This story was inspired by own Christmas Card registry. It really is a road map of my life. Unfortunately, I don't have the listings for any Merry Men, Morellis, or mysterious Men in Black. Warning: This is my take on what life could be like for Stephanie if she were ever allowed to grow up and age like a real woman. Like any life, there is heartache, longing, and death, as well as warm, fuzzy memories. I tried to keep the angst to a minimum, but there is character death involved, so if that bothers you terribly, you might want to skip this one. Babe, but Morelli friendly.
Ten days before Christmas, Stephanie settled in at the dining room table with a glass of wine, a box of cards, and her old, faded, worn Christmas card registry. She knew she should probably get a new one, but this one held so many memories and every time she opened it, it brought back the names and faces of loved ones.
"Bah humbug," she said to herself as she started the task at hand. Normally, Stephanie loved Christmas, but this year she just wasn't in the mood. The reason behind her lack of holiday spirit wasn't hard to find. In the ten years since she'd left Trenton, this was only the second time she hadn't made it home for Christmas.
The first time was that first year that she lived out here in California. It had just been too much trouble for her to get back home, but her parents had surprised her by showing up on her apartment doorstep three days before Christmas. She hadn't realized how much she was missing them until she opened the door to find them standing there. They had enjoyed a brief, warm visit. It hadn't felt like Christmas, but at least it felt like family. After that she had made a point of going back to New Jersey every year for the holidays.
This year, however, her parents were going to Florida with Valerie and the girls. The elder Plums were thinking of moving down to Boca Raton and Val had agreed to go help them look around. It would be hard for them to leave the Burg, but they had decided it was time for a change. Frank's health had been steadily declining since his bout his prostate cancer seven years ago, and Ellen was starting to show signs of dementia. Frank said it was always his dream to retire in Florida and Ellen had agreed. Stephanie constantly worried being so far away from them, and tried to talk them into moving out to L.A., but they weren't interested. She did take comfort in knowing they'd be well cared for in the retirement community they were considering. The money she sent home every month would help pay for the move and the expenses of assisted living. She was happy to be able to help them this way. It made her feel less guilty about not being there for the day-to-day things.
Ten years ago, she had been 30 years old and finally fed up with the whole payday to payday lifestyle she was living. The bond enforcement job had lost its luster and she was tired of rolling in garbage. Figuratively and literally. When she and Joe broke up for the last time, it seemed like a good time for a change. Unfortunately, as much as she knew what she didn't want to be doing, she wasn't quite so sure what she did want to do with her life. A couple months later, she got a call from an old friend from college who happened to be setting up a security firm in Los Angeles. When he found out what Stephanie had been doing for the past four years, he offered her a job on the spot. Three weeks later she found herself on her own, a continent away from everything and everybody she had ever known. It's funny, it had seemed like she was 30 forever, and now suddenly, in the blink of an eye, she finds herself at 40.
She had rarely looked back. She took to California immediately. She loved the warm weather, the laid back life style, the feeling of a fresh start, but more importantly, she savored the anonymity. There was no Burg grapevine waiting for her next misstep, there were no nosy neighbors waiting to broadcast here every adventure, and there was no pressure to be something or somebody that she wasn't.
Stephanie also loved her new job. She found the office management position to be varied and interesting. She was quickly given more responsibility than she had ever dreamed of having, or had dreamt of wanting, while working at Rangeman, as well as a salary that matched her new station. Gone were the days of dorm-room décor and a crappy little apartment in a low-rent building. She now lived in a stylish condo three blocks from the beach, and drove a late model BMW. Life was good for Stephanie. She was still attractive. She was successful. She had good friends; a gray tabby named Rexina, and had even learned how to cook. However, tonight she was lonely and homesick as hell.
The one thing that still eluded her was a steady, happy relationship. Oh, she had dated since she'd been out here. Lots, if truth be told. She still wasn't interested in casual sex, and still didn't feel any longings to get married. A couple of times things looked like they were about to get serious. Once, she had even considered a proposal. But something always happened, leaving her alone again. Most of the time she was perfectly happy with that. She didn't mind being by herself, and it's not like she had ever dreamt about having kids, but sometimes, especially at the holidays, she was lonely.
