One December afternoon I was sitting outside the University Avenue Starbucks, watching the splendour and shabbiness of Palo Alto life, and wondering over my mint tea at the strange panorama of pride and poverty that was passing before me, when I heard someone call my name. I turned round, and saw Donald Dunn. He is a close friend, just my granddaughter’s age, and we hadn’t seen each other in several weeks. So I was delighted to run into him.
Since we met at Wendy’s book club, we had been great friends. I liked him immensely, he was so handsome, so gentle, and so thoughtful. We used to say of him that he would be the perfect man if he hadn’t been so damaged, but I think we really admired him more for his wounds.
Today he looked anxious and puzzled. I felt it could not be about his work, for Donald would never be here if his employer was in any difficulty; so I concluded that it was personal, and asked him what was troubling him.
“I’m experiencing anticipatory excitement.” He answered.
“Oh, sweetie, excitement for what?”
“For… I don’t know. I suppose that’s the trouble.”
“Well now. You have a mystery in your life.”
Donald smiled. He has a lovely smile. “I suppose I do.”
I was about to do some Christmas shopping, so I asked him if he would accompany me, and he enthusiastically agreed. “What a wonderful idea. You can tell me all your news. Did Estella have her kittens?”
“You have to tell me your news first, honeybun!” I told him. “Tell me about your mystery.”
So we walked and talked. Donald had, he told me, been attending the same birthday party for some years. It was always on the 20th of December, for a young programmer called Carla Walton. She was a platform engineer who had briefly been employed at Donald’s company, and though she no longer had a professional connection to Donald or his colleagues, she continued to invite them to her birthday parties. They always attended.
It being so close to Christmas, the unspoken rule at these parties was to avoid likening them to holiday parties. A rule enthusiastically disregarded by two of Donald’s colleagues, who went to very great lengths to call it a Christmas party repeatedly, to wear holiday-themed clothing, and wrap their birthday gifts in holiday wrapping paper. “Once, they even brought mistletoe!” Donald said. “Their commitment to trolling Carla is… impressive. It’s…”
When several seconds went by without the end of that sentence in sight, I asked, “What is it, honey?”
He held one hand up to his breast. “Sometimes, I believe that their ‘trolling’ is as genuine an expression of affection as anything I’ve ever seen. Gilfoyle and Dinesh, they…The only way they know how to express their feelings is by putting vast amounts of energy into offending each other - more energy than they have ever put into any other relationship - thereby showing, however indirectly, that they are more important to each other than anyone else in their lives. And you see… With Carla, they’re engaging in the same behaviour. They once wore wore matching sweaters with the words ‘Happy Fucking Christmas’ in clashing shades of red and green. They’re saying that they like her.”
“That sounds charming, love, but what about your mystery?”
“Last December 20th, we attended as we always do. Gilfoyle and Dinesh gave Carla holiday-themed reusable menstrual pads - the joke was on them, she was thrilled - Richard got her an amazon gift card, Monica got her a mug inscribed with the words ‘WHITE MALE TEARS’, and I got her a box of the tea she chose most consistently from the kitchen at Pied Piper. When Richard noticed what I’d gotten her, he - he looked up at me and said, “that’s thoughtful, Jared. You’re like - really thoughtful.” And then he smiled. Then after that he sat quietly in a corner and drank gin and tonic for most of the evening - but around midnight, Richard got up for a refill, and came back with two drinks instead of one. And then he sat down in the recently-vacated seat beside me on the couch, and held one out to me.”
“What had you been drinking?”
“That’s exactly what he brought me. I took one sip of it, realized it was the perfect choice, and music started playing. Gilfoyle had taken control of Carla’s playlist and put on Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas,’ and he and Dinesh started dancing, which made Carla giggle unexpectedly. Soon the three of them were attempting a dance routing, failing, and falling down on the floor because they were laughing too hard and then - I don’t remember how it happened, but all of a sudden Carla was shouting in the direction of Richard and myself. She said, “hey Jared, does Richard know that you gaze at him when he doesn’t know?” I suspect that the tautology was due to the amount of vodka she’d consumed, rather than to her intellectual abilities. And the question did not feel mean-spirited to me. But, before I could so much as begin to respond, Richard shouted back that as far as he was concerned, I could look at him any way he wanted, and, maybe he liked it when I look at him that way, did Carla ever think about that? Then he went to get us fresh drinks, and then we chatted for over an hour.”
