The Ghost of Christmas Present
The mall was crowded with people and I have grown to really dislike being in a crowd. This is modern Christmas in America and unless I finally give in to the temptation to just get everyone Wal-mart gift certificates (and consequently receive an all expense paid guilt trip from my mom) then I would just have to make the best of it.
I merged into the stampede of consumers and, after a while, made my way down to another section of the mall that was not as crowded. Ah yes, the video store. Forgetting about my mission to buy gifts, I went in and looked at the science fiction section. I saw some Star Trek: TNG episodes that I would like to own, but not at fifteen dollars each. I also looked at a copy of The Phantom Menace and paused -- faced again with the question of whether this movie was good enough to buy or not. Like before, I decided to pass on it for now.
The store had a Christmas section and I quickly glanced at movies such as The Santa Clause, I’ll be Home for Christmas, Scrooged, A Christmas Story, and Ernest Saves Christmas.
I walked out of the store, politely smiled at someone that I accidentally bumped, and headed for one of the mall’s many clothing stores. And that is when I saw her. Someone I hadn’t spoken with in over a year. Someone I used to hang out with. Someone who was a friend. Someone from my old church. Had she seen me yet?
Instinctively, I darted into the nearest store. I watched her as she walked past.
"Can I help you, sir?" asked a cheerful employee who had not yet succumbed to the holiday stress.
"Me? Uhhh, no. No thanks, I was just looking." I then walked out of the store, wondering why I had just done that. It wasn’t because I didn’t like her -- quite the contrary. Some of our friends had, at one time, suggested that I ask her out. Back then I had a list of excuses for not dating girls. It was like I had to invent "flaws" for them to cover for my being gay.
I continued my shopping, but the question of why I acted that way haunted me. Oh well, who cares, I finally resolved. I didn’t really like myself back when I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t, so why care about that version of Jamie. The sooner that character is completely written out of the script, the better. I’m tired of being surprised and having to play him again.
Later that night, as I was online, my Callwave internet answering machine sounded a ring to let me know someone was calling. I waited as the status changed from "playing greeting" to "recording message" to "downloading message." After a pause, the message started playing. The voice was not familiar, and it stated matter-of-factly, "You will be greeted by three ghosts. Fear not, but expect the first tonight at midnight."
I had to replay it just to be sure I had heard it right. I stared at my monitor a moment trying to match up that voice with someone I knew. My brain’s database didn’t produce a match, so I finally gave up and said, "Well, I don’t believe in ‘ghosts’ Mister Freak Caller."
I suppose my not believing in them doesn’t make them nonexistent, but there is a difference between a person’s spirit and ‘ghosts’ which supposedly hang around on earth after death to frighten and play pranks on those who haven’t yet died. Also, I absolutely loved the Sixth Sense, but that was a movie and I see little evidence of "earthly overtime" in order to set some things "right" or to pass on important information needed to solve a crime or something. So I was both intrigued and disturbed that someone would leave me such a message, especially since I’m down to like two friends and neither of them are pranksters. Oh well, who cares. Obviously, someone somewhere had just read A Christmas Carol or had seen one of the many movie spin-offs and is now having fun with the idea.
I hit the delete button and continued reading the December issue of Oasis. I read kind of slow and it usually takes me several visits to go through all the articles. It was getting late, so after a while I went offline and got ready for bed. I usually fall asleep in a few minutes and sleep soundly until my clock radio goes off.
This night was no exception. The radio dutifully clicked on and began working on making me coherent. Geez, is it time to get up already? I didn’t feel rested at all.
"Christmas is just a few days away now," the radio announcer informed me. "Have you heard the latest Y2K story? It seems that in Georgia, one man has taken all his money out of the bank and…"
I hit the snooze button and cuddled with my pillow some more. Precisely nine minutes later, the radio clicked on once again.
"One week before Christmas, the House of Representatives begins debate today on impeaching President Clinton, despite Democrats’ complaints that…"
Groggily, I silenced the clock radio and drifted back to sleep. Ahhhhh…
"Well, on to the box office this weekend -- the number one movie was the new release, Titanic. Have you seen it yet?"
"No, but I want to."
"It’s over three…"
I hit the snooze button again. But after it hit me what I had just heard, I jumped out from underneath the covers and put my face right up to the alarm clock (I have like, 20/800 vision without my contacts.) It was blinking 12:00. I turned the radio back on, but the program had gone to playing music now. I stared at it for a moment, until I heard a knock at the door.
