Whitney peered into the store window and nudged Alex in the side. She pointed to the binoculars and said, “That would be the perfect gift for Mark.”
“I thought we weren’t going to encourage his peeping tom ways,” Alex replied.
“I’m serious. He mentioned how he was interesting in bird watching.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s what he meant and no, I don’t want to figure it out.”
“Well, we need to get him something. We haven’t bought any gifts yet and the holidays are right around the corner.”
“Don’t worry. It’s taken care of. You can continue to live in your happy bubble of the-holidays-were-created-to-cause-me-pain,” Alex replied.
“You make me sound like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and all Happiness from Those Whom She Loved.”
Alex turned to face her and said, “That’s exactly what I said. In fact I was going to wait ‘til you went to sleep tonight and paint you green.”
“You and your kinks. You couldn’t be like other guys who want Princess Leia?”
“I didn’t even know that was on the table,” Alex replied.
“Not anymore, pal. You called me a Christmas Scrooge,” Whitney replied. Off the look on his face, the I’m-Alex-And-I’m-A-Martyr-Because-I-Put-Up-With-Crazy-Whitney expression, she added, “You inferred it.”
“I know you’re not a fan of the holidays or anything that makes you feel icky emotions, so I took care of the gifts and left you to stress out about other things, like the end of the Mayan calendar,” he said.
“See if I save your sorry ass next year when I’m safely tucked away in a bunker.”
“Anyway, we’re fine. Gifts have been bought.” Alex pulled her away from the window and moved toward the coffee shop at the end of the block. He continued, “If you’re interested in the details, we got your mother a day at the spa and Lily and Neal will be the lucky recipients of tickets to a Michael Bublé concert.”
“I’ve never even heard Lily or Neal mention this Michael Bublé character once.”
“They picked one of his songs for their wedding song,” Alex replied.
He held open the door of the coffee place for her, but she waved him off. “Now you’re just making up stories. I can’t believe you picked out all the gifts without me.”
“Like I do every year.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Ev-er-y year, Whit,” he replied slowly. He motioned indoors and said, “Can we take this indoors where there is some coffee and heat to go along with your special brand of wacky?”
She shot a mock glare in his direction and shooed him toward the baristas. “I’m going to find a seat while you get the drinks, but don’t think this conversation is over.”
Whitney could hear him mutter something under his breath as she stalked off to find a table. She pulled a pen and a piece of paper out of her purse and tried to list items that she had bought for their friends in the past. Her mind was blank for a moment and then she remembered. She shouted, “I got Neal the Totem pole for his apartment. Ha!”
Alex rolled his eyes. When he approached the table with their drinks, he said, “I returned the Totem Pole the next day while you were at your photo shoot.”
“Why would you do that?” Whitney asked, snatching her drink out of his hand. “I better start drinking this coffee or you might return it for something you think is better.”
“It was a horrible gift and I wanted to save you the embarrassment of having to explain why you would give someone a totem pole.”
“It was supposed to act as an example of how Americans are so quick to lump everyone into one group – like he’s Indian, but he’s not that kind of Indian, but to some people, it just doesn’t matter. It was meant to be a conversation-starter. You don’t just tell someone that you were given an Indian Totem pole and that’s that…no, you talk about it and how it makes you feel and delve deep into the current state of racism in our country.”
“People don’t want gifts that are conversation starters. They want simple and preferably returnable.”
Whitney shook her head and said, “Maybe that’s true when you’re involved because you buy sucky gifts.”
“What was that Injun Joe?”
Whitney crossed her arms and narrowed her gaze on him. It was a hit-or-miss method of intimidation with Alex, who could burst out laughing about as often as he would cower in fear. She said, “You heard me. You buy crappy gifts for people, and now I’ve become associated with your horrible gift-giving ways.”
“Roxanne loved her smoothie maker.”
“Have you ever seen Roxanne with a drink that wasn’t forty proof?”
“My parents wouldn’t stop talking about how much they loved Jersey Boys.”
“Your parents won’t stop talking about how great it was you picked up milk at the store for them. They don’t count.”
“Neal loved the gift card I got for him after I returned your awful present.”
Whitney faked a yawn and said, “A gift card is what you give someone when you don’t care enough to try.”
“You give me gift cards all the time,” he said. She smirked and took a sip of her drink. Alex smiled, adding, “I see what you’re trying to do and it won’t work.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, drawing out the words between sips of her drink. Sometimes the best part of a relationship was playing with your significant other, especially when you loved him. It kept him on his toes.
