It was definitely not the type of card you would buy in a package
of twenty at Woolworth’s. The way it was printed, with gold lettering
over the grooved black background, it looked like it could have
been a wedding invitation or an engagement announcement. Outside
was an imprint of a Christmas tree, inside a printed message, “Our
Best Wishes For A Merry Christmas And A Wonderful New Year.” Then,
at the bottom, hand-written with a gold felt tip pen, “Love Always,
Jennifer and Paul.”
“It had to be a mistake,” Larry Wong, the accountant who worked in
the office across from me said. “There’s probably another Doug Holt
in Manhattan and Jennifer and Paul must’ve gotten your name out of
the phone book and confused you with this other guy.”
“But I’m not even listed in the Manhattan book,” I said. “Besides,
the card was forwarded to me, from my old address in New
“So they must be people you once knew,” Larry said.
“But I have never, in my entire life, known anyone named Jennifer
or anyone named Paul. Well, that’s not really true. I have a second
cousin Paul who lives in San Francisco, but he’s married to a woman
named Simone. This card was sent from Manhattan, a Third Avenue
“You mean there was a return address on the card?” Larry said.
“Then what’s the big deal? Why don’t you just go there?”
“I did. I mean I was on the East Side anyway the other day so I
passed by. But it was a doorman building. I was going to ask the
guy to ring them, but I was too embarrassed.”
“Look, I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” Larry said. “If
I were you, I’d just forget about it.”
During the next few days, I discussed the card with almost everyone
at work. It made for interesting conversation in the men’s room or
at the water cooler. Usually, when people asked me how things were
going I’d say “okay” or “the usual,” but now I had the story of the
mysterious Christmas card to tell.
Finally, I had told everyone I knew the story and even to myself it
didn’t seem interesting anymore. It was less than a week before
Christmas and things at the office were getting crazy. What with
the purchase orders coming in and the shipments going out I was
swamped almost constantly. That entire week, I didn’t get out of
work until eight o’clock, and by the time I got back to my studio
apartment on West Eighty-third Street, I didn’t have the strength
to do anything except stretch out on the couch, watch movies and
eat Chinese food.
Then, one night when there was nothing interesting on t.v., I
started staring at the Christmas card, which I had displayed on my
kitchen table. It was the only card I had gotten. My mother had
died four years ago and my father had had a stroke a year ago last
Easter. Now he was living in a nursing home where he was force-fed
meals and moved twice a day to avoid bed sores. I had no brothers
or sisters. Barbara, my girlfriend of five years, had broken up
with me last summer and I hadn’t dated anyone since. Although I
still had a few friends from high school and college, I rarely saw
That night–it was a Friday–I had trouble falling asleep. I lay in
bed, replaying each year of my life, trying to figure out how I
knew “Jennifer” or “Paul.” I tried to remember every kid in Wayne,
New Jersey, from high school through kindergarten. I even thought
about all my extra-curricular activities–boy scouts, little
league, day camp. Then I thought about college–the people in my
dorm, the classes I had taken–but Jennifer and Paul fit in
On Sunday, I went to visit my father at the nursing home. I took a
New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to New Brunswick. From
there, it was a five minute cab ride to All Homes Nursing Care.
After the stroke, I had visited my father at the hospital
practically every day. But after he was transferred to the nursing
home my visits became more infrequent. Lately, I’d been going once
a month or every other month. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy seeing
him; I just didn’t think the visits were accomplishing anything. He
had become more and more despondent. The doctors thought he had
suffered a series of “minor strokes”–as if a stroke could be
minor–and sometimes I wondered whether he even recognized me. He
couldn’t–or wouldn’t–speak, so I usually would sit by his bed for
a half-hour or so and talk about the weather or things that were
going on at the office, and then I’d go home. He never seemed to
mind when I left.
When I arrived in his room that day, the nurse was busy changing
his bed pan. It still jolted me to see my father, the man who
had always seemed indestructible to me, in such a weak, vulnerable
condition. I still remembered him as the dad of when I was growing
up, with his long sideburns and dark good looks, water skiing or
swimming at the beach. I wondered which dad I would remember after
he was dead, when the bed pan was also a memory.
I sat down next to him. As usual, he stared at me vacantly for a
few seconds, as if his mind was trying to unravel some complicated
problem. Then he looked away at the television set, which wasn’t
I started telling him about the Christmas card. I told him how the
card had arrived in my mailbox and how I had no idea who Jennifer
and Paul were. At one point, he turned toward me, opening his
sagging mouth, as if he was about to offer some suggestion. But
then his gaze shifted back toward the blank t.v. screen. I stayed
with him for a while longer, then left after he fell asleep.
Monday was the office Christmas party. Every year the party was
held at the exact same time, at the same hotel, with the same
people, the same band, and the same caterer. It even seemed like
the same seafood Newburg and baked ziti were frozen and re-heated
year after year.
