I hate Christmas.
This time of year is too quiet for my taste. I like summer best, with its long days, its heat, and the quivering, nervous light melting the tar on the streets and the brain in your head. Spring and autumn are okay, too. Less demanding than summer, but still with lots of potential and promises, filled with life and laughter.
Winter is dead. The world is dead. Early nights kill all my motivation to move, and in the mornings, I can barely manage to get out of bed. Sometimes, I don’t bother to walk farther than the dining room, where my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consist of a glass of white wine and half a biscuit. Of course I am aware that this kind of diet is unsuitable for a woman of my age, but what the hell. I don’t care if I look like rotten fish in winter, all white and stinking. The veins on my arms and legs are of a deep, ugly blue. I feel frozen all day long and all night, and no matter what I try, I can’t keep depression at bay.
Christmas is the worst.
That would be my husband, Roderick, hollering through the bedroom door. He’s fifty-one, four years younger than me. He’s fat, bald, rich, and he chases after every skirt he sees as long as the one wearing the skirt is younger than twenty. Did I mention he’s rich? That’s an understatement. He’s obscenely wealthy. Roderick founded a porn studio twenty years ago, and ever since he’s never lacked money or young girls.
“Ella! You still alive? I’m leaving, you hear me? Will be back for dinner tomorrow, I promise. Told the servants to prepare something nice, so you don’t have to do anything but get up. You can do that, can’t you? Ella?”
When I refuse to answer, he slams the door shut and is gone.
No surprise there. He left me years ago, only we’re still living in the same house. It’s his house. Technically, he could divorce me and throw me out any time. I guess I should be grateful he hasn’t yet done it.
Sighing, I sit up in bed. Now that he’s gone, the house seems even chillier, despite the fact we only shout at each other whenever we’re in the same room. I’m not good at being alone, and the servants surely don’t count as company in my eyes. They snigger about me behind my back.
I know Roderick is on his way to his current mistress. She’s the last in a long line of mistresses, and they all look alike. I know she’s slender-legged and narrow-waisted; I know her hair is long and lush, fake strawberry-blonde. I know her skin is creamy-white, and I guess she sounds like a squeaking squirrel when he makes her come.
I cannot even remember the last time he touched me. Was it two years ago? Three?
I’m fifty-five years old. My son Timothy moved out in March, joining the New York City Ballet. He’s happy, but to see him leave broke my heart.
My daughter Penny is currently in Europe, visiting my mother. Penny won’t make it home for Christmas either. My dog died of cancer two months ago. I am so damn lonely I could cry if I weren’t too numb.
It is Christmas Eve. Roderick won’t come home again tonight. My children aren’t here. Timothy e-mailed to tell me he wants to stay with his girlfriend’s family and to ask if that’s okay with me, and Penny, my beautiful, chaotic Penny, won’t call me before tomorrow evening.
It’s not okay. I want my children with me. I want my dog alive and sleeping on the bed. I want my husband back, and I want a proper Christmas, not this empty shell it has turned into silently and without even asking.
“Get a grip,” I murmur to myself, dragging my unwilling body out of bed. There must be clothes here somewhere. The maid will have made sure that they’re washed, ironed, and put back into my bedroom, but I can never find anything I actually want to wear anyway.
I have my bedroom all to myself. Whenever Roderick bothers to be at home, he sleeps in his bedroom down the hall.
Slacks. Shirt. Sweater. Two pairs of woolen socks because my feet are freezing. I’m always cold, even in summer, and sometimes, I wonder why I still bother to stick around. I’m probably just too lazy to do anything about it, that’s all. And the big grandfather clock at the end of the hall, ticking loud enough for me to hear it even in my room, steadily slices away the remaining seconds of my life, unnoticed, unmourned.
My heart is as frozen as my feet. I would give anything for a hug. I would give anything just to witness someone hugging someone else!
Won’t happen. Where I live, people don’t hug. They don’t kiss, at least not in public. They don’t even hold hands. It’s all very snooty. People are stiff and formal and respectable. Our little enclave doesn’t even have kids, only middle-aged couples whose children have left home already. Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times, and if you don’t pick up the poop, you get fined. The walls around the village are high, and on top of them is a barb-wired fence. There are security guards at the gates day and night, and you won’t get in or out without showing ID. It’s all very safe.
It’s also totally awful. I grew up in the country, where we weren’t held hostage behind gates and fences, and I hate living here just as much as Roderick loves it. But—he earns the money. He makes the decisions.
Sneaking downstairs so the maid won’t notice me takes ten minutes. I can hear her vacuuming in the living room and calculate that the risk to get past her to the door is too big right now. If she sees me, she’ll put on her false smile and insist on fetching me dinner. I don’t want dinner. I want wine, lots of it, but it seems I won’t get any as long as she’s around.