Alex shrugged out of his jacket and threw it on the empty chair between them. He pulled his chair in closer to the table and leaned forward. He said, “We both know that I’m the superior gift giver.”
“Do you even hear yourself? Acting like it’s a competition,” Whitney replied. She followed his lead and leaned forward, until she could feel his breath tickling her cheek. She grinned and said, “Because if it were, I would totally wipe the floor with you. People would be so busy praising the amazing gifts that I bought them and going on about how I am a gift giving genius that no one would notice you crying in the corner over your lame presents that nobody liked.”
Alex laughed. “If that helps you sleep at night.”
“I don’t need help sleeping because I bought myself the gift of high quality organic feather pillows.”
“Is this really how you want to spend our holidays? Being crushed when I get our friends gifts and you buy conversation starters?”
“That sounds an awful lot like a bet, buddy.”
“Yeah, and when I win, I get Princess Leia put back on the table.”
“And when I win I get to see you painted up like the Grinch.”
Alex stuck out his hand. “You’re on.”
She shook it and immediately began thinking of ways to totally destroy Alex. In a nice, happy Christmas-y way, of course.
“Hey Whit, X-Factor is about to start. I know how much you like judging the judges,” Alex called from the couch.
“I’ll be there in a second.”
“What could possibly come between you and your irrational hatred of Nicole Scherzinger?”
“Nothing you need to worry about,” she replied, clicking on another site in her web browser and grinning in victory. Alex was going to lose their bet spectacularly with this special weapon of gift giving up her sleeve. She looked up to see him watching her and added, “And my hatred is not irrational. She makes you’re-a-special-snowflake-Abdul look sane.”
“If you’re busy does that mean I can watch something else?”
“I’m almost done.”
“Nice try, but I’m not talking.”
“I think it’s so cute that you’re trying to win this bet. We both know it’s not going to happen.”
“I know what else isn’t going to happen tonight either,” Whitney replied, shutting the laptop. She stood up and moved across the room to the couch. She sat down and draped her legs across Alex’s lap and said, “I really hope they let the ex-meth head perform his own songs again. It’s like my birthday and Christmas all wrapped up in one funny package.”
Alex rested his hands on her legs and said, “And this is why I’m going to win.”
Whitney knocked on the door with the toe of her boot and shouted, “Alex, I need some help here.”
She heard the shuffle of feet and as soon as the door opened, Whitney flung boxes in his general direction. She said, “You got some mail.”
“Great. I was worried these wouldn’t get here in time.”
She motioned down the hall and said, “There are more downstairs. Are you supplying a small country with gifts for the holidays?”
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
“I’m shaking in my boots,” she replied, thrusting another box on top of the one before. She closed the door behind her and called out, “Have fun.”
“This was really nice of you guys to do for everyone,” Lily said, starting to empty a bag of presents under the tree. “I think you guys might have gone overboard. Where should I put these?”
Whitney took the bag from her and said, “Oh, that’s some of Alex’s gifts.”
“Don’t ask, Lil, you really don’t want to know,” Roxanne said from her spot on the couch.
“What?” Lily asked.
“Alex thinks he’s better at buying gifts for everyone. I aim to prove him wrong,” Whitney replied. There was a knock at the door and Whitney grinned. “And my secret weapon has arrived.”
Whitney pushed in front of Alex, who was heading for the door, and shoved Lily’s bag into his hands. She said, “This will be for me.”
“Everyone we know is already here,” Alex replied.
“It’s part of my amazing gift giving,” she said. She opened the door and said, “Hi, Santa! Thank you for stopping by.”
“You hired Santa?” Alex said.
“You don’t hire Santa. Someone who really understands Christmas knows that Santa just shows up with presents,” Whitney replied. She nudged Alex in the side and said, “And it’s not just Santa, bitch, I’ve got his elves too.”
Three small men followed Santa into the living room and helped Santa lower two big red bags to the ground. “Ho, ho, ho.”
“Please tell me there is no sleigh with reindeer on our roof.”
“Be serious, Alex. That would be silly,” she said. She clapped her hands together and said, “C’mon guys, I sent Santa a letter asking him to bring what you all most wanted this year.”
“What I most wanted wouldn’t be in that bag,” Roxanne commented, putting down her glass of wine on the counter, and moving closer to the tree.
Mark glanced up from his place on the sofa in front of the cheese platter, and with a mouthful of food said, “I wouldn’t mind it, but it would be illegal."
“You should just be quiet,” Alex suggested to his friend.