I was a little spooked now. I turned on the lights, found my glasses, and went to the door of my apartment. I squinted to look out the peephole. On the other side stood a guy who looked about my age. He must have heard me because he was doing a little wave with his hand. I turned the lock and opened the door. He had brown hair and was wearing jeans and a bright white T-shirt with an unbuttoned, blue, dress shirt. He was holding what looked to be thin, spiral notebooks in his right hand. I thought he was cute and it reminded me of another time when a charming, cute guy knocked on my door and I ended up buying magazines I wouldn’t have normally bought. So I smiled at my visitor and made a quick promise to myself not to be shallow and not to buy anything. He was probably the newspaper carrier for this area -- it being this early and all. It wasn’t even light outside yet.
"Hi?" I offered.
He flashed a warm smile at me. "Hi. My name is Robbie and my organization is selling calendars. Would you like to look at some of our different ones… see if ya might want one or more?"
"Uhh…." I shrugged. "Well, yeah maybe. Let me take a look at some. Come on in if you want. You must really be trying to get a head start on the others, huh?"
He laughed and said, "Something like that." He walked through the door while flipping through his stack. After a moment, he pulled one out. "Well, here is a cool one. It’s a different photograph of a rainbow for each month. The January one is great, with the snow and all."
Oh yeah -- gaydar signal! This is soooooo not happening to me -- not anything this dreamy! I am buying all my Christmas gifts right now. Calendars for everyone!
He handed it to me and eagerly awaited my opinion. I flipped through the different pictures of rainbows -- all on high gloss paper no less! But then I looked down at the dates. I let out a quick little laugh and asked, "Why does this say 1992?"
His response caught me off-guard. "Well, we don’t sell calendars for anything but the upcoming year. I don’t know where you can get…"
"Wait," I said with amusement. "This calendar is eight years old. And while I kind’a…"
Suddenly, I remembered that strange call last night. And also vaguely what was on my clock radio. The guy grinned at me like I had just caught onto something. "Are you ready to go on a date, Jamie?" Then he laughed and added, "Actually, more than one in one night."
I shook my head in confusion. "What?"
"Why, I’m the Ghost of Christmas past." He then pulled out his wallet, flipped it open, fumbled through the different plastic cards, finally producing a business card. "See," he showed me, "this is my card." Sure enough, it read Robbie Holmes ... Ghost of Christmas Past.
I looked at him and did my best impersonation of Dr. Evil going "R...i...g...h...t…"
Robbie didn’t falter. "Dude, it’s true. Now if you’ll just get ready, then we’ll go."
I really didn’t know what to do, so I played along. I walked into my bathroom and put my contacts in while he looked around.
"Now where are we going?" I called out while sticking my finger up to my right eye.
"You’ll see," he casually replied, as if we had been friends for years instead of just having met one another.
I grabbed yesterday’s clothes that were in a pile next to my bed and quickly changed. I came out of my room and saw him standing in front of my bookshelf. He was flipping through one of them. "You know, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelf," he informed me.
"Maybe," I said while putting on my shoes. I then turned the question around on him. "What kind of books do you keep on your bookshelf?
Robbie ignored that and kept looking. "Humm… here’s an interesting one, Accepting Yourself as Gay: For Dummies"
"What?" I protested. "There is no such book on my…"
"Just playing with ya’. Hey, before we go could I grab something to eat?"
"Uh, sure," I said, pointing towards the kitchen. "Help yourself."
He went into my kitchen and opened some cabinets and then the refrigerator. "Geez, you’re out of everything." He shut the refrigerator door and announced, "Well, it just looks like we’ll have to go to the grocery."
And with that, the walls to my apartment flashed a brilliant white and I found myself standing in the middle of a grocery store aisle facing a shelf loaded with all kinds and brands of vegetables.
Robbie was behind me now. "Garden section outside, but it’s commonly referred to as manure and it’s a seasonal item."
"How?! Where are we?"
"I told you. I’m the... or rather "a"... Ghost of Christmas Past. And for your other question…" He gestured. "Just look around. Don’t your recognize the place?"
I glanced up and down the aisle and then walked out into the main aisle. "Hey, yeah I do. This is the grocery store I worked at while in high school and the first years of college." I took a few more steps down the aisle. "They haven’t changed it much. It’s exactly the way I remember it."
Suddenly, a younger me walked by pushing a stock cart. My mouth dropped open.
Robbie grinned. "Now you get the ‘past’ part of what I do." He then added, "Oh, by the way, they can’t see us."
I followed this younger Jamie as he pushed his stock cart through the store. He was heading to the dairy department. When he got there, he stopped next to the guy stocking the milk. "Hi Ben," he said warmly.
