I hadn’t planned to go back home for Christmas. There were too many memories there, too much that I wanted to avoid. After the last fight my dad and I had gotten into, I left town and promised I’d never set foot in my family’s home ever again. But my parents had since moved to Florida and my recently divorced sister had pleaded with me to come stay with her for a few days. I couldn’t say no.
I’m not very social anymore, not like I once was. In high school I was involved in everything, friends with everyone, and well known for volunteer work in the community. Over time, I’d become more reserved and more reclusive. The last thing I wanted to do was see any of the people I’d graduated with. I hadn’t done much with my life and there was so much in my past I didn’t want to talk about.
Kerry went the opposite way. Reserved and shy in high school, once we graduated she found a local job and started hanging out with all the people she avoided. She’d told everyone I was coming into town and had promised them we’d all meet up at the local bar. I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t want to argue with her, not when she was still raw from her breakup. Joe had been a bad choice for a husband, so the consensus was that she was good to be rid of him. But women in love never see it that way.
Not long after I got into town, I was assaulted with memories. Most were good, but there were a few that made me feel hollow and sad. I passed the cematary and said a silent prayer for those who’d died. I’d never made it to a funeral having lived so far away for so long, but Kerry and my mom had kept me in the loop, even though our calls became fewer and far between the more I refused to talk to or about my father.
Kerry and I spent our first night going over old photo albums and making cookies. The next night was Christmas Eve and that’s when we decided to meet up with everyone at the bar. “Green Gators” was the main bar in town. It wasn’t as fancy as the country club, but it was a step up from the local dive bar down the street. Nostalgia didn’t wait long after we walked in. All my old friends were there, some with new piercings or tattoos, some with different hairstyles, some larger, some smaller. Our class’ star quarterback was there, balding and beer bellied but jovial and more friendly than I remembered him. He came up and hugged me and thrust a bottle of beer into my hand. It was surreal. I made small talk with several people, but l kept things light, not wanting to invite personal questions.
I was ready to go after an hour, but I sat quietly at the bar, not wanting to ruin the good time Kerry was having.
“Hey Teri.” I jumped and turned to find Max next to me, smiling. I couldn’t breathe for what felt like a full minute. He was just as I remembered him: tall, pretty brown eyes, curly blond hair, and lightly bronzed skin. One of the cutest guys in our class, we’d been friends for years before finally dating shortly after graduation.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I’d see you here.”
“Um…I didn’t think I’d see you here either.” Confusion clouded my brain. Two years prior, Mom had called me to tell me that Max had been killed in a motorcycle accident. He’d died instantly. Yet here he was, standing in front of me, smiling and looking very much alive. “This is going to sound weird,” I said, “but I – I thought you died.”
Max laughed. “That’s interesting.”
I made a mental note to call my mom and tell her she’d been mistaken about Max. “Isn’t it? I’m glad to see you’re still here.”
“I’m glad to see you too,” he said. “Do you think we could go somewhere and talk?”
I nodded, eager to talk to him but nervous at the same time. Max and I had history, but it hadn’t ended well. We’d been good friends for a long time before I finally acted on my attraction to him. He was one of the nicest guys I knew, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that he wasn’t actually boyfriend material. A bit clueless, he did a lot of things that were hurtful. I felt ignored most of the time. Even sex was bad between us. After one particularly hurtful night, I refused to talk to him anymore. I saw him once more after that and even though he tried to talk to me, I wouldn’t even look him in the eye.
I was devastated at the news of his death. One of the regrets I’d carried with me was never getting to talk to him , to try harder to salvage our friendship. But here he was. Mom had been wrong, and I had the chance to make right what I thought had been wrong.
I waved to Kerry and motioned towards Max to tell her I would be right back. She tilted her head questioningly, then nodded and waved. Outside, I watched as Max breathed in the air, his eyes searching the stars in the clear sky.
