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Must Be Santa, Santa Claus photo

(This is part one of a four part serialization.)

A sudden blur, a momentary riot, bumping, clanging on the hood of my car. Then, just as quickly, the blur vanished out of view and back into the snow flurry that partially obscured my vision. 

Prior to this delirious eruption, I had been carefully traveling down a winter-whipped neighborhood street. The blur had seemed to be propelled in front of me by a force existing outside of itself (the object I hit had not seemed to appear in the street of its own accord). Its arrival was reminiscent of the way a strong breeze will sometimes expel a knitted winter cap from its wearer’s head. I began ruminating about all the deviant influences that might have pushed the blur and created this collision.

I worried the blur might be a human, and more specifically a human child. It proved to be precisely that when at last I stopped and investigated what I’d hit. It was a broken little creature, frozen in prone position on someone’s lawn. 

“I’m telling you, it looked like whoever that is was thrown in front of me, like a mannequin or a doll, with no time for me to stop or even slow down,” is what I told the cops who responded to the scene. 

I hadn’t attempted to drive away. I remained there. I was prepared to take my punishment. I thought that should count for something. 

I said to the cops, “Whatever my punishment is, just give it to me now and let’s be done with this and all the anticipation.” 

The cops explained that wasn’t how the legal system worked but they added that perhaps it could be in my case, depending on how I was willing to be punished. 

I didn’t like the sound of that and I was beginning to not entirely trust these officers of the law, but something about our interaction had, apparently, signaled my assent. They gestured knowingly at me. In the front seat of my car, there was all the raiment of a Santa Claus suit, and a note pinned to the Santa coat said, “Put all of me on and you are free to go.” 

I dressed myself in the Santa garb, though I was beginning to feel crummy about getting out of such a heinous crime so easily. It didn’t seem right. Some more severe punishment was in order. I’d have wanted a more severe punishment for anyone who had committed a crime of this significance who wasn’t me, provided I’d actually committed a crime of this significance, which of course I wasn’t certain of.

Instead, I got back in my car, dressed as Santa. I proceeded to my destination, which was to meet with a woman I’d finally worked up the courage to connect with in person, after several years of correspondence over the internet. I’d wanted to look nice and now, dressed as Santa, I was no longer sure that I did. It also wasn’t clear how long I’d be indentured to wear a Santa suit or whether there was any blood on the hood of my car. That last issue being something I imagined would make me seem a bit iffy as people go. 

We were meeting for coffees at Coffees-a-Million. They only served black coffee at Coffees-a-Million, and they slapped you with a sponge-covered, wooden slapping hand that the barista held by a gray handle if you tried to use cream you smuggled into their cafe. You had to sign a release stating you were ok with them slapping you, which may or may not lead to spilling coffee on your clothing. Slapping led almost always to coffee spilling. It was a game certain people played, seeing if they could sneak creamers past the watchful barista. There was no reward other than creamy coffee if you managed to do so, which I guess some might call its own reward. 

Elizabeth was the name of the woman I was meeting. She had already spilt coffee on her white blouse by the time I got there. I gave her a stilted and self-conscious nod as salutation and instantly regretted it, though she responded with a wave. 

She looked in every other way how I had expected. She had an average build, was attractive and youthful if a little bit cartoon cat-like in her facial features: narrow eyes, ovoid chin, button nose, for example. These features contrasted nicely, I felt, with my own, which was more cartoon shaggy dog in appearance, with big dozy, sleepy eyes and bangs that sometimes obscured my vision. My cheeks weren’t jowls yet, but they showed signs that as I aged that’s what I could expect. My head was oblong in shape. I had a slim torso, at least. It was the one feature I took some pride in. 

Of course, I was wearing my Santa suit, which looked all the more ridiculous hanging from my thin frame. The fake white beard itched terribly, and I thought a few more days of the itching might be more than I could stand. 

Elizabeth made the opening attempt at conversation by referencing the family I’d told her about in our previous typed conversations online. She said something general about how she hoped my mother was doing well after her recent surgery. She mentioned my aunt, too, who was helping my mother through her convalescence, and planned to do so primarily by reading to her her favorite Danielle Steel novels aloud to her, which my mother felt was not actually helping. It happened my mother didn’t care for anything by Danielle Steel and my aunt was being passive aggressive about some other slight she believed my mother had committed at an earlier time.  

She asked about my uncle who had started a business using his computer, HeadinHat.com, where your head shape was calibrated and matched to the perfect hat for you. Perfect hats were statistically beanies, according to my uncle, a fact which delighted Elizabeth and she never didn’t fail to mention. 

She knew well enough not to ask about my father. 

I ordered a coffee and when it was delivered I opened a non-dairy creamer and was promptly slapped. I decided I deserved nothing less than this sort of self-inflicted punishment to accompany the punishment I’d already received. 

“Why’d you do that?” Elizabeth asked. She’d been dabbing her own shirt with a wet napkin. It didn’t appear to be doing any good. 

Before I could reply we both observed the stain on my Santa suit miraculously clean itself, and so abruptly relieve me of the scalding pain and embarrassment of my spill. 

“I was trying to feel something very specific.” I said, attempting to appear cool and blase but surely unable to conceal my amazement about the Santa suit’s self-cleaning.  “And why did you get slapped?” I asked, wanting to showcase my interest in her while remaining blase. I had read somewhere that people respond well to you if you don’t seem overeager. 

