Holiday Short Story Contest: Love and Christmas Cookies

Love and Christmas Cookies

Three weeks until Christmas Eve
Eggnog latte. Check. Christmas radio station playing Wham’s “Last Christmas.” Check. Inflatable thirty foot Santa Claus with eight reindeer on top of the Ford car dealership. Check, check and check.
I peek out the window and watch Gary Wyndam, owner of the car dealership, motion his hands like an orchestra conductor to the handyman standing on the rooftop. After several different tries, Gary finally flashes the okay sign. Santa and his reindeer sit perched on the building hovering above the 405 freeway as a glowing beacon of Christmas cheer to drivers stuck in gridlock traffic.
Looks like Christmas in Los Angeles has officially arrived, I muse happily and turn on my Christmas music a bit louder so I can rock out.
“Tis the season to be jolly, fa, la, la, la,” I sing off-key as I pour a cup of brown sugar into a vintage Depression pink mason jar. I pat the sugar firmly with a small pastry spatula, follow with a 1 ½ cup of flour, 2/3 cup of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder, a cup of chocolate chips, a heaping cup of toffee chips and cup of chopped pecans. 
Slipping on the cap, I seal it shut and wrap a turquoise and silver ribbon around the pale pink nape of the jar and slide a miniature wood rolling pin and a stick of cinnamon for eye candy.  I step away from the jar and admire the different layers and textures knowing any baker will love finding this gift underneath their Christmas tree.
“Dear Nicole, Enjoy making these Blondie Bars. They are both delicious and sinful. Happy Baking this Holiday Season—Sweetly Yours, Mason Jar Betty”
The back door opens abruptly and my mother appears in front of me wearing a bright lemon yellow windbreaker with her teacup terrier Coco—named after the hot beverage, not the fashion designer—tucked under her arm.
“How could you not tell me that you and Kevin broke up?” she demands with the same look she gave me when she caught me smoking in high school.
How could I forget to lock the door?
“Mom, I don’t want to talk about it and there are no dogs allowed in a kitchen. Take him outside.” I slump against the stainless steel counter and mentally prepare myself for a good old fashion guilt trip that only a mother can do.
“He was practically family, Eleanor. We bought him a Christmas gift this year. What am I going to do with the craft beer of the month club we got him? Beers from Belgium? Holiday ales? Stouts?” my mother asks loudly while she ties Coco to a bike rack.
“Send it to me. I’m going through a breakup and alcohol helps.”
“That isn’t funny. How could you not tell us?  I called him this morning to ask him what time would work for dinner this Christmas since you have been avoiding my call,” she says with an accusatory look.  “And he told me you broke it off with him a month ago. A month? I was so embarrassed.” My mother groans, but I continue packaging the orders that need to go out today, refusing to let her bait me into another discussion on how I am mishandling my love life. “Well, at least I got to say goodbye to him,” she says with watery eyes.
“Seriously? Are you crying? This is why I don’t tell you, Mom. Where’s your tiara?”
She gets quiet and blinks at me while she thinks about this and then laughs at herself. “Okay. You may be right.” My mother tucks her car keys into her fanny pack and takes a seat on one of the stools in the kitchen that I rent three times a week at Naples Culinary School.  “So, I have to ask. What was wrong with this one? Not fun? Too rich? Not creative enough? I had a feeling he wasn’t going to make it to Christmas when he took you camping for your birthday. Your father and I were surprised to see him for lunch that next weekend.”
“For the record, I like camping, just not when it requires hunting for my own food,” I say tartly.
How do I explain to my mom that when it comes to love, I know what I am looking for because I have felt it before when I was too young and arrogant to know that big love, the kind that changes you, doesn’t happen often? If ever. How do I tell her that what I felt for Kevin and everyone else in the last eight years doesn’t  come close to what I felt once before? Do I tell my mother that? No.
“Mom, we just didn’t fit.”
“How can it be that no one ever fits, Eleanor?”
Two days until Christmas Eve
“Welcome to Long Beach Airport, seventy five degrees and clear blue skies. Happy Holidays, folks,” the pilot croons over the loudspeaker as the crowd of passenger’s mob their way to the front door.
Hello sweet sunshine, Danny O’Hare thinks as he steps off the plane and takes a deep belly breath of the crisp ocean air. How he ended up living in Wisconsin, is something he asks himself every February when he’s defrosting his car for thirty five minutes before driving to work in the dark of winter.
“Danny!” He hears his name and scans the cars lined up on the curb and sees his older sister Barbara waving at him from her station wagon looking nervously toward a cop who is staring at her and pointing to the “Loading Only” sign. “I cannot believe you are here little brother,” she says happily as he jumps in the car and she guns it out of the airport.
“Nice to see my girls. It has been way too long.”
“Mom is convinced you hate her new husband and that’s why you are skipping the holidays at her house.” Barbara settles into her chatty self and the two years they haven’t seen each other melts away. “Thursday is the city’s Christmas Eve on the Bay celebration, remember? Gosh, you used to work that festival every year when you worked at the coffeehouse on the pier. Beansmith, I think it was called?”
“All that hot chocolate and mulled apple cider paid for my beer money on the weekends.”
“Could be a fun way to spend some family time,” Barbara says with a sideways glance. “Mom tells me you haven’t dated anyone since you broke up with Patty last year. You in a slump or just taking a break?”
