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It was only December first but Vanessa Channing felt like it had been Christmas forever.
In late September, she had spotted trussed and tinseled Christmas trees at her local mall in Sherman Oaks. Then, seconds after the Halloween candy and superhero costumes had been slashed to half price, the drugstore shelves were restocked with cobbling elves and icicle lights and Santas that jived to "Jingle Bell Rock" when you clapped your hands.
You'd think that with all these visual cues, Vanessa would be further along in her own holiday preparations -- her tree, her gifts, her dinner, her general plan of attack -- but instead she was shot through with doubt and indecision.
Hard as it was to believe -- Vanessa was, after all, a thirtyeight-year-old wife and mother -- she hadn't done a lot of Christmases. And, for the last few years, they'd flown East, to Massachusetts, where her sister-in-law presided over her own seasonal pageant.
But this year, owing to finances and Vanessa's reluctance to yet again cross the country in the worst possible month with people under the drinking age, she had suggested to her husband that they stay home. Save money. Keep it simple.
"And maybe we could put more meaning into this," she'd told him at breakfast that morning. "Find a connection."
"I connect with snow and a fire in the fireplace," JT said pointedly. "And sledding. And skiing."
"But now you live in California," said Vanessa, wishing, not for the first time, that all the East Coast transplants would let go of the whole white Christmas thing. "And if you really missed the snow so much...you'd still be living in Wenham."
SHE PULLED UP TO THE GOODWILL. As she reached into the back of her dusty green station wagon and slid out four bags of old clothes, she was overwhelmed by all the giving she had to do: to friends and neighbors; to the postman and the teachers at school; to her husband and children and relatives; to the charities that were saving the world.
There was so much to do, so much giving to be dispensed, that Vanessa reached into her purse, uncapped a plastic bottle of Tylenol, and washed down two caplets on the strength of her saliva alone.
Okay, I don't mind giving to Goodwill, she thought humbly. In fact, on the long list of Things to Do at the Holidays, this was the one act that was free of any other baggage.
Goodwill didn't open for another hour, so she stacked the bags next to the door marked donations and jumped back in the car. Her day was jam-packed. There was the grocery shopping, the housecleaning, the piles of laundry, and a parent meeting at school. And most important, she had to reserve energy for a job interview later tonight -- some New York playwright who might need her help with his script.
I wish I felt more spiritual at the holidays, she thought, driving through Studio City towards her market. More joyful...and filled with love for humanity.
But it didn't really matter what she felt, because Vanessa Channing had twin boys, aged nine, and so Christmas was mandatory. It was hurtling towards her and it simply had to be braced, like uterine contractions or an earthquake.
Even this early in the morning, the lot at the supermarket was jammed. Parking her car in the hinterlands, she crossed the asphalt, keeping time to the ring of a jangling silver bell.
"Help the needy," said the bell ringer, an older gentleman with a thin Midwest accent. He had the straight posture of a former marine and was fixed next to the red Salvation Army bucket.
Vanessa rummaged through her purse and opened up her wallet: there was a five and a twenty. Fingering the five, she reminded herself that things were not that dire. With a smile for the bell ringer, she pushed the twenty into the pot. He gave his bell an extra tinkle.
Okay, she thought with relief, I do have some love for humanity. And, as she entered the grocery store, she mentally checked off charitable donation on her holiday list.
ALTHOUGH DRESSED IN HEAVY COTTON LEGGINGS and a zippered gray wool sweater, Thea Clayton did not look casual. Perhaps it was the black muslin scarf wrapped just so at the neck or the dark sunglasses or the way she attacked the beach with a sense of urgency. She was hoping this walk would give her some inspiration. God knows, she needed something.
I used to glean energy from this ocean but now I gaze at it and feel nothing, she thought dully. And the pounding of the surf sounds like white noise, like elevator music -- tuneless and forgettable. Her Venice neighborhood, which once seemed avant-garde, felt more like a catch basin for tourists, derelicts, and the many exhibitionists who presented their tattoos and body piercings as some kind of declaration of independence.
