Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the twentieth official installment of “Another Christmas Story“!
This week the always hilariously amazing Tim Babb of “Can’t Wait For Christmas” will read to all of you Chapter Nineteen of our tale, entitled “Jingle Bell Rock”. Within this chapter, we switch back to the perspectives of Joey Nazario and Mary Holiday as they explore one of Manhattan’s most famous Christmas markets!
We hope you like it! If you do, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many eyes as possible! Make sure to check your podcast feeds for your regular weekly episode on Monday, in which the elves drop a once Patreon-exclusive episode in which they provide movie commentary for the beloved film, “Elf”, and next Thursday for the twentieth official chapter of this story – “Chapter Twenty: Silver Bells”, which Steven Beech – a.k.a. Disco54 – will be reading to you! In it, we switch back to the points of view of President Williams and her foreign guests as they tour a snowy Central Park!
Enjoy, y’all! 🎅🏻🎄🎁 🦌🦉⛄️ 🤶🏻 🎀 ❄️
Chapter Nineteen: Jingle Bell Rock
December 24th – 11:30 a.m. EST
“I love Christmas markets,” Mary remarked with an enormous smile on her face as she craned her neck and swiveled her head in all directions, her eyes wide as she took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the Bryant Park pop-up Christmas market – the Winter Village.
Bryant Park’s Winter Village was erected in the park every December in a large circle around the seasonal ice skating rink that was set up in the center of the usually open space. The little glass and wooden structures that made up the market’s pop-up shops were insulated only by floor heaters to keep employees and their visitors warm, and colored Christmas lights were strung along the circular pathway of the marketplace, in addition to all of the trees that lined it. At the far end of the park, situated at the edge of the park closest to the New York Public Library and looming large over the market, was an enormous Christmas tree, its colorful lights sparkling brightly through the falling snow. It was a beautiful, picturesque scene that – as far as most visitors were concerned – could have been depicted on any Christmas card. Despite the raging snowstorm, and despite it being Christmas Eve, the park was just as crowded as it had been the entire month. The market shops were overflowing, the ice rink was packed, happy couples were wandering around with coffee, taking in the sights, and groups of tourists and families were trying to get as many pictures as they could of the idyllic image.
“The U.K. has some amazing markets, you know,” Mary continued, glancing sideways at Joey, who was staring around at their surroundings with narrowed eyes; she could practically see his brain working to file away everything he was witnessing in some far-off part of his mind where he could access it all at will at a later date sometime in the future when he was working on the next great American novel. “London has some really great ones, but Durham’s and Newcastle’s are even more brilliant. But even those are nothing compared to Edinburgh’s.” Joey turned to face the woman, whose eyes glazed over as she thought back on Christmases past that she had spent in the once European country, which he had zero ability to see for himself. “They’re mint. Seriously, absolutely amazing.”
“Better than this?” Joey arched an eyebrow as he waved an arm around him at the Winter Village. It looked beautiful on any regular day of the week, but on Christmas Eve? With the snow coming down steadily, piling high on the ground around them as the twinkling lights of the looming Manhattan skyscrapers surrounding the park sparkled brightly? It was nothing short of magical.
Mary allowed a conceding grin to spread out across her face. “Well, it’s all relative really, isn’t it? But I will admit, it’s pretty hard to top this. But you should experience the British ones for yourself before jumping to any conclusions.”
“Is that an invitation to visit you at some point?” Joey asked with a playful wink.
Mary laughed as she rolled her eyes and knocked her hips against Joey’s congenially. “I wouldn’t be opposed,” she admitted. “And I am an excellent tour guide.”
“But let’s give it a year or two to let things settle down with me and the baby before you go booking any flights, okay?” Joey blinked, clearly taken aback by her words. “What?” Mary asked. “Look, it’s not that I wouldn’t like if you visited, but–”
“No, it’s not that,” Joey hastened to interrupt, suddenly self-conscious. “It’s just that – well…” He scratched the back of his head awkwardly, as he mulled over his words carefully.
Mary stared at him expectantly for a few moments before snapping, “Well? Spit it out!”
Joey glanced at her, red in the face. “It’s just – I was kind of joking.” He let out an awkward laugh. “Not that I wouldn’t love to visit the England someday. Or you,” he admitted, somewhat less confidently before continuing. “It’s just that…well, I assumed that with the baby on the way, and your boyfriend out of the picture, you wouldn’t be in England to visit. I just – I assumed you’d be moving back here.”
Mary visibly bristled in annoyance. “You know,” she began testily. “That is the second time in the same number of days that somebody just assumed that I’d be moving here once I’ve had the baby. Natalie,” she added as an aside, answering Joey’s unasked question. “I don’t know why people think I’m incapable of taking care of a child myself.” A mischievous grin slowly spread across Joey’s face. “What is so funny?”
“I’m sorry,” Joey insisted, his grin widening even more. “It’s not about that, it’s just…well, your New York accent comes back pretty strongly when you get angry.”
Mary blinked, taken aback, as the two of them continued to stroll the path that led around the Winter Village. She had never realized that about herself before, and nobody back in England had ever thought to inform her of this particular quirk. She wondered whether or not it was happening just because she was back in New York at the moment, and she couldn’t decide whether it was a good thing or not. Catching sight of Joey out of the corner of her eye, still grinning like a doofus, she shook her head. “That’s not – that’s neither here nor there,” she insisted, forcing herself to emphasize her mixed-British accent while reigning in her New York one. “Seriously, why does everyone think I can’t raise a baby on my own?”
“Well, I can’t speak for Natalie – though I’d hazard a guess that she’d agree with me. It’s not that we think you can’t raise your child on your own, it’s just that raising a kid is hard! Financially and emotionally! It’s good to be around people who can help support you – who you can lean on when you need help.”
