Just how far under the radar can love really fly?
|Kids today won’t understand the desire to twist a phone if you can’t strangle the person on the other end of the line. After taking 20 some odd calls explaining to people how to copy and paste passwords, I am so over humanity. I’m not optimistic I’ll feel any better even with Christmas only being two weeks away. I’ll end up telling my relatives how to copy and paste gift tags at the rate things are going.
My cohort Greg is on a call, his half of the conversation providing some white noise as I shove my feet into my winter boots. The snow merits the extra foot protection even if it’s a bit warmer than most Decembers, Just as I go to lock my computer, I spot a new email show up in the 450 still unread. Intrigued, I decide to take a look at the latest message.
“Mitch?” I ask myself. “Wonder what he wants.”
I open Mitch’s email. His message has his trademark brief length, but even this quick note has my eyebrows for the sky.
I know this launch has made you super stressed. Maybe some cheery tokens can help. Can you send over the mail stop number for your part of the Lakeside campus? I’ve already forgotten it.
What on Earth could Mitch be doing that he needs interoffice stuff a month after leaving? I make a note to reply to his email after my walk and at least two spoonfuls of yogurt.
I manage to escape the office in one physical piece. The mental/emotional part is very debatable after five more copy/paste phone calls. I think I even spotted Greg add a bit of whiskey to his water cup. Tempting as it is to follow his lead, my M.I.A. appetite makes alcohol a Bad Idea. Hell, it was a miracle that I managed to not stumble around like a moron at Mitch’s happy hour to celebrate his new role in the company.
Mitch. I did respond to his email, and I received a somewhat cryptic response back. He mentioned that he wouldn’t use it right away but thanked me for the information. He also lamented how we wouldn’t be sitting near each other during the white elephant gift exchange our team has held on the same day as the company-wide holiday celebration, which was at the end of this week. I frown at this little reminder for a moment as I peel off my outerwear At least I have a new story to tell my husband Darren when he gets home. Until then, I should make a little something for dinner. Between a workout and a desire for uninterrupted sleep, having food in my stomach will help a lot. Maybe I can make myself some hot dish in a ramekin so I keep from wasting a bunch of food.
I place my ramekin on the table just as my husband walks in the door. I spot our ninja cat sprint in his general direction.
“Oh, Choppy,” I mumble. “Sneaky little fatty.”
“So large,” I hear Darren coo at the cat.
“How was your day?” I ask as he toes off his sneakers.
“Anything noteworthy happen?”
“Anything no worthy happen?”
Darren looks over from putting his coat in the closet. “How was your day?”
“About a million more password calls,” I tell him. “Damn Ethels with their technological ineptitude will be the death of me. Greg’s started, shall we say, augmenting his water.”
“Oh, wow. That bad, huh?”
“Only for our few remaining brain cells that are somehow still working.”
“Think they’ll make is to Christmas?
I shrug. “Who the hell knows?” At least there’s some website fixes being rolled out tonight that should help cut down on how long it takes to load the pages. I swear this whole thing has been a FEMA-worthy disaster.”
“Gotta love system integration during the holidays.”
“I think I’d rather have a lobotomy.”
At that, Darren snorts. “Anything else happen?”
“Well,” I begin, “I got an email from Mitch.”
“Mitch? Was he reminiscing about playing with coffee makers?”
“Ha! If he was, he didn’t mention it, although I’m sure anyone in IT asked to read his emails would want to more about that incident. No, he was asking for my team’s mail stop for some reason. He wasn’t really telling me any reason why he needed it.”
“Huh. That’s strange, well, the mail stop part. Him asking you not so much.”
I pick up my fork and poke at a tater tot. “No, it isn’t. And on top of that he mentioned not sitting near for the team’s participation in the holiday lunch and events on Friday.”
“Sounds like Mitch misses you.”
“Yeah, it does.”
One thing that surprises people about me is how much I hate Fridays. For me, they are either super slow or super busy. There is no middle ground, so I tend to get super tetchy. The exception to the rule is Friday the 13th. That counterbalancing (along with most of the salespeople taking the day off) makes me feel a bit better about being on the phones and taking time out of my day to indulge in silly white elephant shenanigans. My boosted mood slips into surprised confusion come lunch time.
As I walk down the stairs, I spot an ever-familiar head of gray and white hair. He turns toward the stairwell just as I reach the floor he’s on.
“Mitch?” I ask. “What brings you here? Decided not to stick around your sparkling new office?”
Mitch smiles. “I actually decided to go to the ceremony in person at headquarters. Figured I’d stop here first.”
“Might not want to stay too long. Parking over there will be a nightmare and a half.”
“True. I take it you’re getting food.”
My stomach chooses this time to chime in. “Well, if I wasn’t before I am now.”
At that, Mitch chuckles. “Then let’s go!”
We walk down the rest of the stairs to reach the below grade first level of the building. As we walk down, I notice Mitch is carrying a light blue bag. I contemplate asking but hold off when I see there is next to no line for the buffet.
“They better have some Sprite left,” I mutter. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“Yeah, we don’t need you getting one of our pacemakers. It might throw off my projections.”
I roll my eyes but grin a little bit at Mitch’s remark. He at least still remembers my caffeine sensitivity. As I make my way down the line, I chat with Mitch about his job but find it strange that he’s sticking with me in line. He makes no move to load up his own plate. Instead, he holds his hand out to stop me before I grab the dessert tongs.