Didn't someone once say there's nothing so conventional as a rebel? she thought idly.
And could I twist that into some kind of art?
Leaving the sand, she cut through the alley and over to Pacific Avenue, passing a seedy couple caged behind a shelter of discarded beach debris. Two shopping carts, a battered blue boogie board, and a string of T-shirts had crafted their fortress. A yellow shade umbrella perched atop, like a turret.
As she approached the Dudley Street Diner, a muscular surfer in his late twenties locked his bike to the pole of a parking sign. His was the timeless attire of the beach denizen: cargo shorts, sandals, and mellow mind-set.
He took one glance at Thea's clenched jaw and drew her into a lazy hug. "Hey, baby, why so stressed?"
"Because this...this, fucking grit isn't working," she sighed, spreading her arms wide into a dramatic arc. "Venice used to inspire me." She looked down glumly at the dirty sidewalk awash with sticky residue, cigarette butts, and splotches of tar.
Marcus opened the door to the diner. "Huevos rancheros," he said.
In a Jell-O-green vinyl booth by the window, Thea sipped her cup of bitter coffee and studied her boyfriend's pouty mouth. Not everything in Venice was annoying, she decided.
"I'm sorry." She reached across the table for his strong, capable hands. "I'm just obsessing about work."
"No worries," Marcus said lightly. "You'll think of something."
"That is so fucking not true." Thea banged down her mug." I'm completely dry. And now it's December."
Marcus looked perplexed.
"Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. It's an artistic desert until January second." She toyed with her multicolored braids that tangled uneasily in her long, dark blond hair.
Marcus drummed the table lightly with his fingertips as Thea stared out at an amorphous blob of teenagers bouncing along the colonnade, leaning on one another and chatting animatedly.
"Sex is passé," she said wearily, noting a skanky girl rubbing the thigh of her skinny, kente-cloth-swaddled boyfriend. "Anyone with a computer can have that. Passion is Catholic, revenge is telenovela, and violence is CNN."
"You lost me, dude."
The huevos rancheros arrived on an enormous royal blue platter with a side of hot corn tortillas. Slicing precisely down the center of the egg yolk, she watched intensely as the stream of golden lava puddled around the rice and beans.
"I like Christmas," Marcus said. Rather than study his food, he was choking it down, fortifying himself for an afternoon of sanding and shaping surfboards. "No one rides that day. Got it all to myself."
"So Christmas for you is good surfing."
"A great opportunity."
Something inside Thea began to quicken.
Picking up a bottle of hot sauce from the Formica tabletop, she sprinkled a few drops over her plate. "When you were little, what did you like about it?"
Marcus gulped thoughtfully. A kinky cork of espresso hair fell over his greenish eyes and he pushed it back.
"The year I got Nintendo was life changing."
Nintendo! How adorable. She loved being with a guy twelve years younger.
"Anything bad ever happen?"
"Not bad, but Mom would always cry over whatever I gave her. Once it was a box made out of Popsicle sticks. Fuck, I think she still has that thing."
They laughed. Thea felt flushed. Marcus was so beautiful -- his ease, his mocha-colored skin, his sinewy forearms.
"I'll take you over to Christmas Tree Lane," he said brightly. "Everybody there goes ape shit on their houses. There're millions of lights and all these moving reindeer and stuff. Yeah, you got to see this."
Thea found herself caught up in Marcus's childlike excitement. His lightness chased away her bluesy mood.
"Christmas," she said, watching him shovel up the last mouthful of beans and salsa. "Okay, take me there."
AFTER BREAKFAST THEY STOOD UNDER THE colonnade and kissed good-bye.
"Go make art," he said, lightly patting her behind. Then, unlocking the beach cruiser with the fat tires and comfy seat, he pedaled off to the surf shop. Thea wandered back home to pretend to work.
