(With apologies to Kristen Roupenian)
They met in the mall in November, when she was working the Pick n Mix, between the Yankee Candle and the Key Cutter. He scooped out only rice snacks, twice in three days.
“I dont think I’ve ever seen anyone take just rice snacks,” she said.
“For my reindeer” he said. It was a good joke, and she laughed. He was bearded, white hair, paunchy, wore some sort of hipster fur trimmed red suit thing, some Goodwill special.
“What are your reindeer called?” she’d said. “I have eight, but Donner and Blitzen are the leaders.”
“I have a reindeer, his name’s Rudolf,” she said.
Two days later, rice snacks at the scales, he said, “Pick n Mix Girl reading that spine-cracked edition of Lorrie Moore, give me your phone number.” She did.
They texted over the next few weeks, didn’t get together. He said it was his “busy time”, made jokes about airspace problems and elves forming a union. She told him about her unfinished novella set in Dergue-era Ethiopia, boundary issues with her roommate, dreams she had about her father being a viking, yeast infections, season five of FRIENDS, white privilege in Feynman’s “sum-over” version of quantum mechanics, and the stereotyping of young women in short fiction. He tried to keep up, remembering stuff he still liked other than quitting work early, Old Forester whiskey, crate digging and jerking off to sleep during TBS Sex and the City marathons.
She pretended Rudolf was texting Donner, playing off against Blitzen, and vice versa, and they went with that for a while, even after they both realised they were re-enacting Sartre’s No Exit with imaginary arctic ungulates and it would not end well for them.
“Take me to your place” she said, one bad night, when a paunch and a jolly laugh seemed preferable to another argument with her one-eighth Grenadian roommate about candied yams.
She thought it would be some place above a vinyl store where he was making steampunk musical instruments, but the sled appeared and they whooshed into hyperdrive, and landed at the North Pole.
“I thought you were just a retro super-8 filmmaker working the mall to enter your Maya Deran tribute in San Sebastiano,” she said.
“No, we’re all the real deal, potentially,” he said, lighting up an old souvenired fairground sign saying ‘moral of the parody’. “No matter how ragged we look”.
She could tell there’d been a woman here, some time ago, as he queued up Kind of Blue on a battered eight-track and poured Smirnoff into smudged mismatched glasses, rice snacks in small bowls on the floor. They slid into the bed he’d made, unusually, that morning. The sex was bad and she felt sorry for his paunch, his parents, his weird laugh, Kosovo, womankind, people older than twenty-six, Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan, slushpile readers at the New Yorker for the next three months, and the guards in the “Stanford Prison Experiment”.
He on the other hand had come twice and didn’t seem to give a shit. He took her home on first ask, after a few prevarications, and woke the next morning with the delicious feeling of his kidneys not aching. He cleaned the igloo, got some online admin done, played I Love You, Honeybear, and watched the last two-thirds of Valkyrie on Starz. He relished eight hours of not being tempted to go to the strip club near the exit ramp to the Dollar Tree.
Decades later, he was working the grotto at the airport in Greenville, and got some old New Yorkers the walk-in endocrinologist was throwing out, where he saw the story.
It kinda pissed him off. Not much, cos he came twice, and still remembered the feel of it (for straight men there is no bad sex). But pissed him off, a little. He googled, got a CV. Two novels for Harcourt Brace, a long gap, a metafiction from a Boise imprint, essays from a Canadian feminist publisher, and an academic study of Edith Wharton and the 1896 McKinley election. She now taught creative writing at the North Dakota Air Corps Academy. He hoped to God shed married and had kids. He wondered if shed been coming down off that E when she wrote it. All that sled and reindeer stuff, about the Ford and the dogs, and the cold apartment. There was an email address for the Bismarck campus. He wrote a message. He shouldn’t send it. He did.
“Ho ho ho.”