Moment of Truth: The First Christmas

This free piece is related to my Chaser, Moment of Truth, Part I of which is available from my publisher, Torquere Press. 

Spoiler Alert:  for those who have not yet read Moment of Truth Part I: To Serve and Protect, this piece may contain spoilers. 

 

Moment of Truth:  The First Christmas

 

Dan was looking forward to his first Christmas with Gary.  They’d been together ever since that day six months ago when Dan had asked Gary to move in with him, and not a day had passed that Dan had not thanked whatever powers may be for allowing him the privilege of living with someone like Gary.  Dan was still head over heels for him, and couldn’t imagine a life without his friendship, and his love.

They kept their relationship on the down-low at work, although they couldn’t really hide the fact that they were sharing an apartment – as far as their team knew, it was because Gary couldn’t face going back to his place.  Laura knew, of course, but she was the soul of discretion.  Whether anyone else had suspicions was a matter for conjecture, but no-one had ever made any comments.  Dan and Gary were best buddies, and that was all anyone needed to know.

Dan stared at his closet.  Gary had told him to “dress down” to go out this evening, and he wasn’t really sure what that meant.  It was Christmas Eve, after all – normally that called for dressing up?   Dan scratched his head.  Just then, a commotion at the front door announced that Gary was home.

“Hey man,” said Gary breezily as he clattered into the front hall, dropping his keys, wallet, cellphone and iPod onto the ceramic tile.  He lobbed his leather jacket backwards over his shoulder, where it landed with a satisfying whump over the back of the couch. 

“Score!” Gary beamed at Dan, kicked off his shoes, left them spinning in the corner, and threw himself headlong onto the couch. 

Gary had kept true to his promise (or was it a threat?) to “Garyify” Dan’s condo.  There were books everywhere, piles of Scientific American journals, Marilyn Manson cds, post-it notes on the fridge, and leftover Pad Thai takeout in the fridge.  Dan’s immaculate granite bathroom counter had vanished under a truckload of hair gel and something called ‘hair candy’ which smelled like grapefruit and bore the stern warning ‘do not eat or smoke’.  A ‘My Chemical Romance’ poster had suddenly appeared on the study wall.  And let’s not even talk about the bedroom.  Yes, Gary had arrived, and Dan’s life would never be the same.

Dan grinned at him.  “Could you make any more noise, possibly?  I’m trying to figure out what to wear tonight.” 

“I told you, dress down.”

“Yeah but what does that mean, exactly?  It’s Christmas Eve!” 

Gary craned his neck to look at Dan.  “It means jeans and a t-shirt, man.  Look at me.  I’m not changing.”

Dan peered over to see what Gary was wearing.  He was right – in fact he’d never seen Gary look less like he was going out for the evening.  Normally he’d be dressed to kill in bondage pants, some kind of uber-shock shirt, wild hair and eyeliner.   But tonight he was dressed very plainly, one might almost say ‘ordinary’ – if someone who looked the way Gary did could ever be described as ordinary – but regular jeans, no jewelry, workday hair and a khaki t-shirt with the word ‘irresistible’ on the front really was dressing down for Gary.

“Well, alright, I guess, if you insist.  Navy tee and jeans okay then?”  Dan asked.  He was curious about where they were going, but Gary had said it was a surprise.  He pulled on his clothes, conscious of the admiring glances coming from the direction of the couch.

“Come on, man, it starts at seven,” Gary said, scrunching his feet into his sneakers without undoing the laces. 

“You have to tell me where we’re going, baby,” Dan purred, sneaking up behind Gary and sliding his arms around his waist.  He nibbled at his earlobe. 

“Geez, Mason, you’re insatiable!”  Gary wriggled out of his grasp.  “You’ll just have to trust me, okay?” 

Dan made a face. 

“Gonna have to work on this trust issue of yours, dude.”  Gary admonished, with mock annoyance.

Dan grinned.  “Alright!  God.  Come on then – obviously you’re driving.”

