I was supposed to give Rhea a call if I wanted to get lunch with her at the mall, but because I had been hoping to have lunch with Santa, I never touched base with her. But as soon as I get my steaming plate of teriyaki chicken with white rice and plop down at an empty table, I pull my phone out of my purse and call her.
“How’s life as an elf?” Rhea asks me.
I make a face even though I’m aware my roommate can’t see it. Rhea always complains I’m far too facially expressive on the phone. “Not great.”
“Are the kids brats?”
“Sort of. But they’re mostly cute.”
“So what’s wrong? Santa pinching your ass?”
I sigh. “I wish.”
Rhea laughs. “Okay…?”
“I have a crush on Santa,” I admit.
It is mortifying to say those words aloud. I have a crush on Santa. But then again, Dean isn’t actually Santa. He’s a hot guy wearing a red suit. A hot guy who is not interested in having lunch with me. Who came up with a painfully lame excuse to avoid it.
I tell Rhea the whole pathetic story while she offers sympathetic clucks. It’s almost as painful to tell her what happened as it was to live it in the first place. I don’t know what I was thinking, asking a cute guy to lunch with me while I look like this. Of course he wasn’t interested. I feel so embarrassed just thinking about it.
“And now I have to spend the whole afternoon with him,” I groan. “He’s probably going to avoid even looking to me.”
“Don’t take it so hard, Callie,” Rhea says. “Maybe he’s an introvert and he just wanted to spend his lunchtime decompressing from all those kids. It isn’t necessarily a rejection.”
“Trust me. It was a rejection.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “Well, so what? Callie Quinn: you are awesome. You’re beautiful and you’re smart and you’re not a bitch.”
“Wow, not a bitch. Thanks, Rhea.”
“Hey, that’s a compliment. There are a lot of bitches out there.”
“Anyway,” she says, “if this Dean guy isn’t interested in you, then to hell with him. You don’t know what his deal is. Maybe he has a girlfriend.”
“Maybe he’s gay.”
“No,” I say. “He’s not gay.”
“He could be. Don’t judge.”
“He’s not.” I shake my head. “He just doesn’t have that vibe. And also, I… I caught him looking down my shirt at one point.”
Or at least, I thought so. That’s when I decided to plow ahead with asking him to lunch.
Rhea and I chat for another twenty minutes while I eat my Styrofoam container of food. As I drain the last few drops of my Diet Pepsi, I realize very soon I’ve got to work up the nerve to go back to Santa’s cottage. I really, truly don’t want to go back. I know Dean will be there and it will undoubtedly be awkward, but what can I do? This is my job. I have to go.
By the time I trudge back to Santa’s cottage, Dean is done with his food and is sitting in the giant chair again. He’s not wearing his hat, wig, or beard yet, which would have made things easier because he wouldn’t have looked so sexy if he were in costume. Although the truth is, he’s pretty sexy in costume too.
“Hey,” I mumble as I close the door behind me so the kids don’t see him without his beard.
“Hey,” he says.
Sheesh. So awkward. Why did I ask him to lunch? We were having so much fun before…
“Listen,” Dean says.
I raise my eyebrows at him.
He scratches at his short brown hair, which is still sticking up a little, but not as bad as when he first pulled off his wig. “I got you something.”
I watch as he reaches into the pocket of his red woolen coat and pulls out a little baggie. He holds it out to me, and I realize it’s a brownie covered in crushed candy cane. “It’s a peppermint brownie,” he says with a crooked smile. “This lady was selling them right outside Santa’s Village. I had one and… I got you one. They’re really good.” When I don’t say anything, he adds, “They were benefiting some charity, so… you know.”
Finally, I smile and take the brownie from him. It’s a sweet gesture. He was thinking about me during lunch, even if he didn’t want to eat with me. Maybe Rhea was right—maybe he just wanted some alone time to decompress after being around kids all morning. Maybe when we’re done here, he’ll ask me for my phone number.
All I know is I’m not going to be the one to ask him. The ball is totally in his court now.
The dynamic has shifted in Santa’s Cottage in the afternoon. The next hour or so mostly consists of women hitting on Dean. It started out innocently enough, when a little girl was climbing off his lap and she grabbed his beard for support, pulling it clear off his chin. The forty-something mom’s eyes widened and she smiled, apparently liking what she saw (I can’t blame her).
“So, Santa,” she said in a throaty voice. “Do you ever let mothers sit on your lap?”
“Uh…” Dean said, his cheeks turning adorably pink as he adjusted his beard. I like how embarrassed he gets when women flirt with him. He’s shy. Even though he’s hot, it’s clear he’s no player.
