Taylor used to like my hair long. Well, not long, but shaggy. She really liked running her fingers through it. I joked to her once that she wished she were married to a rock star, and she said she didn’t know any rock stars who wore nerdy glasses like me. Then we ended up having sex, which was how most of our arguments used to end.
This morning when I show up at the barber for my quarterly haircut, I point to number three on the wall and plop myself down in the chair. These days, I want my hair really short. I’m not dedicating any maintenance time to my hair when nobody but me looks at my stupid mug anyway. And I only have to look at myself a couple of times a day when I’m in the bathroom.
December is a shitty time to get a haircut though. I pull on my hat for the two-block walk back to my apartment building so I don’t feel the bitingly cold air against my newly shorn skull. At least it hasn’t snowed yet. If there’s been a recent snow, I don’t dare go outside. Nothing good can happen if I try to walk on ice.
Joe, our doorman, is reading a magazine when I get to the door of our building. I can see him through the glass, but he doesn’t move a muscle to help me. He doesn’t even glance up. Am I going to have to pound on the door to get his attention?
I hate having to ask for help. Hate. It. Opening a door—I should be able to handle that. Most doors I can manage fine, but our building did some renovations last year, and the new door they put in weighs twenty tons. Trying to grip it with my left hand and pull it open while maintaining my balance is not easy. I’ve learned that the hard way.
If you’re a guy in your thirties, the last thing you want is to have to ask for help with anything, much less something so basic as opening a door. But I’ve learned to swallow my pride. I have to if I want to get into my own damn building.
“Let me get that for you, Jeremy!”
I turn my head and see Fanny, my upstairs neighbor, coming up behind me with a big paper bag. Actually, it’s more of a sack. She’s gripping it in both hands, even though it’s half as big as she is.
Fanny is old enough to be my mother—possibly old enough to be my grandmother. I was raised to hold doors open for people like Fanny and offer to hold her bag (or sack—whatever) for her. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, Fanny holds onto her own sack and pulls that heavy door open for me. I’m the opposite of a gentleman.
“Thanks,” I mutter under my breath.
“If you want to thank me,” Fanny says as she pats her puff of white hair, “you’ll share some of these bagels with me.”
I eye the sack. “You expecting company?”
“No, I like to stock up.” She smiles at me with teeth that are in very good shape. I hope my teeth look that good when I’m her age, but they probably won’t be, considering I substitute my teeth for my right hand in a lot of situations. “Ben’s has the best bagels. I put them in the freezer and they’re good for ages!”
No. I don’t want a bagel. I don’t want to make conversation right now. But Fanny’s nice to me—one of the only people in this building who talks to me. One of the few people in the world who talks to me. So I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I’m trying to think of an excuse to get out of joining Fanny for bagels when my foot snags on something on the floor of the lobby and…
I don’t just fall—it’s one of those spectacular falls that makes Fanny scream, and even Joe puts down his goddamn magazine. In rehab, they taught me to fall. Falling is inevitable, but the important thing is when I see it coming, to do it in a way so I minimize injury. With only two fully functional limbs, I can’t afford to take out anything else.
So no, this wasn’t my best fall. Nobody would record this particular fall and put it on YouTube as a demonstration of the safest way to fall. But aside from the humiliation of falling on my ass, I’m okay. Everything seems intact. No broken bones.
Joe stands over me, his face white as a sheet. “Are you all right, Mr. Grieder?”
“I’m fine,” I say.
He holds out his hand to help me back to my feet, and I take it. If I were on my own, I’d have to crawl over to a couch to use it as leverage. Don’t need to do that in front of an audience.
“What the hell was that?” I ask. I push my glasses up the bridge of my nose and search the ground for what tripped me. I immediately see an extension cord snaking across the ground, leading to the most fucking elaborate Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in my whole life. The tree’s covered from top to bottom with ornaments and dizzying blinking lights. The tree does everything but belt out Christmas carols. “This cord…”
“Sorry, we had to use the extension cord.” Joe’s brow furrows. “Some ladies in the building—they wanted the tree there in the center of the room, so…”
I feel heat rising around my shirt collar. “So I get to trip and break my leg so they don’t have to turn their heads to look at the tree? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“It really is a hazard,” Fanny adds. She’s a lot calmer than I am, but then again, she didn’t just face plant on the floor.
