It was the first Saturday of the new year and we’d just finished taking down the Christmas tree and all the decorations. The living room felt bare and bigger without the tree and the lights and the presents scattered underneath and the figurines on the mantle. It had been a very good Christmas, only our second together and our first as husband and wife. She’d surprised me last Christmas with her deep and unapologetic love for everything to do with Christmas, but I was unprepared for the level of planning and detail that went into the tree. The acquisition of the tree, the proper placement of the tree, and holy Mother of God, the decorating of the tree – all of it had rules and rights and wrongs that I clearly needed to learn. She had been collecting ornaments for years and had 3 paper boxes full, not including the garland and the lights and the tinsel. Yep, last year was my initiation into the wonderful and slightly warped Beesly Christmas tree production.
First, she made a date with me to go and get the tree. We’d had dinner first, during which she expounded in detail on what makes a great Christmas tree, favorite trees of her childhood, the tree that fell over on her when she was nine, and how sad it is when you have to “undress” the tree and haul it out to the curb. Following dinner came the whole ordeal of picking out the tree. It had to be the right shape, the right height, and according to her, have the right personality. I tried to see it, the tree’s personality. I really did try, but not having her artistic eye and slightly twisted mind, I just couldn’t. The only thing I saw, and the thing I can still see, is her face. Lit up by her own giddiness and the overhead lights in the parking lot of the little ice cream stand, boarded up for the winter, her cheeks pink from the cold, I thought she’d never looked prettier. I can still hear the salesman standing there with two trees, a hand around the trunk of each saying, “‘come on, sweetheart, Christmas is only ten days away!'” So she asked me to break the tie between Taller and Fuller. I picked Taller and told her it was because the tree had a jaunty personality, and she agreed, saying it reminded her of me. That was a Friday.
On Saturday, I came home from playing basketball to find the living room transformed and the sweet smell of apples and cinnamon and cloves drifting in from the kitchen. She’d strung tiny white lights along the mantle, Christmas music (Johnny Mathis, because it was her dad’s favorite) was softly playing, and she was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by Dunder Mifflin paper boxes, untangling a string of blinking lights. She scrambled to her feet to kiss me and literally bounced into the kitchen to pour me a glass of mulled cider and sent me off to shower with an admonition to hurry and come back and help her with the tree.
“Unwrapping the ornaments is just like unwrapping gifts!” she told me. Her fingers delicately pulled the tissue paper off each little bundle she extracted from the box as I watched her. Each ornament had a story and at least ten of them were her “all-time, absolute favorites.“ I was her designated ornament hanger, standing and waiting for her to hand me each one from her spot on the floor and directing me to its “home” on the tree. Satisfied that I’d followed instructions and that each one looked “happy” to be in its rightful place, she’d reach into the box for the next one, saying ‘oh, I love this one!’ or ‘oh, I forgot about this one!’ until the tree was completely covered. We hung the tinsel together, one piece at a time, as is required in the Beesly Guide to Trimming Your Tree.
No matter how many Christmases we have together, I’ll never forget that first one. After finishing the tree, I curled up with her on the couch, the living room dark except for the lights of the tree, her head nestled into my neck. The music ended and our conversation quieted, and we sat in silence for a long time. I don’t know if I can explain how I felt that night. So happy, so content, but that wasn’t all. I felt complete; I couldn’t imagine a single thing I could wish for or want that could make me any happier than I was at that moment. I guess I’m just a big, soft-hearted fool, because I didn’t even move to stop the one huge tear from rolling down my cheek to my jaw, and landing softly in her hair.
And that was our first Christmas together. I proposed the following Valentine’s Day and we were married in late April, in her parents’ backyard, neither one of us wanting a long engagement or a bunch of fuss. This Christmas, being well-acquainted with her tree and ornament fetish, I bought her one of those semi-cheesy “First Christmas” ornaments from the Hallmark store and surprised her with it early, as we’d decorated the tree. Instead of wrapping it and placing it under the tree, I crinkled up some tissue paper, swaddled the ornament with it, and nestled it in with all the others in one of the three boxes marked ORNAMENTS in the attic. When she unwrapped it, I watched her face go from confused to delighted to sentimentally weepy in under five seconds. She loved it, of course, and hung that one herself, at her eye level. She asked for more cider and when I returned from the kitchen, she handed me another ornament: a tiny pair of knitted white baby booties. And no matter how many Christmases we have, I’ll always remember the second one because she gave me something I didn’t even know I was wishing for.
On my way back into the house after depositing the naked Christmas tree on the curb, I grabbed the mail out of the mailbox. Compared to the pre-Christmas glut of ads and credit card offers, the day’s mail was light. I sifted through it and found Pam’s grade card from the fall semester. She’d taken two classes and with the holidays, her time had been limited and her stress level had gone through the roof. She was always relieved to finish a semester, but she nearly collapsed at the end of this one. No doubt, the early days of pregnancy had sapped her energy. She’d fallen asleep at her desk at work more than once and she dozed in bed in the morning until the last possible minute, when I’d have to shag her into the shower after I handed her a cup of tea.
“Your grade card came in the mail,” I called upstairs.
