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I Brake for Christmas

By Michael P. Thomas


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2017 Michael P. Thomas

ISBN 9781634865227

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

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I Brake for Christmas

By Michael P. Thomas

December 23, 1991

I’m still not accustomed to the whole shorts-and-T-shirts-the-day-before-Christmas thing. I’m from Colorado. Okay, not every Christmas Eve is dusted with quiet white snow—I’m from Boulder, not the lid of a collectible fruitcake tin—but Christmas definitely happens in the winter. At the very least you need a sweatshirt. Growing up, I couldn’t even keep track of my flip-flops from one summer to the next; I usually had to buy a new pair in May. Now flip-flops feel like dress shoes—I only bother with them when I go to class or the Commons, and only then ‘cause they make me.

Of course, when most people ask me where I’m “from,” the answer they’re fishing for is “Vietnam.” But I was a baby when I was brought here. I don’t remember Vietnam, I don’t speak Vietnamese, I never knew my birth parents. I was raised on Scooby Doo and Capri Sun the same as all my other American friends were. Colorado is Home, and until I started at Inland Empire University last year, it never occurred to me that people might string Christmas lights from palm trees or roast chestnuts in tank tops.

Not that I’m complaining. When George Cortner shuffles into the Commons in his tank top and flip-flops the day before Christmas Eve, I’m downright grateful for the California culture that brings the world those squat, fuzzy legs in those snug, above-the-knee shorts year-round. Built like a big, blond teddy bear, all of five-foot-six with shot-putting shoulders, he lugs the Freshman Fifteen—along with a more recent Sophomore Ten-or-So—around in a juicy spare tire, and the bump and bounce of his pronounced quad muscles under all that sun-kissed thigh meat has me hypnotized: I watch him mosey around the side of the dining hall and grab an orange plastic tray.

As usual, he loads it up—a butt that big’s not full of helium, even if it does hover impressively high. We’re not great friends, and we’re certainly not in the habit of sharing a table in the Commons, but he is the last tenor in the row on the third step up in concert choir, and I’m the first bass. By sheer luck of the numbers, he’s my warm-up backrub partner when we all turn to the person on our left, and then again when we shift to the right. So we know each other on a small-talk basis, and this close to the holiday, the Commons isn’t exactly full to bursting; I’m sure he plunks his tray down across from mine at least partly because it would just look rude to sit on the other side of the empty room.

“May I?” he asks. As if I don’t lay awake nights fantasizing about pretty much this exact moment. With any luck, this means he hasn’t noticed I’ve broken into a sweat like I’m in a sauna.

“Sure,” I say, even as he’s plopping down.

“Brent, right?”

“Right.” I grin, way too happy to discover that someone I’ve stood next to three days a week for the last three months knows my name.

“George,” he says, pointing to himself with a Ranch-tipped French fry before popping it into his mouth.

“I remember,” I say with a nod, eliciting a grin from his peach-fuzzed mug. “Hi.” I have probably two more bites of my nightly Cap’n Crunch, otherwise my tray is empty. Do we know each other well enough for me to keep sitting here after I’m obviously finished? And do what, watch him eat his huge heap of fries? Just how small can two dudes really talk before all the perspiration gets awkward?

Small talk—I seize on a generic exchange we had during choir backrubs a week or so ago and say, “I’m surprised to see you here.”

“‘Cause I look like a guy who misses out on a lot of meals?” He throws in a wink.

I chuckle self-consciously. I’m five-ten and wouldn’t weigh a buck forty if I got on a scale holding a bowling ball; the very last thing I’m going to comment on is a guy’s weight. You know, to him. “I mean, on campus,” I clarify. “Tonight. Didn’t you say you were going home for the holidays?”

“Huh?” He makes to think about this like maybe he doesn’t get what “holidays” I’m referring to. Swallows a gob-full of fries, then nods. “Oh yeah, I guess I did. I mean, I was gonna…”

“What happened?”

“Ride fell through.”

“Really? That sucks. Sorry, man.”

“I was just home for Thanksgiving,” he says, emphasis on the No Big Deal.

“Still…”

He shrugs. Loads up on more fries. Nudges his plate across the table as if to offer me some.

I take him up on it. Eat two, then two more, ‘cause it keeps me at the table.

“Where’s home?” I ask. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in Utah, but I don’t remember where I heard that, and I don’t want to look like a stalker.

“Utah.”

See?

“Kinda by Green River,” he goes on. “Almost to Colorado.”

“That’s where I’m from,” I say.

“Utah, too?”

I shake my head. “Colorado. Boulder.”

“Nice.”

The idea hits me so hard it almost knocks me out of my chair, but I struggle to play it cool. I help myself to another couple French fries, buying time for my heart to settle back into my chest. I’m a little intimidated by the discovery that such an idea can be formulated; I can’t believe I scrounge up the nerve to say, “Actually, yeah, I could take you.”

“Huh?”

“Home, I mean. I could drop you off.”

“In Utah?”

