Christmas in Chicago
Outtake from The Remembrance Trilogy
Copyright 2012 – Kahlen Aymes
I was bored shitless; lying on the floor of my room at my parent’s house, with my lower legs flung on top of the bed. I didn’t know what to fucking do with myself. I’d been home two days and I was going stir crazy.
I tossed the baseball against the wall opposite me. My dad caught it from a pop fly on opening day two years before, when Aramis Ramirez was at bat. I threw it again, remembering how pissed Aaron had been that I’d won the coin toss and in turn, this ball. In retrospect, I realized I probably could have just let him have it. I rolled it around in my hand, admiring the smooth, almost new leather before I resumed the mindless activity. Thump, thump, thump… the noise and the motion of it providing the white noise I needed.
At the last minute, Aaron had decided to stay behind at college with Jenna and I would have joined him if my mother wouldn’t have been completely crushed having both of us bail on Christmas in Chicago. Now I was stuck in this rotten cold weather without a damn thing to do. My dad was called in for emergency surgery, so he wasn’t even in the house. Thump, thump, thump… I threw it harder in my frustration.
The door to my room burst open, and my mother stuck her head in. “Ryan! What are you doing in here?”
I flushed guiltily. “Oh, sorry,” I mumbled, holding up the ball in explanation.
Her features softened. She was always so elegant, dressed to perfection, her shoulder-length hair; the same color as mine was always perfectly styled, while I lay around like a slob in baggy grey sweat pants, white crew socks and an old Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. I scratched my head and then my stomach. I definitely needed a shower.
“I know you’re bored, honey. Can you call some of your high school friends?”
I sat up and shrugged. “Maybe.”
“I’m going downtown shopping later. Do you want to come?”
“Maybe,” I mumbled again. I hated shopping downtown. I hated the traffic, I hated the slushy streets. I stood up and went to my desk to fire up the laptop. “I guess I do need to buy a few presents. I’m not good at buying for girls and I need to get Jules’ gift. I could use your help.”
Mom came into the room and sat on the edge of the bed. My room was pretty much unchanged from the day I left for Stanford. My high school football and basketball jerseys were stuck to the walls with push pins among posters of Milla Jovovich and Megan Fox, sports trophies, concert tickets and a bunch of pictures.
“What does she like?”
“Everything. She’s cool.”
“Is she the tomboy type?”
I huffed in amusement as I looked through my email. “Hardly. Why would you assume that?”
“I don’t know. She hangs out with my son and but she’s not his girlfriend. You never spend any time with girls that you aeren’t dating, that I recall.”
Something inside me stopped. “Yeah, well, Jules is different. She has a brain, we can talk about stuff. She’s cool,” I said again, searching for the right words to describe Julia without making it sound like I had a crush on her.
“Ryan! Are you insinuating that most women are mindless?” Her eyebrow shot up in disapproval.
“No, it’s just… ” I paused searching for the right words. “Julia doesn’t yap on and on about clothes and make-up and meaningless crap. She’s the first girl that I’ve ever respected like that.” She shot me another reprimanding look. “Besides you, I mean.” I flashed a full-on grin and she smiled back.
“Girls like bath oil, shower gel and lotions. You could get her a gift basket or gift card.”
“Ugh! Seriously? That shit’s lame. It’s what you get your kindergarten teacher or old Aunt Sally.”
Mom chuckled. “If you like her that much, why aren’t you dating her?”
I stopped playing with my computer as I contemplated the question. I half-assed shrugged and shook my head. “We’re good friends. It might get weird if we dated.”
“Is she pretty?”
“Yeah,” I answered without thinking. “Super hot. Aaron thinks my dick’s broken.”
Shit! Did I just say that to my mom? I flushed guiltily then grinned.“What?” I asked incredulously. “He’s the one who said it, not me!”
My mother rolled her eyes and smiled despite her motherly chagrin. “I’ll have to have a talk with your brother. So, she is pretty?”
“She’s, er… amazing.”
“Yeah, but amazing goes way beyond looks. I like her mind and she’s funny. She’s fun to hang out with.”
“Do you think, if you spend so much time together, you should get her something a little personal for Christmas?”
“Probably, but I don’t know what.”
My computer dinged and an IM came up from Julia. I looked guiltily at my mom, hoping she’d take the hint and exit my room.
