The lovely Nadine has been requesting this one for at least six months.
Hugh doesn’t do Christmas. Or maybe he does.
The tree was small.
Truman hadn’t asked, of course. He wouldn’t ask. All Hugh had said was, “I haven’t really celebrated Christmas since my mother died.” It wasn’t meant to be…censure. It wasn’t meant to be a signal he never intended to celebrate Christmas again. So he’d found himself wandering through the trees in the parking lot at Rite Aid, thinking about traditions, and change, and how many years it had been.
Ten years. A decade.
He had the vague notion that there were decorations in the garage, in some dusty box lingering at the edges of his awareness. He and Lucy had gotten rid of most of those boxes, but not all of them. Lucy wouldn’t have let him throw out Christmas anyway.
The tree itself was small and imperfectly formed, blunted on one side by either overzealous branch trimming or perhaps some kind of tree malady. There were others more visually appealing, but something about this one drew Hugh toward it, made him squat down to look closely.
The side table in the sitting room would be the best place for this tree. It was so short that even on the side table it wouldn’t reach eye level.
Hugh bought the tree, loaded it in his back seat, winced at the needles dropping everywhere, and drove it home.
It looked a little absurd in the sitting room. He shifted the lamp to the table beside the arm chair. Turned the tree this way and that way to find the right angle. Inhaled pine or aspen or whatever it was and thought of sneaking out of his bedroom once as a child, peeking around the corner, and Mom, who’d been sitting silently on the sofa drinking coffee, catching him.
“Young master Reynolds, I presume,” she’d said, and flipped back the blanket over her legs, inviting him in. He’d cuddled in close—maybe eleven or twelve at the time, too old for cuddling, too young to resist a warm spot beside his mother—and they’d talked a little while waiting for the grandparents. He didn’t remember anything he’d gotten that year for Christmas, but he did remember being almost disappointed when he heard footsteps on the stairs. Sure, he was excited to open his presents, but sitting in a bubble of Mom’s warmth, smelling her coffee, listening to her voice—that had been his real gift.
He sank down beside the tree, where Mom had been sitting that morning, and allowed himself a brief fantasy of her presence. She’d insist that he and Truman decorate, pushing him closer to acknowledging things he preferred not to acknowledge. Like how invested he was in this relationship, and how much he wanted it to last. Forever, if possible.
“Forever” was the kind of word Hugh didn’t say, but Cordelia would have known it regardless.
So much would have been different if she’d lived. It wasn’t possible to trace all those threads, of course, and it wasn’t useful; if she’d lived, he would be different. He might still be a therapist, but he’d certainly have moved out of the house. And while he still would have stayed friends with Lucy, he doubted she would have ever called him to offer submissive twins on a platter.
That was one thread he could directly link: without Will, there would be no Truman.
But this was a fantasy, anyway.
He and Truman would dust off the Christmas decorations box, open it, string lights, hang ornaments. Mom would make tea and crack dirty jokes. She’d make Truman laugh, undoubtedly. It hurt, anew, thinking about how much they would have gotten along.
He was still sitting there, contemplating all the things that would never be, when Truman got home. Arrived. Arrived at the house, which was not technically his home. It was just the place he went every night after he left work, unless he needed something at his apartment, or the store.
Hugh could have gotten up when he heard Truman’s key in the lock, but he didn’t. Standing seemed so vulnerable. Sitting there, on the sofa, where he could brace, where he could suck in Mom’s presence years later, was a position of strength.
Or should have been. Until Truman’s airy, pleasant “Hello” cut off mid-syllable.
He stared at the tree for a long moment, long enough for Hugh to watch him breathe, for his brain to align their breaths so that his inhales were also Truman’s.
“You got a tree.”
“Yes. Yes, I…” No words came to mind.
Truman looked at him, put his briefcase down beside the door, seemed about to speak, then didn’t.
“I was just sitting here thinking about how much my mother would have liked you.” He forced himself to hold Truman’s gaze. “I think there are decorations in the garage.”
“All right.” But there was something else. Hugh waited, but all Truman said was, “Should we decorate after dinner?”
“Yes.” The obvious thing. Hugh reached out to brush his fingers over the needles of the tree, letting it prick at his skin. “Certainly. After dinner.”
“Or—we could do it now.”
The tree was still small, slightly pathetic. Naked. “Would you mind?”
“Not at all.”
Hugh stood, mentally mapping the garage, zeroing in on the likely locations for the box they’d need. He might have walked out of the room except that Truman’s stillness made him pause.
He looked, again, at the tree. “Sorry. I— The big ones were all so—” Overwhelming, and sad, and he couldn’t put a tree in the corner where their trees had always been, he couldn’t leave a big tree there when the only gifts would be the ones they got each other (and likely the ones they’d get for Will).
“Oh, love, no. It’s exactly perfect.” Truman strode over and placed both hands on his chest. (Did Truman’s brain align their breaths?) “I’m just surprised, that’s all. I thought you didn’t celebrate Christmas.”
“I don’t. Or at least, I haven’t in a long time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”
Truman’s eyes searched his and he fought a visceral urge to hide, to withdraw, to—shield himself from whatever Truman could read there. But he didn’t.
“Show me this box. And can I make cocoa? We always had cocoa when we decorated.”
“We always had tea. Mom favored this really awful gingerbread tea that only came out at the holidays.”
“Of course, we could do both.”
“No, no. I hated it. The gingerbread tea. And I don’t have any. Cocoa sounds good.”
“Great.” Truman kissed him, not a peck, not deep, a press of lips that might have been described as chaste, except for the fact that there was nothing chaste about it.
Hugh pushed up, rising a little on his toes, undignified and longing for something that went beyond this moment.