Robbie and I stood at a distance and watched them. "Who’s that you’re talking to?" he asked.
"That’s Ben. He goes to another high school. He also goes to the same church as me."
Robbie put his finger to his mouth and acted like he was thinking. "Hummm, so you have a history of falling for guys with three-letter names who work at the same place you do and who also go to the same church as you."
I looked at him. "So?"
"Just an observation, that’s all." He looked back towards the two grocery store boys. "You never told him that you liked him, I suppose?"
"No. But this was before I ever consciously admitted that I was gay. It’s weird ... I wanted to be ‘normal’ so I went out on one date with a girl cashier." I then made a gesture towards Ben. "But he’s the person I had a real crush on."
"Did you like working here?"
"Oh yeah! This was a great place to work. This store and school was pretty much my life. My friends worked here. After four years, I had to quit to go to UK. But then the next semester I did something really crazy ... I drove back on the weekends to work here. Can you believe that?"
Robbie smiled. "But Ben had left for another job by then. So he wasn’t the reason you did that, huh?"
I stood there staring at Ben stock milk. The younger Jamie had already gone into the back. "No," I finally said. "I saw him once a few years later when he came to UK. After I graduated, I called him up a few times and tried to get him to come to my church sometime, but he didn’t. I mean, we weren’t really the kind of friends that hung out a lot anyway. I only saw him at work and sometimes when I went to church."
A moment passed. Then Robbie suggested, "Well… let’s go to UK then."
The spacious grocery store flashed a brilliant white and was gone. In its place was a very small room with bunk beds, two desks, a closet, and a little refrigerator. In the lower bed was a guy reading a textbook.
"Hey!" I said. "This is the dorm room I stayed at in my first semester." I glanced around. "Wow, was it ever small."
A second later, the door creaked opened and once again I was looking at myself. I was wearing glasses and had a weird haircut.
The guy in the bunk softly said, "Hi."
The other me didn’t look at the guy and responded with something that was half the word "hey" and half of a groan.
"Yikes," Robbie said before turning to me. "You tossed social niceties to the wind, eh?"
I sighed. "I was such an ass to my roommate. I barely spoke to him and I made fun of him to my friends back home."
I paused to consider that. "Well, I think it was because my roommate was like Jack, you know, like on the show Will & Grace. Only more so."
Robbie looked genuinely puzzled. "Well wouldn’t that have been good for you? To actually talk to someone who might be like you in that way?"
"No!" I snapped back. "You see, he was somewhat of a threat to me. He represented what I didn’t want to be. And so instead of being nice to him, I treated him with unkindness. And worse... I made sure he knew I was a ‘Christian’. Which was odd, considering I never read my Bible or even knew much about what I ‘believed.’"
We watched Craig get up and leave the room. The other me got a Coke out of the refrigerator and sat down at his desk.
"How I treated Craig," I continued, "is not very different from how the religious right treats me today. I can’t always clearly define what sin is and isn’t, but I do know this ... I sinned in the way I acted towards Craig. I try to remember that when I get frustrated with the conservative Christians now."
"Did you ever talk to Craig about homosexuality?" Robbie asked sympathetically.
I shook my head. "No, not really. He was majoring in social work and one time he asked me to proofread a paper. In one sentence he talked about helping people, but especially gays and lesbians. I think he showed me that on purpose. I asked for another room assignment after that semester and sometime later I saw that he was participating in the campus gay and lesbian organization."
"An organization that you steered clear of," Robbie added.
"Yeah," I said slowly. "Look, it was a time when I was very much dealing, or rather not dealing, with internalized homophobia. I’m not the first gay person who reacted that way you know."
Robbie reached down, gently grabbed my hand, and led me out the dorm room’s door. On the other side was not the hallway I remembered, but rather a warm summers day. We were now standing in someone’s yard. I looked around to get my bearings ... it wasn’t anybody’s house I knew. But then another me and a girl walked right past us and on up to the door of the little townhouse. They knocked on the door and a moment later a black woman appeared. The memory came rushing back to me and I turned on Robbie in irritation.
"Robbie, I question the point of all this! I’ve changed since these events took place! If I’m some sort of Scrooge, then I don’t get it! There is no need to make me relive all of this if it’s an attempt to bring about change that has already occurred."
I had worked up to full speech mode now. "Coming out can be a great struggle for some people. It involves much more than merely recognizing one’s sexuality. It can be tied up with a person’s faith, their friends, how they see people, pretty much their whole identity. So you can take that damn Coming Out: For Dummies book and…"
"Hey, now," Robbie said, putting his hands up. "Calm down, you’re going to miss…"
"I know what happens! We were going door to door asking people if they’d like some information on Christ. This lady told us she would never go to church again and when I asked why, she told us she was a lesbian. We talked for a minute or more and I shook her hand, but I didn’t give her much comfort. I think I even asked if she thought she was being deceived by Satan."
