There was something about our couch that always looked dirty. It was gray, roughly the color of lentil soup, with brown specks, and elevated ridges. It scratched against my skin, but it was our reading place. I curled into my mother’s shoulder and listened to her voice. She was reading us a story about a little boy who grew up to be a fireman. I watched my brother’s eyes glow with every shiny, red fire truck and spotted Dalmatian. I watched a fly circle and land on the couch. The book closed.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” She asked us both.
“A fireman!” My brother shouted. His new toy fire truck was sitting in the front yard, collecting sprinkler drops in the early afternoon sun.
I closed my eyes and thought about it. Summer heat pressed my eyelids shut while the ceiling fan chilled bits of my skin. I heard ice stir in my mother’s water glass. I wanted to do something where it was always cold instead of hot. I thought of gingerbread houses, of snow, the smell of pine trees, the uncomfortably delicate feeling of new wrapping paper, of stockings hanging, and opened my eyes.
“I want to be one of Santa’s helpers.”
“Oh…!” My brother gasped, the idea taking seed in his imagination, “Me too!”
My mother looked back and forth between us. The ice stilled in her glass.
“Well,” she said, “That’s a very nice idea.” She put the book on the coffee table and left us both on the couch.
“How do we do it?” My brother asked. He was a year younger. I didn’t know much more than he did, but I liked feeling as if I did.
“I think we just tell him we want to do it in our letters.” It seemed easy enough, but there was something about the way my mother measured her words and left the book on the coffee table that made me feel uneasy.
That same year, I sat perched on my mother’s wicker bench in the bathroom. Outside, the leaves had already changed from greens to reds and oranges and fell, leaving a brown mess in the yard. Stores started hanging twinkle lights. Hess trucks drove through winter scenes on TV commercials. In school, we started a food drive.
My mother knelt before me, carefully straightening my bangs with a comb and water. Her silver scissors were balanced on her knee, waiting patiently for the straightening and measuring to finish. I’d started my Christmas wish list, but a thought still ticked in my mind like an empty clock.
“Mom?” I tried again, “Is Santa real?”
The scissor moved from her knee to her hand and traced a line across my bangs. I thought she seemed more focused than usual on whether or not my bangs were perfectly straight. She sighed.
“It’s nice to believe there’s a big, fat man who brings presents to people all over the world, isn’t it?”
Newly cut hair fell across my lap. Even at five, I knew she was challenging me. She’d given me an out either way. I decided that day to keep believing, even though my mother hadn’t said yes, because it was better to believe than not to.