Stranger Under the Tree
Author’s Note: The work is my entry in the 2020 Winter Holidays contest. Your vote would be appreciated!
We sat at the edge of the bed in Lizzie’s childhood room. Her slender fingers, nails polished clear, pinched the zipper’s tab and pulled it along the black CD wallet’s edge. Her eyes studied the forgotten CD collection while her index finger flipped plastic page after plastic page and from time to time lingered on an album, as if the touch evoked a nostalgia for the past. “My God, this was certainly a phase,” she said.
“I threw my collection out years ago,” I said.
“Laura made this mix for our senior trip. It was crazy.” From a sleeve she pulled a disc with block letters written in blue Sharpie ink that read ‘Laura Lizzie 98’.
As she recalled her and Laura’s exploits, Nirvana watched us from above the headboard. Across the room tattooed young men with black hair, black clothes, and vacant stares regarded us from inside a faded poster’s four walls. My mind wandered around the room and picked up objects, inspected them, and then set them back down to move on to the next childhood trinket. For the most part, hers looked similar to many teenage girls’ rooms: posters and lipstick intermingled with sports trophies and a few treasured stuffed animals that had stood the test of time. A photo collage pinned to a cork board mounted above a desk stood out from the other baubles of adolescence. There, between snaps of family and friends, a different Lizzie stared out at me from a polaroid. The Lizzie in the picture preferred a Misfits t-shirt over slim fit polos, heavy Doc Marten’s over flats, and pig tails died black with bright green accents over straight, shoulder length brunette hair. This Lizzie hid her beauty behind smeared eye liner and baggy clothes. I stole several glances to convince myself that the Lizzie next to me, the 23-year-old who had invited me home for the holidays, and the Lizzie in the picture were the same person.
A knock on the door interrupted my search. Lizzie’s mom, Eileen, turned the knob halfway and then announced herself before she entered the room. I flashed back to my teenage self—back when parents demanded doors be kept open and both feet planted on the floor at all times to foil budding hormones.
“I have to go on a last-minute grocery store run. You know how your grandfather needs his egg nog on Christmas eve.”
“Ok. Love you mom,” Lizzie said and blew her a kiss.
“Love you to.” Eileen closed the door on her way out of the room.
“I think my mom likes you.”
A moment later I heard the rattle of keys, the front door opened and closed, and then a car’s engine turned over. I moved closer to Lizzie to wrap my arm around her shoulder. The bed frame creaked in protest.
I traced the line of her collar bone and neck while she squirmed under my warm breath. She looked up at me and cocked her head to the side. Her eyes closed, her nose grazed my cheek, and our lips met in a tender press. Her Chapstick tasted sweet. She moaned softly as my hand grazed up the inside of her thigh.
“You are crazy,” she said and removed my hand and turned her attention back to the CD collection.
“Come on. No one is home. When else will we get a chance? I for one am ready.” I guided her hand to the bulge in my jeans.
“Oh, I want it, but my time of the month started this morning.” I shrugged in defeat.
“What did you listen to in high school?” she said.
“Rock, rap, whatever.”
“Like whom? What bands were you in to?”
“Is that the Presidents of the United States?” I said and plucked the one CD I recognized from the sea of grunge and metal.
She inspected the disc’s title and chuckled, “Don’t tell me you liked them?”
“I enjoy one song. You own an entire album.” I crossed my arms in mock offense.
“Guilty pleasure,” she shot back.
“It doesn’t fit with the goth getup.” I gestured to the cork board above the desk, in hope she wanted her to tell me about the picture. We had dated for three months and I still didn’t know her well.
She pursed her lips and looked lost in thought for a moment. I imagined she debated whether to reveal a secret she wanted to forget all together.
“Which song? Lump or Peaches?” she said ignoring my question8.
Her brow furrowed as if to say she didn’t recognize the title. “How does it go?”
“It has a slow build up and then rocks out at the end.” I hummed the tune to the best of my recollection. “It goes something like: ‘I saw you, it was incredible, mumbled these words at you, unintelligible’. And then they sing ‘my, my, my, my’ over and over.”
“I don’t remember it.”
“The lyrics are taken from the missed connections section of a newspaper called The Stranger, hence the name of the song.”
“You mean: ‘I saw you on a train and you wore a pink hat and I fell in love instantly’? That kind of missed connection?”
