School is not even an option now. We’ve both dropped out, since our time is limited. Gabriella went back to Sacramento for a few days to get her clothes and stuff and resign, hoping she can come back someday. My parents occupy the place while she’s gone. Mom cooks and bakes while my father and I discuss just about anything. I no longer feel angry at him, and every once in a while he calls me Charlie.
When Gabriella returns, my parents finally fly back to Scranton, promising to see me for Christmas and hope I can feel better and go to treatments as often as possible.
We stand at the door, waving them away. I look to her. “Finally, we’re alone.”
“We are,” she confirms. “Help me unpack.”
She has a lot of clothes. A lot. I guess being in college means that the more clothes you have, the less rounds of laundry you have to do. They overcrowd my piles, but I don’t care. She’s finally living with me.
“You know, it’s almost Christmas,” Gabriella points out as she’s folding a pair of jeans. “We should get a tree.”
“I was thinking that too. Let’s see, you only have three boxes left. Then we can go.”
“Okay,” She grins. “My parents might have some ornaments and lights to spare. We can go see them after the tree.”
Now that the closet is basically overflowing with shoes, dresses, and outfits, we go to a Christmas tree farm that’s about fifteen minutes away. We’ve been going to this place since we were kids. The four o’ clock sun is drowsy and there’s a glow everywhere. The leaves turn gold, the smell of fir intensifies. We’re in a forest of delight.
“Charlie, what about this one?” Gabriella tugs on my sleeve, pulling me over to a five foot Douglas fir. It’s full, tall, and the right tree to take home.
“It’s perfect.” I put my arm around her, something I’ve always wanted to do since we were little, and now I can do that comfortably.
The tree is hoisted on top of the car and we’re off to the Sanders house. Gabriella finds the lights in the attic while I make small talk with her mom. Her father’s working.
“When’s your next treatment?” she asks.
“Thursday,” I reply.
“Are you nervous?”
“Not really. If it makes me better, I should be happy for it. I heard it was painless.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Mom! I can’t find the ornaments!” Gabriella calls out.
“I’ll go help her.” Mrs. Sanders climbs the ladder up and I’m left in the living room, reviewing the family portraits on the fire mantel. Gabriella at eight, a tooth missing, her curls crazily running down. Gabriella at eleven, in a nice soft pink shirt, and a black velvet headband. Gabriella at fifteen, straight hair, her mouth closed. No teeth showing.
“Charlie, I got it.” Gabriella’s holding two boxes, and instantly I grab one. “Thanks, Mom. We’ll see you for Christmas dinner.” I thank her too and we’re back in the apartment, placing the tree upright and staring at it.
“Our first tree,” she whispers.
I pull her closer to me, so happy to be sharing this moment with her. But we don’t do anything. Just look into each other’s eyes and soul.
White lights string around the tree, and colorful glass balls hook onto the branches. Gabriella suggests we go to a store to get more stuff, but I’m too tired to go anywhere else today. We also put up rainbow colored lights on the shelves, around the TV, on the kitchen counter. It really is Christmas in here.
“It won’t hurt a bit,” a nurse assures me. Well, more like Gabriella. She’s been in a frenzy the whole ride over.
“Thanks.” I have to let go of her hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back.”
She kisses my forehead. “I’ll be here.”
The nurse takes me to a white, clean room and hands me a gown. Doctor Shelton will be in a minute, she tells me. I sit on the bench and wait, wait, wait. All this time I kind of ignored the cancer. Yes, I’d feel stabs of pain here and there, and I coughed a lot, but when you’re with a person as incredible as Gabriella, well, you tend to forget everything.
“Hello, Charlie.” Doctor Shelton strolls in. “We’re going to start you with radiation, and then give you a set of medication you’ll have to take for eight cycles, with each being two to three weeks apart.”
“Alright.” He straps me into a table and slides me into a dark tunnel, and suddenly fear washes over me. I feel trapped. I can’t move. My breathing is almost nonexistent.
But this will make you better, I think.So shut up and fall asleep.
Thirty minutes later I can see light and my breathing resumes. I’m so glad to see the white walls now. “Now, Charlie, you may feel really tired for a few weeks. If you do, just go to sleep. This will help your body restore and you’ll be back to normal.”
Gabriella’s wringing her wrists when I walk out into the cold office. I take her hands and say, “I’m okay.” She throws her arms around me and for a minute it’s all I know- they’re really aren’t people around us, I don’t have to pay a bill.
But suddenly I do feel fatigued and all I want to do is crash on a bed. Gabriella takes us home and tucks me in my covers. I don’t know what she does when I’m sleeping. Maybe read or watch TV. I’ve never asked.
One good thing to having a roommate is that they’re usually a good cook. I wake up to the smell of hot chocolate and peppermint. Gabriella is drinking out of her own mug, and mine is set on my nightstand.
