I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but it certainly wasn’t Santa Claus.
But here I was, with a fluffy fake beard strapped to my face and a fake belly throwing off my balance from inside my velvet suit. I was unrecognizable. I looked downright festive in the dingy changing room of MerryMart.
“Don’t forget to put makeup on your cheeks,” said Talal from behind me.
“How could I be Santa without ruddy cheeks?” I had a compact of blush tucked in the pocket of my Santa suit for just that purpose. I tugged my beard down to sit under my chin while I swirled red, round circles over my cheeks.
“Are you ready for the Saturday rush?” I asked. Every weekend, MerryMart got busier and busier. It was only halfway through November. When we hit December, things would get even worse.
Talal nodded. “Time goes by quickly on Saturdays.”
A lot of college students worked as elves (underpaid salespeople in itchy polyester costumes) during this holiday period, bright-eyed and excited to have the chance to make a little extra cash. Talal didn’t celebrate Christmas, which immediately made him my best friend at MerryMart. Like me, this was the only job he could get.
But that didn’t mean either of us had to like it. I hated the sharp glint of glitter under the too-bright fluorescent lights. I loathed the artificial pine tree smell that periodically spurted from wall-fastened air fresheners. The motion activated singing Santa Clauses made me want to cut off my ears.
But if I felt shitty here, it was a thousand times worse for Talal, the Muslim elf. He was too tall and gangly for his rental costume, meaning it rode up awkwardly at his crotch. He had to walk bow-legged to assure he stayed decent. He was my ally against the holiday cheer.
“Boys!” our manager snapped, coming into the room.
I glanced at the clock. One minute until eight thirty, when both Talal and I would be on the clock.
“I better go sell some tinsel,” he sighed.
“I better go listen to some Christmas wishes.” I rolled my eyes. “Do I look jolly enough?”
MerryMart was so busy that I didn’t get a break for six excruciating hours. My back ached from sitting in my throne all day, and I’d lost all feeling in my feet. The queue of people was neverending — 80% children who believed I was the real deal, 20% adults who thought it would be cute to get their picture taken with St. Nick. I was sweating so much that I feared it would seep through all my layers. No one wanted to sit on a sweaty Santa.
MerryMart ran its thermostat too high, and it was always packed with customers and their body heat. It didn’t matter how frightful the weather was outside, I melted as though I was trapped in a Florida summer.
I headed into the changing room/break room/stock room just after three. If I didn’t get a break soon, I would pass out. I chugged half my water bottle in one go.
“What are you doing here, Jimmy?” asked my manager, looking up from a box of fairy lights. “There’s a line to see Santa.” Considering that I played a larger role at MerryMart than Sharon’s fleet of elves, she kept a sharper eye on me than anyone else.
She didn’t have to dress up like an elf or a Santa Claus; all she had to do was wear a Christmas pin and a Santa hat. I seethed with envy.
“The line to see Santa isn’t going anywhere. I’m taking a break.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, frustrated. “We’re swamped. Can’t you wait half an hour or so?”
“Sharon, I’m going to pass out if I don’t get some fresh air.”
Plus, it was my right as an employee to take breaks, although pop-up shops like MerryMart didn’t bother too much with employee rights. It was too much effort to join the Santa Union. The store was only here for three months. If I complained too much, I’d be easy to replace. The choice between being a bit sweaty and not being able to afford rent was easy to make.
Sharon stood up and sighed. “Fine. You can have fifteen minutes.”
I tugged my beard down so it was hanging around my throat like a necklace. It was a relief to itch my face where the elastic had been digging into my skin. A squint in the mirror told me that my makeup was smudged with moisture. I looked like Santa after a night clubbing.
I didn’t want to spend five of my precious fifteen free minutes getting off the buckled boots that came with this costume. After the initial blisters that had swelled and burst during my first two weeks, I’d grown sturdy calluses on my feet. But the shoes were too-small, and still painful to get in and out of.
I had to get out of MerryMart, go for a walk and stretch my legs, and if I had to do that like Santa Claus, so be it.
