The Office Party
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Christmas! Old Scrooge hit it square on when he said, 'Bah! Humbug!' I hate Christmas. It's just another day and a half I don't have to work, but with all the celebration that will be going on around me, I'll only feel worse.
It begins with the office party this afternoon. There's no way out, for the boss expects everyone to attend and share in his faked bonhomme attitude before he hands out our paychecks and bonuses. There'll be a lot of sicky sweet stuff to eat and the most insipid punch ever concocted. The best present he could give me is my check and bonus right now, then let me split. I'd go home and get swiftly drunk then crawl into bed hoping I'll wake only after it's all over. I glance at my watch 4, so Id better start packing it in and join the others in the reception room.
"Hey, Ron, it's about time you got here. You're always late to the parties," one of the secretaries says as I walk in.
I nod. "Yeah. Had a little work to finish up." She's all smiles and would chatter at me for the next hour if I hadn't pushed through the others to get to the table. Must take more than rudeness to discourage her, because she's been trying to get into my pants ever since I joined the firm a year and a half ago. Most guys would say she's pretty. I suppose she is if you like girls. I don't.
Most everyone has brought something to eat, but only two things look tempting to me. There's a raw veggie tray with dip, and some homemade chocolate fudge full of pecans, just what I adore. I grab one of the plastic party plates and put a couple of pieces of fudge on it, then take a piece of the cauliflower and try the dip.
My eyes fly open! I'm not believing this! I try a piece of broccoli this time, then sigh in delight and proceed to load my plate with veggies and dip. I've noticed that the others have pretty well avoided it. Guess they don't like horseradish, but I do. There's some kind of base for the dip. I'd love to know what and the proportions.
I'm perishing for a real drink to go with this, but there's no way. As an alternative to the punch, I grab a cup of coffee, then find a spot in the far corner of the room to avoid socializing any more than possible. I munch away at the veggies slowly, savoring each bite sheer heaven! Now I'm almost happy I'm forced to attend.
By the time I'm finished with what's on my plate, I see the veggie tray is still showing no signs of depletion other than what I took, so I edge back over for a refill. I take some of everything, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumber, baby carrots, then pick up the bowl of dip and pour it liberally over the assortment. When I set the bowl back down, I see a young man about my age standing on the other side of the table staring at me.
"I'm delighted somebody is enjoying that," he says in a friendly but decidedly British tone.
"Did you bring this?"
He nods. "Had the supermarket make up the veggies, but the dip is my own."
"You've just made a friend for life. This is superb! How'd you make it?"
He smiles. "Simple as can be. Sour cream and the horseradish sauce put out by Hickory Farms. What really gets to me is it's available only at Christmas. I usually buy a couple of bottles and keep them in the fridge. It lasts forever."
"I didn't know there was a Hickory Farms in town."
"Just a kiosk at the mall at Christmas." He smiles again and holds out his hand. "I haven't seen you before. I'm Nigel Barnes."
"Ron van Sant. You been here long?"
"Six months. I'm in the computer section."
"Estimating here. Damn, I wish I had a drink with this."
Nigel grins. "It does go better with a gin and tonic."
"I was thinking Campari and soda."
He follows as I take my plate and return to the corner. When we've settled in, he looks at me. "Planning a big Christmas?"
"Hell, no. I hate Christmas. If anything, I'll get drunk and sleep the day away." I see him wince.
"Ah, man, that's no way to be. I've always enjoyed it before now."
"So what's stopping you?"
"The only family I've got left is my brother and he hasn't spoken to me in two years, not even when our parents died back in the spring. I'm going to be awful lonely this year."
I shrug. "It's just another day to me."
Just then the boss whistles loudly and the din drops to silence. "Since tomorrow is Christmas Eve, I'm closing the office for the holiday as soon as the party is over. And now the moment you've all been waiting for. I'm happy to say that because of the work everyone has put in our profits have exceeded last year's and your bonuses reflect that. I thank each of you for your efforts, and let's make the first year of the new century even better. Don " he starts reading out the names on the envelopes.
I take mine when he calls my name and return to my corner. I notice Nigel walks a little unsteadily towards the boss when his name is called. My estimation of him rises considerably when the boss says, "Thanks to Nigel, none of us have had to worry about our computers crashing. He's done an excellent job since he joined us, so I know you all want to thank him."
There's a big round of applause which I join, not because I have to, but because I'm liking this guy more and more. He comes back to our corner his face flaming.
"I wish Mr. Singleton hadn't said that. I was just doing my job."
"You must have outdone yourself, then. Ass chewing is more his style." I set my now empty plate down. "Guess I'll go shake his hand, wish him a Merry, and split."
"Mind if I go with you?"
"Not at all."
