I never planned on getting a Christmas tree only because I had no reason to. I spent every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the O’Hallorans and their tree is amazing, covered with decorations collected and carefully stored through the years and lit up with enough lights that it could be mistaken for a beacon by intelligent life in outer space. I even had my very own stocking hanging from the mantel that Mrs. O’Halloran sewed for me when I was twelve or thirteen.
That was when my parents’ problems began, when Dad didn’t come home some nights, claiming he was traveling. Only he wasn’t. He’d started seeing someone he met at Macy’s and eventually lived with her, balancing his life between our house and hers all under the guise of traveling for work until he couldn’t do it anymore. So he left with just a note saying he’d found someone else and that they were moving to France where she had family and property. No other goodbyes, no child support. Mom had to scramble to make ends meet and eventually we had to sell the house when the creditors came calling. Dad had even taken a second mortgage on the house without telling Mom and before we knew it, it was gone.
Jordan’s parents took me in for two years after that and those two years were the best years of my life. It was chaos O’Halloran style but it was a good chaos—a happy one. Sure, Jordan often got into trouble and Caitlin would stay past curfew, but it wasn’t anything major. Certainly nothing like my dad abandoning his family to run off with his mistress.
But I tell myself to stop thinking about the past, not when my present looks darn good in the form of my best friend’s sister sitting across from me and talking my ear off about her latest dissertation, something about BCRA1 and BCRA2 and Arabpidosis… or something that sounds like it. She’s animated, her hands moving in front of her as she speaks, slender fingers gracefully illustrating one point and then another. And then there’s her laughter, light and happy. So Caitlin.
“Are you going to stay there after graduation?” I ask when she finishes talking to take a bite out of her omelet. We’re at one of my favorite places to hang out, a small cafe a few blocks from my apartment that’s known for their crepes.
“I don’t know yet. I received an offer from the university hospital but I was hoping to get one closer to home.”
“That would be wonderful if you could work here, wouldn’t it?”
Caitlin nods, her eyes sparkling. “Yes, it would. Then I’d be close to everyone again. That means I can bug you more than I already do.”
“You can bug me anytime, Cait,” I say, grinning. “I thought you already knew that.”
We finish our breakfast fifteen minutes later and make our way to the Union Square Holiday Market, a European-style winter market known for its unique gifts by local craftsman and artists. It’s even dazzling at night, with holiday lights and evergreen boughs gracing the entrance. Barely noon, it’s already filled with shoppers doing last-minute shopping like us. It’s where I usually find gifts for the O’Halloran family, from handpainted silk scarves and fair trade wool socks for Mr. and Mrs. O’Halloran to board games for Jordan and felted owls for Caitlin who used to be crazy about owls for years although I’m not sure if she is anymore.
“I can’t believe it’s been years since I’ve been here. It’s even better than the last time I remember it,” she says as she grabs my hand, leading me toward a booth selling art drawn on old book pages. “We’re definitely going to need more than two pairs of hands to carry everything back!”
Even without makeup, Caitlin looks amazing, her red dress peeking from underneath her black wool coat. She’s always been a stunning beauty, words I’d never say out loud in front of her brother. With her flaming red hair, porcelain skin and dazzling smile, she’s a sight for sore eyes and always finds a way to make me smile. I remember my simmering anger at my father when I first moved into the spare bedroom in the O’Halloran home, not knowing who to blame for his decision to leave us. While Jordan’s solution was to get me out of the house and keep me busy with sports, Caitlin filled in the silences with her drawings, owls in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and books of poetry she’d find at thrift stores. I don’t know what made her think of poetry but it worked.
We stop by a booth selling personalized Christmas decorations and Caitlin finds one that’s stamped with the year and the words, Campbell’s First Christmas.
“I think I’ll add ‘tree’ here,” she says, pointing to the space under the word, Christmas. “That way, it’s going to mark the first time you put up your very first Christmas tree. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
“Awesome! We’re going to have a wonderful time, Cam! I just know it.”
I grin. I’d long given up arguing with Caitlin about having a tree at my apartment only because she’s right. I have to have a tree, at least, even for just this year, and I have a feeling that this one will just be overloaded with so many decorations it probably will fall over from the weight… and the lights that will serve as that damn beacon to intelligent life in outer space.
Two hours later, we make it back to my apartment, arms laden with bags filled with tree decorations and presents for everyone on our list except each other—unless Caitlin managed to find something for me when I wasn’t looking. In the past, she’s given me a tie clip, a pair of cufflinks, and an old poetry book she found at an estate sale in LA. This year, I guess it’s the idea of a real Christmas tree inside my apartment and that personalized decoration.
Then it’s a trek back down so we can find the perfect tree at the tree lot three blocks away. Caitlin is relentless but I’m not complaining. It’s the first day of my holiday vacation and I have nothing else planned anyway. I haven’t even thought about work at all, no models to make, no reports to check.