“I have you covered,” he says while handing me the bag.
“Oh?” I sputter. “Um, wow. Thanks! I wonder what’s in here, but I don’t want to hold people up.”
“Well, I can go rummaging for that Sprite, and that should be everything.”
I step aside and watch Mitch make his way to the cooler tubs parked at the end of the line. I alternate between sneaking peeks in the bag and sneaking peeks at his back side. He approaches as I shift my focus to discerning what is wrapped in snowflake wax paper.
“Wanna set this down for a moment so you can actually see what’s in the bag?” Mitch asks.
“Yeah,” I reply with a sheepish grin. “That would be a good idea.”
We step over to a nearby table. I set my plate down and open the bag. Inside I find a cornucopia of sweets: white Kit-Kats, a white Reese tree, a Starburst gift box with a snowman on it, and the wax paper rectangle. I pull out the wrapped item and see hints of red behind the paper.
“Cranberry bars,” Mitch explains. “It is cranberry season, after all.”
I grin. “Now THAT’s a worthy dessert. So are all the other goodies. Thanks, Mitch.”
“You’re welcome. There is one other item in the bag. Should be on the bottom.”
I quirk my eyebrows and take another look. Indeed, there’s a small card with a snowman sticker at the very bottom of the bag. I fish it out and flip it over. In Mitch’s unmistakable pseudo-chicken scratch is a note:
I know you’ve had a tough year. Hopefully I can brighten the twelve days of Christmas for you.
I look over at Mitch and tell him, “Well, you’re off to a good start. We should probably head back upstairs.”
“Lead the way.”
After filling up on company provided turkey and walking sales reps through proper login procedures a few hundred times, I get in the car and attempt to beeline to Ikea. I say attempt due to how I crawl on the freeways. I take that back. Getting out of my car and crawling might get me there faster. Instead, I pass the time spent idling in traffic contemplating the rest of Mitch’s visit to my office.
The two of us did make it back to my floor. I dropped off the bag and added one cranberry bar to my plate before heading to the conference room where most of the team had congregated. Mitch followed and said hello to everyone. In particular, he took a moment to greet Luke - his old boss – and Jerry. After chatting with them, he stood over by my seat while chatting with the rest of the group. This struck me as odd since I ended up sitting at the end of the table furthest away from the door. Once Mitch left, I shoveled food in my mouth and hoped no one noticed the cranberry bar.
Traffic finally lets up about three quarters of the way through my journey to Ikea. I manage to arrive for my second buffet early and text Darren. Once I’m inside, I grab a spot in line and wait for the rest of the group. Darren and his parents should be here soon.
My wait is short as Darren finds me after a few minutes. His parents shuffle in behind us, and I can hear them discuss the crowds.
“At least there aren’t crayfish on the menu,” I remark.
Darren snickers. “My dad would go on and on about the Orientals.”
“And I’ve had a crazy enough day without needing to shut that down. Speaking of days, how was yours? Has Friday the 13th worked out for ya?”
“No more than usual. You?”
I check to make sure Darren’s parents aren’t paying any attention to us. “Mitch stopped by the office. He has figured out for himself where the white chocolate candies can be found and brought me some.”
“That and some Starbursts.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s not quarter end like the last time.”
I snort. “No, but Mitch clearly wants to make up for failing to find something I could eat, oh, five months ago. I’ll show you what he brought me after dinner, but let’s just say he’s more than made up the deficit.”
Darren and I somehow manage to eat our body weight in Swedish meatballs and make it back to my Prius on our own volition. Once we’re settled in, I grab the bag from the backseat. Darren takes out each item, mock threatening to eat everything along the way.
“I notice that the Starburst snowman has lots of yellow ones,” he remarks.
“That we can see, anyway,” I reply. “You should see the card he included.”
Darren’s eyebrows float up, but he rifles through the bag. He pulls out the card before poring over Mitch’s message. As he slips the card back in the bag, I catch a glimpse of the impish grin crossing his face.
“The twelve days of Christmas,” he mumbles after a bit. “Well, if this is how he’s starting, I can only imagine what the end will look like.”
“That is a damn good point,” I say. “In the meantime, let’s get going so we don’t freeze to death in the car here.”
After a too short weekend, I find myself back at the office earlier than usual. Hey, it gives me extra quiet time before the phone rings in my ear at a rapid-fire pace for several hours. At this time of day, only Jerry is in the office, plugging away at processing invoice failures. His modus operandi involves saying very little while working, which makes him a great cube neighbor. This is why I almost drop my mug when he stops by my desk. He sets a box covered in blue and white wrapping paper on one corner of my desk.
“For me?” I ask.
“It is,” Jerry answers, “but it’s not from me.”
“Then who brought it to you?”
“Well, let’s see what the gift tag says.”
I tilt the box and find another snowman sticker on top. At least this time Mitch used proper capitalization on his own name, a problem that seemed unsolvable when he added his absences to the team calendar back in the day. Setting the box back on the desk, I give Jerry a sideways look.
“He dropped it off on Friday, probably while we were in the conference room,” Jerry tells me. “He then emailed me asking me to give it to you when you came in today.”
“Wonder what’s in it?”
