Holiday Contemporary Christmas

Aunt Rowena’s stooped but ever-imposing shadow lingered at Tessa’s back. The elderly woman’s weak vision followed her niece’s every motion: adding another plop of golden mashed potatoes to her plate, taking a sip of champagne, then tilting her head to smile through the previous spiteful commentary. 

Rowena slammed the end of her cane against the pink quartz floor. Having purposely missed the immaculate runner rug, the resulting crack reverberated off the high ceiling and bounced between the walls and tall, pristine windows. 

The twelve-seater, solid cherrywood dining table was full to bursting with every palatable holiday flavor. Places had been set for eleven diners, but only Tessa sat in her resplendence. Her expression was placid; her motions were steady.

Aunt Rowena leaned closer. “Can you still indulge with the family in such disarray?”

Tessa wanted to say, “What do you mean? Is this not our family’s definition of a typical Christmas Eve?”

What Tessa actually said was, “I suppose I must try.”

She leaned forward to gather several thick slices of pork. She even brought some of the outside sugar crust to her plate, the scent of it wafting toward her nostrils.

“A disgrace, you are. Halfway through your twenties, unwed, and eating as if oblivious to how your figure will suffer…” 

Tessa brought her napkin to her lips to hide her smile. What a joy—this newfound mindset. She placed the embroidered cloth back in place to protect her mint-green gown and tugged a wrinkle from her left glove. While Aunt Rowena blathered on about husbands and children, womanly duties, and future positions, Tessa brought a bite of cranberries to her mouth. The bittersweet flavor coated her tongue, reminding her that it was her choice how to respond to this incursion of her peace.

Every Christmas Eve was the definition of a joke to the point that Tessa wondered why anyone bothered with the veneer. The chaos of her many cousins, her brother’s debauchery, her father’s booming temper, and her mother’s weeping fits always drove the entire family to their respective corners of the estate before anyone could swallow their second bite.

This year, Tessa was the trigger. For the first time in her life, she was guilt-free.

If she couldn’t keep her family from unraveling like a knitted sweater between a kitten's paws, she may as well create her own version with the only pleasant company available under the enormous roof. 

That company was not her aunt. 

The raspy woman still droned her disapproval and had set herself to pacing behind Tessa’s chair. Last year, that move may have had Tessa retreating inward like a turtle into its shell. She held in a giggle.

Tessa closed her eyes, chewing a savory bite of ham in time with her thoughts. Last month, in this very banquet hall, she had made what could still be the most profound discovery of her life. What better stage for a grand performance than her father's annual fundraiser?

Tessa recalled standing beside the window with her obligatory glass of wine, striving to appear as inconspicuous as possible. She had hoped that her turned back would afford her privacy among the crowd.

Her father had intruded. “My sweet, do the festivities not please you?”

Tessa had turned with her painted-on smile. Her father’s voice rumbled as if he were on the verge of an outburst—typical for a man always demanding utmost respect.

“I’m not feeling up to conversing much this evening.”

“Surely someone here could catch your interest? What about—”

“Not tonight. Please, Papa.”

The "please" came only after she realized she had made a mistake; she had done what she had longed to do since she was little. She hadn’t been in the mood to play niceties with any of his business partner’s sons. Her father had taken hold of her arm and marched her straight into a conversation with a circle of tycoons—some of which she had recognized from previous gatherings.

One man, in particular, had always dismantled her dress behind his lecherous eyes. He had done so again with no care to be discreet.

No amount of pleasantries could have masked her mortification. Her father may as well have slapped an “I’m available” sign on her. Each man conveyed their lack of integrity by flaunting their wealth through conversational eloquence. The deplorable display of grappling egos had Tessa cringing inside. None of them cared to know her, only to snatch up the added perk of being counted among her father's illustrious household.

When her father had boosted his own ego with his own tales, and even offered her up to a dinner date with Lech Guy, Tessa had felt her nerves shatter. 

Her eyes had shot right and left through the crowd of pomp and power; her breathing had increased to rapid draws.

All around her, wine glasses had been refilled and downed, smiles replaced with scowls as soon as backs turned, and in the corner, her mother had sobbed into a tissue with only the butler to console her. 

Tessa’s older brother had already taken the hand of the first attractive woman he had seen and led her to a darkened chamber.