 

Gary drove like a European.  Or at least, that was his version;  Dan would have said he drove like a maniac.  The Jeep YJ careened around corners and belted down the straightaways like a Formula 3 stockcar.  Dan held on for dear life as they bounced across railway tracks and hurtled down sidestreets.  They were off the Strip now, and heading into a neighborhood that Dan would sooner have avoided. 

“Uh, baby, where are we going?  This is not the best of areas …”   He looked at Gary, who was humming happily to the cheesy Christmas songs on the radio.

“Be cool, man,” Gary smiled.  “You’ll see.  This is the best part of Christmas.”

Dan stared at him.  “Gary – please tell me we’re not going to church.” 

Gary snorted and started laughing.  “Give me a little credit, Dan.  I’m a humanist.  No, that’s not it.  Good guess, though.”   He grinned to himself as he drove on. 

He really is quite mad, Dan thought.

Finally, Gary pulled the Jeep over with a screech of tires and cranked on the handbrake.  Dan lurched forward and his seatbelt locked up. 

“Holy God, Carson!” he exclaimed, but it was no use.  Gary was still grinning from ear to ear. 

“Here, make yourself useful.  Grab this stuff for me while I feed the meter.” 

Gary gestured towards the back seat, which was stuffed full of shopping bags.  Dan stared at him, but Gary had his back turned, and was cheerfully popping quarters into the parking meter. 

Dan looked around.  He couldn’t see the neon signage of a club or bar, or even the bright lights of a hotel in this dark, gloomy neighborhood.  The buildings were shabby and rundown.  He shivered and pulled up the collar of his jacket; December nights in Toronto were chilly.

“Come on then, here, let me get the door for you.”  Dan looked up, confused.  There was a door?  But there it was, right in front of him.  An old stone building, with the words ‘Hogtown Mission’ inscribed in tall, bleak letters on the lintel. 

“Gary …”  Dan began. 

“You’ll love it.  I know I do.  Go on, in you go.”  Gary gave Dan a playful boot through the door.

“Gary!”  A short, plump lady wearing a tartan tam-o-shanter and tweed skirt-suit ran at Gary, almost toppling him over with an enthusiastic hug.  

“Hey, Mrs. Faldo,” Gary laughed, hugging her back. 

“Glad you could make it, love, and who’s this?”

She eyed Dan up and down.  His arms were full of bags and he didn’t quite know what to do with himself, but he smiled and nodded. 

“This is my friend Dan, he’s great, you’ll just adore him – well, I do anyway.”  Gary beamed at Dan, who responded with a daggers look.

“Well, don’t stand on the doorstep, come in!  You’re just in time.”

Mrs. Faldo took the bags from Dan, and beckoned for him to follow.  “Come on now, don’t be shy, they don’t bite.  Well …”  she flashed her dentures at Gary.  “Some of ’em have been known … but not on Christmas, eh Gary?”

Gary ducked ahead and held the internal door open for Mrs. Faldo, and ushered Dan in as well, a wicked smirk on his face.

 

The door opened onto a large hall, filled with row upon row of long trestle tables and fold-up chairs.  The back wall contained more tables, upon which rested steaming pans and covered chafing dishes, ladles, huge urns of tea and coffee, and piles of white cafeteria plates and bowls.  The whole place was decorated with Christmas tinsel, a gaudy tree, what looked to be homemade streamers and popcorn garlands.  Dan let out a breath and looked at Gary.

“It’s a soup kitchen,” he said, rather stupidly. 

“Yeah, Dan Mason, master of the obvious,” quipped Gary, grinning.  “I help out every year, it’s amazing.”  Gary strode over to the back wall, took an apron and a hat from the pile and handed another set to Dan.  “Here, you’re gonna need these.” 

Dan looked down at the white gabardine cook’s apron, and at the Santa Claus hat that Gary had handed him.  He arched an eyebrow. 

“What?  You know you’re gonna look da bomb in that outfit.”

“Just for you, Gary …” Dan shot him a look as he put on the apron and jammed the Santa hat on his head. 

“Mason, everything you do is just for me, and you know you love it.  Come on, I’ll show you the ropes.”

Gary skipped across to the other side of the table and took the lid off the first chafing dish.  “Mmmm, turkey and stuffing!”  He sniffed the air in appreciation.  Dan’s stomach started to growl. 

