Steph’s nervous. Mike knows it before she starts to speak. It’s the way his wife’s fingers stroke her bare collarbone when she’s worked up, as if trying to soothe away her anxiety.
“I, um…it was an accident, a small graze.” Steph tips her head slightly, beguilingly, as she gazes at her husband.
Mike looks out of the window; there’s a long silver gash in the green paint of the Civic’s passenger side door.
“Bloody hell, Steph!”
“I was backing out, didn’t see the wall. You know how busy it gets!”
“Yeah, but it’s a big wall.”
Mike holds back his full wonder that anyone could miss seeing a wall that size. Partly, it’s the hackneyed predictability of the situation that stops him. The words are on his tongue, but it would be one step from that to acting out a full sitcom, again. Also, Steph’s hand is moving faster now. He can feel her agitation building, as if her fingers have found a rough edge that she’s close to planing smooth. Close, but not quite. This stroking never helps. Instead, her worries seem to pool in the hollow beside the bone. The beautiful curve that he loves to kiss, relishing his ability to ease away her tension.
Mike wills himself to resist the temptation to reach out—I am not her good luck talisman, I am not…—but he can’t stop himself. It’s not lust, not anymore. Calming her small angsts appeases his big fear that one day she’ll no longer need him.
“I did manage some Christmas shopping…” Steph offers tentatively, as Mike leans towards her. The words hang in the air between them like the scent of freshly peeled satsumas, cinnamon spice, and wet pine needles.
“I’ll fix it.” Mike strokes his wife’s skin softly, sleekly, seductively.
“Thank you,” she whispers, her pupils dilating.
Mike knows this is the point when he needs to kiss her. But they’re standing under her giant ball of mistletoe. It’s another red-ribboned cliché that she’s adopted without thinking. He wonders if she’s ever noticed that the leaves come in pairs forked like wishbones. Once he might have shared this observation. Not now. Not that he doesn’t want to, more that it no longer feels relevant. Eleven years together is living on borrowed time, even by the best of their friends’ standards.
As far as Mike’s concerned, mistletoe is misunderstood. Like a lot of things. Contrary to popular belief, the plant is a hemiparasite, not a parasite. It does photosynthesize a little for itself for at least a short period of its life cycle—however small that photosynthesis actually amounts to. While mistletoe often reduces or stunts its host tree’s growth, it rarely kills the host plant. The berries’ reputation as extremely poisonous to pets and humans is also exaggerated. Their effect, too, depends a great deal on the type of mistletoe…
Steph isn’t aware of this. Mike could tell her, but she wouldn’t care. For her, it makes a pretty Christmas kissing ball. Would knowing its botanic characteristics really make a difference to anything? Or change their life in any way? Still, Mike steps away from the mistletoe, as he pulls Steph towards him and starts kissing her collarbone, neck, lips.
She rests her hand on his chest, and Mike thinks about the gold pendant he’s bought for her Christmas present. It has a single cultured pearl, opalescent, the size, in fact, of a mistletoe berry. She’ll love it, even if she never realizes why he chose it.
Their kisses grow longer, slower, deeper. Steph’s presence tingles through Mike. With every touch they share, he wishes again for things to always stay this way, for her to feel the same as him. He’s no idea if she does, no idea if she ever did or could, no idea if her needs will last as long as his. But she’ll keep his breath warm for longer than he can alone—for now, at least.