“Okay, class, we have just about five minutes left for journal writing,” says Mr. Haupt, our sophomore English teacher. “And since Christmas is next week, I want you to write about the one thing you want more than anything else. I’m not terribly concerned about structure at the moment. I do, however, want details. Lots and lots of concrete details. As I’ve said before, well-chosen details make the difference between lifeless writing and writing that …” Mr. Haupt startles us all by taking in a sudden rush of air through his nostrils, “… that breathes.”
Writing that breathes. Only an English teacher, even if he is good-looking in a ’70s kind of way, could say something so truly undecipherable.
I can hear the rustle of paper all around me as kids fish for their class journals. “I hate it when he makes us write in these dumb things,” grumbles the girl behind me.
Usually I feel the same. Only today I know exactly what I’m going to write about. In fact, I can practically feel the words surging through my pen, getting ready to
“Wanted: a guy for Christmas. Should be very tall and slim like Jed Campbell. Should have green eyes like Jed Campbell and also light brown hair with streaks of sun like Jed Campbell. Should look really great in a pair of stone-washed jeans like Jed Campbell. Should adore pizza and Hires root beer like Jed Campbell. Should walk and talk like Jed Campbell. Should, in fact, be Jed Campbell.”
As you may have guessed by now, I have a major crush on Jed Campbell, who happens to sit on the back row of English class. My three older sisters (one’s married, one’s on a mission, one’s away at college) always tease me about my crushes, saying that I fall in and out of love more often than some people (namely me) clean up their bedrooms. But it’s different this time. This is it. The real thing. I’ve felt this way since November.
Here’s the best part. I think maybe he likes me too. Sometimes he waits for me after class, and he always smiles at me in the hall. Yesterday at lunch he and his friend even sat down by me and my friends. I think that’s a good sign.
The bell rings. I slam my journal shut and stuff it in my backpack, then get up to leave.
Did you just hear that loud pounding noise? Well, it’s my heart.
“Oh, hi, Jed.”
He falls into step next to me as we walk out of the classroom and into the hall.
“Hey,” he says, “I was wondering if you wanted to do something tonight. Maybe we could go to a movie.” Jed smiles, and I can’t help but notice what white teeth he has. That would be another good detail to add to my paragraph.
“A movie would be great,” I say.
“So I’ll pick you up around 6:00. Okay?”
“That would also be great.”
We both laugh before splitting up and going to our separate classes. I practically float through the door. Sometimes life is just so fine, don’t you know.
When I get home from school, I can hardly wait to tell Mom my big news about Jed. She’s tending my five-year-old nephew, Travis, on the couch next to our Christmas tree, reading The Cat in the Hat. Travis is the son of my big sister Emily and her husband, Gary.
“Cynthia! Thank goodness you’re home!” Mom looks pretty frazzled. I’m dying to tell her about tonight, but I can tell she’s really stressed, so I do the mature thing and ask her what’s going on in her life first.
“What isn’t ‘going on in my life?’” Mom replies, standing up and brushing back a strand of hair. “Your father is still out of town. I’m supposed to be at a meeting as we speak, both Gary and Emily have to work late tonight, and Travis’s baby-sitter canceled on them at the last minute. I’ve been staying with him until you could get home.” She looks at me, expectantly.
“Oh, no. Not tonight. I definitely have plans.”
“Cynthia, honey, please. This is an emergency.”
I have to admit she does look like someone getting ready to appear on an episode of Rescue 911.
“But, Mom …”
“But, Cynthia …”
I fold my arms across my chest and tap my foot. “Okay, fine.” I really hope she can tell how happy I am not.
Mom puts an arm around my shoulder. “You’re the best, Cynthia. You have no idea how much this helps.”
Then she turns to Travis, who is still sitting on the couch pretending to read. He’s doing his Cat in the Hat voice right now: “Give me all your hats, you guys, or I’m gonna bite your legs off.”
“Travis, Cynthia will take care of you for the next little while. Okay?”
He looks up for a second and flashes me a smile. Then Mom unloads the rest of the bad news. “Gary gets off at 9:00, and Emily doesn’t finish closing out until 10:00. I’m not sure when I’ll be home, but I have a feeling it will be late.”
Of course. Naturally. I didn’t have something else I really wanted to do tonight. Sometimes life is just so not fine.
Mom flies out the door, pulling her coat on as she goes, and I go to the telephone to call Jed. I’m both relieved and disappointed when I get the answering machine.
“Jed, it’s me, Cynthia. Hey, things are kind of desperate here. It turns out I have to baby-sit my nephew, Travis, so I can’t go out tonight. I’m really sorry.” I pause, “So anyway, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
There. I’ve just ruined my one and only chance for true happiness in this life and possibly in the next.
“Hey, Cynthia,” says Travis, joining me. “Wanna play G.I. Joes with me?”
I sigh. “Sure, Travis. Go get your guys.”
Before I know it, he’s got everything set up in the middle of the living room floor. He gets to be the good guys. I get to be the bad guys.
“Heh, heh, heh,” I say, using my best bad guy voice, “Let’s go wipe out the Joes.”
Travis gives me a withering look. “That’s not how they talk, Cynthia.”
Don’t you just love it when a five-year-old starts giving you instructions? He tells me what I have to say and where I get to move my guys. In other words, I’m just the furniture mover.
Travis and I play G.I. Joes for about half an hour, which I think is pretty nice of me. Enough, however, is definitely enough.