“I forgot how pretty the nights out here are,” I said, wrapping my arms around myself. I’d been so nervous and happy at seeing him that I’d left my coat inside. Max didn’t even have a coat and seemed unphased. “I don’t ever really take any time to look at the stars in the city, you know?”
“I never would have taken you for a city girl, Teri,” Max said, shaking his head. “What made you move?”
“Family drama, unemployment, the general need for a change.” I shrugged. “I love the city, I really do. I just forget that there are good things about this place too. I haven’t kept in touch with many people. Maybe I should have been better about it.”
“I kept in touch with a few people for a long time, but I don’t know. It’s really easy to just sort of let it fade?” He cast a glance towards the Gator, looking through the window at the people we’d both grown up with. “I think losing you was probably the only one I regret.”
My heart caught and I had to exhale slowly. “Listen, Max. About that. I-“
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted. “I know I was an ass. I could have been a lot better about paying attention to you and not being so selfish when it came to our relationship.”
Max had always been a good guy but I didn’t expect him to apologize first. Actually, I hadn’t expected him to apologize at all. “I’m sorry, too. I should have told you what I needed instead of being all passive aggressive about it. I didn’t know what to say though. I thought maybe I was crowding you. You were one of my first boyfriends.”
Max smiled lightly. “We were such good friends and we flirted all the time. I thought hooking up was just kind of a natural progression, you know? Then we were together and didn’t know how to act. I really didn’t. I wasn’t used to having a girlfriend and you were always so understanding, so I took you for granted.”
“I didn’t do it consciously. I was a moron.”
I chuckled. “It’s fine, Max. I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing. I just kind of wish I hadn’t let it get that out of hand. We missed a lot of time. “
“Yeah we did.”
There was a lot more I wanted to know about our relationship, but I didn’t want to mess up the moment. We started talking about all the things we’d missed out on in the past few years in each other’s lives. He told me about college and his friends and another girl he tried dating after I wouldn’t talk to him. He told me about his parents’ divorce and how he failed out a semester in college because he drank too much. I told him about the move, my own failed relationships, and my stint in the local psychiatric hospital. He seemed surprised at that one, but he didn’t ask questions. I got the feeling he was avoiding the heavy talk for the same reason I was, and I didn’t say anything about my dad.
I lost track of time, and it wasn’t until I heard Kerry call out to me from the bar door that I realized how long Max and I had been standing there.
“Teri, are you coming back?”
“Yeah, hold on, I’ll be right back in.” She threw me a thumbs up sign and returned to the crowd. “We should go ahead and go in. It’s chilly out here.”
Max smiled and gave me a hug. He was nice and warm and I wrapped my arms around his waist. “I think I’m going to take off,” he said. “I’m not much for bars these days. Plus I need to spend some quality time with my mom.”
“How is your mom?” I asked.
“She’s okay. Handling life as best she can on her own.”
“I can imagine.” I pulled out my cell phone and hit the camera button. “Let’s get a picture okay? I’m heading back to the city in a couple days and it might be awhile before I see you again.” Max and I stood close, arms around each other, heads close. His cologne was strong, but comforting. It had been one of the things that had attracted me to him in the first place. I head the phone away from us and clicked the shutter.
“Look! It came out really good!” I showed him the pic of the two of us smiling, looking happy, the Green Gator lit up behind our heads.
“It really is,” he said. He bent down then and kissed me. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, it wasn’t a chaste kiss. It was nice and it said that he loved me, but there was no promises about what kind of love it was. I was fine with that. “Bye, Teri.”
“Bye, Max. Keep in touch , okay?”
He turned and walked to the far end of the parking lot. I felt tears sting my eyes and went inside before I burst out crying. I didn’t know if it was the renewal of a friendship or not, but I felt good. Sad, but good.
Kerry wrapped her arm around my shoulders when I joined her and the rest of the group. “Holy cow,” she said to me. “Teri, you’re freezing!”
“I’m okay,” I said. Compared to the hot bar, I figured I was probably a little chilled. “Get me a drink will you?”
