Christmas to Christmas
This is an entry in the smytt.ru 2018 Winter Holidays Contest. I started this story two years ago, but struggled to get it finished for that year or for last. But it needed to be finished, and the story needed to be told, so I made myself work on it again, and it turned out to be one of those that just seemed to write itself.
I admit that it centers on a pretty delicate subject, which is a young woman's recovery from a sexual assault. I am not a professional psychiatrist, but I do have experience in counseling people, so I hope what I've written rings true. But I want to warn you that if this is a sensitive subject for you, it might be best that you not read it.
As always, my stories are complete works of fiction, and all persons are of legal age. Your votes and comments are important to me, so after you read it, please share with me!
It was 7:30 in the evening when Eric pulled his old red Taurus into the parking lot at Joe's Supper Club. The predicted snow had not yet begun to fall, which disappointed him, because he was counting on the white flakes to help bring some festivity to his Christmas Eve. Even though there were houses and buildings decked out in holiday lights, they weren't getting him in the Christmas spirit. So now that the snow was mocking him by not falling when it should, he was going to have to dig somewhere deep to try and save what was stacking up to be a pretty crummy Christmas.
For the first time in his life, Eric was going to be alone for Christmas. Before, it had always been a time for the family to gather. There were traditions that had been started throughout the years -- nothing special, just little things the family did together that helped make Christmas so special. As he shut and locked his car door and headed into the club, he couldn't help but think of some of those special times. But soon he remembered there would be no special times like that this year, and he began to feel sorrier for himself. If only the snow had been falling already; maybe that would help pick up his mood.
He couldn't begrudge his parents. There was never a lot of money to go around during his childhood years, so when his dad won a productivity contest at the factory where he worked, which came with the prize of an all-expense paid week-long cruise for two to the Caribbean, Eric was thrilled for them. It was something they deserved, because they had worked hard to provide for him and his older sister Janie. The cruise left from Miami yesterday, the day before Christmas Eve, and they would not be back until New Year's Eve. It promised to be quite a trip.
His sister Janie and her family had abandoned Eric as well, although he realized that it wasn't fair to say about them. They had loaded up their car just this morning and headed off on a six-hour drive to visit her husband Lance's family for Christmas. In all honesty, it was the right thing for them to do, since his parents were gone for the cruise. He tried to imagine riding in a car on a six-hour road trip in the cold of winter with two kids ages five and three. As lonely as he was, he chuckled to himself that he was probably better off not having to make that trip with them.
He stepped into the club and looked around. There were already a few customers on hand; perhaps trying to escape the loneliness he was feeling on this Christmas Eve. It was a depressing sight, but he knew he had better get used to it, considering he would not be leaving the club until after the clock had rung in Christmas day at midnight.
He turned left and made his way to a short stage on the side wall, to the left as you walked in the door where the club's version of a Christmas tree was featured, decorated with lots of multi-colored lights and some hanging decorations. Next to the tree was the club's piano and bench, which would be his perch for the night. He was very familiar with this setting - well, except for the tree. Eric had entertained with his piano music at the club on several occasions since he moved here 18 months ago. It provided him with a little spending money, something of which a second year music teacher usually had precious little.
He leaned his music satchel up against the back wall of the stage. He really didn't need it anymore, but he brought it more out of habit than anything else. He opened the lid to the keyboard and checked each key out, making sure all were both clean and functioning. He then headed to the bar, to let Joe know he was there, and get the first of his complimentary drinks for the night, part of the deal he had agreed to with Joe. It was never alcohol, because he didn't want his playing ability to be diminished in any way during a gig. Instead, he usually switched between lemonade and water.
The unusual thing about tonight's gig was that even if he wasn't entertaining, he might have been there anyway. Tonight was Joe's annual Lonely Hearts Club Christmas Eve party. It had become a tradition that singles from around the area -- and couples too, if they chose -- would be able to gather together in one place to try and distract themselves from the fact that there were no significant others with which to spend Christmas Eve. It really was a nice gesture on Joe's part, and Eric didn't think he offered the party as a money-making venture. It was just Joe's Christmas present to those who might otherwise be alone on Christmas Eve.
