Disclaimer: A little bit of Christmas angst, a little bit of southern chauvinism, and a happy ending. The characters and story are mine, with apologies to the heirs of O. Henry, author of my favorite piece of Christmas angst, "The Gift of the Magi."
By Taylor Rickard
Rachel Ward wandered into her living room, looking around the quiet space, with its books and black television screen and silent stereo. There were only two paintings on the wall, one a beautiful reproduction of a 17th century map, the other a colorful abstract piece that spoke of soaring buildings and a benign moon. A solitary photograph of a young woman, caught by the photographer in an eternal moment of joy, was framed and sat above the television.
Through the front window, the lights on her neighbors porches and front yards blinked and glowed, casting eerie shadows of red and gold and green and white across her walls but here, in her own home, there were no signs that tomorrow was Christmas. The beautiful hand blown glass ornaments were still packed in their tissue wrappings and boxes in the store room; there were no swags of greenery, no poinsettias, no Christmas tree to brighten this rather austere space. A few Christmas cards were carelessly stacked in a pile on one shelf, but there were no packages, no wrapping, no other sign that anyone had thought to remember the solitary figure on this festive occasion.
A streetlight illuminated the photograph like a faint spotlight as the woman looked around, then sat down in her armchair, and stared at the picture, slow, silent tears running down her face as she thought back to the previous Christmas Eve.
Abbie had been working non-stop for the past three weeks, making sure that the house was perfect, the decorations were all up, the presents were elegantly wrapped, and the dinner was straight out of "Southern Living."
"Sweetheart, we should bring in photographers and do a magazine spread on how to do the perfect Christmas. Everything is gorgeous," Rachel smiled at her partner, trying to ease some of the nervousness and anxiety that had driven both of them to near exhaustion as they prepared for this visit from Abbies parents.
That anxiety was still running on overdrive. "I hope so. Are you sure that the driver picked them up from the airport on time? You think they are okay with that? That they arent upset because I didnt go get them?"
Rachel stepped behind the taller woman and put her arms around her waist. "Honey, you are cooking you couldnt go to the airport and serve them dinner your mother will understand that. And since they dont know me, other than as your room mate, having me go get them would have been almost as impersonal as having the limo pick them up." She stretched up a bit to kiss the back of Abbies neck. "Now, take a deep breath, know that I love you dearly, and it will be just fine."
Abbie turned and wrapped her arms around her partner. She looked into the gentle hazel eyes gazing into her own and sighed. "Im so sorry, honey, that we cant be more open with them, but you know what will happen if I tell them the truth. Thank you for understanding."
"Honey, its entirely up to you. I promise, Ill be good while they are here even though it will pain me."
Abbie kissed her soundly. "You get plenty of my loving attention; a couple of days wont kill you, you horn dog."
Rachel laughed as the doorbell rang. Abbie jumped from her arms, flushing a bit and smoothing her clothes down. "Theyre here."
"Yes, dear. They are here. Go let them in and Ill get the eggnog."
From the kitchen, Rachel could hear a flurry of greetings in the entrance hall, laughter, and the sound of coats being hung in the closet and packages being unloaded from large shopping bags, as she set the crystal glasses on the silver tray. They had gone out and bought new glasses, trays, and china specifically to serve Abbies parents, as Abbie feared that her mother would think their stoneware and Danish glass too informal. Rachel took a deep breath and picked up the tray. Time to meet what she feared was the biggest threat to her relationship with Abbie. Abbie had made it very clear that her mother, in particular, was seriously homophobic and that she had clear expectations of Abbie when it came to marriage and children expectations that definitely did not include a woman partner.
"Oh, Mama, Papa, I want you to meet my room mate, Rachel."
Rachel stooped to set the tray down on the coffee table, then stood and smiled politely. "Mrs. Legerton, Mr. Legerton, a pleasure to meet you."
The evening progressed, a little stilted, but, for the most part, pleasantly. Dinner was a success, and conversation tended toward providing Abbie with updates on every single person she had gone to school with, every relative within four degrees and the various marriages, divorces, and scandals in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina that Abbie had once called home.
There was a brief period of discomfort when Mrs. Legerton turned her penetrating gaze on Rachel. "So tell me, Rachel, why didnt you go home for the holidays? Im sure your family would have been more than happy to see you." From her tone, it was clear that Abbies mother was not comfortable with having what to her was a perfect stranger participating in their holiday celebrations.
