The tree was only a few feet tall, and you could practically smell the fumes from the green paint across the room. Still, it had been with Gwen’s family for years, and she wasn’t quite ready to get rid of it. She took a step back and adjusted the tinsel a bit, while Nick pretended not to watch from the couch.
“I love Christmas decorations,” she said, glancing back at him.
The apartment was small, even for a studio, but they’d done their best over the years to make it feel like home. Most of the stuff was Nick’s, and Gwen knew better than to ask questions about where it came from. A few well-placed screens gave the illusion of space. He got up and wrapped her in a hug from behind. “That’s interesting, given that you hate Christmas,” he said.
Gwen shivered a little as he kissed her shoulder, the stubble on his face scratching against her skin. “I hate the shitty music and the forced cheerfulness. The rest of it, I’ve got no problem with.”
Pulling her against him, Nick swayed in place, moving to music that nobody else could hear. “So presents and pretty lights are okay, everything else sucks. Got it.”
“And family,” she said. “Family’s important, too. I was waking up early on Christmas morning even when I was a grown adult, all excited for presents and a giant breakfast that my dad would make after. My sisters hated me for it. Looking back, I was pretty obnoxious, really.”
“And now you’re up early every morning,” he said, with a hint of bitterness.
Running her fingers through the thick black hair on his arms, Gwen closed her eyes. “As much as I’d like to stay here, my family would notice if I wasn’t there when they woke up.”
“It’s been three years,” he replied. “Maybe it’s time to tell them about me.”
The muscles in her back clenched, and for a second she couldn’t breathe. Why did they have to have this conversation now? If only he could have waited another week. If they could just have gotten through the holidays it would be so much easier.
“We both know that’s not possible,” she said as she stepped away from him.
“If it’s about the money, Gwen, I don’t care. I love you and I want everyone to know it.”
“It’s not the money,” she said. “I mean, it is a little bit, but I think they could deal with that. It’s how you make your money that’s the problem.”
He turned away from her in disgust. “What, because I’m not some investment banker or a doctor, I’m not good enough for their little princess?”
“Nick, you’re a thief.” He winced at the word, and a brief flush of hate bubbled up inside her as she rolled her eyes.“Look around the room, and tell me how much of this stuff you actually paid for.”
She watched Nick’s eyes as he looked around the room in sullen silence. Finally he settled exactly where she knew he would. “I paid for the bed,” he replied flatly.
“No, that was me, remember?” she said with a slight shake of her head. “And even then, you insisted on getting the box spring from a guy you knew.”
He paced the floor, refusing to look at her. “That wasn’t a lie. I knew a guy who wanted to get rid of the box spring.”
“I know,” Gwen said. “Honey, you’re an exceptional thief, but still, it’s not exactly something my parents are going to want to put on the Christmas cards.”
“So this is it, then? You sneak away before sunrise every morning, and we never tell anyone about our relationship?”
“It’s worked for us so far,” she sighed. “Why can’t that be enough?”
Nick ran his fingers through his hair, before sinking back down on the couch. “It works for you,” he said. “I want something more, and I want it with you.”
Gwen sat next to him, and rested her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know if that’s something I can do,” she said.
“So I guess it’s probably a bad time to give you this,” he said, pulling a small box from his pocket.
Gwen stared at it, before glancing back at him. The ring inside the box was slightly tarnished, with a tiny diamond in the middle. The velvet inside was worn in places and his hand shook a little when he held it out to her.
“It was my grandmother’s,” he said quickly, before she could ask. “I didn’t steal it.”
“It’s beautiful,” Gwen said, pulling the ring from the box. She wanted to say more to him, but the words caught in her throat. She blinked away tears as he slid the ring onto her finger.
“I didn’t know your size, but I know a guy who’ll be happy to fit it for you.”
“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, feeling the same doubts rising up inside of her.
Nick ducked his head down to look her in the eyes and smiled, “It changes everything,” he said. “I want to be the person you’ll be proud of. I’ll get a real job, and we can find a better place than this. I love you.”
Gwen stared at the ring. In the distance the lights on the tree sparkled in ways that the diamond never would. She took his face in her hands and kissed him. “I love you too,” she said. “But I can’t wear this. What would I tell my parents?”
He nodded and held out his hand. A thin gold chain dangled from his fingers. “You can wear it on this,” he said. “Nobody will know but us.”
She smiled and stood up. He slid the ring onto the chain so quickly that she knew he’d practiced it dozens of times. “I have to go,” she said. “They’ll be getting up soon. We can talk about this later.”
Nick pulled her in for a kiss, and for a moment, Gwen hesitated. Then his lips pressed against hers and she forgot about her family and the expectations they had for her. She barely felt him slip the necklace into her coat pocket. She stood in the hallway as he closed the door, doing everything she could to ignore the hopeful smile on his face as he said goodbye.
She made it to the elevator before the tears fell. In the morning, she’d get an envelope and mail the ring and the necklace back. For the moment, she clasped the chain around her neck, and felt the weight of the ring against her chest. She smiled, even through the tears. Tomorrow, everything would be different, but for now, she would let herself have the illusion of space.
©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.