The short, sparkly, white hair caught my attention, but it was probably the pensive, brown eyes that drew me in me and demanded I go over and speak to her.
I almost never go to bars. After nine years of sandbox military action and five months of freezing-my-nuts-off military drill bullshit, I’m more of the stay-home, watch-action-movies guy. But my friend Christian insisted we go out to a bar on December 15th. Not only was he celebrating my recent release from the service, but also our birthdays. His birthday is on December 1st, and mine is on December 25th. He knew I hated having my birthday on Christmas Day. He suggested we celebrate our birthdays in the middle of December, when we first signed up for our years of stupidity, and now it was a tradition.
Christian texted and told me the snowy conditions and icy roads were going to make him about twenty-five minutes late. Normally this would’ve gotten me a little annoyed but not when I got to spend my time staring at this girl.
I had to go over there. I’m not the kind of guy who just goes up to a girl he doesn’t know. I don’t have any slick pick-up lines. I’m about as smooth with words as a wet dog on cracked pavement, but I had to go talk to her. I had to do it now, before Christian showed up. I felt a crazy pull toward her, so I gathered up my courage and grew some balls because if I didn’t go over there, I would always regret it.
I asked the bartender for two beers, picked them up in my left hand, and took a deep breath for bravery. I’ve faced down potential bomb threats; I could go talk to one woman.
I was only a few feet away when she looked up at me. Her eyes got wide with what I was pretty sure was recognition, and not in a good way. I stopped short. I had the weird feeling that I knew her, maybe from a long time ago. She glanced down, an upset frown on her face. Had I dated her? No, I definitely would’ve remembered that hair and such sad, brown eyes. I let my gaze travel down her body. No, not a past girlfriend. So what then?
I was almost to the barstool next to her when she looked up at me and then quickly looked down as if she was ashamed. I suddenly remembered exactly how I knew her. My heart leapt into my throat and wedged itself there.
The girl that had been raped during Christmas break the year I was a senior and she was junior. She’d been Goth-girl then, a quiet artist.
Snippets of it rushed back to me in vivid detail, a burning flash as if I were there.
I’d had a slight buzz when I walked in to what I thought was the bathroom, but turned out to be a bedroom. The first thing I saw was the jet-black hair. The next thing was this wrecked-looking girl tied to the bed with a gag in her mouth and tears streaming down her face.
She was tied It was so shocking to my stupid, naïve, eighteen-year-old self that it took me a second to take it all in. All the blood rushed up to my brain, like a roaring crash, there was a booming horrible internal thudding in my ears. I tackled Keith so hard it sent him off the other side of the bed. He just looked at me and said, ‘It was just a game’ and he pulled his pants up like it was nothing. I turned around in disgust and saw two other guys watching them.
I remembered how embarrassed and broken she looked. She started to choke behind the gag. Bile rose in my throat and I thought I was going to throw up. I got out my little pocketknife and cut the rope binding her. She ran out of there like a jackrabbit with a lion chasing it. I turned around to punch Keith in the face, but he was gone.
I picked up the Mariah’s bag. She had a dainty little blue purse, and the large backpack she always carried had her sketchbook in it. I’d seen her take it out and draw in it all the time. I remembered thinking she’d want it back. I’d give it to her as soon as I saw her on Monday.
She dropped out of school, and I never saw her again.
No wonder I didn’t recognize her from far away. The long, so-black-it-absorbed-light hair was replaced with white hair that looked like snow on Christmas morning when the first rays of sunrise make it sparkle like diamonds. The heavy artist Goth eyeliner was replaced with no eye-makeup at all.
Now, here we were, almost ten years later. She obviously recognized me before I recognized her. She saw the look on my face, probably seeing I not only remembered, but just relived it. She stared at the bottles lined up behind the bar and gave me the body language that said, ‘Go away’.
But I couldn’t. Not now, and maybe not ever. Not when I felt so fiercely drawn to her. There was a shimmering energy between us.
“Hey,” I said. I’m not exactly smooth with the pickup lines.
“Hey,” she said back.
I was going to say, ‘I haven’t seen you in a while,’ but that definitely seemed like the wrong thing. Instead I just placed the beer in front of her and gave her a half smile. That’s when her demeanor changed. I could see it. She went from being ashamed to looking at me like I was her biggest hero. That’s when I knew I had a chance.
