· Santa Baby ·
by Meg Sefton
There is a man I see from the dating site I call Santa. He calls me Cupcake even though I asked him from the beginning to call me by my given name. He did once, in a text, but ever since, it’s been “Doll” or “Cupcake.” I wonder if he even really knows my name anymore. When I first started dating five years ago after my divorce from a twenty-year marriage, I had been overwhelmed and appalled by trying to date midlife, things were so different when I met and dated my ex. Plus, I had been raised and married into a religiously conservative subculture and when I started dating again, soon learned how sheltered I had been for most of my adult life.
Santa hangs Christmas lights from the roofs and eaves, ancient oak trees, and palms in the wealthiest suburb of central Florida: Winter Park. Clients pay him top dollar to hang off chimneys secured by ropes, an anchor, a lifeline. He climbs oaks and palms like a monkey, a stogie hanging out of his mouth his slight combover mussed. I bring him cold coffee drinks when the nurse spells me from taking care of Mom. He doesn’t care I live on alimony, that my finances are a mess. He crushes me up against the wall of a house or an outdoor shed, some place private he has scoped out. He eats my lips and fingers me. He doesn’t even ask me about my day. He doesn’t send me good morning texts and goodnight texts. He doesn’t give me a book on female orgasm like a former inappropriately aged paramour before him who mistook midlife depression, hormonal changes and the attendant sexual dysfunction for ignorance. Santa gives good gifts and I never ask. I return favors on his off hours when his four boys are in bed.
My mother loves him. She’s dying of cancer and usually passes on the full wrath of her pain in fits and verbal abuse, in tyrannical demands, but Santa can make her a young, fresh sweetheart. In his presence she is nothing but all smiles, all hugs, all please-will-you-get-me’s, and darling-you-are-such-a-dear. He brings her flowers, red carnations with small tinsel packages at the end of florist’s wire and babies’ breath. He brings a fresh supply every few days. The two of them look at her old photo albums and he tells her what a hottie she is. His pet name for her is Flower. Dad has long passed but even when he was alive, she had not been so openly affectionate and charming.
“I hope you’re giving him good head,” she said when we were alone one morning the weekend after Thanksgiving.
“Mother! I said, trying to reprimand her. I was a little shocked. Dad had been a pastor and my mother reserved and proper. An image passed through my mind of something intimate between my parents and I concentrated instead on the breakfast I would make for us, the things I needed to do today.
“Life is too short, Mina,” she said. “If that’s what you have to do to keep a man like that, get your kneepads.”
She wanted a cosmo. It was only 9:00 a.m. but her wants and needs had become more erratic. The chemicals from the chemo combined with her newfound hedonism and the occasional intense bout of pain dictated that she kept herself high, oblivious, and attuned only to her own whims and quick fixes. Santa was her marijuana supplier, which further endeared him.
I was making her favorite southern breakfast: scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, and biscuits. Soon she will be in the ground, I thought to myself, pressing my guilt down on the biscuit dough with a rolling pin. I shouldn’t think such things, but the mix of my emotions washed over me so strongly sometimes I wished for an end to them as well as to the circumstances, despite myself, despite my love for her and my grief. I made little dough circles with Grandmama’s tin biscuit cutter and tried to think of how often my mother had cut biscuit dough for me and Grandmama too. The light was flooding into the open window where Ma now sat with her needlepoint. It was her favorite place, a small down loveseat bedecked lavishly with her pillows. Grandmama’s antique pedestal table in front of her contained medicines, tea, carnations from Santa. Her hair stood in thin, lumpy tufts, the light shining through where once there had been a thick ash blond mane.
I moved in with her when she got sick. I had to get my alimony arrangement changed which specified I was not to have a roommate. That I had to go through relitigation to live with my own mother galled me, but divorce brought its own bitter presents you opened one by one.
“You fucking screwed up with Donald,” she said over a pattern of profuse peonies, “But I won’t have you do the same.”
“Nice language, Ma, as per.”
“You know what I’m saying. Give to him. It’s ok to give as much as you can. I spoiled you girls to the core.” My younger sister wasn’t married yet and my mother blamed it on her supposed selfishness.
She bent over the flower pattern and pushed the needle through.
Where would I bury her? I thought. Father was buried in the columbarium he built as part of his church. The steeple used to be one of the highest points downtown but was now dwarfed by high rises. Cremate me, scatter me, she said, but she wouldn’t say where. When I asked where I should scatter her ashes, she had said, I’ll be gone, I won’t care. God isn’t open for the afterlife business, she said. My father would have been aggrieved. Had she been pretending belief while he preached from the pulpit, while she led Bible studies, organized ladies’ circles?
Santa stopped by on his way to a job.
“How are my girls?” he said, blasting into the kitchen sweaty already in his t-shirt and shorts. He was tanned which intensified the blue of his eyes. He had a habit of scanning his whereabouts even if there was nothing new to survey unless, that is, unless he was engaged in a more intimate moment with me. “Cupcake and my best girl Flower!” He gave each of us a hug and peck on our heads. “You get hotter every time,” he said to my mom.
She shimmied out of her shawl a bit to show off her rounded shoulders and the bit of cleavage she managed to preserve through the lumpectomy. It had been all for naught, all her vanity, I thought, the heat from the oven blasting my eyes as I slid the biscuits in. Six months left the doctor told us her last oncology visit. At that point it had been decided to halt the chemo though the chemical effects were ongoing.
“And this one will always be my Cupcake,” said Santa, hugging me from behind and cradling my breasts in his arms, unabashed by my mother he knew at one time to be one of the more conservative women in the community. Mom recognized many of the names of his clients as parishioners of my father’s former church and frequently told him more about who they were and what they were like, noting she didn’t care much anymore.
“Is baby Jesus getting born again this Christmas, Irma Jean?” he asked her.
“Hell if I know!” she said, chucking her needlework down and slapping her knee like she was at a shindig.
“Oh wait, maybe he’s getting slaughtered on a cross!” he said, finger in the air as if to test something, the breeze, the air, the temperature.
“Wrong fucking holiday!” she burst out, laughing and falling out on her pillows.
It was too hot in the kitchen with the sun shining in full blast and the oven on. I stepped out to greet the birds by the lake behind the house. Soon Santa would help Mom light the marijuana pipe he had given her and then she would be able to leave off needlepoint and lecturing me about my failed marriage.
“I guess I could scatter her here,” I said to the great blue heron standing there by the water’s edge, tall as I was, skinny as an adolescent, unfazed by me. A duck landed close by, on top of the ridiculously large decoy my father had anchored a few yards out. I threw the bread I had for them both in my apron pocket. “I know she’s disappointed,” I said. I had not given her children and my divorce had not figured into her religious conservativism. Now she lectures me on blow jobs.
“I think she would be pleased about some things.” And I thought maybe I should tell her about the makeout sessions behind the houses of many of my Father’s former parishioners. Now that she had become something new, she might be able to see herself in me, a woman, not so young but young in the sense of starting over, being pleasured by Santa with no religious obligation but only the opportunity to enjoy.
Meg Sefton’s work has appeared in Best New Writing, The Dos Passos Review, Atticus Review, Connotation Press, and other journals. She received her MFA from Seattle Pacific University and lives in central Florida with her little dog Annie, a Coton de Tulear. Please visit her blog Within A Forest Dark.