“What did you chat about?”
“Oh! Does he do a lot of reading?”
“No! He doesn’t. But he went to a school with a very strong English program, so he can hold his end in a conversation about books. In any case - my mystery, Gloria, is that I am experiencing anticipatory excitement for this year’s party - which is tomorrow - but I… I don’t know why. I see Richard every day! Why would I feel as though there is a thread from last year’s party that’s just been left hanging?”
“I have a number of hypotheses, but none of them are very good.”
Speaking of threads, Donald had finished his story just as we arrived at a clothing store. I said, “Donald, I’m sorry you can’t solve your mystery, but here’s what you can do: you can let me buy you a nice outfit for your party.”
Jared feels conspicuous when he pulls on dark jeans and grey cashmere sweater. Gloria insisted on purchasing them for him, and she so rarely insists on anything, so he wants to wear them. But it’s an odd sensation. To wear something specially chosen, which should, therefore, be intended to be conspicuous… While hoping it won’t be noticed.
An hour later, he’s holding what Dinesh calls a ‘White Christmas Cocktail,’ which is served in a cocktail glass with a candy cane sticking out of it. The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is playing, and everyone is smiling. Richard is sitting next to him.
“You know,” Richard says, leaning towards Jared conspiratorially. “I remember thinking it was pretty fun to hang out with you here last year.”
“And I, you, Richard!”
“What did we talk about? I don’t even remember.”
“I told you about my book club. Last year we were reading - it was the collected works of Oscar Wilde.”
“I told you that I liked his description of pain - …Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods and chronicle their return.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Richard looks down at his drink for a moment. “So… what book are you reading now?”
The thing about Richard Hendricks is that he is so very rarely solicitous - he is often, in fact, rude and thoughtless - that any shred of attention from him is a momentous occasion. And yet there he sits, guileless, unaware of anything unusual, wearing a freshly-ironed shirt. There are flecks of blue in the fabric, and they bring out his eyes.
“Oh, ah -” Jared smiles. “It’s called ‘Love, a Very Short Introduction.’ It’s an overview or philosophical notions of love.”
“Oh. Are you enjoying it so far?”
“I’m only on chapter two. The author is discussing the Symposium. The author - of the very short introduction, not of the symposium - believes that some of the attitudes towards love have remained the same from Plato’s time to ours.”
“Such as…. Pausanias says, in the pursuit of his love, the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power. The author suggests that this is a common attitude - the idea that love not only explains but even excuses bad behaviour.”
At the other end of the room, Carla picks up a microphone to explain that after all these years of receiving ever-increasingly thoughtful Christmas gifts from Dinesh and Gilfoyle, she’s decided to return the favour with some special gifts she picked out just for them. Dinesh grabs his enthusiastically, and unwraps it without delay. It’s a box of ‘deluxe dildos.’ The gift is very humorous, Jared reflects, but really what seems to elicit the most mirth is Dinesh’s facial expression. The laughter takes a long time to die down, and even Gilfoyle - who is, presumably, holding an identical (albeit still unwrapped) box - is smiling.
Many, many hours later, Jared sits in the back of a Lyft with Richard. They’re headed home so late that it’s early, and the sun is just appearing over the horizon. Jared looks out the car window towards the dawn light. Morning colours fill the sky.
Richard, half asleep, slides down until his head is on Jared’s shoulder. He mumbles, “your shoulder is… soft.”
“It’s a new sweater.” Jared says gently.
“I like it.”
Everything is going to be fine, Jared realizes. Everything is going to be okay. He texts Gloria: “Solved the mystery. The answer is that everyone is happy and at peace. Including me.”