The need to take care of her overwhelmed me but I had no idea what to do. I wanted to start a conversation. Ask her where she’d been and what she did for living. Tell her how beautiful her hair looked. Probably because I wanted to care for her, instead of some compliment, what came out of my mouth was, “Will you come home with me?” I pictured her on my bed laid out on white sheets, naked, pale skin, pink nipples… I shook myself out of it. Picturing her on any bed after the flashback I just had seized up my stomach.
I smacked my forehead. “That’s not what I meant to say.”
She laughed. The tone was beautiful, tinkling but also bitter, reminding me of deep bell chimes over a door where one was just a little bit off but somehow made the whole harmony sweeter. “I can’t believe I said that.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe you did either.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“No.” I smacked myself in the forehead.
“So you don’t want me to come home with you?” Her voice was teasing, full of laughter. A minute ago I thought I’d never see her smile, yet there it was.
“Of course I want you to come home with me. You look gr—.” I rubbed my hands over my eyes. Fuck, now I sound like…
I had a feeling she was smiling.
“Well, I would want you to come home with me, but, I’m not that kind of guy.”
“Well, maybe just for a cup of warm eggnog?”
“Warm? Warm eggnog? Ew, disgusting.”
“I can’t leave now anyhow,” I said. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
She made a face like ‘I hope it’s not someone from high school.’
“It’s not anyone you know,” I said.
“Good. I…don’t want to run into anybody. I’m not staying.”
She gestured down at a huge green duffle bag next to a beat up guitar case. “My dad’s sick. I’m just in town to take care of him until he gets better and then I’m on the road again.”
I started to ask her if she meant she traveled for a living but she said, “Christmas time is hard for him. My mom passed away two years ago at Christmas, and he never got over it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I put my hand on top of hers, just to give it a comforting squeeze. A pulse of desire shot through me. I wanted to leave my hand there but I forced myself to pull back.
A sleazy-looking guy with long blond hair set up a karaoke machine, and a bleached blonde with huge fake boobs hanging out of her tight red sweater started singing Santa Baby!
Mariah rolled her eyes and then rolled them again when the blonde sang the line ‘I’ve been an awfully good girl’ in what was probably supposed to be an Eartha Kitt voice but sounded more like cats screaming.
I looked down at her guitar and motioned to it with a jerk of my chin. “You play?”
“A little,” she said, in a tone that said she played a lot.
I got another text from Christian. ‘Popped my back tire. Gonna be awhile.’
I thought for a second before I texted back. ‘I ran into a girl I know. Can we reschedule?’
He sent me back a smiley face followed by a devil with its tongue sticking out emoji. Then what looked like an emoji of a dick jerking itself off. Ass-hat.
“That was my friend,” I said to Mariah. “He’s not going to make it.”
She gave me another one of those smiles, soft and shy, making me feel like I was the best thing to happen to her in a long time.
A drunk guy started singing I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause. He swayed like he’d fall off the small stage every time he said, ‘Mommy’.
“Oh, God. Kill me now.”
“You could do better?” I asked.
“Anyone could do better,” she said.
She looked over at my still-short haircut, probably rigid posture, and torso that had been honed from way too many hours carrying a heavy pack and said, “Military?”
“I never would have pictured that for you.”
I didn’t tell her that after witnessing her rape I felt the need to get away from this town as fast as I could. Maybe get out of the country as well. I couldn’t handle it. I’d felt…like my heart was shot through.
Being busy oversees helped me forget. Coming home made the hole bigger. If I felt that way, how the hell did she feel?
“You okay?” I asked softly. “You been okay?”
She nodded. “The music helps.”
“You’re a musician?”
“Thought you’d be an artist.”
“The drawings stopped,” she said.
I didn’t need to ask when.
Time for a change of topic. I noticed she’d finished her beer. “Another?” I asked.
Mariah shook her head.
“Warm eggnog chaser?”
“Ugh.” She laughed.
“God, you’ve got a great laugh.”
We listened to a few more holy-hell how could there possibly be so many bad singers singing awful Christmas songs as we talked. Do You Know It’s Christmas Time by that put-together ensemble Band Aid, from a drunk guy in a Santa Claus costume? Feliz Navidad. Santa Claus Farted on My Lap. Oy to the World. Mistletoe by Justin Beiber.
“That’s just wrong,” Mariah said.
I could definitely fall for this girl.
Look for the Craving-heart Christmas in audiobook form