Then she has her back to me as she’s cleaning around the presents underneath the tree. The servants put up the tree and decorated it this morning. It is huge and beautiful, but it means nothing to me. I didn’t buy any of the presents. Roderick didn’t buy any either. The ones that are there were purchased by the servants on Roderick’s order.
Silently, I sneak past the busy maid and open the front door, letting the cold night air into the house. It’s not like it is much of a change.
A few stars sparkle in the sky, but no moon. It is dark, and as I have taken Roderick’s old coat, the black one, I am nearly invisible. My face might be seen—it is too pale even for the winter season—but what the heck. No one will be outside anyway. There’s no bar in this village, no supermarket, no cinema, there are just houses, and cars, and streets.
I wish I were anywhere but here.
Clouds gather above, swallowing the few stars in the sky. Down the hill, about half a mile away from the houses, a single light shows. It is the one in the security station, where at least one guard is on duty 24/7.
Gale will be there tonight. He’s married with a kid on the way, and he needs the money. I like Gale. He is one of the few who don’t frown when I greet them. When my dog was still alive, I used to take her for a walk to the gate, and Gale and I would have a little chat. In the small hours of the morning, when I can’t sleep and when depression holds me tightly in its cruel grip, I sometimes think he is the only human being amongst a horde of zombies.
I shiver, although I’m nearly drowning in Roderick’s coat. My useless husband is a tall man, and I come barely up to his shoulders. The hem of the coat drags along the pavement. It does not matter. He doesn’t wear it anymore. “It’s too cheap and too old,” he says, and he’s right. I insist on keeping it only because I gave him this coat on our first Christmas as a married couple. The cold I feel comes from inside me anyway. No coat, no matter how thick and warm, could heat me up.
Somehow, I make it down the hill. Standing outside the security station, I cannot remember having walked there. Peeping into the window, I expect Gale to be watching television, or reading. He often reads, and I’m aware of that because, you know, this is not the first time I’ve spied on him. I have restless legs. I am a lousy sleeper. There’s no use staying in bed once I am awake. So I pick myself up and wander around. At first, I only paced inside the house, but there are only so many times one can walk down the same corridor and see the same pictures before burning the whole place down seems like a good idea. So nowadays, I go outside. I peer into windows. I see how people eat, argue, or command their servants around.
Yes, Gale is on duty, as expected. My heart lightens when I see him—no surprise there. When he smiles, his eyes smile too. He’s so different from the others that I can only guess that if there had been anyone else applying for it, he wouldn’t have gotten the job. I wonder why he took it. He’s too good, too clever, and too good-looking. I would have thought he could have found a better job closer to his home. But—times are hard, and the economy is down. I guess he didn’t have a choice.
There he is, in his office. It’s a square room with a desk in the middle and a phone and a computer. On the wall, there’s a TV; on a small table sits a coffee machine. I know that in the next room is a fully equipped kitchen, and I know no one ever uses it. Gale brings his lunchbox from home, like the others. It is as if they don’t want to use the kitchen for fear it might infect them so they’ll become like us; heartless, snobbish bastards who treat them like the dog shit underneath the soles of our shoes.
Gale is a handsome man. A little taller than Roderick, but not much, and where my husband is all round and wobbly, Gale is slender without being thin, athletic without bulging muscle. When I come or go, he always smiles at me, and he always wishes me a good day. I guess he does that to every member of our little community, but nevertheless, he manages to make me feel special. To me, he looks like a runner rather than someone who spends his free time at the gym, but what do I know? I don’t go to the gym. I happen to be haggard simply because what little I could eat, I drink instead.
He’s sitting at his desk. His slightly too long hair falls into his face, and I wish I could reach out to tuck the strands behind his ear. In the bright light it looks nearly white, but he is dark blond, and I can see a shadow on his chin. He must be working a double shift if he’s not properly shaven.
The TV is off. His MP3 player is in a heap next to the magazine he’s reading. The clock on the wall says it is a quarter past eleven.
He looks so peaceful. I would have expected him to be angry, or bored, given the fact he’s working on Christmas Eve. He should be at home instead, decorating the tree or wrapping up parcels or making love to his wife. Instead, he is here, reading, drinking coffee, awaiting the end of his shift. He won’t be home before eight tomorrow morning. How can he look so… content?
I frown and take a closer look. No. Not just content. Happy.
I take another step toward the window, sure he won’t see or hear me. It is dark outside. I’m wearing a black coat, and for some stupid reason, I still dye my hair black. I am invisible as long as I don’t press my nose against the glass, which I won’t do. I’m a nosy bitch, spying on my neighbors, but I’m not stupid.
