Desiree shimmied into her red dress. After a few awkward stretches and some obscenities, she managed the back zipper and the little hook-and-eye at the top.
“Who came up with the idea to put zippers in the back, anyway?” she muttered. “It’s not like women have people to dress them anymore.”
She gave a twirl in front of her mirrored closet door. The skirt swooshed around her knees. She slipped on her red flats and grabbed her sweater off the bed, putting it on as she walked through the small apartment. Mittens meowed and wound through her ankles, tripping her up.
“C’mere you big furball,” she said affectionately, scooping him up and giving him a cuddle. He nuzzled her neck and quickly decided he’d had enough. He jumped down right before the doorbell rang. Desiree grabbed her purse and keys and opened the door quickly, not wanting to leave Todd out in the cold too long. It wasn’t that cold in their south Texas town, but Todd was a bit of a baby about such things, although he refused to ever wear a jacket.
“Hey, babe,” Todd said smoothly. His voice washed over Desiree; somehow he always managed to give her goosebumps. His plaid shirts and beard did very little for her, but that voice always made her melt. He gave her a kiss on the cheek and offered her his arm. Desiree took it and locked the door behind her.
The walk to Todd’s car took them around the apartment building. With the exception of an intermittent breeze, Desiree found that she was quite comfortable despite her bare legs. Todd’s black Ferrari was illegally parked in the handicap spot. He was not fond of the extra minute he’d spend walking if he parked past all the residents’ vehicles. He opened the passenger door for her, and she gracefully sat down, swinging her legs in.
They arrived at Galaxy 21 a mere five minutes later. The quaint cafe catered to the hipster crowd. Desiree didn’t fit in, but Todd was right at home. They ordered French toast and an omelet, respectively, and Todd excused himself to the restroom. He was gone a long time, and Desiree wondered if he was ill. He finally came walking back at the same time as their waitress brought their breakfast. The blonde server set their food down and walked off. Todd knelt down as though he were going to tie his shoe.
“What are you do—” Desiree started to ask, remembering that he had elastic laces on his shoes. She stopped short, catching sight of a diamond ring sitting daintily on top of the whipped cream on her French toast.
“I love you, Desiree Rodgers. We’re great together; we’ll always be great together. Will you marry me?”
Todd’s smile was so earnest that Desiree felt a genuine pang in her heart as she turned him down. “Todd, I’m sorry. We’ve talked about this. You know I don’t want to get married. But we are great together. Let’s just keep things like they are.”
Todd got up off the floor and dusted his knees. “I thought you’d change your mind,” he said as he sat down on the vinyl cushion of their booth. He fished the ring out of the whipped cream with a fork. Keeping his eyes off Desiree, he wiped it clean and put it back in the ring box. “I can’t be in a dead-end relationship with you.”
“Don’t do this, Todd,” Desiree said. “Don’t throw this all away.”
“I want a marriage. A house. Kids. If I can’t have that with you, then I don’t want to keep doing this.”
Todd stood up and slipped the ring box back into his pocket. He put twenty dollars on the table, said goodbye to Desiree, and walked out. The little bell on the door jingled at his departure.
“Well, that could have gone better,” Desiree said to herself. She knew she’d miss Todd’s voice and the free technical support for her computer, but this break up wasn’t the end of the world. She poured syrup onto her breakfast, watching the indent of the ring deflate under the weight of the sticky syrup. She ate her breakfast and half of Todd’s western omelet. She needed some energy for her ice skating date with Connor.
Abandoned by Todd, she had to take an Uber from the restaurant. She went straight to the mall, where she killed some time in the bookstore before going to meet Connor at the mall’s center, the skating rink.
She leaned against the rail, watching those already on the ice. Arms wrapped around her from behind. She struggled, wondering what kind of creep she was dealing with.
“Relax; it’s just me,” Connor said with a chuckle. Desiree laughed, too. Of course it was Connor: no one else was as tall as the man behind her. She turned, still wrapped in his embrace.
“I’m glad it’s you,” she said, tip-toeing to kiss him.
Their lips lingered, wishing they were alone. Alas, they were not. They broke apart reluctantly. Connor grabbed Desiree’s hand and led her to the entrance to the rink. At the counter, he paid for their skate rentals with his gold amex card. “Thirteen for me, eight for her,” he said, rattling off their skate sizes.
“You remember my shoe size?” Desiree asked in surprise.
“I remember everything about you,” Connor replied sweetly.
They took their skates to an empty bench. Desiree pulled a pair of socks out of her purse. They laced up quickly and headed out onto the ice. Hand in hand they did a few laps of the oval rink. Winded and rosy-cheeked, they skated to a halt and walked off the ice onto the rubber matting that covered the floor.
“I was going to ask on the ice, but I was afraid I’d drop it,” Connor said.
“Drop what?” Desiree asked.
“This,” Connor said, pulling a jewelry box out of the pocket of his khakis.
“Connor, don’t, please. Put it away.” Desiree begged.
