“Santa, In Brief”
By Rolynn Anderson
Part 1 of 3
She’d never seen a Santa suit used in quite that way, but Emilia had never spent Christmas in Palm Springs before, either.
The tall man ambled toward her across the putting green, a young Santa, dressed down for a hot day in the desert. His bright red shorts came mid-thigh on tanned legs; the matching red shirt was sleeveless, tight on his broad shoulders. In one bare hand he held a putter; in the other, three golf balls and a Santa hat. Black cleated shoes, no socks. Clean-shaven. Dark brown hair, cut short to manage a pesky whorl on his hairline. The man’s face was Christmas red, but based on his uneasy expression, it was embarrassment, not heartiness, that made it rosy.
“Ho, whoa,” Emilia said, palm up, recognizing the man from a poster of employees in the pro shop. She’d skimmed his short bio, learning he was her age, thirty-two, new to Palm Springs, and single. She read his nameplate. “You’re Nick, my golf instructor.”
“And you’re Emilia. Are we missing Paul?”
“I’m Emilia Gant,” she said. “Paul is my erstwhile boyfriend. Gone Boy.” Something about the cut-off Santa suit lifted Emilia from the depth of her doldrums. “Nice alteration,” she said focusing on the threads around his armholes flying in the breeze.
Nick shrugged. “I’m new here and it’s Christmas day, so I have to wear it. They didn’t say I couldn’t cut it to size and adapt it to 75 degree weather.” He dropped the balls and the hat on the putting green. “Emilia, you’ve paid ahead for two students in one hour, so you’ll get two hours of my time. How’s that?”
“Generous. Santa-like.” She glanced at the casita where she was booked for a week, first day spent alone, Paul-less. In twenty-four hours, he hadn’t called and he wasn’t answering his phone. Her jet lag, laced with depression, sleeplessness, and disappointment, was a dizzying cocktail. Even the smell of newly-mown grass, tinged with the pungent odor of fertilizer, made her nauseous. Thank God, the putting green and driving range were empty, so no one but Nick could witness her unsteadiness. Figured. Dinner hour on the day before Christmas: an abandoned woman and a low-ranking golf instructor. I was a fool to come here.
Emilia leaned on her putter. “I suddenly have time. Lots of it.” She stared at Nick’s face, deciding his piercing green eyes invited her to speak. He was the kind of man who focused on the person he was talking to. Was Paul? No. Gone Boy’s eyes traveled everywhere during conversations, rarely meeting Emilia’s. She gave her putter a one-handed swing. “We’re lucky to spend the holiday in the desert,” she said, tightly.
He hitched his shoulders. “It’s sleeting in Wisconsin.”
“Raining in Buffalo.” Emilia concentrated on the bottom of the man’s shorts. “You used a pinking shears,” Emilia said, pointing at the hem clipped like baby shark teeth.
“When I told my mother I was cutting the legs off a Santa suit, she suggested I use special scissors to keep it from unraveling.”
“I know. I went to a sewing store and borrowed a pair. The women helped me rip the seams on the arms.”
“But you didn’t pink those.” She reached up to remove an errant thread, but realized she’d be touching his skin. Her hand changed direction to adjust her visor.
He shifted from one foot to the other. “I thought it would look dorky on my arms.”
Emilia nodded. “We can only go so far with mother’s orders.” She glanced at the empty sidewalk that led golfers from the pro shop to the practice green. “He isn’t coming,” she said with finality, convincing herself and the teacher that life would now move ahead sans Paul.
“I’m sorry, Emilia.”
She shrugged. “He paid for my week here, including breakfast and two hours of lessons a day from Santa Claus. Why be sorry?”
He chuckled from deep in his belly, a sound so infectious, Emilia laughed too. His mother taught him joy along with sewing tips. A vision of Nick cracking jokes with his family around the dinner table came to her imagination, in color.
Nick pointed to her club. “You can putt. I’ll bet you’d like to practice a full swing.”
She stared at him. “How do you know I can putt?”
“The natural way you handle the club. You’ve golfed, quite a bit, actually.”
Emilia tightened her fingers on the grip. “Paul said he was a beginner; I told him I’d take lessons with him and polish my game.”
He waited for more, his eyes following hers, a human GPS.
“We met in Paris at the close of my buying trip for a department store. He’s a financial analyst from New York. Same hotel in Paris. We clicked. He talked me into a desert Christmas with his family.”
Nick was quiet. Still. Waiting. The man must have sisters because he’d learned to listen. And it made her nervous. She had a father and two brothers with selective hearing. Mom? Silenced forever with cancer when Emilia was ten.
He stuffed balls, hat and putter in her rented bag and lifted it with one hand. “Let’s go hit some balls named Paul.”
“Hmm. Not a bad idea.” She looked down at her black shorts and white and black golf shirt, both bought at the pro shop the day before. She made a sound of disgust when she eyed her flats. “What wrong with me? I don’t have golf shoes.”
And then she remembered the package that looked like a shoebox. Paul said, “It’s my Christmas gift to you, Emilia. But you can’t open it until we’re together in Palm Springs. You have to promise me not to peek.”
She’d held up her swearing right hand, thinking he’d picked out golf shoes. True, it wasn’t the most romantic present, but it represented something special they were going to do together.
At his bidding, she’d tucked the package in her checked baggage, already bulging with samples, giddy about opening his gift and her heart at a posh desert resort. But Paul and his family had never arrived and Emilia found out Paul had paid ahead for only one casita. The Fort Knox-wrapped box and her heart, remained closed.
“Emilia?” Nick asked, his eyes exploring her soul.
With a gasp, she came out of the haze she’d been enveloped in for a week, swept up in a Parisian romance. Desert sun, a gaping golf course and Nick’s penetrating gaze lifted a veil to expose her naiveté. She stumbled at the curb and righted herself. When she looked at Nick, his Santa face open, worried, and non-judgmental, tears came to her eyes. “I screwed up, terribly.”
The concern in his eyes seemed genuine, so she took a breath, reassured. “I did the one thing a person is never supposed to do.”
“What, Emy. What did you do?”
The nickname helped her say her next words. “Paul gave me a package, maybe illegally.” She pointed to the casita. “It’s in my room. And I don’t know what’s inside it.”
Read Part 2 of this story tomorrow!