Every winter, I lived in a parallel universe, calm and smug alongside the holiday madness, cynical about everyone else’s holiday motives … until the year my office co-workers voted to have a Secret Santa gift exchange. It was majority rule, everybody in or everybody out. In our workplace of sixty, the final tally was fifty-nine to one.
Well, I would co-operate, but I would not be happy.
To begin our anonymous gift swap, we each listed items we liked or collected. Then we drew someone else’s list out of a hat. I drew the data analyst whose office was next to mine. I’ll call her Noelle, because every year, just after Memorial Day, her computer, phone, guest chair, and bulletin board began wearing Santa hats.
On her Secret Santa list, Noelle had recorded a taste for unique recipes and a penchant for collecting frogs.
Frogs? I’d heard of spoon collections. But frogs?
The day I pulled Noelle’s name from the hat, I stopped after work at a drug store, to buy aspirin. From the bottom shelf of a case populated with stuffed animals, a lime green frog looked up at me. It had a lop-sided smile, spindly legs and pancake-sized feet. I picked it up to examine the price tag. My goodness, he was as soft as my favorite fleece hoodie. As warm as my flannel sheets. Before I could stop myself, I held him against my cheek. Lime Green Froggie and I left the store together.
I slipped the gift into Noelle’s office while she attended a meeting. After she returned, I peeked in. Froggie sat on her computer monitor, its long legs and big feet dangling in front of the screen. I walked in, and she picked him up as though he were her first grandbaby. “Look what my Secret Santa got me. I love him. Feel how soft he is.”
She held him close to her heart. Tears welled in her eyes.
I felt warm and fuzzy. A lot like Froggie.
A few days later, I was elbowing my way through Target. At the end of the auto supplies aisle, another stuffed frog. A button on this one’s stomach read, “Push here.” I obliged. The frog croaked to the tune of Jingle Bells. “Ribbit-ribbit-ribbit. Ribbit-ribbbit-ribbit. Ribbit-ribbit-ribbit-ribbit-ribbit.”
Noelle had a reputation for practical jokes. This was the frog for her.
I lay in wait until the lunch hour left our suite deserted. Like a cat burglar, I cracked open her office door, snuck in, and set the frog on her chair. Once in my own office, I paced and strained to hear a reaction. At last, an ear-splitting cackle resounded through the hallway. Noelle burst through my door, armed with the frog. “You gotta see this.” She pushed the button. The frog croaked. I laughed, but only politely, not wanting to give myself away. But bursting from the desire to claim credit as a genius gift-giver.
Rumors circulated on the office grapevine. The evil frog broke into song during finance meetings, strategic planning sessions, and team building discussions.
Noelle cornered the finance director outside my office door. “Did I show you this?”
She'd already pushed the button. “I can’t wait to find out who my Secret Santa is.”
The victim narrowed her eyes. “Neither can I.”
I slipped through my door, wearing my best innocent bystander expression.
Frogs invaded my dreams. They appeared in cloud formations. My favorite nature show ran a four-part series on the reproductive cycle of the Vietnamese Mossy Frog. There were more croakers in my life than there were in Noelle’s.
Determined to liberate myself, I focused the last gift on her love of cooking. I embarked on a cyber treasure hunt, searching the Internet for exotic recipes. I printed them on Christmas-tree-green paper, rolled them up into a scroll and tied them with green and white satin ribbon. The final touch: a gift card picturing a frog wearing a Santa hat.
She and an accounts payable clerk walked into her office after grabbing morning coffee from the break room. “ My Secret Santa’s been here. I hope it’s recipes.” For the rest of the day, whenever I ran into her, I overheard her in the hallways, over coffee, and on the phone, describing her plans to try out her new recipes.
I was as proud as a five-year-old on seeing my newest drawing taped to the family fridge.
At the end of two weeks, we revealed our identities at our office Christmas party. Evergreen swags were draped across the tables, their fragrance filling the room. Music played in the background: Jingle Bells faded into Little Drummer Boy into Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire into We Three Kings. The chatter of simultaneous conversations floated over the music. Holiday excitement was at its peak; for most of us it was the last day of work before Christmas.
On discovering I was her benefactor, Noelle wrapped me in a great bosom-y embrace, the kind of hug you save for a long-absent friend. I held her for half a beat longer than she held me.
We filled our plates and sat together at a table. I crunched on a Santa cookie, while she took me on a virtual tour of her house––frogs painted on the mailbox, embroidered on bedroom slippers, hopping across toilet seat covers.
I scooted closer, leaned in ’till our heads were touching. I wanted to catch every word.
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