“So I’m getting the sense that you’re not feeling the holiday spirit.”
With his arms wrapped tightly around himself, David exhales a visible breath into the cold air.
“What makes you say that?”
What makes Stevie say that is the fact that they’re sitting at one of the tables outside of the Cafe, having their coffee in the freezing cold of a December morning. It’s warm inside the Cafe. It’s also heavily decorated with garlands, sparkly snowflake decals, twinkling lights, paper Santa Clauses, and so on. David wouldn’t even go in, actually entrusting Stevie to get his coffee order right. So there they sit, Stevie relatively comfortable in her parka and beanie, while David shivers in a sweater that looks warm enough, but can’t be doing much, given that it’s what he would wear in the summer too. It doesn’t take long for him to crack under Stevie’s discerning stare.
“Fine. It’s just that this is my family’s first Christmas since…”
“Your fall from extreme financial privilege?”
“Whatever, yeah. And Christmas used to be this big deal for us. We used to throw these incredible, lavish parties. You probably read about them.”
“Okay well anyway, it’s pretty clear that we’ve all just decided to turn a blind eye to the holidays this year. And the constant reminders…” He gestures at the Cafe, full of its decorations and warmth. “Not helpful.”
“So if I were to ask you to accompany me to a Christmas Eve party at my cousins’ place, your answer would be no?”
“That is correct.”
“And it probably wouldn’t help to add that I was hoping you’d pose as my boyfriend.”
David pauses then leans in, a smirk creeping into his expression.
“Well that definitely doesn’t add appeal, but I’m interested in your apparent desperation if you’re coming to me. Spill.”
Stevie rolls her eyes. “My family’s Christmas Eve party has devolved over the years, now that it’s in the hands of my cousins. It’s basically a house party where I have the pleasure of being hit on by…” She begins counting off on her fingers: “Robbie. His family is friends with mine. I dated him for like a week all the way back in high school, and every time I see him he tries his luck. Jeremy, who is my cousin Roxanne’s husband. And Marty, who I’m pretty sure is a very distant cousin, and yet that doesn’t seem to deter him.”
David cringes. “So why do you even go?”
“Why do we do anything for our families?” Stevie asks. “A sense of… obligation, I guess? And my aunt sends everyone’s Christmas cards to the house, so I need to pick mine up.”
David looks at her skeptically.
“What?” Stevie asks, a defensive edge in her voice. “There’s usually cash in them.”
“Hmm. So would I get a cut of this cash or what?”
“I’m not gonna pay you to do it.”
“So what would be in it for me?”
“Food, booze, and good karma?”
“So I would basically be doing this out of the goodness of my heart.”
Stevie pretends to hold up a magnifying glass, using the invisible prop to examine David’s chest.
“It might even grow a few sizes if you help me.”
He waves her away. “Fine, I’ll do it. What’s the dress code?”
“Oh, black tie, of course.”
“Okay well I know you’re joking, so I’m just gonna go start the process of picking out my outfit for your little soirée,” he says, standing stiffly.
“Well I’d better come with you. We have to make sure your pocket square complements my ball gown.”
This had, perhaps, not been the foolproof plan Stevie had hoped for.
About half an hour after they arrive at the party at her cousin’s house at the other end of town, Stevie is regretting agreeing to be their designated driver. She tosses the beer bottle she’s already finished into the recycling bin, reluctantly bypasses the tequila and shot glasses in the kitchen, and makes her way into the living room to find David.
“This isn’t working.”
David jumps at the sound of Stevie suddenly appearing behind him. He turns to her, a plate of food in hand.
“I thought it was going much better than expected,” David says around a mouthful of pig-in-a-blanket.
“Three of my cousins have pulled me aside to inform me that my boyfriend is gay.”
David shrugs. “Gay can be an umbrella term for-”
“Okay, if I didn’t know what pansexual meant before meeting you, do you think my family has a particularly nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality?”
“I’m trying very hard not to stereotype our company tonight.”
“You yelled at the whole party to shut up when Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ came on the radio. They think I’m your beard! One of my cousins thinks we’re each other’s beards.”
“Well what are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, but we better do something soon. Marty is starting to make eyes at me.”