“I really like the tree.” Truman didn’t move away, so Hugh allowed himself this moment: standing here, feeling the edges of Truman’s presence impact his own, the weight of hands on his chest.
He broke away first. He had to. The suddenly far-too-real notion he might cry invaded his awareness, and as if acknowledging it made it real, he felt pressure building behind his eyes.
Better to back up, lead the way through the kitchen and down the stairs, into the garage. The motion detecting lights came on immediately, flooding everything with a sort of low glow while the old halogen bulbs warmed up.
“I think”—he cleared his throat—“it’s over here.”
It was. Exactly where he’d imagined it would be. Not, he was relieved to see, the cardboard box he’d been picturing. Lucy had insisted on repackaging everything they’d selected for storage in plastic containers. That was better. Mom had never lifted this box. She’d never opened it. She’d never set a cup of tea on the top of it, where there were multiple drink rings on the old cardboard box.
He backed out and did not say anything to Truman as they walked back to the sitting room, too afraid his voice would betray him.
Truman stayed in the kitchen.
The lid, caked in dust, came off easily.
There it all was. All of it. All of the Christmases of his entire life, packed away for a decade. Hugh backed away and sank onto the sofa again.
Stop this. It’s just a collection of decorations. You never particularly cared for them when she was alive; it’s cheap to suddenly care for them now.
The lecture didn’t make it any easier to reach for one.
“Two cups. One for me and one for you.” Truman placed both on the coffee table and knelt beside the box. “Do you mind if I look?”
“That’s why we brought it up.” His voice was stable. Good.
“I don’t know what I pictured, but this is only partially it.” Truman lifted out a glass ornament, painted around and around with various colors. “This is beautiful.”
“My grandmother couldn’t bring Christmas from Italy, but she managed to collect some bits she said reminded her of the holidays back home.”
The ornament was placed, carefully, beside their mugs.
“Goodness, who is this? Mrs Claus?”
“Bite your tongue, Truman. That’s La Befana.”
“She’s a witch?”
“No, she’s—not a witch.” He reached for the little figure with her crumbling dress. Her broom was just a stick now; the brush part must have dropped to the bottom of the box. “She’s a little old lady who gives all the good children presents on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, which is—early January, I think. But we made her into Santa.”
He set La Befana down and picked up a cup of cocoa, clutching it in both hands.
“You know I don’t require Christmas, don’t you?” Truman didn’t look up from the box. “I hope I didn’t give you the impression it was something I thought was important. Oh, this angel is spectacular.”
“The tree topper. Though I’m afraid such a small tree won’t be able to handle her weight.” The cocoa was hot, and creamy. Now that he was drinking it he wasn’t sure how Truman had conjured cocoa from a kitchen in which there was no cocoa powder.
“I wonder if she could stand on the table. Or do you think that would be too dangerous for her?”
“No more dangerous than being on a tree, I shouldn’t think. And yes. I know. I thought I was getting a tree for you, but I think—I wasn’t.”
Truman placed, with perhaps exaggerated care, the angel. He’d faced it toward Hugh. “I like the tree. And I love your decorations. But I’m not sure that’s exactly what you’re going for.”
“No?” Instinctive resistance gave in under Truman’s gentle gaze, now on him. “What am I going for, then?”
“I think you’re trying to build something new.”
“Yes.” Truman picked up his cocoa and sat beside Hugh on the sofa. “I have a few ideas.”
“Stringing popcorn. Jennings family tradition. You put on a good holiday movie and string popcorn and drink cocoa. The first people who get really annoyed at piercing holes in their fingers decorate, but it’s such a small tree. Maybe a popcorn string. And lights, of course.”
“White ones. My mother loved white lights. When I was young we had the multi-colored, but at some point we went to white. Unless— Do you think our tree will be boring?”
The smile started at the corners of Truman’s mouth, tugging upward insistently until all Hugh could see was the generous, sweet curve of his lips.
“I think the fact that you just referred to it as ‘our’ tree means I really don’t care what it looks like. But no, not boring. Playful, with a touch of elegance. Like we are.”
Hugh put his mug down. “Are we?”
“Don’t you think so?”
“Hadn’t considered it.” He took Truman’s mug and placed it with his own. “Exactly how playful are you talking about, Mr Jennings?”
“Why don’t we start playing and I’ll tell you when I think we’re at the right level?”
From Truman the word “play” meant something more wholesome—and deeper—than it would have meant from Hugh. Hugh kissed him, kneeling over his legs, an activity that kept them occupied for some time. When he straightened up again he realized the tree looked right from this angle, behind Truman, beside the sofa. A small, silly tree, which they intended to decorate in such a way that it would communicate playfulness. And elegance.
“You’re right.” He scanned Truman’s well-known features, finding affection and trust and that quality of understanding he’d never noticed reminded him so much of Mom. “I’m trying to build something new.”
“What would your mother say about that?”
Hugh caught up Truman’s hands, feeling foolish as he kissed first one, then the other. “She’d tell me it was long past time. When do we do all this, according to Jennings family tradition?”
“Oh, tradition would dictate we’ve already missed the mark. My parents always decorated the day after Thanksgiving. But I think if we’re building something new we can do it whenever we like.”
“After Friday dinner tomorrow?”
“Sounds perfect. I’ll pick up popcorn if you pick up lights.”
“Thank you for including me in your new tradition, Hugh.”
Hugh kissed his boyfriend in front of their Christmas tree. “I believe we decided it was our new tradition. And you’re welcome.”
They eventually tucked all the ornaments and decorations away, cradling La Befana carefully amid the tree skirt. But the angel stayed out, on the coffee table, glassy gaze serene where it watched over them as they strung their popcorn and wound their lights and drank tea beside their playful, elegant tree.