“And anyway,” I go on. I’m on a roll now. “If you’re going to just have a tree, you have to celebrate all religions equally. Where’s your Hanukkah menorah? This is really offensive to Jewish people.”
Two pink spots appear on Joe’s cheeks. “Are you Jewish?”
“No.” I wish I were Jewish. Then I wouldn’t have ruined the holiday I loved the most by leaking blood all over my brain. A big subarachnoid hemorrhage can ruin any special occasion. “But that’s not the point. You can’t just celebrate Christmas. You have to celebrate Hanukkah too. And Kwanzaa—you need to have a Kwanzaa bush. And…” I’m sure there are other holidays, but I can’t think of any. Oh well. “Also, those blinking lights are very distracting.”
I look at Fanny for confirmation and she nods. “They are a bit much,” she agrees.
“Those lights could give someone a seizure!” I say.
Joe’s eyes widen. Maybe I went too far. I don’t want him to think I’m going to start having seizures in the lobby. But on the other hand, I don’t want to look at that tree every time I leave the apartment. And I really don’t want to trip on the extension cord again.
“I’ll take care of it right away, Mr. Grieder,” Joe says with a hand on his chest. “You have my word.”
Fanny drags me out of the lobby before I can lay into Joe even more. By the time I get back to my apartment, I’ve calmed down and am more than a little embarrassed by my behavior down there. Did I really suggest we have a Kwanzaa bush in the lobby? Is that even something that exists? I might have made it up. Joe must think I’m unbalanced or racist or both.
“Sit down,” Fanny instructs me. “I’m going to make you coffee and a bagel. I even got lox and cream cheese.”
I don’t sit down, even though I’m notoriously unsteady on my feet, as I very recently demonstrated. “Bagels aren’t good for you,” I mutter, although Fanny is already in my kitchen and doing her thing.
“Nonsense,” she insists. “Who says bagels aren’t good for you?”
“The entire world.” I adjust my grip on my crutch. “I read that eating a bagel is like eating eight slices of bread.”
“Well, what’s wrong with eating eight slices of bread!”
Fanny dances around my kitchen, slicing through the bagel with one of the kitchen knives that are sharp as hell because I never use them. I heard Fanny’s husband died about ten years ago, so she’s all on her own now. I don’t think she knows what to do with herself most of the time, which is evidenced by the fact that she’s here right now. You have to be pretty lonely to try to be friends with me. I want to tell her to leave, but at the same time, I’m glad she’s here.
“That’s a lot of bread, Fanny.”
“People are too obsessed with their health these days.” She shakes her head. “In my day, we used to eat a huge plate full of beef smothered in gravy then an entire chocolate cake for each person for dessert.”
Fanny is no more than a hundred pounds dripping wet. “You ate an entire chocolate cake?”
“Of course!” She waves the knife in the air, and I suppress the urge to duck. “Sometimes I’d eat two!” She separates the two halves of the bagel. “Anyway, Ben’s is the best. The bagel will make you feel better.”
It won’t. It definitely won’t. But I haven’t eaten anything yet today and I’m skinny enough as it is, so I’ll eat it.
“You know what you need?” Fanny says.
Yeah, I know what she thinks I need. She’s told me many, many times. “I’m not interested in dating right now.”
That’s not entirely true. When I think of my exchange with that woman Noelle the other day at the diner, I realize how much I miss the opposite sex. And maybe I’m not quite ready to give up on my love life at age thirty-four.
“Don’t be silly, Jeremy!” She spreads thick cream cheese over an everything bagel. “You just haven’t met the right woman.”
I did meet the right woman. And then she left me. But I’m done pissing and moaning over that.
Well, maybe not entirely done.
“You’re so handsome,” Fanny continues. “You know that, don’t you? Any woman would be thrilled to go on a date with you!”
“I don’t know if ‘thrilled’ is the word I’d use…”
“The girl who works behind the counter at Ben’s is single, you know.”