And next came the parade of teenage girls. They are arriving in packs, taking turns flirting with Santa as they sit on his lap. It’s a game to them—a game that gets even more fun when they discover Santa isn’t actually an old man.
He’s got a teenage girl on his lap now, all perky little breasts and blond pigtails. She’s probably sixteen or seventeen, the bottom of her tight jeans resting on Dean’s thigh. I wouldn’t blame him if he got a stiffy from this. What do you do if you’re playing Santa and you get an erection? It must be inconvenient, to say the least. But at least he’s sitting.
“So, um, what would you like for Christmas?” Dean asks the girl. He’s playing along like a good sport. I would think most guys would be getting a huge kick out of this, but he actually seems a little uncomfortable with the whole thing. Maybe because even though she’s not a child, she’s still very clearly underage. Or maybe he really is gay.
Nah, definitely not gay.
“I’d love to have a boyfriend,” the girl says, scooching her tiny butt slightly closer to his crotch. She winks at him. “You know anyone?”
“I can ask the elves if one of them would be interested.”
The girl fingers his beard, tugging it away from his face. “Does Mrs. Claus get very jealous, Santa?”
I can see Dean’s face turning red, which only seems to amuse the girl. Fortunately, Betty clears his throat and loudly asks, “Miss, would you like a photo with Santa? Packages start at $29.95.”
“Oh no.” The girl leaps off Dean’s lap at the thought of paying thirty bucks for a picture. I have to agree—it’s insane. I can’t believe so many parents are willing to pay it. Aren’t we in a recession? Are they spending their food money on Santa photos? “I’ll be going. Seeya later, Santa.”
She wags her fingers at him as she saunters out of the room. I giggle as I see Dean let out a breath. He tugs his beard back into place. “Jesus,” he comments.
“You know,” I say, “I bet you can score some phone numbers here today.”
“Great,” he mutters. “I was looking to get busted for statutory rape.”
“She might have been eighteen.”
“Maybe in dog years.”
“In dog years? Are you saying she’s two-and-a-half?”
“I’m just saying there’s no way in hell she’s legal.”
I want to point out that I am, in fact, quite legal. And I would love to sit on Santa’s lap before the day is over. But I decide to keep my mouth shut. I’ve already been rejected once today—I don’t intend to let it happen again.
Kids are funny.
I don’t get to spend much time around kids in my daily life, so I forget how funny they are. And how much fun they can be. Even though it’s tedious having kid after kid plop down on my lap, after I let go of being pissed off at Rich for saddling me with this job, it’s actually not so bad.
Right now, I’ve got an adorable little girl in my lap who has already announced to me her name is Christina and she’s in kindergarten, although she acts like she’s older than my twenty-four-year-old brother. She proceeds to take out a neatly printed list of over twenty items she wants for Christmas.
And she’s so specific. She doesn’t just want a Barbie. She wants a Barbie Fashionista Doll 18 Va-Va-Violet. Every detail is printed out on her list in immaculate handwriting.
“Wow,” I say when she’s done. “That’s a lot of things.”
Christina nods solemnly. “But don’t worry if you can’t get them all for me, Santa. Anything you don’t get, my parents or other relatives will get for me.”
“Okay.” I think this girl might be more logical than my brother too. She would probably never double-book herself for two jobs in the same day. “Do you want to give me your list?”
She looks down at her list, hesitating, then looks back up at me. Finally, she says, “You know what? I better keep it for my parents.”
After the little girl leaves, we decide to take a quick break. Betty needs to load more film in her camera and Callie has to run to the ladies’ room. I am, of course, stuck in my damn seat for the duration of the break. I’ve been careful to weight shift as much as I can during this entire process, but usually I’m subtle about it. It’s only when Callie is out of the room that I can really go to town. I lift my entire butt off the cushion, holding that position for as long as I can, before letting my body drop back down into place. My legs have shifted during the movement, so I readjust them with my hands.
“So are you going to ask her for her number?” Betty asks me.
I shake my head. “No.”
“You should. She seems like a nice girl.”
I look down at my lap. Yes, Callie seems like a nice girl. Better than a nice girl. The more times I see her wiggle her cute little body around the cottage, the more I want her. But I’m still not going to ask for her number.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Betty says. “You’re a nice-looking kid. All those moms and teenage girls think so.”
“Yeah,” I mutter.
Before I got hurt, I never thought much about my looks. I look okay—nothing amazing, but not so bad it hurt me when I was trying to get a girl I liked to go out with me. When it comes to hitting on girls, it’s all more about charisma anyway. You can be a guy who walked into a wall, but if you know how to be suave, you can get any girl you want.
