Amanda waltzed into the front hall and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thanks for coming, Jack,” she said. “My parents can’t wait to meet you.”
“Yeah, it will be nice to meet them too,” he said as dread filled his stomach. Small talk with parents always left him tongue tied.
“Let me take your gift,” said Amanda grabbing the bag from his hand. “You’re going to love our gift exchange. It’s legendary.”
Jack just smiled and nodded. They had only been on two dates so far. Once for coffee, so that hardly even counted.
“Thanks for inviting me,” he said. “Are you sure it’s ok that I’m part of your family celebration?”
“Of course, silly,” she said. “The more the merrier. Just one small thing…”
She paused and he just stared at her golden hair, form-fitting red dress, and pleading brown eyes.
“Uh-huh?” he said, feeling flustered.
“I’ve sort of told them things are serious between us,” she said. “Not like we’re engaged or anything, but,” she faltered. “My three older sisters are all married with kids, so I just hoped you would play along.”
“No problem,” said Jack, playing it cool. Maybe if things went well, he wouldn’t mind taking it to the next level.
She led him down the hall to a room where coats were thrown on a bed. He tossed his on the pile and continued after her downstairs to the basement. It was completely decorated with multi-colored Christmas lights draped on the walls, and a floor-to-ceiling Christmas tree stood in one corner. There were folding chairs arranged in a circle and there was a table filled with plates of cookies, crackers, cheeses and other culinary delights. About twenty people of all ages stood heaping their plates or sat eating and talking.
Amanda cleared her throat and said, “Everyone, this is Jack, the one I’ve told you about.”
“Hi Jack!” they said almost in a chorus. It kind of creeped him out, but he nodded and smiled.
“He brought a gift for the exchange,” Amanda said.
Her family nodded in approval and went back to their plates and conversations.
“Let’s get you some sustenance before the game begins,” she said, taking his hand.
He piled his plastic red plate with meatballs, brownies, cheese and crackers. Then he filled a mug with the hot spiced cider he had smelled all the way upstairs. He tried to think of a thrilling topic of conversation, but suddenly “Superboy” was back.
“Rah!” Walter yelled at Jack, flinging his cape out behind him.
“Jack, meet my little brother,” Amanda said rolling her eyes. "Walter's the baby of the family, born fifteen years after me." She had told him all about Walter during their coffee date. “He was sort of a surprise to my parents,” she said. Just like her older sisters: triplets! They were all identical in looks, and married to their college sweethearts.
In a playpen set up in the corner, Jack noticed three toddlers crawling around. Amanda caught him looking at the babies. “The triplets wanted triplets,” she said. “This was as close as they could get. They all had kids around the same time, so the cousins are only three months apart.”
“They won’t be participating in the gift exchange though,” she said. “That wouldn’t be fair, since they can’t guess.”
Jack had no idea what that meant and was about to ask when Amanda’s mother swooped in.
“Hello Jack. Welcome, welcome!” she said, pumping his hand in a firm grip. “Our Amanda has told us wonderful things about you.”
He didn’t know how to respond, so he just smiled and looked down at his shoes, hoping she would leave.
“It’s almost time for the exchange to start,” she said. “Hope you enjoy it!”
He nodded and looked at Amanda who was beaming. Then he gazed around the circle of folding chairs at the motley crew that was assembled waiting to open gifts.
“This is the entire Winters clan,” said Amanda, taking his hand as they found seats together.
She listed off each person by name, but all he remembered was that the group included her sisters, their burly jock husbands, a spinster aunt, a grandfather, and her father. They were all buzzing with anticipation, and he was beginning to wonder if his gift would measure up. All Amanda told him was to spend around $20 max and the theme was “White Christmas.”
He had no idea what to buy, so he searched online for “White Christmas” and found a DVD of a classic movie musical from the 50s. He thought Amanda’s aunt or mom might like it, but wondered what one of the meat-head brother-in-laws would say if they opened it.
Just then Amanda’s mom rang a bell and said, “Time to begin!”
“Age before beauty,” said a man with silver hair.
“That’s Pop-Pop,” whispered Amanda. “The oldest person gets to go first, and he’s eighty-five.”
Amanda’s mom handed Pop-Pop a large square gift wrapped in red and green plaid paper. He held it up to his ear and shook it.
“Can’t hear a thing,” he said. “It’s light as air too.”
“Guess something!” said Walter, swishing his cape.
“How about a pair of mittens or gloves?” he said.
“Nope,” said Amanda’s mom.
“A pillow?” he guessed.
“Getting colder,” said Mrs. Winters.
She shook her head.
He held up the box again and turned it over in his hands. Then he sniffed it.
Jack nudged Amanda and whispered, “Why doesn’t he just open it?”
She smiled and said, “He has to guess first. That’s part of the fun.”
Jack looked at his watch, and it read 8:35 PM. He realized at the rate Pop-Pop was going, he might be there until New Year’s Eve.
Suddenly in a flash of inspiration Pop-Pop shouted, “Popcorn!”
“You guessed it,” Mrs. Winters said.
Pop-Pop tore off the wrapping paper and opened the box filled with a round tin of popcorn.
“I smelled it,” he said. “Otherwise I’d never have guessed.”
No kidding, thought Jack. These people are nuts.
“Pop-Pop got popcorn! How cute,” said Amanda as she squeezed Jack’s hand.
He felt the bile rising up in his throat but managed a smile. How did I end up in this gift exchange Twilight Zone, he wondered?
Next to guess was Aunt Linda. She held a package wrapped in gold paper shaped like cylinder.
“It’s heavy,” she said lifting it up and sniffing it. “Doesn’t smell though, so I can’t use Pop-Pop’s trick.”