“Bring it up! I’m in the tub!”
I opened the door to the bathroom and found her sitting in the tub, covered in bubbles with her hair twisted up in a knot, reading a book on healthy pregnancy.
“I thought the doctor said no baths for you, Pam.”
“It’s not hot, don’t worry. I need to shave my legs and I just wanted to relax for a few minutes.”
“I’m sure! Here, feel the water.”
I reached my hand down into the tub and took the opportunity to slide my hand up along her thigh, grabbing a handful of bubbles along the way and plopping them on top of her head. She grinned up at me like a little kid.
“See? Not hot,” she said.
“How’s the book?” I asked her.
“Ugh, Jim, pregnancy is disgusting. Did you know there is something called a ‘mucous plug’? And I’m going to have one! A mucous. Plug. Yeeechhh. Nobody told me about this.”
“Open your grade card. Let’s have some happy thoughts here.”
I took the book from her, holding her place, and handed her the grade card. She carefully folded over all the perforated edges and peeled them away, handing them to me one by one. Her face was expectant; I knew she was hoping for two more As to add to her collection. I watched as her face went a little dark and the corners of her mouth turned down.
I didn’t ask, but she told me. “Two Bs. I can’t believe it! Well, I guess I’m not too surprised about the portraiture class. That’s just not my strong suit. But the mixed media class, wow. I thought I’d done great work in that class! He must have hated my final project.”
“I thought it was great,” I told her. “Why don’t you give him a call and talk to him? Get some feedback.”
“Yeah. I need to pick up my final project, anyway, so I’ll go see him on Monday and talk to him.”
“Want your book back?”
“No. I’m going to get out in a minute or two. Plus, mucous plug. I’m still reeling.”
“Yeah. Where do you get this plug? And couldn’t they think of a better name?”
“Right? The plug forms right where you think it might, Jim.”
“Like a cork on a bottle of wine?”
“Or like a drain stopper in a sink.”
“I guess the baby stays juicier while it’s cooking with the plug, huh?”
“Ugh. Thank you, but I’m not cooking a baby here.”
“Why do people say “bun in the oven” then?”
“Because people are stupid, Jim. Babies make people stupid…that’s it! I’m blaming my bad grades on the baby.”
“A, those are not bad grades, and 2, of course, the baby is responsible. Junior’s already causing trouble.”
“Takes after you.”
“Please. Pam, you wound me.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, but the baby’s making me mouthy, too.”
“Oh, don’t think you’re going to get away with that for nine months. Whipping out the baby card.”
“It was worth a shot. Leave me be so I can shave my legs. I’ll be down in a little bit.”
I leaned over to kiss her before I left her in peace and she put bubbles in my hair and flicked water on my face.
I surfed through channels on the TV and waited for her to come downstairs for nearly an hour, but after hearing the tub drain, I didn’t hear a single sound from the bedroom. I called her cell phone, which I knew was on the nightstand, and she picked up, laughing.
“Baby’s making you stupid, too, Halpert.”
“What are you doing up there?”
“Holding a wake for my body that’s about to be terrorized by pregnancy. Making a mucous plug. Moping about my grades. Other general...mope-age. Trying to draw something and not succeeding. You don’t want to watch this.”
“Okay. Hey, how long is that going to take? Because I’m ordering a pizza. Should I leave it outside the bedroom door or will you be done moping by the time it gets here?”
“Depends. What’s on the pizza?”
“Mushrooms, pepperoni, black olives.”
“Hmmm…that might cure The Mope.”
“Good. Get down here. I’ll mope with you a little if you want.”
“You’re so not a moper. I’ve never seen you mope.”
“I have you and you’re making me a baby. I have nothing to mope about.”
“Not yet, you don’t. I have more news on the mucous plug.”
“Jim, are you sitting down?” I can hear her footsteps in the hall above my head.
“Yes…sitting.” I hear her coming down the stairs.
“Well, at some point before the baby comes…are you ready for this?...I lose the mucous plug. That’s a direct quote.”
She’s standing at the bottom of the stairs with the cell phone tucked between her shoulder and her chin, doing finger quotes and saying, “I ‘lose’ the plug.”
She’s wearing these crazy pants we call her “party pants” and a tank top with the words “Don’t mess with me or you won’t get no goodies!” across her breasts with just the tiniest hint of her growing belly showing between top and pants and her hair is all wild around her shoulders and her glasses are halfway down her nose and I think to myself for maybe the millionth time...she’s never looked more beautiful. We both close our phones.
“So, like, am I going to be just going about my business, walking down the street or doing the dishes or something and the plug is going to come flying out like a champagne cork and then I’m going to have to root around looking for it, or what?”
“I’ll help you find it.”
“Great, Jim. That’s just great. Wow, who knew this whole business was going to be so…disgusting?”
I pull her down onto my lap and nuzzle her neck, breathing in her sweet smell and nibbling a little, rubbing my beard on her to tickle her.
“It’s not disgusting, Pam. It’s going to be great. You’re going to be great.”
“Yeah, I haven’t told you what’s going to happen to my belly button yet.”
“I can’t wait.”