“On my way. You know, home. To Boulder. For Christmas. Green River’s like right on the way—I’m pretty sure I drive right through it.”

“But I thought you said the other day you weren’t going home for Christmas.”

“Right. Well, I wasn’t going to. But then it got to feeling kind of lonely once finals were over and everybody started leaving. I mean, I think I’m the only one on my floor in the dorm. Who wants to be that guy?”

“Aren’t your parents like on a cruise?”

He remembers that?

“Yeah, well…they come home tomorrow. Christmas Eve and all that.” Would he notice if I swiped at the damp on my forehead with a napkin? “It’s just…all very last minute. Which is why I’m driving instead of flying.” Sounds reasonable. “So, it’s a piece of cake. You know, to drop you.”

“I don’t know.” He’s hedging. I’ve overplayed my hand. I’ve flung myself at yet another straight guy just because he’s not such a raging homophobe that he shoves me every time I walk past him on the quad. Our choir director makes everybody give backrubs, it’s not like we have some Deep Connection just ‘cause I know he has hairy shoulders. God, how embarrassing. “You don’t have to do that,” he goes on.

“Honest, it’s no big deal. Be nice to have the company. And the gas money,” I toss in as an afterthought, because it sounds like something a casual acquaintance would ask for if he wasn’t trying to get into your pants.

He thinks about it, scraping the last of the Ranch from the second of the three little plastic cups he filled with dressing for his mountain of fries. “That’d be really cool,” he eventually says. “‘Preciate it.”

“Sure thing,” I say, nodding enthusiastically. “I’ll pick you up in the morning. Say like seven?”

“I’ll be ready,” he says. “That’s like way cool. You sure you don’t mind?”

“I’m sure.”

“Well then, cool.”

“Cool.”

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he says. “First box of road donuts on me. I live in O’Donnell.” The high-rise party-jock dorm, across campus from Chambers, my own shady enclave of music majors.

I of course know this is where he lives—and who he lives with, and on what floor, although not which exact room—but I simply say, “Cool. I’ll swing by about seven.”

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

I get up from the table while he’s still got a pile of potatoes to pack away. Mostly because I don’t want him to see me shimmy through my Dance of Joy all the way back to my dorm.

* * * *

I wasn’t prepared for the glasses. The plaid flannel jammy pants are no surprise—I’ve long since noticed all the jocks who pick up more-to-love in the buffet-style dining hall favor the elastic waistband—and he’s wearing the zip-up version of the same maroon-and-gray Inland Empire sweatshirt I’ve got on. His hair looks slept-on and his cheek-fuzz looks prickly and he’s generally doing his usual Adorable George routine when I swing into the parking lot behind O’Donnell Hall at six-fifty the next morning.

Except I’ve never seen him in glasses, and the Clark Kent of it all has me second-guessing this plan. Even if they are the dopiest-looking gold-rimmed aviator frames and take up half his face, he looks so sexy-librarian in them I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to go six seconds without begging him to toss them aside and kiss me cross-eyed, never mind six hundred miles. But he’s seen me—he’s waving me over, bless his little heart, like we’re not the only two people awake on campus on Christmas Eve—so I’m just gonna have to keep my eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel all day and hope the stress of not reaching over to massage every part of his ripe-peach body I can reach doesn’t hurt my shoulder.

“Mornin’,” he says, pitching his IEU duffle bag into the back seat next to mine. “You ready for this?”

“Sure thing.” I shrug, like maybe that didn’t even sound like an irresistible sexual invitation to me.

“I actually don’t mind this drive,” I say once he’s settled in his seat and buckled up. “It’s fun to see Vegas, and Utah’s kinda pretty.”

“For like the first eight hours,” he says.

I chuckle. “I guess it does start to feel kind of wide about halfway across.”

He looks around the inside of my little yellow Datsun 510. “You like the drive, and I’m glad for the ride. And this little guy’s up for it?” He opens the glove box, as if to check for who-knows-what.

I pat the black plastic dashboard reassuringly. “He’s only ten years old. This little car’s still got some tricks up its sleeve. I bussed a lot of tables saving up for this bad boy. He’s never let me down.”

“Can you still get parts for this car?”

“I don’t know. And I’m not planning on finding out, not on this trip. He’s got new tires and just had an oil change, that’s what I’ve got to give him. He’s ready. You’ll see. It’s a good little car.”

“Well, cool. And I’m happy to drive, by the way. If you get tired or whatever, just say so.”

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

I point my little yellow car toward the highway. Toward Las Vegas, and then Utah. Riding to the rescue of George’s nearly-canceled Christmas. Sifting through all the witty, provocative options in my mind for the perfect answer to his unsuspecting, inevitable How can I ever repay you?

Having established that everything’s pretty much “cool,” we don’t talk a whole lot at first. It’s an easy drive. The parking lot of George’s dorm is about three miles from the on-ramp to the 10 freeway, which will get us to the 15, which will eventually deliver us to Interstate 70. That’s pretty much it in the directions department—I-70 runs through George’s hometown and within twenty minutes of mine—so there’s not a lot to fret about paying attention to besides gas, food, and pee breaks, none of which are going to need handling for a while.