“Happy Christmas Eve,” she says and sips.
“You too.” I sit up, pressing my back against the wall, resisting the feeling of wanting to slide back down. I’m wrapped in layers and two shirts. It’s so cold in my room, when it’s about eighty outside. Gabriella is back in her usual tank and sweatpants. Sometimes she dresses up when she goes out and to work, but that’s about it.
“How are you feeling?” Her free hand rubs my shoulder.
“Alright. Now that you’re here.”
“Elf is on. We watched that like, nine times in a row when it came out.”
“Yeah, I can get up.” Gingerly I get to my feet, pad over to the couch, where Gabriella sleeps. She wants to give me space, and she’s seen me move a lot. But honestly, if she’s in with me, I’d stay still forever, wrapped in us.
We laugh to Will Ferrell’s hilarious lines, each one a brand new joke. We haven’t really seen it in so long, and we’ve needed this humor. The peppermint soothes us, and we envelope each other. She’s so warm.
I stare at our tree, now fully decked out, and the presents below the base. There’s only a few since all I wanted was Gabriella herself. But we still got something for us. And some presents are from our parents to make it look more like home.
The movie ends and my eyes are closing again. She takes me to my room but stands underneath the door. She looks up.
“Mistletoe,” she whispers.
“Mistletoe,” I repeat.
Gabriella smiles. I lean in closer, so close I’m centimeters away from her face. And then our lips touch. Peppermint and chocolate fuses together, sweet and minty. Sparks ignite inside. It’s everything I could imagine.
And then I yawn.
“Okay, sleepy. Time for bed.” She nudges me in and closes my door to a crack. “I’m going to finish this book.”
No, don’t go,I think. But my eyes close anyway.
“Merry Christmas,” Gabriella whispers beside me. She’s actually in my bed. With me. Right there.
“Merry Christmas.” The morning light sheds on her, crisp and beautiful. I don’t want to leave this bed. So we lay there for an hour, realizing that we took a step in our relationship, our first kiss last night and the first time we’ve slept together and this is our first Christmas and there are so many firsts to cross off.
Gabriella hands me a present, a medium sized box wrapped in red and gold. There’s a mixed CD, a bottle of orange soda, camera batteries, Rolos, and a frame of us from my graduation. I feel bad that I haven’t really gotten her favorites, because I haven’t left the apartment since my treatment.
On the day Gabriella had work, Mark came over to run errands for me. He was back in town for his college break, and Julie went to Ohio with her family. Their Christmas card was pretty cute. I had Mark get magazines I’ve seen sitting around and new utensils for the kitchen and a light blue sweater from Macy’s. Now as Gabriella opens it, a huge grin spreads across. I guess it’s enough for her.
The stuff our parents got us is pretty much house stuff, a fancy beaded rug for the living room, pillows for the couch, more plates. They splurged on us. In a few hours my parents will come over for lunch, and then we’ll all go to Gabriella’s house for dinner with her entire family. Apparently this hasn’t happened in years, as they always went up north. But I guess in my case, they were willing to come to Clovis.
Lunch passes fairly quickly and it’s a small one, since no one wants to overstuff themselves for dinner. My father asks for a report and I deliver a good one. I don’t feel as tired anymore. The medication must be kicking in.
Lighted garlands decorate the stairwell, a huge tree beaming against the wall, and about twenty people stream around the Sander’s house. I’m introduced to three aunts, three uncles, and four kids. My aunt and uncle also came as well, along with Harry and Philip. It’s a full house.
Gabriella has to go help in the kitchen so I idly sit in a chair away from the chaos, upstairs. Cerah, Gabriella’s favorite cousin, sits next to me. She’s sweet and very sympathetic about my cancer, and she’s got a humorous sarcasm. We chat about what Oregon is like, and how different it is from Clovis, and then it turns into a chat solely on Gabriella.
“She really loves you,” Cerah admits.
“I really love her too.”
Cerah hesitates. “Has she ever appeared… needy?”
I shake my head. “Not that I know of. These past few weeks, I’ve been too tired to notice much.”
“Well, Gabriella’s very needy. She’s like a sad puppy. When she had bulimia, she called me every night and cried. She needed you.”
“I didn’t know it was that bad,” I say.
“The bulimia wasn’t, but she was picked on by the girls. She said she wanted a friend. And the only friend she could think of was you.”
“I thought she had Carson,” I counter bitterly.
“The first week she did. Then Carson emailed her and they never talked again. That’s when she broke down. The next trimester, she followed the girls. She weighed like, ninety-two pounds.”
“That’s horrible,” I hush.
We stare at each other, trying to get more information out, but someone yells out that it’s dinnertime, and we both go to the table, as if this conversation never happened.