Mary was aware that Joey had a point; Natalie had expressed the same concerns to her the previous evening, and she had agreed with her in the moment. But right then and there, in the freezing snow, she refused to admit as much to the man she hadn’t talked to in ten-years. She refused to give him the satisfaction. So instead, she decided to get overly defensive. “I do have friends in the U.K., you know.”
“And I’m sure that they’re great,” Alex insisted. “But as great as they may be, they’re not your parents.”
Mary let out a dismissive laugh. “That’s right, they’re not! I’m actually close with them!”
“All I’m saying is your mother’s been through it all before–”
“Some of my friends have kids already, you know.”
“Well, fine then,” Joey snapped, frustrated now. “You don’t need your parents’ support. That’s great. But for what it’s worth, if it was me facing the prospect of raising a baby alone, I’d want my parents around regardless of how close I was with them. Because I know that my friends, as great as they may be, can’t always be there for me like my parents would be; not even Ryan.” He laughed. “And I know that they’d do everything they could to help me, because my baby would be their grandchild, so they’d have a vested interest in how the kid turned out.”
As Joey lapsed into silence, Mary considered his words as her chest tightened anxiously. Finally, she asked, more forcefully than she intended to, “Look, can we just talk about something else?”
“Sure.” Joey nodded, feeling guilty for upsetting the pregnant woman. “Of course. Whatever you want.” He stared around at the tiny wooden and glass structures that housed the markets many vendors and asked brightly, “So where should we start?”
Mary gave a half-hearted shrug. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Oh, come on! Don’t be like that!” Joey pleaded. “Look, I’m sorry, alright? But you were the one who wanted us to get to know one another again! You were the one who said you wanted complete honesty between us!”
“I’m just full of smart choices, aren’t I?” Mary asked sarcastically, as she made a show of rubbing her stomach, which caused Joey to laugh. “I didn’t hear you objecting to any of those terms when I suggested it, though.”
“Because I thought it was a good idea!” Joey replied defensively. Then, staring around at their surroundings and desperate to get back on good-footing with the woman once again, he asked, “Do you have any idea what you want to get your parents for Christmas?”
“No clue,” Mary admitted, as her eyes swept over all of the pop-up shops, glowing with Christmas lights and emitting holiday music through their doorless entrances; every time the two of them passed by one, a blast of heated air hit them blissfully in the face. Her gaze landed upon one of the smaller structures, from which people emerged cradling plastic cups from which steam emerged from the top. “Though I can tell you, I’m inclined to start my shopping in any of these shops that are selling hot chocolate or cider.”
Joey followed the girls gaze before smiling. “Let’s go then!” he suggested, grateful for any excuse to escape from the heavily falling snow for a few moments. As they walked in the direction of the building selling warm winter drinks, he allowed Mary to steady herself on his arm as he slowly guided her along the icy ground. Fifteen-minutes later, the old childhood friends emerged from the building in question, each clasping steaming cups of hot chocolate that warmed their hands as much as it did their insides.
The warm liquid acted like an elixir on Mary’s mood. The pregnant woman was all smiles and laughs as they made their way from shop to shop in the snow, which seemed to be getting heavier by the minute. As they browsed each quaint, heated structure, Joey snuck covert glances at the pregnant woman whenever she seemed preoccupied examining various products. Though a decade older, she truly was as beautiful as he remembered her, though an air of barely concealed sadness clearly hung over her, clinging to her like a shadow. Joey couldn’t blame her; he was still sad that Lily had broken off their engagement not even twenty-four-hours ago, after all! And here was Mary, about to become a single mother!
He was worried about her, not quite certain that the reality of the situation had sunk in yet. The fact of the matter was, though, that she’d be welcoming a new baby into world on her own. And while she might have supportive friends, they couldn’t possibly be in the position to drop everything and come running whenever Mary needed help, regardless of what time of the day or night it was. And while Joey had complete confidence in Mary’s ability to raise a child by herself – she was, after all, a strong independent woman (and he was a staunch feminist) – the reality was, it wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, it was going to be hard as hell! He knew that her parents would be able to help her shoulder some of that toughness; he just had to figure out a way to convey that to her, and figure out the most appropriate time to do so.
At that moment, however, he couldn’t bring himself to ruin Mary’s good mood, so he dutifully followed her from building to building. As they shopped, the two cracked jokes in an undertone about the tourists crowding them, laughed at weird knickknacks they found, and reminisced fondly about their childhood friendships. When they finally emerged from the final store after having visited every single other one first (Mary had always had a love for shopping, and found herself unable to resist browsing through all of her available options), Joey found himself carrying the gifts that the woman had picked out for her parents, in addition to the shopping the two of them had done at Macy’s earlier in the day. Mary had settled on gift baskets for both of her parents. Her mother’s contained various Christmas and winter scented bath soaps, shower gels, and candles, while her father’s contained assorted chocolates, candy canes, gingerbread cookies, chestnuts, and a nutcracker. Joey thought they were extremely cute, but couldn’t help asking his friend, “Remind me again how I got stuck carrying all of your shopping?”
“Because of the mere fact that I’m already carrying around all of this extra weight! Duh!” Mary patted her stomach lovingly, as the child within her kicked her forcefully. “Once you’re carrying around the equivalent of this, then I’ll take some bags off of your hands.”
Joey laughed despite himself. “You’re lucky I’m such a gentleman.”