My mouth opened to answer yes when her hand found its way to my belt buckle. “I thought you said it wasn’t going canlı bahis şirketleri to happen?”
“We can do other things.” She grabbed my hand and drew my index finger into her mouth.
Her lips released my finger and she said, “Have you ever had a missed connection?”
“Tell me.” She undid my belt buckle in one smooth motion and then struggled with my jean’s button fly.
“Summer before college. Hit it off with a girl at a 4th of July party. Had everything in common. Laughed at all the same jokes; liked the same movies. Then my buddy John butted in and scared her off before I got her number. I knew her first name and that she worked at a bookstore. The next week I called every bookstore in the area to track her down. No luck. I went to college and never found her.”
“Your turn,” I continued, “I show you mine you show me yours.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on. Maybe we met and didn’t know it. You, the goth girl, me the star short stop.”
“You are confusing a missed connection with an ugly duckling transformation.”
“You don’t think high school Lizzie and high school Josh would have got together?”
She stopped undoing my pants. “It’s a time in my life I want to forget. I was such a bitch.”
“Hey, we were all moody teenagers.” I cursed myself for talking too much.
“Perhaps, but I treated my mom awful.” Tears formed in the corner of her eyes.
“I blamed her for my dad leaving,” she said after a moment of silence. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She held up her hand to end the discussion. “I’m going to take a shower and get dressed for dinner.” Lizzie raised from the bed and returned the CD wallet to its place on the lacquer dresser before she disappeared into an adjoined bathroom.
I pulled my pants together and retreated downstairs to my assigned basement guest room. Away from the rest of the house, it served as a safe place to nurse my wounded ego. Eileen’s footsteps reverberated above my head. I imagined her as a contender on Iron Chef, the clock counting down the competition’s final seconds as she dashed through the kitchen to check the roast’s temperature and taste the side dishes. I laid on the bed and listened until the basement door opened. Lizzie descended, the dense Berber carpet muffled her steps, until she reached the landing. From there she called for me to come up.
Soon the family arrived. Lizzie played hostess as Eileen raced in the kitchen to put the finishing touches on her Christmas eve feast. Lizzie and I stood in the foyer. We waited for knocks on the door, which swung open in a rush of chill December air that ushered guests inside. Lizzie introduced me with a brief, “This is my friend Josh.” I carried coats to an upstairs room while she hugged, planted kisses on cheeks, and took drink orders.
Lizzie’s older brother, Will, arrived first. Square jawed, he walked with swagger and affected a blue-collar sensibility. He announced he would stay for only for one drink. His mother-in-law expected him at her house within the hour. Next, an uncle from Boston stepped through the door and proclaimed he wouldn’t miss Eileen’s cooking for the world. Then an aunt appeared with her dutiful yet bland husband and their three daughters who ranged in age from diapers to grade school. Last, grandparents on Lizzie’s mom’s side entered, handed me their coats, and went straight to the living room where they sat on the couch and faced the television. There they remained until dinner. The uncle from Boston expressed concern to the aunt that their parents still drove themselves. The aunt retorted he should move home and chauffeur them himself. Lizzie’s father arrived last and alone. His trim build stood about my height, which made him a few inches taller than average. His brown hair receded in the front and was the same shade and texture as Lizzie’s.
After the coats were checked and the drinks served, I sought Lizzie in the living room. She stood next to the fireplace; a garland of pine tree boughs and red and golden balls draped over its mantle.
“Josh, this is my brother Will,” she said as I approached. “I need another glass of wine.” She disappeared down the hallway and into the kitchen.
“So how did you meet my sister?” her brother said. Thank God he broke the ice. I lacked the gift of small talk and Lizzie had left before I could ask her to be my navigator in this sea of first impressions.
“A dating website,” I replied. Lizzie and I had rehearsed for this moment, because she did not want to tell her family the truth. We met at a bar, where the crowd pressed us against one another. She grinded her ass against my thigh and I swayed drunkenly out of synch with the music. Our meeting would have stopped there, stopped at an illicit touch between strangers in the dark amongst a throng of people in a bar that smelled of sour beer, except the bar tender announced last call and the lights came on. She turned and smiled at me and we understood one another. We separated from our friends and met outside to hail a canlı kaçak iddaa cab back to my apartment. The next day we had laid in bed and talked at length, only pausing to hump like wild animals in heat.