Shaking off the melancholy that had settled over her like a marine layer, Stephanie plucked the first card out of the box and pulled the address book closer. Opening it, she turned to the first page. Smiling, she wrote out the card to her old friend, Mr. Alexander. A girl never forgets her first great hair experience. The next card went to Bobby Brown and his wife Nicole. They had come out to California shortly after they were married and Stephanie was thrilled to get together with them one night. Bobby still worked at Rangeman and Nicole was a speech therapist with the Trenton School District. Stephanie always looked forward to Nicole's chatty holiday news letter, chock full of folksy tidbits about their ever expanding brood. At last count, they had 3 boys, 2 dogs, 4 cats, and a hamster, Rex's great-great-great-great grandson.
Next on the list was Cal. Filed under "C" because to Steph, he would always remain Cal the Steroidasaurus, and somehow it just seemed rude to file him under "S". Stephanie was gratified to find herself still corresponding, however sporadically, with some of the Merry Men. Years ago, she had been surprised to find herself friends with these big brawny guys. Now, she couldn't imagine how she had ever been intimidated by them. She had hated missed them desperately when she had moved, and looked to their calls and emails as a lifeline for a long time after arriving here. Over the years, it had pretty much trickled down to a card at Christmas, and maybe a phone call on birthdays, but she still heard the important news: marriages, death, divorce, births. She knew that she could count on any of them in a heartbeat if she ever needed them, and she hoped they knew the same about her.
Cards were readied for old friend Carl Costanza, his partner Eddie "Big Dog," former FTA-turned friend Carol Cantell, and old stoner Mooner Dunphy. Thinking of Mooner and some of his exploits never failed to put a smile on her face.
Her mood lightening by the moment, Stephanie stood up and stretched. Taking a quick break, she made her way to the stereo and turned on some Christmas tunes. The sounds always made her feel more festive, and today was no exception. The merry sounds of "Winter Wonderland" floated through the room. It wasn't exactly a winter wonderland in here. Looking around her apartment, there was no sign that Christmas was less than 2 weeks away. No tree, no lights, no cookies. She just hadn't been in the mood. But maybe this weekend she'd find the time to do something about that, she thought to herself. A tree was more work than she was willing to do, but maybe some twinkle lights and a trip to the bakery for some treats would be doable.
Making her way back to the table, she flipped to the next page. It would have been easier to get a new book every couple of years, but she was loath to do it. She had had this one since she was married to Dickie: it was one of the few things from that disaster that she had hung on to. The problem occurred when someone's vitals changed. People moved. People got married, had kids, divorced, and even died. When any of those things happened, Stephanie put a neat line through the entry, and re-entered the new information on a new line. New addresses never gave her reason to pause. New spouses, new children, all of those things were fine. It was when there was no new entry that bothered her. When someone passed away, and all that was left was their name with a line through it. That always made her sad, but in a good way, because it was always nice to remember those she had lost.
Steph made quick work of the next few cards: friends Sue Ann Grebeck, Bonnie Sue Giovicchini, and Eddie Gazarra and his wife, Shirley the whiner. Their kids were all teenagers now, and by all accounts hadn't settled down one single bit. Stephanie took secret pleasure in knowing that Shirley finally had something to whine about. Then came Hector Garcia. Hector had surprised everyone when he brought his girlfriend, a former Miss Florida, home with him after a three month stint at Rangeman Miami. They had gotten married soon after, and divorced three years later. But the marriage was enough to put the question of Hector's sexual preference to rest. He had been seen dating a string of beauties ever since.
The next entry in her book had a line through it.
Stephanie read the names written there and put down her pen. She let the sounds of 'O Holy Night" wash over her as she lost herself in memories. Good friends and good times. Lula and Tank Hamilton. Written one year and crossed out the next. Only one name had been reentered on the line below.