At the lot, we’re mistaken for a couple shopping for our first tree together and I let it slide. So does Caitlin—or maybe she didn’t hear the attendant. And maybe it’s just easier that way. No need to explain that there’s no way we’re together for she’s my best friend’s baby sister, someone totally off-limits. We settle for a five-foot Fraser Fir and although the attendant promises to deliver it within the hour, Caitlin insists we can both carry it home. And we do.
At the apartment, we set out to decorate the tree and by the time we’re done two hours later, the living room is a mess of wrappers, ribbons, and tinsel. I’m exhausted but even I have to admit that the tree looks great. She even found an online station that played holiday songs the entire time.
On the drive home, we hardly talk. Maybe she’s tired from all the things we did during the day or maybe we just ran out of things to say. But I can sense something else. It reminds me of the low that follows after an intense high, when you’re having so much fun but life happens and you have to come back down. Maybe that’s what’s going on… or maybe not.
“I really had a wonderful time today, Cam,” she says as I make a right from Queens Boulevard toward Forest Hills. “Thanks for putting up with me.”
“Don’t say that, Cait. If I felt I had to put up with you, I would have told you.” I smile. “Actually I had a lot of fun today. If you weren’t there, I’d have gone to the gym, checked my email and that would have been the end of that. I probably would have ended up working.”
“I know, but it’s not like this whole day was planned,” she says, “or last night, for that matter. You didn’t have to take me home and entertain me.”
“Cait, you’re my best friend’s sister,” I say. “It’s no big deal. Really. Probably my only complaint would be having Roxy pick a better date for you.”
She laughs, pulling out her phone and glancing at the display. “Yeah, she’s been dying to find out what happened so I guess she doesn’t know that Carter bailed out on me.”
“Maybe you can let her know your preferences,” I add, parking the car in front of their house. “Maybe she’ll find you a better match next time.”
“Maybe.” Caitlin slips her phone back into her purse and touches my forearm. “Hey, you don’t have to walk me to the door. It’s not like we’re on a date or anything. You’re just dropping me off.”
I frown, my hand on the door handle. No, that wouldn’t be right to let her do that. “You have bags and bags of stuff from the holiday market, Cait. Let me at least help you carry them.”
She bites her lower lip. “Oh, okay. I just figured it would save you time, that’s all.”
I don’t say anything as I get out of the car and open the passenger door. Grabbing the shopping bags from the back seat, I follow her to the front door. Why does it feel like the end of an amazing date even though we weren’t exactly on a date?
She whips around to face me, the house keys in her hand. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got tickets to Hamilton two nights from now and I was wondering if you’d like to come with me.”
She stares at me. “Hamilton? As in the hottest ticket in town Hamilton?”
I nod. “Yeah. My boss can’t make it so he gave it to me last night before he left the holiday party.”
She peers at me suspiciously. “And you haven’t asked anyone else to go with you yet?”
“No, but I’m asking you, silly,” I reply, chuckling. “You wanna come with me or not?”
“Of course, I do. I’m not about to say no to Hamilton.”
“That’s good then. Maybe we can have dinner before we go so does six work for you?”
“This isn’t like a date, is it? I mean, just to be sure. You’re not asking me out on a date.”
A lump forms in my throat. I never really thought about it that way but if she’d rather not see it as a date, then fine. “No, it’s not-date date.”
“Okay.” She turns away from me to unlock the front door and push it open. As I set the shopping bags on the floor, I can’t help but grin when I see the Christmas tree in the far corner, the space underneath it spilling over with presents, most of them with pink ribbons, and I’m willing to be they’re likely Piper’s, Jordan’s daughter and the first O’Halloran grandchild. And then there’s the scent of pine in the air, a hint of chocolate chip cookies… and home.
Suddenly memories come rushing in, of Christmas morning when the three of us would rush downstairs to open our presents and we’d show off what we got while Mr. and Mrs. O’Halloran laughed at our exuberance. We were far from kids but it always felt safe to be just whoever we wanted to be in their home.
“Hey, you okay?”
Caitlin’s voice breaks through my reverie and I nod. “Yeah, I’m just amazed at your parents’ tree. It’s like a Hallmark movie come to life.”
“I didn’t know you watched Hallmark movies.”
I chuckled. “I don’t, but an ex-girlfriend did. She cried over everything.”
“Oh.” Caitlin bites her lower lip. “So, are you seeing anyone right now?”
I pick up the day’s mail that’s sitting on the floor next to the door and hand it to her. “Nah.”
“Not even dating?”
“So, casual dating then?” She sets the mail on top of the console.
“Maybe. Maybe not. Why do you ask?”
“Nothing,” she replies, busying herself with the mail before setting it back down.
“Well, I better get going,” I mutter, turning back toward the door. “I’ll see you on Thursday at six?”
She nods. “Yup, Thursday at six.”
I do my best to walk down to my car without turning my head to look behind me but I can’t help myself. When I do, I catch Caitlin outside the front door watching me. She lifts her hand in a subtle wave as I get in behind the wheel and start the car, doing my best to act cool.
Don’t look back, man. Don’t look back.
But I look anyway, this time through my rearview mirror, but the front landing is empty. Caitlin’s gone.