In a low, even voice, Rachel replied, "Im afraid I have no family, maam. I am an only child and my parents were killed in an automobile accident several years ago." She cleared her throat; talking about it was still painful. "And, unfortunately, I have to be back at work on the 26th the end of the year is a demanding time for accountants, maam." Rachel was very grateful to Mr. Legerton when he started asking her about the implications of the latest tax changes, and Mrs. Legerton turned her attention back to her daughter.
With dessert and coffee came the inevitable questions who was Abbie dating, had she met any eligible men, when was she going to settle down and give her parents the grandchildren they wanted. Abbie evaded, Rachel remained silent, her eyes mostly focused on the depths of her coffee cup.
Late that night, as Rachel prepared for bed in her den, a light knock sounded on her door, then Abbie entered without waiting for a response.
"So, are they settled in?"
"Yes, thank God. I thought I was going to go nuts with Mama going on about how Im getting older and how she had wanted grandchildren before she turned fifty and how disappointed she was that that is no longer possible." She wrapped her arms around Rachels waist. "I swear, Im almost ready to tell her."
"Tell me what?"
Both women turned, startled, to see Mrs. Legerton standing in the doorway.
"Although looking at the two of you like this, I think I know." She stepped farther into the room, and looked at Rachel. "I assume this is your office, not your bedroom?"
"Abbie, I asked your friend a question. I expect an answer."
"This is my room. Yes, I use it as an office, but, as you see, I have a bed here."
Arabelle Legerton raised her eyebrow. "Yes. A futon, which I suspect is usually a sofa, not a bed." She turned to her daughter. "Abigail, your father and I will be leaving here in the morning. You can make your choice, but consider the consequences very seriously. Either conduct yourself properly and remain a member of our family or continue your perverted relationship with your friend and consider yourself as much an orphan as she is." With that, the woman turned and walked out of the room.
Christmas Day was subdued, to say the least. Abbies parents had packed up, taken the gifts prepared for them without opening them, and left for the airport as quickly as they could. Instead of opening gifts and enjoying a lovely meal together, Rachel spent the afternoon holding her sobbing partner. Finally, Abbie cried herself to sleep, and Rachel had taken down the tree and decorations alone.
They had lasted for three more months, until the feelings of isolation and rejection had overwhelmed Abbie. She quit her job and moved back to Beaufort.
Rachel pulled out the ring that she wore around her neck on a fine platinum chain and held it in her hands. It was an elegant ring, a band of platinum set with small diamonds and emeralds. She had given it to Abbie on New Years, trying to ease the pain of that Christmas, and offering long life together. Inside, it said simply "Forever Yours."
Softly, Rachel kissed the ring. "Merry Christmas, Abbie. I miss you so much," she whispered to the photograph.
She fell asleep in her chair, exhausted by her unending grief and loneliness. For the past nine months, her only solace had been in her dreams, as she replayed the slightly less than a year that she and Abbie had lived together in her mind; the little things like doing dishes together, laughing as they shopped, cleaned house and did all those other day to day activities together were now taken out in her dreams and cherished as if they were priceless jewels.
It was a few minutes to midnight when a key turned quietly in the lock. Abbie had dropped her suitcases on the front porch before she slipped into the dark, silent house. She was terrified that Rachel was not home, that she had gone to some friends for the holidays. Finally, Abbie had realized, in the rush and hubbub of the run up to Christmas that she had made a mistake. After almost nine months of her mother doggedly fixing her up with this and that eligible gentleman and pressuring her to find one and marry quickly to dispel the stigma of her time with Rachel, she knew she no longer belonged in Beaufort. She belonged here, with Rachel, if she would have her back.
She slipped through the dark house, scared and hopeful, looking for Rachel. At first, she did not realize that her lover was sleeping in her chair in the living room. She checked the den and the bedrooms, and was ready to panic, when she almost dropped on top of the sleeping woman. There Rachel lay, dried tears streaking her face, sleeping with Abbies ring clutched in her hands. The image almost broke Abbies heart. Softly, she smoothed tousled hair back off of Rachels brow, and traced the path of the tears down her cheeks, wiping away the stains.
Hazel eyes fluttered open, looking up into soft gray ones that were smiling at her so gently. Rachel thought she was dreaming; these were the eyes she saw in her dreams, this was the face she looked for in every crowd. She reached out, her hand shaking, wanting reality, afraid it was a dream.
Abbie bent her head and softly kissed the hand reaching toward her face. "Merry Christmas, darling. The first of many, I promise."
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