Michael Bublé croons about Santa Claus coming to town as I cruise down I-70, my eyes ping-ponging between the road and the clock. It's not that I'm late . . . in fact, a mere seven months ago, I would've considered this early. But that was back when I was Old Laurel, the one who was the conductor of her own personal Hot Mess Express, the one who never met a situation she couldn't screw up, the one who, as my best friend, Jamilah, put it, ran on "Laurel Time" (which is to say, always at least fifteen minutes late).
But that's not who I am anymore, I remind myself. Now I'm New Laurel, the one who arrives on time and doesn't implode her life with her own poor decisions.
My downfall this morning was stopping at Starbucks. I intended to grab peppermint mochas for my boss and myself, but then I got wrapped up in a conversation with the Starbucks drive-through employee when she complimented my Christmas tree earrings and I said I loved her Santa earrings, and then we talked about our Christmas plans and . . .
Well, long story short, now I'm going to get to the office for my pre-holiday meeting right on time.
I get off the highway as Michael Bublé fades out and the radio DJ tells everyone that a white Christmas is in the forecast. Personally, I'll believe it when I see it. As someone who came out of the womb loving Christmas-my twin sister and I were born on December 25-I literally dream of a white Christmas, but I'm used to gray ones. I don't know if we really had more snow in Ohio when I was a kid or if my memories are fudged by the blurry lens of nostalgia, but I've been burned too many times to put much stock in the meteorologist's promise of snow.
It's three days before Christmas, and although I typically work remotely, my boss scheduled a meeting before my official holiday vacation starts. I started working at Buckeye State of Mind, a magazine and website whose slogan is "Everything great in the Buckeye State," a little over six months ago. Our main purpose is to highlight restaurants, tourist attractions, parks, businesses, and anything that's special in Ohio. I run our social media, write a monthly online column, and soon I'll be writing other stories, too (well, fingers crossed, anyway).
I pull into our strangely empty parking lot-only Gilbert's Subaru is here-and turn off the car. I close my eyes, picturing myself in my Mind Oasis, as outlined in the book Creating Your Mind Oasis and Finding Inner Peace. New Laurel has a Mind Oasis that's a calm, clean, all-white room. The Mind Oasis even has a white sofa, because in my mind I can't get red wine or brownies or Cheeto dust on it. The Mind Oasis is a place of perfect peace, and it's where I go when I need to center myself. No longer am I sitting in my Toyota Camry, surrounded by the empty Starbucks cups littering the floor, reminding me of peppermint mochas long since gone. Now I'm on my pristine Mind Sofa, listening to the sound of the ocean waves on the shore (the Mind Oasis is on a beach, naturally), simply being.
Old Laurel didn't even have a Mind Oasis. She had a Mind Junkyard. But now, with the guidance of every self-help book the Columbus Metropolitan Library system had on the shelf, New Laurel is ready to conquer this meeting, this day, and my entire life.
I check my hair in the rearview mirror. My shaggy, long bob hangs in blond waves. I brush them out of my face, then use a finger to flick away an errant mascara flake and dab at my Starbucks-smudged seasonally appropriate cranberry red lipstick. I give New Laurel a wink. She's got this.
I use my hip to slam the door of the Camry, since I'm currently double-fisting peppermint mochas, and walk into the building. It would be great if magazine life were glamorous, like in The Devil Wears Prada, and I could run through city streets as I hurried to make it to my downtown high-rise office before my stylish but cold boss realized I was late. I'd spill coffee on myself, and she'd look down her nose at me, and I'd spend the next hour and forty-five minutes of screen time attempting to win her approval before finally realizing that there's more to life than work.
Jamilah also says I have a tendency to turn everything into a story. That's why she encouraged me to apply to this job at the magazine, actually-she thought I'd love writing other peoples' stories. And I would, but that's only sort of what my job entails.