She had converted her living room into an art studio. Two stories high, it had floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of a murky Venice canal. It was spare and spacious with pure white walls and hardwood floors. She preferred the squall of gulls and the distant hum of traffic to the drumbeat of waves over on the beachfront side of the neighborhood. Confronting the daily parade of tourists, joggers, and street urchins was the price one paid for a house with a view of the ocean and the pier. Her side, the backside of Venice, was more peaceful.
Her desk, a simple white drafting table, was beside the window and overlooked the canal below. She sat down, opened a sketchbook, and drummed the pages with a black Prismacolor pen. She gazed out at an egret poking its beak into the mud searching for breakfast. She stared back at her pad but couldn't think of anything.
After ten minutes she gave up and decided to go down to her mailbox for something to do.
At the bottom of her stairs was a bank of four mailboxes. With a small key, she opened up her compartment and extracted a fistful of missives, mostly postcards from Realtors extolling the property value of her neighborhood.
Back in her kitchen, she tossed the junk mail into the recycling bin, then stared intently at the holiday card from her dentist.
It was a nineteenth-century image of a horse-drawn sleigh on a snowy path. The message inside read, May the Peace of the Season be with you. Underneath was printed Dr. Felton and Staff in embossed gold lettering.
When did this happen? Thea mused. That we all became enthralled with an image of a time that probably never existed?
She sat down again with her sketch pad and doodled holiday images from memory. Bethlehem and holly berries; stars and dancing snowmen.
She imagined making some kind of statement about, what? Hopes, dreams, gifts, misery?
Christmas was bigger and better than either sex or violence, she decided. But after another hour with her sketch pad, she couldn't connect the dots.
So telling herself she was doing "research," she ambled over to her laptop on the coffee table and flopped on her couch.
She checked her email (another great time waster), then scrolled through her bookmarks to her favorite art grant websites. She cast a wide net: culture, rituals, and religious icons.
She rubbed her hands. She could feel a video art piece/installation coming on.
She got to work.
"I'VE GOT SOME IDEAS FOR A new series," said Thea. Perched on a chrome bar stool in Vanessa's kitchen, she idly watched her sister tear open a box of mushroom risotto. Although the two bore a striking resemblance -- tall and slender, with long blond hair and brown eyes -- Thea seemed wilder and darker than her younger sibling.
The room was cluttered and friendly with a black-and white linoleum floor, paned-glass cabinets, and a scratched butcher-block island. Through the doorway, Thea could see into the adjacent dining room furnished with a pine dining set and china hutch. The table was cluttered with lunch boxes, mail, and empty glasses. From beyond that, in the living room, came the sound of a blaring television and the war cries of boys engaged in video games.
"Here," Vanessa said, handing Thea a wedge of Parmesan cheese and a grater. "Make yourself useful."
While Thea shaved the cheese onto a white dinner plate, Vanessa dumped the rice and the contents of a flavor packet into a hot nonstick skillet.
"I've been thinking about Christmas. And its impact on society," said Thea. "Its importance, culturally and spiritually."
"Since when do you care about Christmas?"
"Since I realized that everyone has a relationship with Christmas whether they like it or not." Thea began to sample the shavings. "Which sort of fascinates me."
"Well, you'd better be careful," said Vanessa. "People take this holiday very seriously. You don't want to offend anyone."
"Gee," Thea's eyes gleamed. "I never thought of that."
Skimming the directions on the box, Vanessa realized, with alarm, that she'd forgotten to add liquid. She ransacked her cabinet for chicken broth, came up empty, and decided to just substitute water. Filling a measuring cup at the sink, she dumped it over the rice in the pan, which had crusted and burned. "I have an idea, why don't you do something with the twins during vacation? Take them to the batting cage, or to a movie. This is your chance to be an aunt."
"Yeah, well, I'm kinda busy right now..." said Thea, wishing that Vanessa wouldn't pressure her about her nephews. "So where's JT?"
"He's playing basketball with the other unemployed crew guys. He promised to be back by eight so I can get to the theater." Because, Vanessa added silently, unlike everyone else's sisters, you never offer to babysit.
"He's still not working?"
"No, and it's always slow in December."