Aunt Rowena had warred with her pink-cheeked husband in front of another couple…

Tessa’s twin cousins had been drunk enough to flirt with married women… 

All the while Tessa’s father had been inching her toward Lech Guy… 

Tessa had screamed. The piercing tone, the death toll of her subservience, had been loud enough to turn every deceitful head. She still couldn’t recall her exact words, but she had absolutely spoken every detail of her misery held inside over an entire lifetime of pretenses.

The feeling of floating above the room, as if she were no longer doomed to take part, stayed inside her. It only grew when she realized the control she had by simply refusing to align.

This year, she had jumpstarted the mass exodus from the dining hall by holding a silent smile when asked to apologize for her disrespect at the fundraiser.

“…at least!” Aunt Rowena’s raised voice snapped Tessa back to the mostly empty banquet hall. A letter bearing only her name in cursive now sat beside her plate.

“What’s this?” Tessa said with disinterest.

“Oh! Foolish girl. Just consider it your saving grace. Do your poor father a favor for once.”

With that final "encouragement", Aunt Rowena clanked her cane out the door. Silence almost as delicious as the feast enveloped Tessa. With a carefree smile still pulling at her mouth, she slid the note out of its envelope.

“Dearest Tessa, It would be a wise move on your part to reconsider my offer to accompany me on New Year’s Eve. Your outburst at the fundraiser was the most hilarious sight I’ve ever witnessed. How red your father became! You caught my attention, and believe me, that’s no simple task. Should you accept my invitation, I am prepared to offer a glittering token of my affection. Your father bestowed upon me the proper size. Until then, consider this a proposal any other woman would sell their souls to receive. Yours forever, Jason.”

Tessa allowed the paper to slip to the floor.

"Any lesser woman, dear Jason."

She scanned the empty table, envisioning each family member in the seats their posteriors had warmed just ten minutes ago. The head of the table, her father’s place, held her focus.

“I decline him again, Papa. I'll never apologize or regret my honesty that night. I truly don’t care for the company of any of you, but I will love you if even from afar.”

She paused to flip one of her dark curls out of her face.

“And as for the other four buffoons who also declared their undying love to me earlier today? The same who clamor for my hand in hopes of replacing your delinquent son? All rejected as well.”

Tessa lifted her bubbling champagne then brought it to her lips for a lengthy sip. She shifted her glance to her mother’s spot, envisioning the woman having another tearful meltdown over witnessing her daughter stand up for herself.

“Mama, standing up for myself has taught me something your tears never could. I wish you the same courage one day.”

Addressing the empty seats was invigorating, but Tessa knew she wasn't quite ready to ordain these musings to their faces. Someday. Baby steps.

"And all of you, why do we bother? What good is this holly adorning the table and mantle? This feast which always goes cold? These charades when all of us would rather jump in the frozen pond naked than share a meal with each other? In fact..."

Tessa removed her satin glove and tossed it onto the untouched gravy boat. Her bare fingers slipped between her lips to whistle.

"There is only one guy I deem pleasant company."

Clicking claws sounded from far down the stretching hallway, nearing in a rush. A slender creature with a whipping tail entered the banquet hall.

Tessa turned, beaming. “Here, Bosco.”

The greyhound danced and wiggled every inch of its hindquarters while cautiously accepting the affection from a place he was typically banned. Tessa patted his rump and lifted her plate.

“Won’t you spend Christmas Eve with me?”

Tessa’s filled platter was lowered to the floor. The dog gratefully chomped a piece of ham in its jaws. Tessa pinched another slice from the table.

“Merry Christmas. You’re the only one in my life who’s never judged me. From now on, only those who love are welcome at my table.”

With that, Tessa slipped her immaculate ruffles to the floor to sit beside her treasured companion. She hugged the canine around his neck, remembering all the times he had warmed her feet as she cried herself to sleep over callous comments born of failed expectations. If only she had known then just how freeing it would be to stop living for others.

“Better late than never. Thanks for your support, Bosco.”

Tessa giggled at the string of saliva hanging from the dog’s mouth. She picked up Jason's letter to wipe it away, all the while hoping her aunt would walk by and witness the heart-attack-inducing spectacle.

December 23, 2020 22:22

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NK Hatendi
02:47 Dec 31, 2020

You have certainly put a different spin to the prompt. Well done!


Lydi B
19:20 Dec 31, 2020

That was the idea. Thanks for reading and commenting!


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