“Is Marty the married one or the maybe-cousin?”
“Right, not the point.” He sets his plate down on the food table and looks around the room. “Okay, go get us a couple of drinks and meet me back here. Preferably something cute like a hot toddy or a cider of some sort.”
“Again,” Stevie says, “I’m gonna ask you to consider the tastes of the people at this party.”
“Fine, just get whatever,” he sighs, shooing her off.
She rolls her eyes, but heads into the kitchen. Unfortunately, Roxanne is in there with Jeremy, and she can feel Jeremy’s eyes on her as she retrieves a beer for David and a ginger beer for herself, and hurries back out into the living room.
She finds David in armchair and hands him his beer.
“Okay, sit on my lap.”
Stevie’s whole face scrunches up in disapproval.
“Yeah, I know,” David says, leaning forward. “But this isn’t exactly a crowd that’s going to appreciate the subversive display of me sitting in your lap.”
“Why does anyone need to be sitting on anyone’s lap?”
“We should probably be showing a little more affection. It’s just playing a part. You told me if I got acting work it must not be that hard, so prove it.”
Stevie hesitates for another moment before conceding, sitting in David’s lap. She turns to prop her feet up on the armrest, pressing down a little too hard on David’s leg.
“Ow! Your butt is so bony.”
“This was your idea,” she reminds him.
“No, this whole thing was your idea. I’m just saving it.” He holds his bottle up to hers. “To deceiving your suitors.”
“Should we toast to such a failure?” she grumbles, even as she clinks her bottle against his.
David takes a sip of his drink and then drops his free hand to Stevie’s knee, looking up at her with unnerving sincerity.
“Like I said, I’m saving this,” he says, rubbing the side of her knee gently with his thumb. “As you know, I don’t have a ton of marketable skills. But one thing I’m very good at is public make-ups.”
“Okay?” Stevie says, trying not to think too much about the way David is touching her.
“Public break-ups too,” he admits. “I can play either side. But - and I’m sure this will come as a surprise to you - but more often than not, I’ve had to play the peacemaker role. So you can imagine what the people I’ve dated have been like. Again, not saying I can’t put on a great meltdown, but I prefer to wait until there aren’t paparazzi around. Anyway…”
He brushes her hair back and she flinches a little in surprise.
“Sorry,” he says. “About that, and also about being a bad fake boyfriend.” He smiles, a little ruefully. “I’ve said that a lot. Not in so many words, but I’ve essentially been a boyfriend for show and had to apologize for things not working out. Are all your guys in the room?”
“What?” Stevie asks dumbly.
“Your prince charmings. Can they all see us? Be discreet.”
Stevie glances around the room to see both Marty and Robbie amongst the crowd. Jeremy is still in the kitchen with Roxanne, but she can see him, so he can see her too.
“Basically,” she confirms.
“Time to incite jealousy, which I’ve also had to do before. How much of a show do you want to put on?”
“I’m gonna say ‘just enough’.”
“Can I kiss you?”
Stevie looks at him, his face surprisingly neutral.
“I assumed that was a no-go tonight,” he says. “But it would probably go a long way t-”
Stevie leans in and kisses him, undoing a lot of the emotional work she’d done to come to terms with the fact that they couldn’t do this anymore, in any capacity, under any circumstances. To be fair, she hadn’t taken into account these circumstances.
David kisses back, his hand sliding into her hair. It feels nice, and she hears a bottle drop in the room that she thinks was Robbie’s, so it’s a win-win. But she’s starting to feel warm all over, so she pulls away, clearing her throat awkwardly and peeking around the room. Marty is gone, and Robbie is making a point not to look at them. She looks into the kitchen and sees money exchanging hands. Jeremy clearly bet against them, and Roxanne was collecting her winnings. Good for her.
“Um, is that snow?”
Stevie looks at David, then looks where he’s looking, out the window. The forecast hadn’t called for snow, but it did always seem to come out of nowhere in this town. It's already falling pretty heavily, and Stevie's flight instinct kicks in.
"We can't get snowed in here with everyone," she whispers, and David is already moving to get up before she finishes speaking, forcing her to scramble off his lap.
"Yup, definitely time to go."