“Same as you, same as nearly everyone who gets slapped. Impertinence with non-dairy creamer,” she said, pulling a screw-top vial from her purse so I could steal a quick glance before they slapped her again. 

“I remember my first slapping,” I recalled wistfully. 

“It was not my first. I’ve been slapped by the giant hand before, many times. It’s nice to finally see you in person,” she said, stirring what was left of the coffee in her cup with the non-dairy creamer she’d managed to pour. She sipped and added, “Coffee tastes better with creamer you’ve earned.” 

I scratched at my beard. She seemed to finally decide it was time to ask about why I was dressed as I was, or do something that acknowledged I was behaving at least a little bit strangely by wearing it. 

“Where’d you get the magical Santa suit and why? I guess that’s sort of what I was trying to get at in my vague way with my initial question, more than referencing the coffee slap. Why’d you choose to wear that here, now?” She was trying to needle me. This had been a contentious first meeting, possibly because I was late, possibly because  my physical appearance—regardless of the Santa suit—didn’t match the image of me she’d had in her head (I’d offered in our correspondence to send her photos, but she sent me a typed soliloquy about how pictures could convey nothing of my true aspect. Like the cadaver of a once living and breathing human body, they were simply telegrams from the past, a deadened and dried and entirely material past, and she’d rather not have such an image of me in her head, at least not before meeting me as the breathing, still-living and frail human I must surely be). 

“Do you really want to know?” I said, venom suffusing each word. I knew the Santa suit must have been playing some role in our misunderstandings, our palpable dislike for one another. It could be no other way than that the punishment I’d thought was intended only to make me look the fool had a far more insidious, primal even, purpose. I couldn’t soon escape it and the many unexpected concomitant effects its wearing brought to bear. I couldn’t even enjoy a good spilling of coffee on myself, which had been a masochistic sensory experience I’d once enjoyed quite well. 

“Yes, but do you need me to say why? Shouldn’t that be obvious, considering everything, considering all we’ve already been through together and what this date was supposed to mean for us, romantically?” She was right. We’d been through so much, digitally speaking, engaged in faceless periodized conversations with one another, because neither of us possessed a web camera (and even if both of us had owned one, such a medium likewise fit squarely against Elizabeth’s belief in seeing only genuine physical personage or nothing at all). And the last image of me she’d wanted was one in which I wore the hallmarks of a mythical creature, no matter its jolliness. Its jolliness be damned, in fact. 

“If you’ll allow me to explain, I’m not wearing this outfit by choice. It happens that it’s the only punishment I could receive for certain recent lawbreaking. It was this or get arrested and probably go to jail for much longer than I would want, than either of us could want. Not when we were so close. I never imagined the pain it might cause you.” 

“What was your crime?” 

“Excuse me?” 

“Why were you sentenced to wear this outfit?” 

“Well, it's a story that surprises and bewilders me still, hours after it happened. I was driving and a boy got into the path of my car without my seeing—I swear to you this: he seemed to have been tossed, like a doll, spiraling in front of my car in a great circular motion. I imagine this might be some sort of horrible trick played on me. I was unable to stop in time. I collided with the boy, the boy didn’t survive. And so the police gave me one choice, and you see that I’m wearing it.” 

“I’ll need to process that for a minute,” She spilled more coffee on herself, the sting of which appeared to help her think lucidly. She tilted her head down and winced for a minute, maybe more, before looking up again and saying, “For a terrible act there must be a terrible punishment. This fits that requirement.”

“I’m glad you see it that way,” I said. Elizabeth nodded somberly. She remained in that state, though we both intermittently sipped spilled our coffee, and the waving artificial hand of the barista was always reaching for some new transgressor. Elizabeth stood and so did I, and she embraced me, seeming to breathe in my artificial beard for some reason. 

She said, “We’ll be alright. It will be ok.” She didn’t sound sincere, or there appeared to be something that kept her from quite believing what she’d said. I tried to kiss her but she whispered that it wasn’t appropriate, and wouldn’t be until she did what she had to do. We agreed to meet for a pizza dinner later at the Pizza-Face Diner where all pizzas are made with dough to resemble the faces of horror stricken humans, faces held beneath a veil of cheese. It was a lot of fun to dine there. You could also get a calzone shaped like a human skull and they’d cut holes from the bread of the eye sockets so that sauce and cheese and other ingredients could spill out of them. 

As I ambled along the streets of the city, briefly bringing expressions of joy to the eyes of the children I passed, I learned the true meaning of torture. How perverse, the shiny little eyes thinking me a mythical being who, when appropriately needled by good behavior and a legible itemizing of demands, could make so many magical dreams of the season come true. But I had to live with the fact that this wasn’t quite the case. No, not remotely. I was every bit the charlatan. And these poor children knew nothing about it. 

I walked all the way to the frozen lake where I sat on a snow covered bench (not the best idea but I was not in the best state of mind) and waited to meet with Elizabeth again. I thought of her at this time, of what I hoped and dreamed might happen between us. Then I worried about something I had no control over: why  couldn’t she commit to our having a future together, even if it were only to be a future of a couple weeks or months, maybe. It wasn’t just the fear of having to recover from rejection. It was the sense that something intrinsic to me was repelling anyone who happened into my orbit. 

(To read the next part, click here.)