The letter stared at her accusatorially from across the room. She could avoid it no longer.
Her hands shook as she broke the seal on the envelope and unfolded the page. Her eyes scanned the words several times, not believing what she read at first.
She laughed out loud.
The Midnight Breakfast Society
They gather in front of the house just before midnight on the first Wednesday of every month, their hair bed-tousled and their eyes still sandy with sleep. They greet one another with a kiss on the cheek, too tired for much talking. They stand on the dark lawn, shivering in their night dresses and cotton pajamas, waiting for their host to let them in.
As soon as the clock strikes twelve, the door of the house springs open and they're beckoned inside. Steaming mugs of coffee and tea are passed around and the warmth and light and caffeine energizes them immediately. They are led down a hall, into a dining room, and seated at a long table laden with food.
There are vats of orange and grapefruit juice, triangles of toast slathered in butter. Pots of honey and jam sit alongside horns of plenty filled with pastries. There are towers of pancakes and French toast, the layers wedged with fresh cream and berries. There are milky bowls of porridge with all of the mix-ins: honey, nuts, dried fruit, sugar, and cinnamon.
At the far end of the table is a bagel station with a variety of cream cheeses, plates of bacon ranging in degree of crispiness, eggs boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up, and over easy. There are blistered-skin sausages, cheesy grits, baked beans, and fried tomatoes.
Napkins and utensils are distributed and, with a single nod from the host, the 23rd meeting of the Midnight Breakfast Society begins.
Return to Christmas
A boy loses his father on Christmas day. The father is hurrying home after work to be with his family when his car hits a patch of black ice and he is the victim of a tragic accident.
Flash forward to the present day in December, and the fatherless oy is now a man in his late 30s. His wife has divorced him, leaving him with a small child to raise. He associates Christmas with his father's death, and so hates any mention of the holiday. This was a point of contention between he and his ex wife, and we're led to believe that this one of the reasons they split.
Meanwhile, the man has moved to a new town in middle America to start fresh. He doesn't realize it at the time, but this town LOVES Christmas. He enrolls his child in the local elementary school there, and on the very first day of class, his child proceeds to tell all of the other kids that Santa doesn't exist. The child undoubtedly picked this up from their Christmas-hating father.
The teacher (a good-looking but approachable woman in her late 20s or early 30s), overhears this and confronts the father when he comes to pick his child up. You see, the teacher LOVES Christmas, and she is determined to help this man learn to open up again and embrace the holiday season.
Perhaps, if they're both lucky, he might even end up embracing more than just the holiday season...
She is walking down Fifth Avenue on her way to work one morning when she sees it: the dress that will change her life.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk and a man in a suit nearly collides into her. He mutters angrily under his breath as he passes, but she doesn’t hear him. She is transfixed.
It’s a simple dress, a sleeveless black design with a modest neckline, but there is something compelling about it nonetheless.
It ends just above the knees of the mannequin wearing it, hugging the broadest part of the mannequin’s hips and tapering in at the waist. There are no ruffles or sashes, no fancy beadwork to disguise or distract. It is blacker than black, the kind that draws all of the light in a room towards it, the kind with no end. The kind someone could fall right into, she thinks. It is elegant, but approachable, sophisticated but sensible. This is what they mean by timeless, she thinks.
She has an image of herself wearing the dress then, surrounded by warm light and soft music. She is seated at a bar, sipping cocktails, poised and mysterious. She is hailing a cab on a downtown street, hair loose and cheeks flushed after a night of drinking and dancing. She is walking through museum galleries, through Central Park, down crowded sidewalks, pensive and glamorous. In all of these scenarios she imagines the heads of strangers turning in her direction, the longing in their eyes as they gaze upon her.
Before she realizes what is happening, she is moving towards the shop door and trying to open it. It’s locked. She checks the time: nearly 9AM. She’s pulled out of her reveries and begins power walking in the direction of her office.
By the time she settles into her desk, she has come to the conclusion that she doesn’t need any new dresses. She already has a closet full of them and she can’t justify that kind of frivolous spending anymore, not at her age. It would be wasted on her in any case, because she hardly ever goes anywhere or meets anyone special these days. Most of the time she just goes to work and then comes home afterwards because she’s too tired to do much else. She vows to be more practical.
By lunch time she has almost forgotten about the dress entirely, until she is washing her hands at the restroom sink and catches sight of her own creased and faded dress reflected back at her. She had liked the dress when she bought it, but that was nearly two years ago. The cheerful, floral pattern seems gauche to her now, almost embarrassing. She pulls her cardigan tighter around her chest and returns to her desk.
She takes her usual route after work, turning onto Fifth Avenue and following it for several blocks. Instead of turning at 59th street like she normally does, though, she hesitates, then keeps walking straight in the direction of the shop. She decides she is just going to pass by the window and, if the dress is still there, she’ll go in and have a look at it.
A little bell chimes as she enters. An employee standing behind the counter starts towards her.