By the time they get their coats on and get to the car, it's too late. Visibility is far to low for Stevie to drive them all the way back to the other side of town, so David begrudgingly agrees to take the shorter ride to a nearby motel.
"I'd hoped I'd only ever have to stay in one motel," David grumbles as they pull up.
"Well this place is definitely worse, so it'll give you a new appreciation of the motel you call home," Stevie says.
They go into the office to find a bored-looking redheaded woman sitting behind the desk, watching Christmas Vacation on her computer. Stevie would guess that the reindeer antler headband she’s wearing is meant to be ironic.
"Hi," Stevie says. "We need a double, please."
"All I've got left is a single queen," the woman says, not looking up.
"Does the couch pull out? Or do you have a rollaway?"
"No couch. No rollaway."
"Oh my god, it's fine, we'll take it," David says, grabbing the key when the woman pulls it off the hook and slides it toward them on the counter.
“That’s how I finally got together with my husband,” the woman says, finally looking up from her movie and making them stop on their way to the door. “Motel. Snowed in. One bed.” She points to the key fob in David’s hand. “That very room.”
“Lucky us,” David says, and Stevie doesn’t have to look to know his eye is twitching.
The room doesn’t look much different from the ones at their motel, but David still wrinkles his nose at it. Or maybe that’s why he wrinkles his nose at it.
“They couldn’t at least put in a mini bar?” he complains, tossing the key on the bedside table and sitting primly on the edge of the bed.
“Would you settle for regular-size?” Stevie asks, opening her bag and pulling out a whole bottle of whiskey.
“Oh my god, I could kiss you,” David says without thinking, then adds hastily, “But I won’t. Again.”
David gets plastic cups from the bathroom while Stevie shoves a rolled up towel along the crack at the bottom of the door, in an attempt to minimize the draft. They get under the covers, fully clothed, generous pours of whiskey in hand.
“I suppose we can at least toast to a successful performance now,” David says, and Stevie taps her cup against his.
“Well you know what that means,” she says, taking a gulp of whiskey big enough to make her eyes water. “You’re gonna have to do this again next year.”
David narrowly misses choking on his drink, holding his finger up at her while he finishes swallowing. “What?! What if I’ve met someone by next year?”
“Well, if this imaginary someone really loved you, they’d lend you out to me for the holidays.”
“If they really loved me, they’d whisk me away to somewhere tropical.”
"You eat somewhere tropical everyday."
"Your wit is dazzling," David says flatly, grabbing the bottle and pouring them each another.
They sip in silence for a moment. Then Stevie says, "There are worse gigs, though."
David looks at her. "What? Than pretending to be your boyfriend? Sure. At least you're a halfway decent kisser."
"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
"Nicer than that time when-"
David stops himself, but Stevie can tell where he was going, back to that short time when their friendship had… benefits, of the physical variety. She looks at him, and he's looking at her, his lips pressed together tightly. The pause is approaching awkward, and then David's eyes flick down to her mouth and that's it. She leans in and kisses him, his mouth opening to hers. Paired with the whiskey buzz, it feels amazing, like the two of them are finally generating some warmth in the drafty room.
But then David falters, turning his head just enough to stop the kiss.
“Ah, wait, Stevie-”
Right. They're not supposed to be doing this.
“Fuck,” Stevie sighs, pulling away and sitting back on her side of the bed, eyes squeezed shut. “Fuck, I know, I’m sorry.”
The silence between them stretches for an eternity before David clears his throat.
"If I thought this could work. If I thought I could do this without fucking everything up…"
"I know," Stevie says, even though she hadn't known, and had assumed David hadn't even entertained the idea of them trying to be… together, like that. "I know," she says anyway. "Me too. I get it."
Another silence. Stevie knows it's her turn to break it.
"The holidays are hard. For me," she says, forcing the words out, then sipping her whiskey. "You asked why I go to this party every year, even though I hate it. It's because I didn't always hate it. I used to get to see other cousins, who are my age and a little more the same… vibe as me. But they've all moved on, moved away, started families of their own. Even the one aunt I kind of like… the one who sends the Christmas cards. It’s not about the cards. She chooses to spend her Christmas at the casino now, and I really do kind of miss her."