“Okay, we’ll figure it out. After I’m done putting the roast in the crock pot, I’ll have a few hours and we can go.”
“Sure.” My computer dinged again and still I waited until my mother had gone.
Ryan? You there?
Yes. Bored as hell. You?
Same. My dad is working on some big murder case and he’s never here. I wish I’d stayed at school.
Funny, I had the same idea.
How’s the weather? :-/ It was obvious she knew it was like an iceberg. California might be cool, but Chicago was colder than hell.
Frigid, I typed back.
I don’t want to hear about your last one-nighter. LOL
I laughed out loud at her teasing remark. Shut up.
It’s nice here. Wanna come over? J
I wish I could! I typed furiously on the remote keyboard, wishing I could hop an early plane back to California. My mom would kill me, though. She has this big shindig planned.
Dad’s living at his office. I’ve seen him for 2 hours in 2 days, so it looks like it’s turkey burger-ville for Christmas.
Ugh! Sounds nasty. Can you get on Skype? I hated the thought of her all alone on Christmas.
Yeah. Give me a minute.
I sat, impatiently tapping my foot, my knee bouncing obnoxiously as I waited for Julia to log on. I knew I looked like hell, but Julia wouldn’t care. I ran my hand through my hair and shoved my Cubs hat on my head, pushing the hair around the edge beneath it.
It wasn’t long before her call came in and I opened the window. She wore a dark pink hoodie with a Nike swoosh in navy blue and her hair was down. She didn’t have on make-up but she still looked beautiful in a natural, unpretentious sort of way.
“Hey,” she said. “I thought I was gonna get a break from your unbearable presence for a couple of weeks, Matthews.”
I grinned and leaned back in my chair. “You know you miss me, but I won’t make you admit it.” Julia looked at me through the computer, her brows furrowed and mouth pursed. I could tell she was doing her best not to smile.
“Whatever. I can see your ego hasn’t taken a hiatus,” she deadpanned.
I burst out laughing. It was just like her to goad me. “It’s gonna snow tomorrow so the lake effect will probably have me stranded in the house. Yay.”
“It’s pretty cool here, but I don’t think we’ll get snow.”
“So, will your dad be around on Christmas?”
“One of his partners has this big ta-do on Christmas Eve that he wants me to attend with him. It’s a bunch of stuffed shirts so I don’t think I’m going.”
I shifted in my chair, not loving how uncomfortable I felt at the thought of her canoodling at a party without me. I knew only too well what happened in situations like that.
“You could always come here,” I suggested sheepishly, deep down hoping to hell she’d agree and hop the first flight out.
“Yeah,” I said again. “But you gotta get here before the storm so we can be snowed in together.”
Julia inhaled and shook her head slightly. “You’re serious.”
“Yes!” I quickly opened Expedia.com and began looking for flights. “The best deal will probably be out of SFI.”
“Ryan, slow down. I have to speak to my dad, and don’t you have to ask your parents if it’s okay?”
“Nah. Aaron’s room is open.” I probably should ask them, but I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission if it meant Julia would be here in a few hours time.
“Ew. Really, you want me to sleep in Aaron’s room? Dude, that’s weird.”
“We have two other rooms, but one is my dad’s study and my mother is remodeling the other, so you can have my room, if you’d rather.” I winced a little, thinking Julia would find my room juvenile. For sure she’d make fun of the girly posters.
“I don’t want to inconvenience anyone.”
“Julia! Shut up and call your old man, will ya? I’m booking the ticket right now.”
“Ryan, wait! I can’t afford this and I don’t want to ask my dad.”
“I said; I’m booking the ticket. Consider it my Christmas gift to you. I’ve been struggling with what to get you anyway, so this is perfect!” My blood was racing with excitement and anticipation. Suddenly the break didn’t seem so mundane after all.
I ran across the room the jeans lying in a pile of dirty clothes and began to rummage through the pockets for my wallet for my debit card.
“Ryan, will you wait?” Julia shouted over the computer.
I bit my lip over a smile as I sat back down at the computer and began to type in the card information. “Better hurry, your flight leaves in two hours.”
“You’re impossible! I should let you lose your money and stew in your own juice!” She was moving around her room and I could hear a big thump from what was surely her closet. “Ouch!”