“I’ll have to tell Nat when I see her later that contrary to popular belief, chivalry isn’t dead.” Mary winked at Joey, as she flashed him a grin and the two of them came to a slow stop at the crowded base of Bryant Park’s enormous Christmas tree. As one, the two of them craned their necks back to get a clear glimpse of the bright star hanging upon the highest bough. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Joey gave a derisive snort, thoroughly unimpressed by the predominantly red, blue, and purple lights wrapped within the branches. “It’s no Rockefeller Center. It’s too dark. It needs more light; brighter colors or something.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Okay, Mr. Christmas tree connoisseur. It’s not trying to be the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree! It’s trying to be its own thing! Have its own identity!” She shrugged, as she stared the giant shrub up and down with a small smile on her face. “I like it. It presents a nice contrast to all of the bright lights of the Village and its buildings. They compliment one another nicely.”
“You’re such a poet,” Joey teased, which caused the woman to playfully punch his shoulder, eliciting a laugh from him. “I’ll say this, anyway,” he continued, turning back to the tree. “It’s no Charlie Brown tree.”
“No, it’s not.” Mary agreed. “In fact…” She pulled her cell phone from her purse and typed in her passcode to unlock it. “I need to get a picture of it for my Instagram.”
Joey rolled his eyes as the girl took a few photos of the tree before flipping her phone’s camera and extending her hand in order to try and get a selfie of herself in front of it. As she angled for the best position from which to take the picture, Mary pursed her lips and sucked in her cheeks, perfecting her so-called “duckface” in order to make her face look thinner. After snapping a few images, she lowered her arm and began to scroll through them with a pitiful groan. “I look so fat.”
“You’re pregnant, Mary,” Joey noted. “And trust me, given the fact that you’re about to pop at any minute, you look really damn great.”
Mary blinked in surprise, completely taken aback by the compliment. “Really?”
“Really.” Joey nodded with a smile. “But if I were you, I’d make sure that when I posted that photo I’d label the tree as the Bryant Park one. You don’t want all your foreign friends to assume it’s the Rockefeller Center one! It doesn’t deserve to be misrepresented like that!”
Mary flipped Joey the finger jokingly before going back to taking selfies, in a vain attempt to capture the perfect one. As she did this, Joey wandered away from her in the direction of the ice skating rink in order to observe happy families and glowing couples gliding across the ice with varying degrees of proficiency. No matter how skilled each individual skater was, however, they were all smiles, and their gleeful laughs and shouts echoed loudly around the park. When Mary finally ambled over to join him, Joey turned to face her. “Remember what a good skater you used to be?”
“Used to be?” Mary repeated, mock-offended. “I’ll have you know I’m still a great skater!”
“So all of the years your mother forced you to take lessons finally paid off then, huh?”
“Irene only forced me to go the first few weeks. I actually loved going the other thirteen-years.”
“Then why did you complain to her about having to go every Sunday morning?”
“Because they were Sunday mornings,” Mary replied, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Besides, I couldn’t admit to her that I actually liked going. She’d never let me live it down! She’d throw it in my face every time she tried to force me to do something I didn’t want to do!”
Joey nodded, feigning seriousness. “Good point. I’m sure you’ll love when your child does the exact same thing to you.”
“I would if I didn’t think you’d enjoy it so much,” Joey quipped with a playful grin on his face, his eyes twinkling mischievously. As Mary laughed in response, the man couldn’t help but notice how she stared at the amateur ice skaters wistfully. Playfully nudging her, he suggested, “Go on, then!” He nodded at the rink. “Show me what you’ve got! I want to see if you’re as good as I remember!”
“You’re joking, right? Look at me!” Mary grabbed her stomach with both of her hands. “I’m sore all over, every bone in my body aches, and my feet are so swollen, I doubt they could even fit into skates! What I wouldn’t give for a foot massage!” She raised an eyebrow at Joey pointedly.
“Keep dreaming,” Joey replied.
As a smile unfurled on Mary’s face at the words, she continued. “And even if I did somehow manage to shove my feet into skates, there’s no way I’d be able to prevent myself from overbalancing with this stomach.” She rubbed it lovingly as her baby kicked her again.
“I don’t know – sounds like you’re making excuses to me,” Joey remarked. When he noticed Mary’s eyes flash with fury as she opened her mouth to angrily press her point, he hastily added, “Relax! I’m joking!”
Mary shut her mouth quickly, as she felt herself flush with embarrassment. In the years since the two had last spoken, Joey seemed to have developed a much drier, more sarcastic sense of humor, and had gotten much better at dishing out jokes that needled and provoked people than she remembered him ever being growing up. He almost seemed as good at it as she was. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I should have known. I blame the pregnancy brain.” When Joey scoffed skeptically, she snapped defensively, “It’s a real thing!”
“Okay, okay, I believe you.” Joey laughed. “Anyway, I’ll be right back.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ll be right back,” Joey repeated, more pointedly this time.
“Oh, Joey, don’t!” Mary reached out and grabbed his wrist, which sent a tingling sensation flowing up and down the length of his body. “I’m serious – don’t go get park officials to make an announcement asking me to skate or anything. I really don’t think I’ll be able to–”
“What are you talking about?” Joey furrowed his eyebrows together. “Mary, I wouldn’t – I’m just going to run and find a bathroom!”
“Oh.” Mary felt herself blush in embarrassment yet again. “Right. I thought–”
“—that I’d somehow clear the ice rink for you so you could have your moment in the spotlight and show off your skating skills?” Joey shook his head. “Never even crossed my mind. Sorry. I could try to arrange that though, if you want.”
“Alright then,” Joey replied. Then, noticing how mortified the pregnant woman appeared, decided to take pity on her and throw her a lifeline. “Don’t worry about it. I understand. Pregnancy brain.”
A wide smirk unfurled across Mary’s face. “I also have pregnancy bladder too, you know, yet you’re the one of the two of us who needs to take a bathroom break first! What are you, five?”
“No, but I’ll act like it if you want to see what it’s like spending the day with a toddler! You know…” He shrugged. “In case you wanted some practice.” He winked at her as she laughed, and hurried off into the crowds to find a park bathroom. As he disappeared amongst the masses, a particularly chill gust of snowy wind blew around Mary. Shivering, she shoved her hands into her pockets and turned back to face the ice rink, surveying all of the people upon it enjoying their Christmas Eve.