“Hey, Travis, I’m getting tired. Why don’t you watch cartoons for a little while?” Actually, I want some time to think about not going out with Jed tonight. I’m in the mood to suffer.
Travis grumbles, but in the end he trudges into the family room by himself where he flips on the television. Naturally he leaves his stuff all over the floor for me to pick up, which I do. Then I collapse in a chair by the living room window and watch the snow fall. It’s five o’clock. Just another hour from now I might have been going to a movie.
It’s Travis already.
“Will you play Old Maid with me?” he asks.
What I want to say is, Thanks to you, Travis, I am an old maid. But instead I give him a weak smile and say, “Maybe later.”
It’s not that I don’t think Travis is a real cute kid. He’s got a killer grin and these huge brown eyes that usually knock my socks off. I don’t even mind baby-sitting him most of the time. But tonight, I have to be honest, Travis is getting on my nerves in a big way.
“Go get your coloring book and color for a little while,” I tell him.
“Will you color with me, Cynthia?”
“Not right now.”
“No!” I snap. “I want to be alone right now, Travis. Okay?”
He doesn’t say a thing, just looks at me for a long time, then turns around and walks back to the family room.
So what do you think? Don’t you agree that I’m entitled to have a little time to myself, especially after my big sacrifice and everything?
Then why do I feel like such an incredible jerk?
I try to shake off the feeling by watching the snow some more. It’s really coming down hard, and the flakes are so huge they almost look like those old-fashioned doilies you see draped on the backs of overstuffed chairs. When I was a kid, I absolutely loved storms like this. I’d bundle up and run outside and try to catch snowflakes on the tip of my tongue. Maybe you did the same thing too.
Something pricks at me. My conscience maybe? Sometimes I really hate my conscience. I heave a sigh and walk into the family room where Travis is busy pretending to be a ninja.
“Hey there, Travis.”
He totally ignores me and gives the air a deadly kick.
“Do you want to go outside and play in the snow with me?” I ask.
Travis drops the ninja routine and turns with a full-court smile. “YES!”
So the two of us stuff ourselves like sausages into winter clothes and run outside where we make angels and throw snow into each other’s face. Pretty soon the neighbor’s big black Newfoundland dog, Rudy, joins us, his tail swishing behind him like a flag. I know from past experience that this dog definitely has a special talent.
“Hey, watch this, Travis.” I lightly pack a snowball and throw it in Rudy’s general direction. He bellows out a bark and lunges, catching up the snowball in his mouth.
Travis laughs, then throws Rudy another snowball. Sure enough, Rudy snags that one too, just like he’s playing shortstop for the Yankees.
We keep this up until our arms are tired.
“No more, Rudy,” I say. Rudy, who looks pretty disappointed for a dog, lumbers back to his front porch and resumes residence.
Travis drops backwards in the snow and makes another angel, but this time, instead of getting up, he just stares at the night sky, full of stars. “I wonder if that star is still up there somewhere.”
“You know, Cynthia. The one over the barn where Baby Jesus was born.”
“The Star of Bethlehem,” I say, smiling. “I don’t know where it is now.”
“I know what!” Travis springs to his feet. “Let’s go find it!”
I start laughing until I realize I’ve made Travis feel stupid. I used to hate it when grown-ups did that to me, even though I realize now they didn’t mean to.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go look for it.”
So Travis and I start walking around the block, looking for the Star of Bethlehem. When he’s not throwing his head back to search the sky, Travis is running ahead, singing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs. He doesn’t know most of the words, but that’s okay. He’d rather make up his own. All I know is that I suddenly love the sound of his high-pitched voice ringing across the evening snow.
And then the most amazing thing happens.
Travis stands beneath a street lamp and looks up to the sky again, but this time his whole face is shining, filled with light. The forgotten words of an old Primary “Jesus once was a little child, a little child like me.”
I almost stop breathing, and it’s suddenly as though the winter air around me is warm and full of the smell of the sea and the sound of gulls laughing and that the boy in front of me is another little boy from long ago, standing on the shore, his hair and face blazing with sun.
The moment passes, and it’s just me and Travis again, looking for stars. We finish our trip around the block, Travis still blasting through a billion songs and kicking snow with his feet, me bringing up the rear more slowly.
“Who’s that on the porch, Cynthia?” Travis wants to know as we round the corner. I squint to see through the night.
You’re really not going to believe this. It’s Jed.
“Hey, you guys,” he says, walking toward us with that loping step I just love. In fact, he looks so adorable right now I could just faint dead in the snow. “I wanted to know if you want to go to 7-Eleven and buy some hot chocolate with me.”
Travis whoops, and I smile. Sometimes life is just so fine.
Later when I’m in bed, I’m still thinking about how fine life can be but also about how it can take you so totally by surprise. Let me give you an example of what I mean, since Mr. Haupt, our English teacher, always says that specific examples make your writing stronger.
I got the guy I wanted for Christmas all right, and he’s even more wonderful than I imagined he would be. It just turns out there was something I wanted even more, only I didn’t even know it.
What I really wanted was to feel the presence of the Savior in my life, and thanks to a five-year-old kid, I did.
So, Travis, even though I know you’re home asleep right now, surrounded by the zoo of stuffed animals you take to bed with you every night even though it drives your mother crazy because there’s no room left for you, I have something I want to say.
I love you, Travis. Merry Christmas.