I was still upset about the visit with my father and was hardly in
the mood for a party, but I felt I had no choice but to go. If I
didn’t show up and someone happened to notice I was missing, it
wouldn’t look good. I figured I’d go for an hour or two, show my
face, then leave.
When I arrived at about eight-thirty, the annual pigs and blankets
and miniature egg rolls were still being served. I made a point of
saying hello to all the VPs and their wives and then I parked
myself at the bar. I realized I was the only one at the party
without a date. I had known that this might happen, but I hadn’t
anticipated how awkward I would feel. To keep busy, I had a couple
of drinks, tried to think about other things. As I finished my
third Bloody Mary, I suddenly started feeling insecure, paranoid–
sweat was building on my back. I imagined that everyone was talking
about me, wondering why I didn’t have a date. A few people passed
by, smiling in my direction, and I was positive that they were
making fun of me–my tuxedo was too tight or my hair wasn’t combed.
I turned toward the bar and tried to ignore everyone.
Then I started thinking about last Christmas, when things had been
so different. Barbara and I were still together then and we were
even talking about getting engaged. We stayed at the party the
entire night, dancing and mingling and getting drunk. The next
morning, we drove a rental car to her parents’ house in Buck’s
County, Pennsylvania. The memories had become so hazy, it seemed as
if ten years had passed rather than one. Was it a dream? I could
barely remember Barbara’s face, her hair, what her smile looked
People had started to dance. I tried to imagine that Barbara and I
were dancing too, but I couldn’t make it seem real.
After the break up, I’d called her every week or so, mainly because
I didn’t feel comfortable cutting off from her completely. We had a
few cordial conversations and I even had hopes for us getting back
together. Once, she told me that she thought I was getting too
clingy and that she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay friends with me.
I didn’t take her seriously. Then I called her late one night–the
last time I’d heard her voice–and she said that she couldn’t talk
right now, that she had to go. Although I had no way of knowing for
sure, I was certain that she had started seeing someone else, and
that he was at her apartment. At the time this didn’t upset me, but
now, suddenly, I was jealous.
I didn’t feel like being at the party anymore. Outside, on Forty-fourth
Street, I felt a little better. I decided that I needed to
get home, take a nice warm shower, get into bed. But after I had
been walking for several minutes, I realized that I wasn’t heading
toward my apartment on the West Side. Instead, I was walking east,
crossing Park Avenue at Forty-second Street.
I walked fast, determinedly, hardly aware of the hoards of
Christmas shoppers I was barely avoiding. I didn’t want to think
about anything, because I didn’t want to talk myself out of going.
I knew that I could be about to make a big fool out of myself and I
didn’t want to turn back.
The building was a large high-rise near East Sixty-fifth Street. I
went through the swinging doors and approached the concierge.
“Apartment 17G,” I said.
“Doug Holt. But I don’t want to go up. Just ask whoever picks up to
please come down and meet me.”
The concierge had the tired, unimpressed look of a man who has been
at his job too long. He rang twice and waited so long that I was
certain no one was home. For a moment, I felt relieved, as if I had
barely avoided doing something stupid. But just when I was about to
tell the concierge to forget it, he started to speak. A few seconds
later, he lifted the mouth piece.
“She said she doesn’t know you.”
“Tell her she sent me a Christmas card,” I said.
The concierge relayed this, but by his unchanging expression I knew
that my name still didn’t mean anything to her.
“Tell her I just want to talk to her,” I said. “Tell her I don’t
know who she is either, but she sent me a Christmas card.”
The concierge had hung up the receiver.
“She said she’ll be right down.”
I stood by the desk, waiting. Every time the elevator doors opened,
I expected to see a familiar face, the answer to the puzzle. When
she didn’t come after about five minutes I decided to sit down on
one of the couches. I realized that it wasn’t too late, that I
could still make a run for it. No one ever had to know I was here.
But I decided to stay.
Finally, a woman stepped out of the elevator whom I immediately
knew was Jennifer. Not that she looked at all familiar to me,
because I didn’t think I had seen her before in my life. Her long
brown hair was wet and she was wearing jeans and a baggy
sweatshirt. She looked about thirty. At first, she walked toward
the concierge’s desk, but she stopped when she saw me. She didn’t
seem to recognize me either. I realized that if I wasn’t wearing a
tuxedo, she probably would have approached me more suspiciously, as
she would a stranger on the street.
I didn’t know what else to do so I stood up smiling and introduced
myself. She winced slightly and I realized that my breath must have
smelled of alcohol.
“Hi,” she said cautiously. “Do we know each other?”
“I don’t know you,” I said, “but I think you know me.”
I explained how I had received a Christmas card from her and Paul,
whom she said was her husband. At times when I was speaking she
seemed genuinely interested in helping me solve the mystery, but at
other times I felt she was sizing me up, wondering if I might be
some lunatic or drunk who had found one of their cards
in the garbage. Again, I realized how fortunate it was that I was
wearing the tuxedo.