“The elves and Santa have been hard at work all year and now, I hope you can all enjoy what he has for each of you,” Whitney glanced at the tree and the array of gifts littered below and added, “Oh, and Alex has some knick knacks for you as well.”
“Yes, when you’re all done playing with your toys from Santa, I’ve got actual grown up gifts for everyone.”
Whitney ignored him and took Santa’s hand. She said, “Santa, why don’t you sit over by the window? I have some cookies and cocoa for you and some beer for the elves.”
“You rock, Whitney,” one of the elves called out.
Another high-fived her and said, “Yeah, thanks. There is only so much humiliation I can endure sober.”
Alex stepped closer and whispered in her ear, “Do you think it’s smart to have drunk small people running around our apartment?”
“Go cry into your eggnog while this genius wins this bet.”
"Sweetie, it's really hard to take you seriously in a snowman sweater," Lily whispered loudly in her ear.
She raised her hands in mock surrender. "I'm just saying..."
"Your fiancé is wearing a Santa hat and a fake Rudolph nose."
Alex chucked her chin and said, "I think you look cute in the sweater."
"Thank you, Alex."
"But I think you might be getting ahead of yourself considering no one has actually opened a gift yet."
“That’s because no one has gone to sit on Santa’s lap. Roxanne, why don't you go first?”
Roxanne dropped the strand of popcorn garland she was playing with on the tree and said, “Do I have to?”
Whitney glared at her and Roxanne sighed as she cautiously maneuvered herself onto Santa’s lap. She said, “Let’s get this over with, Santa.”
“And what’s your name pretty girl?”
Santa motioned to the two elves holding the sack and they began digging through it. They pulled out a large box and handed it to Roxanne. She eyed the box suspiciously before opening it. She pulled out a thread-bare stocking with her name in glitter along with a small box of homemade ornaments.
“Score one for me,” Alex commented.
Whitney pulled out her best talk-to-the-hand move, quieting Alex with a look, and said to Roxanne, “Take a closer look.”
She picked up one of the ornaments and held it up in the light. She hugged Santa and jumped up and hugged Whitney. “I thought these were lost forever.”
“No, they were in a box in the attic of your ex-husband’s house.”
“Like I said, lost forever.”
“Merry Christmas, Roxanne,” Whitney replied, sticking her tongue out at Alex.
Mark popped another cheese cube into his mouth before standing up and approaching Santa. Mark stopped in front of him and said, “I’m not sitting on your lap.”
“I'll get over it. Let’s just see what we brought for you from the North Pole.”
The elves went back into the bag and Whitney leaned in close to Alex. “This is me wiping the floor with you.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too, honey,” Alex replied, wrapping his arm around her. He pulled her against him and whispered, “I’m going to destroy you.”
Mark pulled the paper off the box and pulled his gift out. “No way. I’ve been trying to track down a carburetor for the old Impala for months.” He looked from Santa to the carburetor to Whitney, "This is amazing, Whitney."
“It’s not a big deal,” Whitney replied. She pushed her hair back from her face and waved him off, “One of my clients knew a guy and I thought I could help Santa out.”
Alex pointed at the box. “You don’t even own a car. Why were you looking for a carburetor?”
“We talked about this a few times, man. My dad told me I could have his old Impala if I could fix it up and get it out of his garage by spring. Do you ever listen when I talk?”
“Yeah, Alex, do you ever listen when he talks?” Whitney asked.
Alex rolled his eyes and said, “It’s still just a carburetor and Mark doesn’t know how to change a light bulb let alone fix up a car.”
“Thanks, Whitney,” Mark replied. He glanced at Alex and said, “You’re lucky Santa’s here or I’d have some unkind things to say to you.”
“What did I do—“
“—Sorry, I’m going to call my dad and tell him about the great gift Whitney got me.”
Whitney couldn’t hide her grin when Mark walked into the other room and pulled out his cellphone. She started dancing and in a sing-song voice said, “I am awesome and you are not…your friends hate you, but they love me…”
“That’s not annoying at all.”
Still in the sing-song voice, “And you can suck it.”
“We haven’t gotten to my gifts yet. Just wait.”
The elves pulled the next gift out of the sack and said, “This is for Lily, Santa.”
Lily stepped up and sat down on Santa’s lap. She said, “I’m both intrigued and scared by what is happening.”
Santa chuckled out a quick "ho, ho, ho" and said, “Merry Christmas, Lily. This is for you.”
Lily opened the box and pulled out a scrap book. She flipped through the pages to find pictures of her and Neal that Whitney had snapped throughout the year. There was another scrap book, but it was empty.