He has enough trouble straightening back up after he reached under the table for the clear plastic cover to the veggie tray that I'm wondering if he has a secret stash somewhere and had a few nips before the party, but I didn't detect alcohol on his breath when we were talking. He snaps the cover on the tray and, after making the expected seasonal amenities with the boss, we ride down to the main floor in the elevator. I'm about to say good-bye to Nigel when he stops and looks at me.
"There's plenty left here. Care to come by my flat and try this with a real drink?" He gives me a wistful look. "Perhaps we could go out for dinner after."
"I'd like that." My solitude doesn't seem so desirable any more.
His smile is broad. "Thanks. I really don't want to be alone tonight." He gives me his address and walks toward his car.
I stop at home to get out of my suit and tie and into something more comfortable. On the way to Nigel's I stop at the mall. I want to give him something for his kindness. I buy a couple of bottles of the horseradish sauce for myself at the Hickory Farms kiosk then walk along looking in the stores. In a jewelry store about to close, I find a silver star made to fit the top of a small Christmas tree. It's a little expensive, but what the heck, my bonus was more generous than I expected and I've no other gifts to buy.
With the beautifully wrapped box on the seat beside me, I almost feel a little of the Christmas spirit I had thought long dead. His apartment building is old but reasonably maintained. There's no guard, so I enter the foyer and look for his box. Finding it I push the buzzer.
He's so slow in answering, I'm about to push the buzzer again when the intercom crackles and I hear him say, "Ron?"
"Yes." The lock on the inner door buzzes and I enter, taking the elevator to the fourth floor.
I know I'm at the right door, for there's a nice wreath on it. Then the door opens and I almost drop his gift in my surprise. It's Nigel, but he's in a wheelchair. From the way his jeans legs are folded, I can see his legs are missing, the right just above the knee, the left just below.
"Come on in, Ron, I'm glad you're here," he says with a cheerful smile.
My astonishment must still show for he grins. "Guess you weren't expecting this. Sorry, but I had to get those legs off. Standing like I did at the party gets to me."
"I would never have guessed."
"No one else knows, except the boss and he doesn't care as long as I do my job. Campari and soda for you?"
"Perfect. I'm surprised you have it. Not many do."
"Just for you, guy. I'm having my usual."
"Typically Brit, I see. Gin and tonic."
He takes my teasing with a smile. "But of course, old boy," he says in a perfect accent.
"Damn! I was teasing. I had no idea."
"I was born in this country, but my parents were Brits. I can still pass for one if I try." He spins his chair around. "Fix your drink to suit yourself. Everything's in the kitchen."
I'm glad I picked out the star, for he has only a glass spear on top of his table tree. As I slip his gift under the tree, I feel a pang of regret that there is only one other gift under it. I feel his sense of loneliness, my own as well.
His apartment is a small studio type, but reasonably well furnished. I'm surprised at the amount of decorating he's done. It has a festive air and looks far better than I had expected. But I have to wonder how he manages his chair in a kitchen as small as the one I walk into. I fix my Campari and soda with a twist from the fresh lime he's placed on a small cutting board, while he's mixing his gin and tonic.
"Would you take my drink for me?" He asks.
I reach for it and he opens the fridge, taking out the veggie tray. He's put the veggies and dip on a smaller silver tray which he sets on his lap, then turns his chair.
After he's set the tray on the coffee table, he plugs in the tree lights, and switches on his CD player for some soft Christmas music, traditional carols done by some British cathedral choir. It's beautiful, making me feel I've been missing something.
"Thank you for coming, Ron. Now I don't feel depressed at having no one to share with."
"It's I who must thank you. Otherwise, I'd be dead drunk by now."
"And have a hell of a hangover tomorrow."
"Too true, but only long enough to get drunk again. Then I'd have to spend Sunday sobering up for work." I shake my head. "I don't know why I put myself through this every year."
"Pure loneliness. It's a terrible thing to face, especially during a holiday. This is the first time I've had to deal with it, and I couldn't. That's why I asked you here. I hope you aren't sorry."
"Why should I be? I liked what I saw of you at the party."
"You do have a reputation for being anti-social, and," he grimaces, "you didn't know I was a cripple then."
"What do legs have to do with whether I like you or not?"
"Nothing, if you really feel that way."
"I do." For some reason he inspires me to be honest. "I like you, Nigel. I like your intelligence and I want to know you better, a lot better."
He looks startled for a moment, then gives me a tenuous smile. "You're gay."
"Why do you think I found a corner as far from the females as possible."
"I thought so." I must have looked alarmed for he hastens to add, "It doesn't bother me. I happen to be gay also. My brother is the homophobe, that's why he hasn't spoken to me since he found out."
"I'm sorry. I always wanted a brother I could talk to, but I'm an only child. It must be very difficult for you though."