Immediately, Mary’s eyes fell upon a young woman who looked barely older than she herself was. She was standing on the ice on the far end of the rink, leaning over the waist-high wall to take a screaming baby from the arms of a man Mary presumed was its father. The wailing child, whose four limbs flailed as it twisted and turned in its mother’s hands as she cradled it close, looked like it was a year-old, if that, and its tear-stained cheeks were bright red. The mother, meanwhile, looked exhausted and haggard as she held the child close to her bosom, and though Mary couldn’t hear anything the woman was saying, it was clear – even from a distance – that she was cooing gently in an attempt to calm her kid.
Mary couldn’t help but feel bad for the woman. It was clear from the mere fact that she was on the ice, while her partner had remained on firm ground with the child, that she just wanted a few minutes of quiet solace, alone with her thoughts. Yet the demands of being a mother came first, and when her baby cried, she was there for it; it was simple human nature. But the longer that Mary watched the woman and the baby, who seemed absolutely inconsolable, the more the knot in the pit of her stomach tightened uncomfortably. The woman had a partner to help her out; who had at least tried to give her a few minutes of much needed alone time. And yet, she was still called back for help. Without Luke, Mary would never get a few minutes alone; she’d have no one to help care for the child in shifts; she’d be entirely on her own. And suddenly, the full weight of Natalie’s and Joey’s concerns hit her full in the face. While she was more than capable of raising a child alone, it wouldn’t be easy. There were times she would need help. And when those times come, who would she turn to? Luke was gone; her parents lived on the other side of the Atlantic; she couldn’t constantly bother her friends, when they were leading their own lives and would eventually be starting families of their own.
Before she could tumble too far down that rabbit hole, however, a voice from behind her asked, “Is everything okay? You look as white as a ghost.”
Mary turned to come face-to-face with Joey, who had sidled up behind her in the snow without her hearing him, and upon meeting his blue eyes, the woman felt an enormous sense of relief course through her; she had never been so happy to see him. “You have perfect timing.”
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” Joey teased. “Seriously though, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Mary replied a little too quickly, as she turned back to stare across the ice rink again. “It’s just – well…” She gestured at the mother and the still screaming baby across the way. “Motherhood looks hard.”
Joey stared across at the desperate looking mother and the shouting baby, before nodding slowly. “It really does,” he agreed. “It’s definitely not the easiest job in the world.” Glancing down at Mary again, he noticed how overwhelmed she looked, and thought better of pressing his earlier point that it might be for the best were she to move back to New York in order to be closer to her parents. Instead, he smiled and pointed in the direction of one of the glass shops to their left. “But look over there.”
Mary turned to look where the man pointed just beyond one of the park’s vendors in an open, grassy area, and saw a young woman and a little boy, who looked no older than five, running circles around one another and chucking snowballs at each other. They were both laughing as they weaved and ducked around people hurrying through the snowy park, and as they eyed one another, it was clear how much love there was between them. “Sure, parenthood is hard,” Joey spoke softly, as Mary kept her eyes glued on the mother and son. “But parenthood also means you get moments like that, and that sure makes it look worth it.”
As Mary watched the boy run into his mother’s arms before the two of them proceeded to collapse onto the snowy ground. Mary felt her lip trembling and her eyes begin to brim with tears as she watched them begin to make snow angels where they lay, and without thinking, she placed her hands on her stomach once more just in time to feel her own baby kick. Blinking back the tears before they had a chance to roll down her face, Mary took a deep steadying breath before turning to glance up at Joey. “You’re such a poet,” she teased, throwing the man’s earlier words back at him.
Joey laughed. “I’m a writer, it’s kind of what I do. Though I admit, that wasn’t my best work.”
“It did the trick though,” Mary admitted. “So, thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me. It’s true. There’s no denying kids are tough, but the joy they’ll bring to your life? It makes it all worth it.”
Mary raised an eyebrow. “You sound like you’re talking from experience.”
Joey shook his head. “I just read a lot of books and watch a lot of TV. I wish though,” he added, somewhat bitterly. “I’ve always wanted to be a father.”
“I remember,” she replied quietly. “You still have plenty of time to make it happen.” When Joey gave a half-hearted shrug in response, Mary – in a desperate attempt to lighten the mood again before the man could begin to dwell on his newly broken engagement, which placed him even farther away from fatherhood – continued pointedly. “Speaking of kids – I still need to find gifts for my nieces and nephews.”
At the words, Joey’s eyes lit up. “I almost forgot!”
Mary rolled her eyes with a laugh. “Come on, you big man-child. Let’s go to FAO Schwarz.”
Joey had always believed, as long as he could remember, that walking through FAO Schwarz at Christmastime was the closest one could ever get to walking through Santa Claus’ workshop up at the north pole. And, as it turned out, walking through the enormous toy store on Fifth Avenue was just as magical an experience as an adult as it had been walking through it as a child. There was something wondrous about the bright lights sparkling high above, and the Christmas trees positioned in every corner; the cheerful holiday music being pumped throughout the cozy store, and being surrounded by shelves stocked with racing cars, teddy bears, and a variety of other classic toys that still survived year after year despite not being part of any new and modern brand or franchise. Then, of course, there were the life-size Lego figurines and dioramas, and a Barbie house that guests could actually walk through because it was built to be the size of an actual home; and on the second level, just to the right of the escalators, was the life-sized piano mat that guests could jump around on in an effort to recreate the scene from the Tom Hanks movie Big. Just outside of the store, standing sentry on either side of the exit, were two store employees dressed as toy soldiers who allowed guests to take selfies with them on the way out, while the numerous floor-to-ceiling windows around the shop allowed patrons a clear view of the thickening snowfall spiraling down from the sky outside from within its warm walls.
