The traffic was shit, straight up not moving, constipated shit.
Brad and Jennifer been waiting at the same stop light for three turns now, and they’d barely moved forward a car length. Christmas shopping three days before the holiday during the after work rush was not something either of them had planned on. A last minute work party had changed that.
“Did you see Pikachu has a Santa hat?” Jennifer asked Brad. She was scrolling through her PokemonGo app, and evolving the characters she could while waiting for the local PokeStops to reset. “I’m hoping when I evolve him he still has the hat as Raiku.”
“That would be … interesting,” Brad gave a one shoulder shrug from his seat. “Would that be a new one to catch?”
“It’s not any different in the Pokedex,” Jennifer replied, “so I suppose not. Just another way to get us to buy more balls to throw.”
“Christmas spirit and all,” Brad muttered. “You’d think they’d be offering us free stuff.”
“I know, right?” Jennifer set her phone down, screen still up in case anything good popped up on the radar. “Tell me about this party again?”
Brad sighed heavily. His shoulders were tight with tension, and he glared at the bumper of the car ahead. He ran his hands through already disheveled brown hair. “It’s that damn vendor. Again.”
“CompuTerm. I have no idea who does their scheduling, or ordering, or anything, really. The company is a mess. Why we’re using them is beyond me. The last time I tried to talk to their support network, they put me on hold and dropped the call five times. A telecom company that’s dropping calls. I mean, what the actual fuck?”
Jennifer flipped a hank of long brown hair over her shoulder as she turned to Brad. “That does suck. But they’re paying for this shindig, right?”
“In only the most technical sense. The way this works, see, is their company hosts a spectacular party like this one at The Swan. Then, when my company signs their contracts, they rack and stack charges until we’ve essentially paid for our own party, we just didn’t get to choose the where, when, or how.”
“That sounds extremely … cynical. Yeah, I’ll go with cynical.”
Brad shrugged again. “It’s business. Boss says the word mandatory, I go. I’m a lowly IT guy and not the head honcho after all.”
“You could be if you’d start going for the promotions they offer you.”
“This again? I told you, the hours I would have to work on a non-hourly wage would actually put me making less money than I am now. I know you want me to have the fancy business cards and the impressive sounding title, but that ain’t gonna happen, sweetheart.”
“That was more than a little condescending.” Jennifer turned away from Brad, and looked into the car next to them. It was a mini-van, filled with a family who appeared to be laughing. At least someone was having a good time. Jennifer felt the envy build. “I never said I wanted those things.”
“You may not have said them, but it’s not the first time you’ve bugged me about being promoted.”
“This is, quite literally, the second time. I wouldn’t call that bugging someone. Jesus, what crawled up your ass?”
“Really, Jen? You want to do this now while we’re trapped in a car?”
“From what I can tell we’re not moving. I’d be happy to hop out and call Uber.”
“They’d never get here. We haven’t moved in 10 minutes.”
Jennifer sighed heavily. “That’s not the point, and you know it.” She fiddled with her phone for a moment, and set it back down. “I only want you to be happy.”
“That’s not gonna happen tonight.”
“Fine. Let’s stop talking and listen to some music.”
“Anything but the Christmas shit they’ve been playing. I’m over it already.”
Jen turned on the radio and found a station playing 1980’s pop music. The Bangles were on, singing about a manic Monday. The pair sat in weighted silence.
Jennifer debated breaking up with Brad. This wasn’t the first time they’d had a petty argument over something she considered stupid, and he was ruining her Christmas spirit. That was one of few things she would not stand for, or so she told herself as she fumed in the passenger seat.
Five years they had been together. Five years. They’d met right before college graduation, and had gone through so many growing pains together that Jennifer often wondered if their love had shifted from romantic to something nearing co-workers who banged. Or roommates who were steadily growing sick of each other.
They’d had ups and downs, and were currently on a down. Jennifer hated these stages.
Brad reflected on his parents’ marriage. They had been together for nearly thirty years, and twenty of them had been spent in near silence. He knew that wasn’t normal, nor recommended.
He hadn’t told Jennifer, but Brad had been seeing a counselor to help him figure out what a healthy relationship looked like. He knew this wasn’t it, but he loved Jennifer, and wanted to make things right.
And then there were days like today when he could strangle a chick. Okay, maybe not, but man, did they drive each other nuts sometimes.
“Do you have something in mind for the Secret Santa deal?”
The question had come out tentative. Brad hated himself for putting that tone in her voice.
“I’m sorry, Jen, I don’t know why this is bothering me so much today. No, I hadn’t thought about it. The only requirements are that the gifts not be worse than rated R, and less than $50. I’m not thrilled about the amount, but I got out of the other party, so I suppose this is fair. Do you have any thoughts?”
