Sandra Harper Over the Holidays: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781439158708

Over the Holidays: A Novel

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9781439158708: Over the Holidays: A Novel
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The best holiday traditions are meant to be broken.

It's only December 1, and Vanessa Clayton has been dreading Christmas since she spotted tinseled trees at her local mall in September. Thankfully, she and her husband, JT, can't afford to drag their twin boys across the country to New England for the annual celebration at her stuffy sister-in-law Patience's home. Not that Vanessa has prepared a proper Christmas for her family in years, and she has less time than ever since she agreed to consult on the script of a local play. Her older sister, Thea, is no help -- she'd rather make art and flirt with surfers than babysit her nine-year-old nephews. Then Patience drops a holiday stress bomb: Her family will come to California instead.

In between "baking" cinnamon rolls for the school potluck and overbearing Patience testing her patience, Vanessa can't stop thinking about the difficult but charming playwright at work. Meanwhile, Patience's teenage daughter, Libby, obsesses over a college boy she has met by the pool, and Thea searches desperately for the meaning of Christmas -- for her latest installation, of course. As their holiday plans go comically awry, these four women discover the true spirit of the season is hidden in every festive surprise.

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About the Author:

Sandra Harper is the author of the play, Magpie's Tea Room, which enjoyed a successful run in Los Angeles at The Ventura Court Theatre. She has written a cooking column, "The California Cook" for the newspaper, Skirt. A script reader for Pathe Studios and Springcreek Productions, she also wrote and produced fashion and rock videos for Elvis Costello, Chaka Khan and Vidal Sassoon, amonf others. Ms. Harper recieved her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Southern California and has completed a children's book, The Witches Club.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

It was only December first but Vanessa Channing felt like it had been Christmas forever.

In late September, she had spotted trussed and tinseled Christmas trees at her local mall in Sherman Oaks. Then, seconds after the Halloween candy and superhero costumes had been slashed to half price, the drugstore shelves were restocked with cobbling elves and icicle lights and Santas that jived to "Jingle Bell Rock" when you clapped your hands.

You'd think that with all these visual cues, Vanessa would be further along in her own holiday preparations -- her tree, her gifts, her dinner, her general plan of attack -- but instead she was shot through with doubt and indecision.

Hard as it was to believe -- Vanessa was, after all, a thirtyeight-year-old wife and mother -- she hadn't done a lot of Christmases. And, for the last few years, they'd flown East, to Massachusetts, where her sister-in-law presided over her own seasonal pageant.

But this year, owing to finances and Vanessa's reluctance to yet again cross the country in the worst possible month with people under the drinking age, she had suggested to her husband that they stay home. Save money. Keep it simple.

"And maybe we could put more meaning into this," she'd told him at breakfast that morning. "Find a connection."

"I connect with snow and a fire in the fireplace," JT said pointedly. "And sledding. And skiing."

"But now you live in California," said Vanessa, wishing, not for the first time, that all the East Coast transplants would let go of the whole white Christmas thing. "And if you really missed the snow so much...you'd still be living in Wenham."

SHE PULLED UP TO THE GOODWILL. As she reached into the back of her dusty green station wagon and slid out four bags of old clothes, she was overwhelmed by all the giving she had to do: to friends and neighbors; to the postman and the teachers at school; to her husband and children and relatives; to the charities that were saving the world.

There was so much to do, so much giving to be dispensed, that Vanessa reached into her purse, uncapped a plastic bottle of Tylenol, and washed down two caplets on the strength of her saliva alone.

Okay, I don't mind giving to Goodwill, she thought humbly. In fact, on the long list of Things to Do at the Holidays, this was the one act that was free of any other baggage.

Goodwill didn't open for another hour, so she stacked the bags next to the door marked donations and jumped back in the car. Her day was jam-packed. There was the grocery shopping, the housecleaning, the piles of laundry, and a parent meeting at school. And most important, she had to reserve energy for a job interview later tonight -- some New York playwright who might need her help with his script.

I wish I felt more spiritual at the holidays, she thought, driving through Studio City towards her market. More joyful...and filled with love for humanity.

But it didn't really matter what she felt, because Vanessa Channing had twin boys, aged nine, and so Christmas was mandatory. It was hurtling towards her and it simply had to be braced, like uterine contractions or an earthquake.

Even this early in the morning, the lot at the supermarket was jammed. Parking her car in the hinterlands, she crossed the asphalt, keeping time to the ring of a jangling silver bell.

"Help the needy," said the bell ringer, an older gentleman with a thin Midwest accent. He had the straight posture of a former marine and was fixed next to the red Salvation Army bucket.

Vanessa rummaged through her purse and opened up her wallet: there was a five and a twenty. Fingering the five, she reminded herself that things were not that dire. With a smile for the bell ringer, she pushed the twenty into the pot. He gave his bell an extra tinkle.

Okay, she thought with relief, I do have some love for humanity. And, as she entered the grocery store, she mentally checked off charitable donation on her holiday list.

ALTHOUGH DRESSED IN HEAVY COTTON LEGGINGS and a zippered gray wool sweater, Thea Clayton did not look casual. Perhaps it was the black muslin scarf wrapped just so at the neck or the dark sunglasses or the way she attacked the beach with a sense of urgency. She was hoping this walk would give her some inspiration. God knows, she needed something.