After the debacle of Lula's faked engagement came to light, Tank had the good humor to forgive her. He had told Lula if she wanted to get married, all she had to do was say so. Lula was stunned that it could be that easy. She left her Bridezilla ways behind her and planned a small, quiet wedding with only a handful of their friends in attendance. Stephanie had stood up for Lula, and Ranger had been Tank's best man. She had never seen her friends happier, and she was thrilled for them. If anyone deserved the fairy tale, it was Lula. Three months later, Lula had called, ecstatic, to tell Stephanie that they were expecting a baby. It was truly a miracle, as Lula had been told she would never be able to have children after the damage Ramirez had done to her. Two weeks later, Tank was killed when a take-down went bad. Lula miscarried their baby three days later, on the day of his funeral. She had been beyond despair. Stephanie had worried so much about her friend and didn't leave her side for six days. On the seventh day, Lula got up, took a shower and told Steph that her Tankie wouldn't want her to wallow in self pity and she wasn't going to. She called Tank's mother in Louisiana, and within a week had moved down South to be "with her man's people." She and Lula had kept in close contact all these years. It had been Lula, in fact, that had encouraged Stephanie to make the leap and move out west. Stephanie had never seen courage personified as she had when she looked at her friend.
As Stephanie wrote out the envelope to Lula, she thought about how welcoming and accepting Tank's family had been to his widow. She had blossomed there, surrounded by their love and acceptance. She tells Steph that she still misses Tank everyday, but it's ok because she knows he's watching out for her and one day they'll all be a family again. Lula had survived more in her lifetime than a person ought to have to, and yet she still managed to have a hopeful outlook on life. In a lot of ways, she was a hero to Steph.
Wiping away a tear, Stephanie kept plowing through her list.
Val and the girls. Valerie had watched Steph's Trenton departure with some trepidation. After all, she had made the same move once upon a time. Something about her sister's new life seemed to have finally snapped Valerie out of the funk she had been in ever since her first husband had left her for the babysitter. She finally took charge of her life once again, and seemed so much happier for it. She was now working full time in a real estate office, and she and Albert remained friendly after their divorce. Angie was in college now and Mary Alice would be graduating High School this spring. Lisa was already in 5th grade and the baby was in 3rd. How did the time fly by so fast? The fact that she was missing watching the girls grow up was Stephanie's biggest regret about moving so far away from home. Valerie was faithful about sending pictures and updates regularly. In a lot of ways, they were closer than they had ever been before.
Next up were old high school friends Angie Kroeger, Gail Lazar and Bernie Kuntz, who still worked at his father's appliance store, and whom Ellen still insisted would make Stephanie a good husband. Then came Stephanie's first boss, Dave Loogie, of the hotdog stand Loogies.
The sounds of "Blue Christmas" came over the speakers, which she thought was entirely fitting.
Stephanie steeled herself before turning the page. The "M" page was always hard. First, there was Grandma Mazur's name with a single line through it. Stephanie still couldn't believe she had been gone 5 years already. There wasn't a day that went by when Stephanie didn't think of her. She might never have that sort of unconditional support again, and she was always grateful to her grandmother for understanding her, even when nobody else did. The greatest gift Stephanie's mother had ever given her was letting the older woman share their lives like she had. Stephanie knew that she would miss her grandmother until the day that she died.
Then, there was Martine, also with a line drawn through. Stephanie and Julie had bonded and kept in touch for a couple of years after the Scrog incident, but by the time Julie hit puberty, she wanted no reminders of that time of her life, and had asked Stephanie to quit contacting her. It had hurt Stephanie badly at the time, but as time passed, she realized that Julie was just doing what she needed to do in order to heal. Occasionally she will get a little snippet of information from one of the Merry Men, but it's not the same as keeping in touch in person. As far as Steph knew, the Martines were still living in the same place, but it had been years since she had spoken with them.
Next on her list: Joe and Lisa Morelli. They were just about to celebrate their ninth wedding anniversary. They were also the reason Stephanie hadn't gone home that first Christmas she had lived away. The Burg was awash in the wedding preparations of Joe and Lisa at the time. Only a year earlier, the Burg was laying bets on when Joe and Stephanie's wedding would be.