I peel back the tape on one of the flaps. With a little futzing, I open one end and coax the box out of the wrapping paper. The box itself holds a variety of herbal teas. I pop off the orange lid and card a card on top of the five teas in the set. Putting the card aside, I survey what is included: apple spice, citron chamomile, ginger turmeric, rooibos berry, and peach.
“Looks like I’ll be well stocked for the holidays,” I remark.
“Indeed. That looks like a pretty fancy variety.”
“At least I won’t be wired after drinking it.”
Jerry chuckles. “Very true. Well, enjoy your tea.”
With that, Jerry goes back to his desk. When I know he is busy, I grab the card. I flip it over and find another handwritten note from Mitch.
“A little something to keep you from (re)losing your voice and sanity. – Mitch”
“A little something?” I mutter. “I have my doubts about that. Now which tea to have this morning.”
I grab my mug and head to the galley to get some hot water.
Halfway through my day, I get an IM from Mitch. With his new role, I am having a tough time wrapping my head around him taking a break from five year projections to pester me. It sure beats walking inept salespeople through basic order entry on the website, though.
Mitch: Enjoying your gifts?
Me: I am. I did let Darren try part of one of the cranberry bars. They’re tasty.
Mitch: I figured you’d like them.
Mitch: Did Jerry give you the teas?
Me: He did. I had the berry one this morning.
Me: Kind of a fancy set, though.
Mitch: Do you have any idea how hard it is to find sets that don’t have any caffeine?
Me: Given that I opt out of Starbucks run, yeah.
Mitch: Okay, good point.
Mitch: And Starbucks is gross.
Me: As I like to say, you can’t spell Starbucks without sucks.
I smirk at the flood of laughing emojis from Mitch. Odds are good he’s scaring his cube neighbors with his laughter (unless he is able to keep it to his surprising giggling tendencies). Still, it puts a smile on my face as the phone rings. I need everything I can get.
It turns out there is quite a bit for me to get. Tuesday involved the mail clerk stopping by my desk to sign for a FedEx package. Said package contained five bottles of rare Tabasco sauces. I stuffed Mitch’s latest card (complete with his personal number) into my purse but still fielded questions from Greg when I inspected the delivery. I lied about who sent the bottles, claiming it was a Secret Santa exchange.
“Secret Santa has quite the budget,” he remarked.
“Well,” I replied, “you’re not wrong.”
Though Greg managed to refocus on an email, I spotted Jerry smirking to himself. Shaking my head, I looked back at my computer. Though I needed to be answering calls, I sneaked a peek at my personal emails. Mitch of course timed his latest message to arrive after his delivery.
That email and the subsequent exchange is how I find myself sitting in the middle of a soup and salad place on the fifth day of Christmas. I stare at the sprawling menu and weigh my life choices while waiting for Mitch to arrive. Somehow, selecting a Mediterranean quinoa bowl is the easiest decision I make during my wait. Everything else leaves me shaking my head and wondering how I have ended up receiving all these gifts.
After finding a text from Mitch letting me know that he is crawling on the freeway, I let my mind wander to how he and I ended up crossing paths while working for such a large company. Mitch was already on the eCommerce team when I joined two years ago. Because I worked more on the tech side of eCommerce, we had very little to do with each other’s work. We still had occasional conversations when we fiddled with (or in a couple cases broke) each others’ primary work systems. In particular, a Microsoft Access meltdown back in May had us scrambling for a fix. That ended up leading us to talking more in the remaining months prior to his promotion than the prior year and a half.
“I honestly think I could have gotten here faster if I popped a Valium and walked.”
I turn around and find Mitch standing next to me.
“I’ve made similar comments about the credit team,” I fire back.
“Heh. Do you know what you want?”
“Well, I’d like a day off.”
Mitch snorts. “I hear ya, but I think we’re both stuck for the next week or so.”
“Seriously, what do you want to eat?”
I give Mitch my order, and he asks me to find a table. I locate a spot near a window and claim one side of the booth for myself. Shucking my coat, I set it and my satchel on the bench. Mitch shows up with a tray laden with bowls and two empty cups.
“I’ll get our drinks,” he says. “What non-caffeinated beverage should I grab for you?”
“Lemonade with a shot of the peach syrup,” I tell him.
“Ooh, that sounds good. I think I might have to try that.”
Once Mitch returns with our lemonades, we settle in for our meals. We don’t say anything at first. Then Mitch stops eating long enough to place a bag on the table. This time the bag has a snowman design on a green background. I grin.
“Day five?” I ask him.
“And six,” Mitch replies, “but I’m hoping that you can wait until tomorrow to open.”
I look at Mitch and tilt my head to the side. “I can do that.”
Mitch smiles. “Thank you. Now, let’s look at today’s gift.”
At that, I set my bowl and drink to the side. I grab the bag handle and pull it closer. I spot what looks like a patch of black velvet along with blue gingham wrapping paper.
“Which one is today’s gift?” I wonder.
Mitch reaches over and taps on the black patch. “That one.”
I reach for the still mysterious item, my fingers brushing against his. Flushing, I look up to apologize only to find red patches on his cheeks. Mitch ducks his head, but I still see a grin on his face. Fascinating. The last time I saw that look was during a meeting Mitch called several months ago. I had cracked a self-depreciating joke about my literacy skills, something that amused Mitch far more than I expected. I smile back and refocus on the gift, lifting it out of the bag.