Of course, my real life is nothing like that fantasy sequence, mostly because our office is out in the Columbus suburbs where the rent is cheaper, and Gilbert isn't a stylish older woman with a severe bob and a tendency to judge people. He's a middle-aged man with a kindly orange mustache, and I've never heard him yell at anyone. The most upset I've ever seen him was when he got mildly annoyed that Jimmy John's left the turkey off the turkey sub he ordered for an office lunch meeting, and even then he pretty much immediately pivoted to positivity and ate his bread, lettuce, and cheese sandwich without complaining. ("You know, I've been trying to eat less meat, anyway.") He doesn't critique my fashion choices, probably because his button-down shirts have seemingly permanent mustard stains on them from dropping his lunchtime hot dogs on himself.
But that doesn't mean I'm not a little uneasy as I step into the office to find it empty and dark, aside from the light coming from Gilbert's office in the back corner. It's a typically gloomy Ohio December day, so even with the window blinds open, it's almost pitch black. The tinsel on the office Christmas tree dances silently in the warm air pumping from the heating vent. It's like Die Hard in here, but without Bruce Willis around to rescue me (unless he's crawling through the air ducts, as he's wont to do).
I tiptoe toward Gilbert's office and the golden light peeking out from his partially open door. Should I turn around and run? Am I an idiot for walking in here? This certainly feels like a situation in which I'm either going to get murdered or propositioned, and I can't think of which one of those is less likely coming from Gilbert.
"I am capable," I whisper to myself, repeating a mantra I learned from Manifesting the Badass Within: How to Use Mantras to Supersize Your Life. "I am strong. I can defeat any intruders with my brute strength."
Okay, so that last one wasn't in the book, but it seemed like a good one to add right now.
I hold my two coffees up like a shield and shout, "I have a black belt in karate!" as I kick open Gilbert's door. This isn't strictly true, given that I took one karate class in fifth grade before giving up, but I need to project a strong image.
Gilbert, slumped over his desk, looks up at me. "That's really great, Laurel." He sniffles. "That must've taken a lot of work, but I'm not surprised. You're one of my most dedicated employees."
That's when I realize that Gilbert is crying, and not the kind of eye-leaking you can disguise as allergies. This is full-on sobbing, the kind I never expected to see from my boss, a man who unironically listens to "Never Gonna Give You Up" as his morning pump-up jam.
"Gilbert," I say, putting his coffee down in front of him. "Is everything okay?"
He shakes his head, and I hand him a tissue.
"Some things are okay," he says. "I'm alive. That's good."
I nod slowly. "So we're starting with the basics here."
He sighs. "Just trying to have an attitude of gratitude."
"I know that's important to you." I point to the poster behind his desk: a waterfall with the words "The best attitude is gratitude" written on it. Honestly, it's a wonder that Gilbert became a regional magazine/website editor instead of a middle school guidance counselor.
He blows his nose with a honk, then lets his head fall to his desk. "Charlene left."
I pause, then sit down across from him on the maroon office chair. "Left to go . . . where?"
He rolls his head to the side, peering up at me. "My wife left me, Laurel."
"She left you?" I gasp, which sets Gilbert off again.
"It sounds even worse when you say it," he sobs.
I exhale and look around the room, as if the posters on these office-neutral beige walls might guide me on what to say. "It's her loss," I say.
He sits up and shakes his head. "She left me for our accountant. I'm the one who's the loser. She's gone and her new man knows all my financial details. It's humiliating."
I have nothing else to say-I've only spoken to Charlene once when she stopped by to pick Gilbert up for lunch after one of our in-office meetings, and we mainly talked about their kitchen renovation. Not enough detail for me to decide whether she's a good person, but leaving Gilbert for their accountant might slot her firmly into the "bad" category.
"I brought you a peppermint mocha," I finally say.
Gilbert sits up and sniffs the red cup appreciatively. "You remembered."
I give him a sad smile. "Yeah. It's your favorite."
He shrugs and takes a sip. "What can I say, I'm a basic bitch."
In any other circumstance, I would immediately text Jamilah and tell her that my boss unironically referred to himself as a basic bitch. But we've got bigger problems here.
"So." I clear my throat, wondering if a subject change might be good for Gilbert's mental health. "Where is everyone? I thought we had a meeting."
He puts down his cup and waves a hand dismissively. "I sent them all home and cancelled the meeting. It's the day before holiday break starts, I'm a mess, and they might as well go enjoy their lives while they can. Before everything goes to hell. Sorry I forgot to tell you it was cancelled, but I was busy surveying the wreckage of my marriage."