“My hiking boots just hit me in the head! I don’t know what to bring? Do you get dressed up on Christmas? I don’t have gifts for your parents! I’ll feel like an idiot.”
“I’ll see you in a few hours. The flight is direct, United 2735 to O’Hare. I’ll be waiting just beyond the gates.”
“This will be great!” I was so excited I could hardly sit still. She said something else while she rummaged through her closet, but I couldn’t catch it.
“Just stop your mumbling and get your little ass on that plane.” At the sound of Julia’s tinkling laughter, I raced out of my room and down the stairs to inform my mother that my best friend would be with us for the remainder of Christmas break.
The jet bridge was filled with the sounds of people talking, laughing and the grating whiz of the wheels of the many carry-on cases being carted up to the terminal. Butterflies filled my stomach. I had to admit that when Ryan suggested I fly to Chicago for Christmas, I was thrilled and filled with excited anticipation. I’d never seen Chicago in winter, but it was the fact that Ryan insisted I come that was responsible for the nervous adrenaline pumping through my veins. This was Ryan, my best friend. My gorgeous best friend, true, but still, he was like my other half, the calm in my storm, the cream to my coffee. I told myself it was the prospect at meeting his parents that had my stomach all tied up in knots.
I’d shoved a few changes of clothes and the bare necessities into a carry-on and grabbed a cab for the airport. The fare was fifty dollars and I charged it on the credit card my dad had given me when I started college, for emergencies only. I inwardly shrugged. This was an emergency. I was dying of boredom in San Francisco and seriously missing the easy camaraderie that Ryan and I shared. It was really the first time we’d been separated since we’d met and I’d been seriously unprepared for how much I’d miss him. I looked down at my Nike clad feet and my stomach dropped. I didn’t have time to shower or change and still wore the tattered jeans and hoodie that I’d thrown on that morning. The purple coat that was shoved under my left arm was the first one I could grab as I’d rushed from my father’s house. The first impression with Ryan’s family certainly would not be what I wanted. The butterflies did somersaults in my stomach again and I swallowed hard, wishing I had a soda or bottle of water with me. There were plenty of places to stop and pick one up, but my anxiousness to get to Ryan overshadowed the need. My iPhone blipped in the front pocket of my sweatshirt and my hand plunged in to retrieve it, a smile already plastered on my face. Typical impatience from Ryan, only this time, I mirrored the feeling.
Jules? You here?
I furiously typed my answer one-handed as I pulled my luggage behind me and made my way past the security checkpoint. The lines were insane and I was thankful I didn’t have to fight that mess.
Yeah. Walking into main terminal.
When I saw the glass windows at the front of the terminal come into view, my eyes began the search for Ryan. He was leaning up against one of the large pillars, nonchalantly scanning the crowd, his hands shoved unceremoniously into the front pockets of his jeans. My heart did the little flip it always did when I saw him, and as usual, I pushed it away. He was so gorgeous and I did have breasts and a uterus, so I couldn’t expect to be immune to the incredible pull he held over women. Even Brian, an openly gay student who was a member of my philosophy discussion group, would gape and drool every time Ryan would come pick me up after one of our study sessions at the campus library. Ryan’s discomfort on such occasions was palpable and it made me laugh.
“Brian is no different than the gaggles of women fawning all over you constantly. That doesn’t seem to bother you, Matthews!” I’d mumbled under my breath. “And, he’s prettier than some of them.”
He’d had the grace to blush and shot me a look that could kill, his eyes warning me to stop my goading. “Shut up or I’ll punish you,” he warned with a quirk of his lips. Later, he’d held me down in my dorm room and tickled me furiously until I was screaming with laughter and begging him to stop the torture. He didn’t let me go until I promised I’d never tease him about Brian again.
Ryan’s face lit up with a brilliant smile when he saw me and he quickly came forward and wrapped me in a tight bear hug. The scent of his cologne engulfed me as his arms tightened around my shoulders. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes as my cheek pressed into the soft material of his sweatshirt over the solid muscles of his chest and my arms wound around his waist. My coat dropped to the floor and the handle of my carry-on clanked against the tile as it dropped. Ryan had hugged me before. He’d given me numerous piggyback rides and slung his arm around my shoulders on countless occasions, but this hug had me plastered up against his male body, my softness smashed to the hard contours of his male form. I felt flustered and unsettled as I moved back and glanced into his face. His blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. His voice oozed over me as his hands grabbed my shoulders. “My mom is circling the terminals and should be around to pick us up very soon.”
