door leading to the garage had never been locked. When they opened the door, they realized that the garage door had been left open all night. They must have gotten distracted when they carried Tommy inside.

They never did find their son.

They also never forgot to lock a door again.

If only they installed that security system.

Or, got a watchdog.

Where Do the Neighbors Go When They Move Away?

On a corner lot, across the street from the Johnsons, is a house that has had more new owners more than any house should. As to why, nobody knows for sure. It was just one of those things.

The usual pattern was as follows: new owners would move in. And within a year, a for sale sign would pop up, and the occupants would be gone without a trace. If it weren’t for the sign, one might easily assume that the house was listed as a short-term rental.

Over the years, owners from all demographics came and went – singletons, couples, families, and the elderly. But the one thing they all had in common was that they were gone almost as quickly as they arrived.

What made things even more peculiar was how rarely the inhabitants would be seen once they moved in. Not even children were ever seen playing in the yard.

 The Johnsons made it a point to welcome the new neighbors with a customary cherry pie, but nobody ever come to the door. So, the pie was always left on the porch, with no acknowledgment that it was received. Other neighbors would report similar experiences.

 And before anyone ever got a chance to know their new neighbors, a for sale would arrive. And then presumably overnight, they occupants would vanish without a trace. Nobody ever saw anyone move out, but they always saw them move in.

 There was another thing that always struck the Johnsons as odd: every so often, a steady stream of cars would come and go, always driving slowly as they approached the house, as though they weren’t quite sure where to find what they were looking for. They would eventually  park in front of the house for a few minutes, or on the side, then drive away. Usually, the frequency of traffic would increase just before the house was go back up for sale.

 The Johnsons could never make any sense of it. They thought about approaching one of the cars, or even calling the police, but in the end, decided it wasn’t really their business.

 The newest neighbors were a lesbian couple with a baby – a surprising, but welcome change of pace for the rather conservative neighborhood.

But as usual, they were never seen again once they moved in, though shortly after they moved in, a pride flag and a Black Lives Matter sign appeared.  Maybe they would actually stick around. Maybe things would progress and finally be different.

 Ten months later, the mystery parade of cars appeared began. And then overnight, the flag and sign were gone and in its place, a for sale sign.   

It had been almost a year since anyone has lived there. This sometimes happened. But eventually, someone else would move in.

And then out again.

Seance

After my wife passed away, I waited – prayed – for some sort of sign from the great beyond that she was okay. As a moderately-raised Catholic, I always had a firm belief in the afterlife and after she lost her long battle with cancer, I found myself wanting to believe in it more than ever. It is human nature to cling on to the hope that death isn’t an ending, if only because of the alternative. Even avowed atheists can’t help but ponder the possibility of an afterlife when a loved one passes away.

And even though nothing could change the fact that Carolyn was gone from this earthly realm, the urge for a sign becomes even stronger when you have spent your whole life believing in the afterlife.

But days passed without a sign. Then weeks. Followed by months.

And for the first time in my life, I found myself losing faith.

  “Maybe you could attend some sort of séance?” my friend Kim suggested.

“I don’t know…” I said with maximum trepidation.

What I really needed was a therapist.

Though I was admittedly intrigued with her suggestion, I was never comfortable with the idea of conjuring spirits. As a kid, I was taught that it was against God’s will and was convinced that only evil spirits could be conjured. I wanted no part of that. I had seen enough movies. And I truly believed in it. So much so, in fact, that when I was 10, my mom had to pick me up from a Halloween party when everyone gathered around a Hasbro Ouija board.

Now, I was desperate enough to give it a shot.

More time passed and I began to see it as a silver lining: perhaps this meant she was at rest? Weren’t wandering souls often lost and trying to resolve unfinished business on earth, or perhaps had a message to deliver to a loved one?

But then Kim left her little choice when she got her a gift certificate for a séance.

 She made me an appointment for Friday, October the 13th of all days. And why not? What could go wrong?

When the day finally arrived, I began to get cold feet. I couldn’t help but think that if she was at rest, why risk stirring her soul? And if conjured spirts were troubled spirits, would I really want to find out she was one of them? Unless, of course, a conjuring might help put her at rest.

“It will be good to get out and do some socializing,” Kim said.

“Socializing with spirits. Sounds like a great plan.”

“Okay, I’m in.”

She was right. I did need to socialize and get out this rut. Séance or not.

Kim picked me up, because we both know it would make it harder for me to cancel once she arrived. Even though Kim and I had been friends since high school, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with guilt for even riding in a car with another woman. Carolyn was always slightly jealous of Kim, even though we had never been romantically involved (unless you count going to a Homecoming dance sophomore year and one awkward, misguided kiss that landed on her ear, rather than her mouth).

I had to change my way of thinking. I was doing nothing wrong. And what we were doing was directly about Carolyn, anyway. Besides, the mere thought of dating seemed light years away. I just had to keep reminding myself that it hadn’t even been a year (though, I was hoping that I would be turning a corner by the one-year anniversary of her passing). But it didn’t feel that way. At all. But why rush it? Going out tonight was a huge step forward. Conjured spirit, or not.

To be honest, I was looking more forward to the beer afterward than the séance itself. My anxiety was trying to convince me to pull the plug.

“What the worse that could happen?” Kim asked.

I knew that answer to that question.

We finally arrived at the medium’s house, located in a bad part of town. Kim waited in the living room, while I was lead directly into candle-lit basement dwelling like you see in just about any movie where there is a seance. All that was missing was Whoopi Goldberg. She was even dressed like her character in Ghost. How could this not be a hoax? Part of me sort of wished it was.

After taking a seat at a small table, the medium took me by the hands hand closed her eyes, urging me to do the same, before instructing me to channel all of my energy into memories of Carolyn. Yet, she felt more distant than ever.

The medium assured me this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It meant that Carolyn was either at peace…or, unavailable. She didn’t elaborate what “unavailable” meant. And I didn’t want to ask. Just what would she possibly be up to?     

Several minutes passed and dead silence as the medium strained herself trying to channel something. But if you asked me, it just appeared that she was trying to take a shit. Just how much did Kim splurge on this waste of time?

But just before the medium pulled the plug on the whole operation, she began to sway back and forth, while humming an eerie chant.

“There is someone here,” she said.

How convenient.

“Is it her?”

The medium closed her eyes even more tightly and concentrated even harder – becoming the human equivalent of a nearly empty toothpaste tube, or nearly fully-squeezed lemon.

“A child.”

“A child?!”

“Yes. A boy. Maybe 5 or 6 years old.”

“Who could it be?”

She began to concentrate even harder. At least she made it look convincing.

“Someone from your past.”

 “Who?”

“Have you ever lost a child? Your own? Or, maybe one you were close to?”

I suddenly became paralyzed with fear.

It couldn’t be…

…could it?

“No,” I barely managed to utter.

But I knew better. I knew exactly who it was.

And just like, the child spirt was gone.

            I had Kim drive me straight me home. I had no interest in going to the bar after what I had just encountered. I just wanted to go to sleep and forget this night ever happened.

But sleep wouldn’t come easy that night.

At some point, shortly I finally fell asleep, I woke up to a child saying something that chilled me to the goddamn bone.

“Daddy?”

And standing there in the darkest corner of my room.          

My child.

My unborn son.   

Our unborn son.

Home at last.