“Fifteen minutes, Jimmy!” Sharon called after me as I slipped out the back door so that no children would see me without my festive smile and have their Santa illusion ruined. I was a Grinch, but I wasn’t an asshole.
I’d never been so grateful for dark clouds and sleeting skies. Even though Bent Street was busy, I could breathe out here. I sucked in a couple of bracing puffs of frozen air and immediately felt better.
I clapped my hands together as my breath gusted out in a delicate mist. Coffee. If I was going to keep going until nine tonight, I needed coffee. Sheer determination could keep me going, but only for so long.
I jostled down Bent Street, hoping I would get find a coffee shop without a huge queue. If I got desperate, I could buy a can of Red Bull from a convenience store, but I’d prefer espresso. I got more attention as Santa than I ever got as Jimmy. I usually hid in baggy band merchandise, trying to avoid attention as much as possible. You couldn’t avoid attention when you were wearing a big red suit.
It seemed like every second person on the sidewalk was calling out, “Merry Christmas, Santa!”
Finally, I spotted a sign advertising hot cocoa. Wherever you could find hot drinks, you could usually find coffee. Relief flooded me. There would be people in the coffeehouse, of course, but there would be fewer people there than on the street, and that meant less holiday cheer.
I hunched my shoulders in, trying to be as small as possible, as I veered through the pack of shoppers and into the coffee shop.
As I got closer, I noticed the flag outside. On another day, it would have been fluttering in the breeze, but in this weather, it was weighed limp with water.
For the last few months, the LGBTQ community in Portland had been buzzing about Agenda, the new queer coffeehouse. I’d been meaning to visit, but going to a gay bar by yourself was sad, and I couldn’t imagine that going to an LGBTQ coffeehouse alone was any better.
But at least it was quiet in there, only a handful of people in the queue and two attractive baristas behind the counter. I would have rather checked out this place with a date and an outfit that didn’t scream ho ho ho, but damn, I needed a cup of coffee.
I slipped inside. Even though I’d only spent a little time in the sleet, I was grateful for the heaters. I joined the queue, checking the time — I had eleven minutes left of my break. Hopefully, that would be enough.
Unlike most local stores, Agenda wasn’t decorated to the nines with Christmas decorations, a welcome relief. I deeply inhaled the perfume of cocoa, cinnamon, and freshly ground coffee beans.
The vibe in this place couldn’t have been more different to MerryMart. Maybe it was the other customers — people with rainbow hair and undercuts galore. Maybe it was all the queer couples I could see holding hands, or maybe it was all the different pride flags on the wall. It could have been the laughter from a nearby table that was louder and peppier than the Britney Spears playing through the sound system, but this place felt… It felt safe.
An energetic redheaded barista waved cheerily at me from behind the espresso machine. “What can I get ya?”
He was adorable, with a smattering of freckles and gawky limbs that seemed too long for him.
“An Americano, please,” I said. Then, remembering Talal back at MerryMart, I added, “and a hot cocoa.” I couldn’t remember if coffee was halal or not, but I knew for a fact that chocolate was. Talal ate a lot of it.
“Have here or take away?”
“Take away. Please.”
“Can do.” He grinned at me. “I’ve never had the honor of serving St. Nick before.”
In my excitement wandering into this place, I had forgotten that I was still half-dressed as jolly old Santa Claus.
“Oh, um, it’s my job,” I said.
“Darn,” he said. “And here I thought you were the real deal.”
I cracked a smile at his sarcasm.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you here before,” he said, grabbing two paper cups from the counter behind him. “I’m Seth. My boyfriend and I run this place.”
I was taken aback. No barista had ever introduced themselves to me before. What was this place?
“I’m Jimmy,” I said. “When I’m off the clock, anyway.” I checked the time. It sure was ticking.
“Is this your first time coming here?”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked around, still in awe. “This place seems great.”