“Seriously, is there really any other time of year that’s better than Christmas?” Joey asked, as he and Mary perused shelves in search of age-appropriate gifts for her two nieces and three nephews. Being inside of the toy store brought a wave of cheerful nostalgia crashing down over the man, and seemed to cheer him up exponentially.
“I used to think that there wasn’t,” Mary began, as she picked up a toy fire truck to examine it. “But something tells me that neither of us will look as fondly on it in the years to come.”
“We both had our hearts broken right in the middle of season by people we thought were the ones. Kind of puts a damper on this whole time of the year, doesn’t it?”
While Joey had been feeling the same sentiment in the moments immediately after Lily had dumped him, if he were being honest with himself at that very moment, he had to admit that – even though he was still devastated – he was already regaining some of that Christmas spirit he had been afraid the woman had killed; it was impossible not to when in New York. “I think we’ll be fine. Especially you. Once you push that kid out? It’ll be impossible not to love the holidays again when you see how magical they find this time of the year.”
“I guess,” Mary conceded, as she picked up an enormous teddy bear and began to turn it over in her arms, looking for a price tag. “What do you think?” she asked, holding it out for Joey’s opinion. “Would this be good for a kid no matter what the sex turns out to be?”
Joey nodded, at which Mary smiled and hugged the bear closer to her as they turned left at the end of the aisle to head down the next one. “So are you ever going to tell me about the baby’s father?”
Mary was surprised by the bluntness of her companion’s question, and silently cursed herself for stipulating earlier that the only way she’d agree to spend the day together was if they truly got to get to know one another again, and were completely honest with each other. “There’s nothing to tell. I told you, it was an accident.”
“How long were you two seeing one another beforehand?”
Mary threw Joey an exasperated glance. “It wasn’t a one-night stand, if that’s what you’re implying. We were together nearly a year, and we were friends before that.”
“What’s his name?”
“Lucas. Luke for short.”
Joey smirked. “Do you think parents only name their sons some variation of Luke nowadays just so the dad can say, ‘Luke, I am your father’?”
“That’s totally the only reason I’d name my son Luke,” Mary answered sarcastically, eliciting a laugh from Joey as they stepped onto the escalator leading to the second floor.
“Alright, seriously,” Joey continued. “You and this Luke guy were friends before getting into a relationship that lasted nearly a year, and after he knocks you up he just decides he doesn’t want to be a part of the kid’s life? What happened between you two?” When Mary hesitated, avoiding his eyes by staring determinedly at the piano mat on the floor to the right of them, he quickly added, “Be honest! They’re your rules!”
“Rules can change.”
“Hey, don’t give me that! I told you about what happened between me and Lily!”
Mary rolled her eyes. “Why do you have to be so rational when you make an argument?”
“It’s part of my charm, I guess.” Joey shrugged. “Seriously though, what happened?”
Mary came to a stop, directly in front of the piano mat and stared at Joey seriously. “If you must know, he was extremely supportive of me all throughout my pregnancy. He came to every sonogram, indulged every craving I had, put up with my mood swings…that is, of course, until last night when we sat down for dinner after getting in from Newcastle.”
Joey’s mouth fell open, aghast. “He left you last night?” You’re nine-months pregnant!”
“It’s my fault, I guess,” Mary said matter-of-factly. “I mean, I was at least the final nail in the coffin. I nearly caused a scene with the hostess at the restaurant–”
“What is it with you and people in the service industry?” Joey joked.
Mary smirked at the comment, but continued as though she had not been interrupted. “And he didn’t like it when I finally admitted to him that even though we had been dating for a year, and had been friends even longer, I hadn’t told either of my parents or any of my siblings about him.”
Joey’s mouth dropped open in shock once again. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me get this straight. Your parents aren’t only unaware that you’re pregnant, but they don’t even know the man who got you pregnant?”
“I know, it’s a little messed up–”
Mary glared at Joey angrily. “Don’t you judge me! You know what Ethan and Irene are like! They’re overbearing! Overprotective! Ethan would have had one of his friends on the force run a background check on Luke, and Irene would have asked him millions of questions until she knew how many moles his great, great, great-grandfather had on his ass cheek!”
“That’s normal parental behavior, Mary!”
“Plus, I’m the only girl! I got pregnant after three months after dating him! If I had told them then, they would have threatened him with everything they could think of in order to force him to marry me!” Mary crossed her arms defiantly across her chest. “And that wouldn’t have been fair to him or to me. I wasn’t going to marry a guy I might not have been in love with!”
Joey surveyed the woman standing before him who – though angry – seemed desperate to make him understand where she was coming from. “Okay. Okay. Fair enough. I get it. I do.” He plastered a weak smile onto his face. “But man, leaving you the day before Christmas Eve just because you kept a few secrets from your parents?”
“I already told you earlier this morning, remember? Luke didn’t want to be involved.” Mary let out a humorless laugh, as she wiped a lone tear from her eye. Sighing deeply, she allowed the words to spill forth from her mouth. “He said he wasn’t ready to be a father. Apparently, he was waiting for the right time to break it to me, and it wasn’t until I came clean with him last night that he felt comfortable enough admitting it to me.”
“Not ready to be a father?” Joey repeated, furrowing his eyebrows. “Tough shit! He’s about to be one! You decided to keep the baby, and now he needs to be there for it!”
“Technically, he doesn’t have to be.”
“Legally he has to though! Well, at least financially!”
Mary allowed a derisive laugh to escape her lips. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the money to take him to court over that, so–”
“I’m sure your parents would help you out.”