"The freelance life's a bitch, I know."
Vanessa glanced with dismay at Thea's handiwork: The platter was empty. "Don't eat any more Parmesan! That's all I have for dinner." Snatching the diminished wedge, she began to grate the cheese herself. "Go to the stove and stir the risotto!"
Thea scooted up to the sturdy Wedgewood and obediently swirled the rice. "So are you going to your in-laws' for Christmas?"
"I don't know. We can't really afford the airfare right now."
Resting the spoon on the rim of the pan, Thea strolled over to the pantry and sorted through Vanessa's selection of drinks. She read the contents of a bottle of antioxidant pomegranate juice.
"Thea!" Vanessa picked up the wooden spoon at the stove. "You're no more help than the kids! Anyway, I've been thinking about Christmas too...and how to make it more meaningful."
"Everyone talks about making it meaningful," Thea said thoughtfully. "But is it?"
"Oh Thea," you can say things like that because you're a selfabsorbed artist with no kids, she almost blurted, but managed an earnest, "I want it to be more than just buying gifts."
Thea twisted off the bottle top and took a tentative sip. "How are you going to do that?"
Vanessa tapped her spoon. "I was thinking about honoring the winter solstice. The waning of the light. There's this website -- TakingBackThe25th.org -- and they suggested recycling some of your old stuff into iconic symbols. Like, make a solstice altar or a wreath from discarded mittens."
"A wreath out of mittens -- what could be more meaningful?"
"It's the idea of recycling something -- caring about Mother Earth -- you cynic."
Thea snorted. "Hey, from where I am, your life is full of meaning. You're a wife and a mother. I'm alone at Christmas. No husband, no kids. I'm practically a pariah. You know more people kill themselves in December than any other month of the year?"
"You're not alone -- you've got Marcus. I thought you two were happy."
Thea strolled over to the refrigerator and inspected the contents. She pulled out a plastic container of hummus and a jar of olives.
"We're happy." Twisting off the lid, she stuck her fingers down in the brine.
"Sit down if you're going to eat," Vanessa said, "you're worse than the boys." Flinging open a cabinet, she pulled down a plate, found a knife and some crackers, and placed it all on the center island. Thea still acts like a teenager! Vanessa thought, resuming her former position at the stove, and that fling with Marcus is going nowhere.
Suddenly, she whirled around, her cheeks flushed and her blond plaits swinging. "I forgot to tell you! I ran into Robin Weinstein at a school event. She told me her daughter's having a bat mitzvah."
"Okay, I don't care." Thea scooped up a generous amount of hummus on a sesame cracker and sucked her fingers.
"She said she'd been up north on vacation, and she ran into Cal Hawkins!"
Vanessa looked triumphant, waiting for her sister's reaction.
"Really?" Thea swallowed hard.
"So, silly, that's where he is -- in Point Reyes. Robin said it's a really charming town...very rich hippies, organic, roaming cows. The women all age naturally -- no one uses a razor or colors her hair. We should all move there."
Cal Hawkins. "Why do you think I care about Cal Hawkins?"
"I don't know, I sort of thought he was the missed train."
"There are no missed trains in L.A. We barely have mass transit."
"You know what I mean...he was brilliant. And your equal."
"No one is my equal. But I'm glad you still think I'm a loser for fucking up with Cal Hawkins."
"That's not what I meant."
"Olives make me sick after a while," Thea said, pushing the jar away. "When's dinner?"
Vanessa waggled her spoon. "Don't change the subject. We should see if he's still single."
"Why are you butting into my personal life?"
"You just said you were depressed."
"No, I said being single at Christmas was hard but that doesn't mean I want to track down old lovers."
"But aren't you curious? He was always so dreamy."
"He was an intense motherfucker with a lot of baggage."
"Right," said Vanessa. "Dreamy." She snapped off the heat under the pan. "Will you get the boys? They need to wash their hands and help set the table for dinner."
Thea strolled through the dining room into the entry hall and then stood in the archway eyeing her nephews. "Hey, guys."