Suddenly, a movement in the corner of my eye catches my attention: on the wall opposite Gale’s desk, a small light flashes, yellow and nervous, seeking attention. I know what it is. Someone has just crossed the sensor about a mile outside the village. This way, security is warned to be at the gate in time so whoever is seeking entrance doesn’t have to wait.
Someone is coming.
I strain my ears, but I cannot hear a sound in the silent winter night. For a moment, I consider the possibility of something other than a vehicle having triggered the sensor function only to reject the idea immediately. We all pay a shitload of money so that won’t happen. It’s either a car, or it’s a system error.
Gale, though, not at all concerned by the late arrival although it is more than unusual, puts his magazine aside, gets up, and takes the gate’s remote. His smile has deepened, and he smoothes his hair back with both hands before opening the door.
This does not look like a system error.
When he leaves the gatehouse, I tiptoe after him. When he buzzes the gate open, there’s still no sound. Some minutes have passed since the light began to flash. The clouds above me are thick and heavy—probably with rain. Just my luck to get soaked on Christmas Eve.
I’m about to walk back home—I cannot feel my toes anymore, and as a result, most of my curiosity has left me—when a figure appears in the shadow of the gates. Only the night lamps are on, barely bright enough to be called “light.” Still, they are bright enough to see that indeed it wasn’t a car that activated the sensor.
It was a motorcycle. And I didn’t hear the sound because the driver was pushing it, which was a clever thing to do. Only one motorcycle is listed here. It belongs to old Mr. Heinzen; it is antique, and he would have a heart attack to see it outside his garage.
A motorcycle always draws people’s attention, and even more so at this time of night.
This motorcycle isn’t antique. It’s large and black, dusty too, and I can’t imagine it’s ever seen the inside of a garage. It’s wild and free; this is the bike of someone who loves to ride it, and does so with a passion and abandon we rarely see around here.
The guy who pushes it—it’s a guy all right, at least half a head taller than Gale, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a sway in his step—clearly belongs to the bike. Underneath his helmet, I can see his hair, touching his shoulders. Long hair. Oh, oh. Definitely no one who belongs here.
All thoughts of leaving flee my mind. At first, I wanted nothing but to get out of my house. Then, realizing it was Gale’s watch, I wanted to get a bit of fresh air and see him. Now, I want to know what this is all about. I tiptoe back to my window as the two men go inside, the bike parked next to Gale’s car, nearly invisible. At the gate, the night light dims.
I don’t really know what to expect when I look through the window again. An argument, most likely. Or maybe, the man with the bike was delivering something. Pizza? Drugs? I nearly chuckle, thinking of the latter possibility. Gale, like anyone else working here, has to undergo monthly drug tests. If he wants to keep his job, he has to stay clean.
Although—and here I feel an unfamiliar smile tug at the corners of my mouth—the stranger doesn’t look like a pizza delivery boy.
My hands on the chilly windowsill, I look inside once more, my head tilted with refreshed curiosity, all eager to see the newcomer taking off his helmet.
He does, and slowly, as if deliberately delaying the moment when Gale and I can see his face.
His hair is even longer than I thought, way beyond the shoulder blades. Ink black and completely straight. His cheekbones are high; his eyes are slightly almond shaped. I guess they are black, like his hair. He looks Native American to me: his skin a deep mahogany, his movements fast and silent. He wears a leather jacket and jeans; he radiates danger, and even through a layer of glass, I sense the raw sexuality emerging from his posture, the way he holds his slim, trained body, and the half-smile on his face.
What the hell is someone like him doing here, on a night like this? I think, and then the guy steps forward, takes Gale’s face between his hands, and kisses him.
My mouth drops open. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, and I don’t realize that my hands, by now, are touching the glass.
They kiss for many long moments until the stranger lets go of Gale. When he does, they both smile, and then Gale laughs, visibly out of breath, and shakes his head as if trying to understand what just happened. They talk, but only briefly. Somewhere in the back of my head, I assume they say meaningless things like, “How are you,” or, “Good to see you again.” Usually, I would have wanted to know. Tonight, with the cold slowly seeping out of my old bones because of one single kiss, I don’t care.
I only want to watch, and wait, and hope.
The stranger takes a step back until he half sits on Gale’s desk. Smoothly, he pulls one of his long legs up, unlaces his boot, and drops it to the ground before doing the same with the other one. The socks follow, carelessly cast aside.
Gale is watching him, just like I am. There is a light in his eyes I haven’t seen before, making him look so much more alive, and so much more adorable. Usually, I consider him to be a good-looking guy; right now, he’s nothing less than to-die-for beautiful.