That year on Christmas, Stephanie had watched Joe sitting on the floor, surrounded by his nieces and nephews. The lights twinkling on the tree, the mess of crumpled paper and discarded ribbons in piles all around, the smells of a holiday dinner cooking, and the sounds of laughter of family in the next room had all combined to make a magical Christmas moment. The look of love and joy on Joe's face had stunned Stephanie, and she realized she had never loved him more than at the minute. Joe was cradling his newborn nephew in his arms and he leaned into Stephanie's knees, and said, "Just think, Cupcake, we could have one of our own next year." Stephanie had only managed to nod her head, overcome by emotion.
Two days later, Joe had shown up at her apartment early, while she was still in bed. He let himself in and brought her in a cup of Starbucks and a doughnut. Sitting on the side of her bed, Joe had told Stephanie that while he loved her and always would, he was ending it between them. For good this time.
Stunned, Stephanie had asked him why. He said it all became clear to him on Christmas when he had mentioned having a baby with her. He said he could see the terror in her eyes, and he knew at that moment that she would never be ready to settle down with him. He was approaching his mid-30's and wanted to settle down. He wanted a wife. He wanted kids. He had wanted those things to be with Stephanie, but knew in his heart it wasn't to be.
Crying, Stephanie had to agree he was right. While she loved him too, she wasn't in love with him the way he needed her to be. They clung to each other for long, quiet moments and when they finally broke apart, they made a promise to each other that they had yet to break. They had promised that they would remain friends. No matter what. And they had. Stephanie had been invited to the wedding, and while she was happy for Joe, she wasn't yet in the place where she could watch the man that she had thought she was going to marry walk down the aisle with somebody else as his bride. So she had stayed in Los Angeles to avoid the whole commotion.
Stephanie had to admit that Lisa was the perfect woman for Joe. She was happy to stay at home with their kids, Ava, Billy, and little Joey. Now that Joey was in school full-time, Lisa was working part time at the parish school all three kids attended. Joe's career continued to flourish at the TPD, and they seemed to be the perfect little Burg family. Stephanie could not have been happier for them. She made a mental note to pick up an anniversary card for them when she was out. She always sent them a gift certificate to Rossini's and something even more valuable: she paid Mary Alice to baby sit for the evening.
Every once in awhile, Stephanie wondered if her mother had been right. Maybe Joe really had been her last chance at a happy life with a husband and kids. But after a moment, she reminded herself that while Joe was a great guy, he wasn't the right guy for her.
On the next page, along with various other relatives, was the listing for her cousin, Vinnie Plum. Vinnie still owned the bonds agency that had given Steph her start. He was still married to Lucille, still enjoyed wildlife, and was still scared shitless by his father-in-law, Harry the Hammer. Stephanie shuddered while she wrote out the envelope.
Flipping the page, Stephanie quickly made out cards for her dear friend Connie Rosolli Gagnon. Yes, Connie had finally snagged herself a husband: Dr. Harrison Gagnon, a prominent cardiologist a few years her senior. They lived in a big house in Rumson, not far from Bruce Springsteen. They were truly living the good life. Connie had called Steph, squealing with delight, the first time she had seen The Boss walking down the street--said it was one of the highlights of her life. She is a true Jersey girl, after all.
Connie and Harry had tried unsuccessfully to have a baby of their own for two years before deciding to adopt. When they were turned down for adoption because of their ages, they had opened their homes to foster children. So far, they had provided a home, love and a family to over 30 children. Connie maintains that is why God put her on this earth. Stephanie had never seen her friend so fulfilled and happy.
Next on the list was Robin Russell. After Stephanie and Joe had broken up, Steph had wondered if Robin would finally get a chance with Joe. The two had actually dated for a couple of months, but Joe had been smitten the very first time he laid eyes on Lisa and that had been the end of that. Robin now liked to tell people she was married to her job, and was, in fact, on track to become the first female chief of the TPD.
Lester Santos was next on the list. Stephanie smiled as she sang along to "Santa Baby" while addressing this card. Lester, unlike Hector, had surprised exactly no one when he had finally announced he was in love and settling down for good. Although Lester had put up a good front for years, he finally decided to be true to himself. The lucky object of his affection was Jake Claussen, a paramedic from Newark. Lester had seemed taken aback that none of his friends was surprised that he was gay. Bobby had explained that nobody would date as many women as Lester had if they weren't trying to prove something. Lester and Jake had a civil ceremony on a lovely June evening, which Stephanie had been honored to attend. They were still awaiting the legal right to marry.