Alex and Ethan, nine-year-old fraternal twins, were bunched up on the worn brown sofa with matching black controllers.
"I killed it," Alex shrieked with enthusiasm as he aced his simulated tennis serve.
"Your shot was out," his brother insisted with a whine.
Thea took a tentative step into the room. The floor was littered with crumbs, and the bright red liquid from a juice box was pooling on the wooden coffee table.
"It's time for dinner."
The rally continued.
"So, do you guys do art at school?"
Ethan shot her a sweet smile. "Sometimes we draw our feelings. And we made papier-mâché pumpkins for Harvest Celebration."
Alex suddenly snapped to attention. He rolled back on the cushions and kicked his legs in the air. "EEEEE, art is stupid, stupid, pee-pee."
Ethan, falling into his role as supportive sidekick to his boss brother, also kicked up his heels. "We hate art!"
"Really? So you wouldn't maybe want to go to a museum or come over and paint in my studio one day?"
Alex began to gag and Ethan pretended to choke him.
Thea doubled back to the kitchen and added ice to her drink. Children are overrated, she thought. Why do people spend so much time with them?
GARY WAS WAITING FOR VANESSA OUT on Santa Monica Boulevard in front of the Back Alley Theater. A reedy man with a permanent worry crease above his right eyebrow, he swooned when she arrived.
"Thank God you're here. It's complete shit." Vanessa kissed his cheek. It was always the same four weeks before a show opened. Why didn't producers remember this?
"Neil is brilliant," Gary said. "New York, edgy, but so distant, so removed..."
Vanessa wondered if that was code for he's straight and won't fuck me.
Gary's left arm encircled her shoulders like a death vise as they crossed the lobby. Framed posters of past productions lined the chipped green walls. "It's the second act, it's always the second act," he whispered. "Where is it going? What is he trying to say? It needs something. Pathos? Bathos? Nudity?" Sweeping open the heavy oak doors, he grunted in an exasperated way.
They crept quietly into the darkened theater. Neil Cohen was slumped down in the second row, fixated on the two actors with the director up on the stage. He was scribbling wildly all over his manuscript. Vanessa slid into the seat next to him.
Glancing over at them, Neil rapped his pen on the armrest. "Gary, what's going on?"
"Neil, this is Vanessa Clayton, the woman I told you about. She used to produce for Back Alley and she's our resident dramaturge."
Neil eyed Vanessa warily. "You can sit there all night, I'm not taking any notes." Standing up, he moved to the end of the row.
Vanessa glared at Gary. "You didn't tell him I was coming?" she mouthed.
The producer threw up his hands. "Well, you see what I'm up against."
"I think I should go," she whispered. "Until you work things out. It's his play -- you can't just force me on him."
The actors and director paused and glanced over at the two of them. Gary laid a restraining hand on her arm and Vanessa cringed.
She waged a mental debate over whether her sudden departure would create more or less commotion. I should probably stay for Gary, she finally decided and, quietly shuffling through her plum-colored clutch, removed a small spiral pad and pen before turning her attention to the scene in progress.
Gary handed her a copy of Safe Deposit and she read through the first act, growing more and more excited. It was a compelling story, intense and dramatic, with complex characters -- certainly not the complete disaster Gary had intimated. But the pacing sagged here and there and it needed a layer of polish.
Twice she glanced stealthily to her left and caught Neil watching her. Her cheeks grew hot and she felt embarrassed -- clearly he didn't want her there. Too bad, she thought unhappily. It's a good play and I could really, really use the money. Plus, she was enjoying the smell of dust, the creak of her chair, and the echo of the actors' voices fanning out into the dark, empty theater.
At one A.M., Jake, the bleary-eyed director, called it a night. Vanessa rolled her stiff shoulders, stashed away her notes, and walked slowly up the aisle with her producer.
"Well?" Gary ran his fingers through his shaggy salt-and pepper mane. They stood alone in the lobby, the harsh overhead light making them appear ghoulish.