I don’t understand why Fanny brings up some potential girlfriend every time I see her. She needs to give up on trying to get me to date. Even my mother has given up on trying to set me up—when I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, she didn’t even mention the possibility of setting me up with the daughter of a friend. She said to me, and I quote, “I give up, Jeremy.” My own mother has quit hassling me about being eternally single. Why can’t Fanny?
Luis told me Fanny is the building yenta. She’s set up a bunch of single people in the building in the past with varying degrees of success, and I’m her current project. She can’t stand it that I’m alone, even though I’m fine with it, and like I said, so is my mother.
Or at least, I thought I was fine with it. Until Noelle scrambled my brain…
“Her name is Hayley,” Fanny goes on, even though I’ve said nothing to encourage her. “She’s very cute! You’d like her.”
I roll my eyes. “Would I?”
Fanny face brightens as she spreads a piece of fresh lox on the bagel. “Oh yes. She’s the perfect height for you. How tall are you?”
“Five foot eleven.” That’s my height, although it’s hard to stand up straight anymore when I’m leaning on a crutch.
“Well, she’s five foot five, so that’s perfect!” She starts on a second bagel. “She has some meat on her, but she’s not one of those women who needs the stomach stapling.”
I snort. “Good to know.”
“I told her about you too,” she adds. “And she was very interested.”
Fanny finishes the second bagel and brings two plates over to my small dining table. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had company over besides my parents. Good thing, since I only have one hand to count with.
“What did you tell her about me?” I ask as I plop down across from Fanny, resting my crutch against the table. I’m not sure I want to continue this conversation, but I can’t help myself.
Fanny rewards me with a big smile, thrilled I’m cooperating. “I told her you’re very nice.”
“I’m not nice.”
She gasps. “Don’t say that! You’re absolutely delightful.”
I’m definitely not delightful, whatever that means. And like I told Noelle, I’m not nice either. No point in pretending. I used to be nice. A long time ago. Now I apparently slam doors in little girls’ faces and threaten to confiscate balls from small boys. The best thing you could say about me is I’m harmless, and the worst thing you could say is I’m a bitter asshole.
“And I told her you had the most striking aquamarine eyes,” she adds. “And nice teeth. You can tell a lot about a man by his teeth.”
“You’re thinking of horses.”
She ignores my comment, as she takes a bite of her bagel. “Anyway, she was very interested. I could tell.”
“Did you tell her I’m crippled?”
“Jeremy!” Fanny puts down her bagel, aghast. “I said no such thing! And you shouldn’t either.”
I shrug. I’m not sure what the big deal is. Maybe it’s not the most PC way of describing my situation, but it’s accurate.
One of the hardest adjustments for me was thinking of myself as disabled. Before that aneurysm burst, I was really healthy. I never even got colds—never missed a day of work in my life. Taylor was the one with the migraines and irritable bowel syndrome and the “trick knee.” I went from being a healthy twenty-eight-year-old man to having a very visible disability. When the doctor offered to fill out a form for a handicapped parking permit for me, I almost cried.
Six years later, I’m used to it. Crippled, disabled, handicapped—whatever anyone wants to call it. It doesn’t matter. It all amounts to the same thing.
And if this Hayley doesn’t know in advance, there’s no way I’d consider going out with her.
I can’t believe I’m considering it at all.
“I told her you use a cane,” Fanny says quietly, like it’s some kind of secret. “She didn’t seem bothered at all.” She raises her eyebrows at me. “Do you want her number?”
I look down at the bagel on the table, decked out with a thick layer of cream cheese and two slices of pink lox. I’m considering this. I can’t believe it, but I’m actually considering it. It’s been a year since I’ve been out on a date, and even that was nothing to write home about. I’ve had a handful of awkward kisses since my divorce, none of which led to second kisses. I decided to stop torturing myself.
I thought I was fine with being single. I was fine with it. I was fine with my life.
Damn that woman at the diner.
Fanny sees my hesitation and grabs the huge pink purse she slung on the back of her chair. She rifles through the bag, pulling out a tiny change purse, five napkins, six starlight mints, and finally, a small piece of paper with a bunch of digits written on it. She slides the paper across the table to me.
“Promise me you’ll think about it, Jeremy,” she says.
“We’ll see,” I mutter.
I know I won’t though.