"It is. He's six years older than me and was my protector when I was a kid. In a way, he was more of a father to me than my father was. That's why it hurts so much. He married a woman who took an instant dislike to me for some reason and turned him against me." His look is infinitely sad. "I have twin nephews I've never been allowed to see. A friend of mine who knows my brother says my name is so taboo in their home, the boys don't know they have an uncle. I'd love to get to know them, especially as I'll never have children of my own."
I hardly know what to say in the face of such anguish. "Perhaps with time "
"Sorry. I didn't mean to unload my problems on you, but you inspire confidence."
He switches the conversation and we chat about our work, our hobbies, and the things we like. I'm pleased to note we both like many of the same things. Nigel also has a keen sense of humor and has me laughing frequently.
I set my glass down and take one more small piece of cauliflower. "I'm not usually such a pig, but this dip is out of this world. Where would you like to go for dinner?"
"There's a nice place down the street, but I'm sorry I mentioned dinner now."
"I'm sorry if I have offended you. I'll go."
"No, please don't. It's not you." He looks up with pleading in his eyes. "I don't think I can stand those legs again tonight. So I'll just fix a sandwich or something here."
"Why? You said dinner, and I'm enjoying myself. It's no big deal for me to push your chair a few blocks."
"You'd be seen with me like this?"
"I like you, Nigel. To hell with your legs, they make no difference to me."
His smile lights up the whole room. "Thank you for that. Give me a minute and I'll be ready to go. If you don't mind, put that stuff back in the fridge for me."
I actually enjoy pushing him along the two blocks to the restaurant. It's a small family run place where he's obviously known, for he's greeted warmly and we're shown a table set for two, one chair missing. I push him in place and take my own seat.
"Ah, Nigel, you have friend tonight. I make it special for you," the man in the chef's toque says.
He smiles. "Thank you, Papa." He turns to me. "I hope you like authentic Italian cuisine, Ron."
"I do, but I don't often have it."
The chef bustles away, and a few moments later reappears with an antipasto tray. I have to groan. "I hope this isn't going to be a big meal. I ate far too much at the party and your place."
Nigel grins. "I'll tell Papa Steno not to be so
liberal then. Eat only what you wish."
I don't know half of what I eat, but the meal is better than I've had in a four-star restaurant. I'm almost in pain from over-eating by the time I finish my desert.
"You look as if this is an Alka-Seltzer moment," Nigel says with a grin.
"I'm about to bust, it was all so good. Thanks, Nigel."
"My pleasure, but I don't know what you're complaining about. You can walk it down on the way home, I can't. I often wonder why I don't look like a blimp, because Papa is always urging me to eat. He says I'm too skinny."
"You look fine to me. No fat, but a nice build."
"Only because of the gym. If I stopped eating here, I could save the cost of dinner and the gym as well," he says with another grin.
"Yeah, but don't knock the simple pleasures of life like eating good food."
I enjoy our stroll back to Nigel's apartment, for he's not quiet a moment. It's as if all his loneliness must be vanquished now.
"Another drink?" He asks, when we're back in his apartment.
"A short one. I don't want to outstay my welcome."
"No bloody chance. Fix me a short one, too. More veggies and dip?"
"Lord, no! Wonderful as they are, I'll pass after that dinner."
It's after ten when I take my leave. I'm so relaxed and comfortable with Nigel I hate for the evening to end. When I'm at the door, he says, "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, Ron. Would you object terribly to coming back and spending it with me?"
I suddenly want to more than anything else. "You're not tired of the office malcontent by now?"
He reaches up and grasps my hand. "A most undeserved reputation. You're delightful company and, I hope, my friend by now."
I squeeze his hand in return. "You are a friend if you can put up with me. I'll be delighted to come back, if you'll let me bring dinner. I doubt many places will be open. I would invite you to my place, but I've put up no decorations and yours are a pleasure for me."
"Thank you, Ron. And please call me Nige. It's been a long time since anyone has done."
I drive back to my place automatically, my mind occupied with Nige. He's so handsome, kind, and lonely I'd love to be the one to fill his life with pleasure. I dream of him snuggling against me in our bed, purring with delight as I stroke his stumps, then make love to him. But this is a guy who won't be rushed. I must take it as it comes.
For the first time in years, I awake clear eyed and excited Christmas Eve morning. A supermarket near my flat has a gourmet shop and I go wild in my ordering of the dinner I'll take to Nigel's that evening. I hope he likes my choices of fresh shrimp and a green salad for our dinner, then a small roast turkey with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner. I know he hasn't mentioned Christmas Day, but he has to eat, as do I, and it's no time for opening cans.
It takes me two trips to the car to get everything into his kitchen then after he's set the table I chase him out while I prepare. When I call him to the table, he looks at the shrimp and salad with surprise.
"I love prawns," he says, "but you brought far more than that."
"I'm inviting myself to dinner tomorrow, so that's in the fridge."
He reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. There's a moistness in his eyes. "Thank you so much. I wanted to ask you, but I was afraid you'd think I was imposing out of loneliness."
"You could never impose on me, Nige. I was thinking you might be tired of me."
"No bloody way," he bursts out. "It's so wonderful to have a friend I'm completely comfortable with."
We eat without saying much, for our looks say it all, and he has another delightful CD playing. After dinner, he asks if I mind TV, because he wants to watch Christmas Vacation, the Chevy Chase perennial. I don't like comedians, but not having seen the flick before, I'm in hysterics. Inside I can't help thinking how wonderful it would be to have known Christmas with such a dysfunctional family, especially when the brother-in-law kidnaps the employer. Nige asks in between giggles, "Would you like for me to bring you Mr. Singleton for Christmas?"
"Not a chance! Let him have his own fun. Bet he's riding one of his kids about something right now."
"That was great! I don't know when I've laughed so much," I tell him when the flick is over.
Nige wipes his eyes; he's crying from laughter. "I love it more every time I see it. Christmas at home was nothing like this. My parents were so traditional that Christmas was strictly a religious holiday. We got our gifts on Boxing Day, the 26th. I used to think it was dreadful that I had to wait a day after my friends all had their Santa Claus."
"You don't follow that, do you?"
"Not at all." I see sadness cross his face. "Not that it makes any difference now. I have no one that cares."
"I don't count?" I ask in mock surprise.
He looks at me with a shocked expression. "I didn't mean I oh, bloody hell, Ron, I'm so used to just casual friendships, I "
I walk over and lean down, pulling him into a hug. "We may not have known each other that long, but I do care. I care a lot about you, Nige."
"Enough to do me a real favor? I'll understand if you don't." There is pleading in his eyes.
"Anything. What can I do for you?"
He glances at his watch. "I want to go to midnight Mass at Saint Pauls. I'll put on my legs, but I seldom go because I have a hard time getting up when we kneel."
"I'll be happy to go with you. I haven't been to church since I moved here, but I'm hardly dressed properly."
"Only the older men wear suits now. And on Christmas Eve you'll see everything from jeans to evening clothes where people have been to parties first. I'll wear slacks and a sweater like you."
Nige drives because his car has a handicapped plate and he can park close to the door. The church is beautiful with its decoration and candlelight. It's a true Anglican church instead of Episcopal as I expected, but since the service is printed in a special booklet, it's no trouble for me to follow. The choir of men and boys is superb, and the incidental music glorious.
I do need to help Nige up each time we kneel, and I almost have to lift him bodily from the low communion rail and help him up and down the steps to the chancel. I don't mind in the least. The sensation of being so close to someone physically and emotionally after all this time gives me a feeling of joy I've not felt in years.
"Thank you for being so kind, Ron. Now I truly feel it's Christmas." He says on our way home.
I say nothing until we're back in his apartment and he asks why I'm crying softly. "This time with you has brought back something I never thought I'd feel again, Nige. Thank you for that, my friend." On impulse, I hug him tightly.
He returns my hug. "I'm so glad we met at the party."
"I am, too. And to think I was pissed at having to go." I kiss him. "Merry Christmas, Nige."
"And to you." He gives me a look I can't fathom. "Do you fancy me?"
"Even more than I did at the party. I couldn't believe it when you joined me."
"Why do you say you want me more?"
"Because I never thought I'd find an amputee who might give me a chance to know him and, yes, even love him."
"I could return your love, Ron, but only if you loved me as a person and not as an amp."
"I can't love you for being both?"
"That might take some adjustment on my part, but ," he smiles, "I think I could get used to it, especially after the way you helped me at church."
"I will always help you, love, when you ask, but I'll love looking at you, too. Youre a beautiful man."
"So are you." He smiles. "It's Christmas now, so do you want to open your gift?"
"Let's, but with some of your beautiful music playing and a glass of wine together. I'll get it while you put the music on."
We sit down in front of the tree and I hand him the gift, watching his delight as he opens it.
"For the top of your tree, love."
"It's beautiful! It'll be perfect with the two silver snowflakes I have. Some day I hope to have them all." He pulls himself up and replaces the spear with the silver star. It reflects the colourful lights of the tree.
He takes the other gift from underneath the tree and hands it to me. "I hope I've chosen well."
"But when "
"On my way home from the office party. I was hoping you would return and be my friend, and, yes, even more."
I unwrap a pair of heavy onyx bookends with a silver shield in each, suitable for engraving. "These are so beautiful, and heavy enough to really be useful." I set them aside and hug him. "You couldn't have chosen more perfectly. Thank you, Nige. I love you for your thoughtfulness and the man you are."
"As I love you. Stay with me tonight and tomorrow."
"Gladly. And we'll see the start of the New Year together if you want. My only wish now is that with the New Year we'll not be apart ever again."
"My wish also, love."
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