“Welcome. Just so you know, we will be closing in a few minutes, so if there is anything I can help you find–”
“Just looking, thank you.”
Her eyes scan the shop. There, on a rack right in front, is the dress. She approaches it shyly, as if about to come face to face with the person she has been harboring secret fantasies about.
It is even more stunning up close. She reaches out and brushes the hem of the dress with her hand. The fabric is like liquid under her fingers. She imagines how it will feel against the rest of her skin.
She flips over the tag and checks the price. She jerks her hand back as if she’d just touched a hot stove. The dress costs nearly as much as her monthly rent.
She glances around the shop then, afraid that someone is coming to shoo her away, or worse—that they are laughing at her—but the employee is over by the counter, sorting hangers. She checks the price tag again, hoping that she mixed up a decimal point or a zero somewhere, but she didn’t.
She's never owned anything quite as nice as this in her entire life. And really, it’s almost like the dress wanted her to find it. What is the point, after all, of working 40 plus hours a week if not so you can afford to buy yourself lovely things every once in a while, she reasons.
She does some quick math in her head. If she charges it, she won’t have to pay the balance until the end of the following month, and by then she should have enough in her checking account to cover it, so long as she doesn’t order takeout and skips the Friday night drinks with her co-workers. She had planned on saving up to take a little trip in the spring, booking a bed someplace warm with a view of the ocean. But that can always wait. Every day in the dress will feel like a mini vacation, she tells herself.
She finds her size, takes the hanger from the rack, and moves towards the mirror in the corner of the shop. She holds the dress up under her chin, twisting left and right to admire it from different angles.
“I’m afraid we’ve just closed our fitting rooms, but we open at 11 tomorrow morning, if you’d like to come back and try that on.”
She hadn’t even noticed that the same employee who greeted her at the door was now standing right beside her. If she allows herself even a minute more to deliberate, she thinks, she’ll find an excuse not to buy it.
“No need. I’ll take it, thank you.”
The next second she is following the employee to the checkout counter, opening her purse, and handing over her credit card. She walks briskly all the way home, the paper bag held tightly in her fist, as if she has just committed some crime and needs to hide the evidence right away.
When she arrives at her apartment that evening, she removes the dress from it’s bag and hangs it on the knob of her wardrobe door, where she has a direct view of it from her bed. She gazes at it as she’s drifting off to sleep that night, admiring the sleek lines and the way the fabric catches the light that filters in through her bedroom curtains.
She doesn’t wear the dress the next day or the following one. She doesn’t even try it on. Each time she considers it, she talks herself out of it. She tells herself she is waiting for the right occasion, the right weather, the right pair of earrings or shoes to come along.
Instead she behaves how she thinks someone deserving of the dress would. She takes long, hot baths with scented bubbles in the evenings. She drinks glasses of water with wedges of lemon in them. She portions out her meals with measuring cups, humming to herself as she places neat little mounds of food on her plate. The woman in the dress would never eat straight from the box or the bag or the jar, she tells herself. She spends a weekend deep cleaning her apartment, using an old toothbrush to scrub the grout between each bathroom tile and around the baseboards. When that doesn’t feel sufficient, she rearranges all of the furniture. She walks more leisurely to work each morning, taking long, graceful steps, with her head held high and her shoulders pushed back. The woman in the dress would never hunch or scrunch and she certainly wouldn’t run to catch the bus, she tells herself. She meets the eyes of strangers on the subway and smiles, feeling a newfound sense of generosity. She takes up more space in the office elevator, laughs a little louder at her co-workers’ jokes. She gets her hair and nails done–another expense, but she factors it in as a kind of tax to be added to the sum total of the dress. She sleeps more soundly at night and wakes up feeling refreshed. The world is suddenly full of possibilities. With the dress in her possession, anything might happen at any moment.
This feeling carries her through the next two weeks until one evening, when she is preparing for bed and happens to look over at the dress hanging on the wardrobe door, where she’d left it. This time, she doesn't hesitate. Feeling emboldened, she walks over to the wardrobe and removes the dress from its hanger. Positioning herself in front of her dresser mirror, she begins to undress.
She had imagined the dress slipping on easily, like a second skin, but as she pulls it over her head, the fabric doesn't give. She has to coax it down, inch by uncomfortable inch, past her shoulders.
When she finally manages to snake the rest of her body into the dress, she steps back to admire her reflection.
She doesn't recognize herself at first, so stark is the difference between the woman she had envisioned and the woman standing across from her. The dress is too snug around her bust and it bunches awkwardly at her waist. Her pale skin looks cadaver-like against the black, and the stubborn shadows under her eyes and cheeks are more pronounced.
It is all impossibly wrong.
Circle A, B, C, or D. Circle True or False.
The words may as well be in a foreign language because M can't seem to make any sense of them. He stares at the exam, willing something to click, his brain to un-freeze.