"Well, people can be deceived in life you know," Robbie offered. "Everyone probably is to some extent." A moment passed as we watched the three talk at the door.
"You generally seemed excited about what you were doing and all," Robbie continued.
I sighed and looked down at the grass. "I was," I acknowledged. Then, looking back up into Robbie’s eyes, I continued. "I liked being a part of a group. I liked my friends… and I really believed that we were… making a difference somehow. You know, by just trying to get people excited about God and all. I don’t know… I guess it was more like we were trying to get him elected or something… you know, by going door to door and all."
Robbie laughed. "Come on, let’s see what a difference a year makes."
The world flashed white and Robbie and I were now standing in a corner of a large bedroom. Sitting on the bed playing video games were two guys ... Leo and myself.
Actually, Leo was the one playing Legend of Zelda. I was sitting as close to him as two people could sit and still be considered side by side. My chin was resting on his shoulder.
Robbie didn’t say anything and neither did I. I just stared at them, remembering. Finally Robbie whispered, "Is that your boyfriend?"
I swallowed. "Almost."
We let that hang in the air for a moment. Then I softly said, "This is near Christmas. Two years ago, I think."
Robbie grinned. "I always end these trips back at Christmas."
Another pause. "I was so in love with him. But… we didn’t exactly talk about our feelings. That’s sort’a important you know. I wrote all about my friend Leo in an online magazine a few months ago. I guess that means I’m still in love with him now, huh?"
Robbie grabbed my hand. "Come on, let’s go back to your place."
"Can’t we stay a minute longer?"
Robbie gave a light tug on my arm and said, "Come on."
The bedroom changed to my bedroom. But something was different. The furniture was moved around somewhat. And then… I saw myself laying face down on the floor.
"Same Christmas," Robbie quickly stated.
I turned and looked at him. "Yes… yes, it is. I remember! This… this guest pastor came to our church and he preached hard on the evils of homosexuals." My voice raised a notch and I started gesturing with my hands. "Depraved minds, ungodly individuals. That’s what he had said. It had sent me reeling backwards and while other church members went out to eat, I came home, fell face down and sobbed. It was one of my lowest points in my life."
Robbie looked at the other me on the floor. "Still though, you got back up and pressed forward."
"Yeah," I said. "I mean… I felt beaten for awhile and hated life, but I loved life too. There were ski trips ahead, youth groups to lead, and stuff to be done at the engineering firm that Leo and I worked at."
For a moment, nothing else was said. Then I felt Robbie’s hand on my shoulder. "I gott’a go now, Jamie," he said. "See you later, ok?"
"Wait." I spun on my heel, but he was gone. I looked at the floor and the other me was gone too. The room was back to normal.
I paced around my apartment, not knowing what to do with myself. This went on for several minutes, until there was a knock on my door. I rushed to open it. It wasn’t Robbie, but a little old lady. She had bright silver hair and was wearing a red knit sweater that had a Christmas theme woven in. She had a scarf draped over her neck and she carried a little black purse in her right hand.
"May I come it?" she asked.
"Uh, sure." And after she had walked in, "Is there something I can do for you?"
She spun around and said, "Let’s get right to the point. I’m the Ghost of Christmas Future."
I screwed up my face a little and repeated, "The Ghost of Christmas Future?"
"That’s right!" she nodded. "Does that surprise you?"
I blinked. "Well, no, I guess not. But shouldn’t you have been the Ghost of Christmas Past?"
"And shouldn’t you like girls?" she shot back.
I put my hands ups, slightly embarrassed. "Ok, I’ll never typecast anyone again. I’m sorry."
She seemed pleased and responded with, "Good. Now I’ve got something for you." She walked over to my table and set her purse down. With wrinkled fingers, she delicately turned the little silver knob, opened up the purse, and pulled out a little black jewelry box ... which she promptly flipped open. Inside was a gold band.
I leaned in for a closer look. "Is that a wedding ring?" I asked.
She waved the little black box in front of my face. "No, it only looks like a wedding ring. It’s actually a time travel ring."
"Oh… uh, my bad. But when Robbie was here I didn’t have to wear a ring or anything."
"Different technology," she blurted out. "I write my own space/time algorithms."
"If you say so," I said with amusement.