“Maybe I don’t want them to help me sue my ex,” Mary snapped forcefully, as she rolled her eyes. “Did you ever think of that? Maybe I had time to sleep on it last night and came to the conclusion that I don’t want Luke in my life, and I sure as hell don’t want him around my kid if he doesn’t want to be around it!”
Speechless, Joey allowed the woman’s words to sink in, as he stared into his friend’s defiant eyes. Finally, he said quietly, “I didn’t mean to pry. Honestly, Mary. I am so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Mary relented, letting her shoulders sag. “It is what it is at this point. Who knows? Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise,” she added with a disparaging snort.
“Maybe…” Joey bit down on his lip uncertainly. “But even still, to be put through all of that just before Christmas – just before your due date! I can’t even begin to imagine what you must be going through!”
“Well, I did say I don’t think I’ll be looking at Christmas so fondly in the future,” Mary pointed out with a wry smile.
“Don’t let one jackass ruin the holidays for you. Don’t give him the satisfaction. Don’t–”
“Hey, look!” Mary interrupted pointedly. “There’s no line!” She pointed excitedly at the piano mat on the floor. “Let’s go for it!”
“What?” Joey demanded. “Mary–”
“I’ll be right back!”
And before Joey could protest, Mary dumped the still unpaid for toys she had been carrying around in her arms at his feet, before hurrying over to the piano. Standing atop of it, she stared at the television hooked up to it and picked the song she wanted to dance to. Selecting “Jingle Bell Rock”, the pattern of piano keys that Mary had to hit with her feet in sequential order began to float across the television screen, and as they did – and as she began to hit the corresponding, glowing keys on the ground – the sound began to emanate from the speakers attached to the piano mat.
Joey watched, impressed, as Mary moved as quick and as gracefully as she needed to in order to play the song correctly, not missing a single note. The feat was made all the more impressive by the fact that she was doing it all in the late stages of pregnancy, a fact that didn’t seem to escape fellow shoppers in the vicinity. Soon, Mary was surrounded by a semi-circle of admirers who cheered her on, some even taking out their cell phones to record the impressive routine.
Noticing the attention that she was receiving, Mary smiled to herself and allowed herself to bask in it. Her theater background definitely helped her reaction time, allowing her to be as accurate as she was being with the piano, and to kick ass at games like “Dance Dance Revolution”. Her background also made her unabashedly outgoing; she wasn’t shy in the slightest, and as she performed for the store’s patrons, she couldn’t help but think about how much she missed being in the limelight. Indeed, as she spun, twirled, and hopped around on the keyboard, she found that it was a nice little momentary distraction from reality.
Mary’s smile widened when she noticed Joey’s admiring looks out of the corner of her eyes, and she decided to wave him over. His eyes widened at the gesture, and he shook his head emphatically, prompting her to roll her eyes and wave him over again. When he once more refused, she stuck out her lower lip and pouted as she continued to dance, trying to look as sad as she could. Joey, however, merely continued to shake his head in amusement; he was aware of the game she was playing with him. But upon remembering everything that his old friend was going through, he decided to push himself outside of his comfort zone, and slowly lower all of the shopping bags he had been carrying around to the floor. Mary was delighted to finally see him yield and join her on the keyboard, which immediately seemed to sense the presence of a second person, for the television screen that was hooked up to it began to show two sets of dance instructions, one for each of them to follow.
Joey was nowhere near as graceful as Mary, as he hopped clumsily around the right side of the piano, but he was just good enough that – when mixed with the woman’s excellence – the music sounded incredible. As the two danced side-by-side, they laughed as they kept throwing looks at each other, trying to one-up each another with the complexity of their moves. All the while the assembled crowd – which continued to grow – watched in amazement, before finally the song came to an end and both Joey and Mary came to a stop to soak in the thunderous applause that followed their performance.
“They loved us!” Mary whispered to Joey out of the side of his mouth, as she reached down and intertwined her fingers with his. Taken aback by the gesture, it took Joey a moment to realize that she had done it so that they could take a bow together at the same time. “Thank you! Thank you!” Mary played the crowd easily, waving at them with one hand as she rubbed her stomach with the other, smiling wide. “We’ll be here all week! Merry Christmas!” She laughed, and still holding Joey’s hand, dragged him over to the spot where they left their Christmas shopping as the crowd around them began to disperse, talking excitedly about what they had just witnessed as they resumed their shopping. “What’s so funny?” Mary asked, as Joey side-eyed her closely with an enormous grin on her face.
“It’s just – you said you couldn’t ice skate given your condition, and yet that – that was amazing!”
Mary laughed. “I was able to keep my comfortable sneakers on my feet doing that.” Then, noticing how red and sweaty Joey’s face was as he bent down to pick up all of their shopping, she asked, “You okay there, champ?”
“I’m fine,” Joey smiled, out of breath. “It’s just been a while since I’ve exercised like that.”
“I’d never be able to tell.”
“That was fun though.”
“Tell me about it!” Mary sighed wistfully. “I miss performing in front of an audience!” Joey, unsure of how to respond, said nothing as he followed her down an aisle full of dolls. “I need to get myself one of those mats when I move into a place of my own.” At the words, her smile faded slightly, and it didn’t take more than a few seconds for Joey to understand it was because she was aware of the fact that after the holidays, she’d have to move out of her boyfriend’s apartment.
Placing a consoling hand on her shoulder, causing Mary to stare up at him, he said quietly, “It’s his loss, Mary. Any guy would be lucky to have you in his life in any capacity, let alone a romantic one. And if your child is even half as amazing as you, Luke’s going to be missing out on something really special.”
The baby inside of Mary chose that moment to kick at her hard, as though responding to the man’s words, as its mother’s eyes began to fill with tears of gratitude. “Thanks,” she whispered, wiping the tears away as Joey squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. Clearing her throat and shaking her head in order to clear it, she let out a loud sigh before saying, “But enough of this sappy crap. Let’s find gifts and get the hell out of here.”