I’m not suave. Right now I can’t even figure out what I’ve got going for me. Essentially nothing. I’m not employed, unless you count my freelance work and this one-day gig playing Santa. I live with my parents. I can’t freaking walk. Any one of those things would be bad on its own, but together… well, forget it. I’ll be single for a long time to come.
But when Callie returns to the cottage, all smiles and one adorable wink, I can’t help but think to myself: why the hell not? Why not ask her for her number? Why not tell her the truth? What’s the worst that can happen? A humiliating rejection?
My life is one giant humiliation lately. What’s one more?
Eh, who am I kidding? I’ll never ask her.
Our next kid is a little boy who comes in with his dad. The kid leaps onto my lap so aggressively that I’m scared for the millionth time this is doing some damage to my legs I’m not aware of. But too late for that now.
“What would you like for Christmas?” I ask the little boy.
“I want an electric train set,” the boy says.
“With a locomotive,” the boy says.
“A diesel locomotive,” the dad adds.
“Okay,” I say.
“And an open quad hopper and steel reefer,” the dad says.
Whatever the hell that is. “Okay…”
“And body-mounted couplers,” the dad finishes.
I look between the boy and his father. I’m not sure which one of them looks more excited about this train set. “Is it okay if your dad plays with your train set?” I ask the boy.
The boy looks up at this father then back at me. “Sure,” he says.
He hesitates. “Can I have two then?”
I hear a snort. When I look up, Callie has her hand clamped over her mouth, but she manages to keep from laughing long enough to hand over a candy cane to the boy and usher him out the door. Lots of boys have come in here asking for train sets. And a lot of the fathers seem just as excited as their sons. I guess I can’t blame them—I would be psyched to have a train set to play with.
The next father and son duo is a little more subdued. The father is a big guy with a sour expression on his face who looks at his watch just as they’re entering the cottage. The son trudges in, his eyes downcast behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses. When the kid is in front of me, he just stands there. Not afraid of me like some kids, but not particularly excited either.
“Jesus Christ,” the father says. “Joey, get on Santa’s lap already! I don’t have the whole day!”
The boy climbs onto my lap, although he’s gentle about it. He still doesn’t look me in the eyes. I wonder if he’s one of those autistic kids who doesn’t make eye contact. He doesn’t seem autistic, but I’m no expert on kids. I’m just a guy who’s had a couple hundred of them on his lap today.
“What would you like for Christmas?” I ask him.
Joey doesn’t answer.
“Can you tell me what you’d like?” I prompt him again.
“Tell Santa what you want!” the father snaps at him, looking pointedly at his watch.
Joey slowly raises his eyes. “I’d like a science kit.”
The dad throws his hands up in the air. “A science kit! Joey, we talked about this. You’re getting a new bat and baseball glove, like we talked about. So maybe you can actually hit a ball this season of Little League.”
I feel a rush of anger. Who the hell is this guy to talk to his son this way? I worked at a softball camp one summer in high school, and the fathers who rode their sons were the worst. It never helped. It just made the kids anxious, and moreover, it made them hate softball.
“Enough with the science kit already!” the father rants on. “I’m trying to turn you into a great athlete and all you want to be is a big nerd.”
Joey shifts on my lap. When he finally speaks, he says, “I’d like a new baseball glove.”
“Maybe you can have both,” I say without really thinking about it. “You can get the new baseball glove and also maybe get a small science kit.”
I shouldn’t have said that. I should have just agreed with the kid’s father, even if he’s being an asshole. I’m just a mall Santa. No, I’m not even a mall Santa—I’m just covering for the guy they hired to be the mall Santa. Rule number one of being a mall Santa is you don’t contradict the parents. If this guy complains and I get in trouble, Rich could lose his job.
But still. Why can’t he have a science kit? Science is great. There’s nothing wrong with being a nerd. This dad is nothing but a bully.
The father is glaring at me, clearly none too pleased by my comment. “Yeah, Santa?” he sneers. “You want to buy my kid a science kit? Knock yourself out.”
“The elves make the gifts for Santa, Daddy,” Joey says. “He doesn’t have to buy it.”
Joey’s father rolls his eyes so dramatically, it makes me wince. “Yeah. Sure. Elves.”
I want to snap at this guy. Actually, I want to punch him in the nose. But the former would be dumb and the latter would be physically impossible right now.
“We’ll see what we can do, Joey,” I say instead.
Joey climbs off my lap and starts toward the exit, but his father lingers behind. He glares at me again, and just before leaving the cottage, he hisses, “Mind your own goddamn business, asshole.”
To be continued....