“It sure does smell good …”

“Yeah, it does, although personally I prefer roast lamb.  But it’s not for us, Dan.  We get a good meal every day of the year.”  said Gary, his voice suddenly serious.  “It’s for them.” 

Dan looked across at the far side of the mission hall.  Mrs. Fargo was busily handing out tickets to the steady stream of shabby, worn-out looking homeless men, women and children who had been waiting patiently in a line at the door.  

“One person, one ticket, one meal,” she was saying, kindly.  The needy people stared at her meekly, took their ticket and filed in, each one taking a tray and starting to shuffle along the serving tables.  Dan glanced sideways at Gary, who was chatting happily with the other volunteers, most of whom it seemed had also been coming here every Christmas Eve for several years.  Dan couldn’t quite shift the lump in his throat that had lodged there since the people had started to stream in.  He felt a sudden pricking at the back of his eyelids and fought it with all his might.  Then, Gary was prodding him in the ribs.

“They get one slice of turkey and a spoonful of stuffing, one scoop of mashed potatoes, one spoon of peas and carrots, and a splash of gravy.  And put one slice of apple pie in the dish, and a scoop of icecream.  That’s one ticket:  one person, one ticket, one meal.  Got it?  Just watch me, you’ll get the hang of it.”

Dan nodded.  Then Gary poked him again.  “And smile!”

Dan’s first few smiles were a strain.  He felt a little overwhelmed, and wished that Gary had warned him what he was in for; but would he have come, if he’d known?  He suspected not.  His work took him into enough crackjoints and skid row housing complexes, rundown motels and seedy halfway houses – he wouldn’t have relished the thought of this one bit – especially not on Christmas Eve.  But as the line passed him, and he doled out the allotted portions, and the grateful, genuine smiles and arm-squeezes and hand-presses of the thin, drawn and tired people he served grew on him more and more, Dan found himself smiling with a warmth he’d never felt before. 

Gary stood beside him, merrily singing along to the bland, Johnny-Mathis-and-Bing-Crosby style Christmas music that was blaring from the tannoy system.  Gary couldn’t sing worth shit, and neither could he.  He caught Gary’s eye and grinned.  Gary elbowed him.  They both bellowed out in unison, “Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since there’s no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”

After what seemed like hours of dishing out food, the last of the lineup were fed, and the doors were closed.  Dan wiped his brow, and looked at Gary.  “We don’t have to wash the dishes as well, do we?”

Gary raised his eyebrows.  “Surely you don’t expect the Salvation Army to have a dishwasher installed, Dan?”  Dan groaned, and Gary sniggered.  “No, they have other helpers for that.  You can relax, we’ve done our bit.”

Dan collapsed onto a folding chair, and was greeted by a beaming Mrs. Faldo, who handed him a huge plate of turkey dinner with all the trimmings. 

“Now you didn’t think I’d make you do all that work and not get supper, did you Dan?”  she smiled, and bustled away to the kitchen.

“Thank you,” Dan called after her.  She waved a hand in deference.

“She’s amazing,” Gary mumbled between mouthfuls of food.  “She’s like my second mom.”

You’re amazing,” said Dan, stuffing an entire slice of turkey into his mouth at once.  “I had no idea you did this sort of thing.  None.  I figured you for a nouveau-punk kid who spent Christmas trying out the latest tech gadgets and bodysurfing at the Lido.” 

Gary shot him a look.  “I’m full of surprises.  For instance,” he said, getting up and leaving his plate on the chair.  “This nativity scene – did you know that the first Christmas wasn’t even Christmas at all?” 

Dan followed Gary over to the beautifully handcarved nativity, with its delicate painted figures of Mary and Joseph, and the baby in the manger.  He crouched down to examine it, next to Gary, who was turning the small figure of Mary over and over in his fingers.  Dan looked at Gary with a baffled expression.  “What on earth do you mean, G?”