“I didn’t have time to get ready. I look a mess. Thanks for that.”
Ryan chuckled and bent to pick up the bag and the coat. He pushed the handle down and easily slung the bag over his shoulder before handing the coat back with a sardonic grimace. “You’ll look like a giant purple people eater,” he teased, “or, a bloated grape.”
“Thanks,” I retorted shortly. “Again, it’s your fault, dickhead. I didn’t even look at what I grabbed out of the closet!”
“Did you wear that when you were five?” His shoulder nudged into mine and I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t think I can take you downtown in that. I may have to buy you a new one.”
“No, it’s not. It’s hideous!”
“Some of us aren’t as vain as others,” I shot back as we started to walk toward the large revolving doors that would take us out to the curb, silently dreading wearing the horrible thing. “You said it was going to be a blizzard here. I didn’t think we’d do much beyond making a snowman.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t lose you in that, even in a whiteout. Here comes my mom.”
A sleek silver Lexus stopped and Ryan went around the back to deposit my bag into the trunk as a slender woman in a long black cashmere coat and black leather gloves emerged from behind the wheel. I didn’t find similarities in their features, but her blue eyes and sandy hair were identical to her son’s. She was impeccably groomed which only made my unkempt appearance more annoying.
“Julia, it’s so nice to meet you! I’m Ryan’s mother, Elyse.” She embraced me warmly as the cold Chicago wind whipped around us and blew my long hair across my face. I began to shiver.
“Thank you, Mrs. Matthews. Sorry for the short notice.”
She whisked my objection away with a casual wave of her hand. “It’s no trouble at all, and you must call me Elyse. Ryan, you drive, darling. I want to get acquainted with your friend.” She tossed Ryan the keys before he handed me my coat and held open the back passenger side door and ushered me inside.
The drive and shopping trip proved to be a lot of fun and I found an easy camaraderie with Ryan’s mom. She was warm, easygoing and very welcoming. She chatted on about Ryan and Aaron, the tree-house they built in the backyard with their dad when they were ten and how Ryan broke his arm when he fell out of it the following spring. Overall, there weren’t many embarrassing things I’d be able to tease Ryan with when the need arose to blackmail him but things changed that night at dinner.
“Ryan, have you bought any whores yet?” his father asked with a laugh.
I gasped and some of the roast beef I’d been eating got sucked into my lungs. I began coughing uncontrollably, covering my mouth with the fine linen napkin that had been resting in my lap. My eyes began to tear as my chest convulsed painfully.
“Jesus, Dad!” Ryan admonished, pushing back his chair and pounding on my back. “Sorry, Jules, it’s a joke.”
Elyse rose from her chair and rounded the table toward the two of us, the tears in my eyes increasing as I struggled to regain my breath between coughing spurts. She handed me the glass of ice water next to my plate and offered it to me. I coughed again, wiped my tears and reached for it. I was acutely conscious of Ryan’s hand rubbing my back between my shoulder blades.
“I’m so sorry, Julia. I often tease Ryan about his whores.” The handsome face, so similar to his son’s, flashed a full grin as I finally took my seat again. I raised my eyebrow at Ryan who ran his hand through his hair. His agitation was clear.
“Gabe, explain to the poor girl.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Or not,” he insisted forcefully.
“No, I’d like to hear this,” I said with a laugh, then flushed when Ryan shot me a warning look. I guess he didn’t think that was funny, but I sure as hell did.
His father burst out laughing. “I like this girl, son. She’s smart.”
“Smart ass, you mean.”
“Ryan and Aaron went to summer camp for two weeks every summer from the age of seven. It had horseback riding, canoeing and a lot of other fun stuff. Ryan particularly like the horses and he’d write home telling us he’d like to buy a horse, only he spelled it H O R E S, so it’s been an ongoing joke. Ryan and his whores.”
“Oh, my God!” I laughed out loud. “Awww!” I reached out and pushed against his arm roughly. “I guess not much has changed, huh?” I asked my friend.
“Nice, Julia.” Ryan looked annoyed.
“Well?” I teased.
“In your dreams.”