“Now that’s adorable!” I coo as I get my first look at the plush snowman
“I guess it would be stupid to ask if you like it.”
“Maybe, but the answer to that is a definite yes. Who tipped you off that I like snowmen?”
“I’ve seen the snowmen at you desk,” Mitch answers. “If they’re there in the summer, I think it’s safe to assume you like them.”
“True,” I chuckle. “So….”
“I’ve been wondering about all the gifts,” I begin. “Greg saw the Tabasco sauces and wondered where they came from. I told him it was a Secret Santa gift. I didn’t want to deal with him asking why I got a gift from you (and he didn’t).”
“Fair enough. The team does like to gossip.”
“Amen to that!”
We toast our lemonades, my free arm brushing against the snowman I’m still holding. I set the snowman back on the table after taking a sip.
“You’re right, though,” Mitch continues. “The team talks and talks and talks. It’s one of the reasons I left.”
“Can’t say I blame you. It’s the one drawback to working in eCommerce. The work itself is engaging, but listening to social chatter is super hard to block out. At the same time, I now kind of regret saying I wish we chatted more when you were part of the team.”
“Why’s that? I don’t see you as being a gossiper.”
“You’re right about that, but I feel like I overestimate how much social chit-chat you can tolerate.”
“Nah. If how our happy hour conversations have gone are any indication, I don’t think you’d have had to worry. We had fun without beating topics to death, and I know you tend to listen more than talk when coworker stories are shared.”
“True enough. That said, I’m still not sure how to handle questions about all these gifts. They’re very nice, and I do like them, but still.”
Mitch nods. “I understand that. They are nosey. Aren’t you scaling back coverage next week for the break?”
“Yeah. Are you thinking of stopping by?”
“I might. Haven’t decided yet. We can meet up like this again, you know, if it makes you more comfortable.”
I cock my head. “How about you?”
“How about you? Are you okay meeting up for dinner like this?”
“More than okay,” Mitch admits while half bowing his head.
“I admit I might have tried to time my arrivals at team happy hours and what not so that I’d accidentally end up sitting next to you.”
I flash him a sly smile. “I can hear the air quotes over here. Mitch, how long has this been a thing?”
“A while, and I should probably tell you the whole story.”
“No rush on that.”
Mitch fidgets. “We’ll see. I kinda want to get it all out there, but it could take all night.”
“Yeah, and we still have to work tomorrow.”
“How is the system integration going?”
“I still want to drown my sorrows in IPAs,” I tell him, “but it’s getting easier.”
“Good,” he replies with a twinkle in his eye. “I suppose that’s why people are noticing the gifts.”
“That and we all need a distraction big time.”
“I bet. Is Greg taking any time off?”
“Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday next week.”
“Excellent! I think I will stop in.”
I raise my eyebrows at Mitch. “At least if you bring anything with you there should be fewer witnesses.”
The next morning, I wake up to find snow drifting down the street. The erratic visibility prompts Darren to ask for a ride to work, and I agree to give him a lift. After I take a shower and dress, I wander into the open living and dining room. Darren contemplates the blue box I set on the dining table the previous night.
“Day six?” he asks.
“Yup,” I reply. “I have no idea what it is.”
“Want to open it before we head out?”
“Sure. Why not?”
I open the box and find another card sitting on top of some soft fabric that is almost the same shade of blue as the box. Picking up the card, I see another handwritten note.
“Handling Ethels is hard. Here’s something to soften the strain of it all. -Mitch”
“Surprised he didn’t include your name in all caps,” Darren quips.
“Ha!” I laugh. “I should ask him about that tomorrow.”
I nod. “Mitch wants to meet up for dinner, something about his next gift being considered contraband in the office.”
“God, I hope so. I’m about done with everything right now.”
I shrug. “Well, mostly. He said some things last night that make me a bit concerned.”
“He said that he was more than okay meeting up with me for dinner. That seems rather enthusiastic to me.”
“Well,” Darren starts, “it’s not like you haven’t suspected that he has feelings for you.”
“That’s definitely well established. Now, though, I’m not sure how I feel about him confirming it. Does that make any sense?”
Darren nods. “You normally don’t get this far in your dealings with other guys. Do you know how you feel about it otherwise or what you want to do?”
I gulp. “All I know is I’m rather nervous. The whole thing’s kind of surreal to me. The prospect of actually being that close to him is both exciting and a little bit terrifying, all things considered.”
“I bet. So what’s in the box?”
I refocus my attention on the gift, my fingers sliding along the soft, almost slick fabric. I pick up a patch and lift it up. As I pull, a luxurious navy scarf appears. The eave and texture remind me of pashmina.
“Wow,” Darren whispers. “That’s a really nice scarf.”
“Mind taking the credit for this one?” I ask him. “Just in case anyone on the team asks. I’m sure it’ll be better than you getting credit for me ending up in Uptown instead of at your parents’ place.”
“Oh, Mitch and his phrasing.”
“Are you going to wear it today?”
I turn the scarf over in my hand. “I think I will.”