I used to glean energy from this ocean but now I gaze at it and feel nothing, she thought dully. And the pounding of the surf sounds like white noise, like elevator music -- tuneless and forgettable. Her Venice neighborhood, which once seemed avant-garde, felt more like a catch basin for tourists, derelicts, and the many exhibitionists who presented their tattoos and body piercings as some kind of declaration of independence.

Didn't someone once say there's nothing so conventional as a rebel? she thought idly.

And could I twist that into some kind of art?

Leaving the sand, she cut through the alley and over to Pacific Avenue, passing a seedy couple caged behind a shelter of discarded beach debris. Two shopping carts, a battered blue boogie board, and a string of T-shirts had crafted their fortress. A yellow shade umbrella perched atop, like a turret.

As she approached the Dudley Street Diner, a muscular surfer in his late twenties locked his bike to the pole of a parking sign. His was the timeless attire of the beach denizen: cargo shorts, sandals, and mellow mind-set.

He took one glance at Thea's clenched jaw and drew her into a lazy hug. "Hey, baby, why so stressed?"

"Because this...this, fucking grit isn't working," she sighed, spreading her arms wide into a dramatic arc. "Venice used to inspire me." She looked down glumly at the dirty sidewalk awash with sticky residue, cigarette butts, and splotches of tar.

Marcus opened the door to the diner. "Huevos rancheros," he said.

In a Jell-O-green vinyl booth by the window, Thea sipped her cup of bitter coffee and studied her boyfriend's pouty mouth. Not everything in Venice was annoying, she decided.

"I'm sorry." She reached across the table for his strong, capable hands. "I'm just obsessing about work."

"No worries," Marcus said lightly. "You'll think of something."

"That is so fucking not true." Thea banged down her mug." I'm completely dry. And now it's December."

Marcus looked perplexed.

"Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year. It's an artistic desert until January second." She toyed with her multicolored braids that tangled uneasily in her long, dark blond hair.

Marcus drummed the table lightly with his fingertips as Thea stared out at an amorphous blob of teenagers bouncing along the colonnade, leaning on one another and chatting animatedly.

"Sex is passé," she said wearily, noting a skanky girl rubbing the thigh of her skinny, kente-cloth-swaddled boyfriend. "Anyone with a computer can have that. Passion is Catholic, revenge is telenovela, and violence is CNN."

"You lost me, dude."

The huevos rancheros arrived on an enormous royal blue platter with a side of hot corn tortillas. Slicing precisely down the center of the egg yolk, she watched intensely as the stream of golden lava puddled around the rice and beans.

"I like Christmas," Marcus said. Rather than study his food, he was choking it down, fortifying himself for an afternoon of sanding and shaping surfboards. "No one rides that day. Got it all to myself."

"So Christmas for you is good surfing."

"A great opportunity."

Something inside Thea began to quicken.

Slightly.

Picking up a bottle of hot sauce from the Formica tabletop, she sprinkled a few drops over her plate. "When you were little, what did you like about it?"

Marcus gulped thoughtfully. A kinky cork of espresso hair fell over his greenish eyes and he pushed it back.

"The year I got Nintendo was life changing."

Nintendo! How adorable. She loved being with a guy twelve years younger.

"Anything bad ever happen?"

"Not bad, but Mom would always cry over whatever I gave her. Once it was a box made out of Popsicle sticks. Fuck, I think she still has that thing."

They laughed. Thea felt flushed. Marcus was so beautiful -- his ease, his mocha-colored skin, his sinewy forearms.

Uncomplicated.

"I'll take you over to Christmas Tree Lane," he said brightly. "Everybody there goes ape shit on their houses. There're millions of lights and all these moving reindeer and stuff. Yeah, you got to see this."

Thea found herself caught up in Marcus's childlike excitement. His lightness chased away her bluesy mood.

"Christmas," she said, watching him shovel up the last mouthful of beans and salsa. "Okay, take me there."

AFTER BREAKFAST THEY STOOD UNDER THE colonnade and kissed good-bye.

"Go make art," he said, lightly patting her behind. Then, unlocking the beach cruiser with the fat tires and comfy seat, he pedaled off to the surf shop. Thea wandered back home to pretend to work.

She had converted her living room into an art studio. Two stories high, it had floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of a murky Venice canal. It was spare and spacious with pure white walls and hardwood floors. She preferred the squall of gulls and the distant hum of traffic to the drumbeat of waves over on the beachfront side of the neighborhood. Confronting the daily parade of tourists, joggers, and street urchins was the price one paid for a house with a view of the ocean and the pier. Her side, the backside of Venice, was more peaceful.

Her desk, a simple white drafting table, was beside the window and overlooked the canal below. She sat down, opened a sketchbook, and drummed the pages with a black Prismacolor pen. She gazed out at an egret poking its beak into the mud searching for breakfast. She stared back at her pad but couldn't think of anything.

After ten minutes she gave up and decided to go down to her mailbox for something to do.

At the bottom of her stairs was a bank of four mailboxes. With a small key, she opened up her compartment ...

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