“There must be some explanation,” she said. “You must know Paul
“What’s his last name?”
“Our last name–Ellis.”
I shook my head.
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
She told me all about him–that he worked at an ad agency, went to
school at SUNY-Albany, grew up on Huntington, Long Island. Nothing
about his life was similar to mine. Even his description–six-two,
dark hair, blue eyes–didn’t ring a bell. She was starting to
become as intrigued as I was.
“This is really weird,” she said. “Let’s think. The connection has
to be somewhere.”
“Maybe it’s you and me who know each other,” I said.
She thought this over.
“But how could that be?” she said. “I mean I honestly have no idea
who you are and you don’t know me, right?”
“How many cards did you send out?”
“God,” she said, “like a hundred or more. Paul really likes to go
crazy, sending them to all his friends and relatives, so I usually
do the same thing.”
“There it is,” I said. “Maybe you’re my long lost cousin.”
She didn’t seem convinced, but she told me all about herself
anyway. She was a Vassar graduate, raised in Westchester, working
as a financial analyst. Then she asked me about myself and I gave
her a brief autobiography. It turned out that her best friend in
high school had gone to Rutgers and had dated a guy who lived in my
dorm Freshman year. We traded “Lisa McGuiness stories” for several
minutes and at one point I forgot that I was talking to someone who
could be a total stranger. I felt as if I had known her my entire
life and I imagined what it would be like if she and Paul did turn
out to be long lost friends. She was very attractive and I hadn’t
found it so easy to talk to a woman since Barbara. Of course I
didn’t dream of getting involved with her, but maybe she had single
friends, knew someone she could set me up with. She had mentioned
that she and Paul usually rent a house in Westhampton for the
summer and I imagined what it would be like if I were invited up
there for a weekend next summer. Or perhaps by then I’d be dating
one of Jennifer’s friends and the four of us would share a house.
It had been a long time since I’d been to the beach.
I was still daydreaming about next summer when Paul walked into the
lobby. He greeted Jennifer uncomfortably, kissing her quickly and
exchanging hellos, but he was obviously wondering who the guy in
the tuxedo was. Paul was wearing a business suit and carrying a
briefcase and, although he looked vaguely familiar, I still didn’t
think I had ever met him.
Jennifer explained who I was and why I was there.
“This is strange, isn’t it?” he said. “Doug Holt. Your name’s
familiar, so I know I sent a card to you on purpose.”
We went through the same routine, comparing every phase of our
lives. The longer I looked at him the more certain I was that we
had indeed met before. I imagined what he’d look like with a
mustache or a beard, but this didn’t make things any clearer.
But when I mentioned that I had gone to Rutgers his expression
Hearing that name, that combination of sounds, startled me, made me
feel nauseous. Now he looked even more familiar to me, but I still
wasn’t sure how I knew him.
“You’re Barbara’s boyfriend, right?”
“Was,” I said.
“Oh, didn’t know you guys…Anyway, this is all very simple. Don’t
you remember me? Two years ago, that party in Hackensack? I’m Carol
Ellis’ brother. You know, Carol Ellis, Barbara’s best friend. We
met at that party and we talked about the six of us getting
together–you and Barbara, me and Jen, Carol and her husband. You
gave me your home address and phone number and when I got home I
transferred it into the address file on my PC. I automatically put
everyone in the file on my Christmas list so that explains how you
got the card. It was just some big screw up.”
I smiled during his explanation, pretending to be relieved that the
mystery was solved. I continued to smile politely–although this
was getting more difficult–as I answered his obligatory questions-
-“So, how are things going? Do you still live in New Jersey?” Then,
when he ran out of questions, there was a long, painful silence. I
didn’t belong there any more, talking to these two strangers. It
was the mystery that had brought me to their apartment building,
and now that the mystery was solved I was an intruder, an
Walking home across Central Park, I decided that this had
probably been the most pathetic day of my life. I imagined Paul
calling Barbara and telling her what had happened. He would tell
her that I had seemed drunk and depressed and how it was a good
thing she had gotten rid of me. In my head, I could hear Barbara
When I got home, I wanted to tear the card into shreds and throw it
in the garbage. Instead, I fell asleep and I forgot about it again
the next day. It stayed on my kitchen table through Christmas and
New Year’s and most of January. Finally, it became a permanent part
of my apartment, as familiar as my bed and my t.v. I put it in my
dresser drawer, under my socks and underwear, where it’s been ever
Copyright © Jason Starr 1996
This story may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of The Christmas Card is published by The Richmond Review
by arrangement with the author.
Jason Starr was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1966. He received a B.A.
degree from Binghamton University and an M.F.A. degree from the City
University of New York. His sports articles have appeared in Financial World
Magazine. He lives in New York City. Jason Starr’s crime novel
Cold Caller is published by
No Exit Press.