“Blows me away to think my little sister dates guys off the internet. You some kind of creep I need to worry about?
“No,” I laughed, as the comment sounded good natured.
“What do you do to earn a buck?” Half of the drink disappeared down his throat in a single swallow.
“I’m an associate at an investment bank.”
“Numbers guy, huh?”
“Yes and no. It’s numbers and research. I enjoy the research side best.”
“It’s all Greek to me.” He upended his glass to free the last drop of alcohol—the ice clinked against his teeth. “Anyway, sorry to cut you off, but I have to roll to the in-law’s place. Maybe I will see you again, maybe not. No offense of course.”
“You hunt?” I said I did, though I had never hunted. “Cool. If you stick around, we can go out.”
Will placed his empty glass on the mantle to circulate through the room and said his goodbyes. I stood alone near the fireplace. To my left the grandparents sat with their eyes fixated on the television and a grandchild wedged between them. Across the room stood Lizzie’s bland uncle by marriage. I needed someone to talk to.
“Trouble in paradise,” her father said. He handed me a glass of Jameson poured neat, which made me shudder at the thought of whiskey burning its way down of my throat.
“You can tell?”
“Her body language is hard to miss.”
“I think I screwed up when I asked about her goth phase.”
“You want my advice?” Before I answered, he said, “Whatever the issue, apologize. It took me a long time to understand you never win a fight with a wife or girlfriend. It’s best to defuse the bomb before it goes off. Arguing makes things worse. I would probably still be married to Lizzie’s mom if I learned this lesson sooner.”
“No problem. You should forget who is right and who is wrong; instead, tell her you’re sorry. Say to her, ‘I didn’t mean it and it was dumb of me’. Poof, it’s all over. The whole thing will blow over and you can go back to having a merry Christmas.” He snapped his fingers to punctuate the conclusion.
Eileen entered the living room and declared dinner served. I welcomed the reprieve and turned to escape into the dining room, but Lizzie’s father caught my arm before my feet conveyed me to safety. He paused for a moment, with a look of consternation on his face, and then said, “Because I’m Lizzie’s father, I have to say this: treat her well. I used to be like you. I was young and had my shit together; only interested in a girl until she gave me what I was after—you know what I mean, and I won’t say it out loud—and then the second I got it I dropped her. I guess I am saying she likes you—hell, she wouldn’t be this upset if she didn’t.”
“No need to say anything.” He patted my shoulder. “Let’s go eat.”
Once seated, Lizzie’s mother said grace and the family talked amongst themselves in a murmur. The meal looked splendid. Prime rib roast served with dollops of horseradish sauce, its aroma promised tender and juicy flavors. Bright orange carrots and white potatoes roasted soft and sprinkled with thyme, rosemary, and cracked pepper. Long green beans swam in melted butter with tangy garlic. As hands passed the serving tray around the table, I helped myself to a large portion of each.
I sought Lizzie’s hand under the table. As I reached out, she swatted me away and shot a cold stare that cut through me with ease. I imagined the whole table noticed her eviscerate me with those eyes. Too embarrassed to look up, I studied my plate’s lattice border.
I ate the rest of my dinner in silence. How could she hold one innocent question against me? I touched on a painful past she wanted to forget, she had said as much, but I had done so on accident, without knowing. This punishment she carried out in full view of her family far exceeded any crime.
The possibility of Christmas turning into an agonizing break up drained the enjoyment from my chocolate layer cake topped with cracked candy cane and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I excused myself from the table and made my way downstairs to the basement. I tossed my overnight duffle bag onto the bed and packed my shirts and toiletries. Maybe, if I drove all night, I could reach my parents’ house before morning to salvage the remains of Christmas day. My plan was to slip through the front door and never look back.
I slung the bag over my shoulder and made for the stairs. I hesitated. The thought of quitting Lizzie left me empty. For the first time I saw her as a complete person. Until this moment she was a pleasant face who laughed easily and enjoyed life as it presented itself. Now she had a rough edge, a minor imperfection, and I wanted to throw her away. Did I think she would remain as unformed as the night we met?
I canlı kaçak bahis put my bag down in the bedroom and returned to the table. My ice cream melted while I was away. In that moment, as I stared at the pool of white cream and debated my next move, I realized Lizzie’s father had laid it all out in blinking Christmas lights. He wrapped a treasure trove of relationship knowledge, tied a bow on it, and stuffed it in my stocking.