"I do say so." She pulled the ring out of the box and handed it to me. When I hesitated, she said, "Well, go ahead now. Put it on."
I gently slid the gold band on my finger and admired it. I looked up at her and smiled. "It looks like I’m married."
The room flashed white and I was now standing in someone’s living room. The Ghost of Christmas Future was nowhere to be seen. "Ms. Ghost?" I softly called out. No answer. I looked around. This was a small house and some of the things, the recliner for example, looked like the one I owned. I carefully made my way over to the TV stand. Several of the movie titles were the same ones that were in my collection ... but there were also several others there too. Suddenly, I was startled by a knock at the door. This door had no peephole, so I unlocked it and turned the handle. What happened next took me by complete surprise. In walked Leo.
"You would not believe the crowd at the mall," he said as he took off his coat and threw it on a nearby chair. "I am sooo glad all my shopping is done."
I stood there in a complete daze. All I could do was mutter his name. He walked over to me, looked deep into my eyes, and then glanced upward. One side of his mouth curled into a grin. "Mistletoe," he said softly. He looked back at me and leaned in. I melted as his warm lips touched mine.
After a moment, he pulled back and smiled mischievously. "Are you ok?"
There was a fog surrounding my head. "Me?" My voice went up on octave. "Oh, yeah…yeah."
He bent down, pulled his shoes off, and tossed them aside. "Well, I’m gonn’a take a shower and then we can go."
I stood there, still under a spell. He walked into the bathroom and didn’t shut the door. I heard the sound of belts and zippers and then clothes hitting the floor. I could feel my heart pound. Oh, please walk back out… and then the sound a shower curtain makes as its being pulled back. Water.
"You two make a nice couple."
I spun around to see the Ghost of Christmas Future standing there.
"Did you just see that?" I exclaimed. "Leo… Leo and I are married! How long?"
"A little over a year, I think," she replied.
I clasped my hands together. "Oh yeah, we’re still doing it every day then. This is," I looked around, "…this is just soooo very great." A thought came to me. "Hey… how come I’m in this instead of just observing?"
"Because the future hasn’t happened yet. Many variables to play with."
"Well, you are the ghost with the most. And I…"
She held up her hand to stop me. The expression on her face turned more serious. "The next time he kisses you," she said, "…you’ll go back."
My heart fell. "Oh?" I looked down at the floor and then back up as I felt a surge of hope. "But you’ve shown me my future now. I can wait a few years ... no problem. This will…"
She cut me off again. "This," she said as she looked around, "this may never happen."
"Then why?!" I protested. "Why show this to me? Why play with my emotions like this?"
"Because." I spun around to see Robbie. "Because in the past, you had passion for life. You were in a great struggle with your identity, but you had that passion. However, somewhere in the process of accepting yourself as gay, you’ve let your spirit get broken."
The old lady nodded her approval. "And this," she said as she motioned to what was around her, "This is what you believe would restore your passion. If only this would happen, then life would be exciting and worth the living."
They let that sink in. Then Robbie continued. "You’ve grown, Jamie. And you’re trying to put distance between yourself and the ‘old’ you. You don’t think you need him… but at least the completely closeted Jamie was filled with life. No, you’re not Scrooge. You believe strongly in kindness and mercy. But… you said that you didn’t believe in ghosts. And yet… you are one. You…Jamie… are the ghost of Christmas present. And in the present, what you’re haunting is your old life. For the past year and half you’ve mostly wanted to remain unseen by those people whose lives used to be entwined with yours."
"I guess I didn’t… didn’t believe in myself," I finally offered.
The lady smiled. "And you still don’t. But…" she said, "you’re getting there."
We heard the shower stop. I looked at her and Robbie. "His kiss will send you back," she reminded me. And then they were gone.
A moment later, Leo appeared out of the bathroom. He had put on some new clothes and his hair was wet and messed up. "Who were you talking to on the phone? I thought I heard you."
"Oh," I said, "just someone uhhh, trying to sell us some calendars."
"Hey… what are you doing still standing under the mistletoe? Is that a hint?"
I looked up. "Oh? Yeah… I guess I am."
Leo came over and gently grabbed my hand. I looked at his ring and mine. "Hey…" I whispered, "just… just hold me first."
He put his arms around me and we just stood there for the longest time. Music started playing softly in the background. He moved his face in front of mine… our noses touched… and then our lips.
With a ghostly effect, Leo and everything faded away.
I slowly opened my eyes.
I was in my bed, holding my pillow in my arms. The clock radio had clicked on.
Jamie McDaniel lives in Lexington, Kentucky. If you want, you can e-mail him at email@example.com.