Lonely heart would be a perfect way to describe Eric. He was still looking for the one whom he would ask to spend the rest of her life with him. In high school, he was painfully shy, preferring to let his musical talent speak for him instead of his voice. And while there were a few girls who loved to hear him play, when it came time to interact with them one to one, he struggled. It got better once he went to college, but the demands on his dual major of education and performance left him little time for relationships.
He had dated a couple of girls, both fellow music students, but he wasn't sure if marrying somebody else in his own field would be such a good idea. If one music major was busy, having a household with two might be impossible. And even if he had decided to disregard his concerns and try and pursue a long term relationship with one of them, he wasn't sure if he could be compatible with either he just never felt the spark he hoped he would find when THE one came along.
With his acceptance of a public school vocal music teaching position over a year ago, he hoped that his relocation to this new city would provide him with more opportunities to find his soulmate. Unfortunately, he discovered quickly that the busyness of a vocal teaching position wasn't any less than what he experienced in college. After dealing with junior high and high school students in the morning and elementary students all afternoon, he was ready for some quality quiet time at home. Then when you add evening activities such as voice lessons and musical practice during performance season, it just seemed as though his social life would have to take a back seat.
And then there was the fact that in his own eyes, at least, he was just a boring, average guy. He wasn't particularly good looking, or bad looking. He wasn't tall, and he wasn't short. He wasn't skinny, but he wasn't heavy. He was about 5'10" tall, with fairly straight brown hair and brown eyes. Except for his musical ability, he was average in just about every other way. When he wasn't playing the piano, he didn't stand out in a crowd at all.
And of course, the irony of that very situation was present in the club that night as he prepared to play. It was his musical talent that people noticed, and yet because he would be behind the piano all night, he wouldn't be able to use that talent as a lead in for opportunities to meet someone. His piano playing helped him stand out from the crowd, but because of his piano playing tonight, he wouldn't be able to spend any time with the crowd.
It was these factors, combined with the snowless Christmas Eve and the loneliness of being by himself during the holiday, that clouded Eric's heart and mind as he began to play the first notes of this four-hour gig. He would play for 45 minutes, and then receive a 15-minute break, before repeating the process three more times. His last hour would be played without a break at all, going all the way to midnight, as the clock turned the calendar over to Christmas day.
Gradually the guests started arriving, mostly in groups of three or four, which indicated one person of the group had been assigned the role of designated driver for the evening. There were a few people Eric recognized, but not many, so as he played, watching strangers would at least provide him with some entertainment as the evening wore on.
Every once in a while, someone would come over to the stage to watch him play, or perhaps request a song. One of his co-teachers at the school district spent some time with him. Eric didn't have to look at the clock to know that this was the first hour. Typically in events like this, it took some time for the crowd to loosen up a bit. Sometimes it was the alcohol being consumed early that created a more party-like atmosphere later. But often it was just the shyness of people who were singles on Christmas Eve, making them even more hesitant to mingle and talk to people they didn't already know.
After 45 minutes of playing, it was time for his first break. After a refill on his lemonade, Eric grabbed a paper plate to hit the snack line. This first break of the evening also gave him a chance to look around the crowd a little bit, to see people and places he couldn't see when he was behind the piano. Scanning the club, he estimated that there was about 100 people who had come in by now. For Christmas Eve, the turnout was surprisingly good.
He picked up his now full plate and headed back to the stage. On the way, he looked into the far corner and saw a table of three young ladies. They were sitting around the back side of a round table so they could more easily look out into the room. There was nothing particularly outstanding about them, but he couldn't help but notice the one in the middle. She seemed particularly withdrawn, not willing to escape the corner where she was sitting. The walls beside her and the table in front of her made it appear that she had created a fortress of protection around her.