“So that’s a ‘no’ then,” Connor said, following her instructions.
“I’m sorry. I’m—”
“Not ready,” Connor finished. Desiree nodded, grateful for the out. “That’s okay.”
It was clear from his tone that he was hurt, but he was taking it much better than Todd had. He nodded his head toward the ice. Desiree took his hand, and they skated again. After a few minutes of awkward silence, they fell into easy banter, each trying to spot the most hideous Christmas sweater. Desiree won by a large margin.
The overhead music stopped, signaling the skaters to clear the ice for the zamboni. Connor and Desiree followed the max exodus. Connor checked his watch.
“I know you’ve got that lunch date,” he said, awkwardly traipsing toward their shoes. Desiree reluctantly let go of his hand so she could unlace her skates.
“I’ll miss you,” Desiree said.
She pulled her sweaty socks off and stuffed them into her purse. They returned their skates and exited to the main thoroughfare of the mall. Her phone bingled in her sweater pocket. She took it out and discreetly checked the screen.
“It’s Tiffany. She’s waiting,” Desiree said, the lie easily cascading off her tongue. “I should go. I’ll see you soon.”
She gave Connor a quick kiss and headed away toward the food court. She pulled a compact from one of the side pockets on her sequined purse. She checked her lipstick as she walked. Unsmudged, good. She deposited the compact back into her purse.
She spied Blake at a table across from Bamboo Express. Judging by the two trays in front of him, he’d ordered for both of them. She slid gracefully into the seat across from him.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I couldn’t get rid of Tiffany. That girl is a regular chatterbox. Yap, yap, yap.”
“Did you have fun skating?” Blake asked.
“Tons of fun,” Desiree responded. She picked up a fork and dove into her lo mein. Blake watched her eat, barely touching his plate of orange chicken and fried rice. Desiree noticed his lack of appetite and was about to comment on it when one of Blake’s friends approached their table.
“‘Sup. bro?” A complete opposite of Blake’s slacks and button down, the newcomer was dressed in cargo shorts and a tee, despite the season. Desiree though he’d be more at home surfing in So Cal. She wondered how an advertising exec like Blake knew a guy like that.
“Justin, good to see you,” Blake said, his voice clearly contradicting his speech. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a mall. I’m shopping,” Justin said, having entirely missed Blake’s tone. He gave Desiree a strange look. Desiree thought he must have been waiting for her to respond to what she guessed was supposed to be a joke. She stuck another bite of kung pao beef into her mouth to avoid having to say anything.
“I’m kinda having lunch with my girl,” Blake said pointedly.
‘Oh, right. Right. My bad.” Justin clapped Blake on the shoulder and winked at Desiree before walking off without actually saying goodbye.
“Is he always that weird?’ Desiree asked staring at Justin’s retreating back.
“He’s can be a bit awkward.”
“He winked at me.”
“Yes, well.” Blake seemed to have additional thoughts on the matter, but he didn’t share them. He went back to pushing food around his plate with very little of it making it to his mouth.
“Ok, what’s up?” Desiree finally asked.
“I was going to wait a week for New Year’s,” he said quickly. “But I can’t wait anymore.”
His brief pause for breath grew into a weird silence.
“I’ll bite. Can’t wait for what?” Desiree asked. She took a drink of her beverage.
“I love you, Desiree. Will you marry me?” Blake blurted out unceremoniously.
Desiree was so stunned she choked on her Diet Coke. The acidic liquid shot out her nose and sprayed across the front of her dress and her plate.
“Desiree!” Blake handed her a napkin as she coughed and spluttered. She wiped froth from her nose and dabbed at her bodice. “I should have waited until you were done drinking. I’m sorry. Do you want me to ask again?”
“Blake,” Desiree said, regaining her ability to speak. “We’ve only been together for two months. This is insane.”
“It’s not,” Blake insisted. “I love you. I love everything about you. The way your hair curls. They way you eat popcorn one piece at a time. The way you smell. Desiree, I want to spend forever with you.”
“No, Blake,” Desiree said firmly. “Two months. It’s been two months. This is crazy. We cannot get married.”
“No. And I’m sorry, Blake, I don’t want to see you anymore.” Desiree stood up, ready to make a hasty exit. How had she missed that Blake was a nut job? She jerked her arm away as he reached for her. She walked quickly, afraid to look back lest she see him behind her. Her first stop was the restroom to clean off her dress. Then she went to the most crowded entrance and ordered up another Uber. She waited and watched the frantic Christmas Eve shoppers jostle each other in a childish attempt to be first through the door.
The ride home was uneventful. Desiree rated the driver five stars for not asking any personal questions or trying to make small talk. The air had turned colder, and Desiree shivered as she circumnavigated her apartment building. Mittens meowed loudly at her when she opened the door.
She threw her purse and keys onto the couch before flinging herself down next to them. She was exhausted; it had been one hell of a morning. She mustered the will to turn her head and look at the clock. Two hours until her date. She could afford to nap.