"Jingle Bell Rock" came on just as Stephanie started to write out her card to her BFF, Mary Lou Stankovic. This had always been one of their favorite Christmas songs, ever since they were young girls together. The past few years hadn't been kind to Mary Lou. Lenny had suffered a heart attack four years ago, and as soon as he was recovered, he quickly suffered a severe Mid-Life Crisis. Mary Lou had stood by as Lenny joined a gym, got hair plugs, and a red convertible. The day that she had witnessed a blond twenty-something slithering out of said convertible, Mary Lou had confronted Lenny and gave him an ultimatum: either the bimbo or his family. Lenny had chosen the bimbo and moved out that night.
Mary Lou was devastated, but steadfast. Their kids were all nearly grown, so she enrolled in community college, and had graduated with her RN. Two weeks before their divorce was to be final, Lenny had come crawling back. He had finally come to his senses and realized what he was about to throw away. Mary Lou let him suffer the full two weeks before calling him the morning of their hearing to tell him he could come home. She had explained it to Stephanie by telling her that when she took those wedding vows, she had meant them. It hadn't been easy, but with resolve, hard work, and some excellent counseling, their marriage was stronger than ever.
Shaking out her hand to release the tension, Stephanie was relieved to be done with her chore. She had started out not looking forward to it, but as always, had enjoyed the memories that seeing all the entries in her book had brought back. It was always nice to think of her friends and family at this time of the year. But she was still glad to be done.
Well, not quite done.
There was one more entry in her list. One more card to write. One more memory to bear. She had purposely skipped this name when she came to it the first time. She didn't want to spend the afternoon distracted, and just the thought of this last one could distract her. Even after all this time.
Ranger. Ricardo Carlos Manoso. Friend. Boss. Mentor. One-time lover. So many memories all wrapped up neatly in one name: Ranger. He would always be Ranger to her.
At one time, Stephanie had hoped to be more to Ranger. They had skirted around the edges of a relationship for years. Stolen kisses in the alley, innuendos, flirting, and unequivocal support had all leant themselves to build up this imagined relationship in Stephanie's mind. Ranger had once told her that if Morelli stayed out of her bed for too long, he would be in it. When Joe and Stephanie had parted, she had waited for Ranger to make good on his word. He never did. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
Ranger had made no move on Stephanie. If anything, he had kept even more of a distance in the weeks following their break-up. Confused by his aloofness, Stephanie had retreated as well. Gone were the easy banter, the casual flirting, and the accidental touching. Stephanie began to harbor the suspicion that maybe Joe had been right all these years: Ranger only wanted what he couldn't have.
As the weeks passed, Steph saw even less and less of Ranger. The night she was offered the job in California, she had driven to Rangeman and made her way up to Ranger's apartment. He had seemed surprised to see her, but was a gracious host, as always. He must have just gotten in from a client meeting, because he was still dressed in his Corporate Ranger mode. His collar was loosened, and he had removed his tie, but he still looked like sex on a stick to Stephanie. She had never laid eyes on a more gorgeous, perfect specimen of the male variety.
Making their way into the darkened apartment, Ranger had asked to what he owed this pleasure. Stephanie noticed the formality in his words, and it made her heart clench just a little more. She outlined her fatigue at the life she was leading, the job offer, and the chance to start over.
Ranger said nothing for long moments. Then he looked at her over his steepled fingers and told her she should take the job and go for it. He added that he would always be here for her, if she ever needed help. Stephanie sat in silence, trying to discern a hidden meaning in his words. She had secretly hoped that Ranger would beg her to stay, but that hadn't happened.
Then Ranger added the final nail in the coffin of their potential relationship. He had smiled a true, honest smile at her, and said, "Stephanie, that's what friends are for."
Friends. There it was. Out in the open. They were friends, and nothing more. She had spent another hour in the apartment, talking and laughing about shared experiences, all the while, her heart was breaking.