Thursdays tend to be quiet, although the integration has bucked that trend to some extent. Still, the calls roll in with a bit less intensity than I’ve seen over the last few weeks. This puts me in a lighter mood when I head out to the lake during my lunch hour. Luke meets up with me as I make my way down the stairs.
“Going to Target?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Just a stroll around the lake since the snow stopped and it’s not too bad for once.”
“Not bad as in it’s positive twenty versus negative twenty.”
“Ha! You’re not wrong. Besides, I need to save a few pennies before the after Christmas sales.”
“Good point. Hey, speaking of Christmas, did you get an early gift?”
“The scarf you’re wearing. It looks pretty fancy.”
I look down. “Oh yeah. Darren gave it to me, thought it might fit in with the company colors.”
“It does, actually.”
“But yeah. Why do you ask?”
“I saw Mitch buying a similar looking scarf when I was at the mall last week.”
“Well, it’s a good choice. I’m sure whoever gets it will appreciate it.”
“Sure seems like it. Surprised you didn’t get that from him.”
I miss a step and just avoid crashing face first on the landing. “Where did that come from?”
“Well,” Luke hedges, “I thought that maybe he’d have made a move after getting promoted.”
“Mitch? Make a move?”
“Sounds like he hasn’t…or you missed it.”
“Am I hearing this right? You’re saying…no. No, this is not happening.”
Luke shrugs. “I wondered about it after the happy hour back in June and noticed his rather thesaurus-inspired message in the sympathy card.”
“Did you also see him capitalize my whole name?”
This gets a throaty chuckle out of Luke. “No, but that sounds like something he’d consider flirting.”
I sigh. “I really can’t believe I’m having this conversation right now.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious if he’s interested?”
“I think the less I know the safer I am with the team.”
“True,” Luke concedes, “but I think that ship sailed a long time ago.”
I furrow my eyebrows. “Do I really want to know?”
“You might given the rest of leadership watched you and Mitch chat at the two happy hours prior to his promotion. I’ll let you think it over. I’m hungry and need to get lunch before my next meeting.”
With that, Luke heads down the next flight of stairs. I watch him for a bit before heading down the rest of the way. At least Mitch and I are meeting up tomorrow.
The prospect of meeting up with Mitch does little to settle my nerves over Luke’s bombshell. Even with no one around me in the office the Friday before Christmas, I still get reminders. I sip on hot apple spice tea and field messages from Greg asking if my Secret Santa has brought any other gifts. My boss sends a surprised reply to the email I fired off earlier letting her know I plan to be in the office on Monday and Tuesday. As the day winds down and the calls all but stop, I mull over Luke’s hints of what the team knows. Even though he threw quite a few vague insinuations my way, he seems to have seen more concrete things from Mitch. I hope to some deity (at least any that exist) that I can get some answers at dinner tonight.
This time I’m driving to a western suburb to meet Mitch. It’s not close to where either of us live, so the drive down is an epic adventure in doing battle with rush hour traffic. I get to the restaurant first after a tense rodeo on the state highway nearby and somehow find a parking space. Part of me considers waiting in the car while trying to find Mitch’s trunk, but restlessness over the wild drive wins out. I shut my door only to see his pickup pull into a nearby spot. I walk over, sparking a glance at the fish sticker on the bumper that confirms it is indeed his Silverado.
“Good to see I’m not the only survivor of the crazy suburban freeways,” I greet him.
Mitch laughs as he locks his doors. “No kidding! I was not expecting that.”
“It astounds me that for how ritzy this area is the speed limit is so high. At least put in a few more lights so I’m not doing 50 in near total darkness while trying to beat traffic lights.”
Instead of walking toward the entrance, Mitch goes to the tailgate and unlocks it. Near the end of the bed is a banker box that he pulls toward himself.
“Hey, Christine, mind giving me a hand?” he asks.
“Sure. Do you want the right or the left?”
Mitch groan-laughs. “Both, unless you think you can hold the box with just one.”
“Not likely,” I admit as I make my way over.
Mitch hands me the box so he can replace the tailgate. The box is out of my hands before I know it, and I lose my chance to see what’s inside. Instead, I walk with Mitch to the entrance, holding the door for him as he shuffles through.
“Hooray, reverse chivalry,” he remarks.
“Nice to know I’m good for something.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re good for lots of things.”
“Oh, Mitch, you flatterer.”
Since much of the parking lot crowd appears to be for a holiday party in one of the private rooms, we are seated right away. Mitch sets the box next to him on his side of the booth, again hiding the contents from me. Though I’m itching to see my gifts, I focus on the menu and try not to emulate Darren’s perennial menu decision paralysis.
After we get some beverages and let our server know what we want, Mitch sets his hands on the table. He twists his wedding ring and glances around the room. I sip my lemonade, debating whether to say anything.
“I bet you’re wondering if my wife knows where I am tonight,” he says after a moment.
“That thought did cross my mind,” I admit.
“She does, and she knows what I want to talk to you about.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I was worried that, uh, what is her name?”
“Ah. I was worried Samantha would have some unpleasant words for me, to say the least.”
“I can understand that. Given what’s happened lately and you not being told straight up that she already has some idea what’s going on, it makes sense that you’d be concerned. How about you? Does Darren know?”
I smirk. “Darren knows about your most memorable stunts, such as your fiddling with the coffee maker a few months ago.”
Mitch hangs his head and flushes. “I’m kind of glad it was just us in the break room considering it fell flat.”