The room was too dark for Eric to be able to make out any other features about her, but his curiosity kept him looking that way, so much that when he arrived at the stage, he adjusted the piano so he could see into that corner as he played. For some reason, he wanted to know more about this girl -- what she looked like, what her personality was like, if she was single, and looking for a relationship.
He began to play his second set. Usually, this second hour would see more and more people venturing out onto the dance floor, so he adjusted his music accordingly, playing slower Christmas songs. He knew that the best chance of fostering relationships among the singles on the floor was to play music that would encourage slow dancing.
Just as he expected, couples were gradually forming on the floor in front of him. It made him feel good knowing that it was his music that was encouraging them to step out of their singleness -- even if for just one night. While he personally know of any couples who had gotten their start by dancing to the music he played, but he had to believe that it had happened before. Thinking about that kind of possibilities was one of the side benefits of playing gigs like this one. And he just realized -- since the dancing had begun, he hadn't thought of his own lonely existence on this Christmas Eve. Maybe he was getting a little bit of the Christmas spirit back!
As he watched the couples forming on the floor, he noticed that the girl in the corner hadn't made it out yet. A quick glance at her table and he saw that she was still there alone, her friends on either side had apparently found dance partners. As he kept playing, he noticed that a man had gone over to talk to her, but she shook her head "no" and he left. Eric guessed that he had asked her to dance, and she turned him down.
As the time drew near for his second break, the dance floor became more crowded, and Eric was interested to see if the girl in the corner would decide to dance. He couldn't figure out why he was obsessed with this -- what was it about this girl that seemed to be drawing him? He had a desire to visit with her -- to find out about her...even just learning her name would be something he could hold on to, as he tried to make it through the holiday season alone.
Finally his next break came. Same as last, he headed to the bar to refill his drink and get some more snacks to eat. Before heading back, he went to the restroom, located in the hallway at the back of the club. The two restrooms were located across the hallway from each other, and as he stepped out to go back into the main room, he accidently bumped into a girl coming from the women's room.
Before he could look, up, he immediately apologized. "I'm sorry -- I didn't see you coming out. I should have been more careful."
The girl looked down at the floor and answered back. "No, it was my fault. I wasn't looking either."
Eric looked up and realized it was the girl from the corner. "I've seen her somewhere before," he thought to himself, but for the life of him, he couldn't remember where. Impulsively, he made one of the bravest moves his painfully shy personality had ever allowed. "My name is Eric. I'm the one playing the piano tonight. What's your name?"
With a slight hesitation, the girl replied, "I'm Anna. I really am enjoying your playing. You're very talented."
"Thanks," Eric said. "Listen, it's kind of lonely playing up there all by myself with no one to talk to. I'm starting up again in about 10 minutes. Would you like to come over and visit with me while I play?
Anna lowered her head again, eyes searching the floor. "I don't know -- maybe. I'm really only here because my roommates made me come so I wouldn't be home by myself."
Eric pressed a little further. "Look at it this way -- if you come and talk to me, you won't have to worry about strange men asking you to dance! Plus, if you come over, I'll let you pick songs for me to play."
Anna looked up and flashed a shy smile. "So you saw me turn the guy down, eh? Tell you what -- if the first song you play when your break is over is "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," I'll come over and sit with you."
Eric grinned and said "You've got a deal!" As Anna turned to walk back to her table, Eric called out, "Anna -- it was nice running in to you!"
Once again, Anna smiled as she turned to Eric and said, "Nice running into you as well!"
Okay, Eric thought to himself. This was turning out to be a promising evening! He headed to the bar to get his drink refilled, then paused for a moment of thought before asking, "Joe, do you have any extra chairs around somewhere? I want to put one up on the stage next to the piano."
Joe looked at Eric and laughed. "What's that? Is my piano player inviting a guest up on stage with him? There are plenty of extra chairs in the back. Help yourself!"