Twenty-minutes later, Joey and Mary exited the iconic toy store – with an electric train, a remote-control car, and a remote-control plane for her nephews, a Barbie doll and a Raggedy Anne doll for her nieces, and an enormous and extremely soft teddy bear for Mary’s unborn child, which was Joey’s gift to her. Mary was still thanking him profusely when the two friends came level with the two employees dressed as toy soldiers that flanked the entrance of the store. “Can we get a selfie?” Joey asked, cutting across Mary’s continued platitudes of thanks.
“Of course.” One of the toy soldiers smiled.
Joey and Mary stood between the two soldiers, standing cheek-to-cheek with them as they leaned in and Joey snapped the picture. “Thank you!” he said. “Merry Christmas!”
“And a Merry Christmas to the two of you,” one of the toy soldiers replied.
As Joey and Mary ambled away from the doors, Joey glanced down at the picture he had just snapped. “That’s a great picture of us!” Mary exclaimed, leaning in close.
Joey nodded his agreement, at a loss for words. The two of them, who were both going through extremely difficult times, appeared genuinely happy in the picture. Not only that, but they looked like nothing short of a loving couple in the image, the thought of which made Joey’s heart skip a beat. Coming back to his senses, he shook his head fervently to rid his mind of such an insane thought before it could take hold in his brain. As he made to put his phone away, Mary grabbed his wrist. “Wait a minute!” She grabbed his phone from him and began to key something into it. “I want a copy of that for myself!”
Mary’s phone chimed inside of her purse at that moment. Pulling it out to check it, she said, “Perfect! Got it!” She handed Joey’s phone back to him. “And now we have each other’s phone numbers too, so there’s no reason for us not to keep in touch.”
“You want to?” Joey blinked, surprised.
“Well, yeah,” Mary admitted uncertainly, as her stomach constricted uncomfortably and she worried whether or not she had stuck her swollen foot into her big mouth. “I mean – you know – as long as you want to.”
“Of course I do,” Joey replied, almost too quickly.
“Good.” Mary smirked. “I just figured, you know, we’re having a good day today–”
“And we’ve been out of touch for so long, you know, that I just figured maybe it’s time we tried being friends again. Past this one day, I mean.” The words came pouring out of Mary’s mouth before she could stop herself, and she looked down at the sidewalk in embarrassment.
Joey felt the same way, but didn’t want to admit to her. Not quite yet, anyway; there were some things that he wanted to figure out first. So instead, in order to break the awkward silence that was beginning to build between them, he glanced skyward at the falling snow. “There’s something magical about a white Christmas, isn’t there?” He glanced back down at Mary. “There’s something magical about Christmas in general.”
Mary nodded, as she shoved her hands into her pockets and shivered. “What do you want to do next?”
“Oh, I don’t–”
“Don’t you dare say that you don’t care,” Mary quickly interrupted in a threatening tone of voice. “I want you to pick. We’ve been shopping for my family all morning.”
“Hmm.” Joey glanced around the bustling city streets in their vicinity before fixing his eyes on the Fifth Avenue entrance to Central Park, across from the Plaza hotel. A wide smirk slowly formed across his face at the sight of a line of horse drawn carriages waiting to take tourists through the idyllic, snow covered park. “Wait here for a minute,” he instructed Mary. “I’ll be right back.”
Before the woman could protest, he hurried across the street to 58th Street and hurried over to the park entrance, ducking and weaving through pedestrians so quickly that he barely noticed where he was going and slipped on a large patch of ice. With a yell of surprise, he fell backwards, but before he hit the ground, a pair of strong arms grabbed him. “Ho, ho, ho! Careful, son!”
“Thanks, Santa,” Joey mumbled, embarrassed, as he found his footing again. Turning to flash the Salvation Army Santa Claus who caught him, standing with a bell in his hand beside a bucket in which passerby were dropping spare change for the poor, he blinked in surprise at the warm smile the old man flashed him. “Aren’t you the Santa Claus that was at Macy’s earlier?” he asked, confused.
“There’s only one Santa Claus,” the old man answered evasively.
Joey cocked an eyebrow. “Seriously,” he began. “What are you doing out here now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Santa’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Come on, man.” Joey rolled his eyes. “Just admit it.”
“Admit what?” Santa furrowed his eyebrows, genuinely confused. Joey stared deep into his eyes for a moment, searching them, before he finally shrugged.
“I’m sorry,” he began. “I thought for a minute that – you know what, never mind.” He smiled. “Thanks again for catching me before I fell on my ass.”
“Language,” Santa pointed out, his tone one of warning. “But you’re very welcome. Continue to pass on the selflessness and good will, and have a Merry Christmas.”
“Right,” Joey replied uncertainly. “You too.” And with one last backward glance over his shoulder, just as Santa began to ring his bell again, Joey hurried toward the nearest jet-black carriage, which was harnessed to a magnificent brown horse. “Excuse me, sir?” he asked, calling up to the cabby who was sitting on his elevated seat, the horse’s reigns resting in his lap. “How much is it for an hour-long ride through the park?”
“One-hundred-and-forty dollars and sixty-cents,” the cabby rattled off immediately, before quickly adding, “Tip not included.”
“One-hundred-and – are you out of your mind?” Joey demanded, staring from the horse to the carriage before staring back up at the cabby. “That’s insane!”
“Hey man, we have to make a living, alright?” The cabby motioned up and down the row of horse drawn carriages, waiting for patrons. “It’s the standard fare! If you can’t afford an hour, you can get forty-five-minutes for one-hundred-and-eighteen dollars and ninety-seven cents, or half-an-hour for fifty-four dollars and eight-cents. Again, tip not included.”