“Yeah, that one’s on me. I cannot overstate how bad I am at picking up on these things and get lost trying to figure out how to react.”
“Well, in hindsight, your confusion makes sense. You can’t drink coffee, so logically you have no reason to be impressed by my maneuver to get coffee more quickly.”
“You’re not wrong there.”
“Anyway, so my rather ridiculous moves to get your attention had been lurking for a while before we started chatting more often.”
“How long?” I ask.
“It wasn’t as soon as you arrived on the team,” he replies, “but it’s been well over a year. For a long time, it was just seeing you and thinking you were pretty, but I didn’t know much about you as a person. We didn’t sit near each other, so things were kind of…stagnant, I guess.”
I tilt my head at Mitch. “What changed?”
“Well, I noticed when your cohorts Brittany and Terrence would talk about other people in the company in a gossipy way you opted to stay out of it. I found that appealing and kind of refreshing.”
“Especially since the whole team lives out of each others’ back pockets.”
“That is the truest statement on Earth!”
We toast our drink glasses and have a laugh. Mitch’s eye crinkling smile and creeping blush light up the room. Only then do I notice the dark blue sweater he has on, a sweater that looks a bit too smooth and dressy for casual Friday.
“So,” I press, “you noticed my efforts to stay out of the gossip fray. What else caught your eye? Ear, whatever.”
“Well, my brain overall, but yeah. Do you remember stopping over at my desk when we all sat in the cave-like portion of our floor?”
I nod. “It took so much effort not to fall asleep at my desk when we were all sequestered there.”
“Agreed. Anyway, you stopped by my desk to show me something. I always got the impression prior to this that you were constantly anxious, but you proved that was not true when you showed me how to get out of the order you were working on.”
“Oh, really. Clearly I had no idea of any of this. My oblivion strikes again.”
Mitch chuckles a bit. “You wouldn’t have had a clue. We really didn’t see each other much in the office. That bums me out a little, especially since I think you would have made a better cube neighbor than most of the people I did sit near. I sometimes heard you on phone calls, and you sounded really composed dealing with people.”
“Heh. I admit that takes work, but I guess I’m so used to at least trying to project that assertiveness and be a professional.”
“It’s a rarity as far as I’m concerned.”
“Can’t argue with that. So when did Samantha find out that you see me as more than a coworker?”
“A lot of things happened, but she learned about it before the Access meltdown.”
I get a better grasp of this as dinner goes on. In between bites of pulled pork and smoked turkey, Mitch and I recount the last year or so from a work-centric perspective. He fills me in on all the signals he sent that went flying over my head, including his venting to me before a vendor meeting and his tendency to be in the office on Fridays when most of our colleagues worked from home. I feel bad about my oblivion during that time, although Mitch assures me that my mom’s declining health merited more of my attention. After the server clears our plates, Mitch hoists the banker box on the table.
“One of the gifts is technically not allowed here,” he warns me, “so it might be a good idea to put it back in the box after you unwrap it.”
“Does that mean I get to unwrap both tonight?” I clarify.”
“I could make so many more comments about unwrapping things right now.”
“Unfortunately that activity would get us both arrested and probably banned from Minnetonka for life.”
I cackle. “For all we know it still wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen in this town this week.”
“Given how suburbs are, you might be onto something.”
“I used to work out here when I was a mail carrier. Even with that kind of inside knowledge, I bet I don’t even know an eighth of the salacious shenanigans.”
I peer in the banker box and spot two items covered in green wrapping paper. Mitch continues to find snowman gift tags, these ones donning red scarves and hats that pop against the rest of the paper. One looks boxy while the other appears to be a flatter rectangle.
“Does it matter which one I open first?” I ask.
Mitch shakes his head. I take that as my cue and grab the bulkier item first. It end up taking to hands to get it out of the box. I set it down and lift one of the taped tabs. Taking care not to disturb the gift tag, I continue unwrapping and find a six pack lurking underneath.
“Mosaic IPA?” I squeal. “Aw, hell yeah!”
“Only the best,” Mitch remarks. “I was happy that I could still get a six pack since Castle Danger tends to stop brewing that variety shortly before Christmas.”
“And I like anything with Mosaic hops.”
“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.”
“Thank you, Mitch. I’m guessing I should hide this one.”
Mitch nods. “Damn weird ass liquor licensing laws.”
I stick the beer back in the box and retrieve the other gift. After a little work, I uncover a stark black and white photo. More unwrapping reveals it’s part of the cover of a book devoted to my favorite architecture style.
“Brutalism!” I cheer as I beam. “How did you know I like brutalism?”
“I looked at your Facebook photos a while ago,” Mitch admits. “I saw your excited captions on Brutalist structures. The Fort Worth Water Gardens come to mind.”
“One of my favorites. If you set up some snowmen there my head might actually explode.”
“I’ll try to prevent that from happening. I like having you around.”
I look at Mitch. “I enjoy your company, too.”
The final days before Christmas see a drop in calls and emails at work. This gives me time to reflect on an action-packed weekend. Part of the action included taking inventory of everything Mitch has given me so far. I had already opened the garlic pepper sauce in the Tabasco collection. Darren has eaten the pink Starbursts so I could focus on the lemon candies. After some hemming and hawing, I named the plush snowman Grover as a nod to the suburb where Mitch and I had our first dinner/gift exchange.