“Sure thing, sister.” Kerry went to order me a beer and I started catching up with all the people I’d ignored since graduation.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We both slept in on Christmas Day, finally getting out of bed around 11 in the morning. Kerry made pancakes and I chopped some fresh fruit and made homemade syrup. We had mimosas and opened our gifts. She bought me a candle set, some slipper socks, and a new mp3 player. I’d gotten her tickets to a professional hockey game, knitting supplies, and a set of books I remembered us having as kids. Kerry called Mom and Dad to wish them a Merry Christmas, and I just sent my wishes through her. I knew my mom would be disappointed, but I vowed to call her in a few days.
“Why don’t you talk to him, Teri?” Kerry asked. “He’s changed, you know? He’s getting old and he’s not doing real great health wise.”
“He brought it on himself,” I said bitterly. “He could call me too if he really wanted to talk.” To her credit, my sister remained silent.
“Oh shoot,” I said. “I forgot to have you tell Mom about Max.”
“Max?” Kerry said. “Max Mooreland?”
“Yeah. Mom told me he was in an accident.”
“Well yeah, but Mom thought he’d died. I was going to tell her she’d been mistaken.”
“Teri, what are you talking about?” Kerry looked like I was telling her a bad joke.
I sighed. “Mom thought Max had died. I never thought to double check, but he’s fine. I wanted to let her know.”
“Max did die.” Kerry talked slowly. “The car crash killed him instantly.”
“No it didn’t. He was there last night.”
“At the Gator. Didn’t you see him?”
I felt nauseous. “Okay, wait. We were at the Green Gator last night, right?”
“And I did go outside with Max, right?”
“You went outside, but you were alone.”
“I’m serious, Teri. None of us had any idea of what you were doing. You were out there forever, just standing there. I thought you were upset about something, but when I checked, you seemed fine. Then you came in and were in a better mood, so I thought maybe you were talking to someone on your cell phone.”
“Max was there, though. Look.” I got up and found my cell phone on the kitchen counter where I’d deposited it the night before. “I got a picture of us together. Maybe you just didn’t see him.”
“I was at the funeral. Max died. I saw his body. I watched them bury him.”
“Stop, okay?” I flipped frantically through my phone’s pictures, my fingers shaking. “I’m not hallucinating. We talked. We – we became friends again.” Finally, my screen landed on the picture of the two of us. “See? Look.”
Kerry took the picture and studied it, then shook her head. “This is an old picture, sis. The date stamp is from 2003.” She handed it back and sure enough, the picture was an old one. It was still the two of us, me and Max, but it had been taken at a New Year’s party we’d both gone to. Max looked like he did the night before, but I looked a lot younger. We were smiling. Both of us looked happy.
I sniffed and wiped my eyes. “Kerry, I know what I saw. He was there. I talked to him.”
She hugged me then, and rocked me as I cried. I couldn’t fathom what had actually happened, but I knew she was right. We both were. I had talked to Max outside the Green Gator, but Max had died two years before.
To relieve any last doubts, we stopped by the cematary before I left the day after Christmas. Sure enough, Max’s grave was there, his headstone engraved with his birth date and the date he died. I kept looking at the picture on my phone. I didn’t even own that phone when the New Year’s picture was taken, and yet there it was.
I had a lot of time to think on the long drive back. I kept hoping that Max would appear next to me in the passenger’s seat and explain what had happened. I wanted him to talk to me, to tell me that of course he was now a ghost, but a friendly one who would join me on crazy antics for the rest of our lives. It never happened, and it finally dawned on me that maybe Max had given me one last gift for the holiday. He’d come back to forgive me and to let me forgive him, to relieve one last burden from my conscience.
When I finally made it home, I didn’t bother to unpack before opening my cell phone and hitting the number seven on my speed dial.
“Hello?” said a gruff voice on the other end.
“Hi Dad. Do you have time to talk?”