When she got home, she picked up the phone and dialed her old friend. Said she'd be thrilled to take the job, and asked how soon she could start.
As always, memories of Ranger were bittersweet for Stephanie. If she were to be honest with herself, she knew the reason she was still single was because she had already given her heart away. Ranger hadn't wanted it, but that didn't mean it was any less his. Sometimes she would catch herself daydreaming about how her life would be now if she and Ranger had ever found a way to make a go of it.
She had heard through the grapevine over the years how his company had grown even more successful. There had been talk of him running for mayor of Trenton, but that had never panned out. There was a serious girlfriend for a number of years, but that too, had never panned out into anything more. Ranger was still the same old Ranger: a loner by nature, driven beyond belief, loyal, and working off his own moral code.
She listened as the song changed. Wouldn't you know it: "I'll be Home for Christmas." Of course. The song that Ranger and Stephanie had danced to at the Rangeman Christmas party a week before the big break with Joe. She could never listen to it anymore without remembering the feel of Ranger's arms around her, without seeing the look on his face as he gazed down at her, without smelling the whispers of the remainder of his scent. It was almost more than she could bear.
She jumped up, turned off her iPod speakers, and grabbed her purse and jacket. Maybe she'd go get those twinkle lights now. Besides, she could mail the cards she had just finished. Ranger's could wait until tomorrow when she had more energy to deal with it.
She made her way out to her favorite shopping district. The sounds of the piped in Christmas carols seemed out of place with the crush of holiday shoppers dressed in shorts and flip flops. She had to smile as she thought of the difference between her new home and her old haunts in Trenton.
She was just beginning to sing along in her head to "Baby, Please Come Home" when the sound of squealing brakes interrupted her musings. Glancing to the street, she saw the cause of the commotion: a black Porsche that had stopped dead in the middle of the street. As she watched the driver's door fly open, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. It couldn't be.
She stood, as if rooted to the spot, as a perfect body with mocha latte skin and shiny black hair emerged from the car. The driver turned and locked eyes with hers. Leaving the car to block traffic, and ignoring the horns and curses coming his way, he made his way to her side in several long strides.
Stephanie still couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't breathe. It couldn't be, and yet, it was. Ranger swept her into his arms, crushing her to his chest, and whispered into her hair, "Babe."
With that one little word, Stephanie felt her world turn upside down.
Somehow she found herself seated in the Porsche and riding back to her condo. Of course, Ranger knew the way and didn't have to ask for directions. As she unlocked her front door, she still could barely believe that Ranger was here, beside her.
As soon as they were inside, Ranger pulled her back into his arms. He kissed her slowly, tentatively at first. The kiss quickly deepened as they both poured ten long years of emotions into it. Breathless, they reluctantly pulled apart.
"Ranger, what are you doing here?" Stephanie asked him.
"I came to find you. To do what I should have done ten years ago, but was too afraid to try," he answered her. "I'm here to tell you that I love you. I want you. I'll take whatever part of you that you're willing to give me," he added, never breaking eye contact.
Stephanie was overcome. She couldn't believe this was happening. But she also knew that this was what she had been wanting for the last decade, as well.
"But why now, Ranger? Why not all those years ago? What's changed?" she asked him.
"Because I was a damned fool then. I wanted to make sure you were really over Joe. I wanted you to have the chance to fly; I wanted to make sure I didn't stand in your way. But mostly, Babe, because I was afraid you would say no."
Stephanie leaned her head on his chest and murmured, "I wouldn't have said no."
"What about now, Babe? What do you say now?" Ranger asked hesitantly.
"I'll say what I would have said then: Whatever you have to give me, I'll accept with open arms. I love you, Ranger. I always have."
Ranger's lips crashed down upon hers, but just before they did, he whispered, "My Life, Babe. I give you my life."
Later, Ranger looked around the apartment. "Nice digs, Babe, but I can't believe you haven't decorated. I see you've done your cards, though." He said as he picked up the old battered Christmas Card list. "We should get you a new one of these," he said, smiling.
"No, Ranger. We can't," Stephanie said. Some things could never be replaced.
And they lived happily ever after.