"Well . . ." I trail off. "That's okay."
Gilbert seems to use all his strength to give me a watery, pasted-on smile. "So what's going on with you?" The visible tears on his cheeks make him look more "sad clown" than "interested boss."
"Just getting ready for Christmas with my family. I'm heading to my sister's . . . I mean, my sister's heading to my farm tomorrow," I stammer quickly.
Good save, Grant.
"That's so nice," Gilbert says with unnerving cheer. "How wonderful that you have a big family to spend Christmas with."
"Not so big." I try to downplay it. "My parents retired last year, and they're spending the holiday in Hawaii. Maybe I should be offended, since Christmas is also my birthday so they're kind of missing two big days, but Christmas in Hawaii has been their lifelong dream, and I guess they've earned it. And my brother, Doug, is on a ski trip and he won't be getting in until, like, Christmas Eve at midnight because he's terrible at planning anything."
Gilbert stares at me.
"So . . . no big deal," I say.
Gilbert bursts into tears again.
"Oh, no," I say. I have no idea what to do in this situation. It's not like I haven't been around tears before . . . I have one of those faces that people tend to talk to, so I've consoled my fair share of drunk girls in bar bathrooms. I've learned a lot about the cheating boyfriends of Columbus and ended up with mascara stains on many of my best shirts. But nothing prepared me for a sobbing boss in the midst of a dissolving marriage.
I hand him another tissue, and he takes it with a grateful nod.
"I wish . . . oh, I wish she'd planned this all a little better. It's not like Charlene to mess up the holidays. We love Christmas. Bundling up and going to Wildlights at the Zoo, driving around and looking at the Christmas lights, decorating our tree together, watching The Holiday . . ." His face droops. "She should've left me at Easter. We don't really do anything for Easter."
Unsure of how I'm supposed to respond to this, I nod.
He meets my eye, looking so despondent that I want to cry. "I wish I had a big family Christmas to go to like you."
I give him a closed-lip smile. "I wish that, too, Gilbert. I really do."
"Your family sounds so wonderful," he says. "So close. I'd love to meet them someday."
"Yeah," I say. "I'd love that, too."
He puts a hand on his heart. "Laurel. That is so generous of you."
I open my mouth, but no words come out because I'm not exactly sure what Gilbert's talking about. I feel like I temporarily blacked out and missed a few lines of our conversation.
"What's that?" I ask carefully.
"Of course I'd love to come over," he says, tears welling in his eyes yet again.
Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no. This cannot be happening.
"Oh, you don't want to come over," I stammer. "It's crowded. Lots of tiny rooms. Too many people. The kids . . . they're loud."
"I love kids," Gilbert says, standing up. "And tiny rooms. I watch those home renovation shows on HGTV, and I think, who needs an open concept? Keep those rooms separate."
Think, Laurel. Think.
"But I . . . I don't have a gift for you!" I say loudly. "Or matching pajamas. We all wear matching pajamas on Christmas morning."
"Oh, don't worry, Laurel," Gilbert says. "I would never think of intruding on Christmas."
I exhale, relieved. I underestimated Gilbert. Of course he wouldn't invite himself to his employee's house for Christmas-I must have misunderstood him.
"I'll only be there tomorrow, for Christmas Eve Eve," he says. "I know all about the traditional dinner you serve on the farm."
"Traditional dinner?" I ask slowly, dread filling my body.
"You know," he says. "You wrote about it in this month's column."
"Right," I say, nodding. What he's saying is true. We always have a big dinner with our immediate family on Christmas Eve Eve, leftover from the days when we'd head to my grandma Pat's house on Christmas Eve and stay the night. My mom liked to have a fancy holiday meal early, with just us, as a quiet moment before the travel and gifts. Even after Grandma Pat passed away, we Grants kept up the Christmas Eve Eve tradition, and it's still our biggest meal of the season. I wrote all about it in the monthly column where I detail my simple, hardworking, sometimes chaotic life on the farm.
Copyright © 2023 by Kerry Winfrey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.