Then the guessing commenced: “Socks, rocks, or a clock?”
This woman likes to rhyme, thought Jack. The guesses didn’t make any sense.
After another sequence of unsuccessful guesses—“Milk, moisturizer, or moth balls?”—Amanda spoke up, “Do you want a hint?”
Aunt Linda mulled this over… slowly… and finally said, “Ok, just a little one.”
“Think flowers,” said Amanda.
Aunt Linda sniffed the package again. “Doesn’t smell a bit,” she said. “Carnations, wait… orchids? No, I’ve got it,” the joy of success spread across her face, and she shouted, “A vase!”
“That’s it!” said Amanda.
Aunt Linda carefully unwrapped the present making sure not to tear any of the wrapping paper. Inside the cylinder protected by bubble wrap was a white porcelain vase.
It wasn’t until several more presents were opened that Jack noticed a theme: pillow cases, candles, everything was white—literally. He tried to remember what the DVD he brought looked like. Maybe at least the background was white, and it would blend in? Or maybe he could pick his own gift? Jack felt beads of sweat begin to form on his forehead when Mr. Winters picked up his gift bag and began to shake it.
“Hmm,” he said, turning the bag over in his hands. “Feels like a CD or DVD.”
“Getting warm,” said Jack.
“I didn’t ask for a hint!” snapped Mr. Winters. “I bet I’ve got it: The Beatles White Album.”
Jack didn’t speak, or move.
Amanda elbowed him in the ribs.
“Uh, nope,” said Jack.
Mr. Winters’ face turned red.
After what felt like an eternity, Jack said, “It’s a Christmas movie.”
There was a collective gasp among the family members and some head shaking. Amanda patted his hand and whispered, “That was a pretty big hint.”
“White Christmas,” said Mr. Winters in a monotone. “I already have a copy of this, but thanks.” He threw the DVD on the floor and glared at Jack. “Just so we’re clear. Each person has to guess on their own. No giving it away!”
Jack stared at his shoes and wondered how much longer the process would take. He was debating about excusing himself to go use the restroom and never coming back. Just then Mr. Winters handed him a gift. It was a rectangular box wrapped in brown butcher paper and tied with twine, forming a bow. It was light and soft. Jack squeezed it and felt some give.
Amanda said, “This one is from Pop-Pop.”
If that was a hint, he had no idea what she was getting at. He turned the package over in his hands and tried to think of white items an eighty-five year old man might buy. He resisted the urge to say adult diapers. But what if they were? Either way, he would be humiliated. Mr. Winters was still staring daggers, so Jack sucked it up and began to play the game.
“No, but warmer,” said Pop-Pop.
“A package of cotton balls?”
“No. Want a hint?”
Jack avoided Mr. Winters' glowering stare, squeezed the package again, and finally said, “Adult diapers?”
“Wrong again Boy-o!” said Pop-Pop. “But why would you guess that? Are you implying I’m incontinent?”
Jack felt his face flush hot and wished he could disappear. “N-no sir,” he stammered. “I was just out of reasonable guesses.”
“Well, you’re actually pretty warm,” said Pop-Pop with a wink. “Don’t worry son, everyone here already knows I am. But those things are just too darn expensive to give away.”
Jack had no response to that, and as he began wishing he would evaporate into thin air, a flash of inspiration hit: “Toilet paper?!” he guessed.
“You got it Boy-o,” said Pop-Pop.
Jack untied the twine bow and ripped off the brown paper. There was his gift: a value pack of sixteen rolls of white toilet paper.
“Don’t use it all at once,” said Mr. Winters, still glaring.
Jack looked at Amanda, and she gave him a vacant smile oblivious to his humiliation. He could tell she was more concerned about picking a gift of her own to open.
Over an hour later, it was finally Amanda’s turn, thanks to her brother-in-law TJ who refused to take a hint and spent forty-five minutes making ridiculous guesses before coming up with a bucket of white paint.
Even Jack could tell from across the room it was a wrapped paint can, but TJ seemed to enjoy calling out names of albino animals such as: “Albino Giraffe, Albino Koala Bear, Albino Meerkat, and Albino Polar Bear,” which was the last straw. After he stopped joking around and got serious, TJ guessed correctly on the first try.
Then Amanda picked a small square box and held it up to her ear.
“No noise,” she said. Then she sniffed the package and gave a knowing smile.
“Ivory soap!” she exclaimed as though she was about to open some crown jewels.
Her mom said, “Great job, Sweetie. You're a master at guessing on the first try.”
Amanda looked thrilled as she tore off the paper and revealed three white bars of soap.
Jack looked around the room at all the people admiring their “white” Christmas gifts (even Mr. Winters had discovered the DVD contained some special bonus features), and realized they were probably only a Rorschach test away from the nut house. But they genuinely seemed to love each other and find joy in their simple gifts. He couldn’t help but smile to himself.
The group finally began to disperse around midnight, and Amanda walked him to the door.
“Say goodbye to Jack, everyone,” she said.
“Bye,” they chorused.
“Maybe we’ll see you next year?” said Mrs. Winters. “We could make the theme… diamond jubilee.”
“Ok Mom, I think we’ve already scared him off enough for one night,” said Amanda.
Jack just laughed and took her hand.
“Thanks again for being my date,” said Amanda as she brought Jack his coat.
“Sure thing,” he said. “I’m stocked up on TP now, so it was well worth it!”
She laughed and looked up. He followed her gaze and noticed they were standing under the mistletoe.
“Kiss her!” yelled Walter, who had somehow materialized in his pajamas.
Jack shrugged and planted one on her. Maybe he would come back next year for that diamond jubilee after all.