With newfound clarity of purpose, I waited for an opportunity to be alone with her. Dessert concluded and I shared an after-dinner brandy with her father and the bland uncle. Soon the family filed out one after another and said their goodbyes, planted their kisses on cheeks, embraced in warm hugs, and wished each other a Merry Christmas. Only Lizzie, Eileen, and I remained.
“I am exhausted from being on my feet all day and I think, perhaps, had a few egg nogs over the legal limit,” Eileen declared from the foot of the stairs. “I am going to bed. Be dears and take care of the dishes for me.” She called Merry Christmas over her shoulder and disappeared up the dark staircase.
Lizzie plucked dishes from the dirty pile on the left side of the sink, rinsed and scrubbed the remains from them, and passed each to me to dry and stack on the right side of the sink. Five minutes passed as dishes moved from left to right; no words passed between us.
“Lizzie?” I finally broke the silence.
“Yes.” She stopped scrubbing the roasting pan.
I drew in a breath and with it swallowed my pride and said, “I’m sorry about earlier. Sorry I dug up the past. I didn’t think. Can you forgive me?”
“I owe you the apology. That was crazy.” She rested the pan in the soapy sink water and removed the yellow rubber gloves with a snap. “I shouldn’t have done that in front of my family.”
“It was awkward, I have to admit.” I sent a silent thank you to Lizzie’s father and vowed to seek his advice in the future.
“I know, I know. I would die if you did that to me.” Her voice changed from remorseful to playful as she said, “Can I make it up to you?”
“What do you have in mind?”
She took my hand and pulled me along behind her. We went room to room to extinguish candles and unplug Christmas lights until the house turned dark. Only the tree cast a white light over the living room, behind it the fire popped as its red embers burned low.
She sat cross-legged in front of the tree and motioned for me to join her in its glow. The bright, sharp scent of pine hung in the air mixing with the waning fire’s hint of burnt wood. “Should we leave out milk and cookies?” I joked.
She leaned in and placed her tongue in my mouth. The heat of her body, the soft light, the fire, it transported me—no longer in the living room, but in a dream where my body and mind swam in pleasure. I pulled her shirt and bra down to wrap my lips around her nipple until its pink flesh ripened. She moaned approval as I nibbled at her soft bud.
“Want to know a secret?” she whispered in my ear. Her breath sent a pleasant shiver down my spine. “Goth Lizzie,” her hand traced the bulge in my pants, “would have totally fucked you.” She freed my cock and gently tugged at its firmness. “Would you have fucked my pretty little goth pussy?” I grew in her hand as her filthy words settled in. I wanted to take her right then. Her face loomed near my cock with cherry lips that grazed along its skin to plant soft kisses. “God you have a nice dick.”
The fires warmth and her words enthralled me. She cast her dark magic and incanted out loud my fantasies of a wanton woman more eager to give pleasure than to receive. I melted into the rug as her tongue danced.
She must have sensed my enjoyment, known the power of her words to mold me any way she liked, and said, “You like when I talk dirty, don’t you?” The flat of her tongue drifted over my ball sack. I answered with a guttural moan of approval.
“Do you want to hear my missed connection?” she said.
I didn’t want her soft lips and skilled tongue to stop for one moment. I wanted to tell her to drive straight through to the destination, the road was open, and she need not veer off the highway onto this detour.
“Keep doing what you are doing,” I said.
“I think you will like my story.” The tip of her tongue spooned a drop from my tip. “It’s about the first time I let a jock fuck my dirty little pussy.” I wanted to protest, to say stop and to tell her the thought of other men made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t.
“Gregg. Captain of the lacrosse team. He sat behind me in homeroom senior year of high school. Him and his buddies made fun of my baggy clothes and makeup, but all I thought about was him bending me over that homeroom desk. My panties were a mess by the time first period bell wrang. I had run to the bathroom and hide in a stall as I fingered myself with my hand over my mouth to muffle my screams.”
She took me in her mouth once more. Spit flowed and glistened my cock as she slid up and down and then buried all but the last inch down her throat. Her throat opened. Her nose pressed into my matt of pubic hair. She drew in a gasp of air and swallowed again. When she finally pulled away spit coated her chin. She leaned forward and kissed me with a wet mouth.