“What I mean is, this celebration has been taking place for 50,000 years – ever since Man stepped out of his cave and started noticing the patterns of this planet.  This is the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year – and in the western hemisphere, pre-Christian peoples everywhere celebrated the solstice with the return of the sun, represented as a newborn child.  The child was born of a virgin goddess, under the evening star, in a barn surrounded by animals which represented the farming year.  The Church simply took the ancient traditions and pasted their own over top.”   Gary set Mary down, very carefully, in the straw next to the manger.  Gary glanced sideways at Dan, who was gaping at him. 

“But you know, that doesn’t mean the Church is wrong,” continued Gary.   “Don’t you see?   All the traditions – Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim… they all celebrate the return of the sun at the solstice.  The triumph of light over darkness.”  Gary looked at Dan.  “You taught me that, remember?”

Dan swallowed hard.  How could he ever forget.

“How in blue blazes do you know all this stuff, Carson?”  Dan said, scratching his head. 

Gary shrugged.  “I was bored at university, so I took a comparative religion and expansive philosophy elective.  You have to take a bit of time off when you’re a science major.” 

The strains of a violin broke into Dan’s thoughts.  “Oh, this is the best part,” Gary said enthusiastically, straightening up and pulling Dan by the hand.  “Come on.  You have to listen to this.” 

They sat down on the broken-down old sofa in the corner, as one of the dirtiest, thinnest and oldest women he’d ever seen got up from her chair and began to sing.  Her husband, equally grimy but with a huge smile on his face, accompanied her on the violin.  The room fell silent as she sang “Oh Holy Night”.  She had the most beautiful voice Dan had ever heard.

Gary snuggled closer to Dan on the sofa.  Dan tentatively put his arm around his shoulder, and glanced around the room.  Everywhere he looked, there were couples holding hands or cuddling, mothers with children on their knee, and yes, same-sex couples of either gender with their arms around each other.  No-one took a second look at Dan and Gary.  Dan felt suddenly as though a huge weight had fallen from his shoulders.  It’s okay to be this way.  It’s just love.

Dan smiled down at Gary and held him closer.  Gary grinned and snuggled into his shoulder as they listened to Grace and Lenny sing and play.  Dan leaned his head against Gary’s hair and closed his eyes.  He felt accepted, and at peace with himself for the first time in a long, long while.  This is what Christmas should be.

 

All too soon it was time to clean up and go.  Dan had made friends with so many of the homeless people, he got more hugs at one time than he’d ever gotten in his life.  Gary just looked on with a knowing smile.

“Now you boys take it easy on the drive home,”  Mrs. Faldo fussed, before pressing two gift bags into their hands.  “It’s my Christmas cake,”  she grinned.  “Gary is the only person who likes it.”  She winked at Gary, who winked back. 

“Thanks Mrs. F.,” he said.

“You’ll be back next year, won’t you dear?” she said, craning her neck to look up at Dan. 

“You bet, ma’am,” smiled Dan. 

“Oooh, I do love his voice,” Mrs. Faldo shivered a little and raised her eyebrows at Gary, who started to giggle.  Dan could have sworn he was blushing. 

“Yeah, me too.  See you next year, Merry Christmas!”

 

As they walked to the car, Gary stopped and pointed to the sky.  “Look, Dan.  See?” 

In the clear, blue-black night sky, the thinnest slice of new crescent moon hung like a curve of silver, as if about to embrace the single star that shone brightly at its side. 

“The evening star, Dan.  The Christmas star.”  Gary took Dan’s hand.  In the distance, a church bell rang. 

“It’s midnight already?!”  Dan looked at his watch. 

“Yeah.  It’s Christmas.”   Gary smiled at Dan.  Dan didn’t need any encouragement.  He pulled Gary into his arms and kissed him tenderly.  He didn’t care who saw.  He was so beyond that now. 

“Merry Christmas, baby, I love you,” he murmured, stroking Gary’s hair gently. 

“Merry Christmas, mi amore,” said Gary, happily. 

As Dan drove them home, he turned to Gary, who was half asleep in the passenger seat. 

“Baby?” 

“Hmmm?”

“What you said to me just now…what does it mean?”

Gary stirred a little in his half-doze.  He turned and looked at Dan, a contented smile on his face.

“It means I love you.”

 

****

 

 

 

© A.J. Wilde, 2008

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