I switch my work phone to ensure no calls come in on my lunch break. As I stand up to put on my coat, I spy Mitch walking toward my desk. Given that he has a rather cumbersome package in his hands, I’m glad most of the team is on vacation or working from home. This has allowed Jerry and me a bit of respite, although Jerry is walking around the lake at the moment. I give Mitch a tiny wave as he approaches.
“Wow! This place is dead,” he says.
“Thankfully so are the phones,” I add. “The emails still suck, but what can you do?”
“Grin and bear it?”
Mitch holds out the larger parcel, which I have half a brain to grab. With both hands free, he unslings his backpack and rummages through the main compartment. He fishes out a small white box adorned with snowman stickers.
“You can open either one first,” he tells me.
I nod and stare at the package in my hands for what feels like forever. To me, twelve days of gifts would have been fine if Mitch gave me a bounty of small trinkets and food. Now? I try to ignore a quivering knot in my stomach as I unwrap this rather large item. When I finish with the wrapping paper, I find a box with only the words “This end up” printed on it.
“Undo the flap on top,” Mitch urges.
Too conflicted to say anything, I find the flap he mentioned. I open that up and find a flat envelope inside that I manage to tug out. I set the envelope on my desk and pull out some Styrofoam inserts. I remove enough packaging to see a large frosted glass plate. That plate ends up being part of a larger photo.
“A triptych?” I ask. “Damn, Mitch.”
“The hanging guidelines are in the envelope,” he replies. “I can put that back in so you can open your other gift.”
Nodding, I hand it over to Mitch and open the smaller box. A green iPod Nano is nestled inside. I take the Nano out and check it for scratches. To my pleasant surprise, this model is scuff free.”
“Oh, my good lord. Mitch, you shouldn’t have.”
I glance at Mitch, who gives me a small shrug. “I wanted to.”
“I mean, I’ve been thinking about buying one of these, so thank you. I just don’t know what to say about all of this.”
“Did I go overboard?”
I flail my hands. “Maybe a little. I think it’s more…more….”
“Having trouble finding the words?”
I nod. “And usually I struggle to speak at times like this, anyway.”
I erase the gap between us and wrap my arms around Mitch. The hug I receive in return damn near makes me trip over my own feet. I end up leaning on him to regain my footing, prompting Mitch to tighten his embrace. Not caring that we are in the office, I close my eyes and breathe.
“I don’t suppose congratulations are in order?”
I blink and find Jerry walking over, a smirk manifesting under his mustache. Mitch turns his head but doesn’t let go of me. His beard tickles my cheek.”
“Erm, you can pretend you didn’t see anything, right?” I ask.
Jerry chuckles. “Well, I already had an inkling about Mitch, but I won’t say anything to Greg and Luke, if that’s what you mean.”
This gets Mitch to shift so he has one arm around me but can face Jerry.
“To answer your question,” he jumps in, “I’d say that’s up to Christine.”
“Well, private congratulations are in order,” I clarify. “We still have a lot to figure out. Speaking of which, Jerry, what tipped you off about Mitch?”
“Mitch didn’t really need to scoot over at the happy hour in September,” Jerry tells me. “There was plenty of room for me to get to that seat.”
I smile a bit at that memory. Mitch didn’t stay very long at that gathering, but he did everything he could to make the time we sat together memorable. He even laughed at my travel stories where I ragged on the entire state of Mississippi.
“Not long after that, Jerry kind of called me out,” Mitch adds. “He sent me an email, and I eventually admitted my feelings and the ways I tried to get your attention.”
“Ah,” I reply. “I bet you’re glad Jerry was the one who said something. I never heard a peep about it.”
“Don’t worry,” Jerry assures us. “Your secret is safe with me.”
After the hug and confessional, I find myself returning to the office entry on Christmas Eve with a bounce in my walk. The parking lot has cars dotted here and there, a smattering of people coming in to plow through some work before taking the rest of the year off. I know I still have a few dozen emails waiting for me, but I feel less bothered by them than usual.
I scan my badge and start to head up the stairs. The guard at the front desk clears her throat, prompting me to turn around.
“Christine?” she asks.
I nod and walk over. “Yes?”
“I was asked to give this to you yesterday since the mail crew has the break off. The gentleman who brought this over apparently knew you’d be here.”
“If it’s who I think it is, he knows I’m not getting a break for a few more days.”
“My goodness! Well, here you are.”
She hands me a manila envelope. I tilt my head in thanks then head up to my desk. Once I get to my desk and boot up my computer, I lift the metal tabs on the envelope. Inside are two tickets to next year’s State Fair and a handwritten letter. I grin at Mitch’s effort to get his chicken scratch under control.
It’s been quite a roller coaster over these last few days. I hope you have enjoyed your gifts, including this one and the last. I want to make sure you get that gift on Christmas Day.
During all this, I have wondered how you feel about me. Since you desire privacy and have had a really rough year, I can understand why you might not say much. At the same time, not knowing your feelings has been terrifying for me. The fact that we couldn’t really say anything before my promotion doesn’t help.