Work today was a stressful disaster. I’m so sick of getting yelled at by entitled customers. I mean, I know you’re upset that your burger arrived medium-well instead of medium, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to scream at a fellow human being (i.e. me).
Although all evidence points to the fact that it does mean you have a right to scream at me.
Also, I looked in the fridge this morning and we’re out of… well, everything, so I have to make a trip to the grocery store on the way home. I have this amazing ability to get on the wrong line, and I picked a line with the chattiest cashier ever. She would not stop talking to the guy in front of me about the different varieties of bread in the bakery. I was ready to bash them both on the head with a loaf of brioche.
While waiting on this endless line, I made the dire mistake of checking my email. And I found this lovely gem from my ex-husband:
I was very disappointed to receive your email about wanting Henry to spend Christmas Day with you. Even though this holiday falls on a weekday, which is typically your time with Henry, given that this is such an important holiday, I feel we should at least share the time.
Or arguably, it would be in his best interest to spend Christmas morning with us. We have a full-sized Christmas tree under which we can put presents. We even have a faux fireplace above which we can hang stockings. Also, since both Dina and I will be here, there will be more of a “family atmosphere” at our apartment. I think this will be a much better experience for Henry, and you must agree that is the most important thing.
I hope you will be reasonable about this.
Was Greg this obnoxious when we were married? Did I simply never notice it because it was always directed at other people? Or is this a mid-life crisis, even though he’s only in his mid-thirties?
In any case, he’s spending Christmas morning with Henry over my dead body. Christmas falls on a weekday and our divorce agreement he signed specifically states that I get Christmas, and he gets Thanksgiving. I went to my parents’ for Thanksgiving dinner all alone this year so he could take Henry to his folks—he’s not getting Christmas too. “Family atmosphere,” my ass. I’m spending Christmas with my son—he will not take that away from me.
By the time I get back to my apartment building, I’m ready to collect Henry, have a nice quiet dinner together, and watch a few episodes of Big Bang Theory. Except when I get into the lobby, I’m faced with yet another kick in the teeth.
“Joe,” I say. My voice is shaking. “Where’s the Christmas tree?”
The beautiful Christmas tree I’d looked forward to seeing every day is gone—vanished. That tree made me smile every single day. Now all I’ve got is the stupid dwarf tree in my apartment. It’s an insult to trees to call that thing a tree. I don’t know why I even bothered.
Joe lifts his eyes from his magazine. He glances at the empty spot in the middle of the lobby where the tree used to be. It isn’t even like they moved it to the old location. The tree is simply gone. Vanished into thin air.
“Oh.” Joe shrugs. “Mr. Grieder in 5B complained about it. He said it was offensive or something.”
5B again, whose name is apparently Mr. Grieder. More like Mr. Grinch.
“Offensive?” I shriek. “How could a Christmas tree be offensive? What’s wrong with him?”
“He said it wasn’t right to have a Christmas tree if we didn’t have a thing for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa,” Joe explains.
“Right, so let’s get a menorah and a…” I bite my lip, trying to think of the religious symbol used to celebrate Kwanzaa. This seems like something I should know.
“The management doesn’t want to,” Joe says. “They said it’s easier to just dump the tree.”
“Easier to dump the tree?” I repeat dumbly.
“Also,” he adds, “Mr. Grieder said the lights on the tree were upsetting him.”
Is he kidding me? Christmas lights were upsetting him? What is wrong with this guy? What a bitter old man!
I always thought the War on Christmas was something FOX News made up to get everyone riled up, but apparently the War on Christmas is real and being waged in my building. Wait till Luann hears about this!
“I’m going to call the management myself,” I say. “There should be a tree in the lobby. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
What I should really do is march over to Mr. 5B himself and give him a piece of my mind. Christmas trees are not offensive! Who says something like that?
Instead, I stomp off to the mailroom because I haven’t checked my mail in several days, and it’s probably overflowing by now. I remember when I was a kid, it was so exciting to get letters in the mail. Now as an adult, getting the mail is the biggest drag of the day. Most of it is junk mail from stores I can no longer afford to shop at. The rest is bills. So many bills.
While I’m in the mailroom, my eyes are drawn to the mailbox a few boxes down. It’s 5B. I read off the name taped to the box: J GRIEDER.