“One to celebrate the past and one for the future,” Whitney said.
“This is so unlike you, Whit. Thank you!” Lily replied.
“It really is unlike her. Almost like she stole that line from a Hallmark card.”
Whitney elbowed Alex in the side and said, “And if you're cool with it, I want to take your engagement photos. No charge, hassle or worries.”
Alex turned to face her and stared at her suspiciously. “Who are you and what have you done with my girlfriend?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Since when do you do things like pay attention and encourage sentimentality?”
Whitney grinned. “Since I’m going to get to see you painted up like the Christmas Grinch, bitch.”
“You wish, sister.”
Whitney rolled her eyes and said, “Neal, you’re up.”
“I’ve never been near a Santa before. This is kinda awesome.”
“Wait ‘til you see your gift,” Whitney replied. She leaned back against Alex and said, “This is my favorite.”
The elves went to the door and grabbed the other red sack, except it was too heavy for them to lift, so they grabbed it by its sides and pulled. It didn’t move at first, so they grunted and pulled harder, managing to move it one side at a time, like it was a refrigerator, leaving a trail of marred flooring in its wake.
“What the hell did you do?” Alex questioned.
“Shush. It’s Neal’s time with Santa.”
Neal looked from Whitney to Lily to Santa before opening the sack. He stared at the bag with a perplexed look before he tried to pick up the gift. He grunted but it wouldn’t move, so Santa motioned for the elves to help and between them all they managed to finagle the sack off the huge item.
“Is that a totem pole?” Lily asked.
“Oh no,” Alex said.
Whitney clapped and squealed, “It’s a conversation starter just for Neal!”
Alex cut him off, “—a horrible mistake.”
“—so cool. Did you know that six different places claim to have the world’s largest totem pole? And each one is like its own version of a picture book, sharing ancient stories that were meant to be remembered.”
“That was a lucky guess,” Alex muttered.
Whitney shrugged. She’d take whatever she could. She said, “I thought it was fun. If I had a place for it, I would love one too.”
“Well, you’ve got one because that’s not going in our home. I feel all its eyes on me and it’s creepy,” Lily commented. She turned to Whitney and said, “But thank you, I think. This was surprisingly fun, even if I now feel a little guilty. I didn’t put this much thought into the gifts I brought.”
“It’s okay, Lily. I like to take a few extra minutes at the holidays to really think about what matters most to my friends so I can give the best gifts ever.”
“Or second best gifts. My turn.”
“I figured this was from both of you,” Neal said.
Alex glanced at the totem pole and said, “No.” He squatted down below the tree and said, “I don’t have a Santa to give out the gifts but…”
“Honey, you can borrow my Santa and elves if you want.”
“That’s alright. I don’t need to be showy. The gifts speak for themselves,” Alex said. He quickly distributed boxes to Roxanne, Lily and Neal and called out, “Mark, I’ve got a gift for you if you’re not still mad at me.”
Mark appeared in the doorway and said, “Well, it’s the holidays, a time for forgiveness.”
“I hope you all enjoy,” Alex said, motioning for everyone to unwrap their gifts. A cacophony of ripping paper filled the apartment and, much to Whitney’s chagrin, squeals of delight.
Mark lifted up his present. “I owe you an apology, man. You actually do listen when I talk. You remembered I wanted binoculars.”
“You sneaky little cheater,” Whitney said, folding her arms and taking on her favorite annoyed stance.
“I just like to take a few extra minutes and think about what my friends want,” Alex replied in his condescending, mock Whitney tone.
She felt her fingers curl into a fist and thought about knocking the damn grin off his face. But she was above that. She was going to win this bet despite his cheating ways.
“Gift cards for Nordstrom’s. You are my hero, Alex,” Roxanne said, hugging the cards tightly to her chest.
“One never goes wrong with a gift card. Lily? Neal? You guys okay with your gift?”
“How did you find these Michael Bublé tickets? They sold out so fast since it was such a small venue,” Lily said, waving the tickets in front of her eyes like she was trying to hypnotize everyone. She grabbed Neal's hand and said, "Neal was depressed for days when he thought we weren't going."
Alex stood up and smirked in Whitney’s direction. He pretended to toss his hair over his shoulder and said, “Not a big deal. One of my college buddies knew a guy who was able to find tickets for me.”
The urge to hit him rose back up again and she wondered if this was why relationships rarely lasted for the long haul. Because no matter how much you might love the person, there were times when you really wanted to physically harm them as well. And she was not a girl meant to survive in prison.