Our small talk gets downright tiny. It’s been ten minutes since either one of us has said so much as “I like this song” about what’s playing on K-FROG when the unlikely oasis of Barstow begins to shimmer on the horizon.

“You ever been to that strawberry pie place?” he asks as we zoom past maybe the third of the two dozen billboards that hype the reputation of a particular roadside diner as it oozes ever closer across the desert.

“Only to use the bathroom,” I say. “I don’t think I’ve ever had strawberry pie. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of strawberry pie except for there.”

“Well, it is ‘famous,’” he reads from the next billboard as it lumbers by.

“It’s famous if you’ve ever driven this stretch of highway, anyway. Have you ever had it?”

“Nah.”

“Seriously,” I go on. “Is there even such a thing as strawberry pie?”

He shrugs. “My grandma used to make strawberry-rhubarb pie.”

“Well yeah, everybody’s grandma used to make that. But just plain strawberries? Is it hot, like apple pie? What do I want with hot strawberries?”

“You’ve never had hot strawberries?”

“‘Cause what, you have?”

He laughs. “What about on like a strawberry sundae?”

“I think you’re thinking of ‘fudge,’” I say. “A hot fudge sundae, okay, sure. A hot strawberry sundae? Get away from me.”

“Strawberry jam?”

“Hot? What do they eat there in that part of Utah you come from?”

He laughs again. “You know, like on a Monte Cristo sandwich?”

I shake my head, laughing too. “The sandwich is hot, not the actual jam. Don’t you dip it?”

“I guess.” A few quick minutes tick by, then George says, “Now I kind of want a sandwich.”

“We can stop,” I say. “But only if you’ll try the strawberry pie.”

“If I try it?”

“I wanna know if it’s gross.”

“Then maybe you should try it.”

“I don’t want it if it’s gross. I just want to know if it’s gross.”

“I don’t want it if it’s gross, either.”

“What, you don’t like pie?”

We go back and forth on strawberry pie while the billboards helpfully tick down the miles until we can see the pie for ourselves. We haven’t even been on the road for two hours, but we’ve been conjuring pie and deep-fried sandwiches for the last twenty-five miles—I’m ravenous by the time the exit is finally upon us.

The diner is pretty much it, roadside attraction-wise, at this particular exit. Actual Barstow is still maybe five miles off. We stop at the adjacent gas pumps, as long as we’re off the highway, then cross through the gift shop to the men’s room, and eventually to a booth and two cups of coffee.

“Are you gonna get a sandwich?” I ask him as I peruse the plastic-placemat menu.

“Uh huh,” he says, nodding. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a craving for a Monte Cristo before.” He laughs. “I’m not even a hundred percent sure I know what one is. I just know you dip it in jam.”

“I think I’m gonna get an omelet,” I volunteer. I make a show of scrutinizing the description on the menu. “Unless they have strawberries in them…”

“Gross.”

“Well. They put them in everything else.”

“They put them in pie.”

“And jam.”

“And I bet that’s pretty much it.”

“Don’t be so sure…”

The waitress graciously acquiesces to George’s request that she bring a piece of strawberry pie and two forks to the table while we wait for the rest of our order. “I’d say ‘don’t spoil your appetite,’” she cracks, jabbing her pen in the general direction of George’s middle, “but yours looks pretty resilient.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies, barely blushing. “If I don’t have room for pie, I make room.”

Strawberry pie is not served hot, which is a relief. It pretty much amounts to strawberries plopped onto a wedge of crust, loosely held into pie shape by red gelatin, and then slathered in aerosol whipped cream. It strikes me as a funny thing for a place to be famous for, but it’s pretty tasty, in a Hostess-filling way, and when George encourages me to go in for a third bite before he polishes off what’s left on the plate, I assent.

“So how come you don’t play football at Inland?” I ask, watching him tuck into his pan-fried, sugar-coated sandwich once it’s arrived at the table.

He offers up a between-bites blank look and a shrug. “It’s never really been my thing.”

“What?”

“You’re surprised?”

“Well, no. I mean, kinda. I mean, yeah, a little bit, I am. It’s just…”

“I look like a jock but I don’t look like a gymnast.”

I chuckle. No offense. “Pretty much,” I say.

“Rugby,” is his answer.

“Ah. Then how come you don’t play rugby at Inland?”

“I do.”

“Oh.” I think on this for a second. “I guess I didn’t know we had a rugby team.”

“Intramural. I play with the Pi-O’s.” His fraternity, Pi Omega Rho. “We suck.”

“Oh.”

“But there’s a keg in the locker room.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah,” he goes on, as if quoting the team motto: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how drunk you get while you play the game.”

“There’s a T-shirt slogan for you.”

He unzips his hoodie. The front of the green T-shirt underneath is emblazoned with three Greek letters and the English words, It’s not whether you win or lose…


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