"It's really good," she murmured. "I can see why you wanted to do it."
"And?" Gary prompted.
"You're right about the second act lacking focus. But I think fleshing out the part of Sam will make a difference."
"Can you tell him that?"
Rocketing past them, Neil slammed the push bar on the entrance door and released himself into the crisp night air.
"Neil!" Gary hurried after him.
Vanessa slipped out her cell phone. While listening to voice mail, she heard the two men in a heated discussion out on the street.
"Hey, honey," JT's sunny voice was speaking from her mailbox. "It's midnight, I'm going to bed. I love you."
Vanessa smiled and dropped her phone into the pocket of her vintage tapestry coat. Continuing outside, she discovered that Gary was now alone. She touched his drooping shoulder.
"It's late, I'll call you tomorrow. And Gary" -- she gave him a quick squeeze on the arm -- "it's better than you think, really. Don't worry."
"Motherhood and happiness have clearly dulled your senses," he said before heading back inside the theater.
She fished out her keys and, with a quick scan of the block, hurried to her car. As she rounded the corner, she spotted Neil leaning against the brick wall of an all-night liquor store.
"Following me?" he said in a low voice.
She pointed to her station wagon. "My car." She pressed the lock pad and the taillights flashed briefly.
He ventured out, his hands fiddling in the pockets of a navy peacoat. "Where are you headed?"
"Are you taking Cahuenga?"
"Well, my buddy was supposed to pick me up but he's not answering his cell."
Vanessa took a good look at Neil. His hair was light brown and shoulder length and his build was slight. Underneath his arrogance she detected the bruises of a poet, the sort of boy who sat in the last row of English class and always had ink on his fingers.
"You don't have a car?" She moved towards the driver's side.
Neil shrugged. "Don't need one."
Oh, brother, Vanessa thought. "Get in."
The presence of an enormous spirit climbed in next to her and threatened to deplete the oxygen level. She cracked the window and headed north towards the hills.
"Does Gary call you every time he freaks out?" he said, staring out the passenger window.
"No, every other time. So where am I going?"
"Whitley Heights, off Franklin." Neil tapped his heel nervously in the foot well.
They hit a red light and Vanessa turned to face him. "Look, Gary's a good guy. And he really loves the play. He just wanted to help, that's all."
Neil said nothing. Vanessa was about to add, and I'm sure I could help you polish that second act, but decided to let it go. Clearly this guy was a loner and didn't appreciate what she might bring to the project.
"Yeah, sorry to make you come out so late," Neil said.
"Oh, it's okay." It was fun getting out of the house and away from my kids for the night, she almost confessed but stopped herself. It seemed awkward, too chatty, somehow, mentioning her family life to this stranger.
Neil glanced at her profile. "So, who have you worked with?"
Vanessa named a couple of well-known L.A. playwrights.
"Never heard of them."
What an asshole, she bristled. "Oh, so you're one of those East Coast theater people who come to L.A. and then complain about how it's not New York."
"I'm from L.A.," he said.
"Oh." Vanessa shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"I haven't lived here since high school. So I don't know a lot of locals anymore."
"I just meant...New York isn't the only city with great theater," she finished lamely.
"After Franklin make a right at the first signal," he pointed.
They drove the rest of the way in silence. Vanessa felt foolish for mouthing off over something so silly. I don't have to defend my town to him!
She dropped him off on the crest of the hill, up where you could see the 101 freeway wending its way through the Cahuenga pass.
"Well, good luck," she said.
"Thanks for the ride." He opened his door. "Rehearsal's at six tomorrow."
Their eyes met briefly. With the overhead light, she could see that his irises were a watery blue.
He climbed out of the car. "Hope you can make it."
"Okay, sure, I'll be there."
She followed his Levi's jeans, and that confident stride, as he scaled a winding stucco staircase to an arched door with an ornate, wrought-iron peep window. He slipped inside, and she put the car in drive.
The theater, Vanessa groaned. Why couldn't I have majored in business?
Copyright © 2009 by Sandra A. Harper