“You guys really went all out this year,” Roxanne said.
“Well, we love you guys. You’re our family,” Whitney said.
“Yeah, and we wanted you to know how much you matter,” Alex added.
“Out of curiosity though, what did you like better?” Whitney asked.
“What?” Neal said.
“Gift wise. What was better – the gifts that really mattered or what Alex got?”
“I’m curious too,” Alex said. “Did you prefer my useful and practical gifts or stuff you’ll put aside until you’re featured on Hoarders?”
Whitney turned to him and pointed her finger in his face. “You’re such a sore loser.”
He opened his arms in a swift move as if to say what-are-you-talking-about-I’m-innocent and replied, “That would imply I lost when it’s clear that I gave everyone the good gifts.”
“I got Santa and elves to deliver a frickin’ totem pole! There is no doubt that I’m the winner.”
“You’re insane. Literally, certifiably insane,” Alex countered.
Whitney pushed him in the chest and said, “Just admit that you were wrong and I might let you off the hook. Mr. Wannabe Omniscient Gift-Giver.”
“I wasn’t wrong and I can’t believe you actually re-purchased that stupid totem pole.”
“And he loved it.”
“He was humoring you. And as I recall, Lily said he couldn’t keep it and now we’re stuck with creepy clown faces watching us while we sleep.”
“Just you because you now live on the couch,” Whitney replied. She motioned next to her and said, “Why don’t we let our friends decide?”
“By all means.”
“Guys, it’s okay to hurt his feelings and tell…” Whitney paused to glance around the room. The only people left were her, Alex and her hired helpers. She looked at Alex and asked, “Where did everyone go?”
“I’m not sure.”
“They went to watch football at the other guy’s place and he said we could join them,” one of the elves said, gathering up the two red sacks and leaving the apartment.
"They said if they wanted to witness uncomfortable fighting they would've gone home for the holidays," Santa added. He pulled out a flask and took a chug, waved in their general vicinity and followed the elf out the door.
“Do you see what you’ve done? You’ve scared away our friends,” Whitney replied.
Whitney took a deep breath and collapsed onto the sofa. She said, “Alright, maybe we scared them.”
Alex plopped down next to her and draped his arm over her shoulder. He said, “There’s a chance we got carried away.”
“What's wrong with us?” Whitney asked, resting her head on his shoulder. She covered her face with her hands and said, “I’m turning into my fruit loop parents.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I am. I scare people away with my insanity.”
“Nah. We all love your insanity. It’s one of your most endearing traits,” Alex replied, squeezing her gently.
“You’re just saying that.”
“Nope. It’s true. You’re pretty awesome, at least two thirds of the time.”
She laughed. “Same to you.”
“Wanna call it a draw?” he asked.
She nodded and said, “Draw.” She glanced at the tree and said, "Wait a minute...if you already gave everyone their gifts, what were all those boxes that came the other day? And what are those under the tree?"
He laughed. "Oh that?"
She pointed behind her to the boxes. "Yes...that."
"Well, we're stocked up on supplies from Staples for the remainder of our lives, a few are gifts for you and the rest are for acquaintances I knew that you didn't remember."
"Why would I buy a gift for someone I can't bother to move to the friend category?"
"Because we like our mail delivered and our neighbors not to sit idly by while we get robbed."
"Fine," she said. She met his gaze and added, "I guess you are better at remembering who we need to get gifts for."
"And apparently you pay a lot more attention to our friends ramblings than I do."
"Sometimes. Off the record, there's a chance I've been recording conversations on my cellphone the past few weeks so I would seem like I'm a thoughtful person."
Alex squeezed her thigh and said, "It's probably a good thing we found each other then. Between neuroses and weird bets, no one else would want to deal with us."
She rested her hand on top of his and said, "Probably not."
“Think our friends will let us join them?”
“We can try, or…” Whitney paused and stood up.
She looked down at Alex and held out her hand. She said, “You didn't get your gift yet."
He grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist. "That's right, I didn't."
"And it's possible, what with me being the attentive girlfriend that I am, that I might have thrown together the Princess Leia ensemble, despite my fierce dislike of her hair choice and issues with the fact that she tried to make out with her brother.”
"She didn't know Luke was her twin at the time and it wasn't much of a kiss."
"Do you want to argue Star Wars with me or would you like to join me in the bedroom?" she said, pulling away from him and walking to the bedroom. She looked back with a smile and coy expression and added, "I'll just need a few minutes."
Alex jumped up and said, "Okay, maybe you are the better gift giver."