“I’ve always liked the idea of a welcome mat in binary. It seems like something the guys in your department would get a kick out of.”
“Jesus Christ. You’re brilliant. I’m pretty sure that one store will have those.”
“Ugh, the mall. Screaming children, aggressive people, and blaring ass music.” Jennifer reached her hand out and gently held Brad’s. “We’ll get through this together, baby, I promise. We’re one hell of a team, and the mall will not be our downfall.”
Brad snorted. “We’re not going into battle.”
“When’s the last time you tried to go to the mall right before Christmas?”
The song on the radio ended. The DJ babbled for a few seconds and then Prince began cooing about doves crying.
“Years, I think. Mom was still driving me around.” Brad thought for a moment. “I think I had a date or something, so she dumped me off at the theater while she went shopping. I had to wait an hour after the show for her to come back for me. Looking back at it now, I suppose that should actually warn me about something.”
“All of the stores are offering ‘special deals’. Consumerism at its finest. Whatever happened to family dinners and sitting by the fire? Now it’s all ‘Buy this! They’ll die without that!”
“Who’s being all Norman Rockwell over there?”
“Jesus.” Brad swiped a hand through his hair once more. “Never mind. Hey, look!” He gestured out the window. “If we can get into that driveway, we can cut through the back roads to the mall. Can you get that van’s attention?”
“I’m on it.” Jennifer rolled down her window and felt the blast of hot air. After a decade in Florida she still hadn’t grown used to Christmas without snow. After much negotiation – and Jennifer tossing a bottle of water to the driver of the van – they were allowed through.
The mall was cramped with people jammed shoulder to shoulder. Brad gripped Jennifer’s hand tightly, and guided her to the store he’d had in mind. They offered all sorts of kitschy things, including the welcome mat Jennifer had mentioned. It was a touch over the $50 limit, but Brad liked it too much to care. On impulse he bought one for their apartment.
“Thank god,” Jennifer panted once they’d checked out. “That went far quicker than I had anticipated.”
“You and me both. Since we’re here, let’s stop for a smoothie.”
“Can we take them to go? This place is giving me the willies. It’s hot, crowded, and people are being dicks. Way to ruin Christmas, people,” Jennifer muttered.
Brad laughed. “Sure!” The line for smoothies was far quicker than traffic had been, and the two happily sipped their cold drinks as they allowed the crowd to push them toward the exit. Jennifer window shopped while Brad watched her face, and the crowd.
When Jennifer didn’t stop walking at the window he expected her to, Brad had to do it for her.
“Oh my god!” Brad exclaimed. “We have to stop in here for a second.”
It was a jewelry store, one of the better ones in town. Not a franchise, it had been family owned for generations.
Jennifer paused her steps, and looked to the window Brad was pointing at. “That’s gorgeous! Your mom would love a necklace like that. We should go in and check it out.”
“I already got her something, but you’re right.” That wasn’t what Brad had wanted Jennifer to notice. Dammit. “Let’s go see what’s what.”
The pair pushed their way into the store. It wasn’t nearly as crowded inside. People were looking for killer deals and Rothen’s wasn’t offering any. Brad’s friend Jeremy worked as a clerk at the store, and he came to greet them immediately.
“Hey, guys, thanks for coming in. Check that out.” Jeremy pointed to a couple standing at the counter and being served by the manager. “Engagement rings,” he replied to Brad’s unspoken question.
The man was older, probably mid-sixties. He wore a dark power suit and tie, and his posture screamed Authority. His companion screamed midlife crisis. She was in her early twenties, blonde of course, and wore a tight black dress and what Jennifer called Stripper Heels.
The woman’s Brooklyn accent cut through the sounds of the store like nails on a chalkboard. “But Harry,” she whined, “you said I could have the big one!”
The man sighed heavily. “Crystal, the diamonds aren’t as nice. The big one costs more, but the quality is crap. You deserve nice jewelry. That big one is not it.”
“But you said …”
“Fine. Wrap up the big one, and the small one in case she changes her mind later.”
“He could always give the little, nice one to his wife,” Brad whispered, and the trio chuckled.
“This,” Jennifer sang softly, “is what it sounds like when turtle doves cry.”
Brad laughed. “God, I love you.” He made eye contact with Jeremy, and nodded his head. Jeremy slipped him something behind his back.
Brad took Jennifer’s hand, and dropped to a knee.
“Oh my god,” she whispered, “What are you doing?”
“I am formally asking you, Jennifer Marie Coombs, to be my wife.”
“What?” she asked blankly.
“Jennifer, I love you, so so much. You’ve helped me strive to be a better man every day that we’ve been together. You bring out the best and worst in me, and I think, no I know, we both need more of that. Will you, Jennifer, be my wife?”