“I’m glad you think so. Agenda is my baby.” Seth’s face burned with a blush before he started the espresso machine, rendering it too loud to have a conversation. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. On one hand, I hated small talk. On the other, I wanted to know more about this place. I needed to come back here when I was actually myself.
Seth had just half filled a paper cup when the other barista turned around.
There was no mistaking him. That was Cole. His hair was coiffed the way he always coiffed it, and his eyes were an unmistakable shade of dark hazel that always made me think of a forest during twilight.
That was Cole, who I hadn’t seen in over year, and I was dressed as fucking Father Christmas.
Maybe he didn’t recognize me?
He flashed me his charming, butterfly-inducing smile, and I just about melted on the spot. Then he winked. He definitely knew who I was.
“I can take over here,” he said in that gravelly voice of his that always made my knees buckle and my head spin. His voice was deeper than you’d expect from his pretty face, but it carried a note of humor. When Cole spoke, it sounded like he was in on a joke that no one else knew.
Seth looked curiously between us, and I was glad I was wearing makeup so neither of them could see me blush.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Jimmy,” said Seth with a shadow of a smirk. “I hope I’ll see you around here again.”
I nodded, staring at Cole. My mouth was dry, my tongue like sandpaper. Cole and I used to hook up: a friends with benefits deal — and he gave the best benefits of my life.
Until he stopped messaging me. I had no clue what I’d done wrong, and I hadn’t bothered finding out. People came in and out of my life, and clinging to them caused more pain than it was worth.
I had never expected to see Cole again. Especially not when I had a fluffy white beard held around my neck by a thin strand of elastic and a cheap Santa costume swamping my body.
“Hi, Jimmy,” said Cole. An expression I couldn’t quite decipher flashed over his face before his grin came back. It was infectious. No one could look at that face and not beam back.
I took a deep breath. Cole and I had been what, a fling? Less than a fling? Friends with benefits, we’d called it, but when the benefits ended, our friendship died. There was no reason he should make me smile.
“Hi, Cole.” I shuffled from foot to clunky foot, wishing I was wearing anything other than my work uniform.
“I almost didn’t recognize you under that makeup.”
“Yeah, I, uh-”
“I guess you’re not working at the mattress store anymore.”
“That place went under.”
“You make a good Santa.”
“Is that a compliment or an insult?”
Cole’s smile widened. I wished I could break eye contact with him, but the problem with that was that I wanted to keep looking at him. If I didn’t look into his eyes, I would risk looking lower. If I looked lower, I knew I would stare at the delicate bird skeleton tattooed on his clavicle. Then I would think about all the time my lips spent on those collarbones...
Pull it together. He’s just a guy you used to sleep with.
“It’s a compliment,” said Cole. “Santa is a very handsome man.”
“Thanks.” My face burned. How did Cole get away with being so charming?
His smile stretched even wider. Did he know how speechless he had rendered me, or was he trying to be friendly? “So what’s it like working as Santa?”
“Work is- Work’s busy.”
“You have to deliver a lot of presents, huh?”
“Something like that.”
The problem with Cole was that when I was with him, I was addicted to his voice and his laughter and his sense of humor — as well as his body. The bigger problem than that was that he clearly wanted nothing of the sort with me.
“Here you go,” he said. He pushed two paper cups toward me. Please recycle me, was scrawled on the side.
“Thanks.” I took one of the cups and with my spare hand, fumbled for my wallet. I hoped Cole couldn’t tell how sweaty my palms were getting in his presence. I hated that he had this effect on me, even after a year. I was pretty good at letting go, or at least I thought I was. I had let go of a lot of things. A lot of people. But now that I was face-to-face with Cole again, I wished he hadn’t been one of them. I pushed a twenty dollar bill across the counter to him, muttered that he could keep the change as a tip, and bolted.
“It’s good to see you again,” he called after me.
I waved back at him. “Yeah. Same.”
No matter what I might have said to Seth, no matter how much I liked Agenda, I wouldn’t come back. I couldn’t face Cole. We had promised each other that no strings were attached to our trysts. It wasn’t fair to either of us for me to pine after threads of could-have-beens.