Surviving Christmas

Hollis Puzan was seated at his office desk reviewing papers when his cell went off. The Caller ID informed him that the caller was his daughter Noel.

"Hey, Sweetie," Hollis said cheerfully when he answered the phone.

"Hi, Daddy!" Noel replied. "Did you get my e-mail?"

Noel had written inviting her dad to spend Christmas with her and her boyfriend Chris' family at a Vermont getaway.

"I did," he confirmed. "Thanks for thinking of me."

"So, you'll come?" She asked hopefully.

"Do you really need me there?" He groaned.

"I really want you there," she clarified.

"Well, in that case, I guess I'll come," he let her know. "But I'll have to leave a day or two after the holiday. I promised your Uncle Bob I'd show up for his traditional New Year's Eve bash in Florida this year.

"That's fine," Noel said. "Thanks for doing this for me, Dad."

"Sure," Hollis replied.

"So," she said, stretching the word out like it was a lyric in a song. "I was hoping you could do me one more tiny little itsy-bitsy favor." She said it in her little girl's voice and Hollis knew he was in trouble.

"What's that?" He frowned into the phone.

"Drive Mom up too." She said the four words so fast it sounded like one word.

"Very funny," Hollis laughed.

"I'm serious, Dad," Noel pleaded. "She doesn't want to drive to a strange place in winter."

"Dr. Old Geyser can bring her," Hollis said.

"They're not together anymore," Noel informed him.

"Really?" Her dad sounded surprised. "When did that happen?"

"I don't know," Noel sighed. "This summer I guess."

"Oh." Hollis paused for a moment. "Honey, I don't think putting me and your mother in the same car for two hours is a smart idea."

"Come on, Dad," Noel pleaded. "I really want the two of you to meet Chris' parents."

"So, you're serious about this guy?"

"Yes," she said happily. "And it's a big house. You and mom can stay on separate floors."

"But my car's not that big," Hollis sighed.

"For me, Dad?" Noel begged. "For Christmas? Pretty-please with sugar on top?"

"Okay," he said, knowing he had no choice. "But this isn't going to be much fun for me," he complained. "Are his parents' right wing fascists or anything?"

"They're good people, Dad," Noel assured him. "You don't have to bring presents or anything."

"You're my present," Hollis said.

"Oh, Dad." He could sense her blushing into the phone. "Don't worry, you're going to have a blast. I promise."

"Tell it to your mother," he deadpanned.

"It's going to be fun all of us being together again, don't you think?" Noel asked.

"Noel," Hollis said gently. "It's been fifteen years. You're twenty-four years old. Let it go," he advised.

"I know, I know," she said with annoyance. "I accepted being a child of divorce a long time ago, Dad. But it will be nice to see the two of you together at the same time for a change."

"Okay," Hollis agreed. "Just don't make a big deal out of it or give Chris' folks the wrong impression."

"I won't," Noel said. "I'm sorry, Dad. I guess I'm just remembering all my childhood Christmases when we were together as a family."

"Those were good memories," Hollis said with a sentimental smile. "Your mother always loved Christmas. It's why she named you Noel."

"I know, Dad. And it's why Grandma named her Gloria."

"Just don't get your expectations up," he warned.

"I stopped having expectations when you left Mom, Dad," she said.

There was a prolonged silence between them.

"Sorry," Noel said. "That was a cheap shot."

"You're never going to forgive me, are you?" Hollis sighed.

"I know Mom made her mistakes too," Noel offered. "I shouldn't always blame you."

"You stayed with your mom," Hollis said. "I understand."

"She taught me to resent you," Noel admitted. "I learned to avoid you. I picked up on the animosity between the two of you."

"And now you want me to be trapped in the same car with her for two hours," Hollis complained. "She could kill me, you know."

"She could have killed you a long time ago, Dad," Noel pointed out. "Maybe you two should finally talk it out after all this time and come to some sort of agreement to get along," she suggested. "For my sake."

"Let's just see if we can get through Christmas, Honey," Hollis replied.

"So, you'll call her?" Noel asked. "Tell her you'll bring her?"

"Yes," Hollis sighed. "I'll call her."

"Thanks, Daddy! Merry Christmas! See you soon! Remember, I attached the directions to the e-mail."

"Okay," Hollis replied.

The line went dead and Hollis sat back in his desk chair, letting out a long heavy sigh. Calling Gloria was the last thing he wanted to do. He wasn't even sure if he had her most recent number – that's how often they talked to each other.

He glanced at the directory in his phone and pushed the button for the number he had on file for Gloria. It rang three times before she answered.

"Hello."

"Hello Gloria, it's Hollis," he said all business-like.

"Oh." She seemed surprised. Then she realized why he was on the line. "Noel asked you to give me a ride."

"Yep," he confirmed.

"I know it's an insane request but I really hate driving in the winter and I have no idea where this place is."

"Makes sense that we'd show up together," Hollis replied.

"We can go up on Christmas Eve," she said. "That's Tuesday."

"Sure," Hollis agreed. "Say, ten o'clock?"

"No, two o'clock," she said. "The less time together the better."

"Fine," he sighed. "I'll pick you up at 2:00 on Tuesday, Christmas Eve."

"For our daughter," Gloria said.

"Of course," Hollis agreed.

The line went dead and Hollis returned his cell to the top of the desk, wondering why he felt guilty whenever he talked to his ex, even though they'd been divorced for fifteen years.

They met in college and became each other's life love. Gloria went on to medical school although she got pregnant with Noel during that time. Hollis became a stay at home dad while substitute teaching on occasion, including night classes at the local community college.

Gloria did her residency at Blue County Medical Center in Greenville and Hollis continued to be a stay at home Dad and teaching part time, managing to write a book along the way – a novel with a local setting that found a national audience – about a maybe teen suicide off the Blue County Bridge.

The book's success gave Hollis credibility and a reputation to land him a job at Green College and Gloria decided to continue her practice by staying with the hospital and joining the Blue County Medical Group.

By then, however, the marriage was strained, mostly due to Gloria's endless hours and Hollis' unexpected success. The end came when Gloria discovered her husband was having an affair with the mother of one of Noel's young playmates from pre-school, giving new meaning to the whole stay at home Dad thing.

With the advantage of perspective and experience, Hollis regretted the affair in hindsight but at the time he was full of both resentment about his work-alcoholic wife and grandiose delusions about his own success as a bestselling writer.

Turns out Hollis Puzan was a one hit wonder in the successful book writing department and now, fifteen years later, he was a burnt out writing professor at Green College while Doctor Gloria Puzan was a nationally known expert on Opioid addiction and a beloved successful doctor in the community, especially on women's health issues.

Gloria never forgave Hollis for his betrayal and Hollis never forgave himself for ruining his marriage and he held onto the guilt he felt for making Noel – whom he adored – the child of divorce.

It was times like this when Hollis wanted to go get drunk but a colleague had warned him that he'd never be given the Department Chair if he continued his reputation as a drinker and in the past year he had done much better controlling his drinking.