Danny looks out the window and debates on his answer. Is he in a slump? He’d say so, but no matter how many dates he goes on or relationships he gets involved in, there is always a moment when he realizes it’s not what he is looking for or maybe he should say who. Eleanor Ortiz, the name and the girl have been taking up space in his mind since last Christmas, ever since he split up with Patty. A surprise since it looked as if they were moving toward a marriage proposal not a breakup.
But there they were, decorating a Christmas tree, fireplace blazing, drinking eggnog martinis and listening to Bing Crosby. In between kissing under the mistletoe and hanging the Christmas angel, Danny looked over at Patty and knew she wasn’t the one. Again. This keeps happening.
“I don’t mean to be nosey. Forget I asked. You’ll meet someone when the time is right,” Barbara says sheepishly. “I sound like mom sometimes and that really scares me.”
“It’s okay.  I’m in a slump. It’s official. But that’s why I came here to see you for Christmas, looking for some perspective.”
“Christmas cures everything. We can watch cheesy movies and bake cookies for the festival tomorrow. I’ll make your favorite …”
“Brown sugar shortbread,” Danny says, relishing the comfort of being with family.
“That’s right. And tomorrow night we will head out, sing a few carols and get you back in the right spirits. Sometimes, you have to come home to find what you’re looking for.”
“That’s what I’m hoping.”
Christmas Eve
No matter how old you are, how busy or how Grinch-like you may be, you can’t help but be charmed by our beach town Christmas. The city is turned into a winter wonderland of colorful lights, inflatable snowmen that buoy in the ocean and homes are transformed into glowing gingerbread houses and candy cane lanes.
It really is the most magical time of year, I think while looking at the bay sparkle with Christmas lights as the day dips into dusk and the smell of cinnamon and mulled cider mingles with salty ocean air.
“What did the maven of cookies make us this year?” asks Vivian Howard, the grey haired retired librarian who runs the cookie exchange with an iron rolling pin.
“Brown sugar shortbreads, peanut blossoms and Blondie Bars.”
Vivian nods approvingly and points at the Christmas sweater I unearthed at the Salvation Army sweater sale this week.
“How do you get that thing to glow?”
I put both hands on my waist and twirl around like an overzealous catalogue model to show off the reindeer with the red flashing nose.
“There’s a tiny battery in the sweater,” I say with delight. “I think I can win the ugly sweater contest with this one.
“No doubt about that sweetheart,” Vivian says while scanning the sign-up sheet.
“By the way, someone else is bringing in brown sugar shortbread cookies this year.”
“Really?” I reach for the clipboard. “I got that recipe from someone a long time ago. I’ve never met anyone who knows about them.” I read the list of names. “Barbara and Page LaRue. Never heard of them. Are they new to the neighborhood?”
“You know Barbara. She used to be Barbara O’Hare. The tall, leggy blonde who was always late returning her books.” Vivian tsks and then lowers her voice. “She moved back a few months ago from San Francisco with her thee-year old daughter.
My heart races. Barbara O’Hare is back in town?
“What time is she scheduled to drop off her cookies?” I ask casually.
“Five o’clock,” Vivian says and then lowers her bifocals down to peer at me in a way that only a woman of a certain age can. “You dated her brother, didn’t you? Danny? The quiet one. He was a bookworm that one and always returned his books on time. Such a good boy,” she sighs.
“Yes, yes he was a good one,” I agree absentmindedly.  Great, even Vivian loved him.
Just as I’m about to launch into an overly personal explanation on why Danny and I split up after college instead of getting married—and divorced—as so many of our classmates did. Vivian straightens her shoulders like a good Christmas soldier as Santa Claus walks past us.
“Merry Christmas, ladies. Let’s get ready.”
“Merry Christmas, Santa,” we chime back.
“Look alive, Eleanor. It’s starting.” Vivian is all business now. Christmas has officially started. My pending emotional share will have to be postponed.
“We need a tray of hot cocoas and mulled cider from Beansmith. Can you be a dear and pick them up? Tell Carol we need twenty of each and keep ‘em coming all night.”
“You got it. Be right back.” I dash off, hoping Barbara doesn’t arrive while I’m gone, but what’s  a few more minutes when I’ve waited eight years.
Rushing through the maze of the bay pathways, I decide to make a quick detour to the Myer’s house that is decorated into a brightly colored gingerbread house—dancing candy canes and gingerbread men included. It’s my favorite holiday house on display and also where Danny and I kissed for the first time.
I’ve never forgotten that kiss. Or him for that matter, I think as I turn the corner and come to an abrupt halt when I see Danny sitting on the bench. He’s facing the bay, watching the cluster of boats gear up for the Christmas boat parade.
I walk over and take a seat next to him quietly. “Danny O’Hare, I’ve been waiting for you,” I say as if I just saw him days before.
“Have you? Me too.” Danny doesn’t skip a beat either and takes my hand into his as our fingers instantly intertwine.
“I made a mistake” I say, thinking about the moment eight years ago when I broke up with him so I could move to Boston for my career.
But he lifts has hand, places his finger on my lips and shakes his head.
“I noticed that you still bake my favorite Christmas cookies. Why is that?” he asks, our noses nearly touching and both of us grinning at each other foolishly.
“I guess I hoped that if I set them out with a glass of milk, Santa would make my Christmas wish come true. Looks like he finally did,” I say as Danny pulls me close and leans in for a kiss.
“Merry Christmas, Eleanor Ortiz,” he whispers.