Desiree was startled awake by a persistent knock on her door. One look at the clock told her all she needed to know: she was late. She jumped up, startling Mittens. The bell on his collar jingled as he darted under the sofa.
“Steven,” she said, opening the door. Steven stood on her doorstep looking as dashing as ever. Wind had tousled his hair and reddened his cheeks.
“Are you okay?” he asked, genuinely as he stepped inside. Desiree smiled while closing the door behind him. Leave it to Steven to be more concerned about her than upset that he’d been stood up.
“Yeah. Sorry. I fell asleep. I was just so tired after shopping and skating with Tiffany. You look cold. Maybe we should stay in instead of having that walk in the park.”
“I wouldn’t say no to a cup of coffee,” Steven said, grateful for the suggestion that they stay in. His expensive coat kept the cold off his body, but the whipping wind had numbed his ears and nose. He exhaled on his hands and rubbed them together for warmth.
“Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back with coffee.”
Steven took off his coat and laid it neatly across the back of the recliner and settled onto the couch to wait. He listened to the sounds of Desiree puttering in the kitchen. She came back a few minutes later with two steaming mugs.
“There’s a spoonful of cocoa in yours, just like you like it,” she said. Steven thanked her and took a sip. They chatted easily about their respective Christmas plans. They made quick work of the coffee, and soon the low table was decorated with empty mugs.
“Have I told you lately that you’re the most beautiful woman in the world?” Steven asked, brushing a lock of curly blonde hair away from Desiree’s cheek.
“Yes, but I’ll never get tired of hearing it.”
She leaned in for a kiss, and Steven did not disappoint. Desiree didn’t notice his squirming as their lips made love. She felt something slide onto her finger. She pulled back, mind reeling. It couldn’t be. But there on her slender fourth finger was a ring.
“Steven, I don’t know what to say,” Desiree stalled, twisting the ring.
“Say ‘yes,’” Steven replied.
“We can’t. You’re not even divorced yet.”
“I will be, when the lawyers are through. Then it can be our turn.”
“I don’t want to be another in your string of marriages. Don’t you see? You fall madly in love, get married, hate each other, and get divorced. I’m madly in love with you. That’s enough for me. I don’t need the ring or the wedding. I’m happy this way. You’re happy this way. Why risk it?”
“Okay,” Steven said, taking the ring back. “But when we’re still together in a year, promise me we can talk about this again.”
“One year. Next Christmas Eve, we can talk about this again,” Desiree said solemnly, hoping that in one year Steven would forget.
“I guess you should hit the road,” Steven said reluctantly. “It’s a few hours’ drive to your brother’s and you should try to get there before dark. I worry about you.”
“That’s sweet,” Desiree said. “I promise I’ll be careful, and I’ll see you when I get back.”
They shared another kiss before he left. Desiree leaned against the door after his departure. She really wanted a shot of vodka and a nap, but Steven was right that she should get on the road. She popped onto Facebook and wrote on her brother’s wall: Picking up a bottle of wine for dinner tomorrow and heading your way, li’l bro.
It took only a few minutes to throw her toothbrush and hairbrush into her already packed overnight bag. The gifts for her brother’s kids were already in the trunk of her car. Mittens’s automatic kitty feeder was full, as was his water bowl. She couldn’t find him to say goodbye. Unwilling to waste time for a search party, she contented herself with a hollered “Bye, Mittens, Mommy loves you” and went out the door.
She stopped at the Exxon on the corner to fill up before heading down the street to the liquor store for wine. The gas station was surprisingly crowded and she had to wait to use the pump. Nine gallons later she was exiting the parking lot.
Brady’s Liquor was a mile down the road. It wasn’t much more than a hole in the wall, but they carried her brother’s wife’s favorite wine. She parked right up front next to a shiny new Lexus. It looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t place it. Desiree got out of her red sedan and stepped up onto the sidewalk.
“What are you doing here, Garrett?” she asked, seeing her boyfriend standing beside the homeless man who was always outside Brady’s begging for change.
“I saw your note on Facebook, and I wanted to catch you before you left town,” Garrett said. “Christmas Eve makes a better story than the day after Christmas.”
“Story for what?” Desiree queried suspiciously.
“To propose. All I want for Christmas is you.”
“Are you freakin’ kidding me? Is there something in the water?” Desiree asked aloud, though she meant to only think it.
“The water in this town. There must be something in it.” Five times was too many. This was not normal. None of it was normal. Desiree snapped back to her senses. “Sorry,” she said quickly. “The same thing happened to my friend Tiffany. Proposed to out of the blue today. It seemed like a strange coincidence.”
“I hope she answered faster than you are.”
“I don’t know what to say, Garrett. This is too sudden. Can we talk when I get back?”
“If you have to think about it or talk yourself into it, then it’s a no. Goodbye, Desiree.”
“No, no ‘wait, Garret.’ Go drink some water or something.” Garrett stalked off toward his Lexus.
“I think the water’s fluoridated,” the homeless man said knowingly.