Four eyes bore into me as they waited for an explanation. “Um, well, it’s just that Ryan dates a bunch, um… uh, a lot of girls like him.”
Elyse rescued me from further embarrassing myself. “He’s always had a bevy of girlfriends, but we’ve yet to meet anyone he’s serious about. Only one he dated more than a month. Ryan, do you still keep in touch with Jennifer?”
“What?” she asked, setting down her wineglass. “Surely it’s nothing your best friend wouldn’t already know.”
“Can we just not… talk about that stuff? Please?” Ryan begged. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
The truth was, I was feeling the pain as well. We never seemed to get around to talking about the past much, not when it came to relationships. We always seemed to be focused on the present, but the conversation put me in a weird place. Of course, my subconscious knew he’d had at least one major girlfriend in his past. He was funny, smart and gorgeous, and I wasn’t stupid, but somehow I’d managed to keep the thought buried in the back of my mind. I glanced in Ryan’s direction out of the corner of my eye. He was staring at his plate.
After dinner, Ryan and I helped with the dishes without a lot of conversation and I started to wonder if maybe this was a bad idea. As he stacked the last of the plates into the dishwasher after I’d rinsed them he nodded in the direction of the stairs and I followed him to his room.
“Don’t make fun of me,” he said with a slight smile and went into his room ahead of me. He turned on a bedside lamp and the television on the wall opposite the double bed.
“What are best friends for?” I asked. I always thought of Ryan as my best friend, but it’s never something we’d said to each other, nor had I ever heard him refer to me as such, but apparently he’d said it to his mother.
He flopped down on his bed as I glanced around his room. I could see his eyes follow me as I checked out the trophies and the photographs. I saw one of Ryan in a black tux with a blonde girl in a bright pink, sequined dress, and guessed that must be the infamous Jennifer. I sensed his hesitation and my face burned and my lungs felt on fire. I inhaled, trying to ease the heat and calm the weird emotions racing through me. He studied me intently.
“What?” I asked, the bed giving softly beneath my weight as I sat next to him.
“Is that okay?” His jaw stiffened slightly and my eyes skittered over the shadow of whiskers shading it. My heart thumped unexpectedly in my chest. I knew what he wanted to know.
“Yeah. You are my best friend. Duh.”
“I told your mom I’d help her cook Christmas dinner. Do you have any traditions?”
“Sure. We have to suffer my dad’s Aunt Mabel’s fruitcake. It’s so disgusting! Dad takes it and practically drowns it in rum to try to make it palatable and still it sucks ass. Don’t eat it, whatever you do.”
I laughed and grabbed the remote out of his hand. He let me take it without protest. “Doesn’t your mother make your favorite dessert?”
“No. She said it’s not holiday-ish.”
“Hmmm. I always make my dad Black Forest cake and Prime Rib for Christmas.”
He watched me with sparkling eyes. “I like strawberry cheesecake, but that sounds good, too. What is it?”
I flipped from channel to channel and shrugged.
“Chocolate cake soaked with Cherry Liqueur, filled with cherries, whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It’s a lot of work, but it’s delicious.”
“Yeah, I know. It is.” Tongue in cheek I waited for him to ask. He would ask. I would make him ask. The seconds ticked by, both of us starring at the T.V. without speaking. Finally, he caved.
“Will you make them and save me from the gross fruitcake?”
“I don’t know. Your mom’s right. Cheesecake isn’t Christmas-y. Strawberries are out of season.” I said, training my eyes on the T.V. and waiting, baiting Ryan more as I rattled off reasons not to make his beloved cheesecake.
Ryan huffed and lay down on his bed, finally leaning over and stealing the remote out of my hand. “Fine!”
“Moody much?” My lips crept up at the corners.
“You tease me with that shit and then renege. Just remember, payback is a bitch.”
I bit my lip to stop a laugh. “Fuck you. You called me a bloated grape! So what was it you were saying about payback?”
“Your ticket was $636 dollars and change. I take cash or check.” His elbow nudged my arm as he shifted again then leaned into me as the channel settled onto HBO. The Bill Murray version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ was just starting.
“Okay, I’ll make it, if you’ll stop pouting, already. But, you have to go to the store and buy the stuff.”
“What? The fucking thing already cost me $636!”
A laugh erupted from my chest and Ryan joined me. “It’ll be worth every cent.”
“It already is.”