Eric went back into the hallway once again and headed straight for the storage room in the very back of the club. Opening the door, he found the chair racks and grabbed one. He headed back to the stage, and placed the chair right next to his piano bench. He didn't dare look at Anna while he was doing this, but he was hoping that she was watching him from her place in the corner of the room.
He hurriedly finished his snacks and took a big drink from his lemonade. Even though he had a couple of minutes before he was scheduled to start again, he wanted to go early, so he could see if Anna was going to hold up her end of the deal they made. He started in with a loud and boisterous rendition of "Rudolph," much to the delight of the crowd, as they headed back out onto the dance floor. When "Rudolph" was done, he kept the tempo lively by switching to "Frosty the Snowman." He was happy to hear some of the crowd start singing along.
He was also happy to see Anna walking his way. However, his happiness turned to panic -- suddenly he was overwhelmed by nerves as he realized he was going to have to visit with this girl for as long as she stayed up on the stage with him. He didn't want to say something stupid and drive her away. At the same time, he didn't want to appear nervous either, because he just wanted to have a nice, relaxing visit with someone he hadn't formerly met before, although the nagging feeling that he had seen her -- perhaps as recently as within the past month -- was actually helping him in calming his nerves that were threatening to make him uncomfortable.
Anna stopped on the floor in front of the piano hesitantly. "Are you sure it's okay if I come up there? I don't want to distract you."
Eric nodded. "Of course it's okay -- I even brought a chair up for you. Come on up and join me." He patted the chair next to him, hoping Anna would oblige.
Anna nodded, made her way around the piano and up on the stage, taking a seat in the chair Eric had provided. For a little while, she just watched as he continued playing. She had always loved music, and probably the only way her roommates had coerced her into coming was to tell her that live piano music was going to be played. Now she was sitting on the stage, watching the player up close.
It was Eric who spoke first. "So, Anna -- are you having a good time?" As soon as he said it, he figured it was corny to ask, but at that moment, he didn't know what else to say.
Fortunately, Anna didn't appear to think the question was lame. "I guess so," she answered. "I really don't get out much, so it's nice to be away from home. How about you?"
Eric nodded. "I'm enjoying playing. It looks like tonight is going better than last year. Were you here last Christmas Eve? It was my first one, but I don't remember seeing you here."
Anna looked down at the floor again -- the third time Eric had seen this reaction. Finally, she looked up and said, "No, I wasn't here last year. I had planned on it, but something came up, and I couldn't make it. But I'm glad I'm here tonight."
Eric smiled at her and said, "I'm glad you're here as well. I'm having much more fun than last year!"
Eric kept on playing. He was enjoying watching Anna as she watched him play. Every once in a while, he would catch her look away from the keyboard and look at him. The last time he caught her, she blushed a little, and quickly moved her eyes back to the keyboard.
Suddenly he remembered something he had told her in the hallway. "Anna, I have to keep my end of the deal. I told you that if you came and joined me, I would let you pick some music. Do you have anything in particular that you'd like me to play?"
She thought for a moment, then said, "No, not yet. I love hearing everything you are playing so far."
Eric glanced out at the front window, and noticed that the snow had finally started to fall. Immediately, a song idea came to his mind. He finished the song he was playing, and then started in on "White Christmas." After playing an introduction, he came to the main melody, looked over at Anna, and started to sing along, softly, so that only she could hear.
As he sang, Anna didn't quite know what to look at. She would look out on the dance floor, which was as crowded at that moment than it had been all night. Then she would look at Eric's hands as he played on the piano. Finally, she looked at him as he was singing, and she couldn't take her eyes off of him for the rest of the song. Eventually, she started singing with him.
It was a very special moment for both of them. When the song was over, she reached over and put her hand on his arm as he started playing the next one. She looked at him and said, "Thank you, Eric. That was wonderful. For the first time, I think I'm in the Christmas spirit!"