She can feel David looking at her and listening, really listening. It unsettles her, for him to show sincerity like that. It reminds her of the day she told him how she felt and he skipped town.
"I know what you're thinking," she says. "Why go then, if no one I wanna see will be there anymore? And the answer is, well, what else am I gonna do? I could stay home, be by myself. I already do that on Christmas Day, just hang out with several bottles of wine. What's another day of being alone? Christmas Eve is just a day. It shouldn't be harder to be alone just because it's the holidays."
She stops, and immediately flushes with embarrassment. She downs the rest of her drink and pours herself another. She's on her second sip when David finally speaks.
"I get that," he says. "When I would go home for our Christmas parties, I would see my family, but… I wouldn't be with them. I mean sure, there was the annual family photo, and then I'd do the duet with my mom…"
Stevie files that away to ask about later.
"...but I'd spend most of the party making sure everything was perfect, and yelling at the caterers when the canapés were wrong. And for what? I'm pretty sure my dad was the only one who actually enjoyed the parties. For the rest of us, it was… a performance. Take the show away and what's left?"
The question hangs over them both for a moment, before Stevie offers, "Friends, I guess?"
David’s mouth twists, considering that. "So… not much."
They hold it together until they look at each other again, and then they're both laughing. Stevie finishes off the last of her drink and David does the same, taking her cup and stacking it with his on the nightstand.
"So um… do we need to build a pillow wall between us? Like, do you think you're gonna make another pass at me? I’d just like to be prepared."
"Oh no," Stevie says, scooting down to lay back on the pillow. "If I feel the urge coming on, I'll just picture you yelling at caterers about canapés. Turns me right off."
"If you'd seen those canapés, you'd understand," David says, switching off the light and burrowing under the covers, his back to Stevie.
Stevie rolls her eyes, but smiles. She turns over and snuggles under the covers, her back to David's.
The room is cold and bright when Stevie wakes up the next morning. She turns over to find the bed empty. She sits up and looks at the bathroom, which is also empty, and then over at the door. The towel she'd jammed against the bottom of it has moved. She lays back and wonders for a moment if David would really just take the car and leave her there, but then the key clicks in the door and David pushes his way in, a plastic bag hanging from his wrist, and a tray with two coffees balanced in his other hand.
"It's fucking cold," he says, shutting the door and kicking the towel back against it.
"Whatcha got there?" Stevie asks, sitting up again.
"Breakfast." David sets the bag down on the desk and shakes his hands out to get the blood flowing. "From the diner across the street."
"How many dishes did you have to wash for all that?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You're famously poor now."
"Okay first of all, Merry Christmas to you too," David huffs, turning to face her, hands on his hips. "This is supposed to be gesture!"
"I'm sorry. That's very nice of you."
"But how did you pay for this gesture?”
David sighs, taking the coffees out of the tray and bringing the to the bed. He sits, handing a cup to Stevie.
“Your cousin Roxanne,” he says. “She was onto us right away last night. You’d gone somewhere and she cornered me. Said we weren’t fooling anyone, but she’d pay me if we could. Jeremy, that prince of a guy, bet her fifty dollars we weren’t really a couple, and she said she’d give me half if we proved that we were, so he’d stop leering at you.”
“I don’t… but why? Why did she go to you instead of talking to me?”
David looks sad when he says, “She thinks you hate her. Because of Jeremy.”
“I don’t hate her.” Stevie’s chest feels tight at the thought of Roxanne thinking that. “I wish she’d leave Jeremy, because he sucks and she deserves better. If anything I thought she hated me because he always hit on me.”
“She doesn’t hate you. And she is going to leave him. She told me it’s her New Years Resolution.”
“Good,” Stevie says. She sips her coffee, which is somehow still scalding, but she’s too busy thinking about Roxanne to care.
“I’m not known for being the best at reading people,” David says, “but I think she’d like it if you called her sometime.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna. Gonna help her keep that resolution.”
“Good.” He stands. “Now let’s eat these pancakes before they freeze or I starve.”
In an unfamiliar, snow-covered motel, eating diner pancakes out of styrofoam containers with her friend David Rose, Stevie thinks it’s one of the better Christmases she’s had in a while.