Someone clears their throat and the sound pulls his attention away from the page. He glances up at the clock on the wall above the blackboard and then at the teacher in the front of the room, who sits there highlighting sentences in a text book. The felt tip squeaks as it's dragged across the paper.
M looks back at the exam before him. He adjusts his sitting position, crossing and then re-crossing his legs. He should have used the bathroom before class.
He skips a question and scans the following one. He skips that one too and moves on to the next.
M's pencil has been sharpened down to a nub, so there's hardly anything for his thumb and forefinger to hold onto. His hand cramps from the claw-like grip he's forced to use. He circles a letter then, second-guessing himself, tries to erase it, but his eraser has been rubbed flat. The metal bit on the end of the pencil shreds the paper, making the words underneath illegible.
Just as his panic begins to mount, he is startled by a sudden vibration under his seat. The person behind him is kicking the bottom rung of his chair. It starts with a gentle tap, tap, tap, but soon grows harder and more insistent.
He spins around in his seat to look at the student. A freckled girl is sitting there doodling dreamily on the back of the exam, which she has already finished.
"Young man!" M turns around again and finds the teacher hovering over his desk. The teacher has a hungry look in his eyes and spittle in the corner of his lips.
"We have a very strict policy here for cheating on exams. Cheaters will have their answers disqualified and will be given a grade of zero." Heads at neighboring desks jerk upwards and turn in the direction of the disruption. M feels his face and ears and neck grow poker hot, but he can't seem to string any words together, his mind numb with shock and shame.
His gaze still fixed on M, the teacher grabs the exam and tears it clean in two.
When you realized that all the fresh coats of paint,
fine fabrics, and antique furniture in the world
couldn't provide you the comfort you sought,
you began to put more stake in the foundation.
You learned to tolerate those little things
you once spent so much time worrying over--
the peeling wallpaper and the frayed edges of the carpet,
the spider web cracks in the plaster.
Perhaps one day, soon,
you'll even come to love them.
Today is a special day, so we've all gathered here to celebrate: mother, father, sisters, second cousins, brother-in-laws, the family dog, your dearly departed grandma. There's also your friends from grade school, ex-employers and former lovers, your favorite primary care physician, your therapist, and your fourth grade teacher. Everyone that has ever meant anything to you, from birth to present day, is seated here at this table, eagerly awaiting your arrival. We are poised on the edge of our chairs, hands folded in laps and eyes fixed on the front entrance.
The table is laden with gifts, prettily wrapped packages with gold and silver ribbons, stacked up to the height of a small tree. The placemats are set with the finest china we could find. There are real cloth napkins with hand-embroidered patterns, vases bursting with fragrant flowers, trays of delicate finger foods, and an array of imported cheeses, exotic fruit, and top-shelf liquor. There is even an ice sculpture. In the center of it all is the star of the show: a cake. But not just any cake. A fruitcake, topped with a generous layer of icing, baked especially for you. We know how much you adore it.
And we adore you. We really, really do.
She stood at the kitchen counter, peeling an orange, her fingers digging into the flesh and pulling it away in strips to reveal glistening, unblemished fruit. She popped a piece into her mouth. It was juicy and tart, but not overly sweet. She ate a second piece, and then another. Perfect, like the first. She sighed and threw the rest of the orange into the bin beside her.
In trying to create the perfect product, they always neglected some minor detail—something which they no doubt considered to be a defect. Their Chicken tasted just like chicken, their Milk like milk, etc., but they were lacking some crucial element that she could never quite put her finger on.
Whenever she mentioned this feeling of hers to her husband, he’d become exasperated and explain yet again how these products were exact replicas of their natural counterparts, right down to their genetic makeup. But she could always detect a slight difference and she never felt fully satiated, no matter how much she ate.
Rushing out the door so you can be the first
to cross that white expanse
hair plastered to forehead, cheeks and nose
and tips of ears prickling with cold,
toes pinched between thick socks and stiff boots
limbs straining under the weight of so many clothes,
fishing snow out of sleeves and cuffs of pants,
but none of it matters because you know
you will be greeted by something sweet and hot and filling
when you go back home.
Solitary walks in parks
offering respite from blaring advertisements,
street sounds muffled by peaks of soft snow,
cocooned in smells of damp wool and burning wood,
breath hanging momentarily in the air in front of you,
like the thoughts that pass before your mind,
steps quickening as the cold bites down even harder,
spurred on by the promise of something sweet and hot and filling
waiting for you at home.
Beneath the Tree
When I was younger, Christmas was a thing I tried to inhabit.
Sprawled on my back beneath the tree,
I'd peer up into the branches and the lights
and make up stories about all of the ornaments:
the sugar plum fairy with her withered wing,
the dancer in felt-tipped pointe shoes,
the porcelain tabby in its Santa Claus hat,
the nutcracker with the drooping jaw,
They all took turns trying to reach the top of the tree
so they could meet the benevolent angel
that resided there.