They both are.
Gale’s guest takes off his leather jacket and his shirt, and now he opens his belt, pulling it out of the loops. I can nearly hear the buckle clink onto the floor, and I can’t, not for the life of me, take my eyes off that guy’s hands opening the buttons of his jeans.
Why on earth is he undressing himself? I wonder, and then his jeans slip down his hips, ending in a pool of dark fabric at his feet. He stands there, naked, his bum touching Gale’s desk, his hands lightly gripping the wooden frame. Around his lips plays a challenging smile.
I blink, several times, seriously considering the possibility of having had a drink too many earlier on. Maybe, I’ve tippled myself into a coma. Maybe, this is just a nice dream before my useless body gives up working for good.
The stranger says something, and Gale steps closer until the other man can reach him, curling his fingers into Gale’s shirt. Gale wears his uniform, and I never thought much of it until I see the stranger undo the buttons and brush it down his shoulders, undressing Gale with the same calm implicitness with which he had undressed himself.
My hands must be frozen to the window because I cannot move a single inch. I just stand and stare.
They’re gay, my brain informs me sluggishly, and I nearly laugh—Yes, thank you, I’ve figured that out myself.
They are going to have sex.
Obviously, given they are both naked now, and aroused.
I blink again, and I lick my lips, trying to get a grip on myself. In vain. It is as if I’d never seen a naked man before, never heard of men preferring men.
I’ve seen countless porn films. My husband produces them, after all. The men in those films are hung like horses and their stamina lasts easily through the audience’s bags of chips and half a dozen beers. The girls in those films come countless times, and it never bothers them in which position they are taken, no matter how backbreaking it might appear.
Those films—they bore me to tears, and Roderick knows it. He calls me a frigid cow for refusing to watch them; I call them utter bullshit, but honestly, one might be excused for thinking I am used to seeing people exchanging body fluids.
I am not, obviously, because the two naked men behind the window take my breath away as surely as if they’d both slammed their fists into my stomach.
Gale has his hands around the stranger’s neck. Then he slips them lower until they rest on his ass. It is an exceptionally nice ass, well shaped and muscular, and seeing Gale’s hands kneading it doesn’t help my nerves to calm down. Dimly, I am aware that my mouth is still hanging open, but I cannot remember how to shut it.
Slowly, Gale pulls his lover—for that’s what he is, not a stranger, but a lover—around. Now Gale sits on the desk, and his lover stands in front of him, right between Gale’s spread legs.
Dark, strong hands stroke the inside of Gale’s thighs. Long, strong fingers open the desk drawer, taking out a tube. Body lotion? Hand cream? I am not sure, I do not care, all I do is watch his hands in fascination, bewitched by the sight of his long fingers unscrewing the tube, enthralled by him squeezing a clear substance onto Gale, hooked by the slow, arousing movements with which he applies the make-do lubricant.
He must have been here before, I think, and feel hysteria creep up my spine. One more moment, and I will begin to giggle; one more heartbeat, and I will begin to scream with joy.
If I go hysterical, they will notice me. And then they will stop playing.
I decide I’m not the kind of woman who goes hysterical. I am the kind of woman who peeps through her neighbors’ windows, and tonight, I am the kind of woman who enjoys watching Gale and his lover have sex on a desk.
Roderick would get sick at the sheer idea of two men together. The thought makes me smile, and it makes whatever dark feelings have been creeping up on me retreat for good into the darkness around me.
I take a deep breath, and then I lean in a little closer so I can see all there is and will be to see.
Inside, Gale leans back, pulling his lover on top of him. I see him tense when the stranger enters him, slowly at first, playfully, the challenging smile never leaving his lips. I see Gale’s head sink back to the desk, and I see him wrap his legs around his lover’s waist, welcoming him and his deep, steady thrusts.
I wish I could hear them. Seeing them making love means that there must be moans of lust, pleas for more, deeper, faster. Not hearing them keeps me detached, and being detached brings back to mind that I am out here in the cold, alone, and they are in there, warm, together; in love.
I blink back tears.
Gale’s hands, stroking over smooth, mahogany skin. His legs, tightening rhythmically with each thrust, the muscles beautifully shaped. The desk, rocking, together with the lovers.
Gale’s whole body, sweaty, heated, needy. And all the time his lover is atop him, inside him, looking down at him with that smile that says, “I love you.”
Gale throws his head back in orgasm, his legs pulling his lover close in his sweet release. The stranger thrusts once, twice, before he comes too, leaning forward while he does, brushing a sweaty, sated kiss against the corner of Gale’s mouth.
My hands ball into fists. My forehead, only once, bangs softly against the window’s chilly glass.
I turn and flee.