“Well, there’s no point paying that amount for such a short ride, so I guess I’ll pay the hour,” Joey muttered begrudgingly, as he reached into his back pocket, earning himself a wide, arrogant smile from the cabby in return. As he began to count cash from his wallet, Joey hesitated for the briefest of moments before glancing from the cabby to the horse. “You’re not one of those guys you hear about on the news who abuses the horses, are you?”
“Of course!” The cabby snapped, clearly annoyed by the question as he lovingly leaned forward to stroke the horse’s mane. “I wouldn’t hurt a hair on its head.”
“Good.” Joey gave a curt node before shoving one-hundred-and-fifty dollars into the man’s greedy hands. “You can keep the change. Make it a good ride, and don’t try to make conversation with us, and you’ll get a big tip at the end of the ride too, alright?”
“Hey, listen buddy,” the cabby began with a laugh. “Give me a big tip at the end, and you can do whatever the hell you want in the back.”
Joey rolled his eyes. “Just wait here while I get my friend. Give me five-minutes.”
“Clock’s ticking!” The cabby called after Joey, who had started walking back in the direction of where he had left Mary in front of FAO Schwarz. Turning to glare at the man in disbelief, Joey quickened his pace and hurried past the Salvation Army Santa Claus who had caught him earlier. “Maybe you should lecture him about selflessness and good will,” Joey suggested to the old man, jerking his head back in the direction of the horse drawn carriage.
Santa Claus turned to glance in the direction Joey had indicated, but before he could respond to the young man’s comment, Joey was already halfway across the street, heading in Mary’s direction.
* * *
Mary watched as Joey hurried away from her and crossed the street, heading toward the entrance of Central Park. As he made his way toward a line of horse drawn carriages, her baby kicked inside of her. Placing a soothing hand on her stomach, she cooed softly as she stared down at her bump. “It’s alright, sweetie. He’s not going to abandon us like daddy did. I hope,” she added to herself, glancing across the street again in time to witness a Salvation Army Santa Claus catch Joey from falling on his ass. Laughing at the sight, Mary pulled her phone from her purse as it began to ring and placed it to her ear. “Hello?”
“Hey! Where are you?”
“Duh,” her friend replied. “Don’t you look at your caller I.D.?”
“I didn’t even register the name,” Mary replied absentmindedly. “Sorry.”
“Are you alright?” Natalie asked, sounding concerned. “You sound distracted.”
“I’m fine,” Mary answered truthfully, tracking Joey with her eyes as he walked from the man dressed as Santa toward a particularly ornate-looking horse drawn carriage. “Seriously. I’m feeling a lot better.”
“Good!” Natalie exclaimed. “The magic of Christmastime in New York is doing the trick, I take it?”
“Something like that.” Mary smirked.
“Well, where are you?” Natalie asked again. “Want to grab lunch?”
Mary glanced down at her watch, surprised to find that it was nearly half-past-twelve already. “Oh, Nat, you know what? I actually can’t.”
“What?” Natalie asked, surprised. “Why not?”
“Well…” Mary bit down on her lower lip hesitantly before deciding to be honest with her best friend. “Because I met up with Joseph Nazario this morning and we kind of agreed to spend the day together.”
“Joseph Nazario?” Natalie repeated. “From high school? Your next door neighbor?”
“That’s the one,” Mary replied, watching as Joey began to rummage through his wallet for cash. “You remember!”
“Of course I remember! How could I forget?” Natalie asked rhetorically. “You were heartbroken when you two had that falling out! But where – how–”
“It’s a long story,” Mary interrupted her, blowing snowflakes out of her face from the corner of her mouth. “The point is, we’re hanging out now, and I think he’s actually arranging a hansom cab ride through Central Park for us right now as we speak.”
“No wonder you’re in such a good mood!” Natalie teased. “You’re about to get it in!”
Mary rolled her eyes. “We are not going to sleep together.”
“Hey, I’m not judging,” Natalie assured her. “Every heartbroken girl needs some rebound sex! And considering that the two of you should have boned back in high school–”
“Nat,” Mary interrupted firmly. “That’s not what this is.”
“Uh-huh. Sure,” Natalie replied, clearly not believing her. “How long have I known you, Mary? You don’t have to lie to me. Joey was always cute in a dorky-sort-of-way, and a genuinely nice guy too, so–”
“Okay, I’ll stop. I’m sorry.” Natalie laughed before continuing seriously. “Just be careful, alright?”
“I always am.”
“No, seriously,” Natalie insisted. “You’re hormonal, and something pretty shitty happened to you last night. I don’t want you to get hurt, so just keep that in mind, alright?”
Mary absorbed the words, her stomach sinking slightly. Natalie was right; she was letting her guard down way too easily, and needed to put it back up posthaste. Not only did she not want to end up getting hurt again, but she also didn’t want to end up hurting Joey, who was clearly going through some pretty severe emotional trauma himself. “Mary? You still there?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m still here. Don’t worry, Nat. Seriously. I’ll be fine.”
“Alright,” Natalie replied uncertainly. “Well, enjoy the rest of your day. I’ll call you later when I get off work and I’m on my way to pick you up.”
“Sounds good to me,” Mary replied, as Joey hurried back in her direction. “Look, I have to go, alright? I’ll see you later.” And before her friend could even say goodbye, Mary hung up her phone and shoved it back into her purse, just as Joey came to a stop in front of her, vigorously wiping snow from his hair. “Who was that?” he asked curiously.
“Just Natalie checking in.” Mary smiled.
“Ah.” Joey nodded before jerking his head in the direction of Central Park. “I figured out what we can do next.”
“I figured.” Mary winked.
“Well, then?” Joey extended an arm. “Shall we?”
Mary glanced at the arm and – completely ignoring Natalie’s warning and her own nagging self-doubt – smiled before taking it. “Let’s go.”