With this gift, there’s more to this than tickets to the State Fair. We both mentioned regretting not attending Grandstand shows this year. I think that needs to change at least for one of us. With only a partial Grandstand lineup announced, I’m making a promise to buy two Grandstand tickets for whatever show you’d like. I do have one question, though.
May I be your plus one?
My vision is getting a little blurry and wet right now. Thank goodness Jerry decided to stay home today! I fish my phone out of my satchel and fire off a text to Mitch.
Me: Got your 11th gift. Since Darren knows about our office hug and my fessing up, I’m pretty certain he will understand that I want you to join me.
Mitch: Hooray! By the way, what are you doing tomorrow?
Me: Christmas morning at home then heading to my aunt Brenda’s around 2. You?
Mitch: Heading to my parents’ in the afternoon. Think we can meet up somewhere before visiting family so I can give you your last gift?
Me: I should be able to swing that. I’ll text you tonight once I confirm things with Darren.
Mitch: Sounds good to me. 😊
When I get home that afternoon, I find Darren sprawled on the couch with the cats. He looks over and raises his eyebrows.
“You look chipper,” he remarks. “Take it you got another gift from Mitch?”
“I did,” I reply, “and Mitch wants to meet up tomorrow sometime for the last gift.”
I toe off my boots and grab the envelope. I head over to the couch and hand everything to Darren.
“Today’s gift was Mitch’s way of asking me on a date next summer,” I elaborate. “He’s buying me Grandstand tickets.”
“Damn!” Darren gasps as he takes the envelope from me. “I take it you’d like him to go with you.”
I bow my head. “Yes, yes, I do.”
Darren smiles. “I say go right ahead. We can set up our own Grandstand date the year after.”
“That sounds like a plan.”
I park myself on the couch and put my feet on my husband’s lap. I hadn’t expected to spend Christmas Eve watching him read a letter written by my new beau, but hey. Christmas is always full of surprises.
Said surprises are why we head to the Target parking lot on Christmas Day. From where I’ve parked my Prius, I can see my office. A lone SUV from the security company roams the lot across the street, which is why Mitch and I opted to meet here instead. Darren glances around, taking in the amazing not-crowds.
“Sounds like Mitch’s wife will also be around for this,” Darren says.
“Yeah,” I answer with a nod. “I haven’t met her. Might give it a month or so before that happens. Mitch mentioned she wanted to at least see what I look like outside of my work email photo.”
“Even though I took that lovely picture.”
“And it is indeed a lovely shot. I think she needs a little hand holding in this, but hey. You also get to see Mitch and how close he and I are in height.”
I see a familiar Silverado roll through the nearest entry point from the road. It takes no time at all for Mitch to find a space caddy corner from me. I step out as soon as I spot Mitch get out of his truck. We grin as we meet up in the space between our vehicles.
“Merry Christmas!” Mitch greets me.
“Merry Christmas to you, too How has your 12th day of Christmas been?”
“Increasingly balmy, nothing too crazy. Samantha and I got a few hours free of hyperactive children so we could relax.”
“Same here. Darren and I are on our way to visit dueling three year olds.”
“It’s warm enough that they might be able to run around outside.”
“One can only hope. Either way, you gift might be a bit of a choking hazard for them.”
With that, Mitch fetches a small box out of his jacket pocket and places it in my hands. I lift the lid and find a pair of sapphire stud earrings.
“Whoa!” I gasp. “I will definitely need to hide this from everyone at my aunt’s place, choking hazard or not. They’re stunning! I don’t want to lose them.”
“Glad you like them,” Mitch coos. “I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about jewelry as a gift.”
“And knowing this jewelry company it’s a pretty bold statement,” I mention as I look him in the eye. “Does Samantha know you bought these for me?”
Mitch nods. “While she’s still getting used to sharing me, she also knows I’ve had feelings for you for long enough. I originally wanted to take you on a trip after Christmas, but she’s not quite ready for that. She agreed that these earrings were a good compromise.”
“Huh. Well, thank you so much, Mitch. I feel like I better find a reason to wear them soon.”
“I’m sure you’ll find one, much like how you dress up on Mondays.”
I blink. “Wait. You noticed that?”
“Yeah. It made me tilt the coffee pot in the break room. Remember?”
“I remember that,” I fire back with a giggle. “Darren and I joke about it all the time.”
A red glow creeps into Mitch’s cheeks. “I really shouldn’t be so surprised, and yet I am.”
“Hehheh. Well, as much as I’d like to stand here all day and talk, we both have other places we need to be.”
“You’re right. Well, let’s chat tomorrow and see when we can hang out during the break.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Mitch moves closer and pulls me into an embrace. I cuddle in kind, my chin resting on his shoulder. We stand there for a bit before Mitch loosens his hold a smidgen. The only warning I get of his kiss is his beard brushing my chin. It reminds me of a boar bristle brush. That doesn’t stop me from sliding my free hand to the back of his neck and coaxing him to stick around a little longer. We do pull away at a snail’s pace. Mitch’s warm smile eases me like nothing else over the last few weeks.
“Merry Christmas, Mitch,” I half whisper.
“Merry Christmas, Christine,” he responds in kind. “We’ll chat soon.”
“Absolutely. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.”
Mitch and I separate and return to our respective vehicles. I glance at the box in my hand as I reach my side of the Prius. I wonder what Darren will make of my gift. I suspect my face will tell him the majority of the story.