I wonder what the J stands for. Jerk? Jizzface? Jackass? The possibilities are endless.
As I’m sorting through my mail (i.e. bills), I hear footsteps growing closer outside the room. A moment later, that friendly old lady who lives on the ninth floor comes into the mailroom. I squint at her big puff of white hair, trying desperately to remember her name.
It’s not coming. Damn it.
“Noelle!” the old woman exclaims. She’s got to be eighty and her memory is more intact than mine. “How are you, my dear?”
“I’m okay…” Oh my God, what’s her name?
She smiles, showing a row of teeth that are certainly her own. “Fanny.”
“Right. I knew that.”
Fanny laughs and makes for her own mailbox. She has so much energy. How could she be so peppy when I’m fifty years younger than her and feel like I’m going to collapse?
“So,” Fanny says, “do you have any gentleman company lined up the New Year?”
I don’t. I absolutely don’t. “Maybe.”
She looks me over with her shrewd brown eyes. “No, you don’t.”
I let out a sigh. “I’m just not ready to start dating again yet.”
“God, what is it with you young people and being ready?” she snorts. “Dating isn’t a chore. It’s fun. How could you say you’re not ready to have fun?”
In this day and age, with the assholes out there, dating is not fun. Trust me.
Although I can’t stop thinking about that guy Jeremy from the diner. He wasn’t an asshole. I could tell after knowing him for five minutes. He was sweet. And so sexy…
Okay, I’m not going to think about that. No point. He didn’t ask me out, and I’ll probably never see him again.
“Hey,” I say to Fanny, trying to change the subject, “do you know the guy who lives in 5B? Um, J. Grieder?”
Her eyes widen. “Yes… Why do you ask?”
“He made Joe get rid of the Christmas tree!” My face grows warm with anger as I relate the story. “That tree was really beautiful, and he had some bullshit story about it being offensive. That’s what Joe said, anyway.”
Fanny’s eyebrows shoot up. “Did he?”
“Yes, and you won’t believe what he did to my friend’s daughter. She was singing Christmas carols to him, because… well, from what I hear, he’s some sort of shut-in. And anyway, he just slammed the door right in that little girl’s face! Can you believe that?”
“How terrible,” Fanny murmurs.
I nod vigorously. “He sounds like a real grump.”
“No, not at all,” she says. “I’m sure these were all misunderstandings. He’s actually a very nice man.”
I snort. Mr. Grinch is not a nice old man—that I’m certain of. Fanny hasn’t even heard about how he yelled at Henry.
“He really is,” Fanny insists. “He’s very nice. He always makes time for me, even when I can tell he’s busy. And I’ve bored him with stories about all my grandchildren, and he’s never said an unkind word.”
“He’s probably just got nothing to do,” I mutter under my breath.
Fanny hears me though and gives me a look. “He’s got plenty to do, but he makes time.” A tiny smile plays on her lips. “He’s also… well, he’s very handsome. Like Gene Kelly.”
Handsome like Gene Kelly? What the…?
Oh my God.
Fanny has a crush. On Mr. Grinch.
This is like something out of a movie. Fanny is the yenta, but now she’s in love. And maybe the reason J. Grieder is such an asshat is because he’s lonely. Maybe it’s up to me to make the love connection between these two.
Although in all honesty, I think Fanny could do a lot better than this guy. I mean, who says a Christmas tree is offensive?
Still, some of my anger dissipates. It’s really sweet that Fanny is in love with this guy. Actually, maybe I could help her out.
“Listen,” I say, “do you think you could talk to Mr. Grieder about the Christmas tree thing? Convince him it’s not such a bad idea.”
Her eyes light up. “Or maybe you should talk to him?”
Is it possible Fanny is shy and wants me to put in a good word for her? It’s hard to imagine this woman being shy, but people are funny around the opposite sex. I’d be happy to do it, but I’m scared I’ll end up screaming at the old guy and make things worse.
“I think you should talk to him,” I say.
“Okay,” Fanny says slowly. “I can do that.”
“You absolutely can,” I assure her.
Fanny smiles at me. Despite her age, she’s still quite pretty. That Grinch guy would be a fool not to fall in love with her.
To be continued....