Holy Night

By David | December 24, 2013 | Essay

Christmas in the Cape

 

This essay was written by David Tamarkin and was published in a slightly different form in Middlewest No. 2.

You didn’t want to be there, and neither did I. But we had a tradition: Three Jews, one Coptic; four people who had nothing to celebrate on Christmas Eve. We always spent it eating prime rib.

This year, we were eating it at Lawry’s. You and Zach had never been to Lawry’s. That was sort of the point. I wanted you to see it, to experience the oddities of a restaurant that forces women to wear tall bonnets on their head.

You arrived in bright red lipstick. (But then, you often wore bright red lipstick.) You joined Mark and I at our table in the lounge, and Zach went to fetch you a drink. When Mark left the table to join him, it was just you and me.

Things had not been good between us.

“We saw Silver Linings Playbook today,” I said. Big smile.

“I saw that, too” you said. Big smile. “Twice actually.”

There was the threat of a lull, but you filled it. “It’s kind of a sexist movie,” you said.

I hadn’t thought of this. “Totally,” I said.

More big smiles. We looked at our hands.

We were trying.

+ + + + +

When people asked what it was like to work with you, I told them you were like a sister. I’d say that I was so lucky, that the magazine was so lucky, to have you. I was vocal about my anxieties that you would one day leave. And when I found out that some punk from a competing magazine tried to steal you, I was irate.

I did not talk about our bad days. If we had spent the day giving each other the cold shoulder, or if you had been crying at your desk, I would again invoke the sister line: “I love her. But we drive each other crazy.”

I never talked about the guilt I felt, never admitted to feeling defensive or jealous. But as our bad days became more frequent, and eventually collated to form weeks, then months, I changed my stock answer. “It’s intense,” I’d say. “Some days are better than others.”

+ + + + +

Mark and I had tried to prepare you for what you’d see at Lawry’s. But nothing can really prepare you for that unique blend of casual sexism and glorified classism. In this regal room with the grand staircase, customers are treated like royalty, complete with servants. This is underscored by the costumes the service staff are forced to wear. The women in cinched maidwear (they prepare the tableside spinning salads), the men in high toques (they hover solemnly next to meat stations and prepare the steaks). And you thought Silver Linings was sexist.

That night there was another element in the room: A team of carolers that floated from table to table. They were costumed in lace and frills and top hats as if this was 1843–not exactly the same year the servers were in, but who’s taking notes, right? They approached each table and asked for requests. The request was usually Jingle Bells.

You couldn’t hear me, but I was humming along to every note. I had sung these songs over and over again–in department stores, at school concerts–as a member of my high school choir. It all came back to me in full (the baritone part, anyway); it was almost involuntary. And when the carolers approached our table and asked if we had any requests, my answer, I swear, was involuntary as well. “Do you do Holy Night?” I asked.

+ + + + +

They started out softly – o holy night / the stars are brightly shining - and for a minute I thought I had picked the wrong song. I remembered a song that was big and brawny, a song full of Jesus. In our choir, it was the most divisive song we sang. One girl–a much more religious Jew than I–begged our choir director to drop the number every year. But when it came to a vote, none of us, not even the other Jews, stood by her. We kept the song, and when we sang it the girl crossed her arms and kept her mouth shut.

Was this really the song that caused that drama?

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

It sounded so small and silly.

+ + + + +

But no, it was the right song. I recognized it now as it gained momentum and started to swell. The carolers, I realized, were pros: They were opera singers or something, slumming it at Lawry’s for the tips. They seem relieved to have a song they could open their lungs for.

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel’s voices

I watched you watch them. I was worried. Worried about what you were thinking about this very-not-Jewish choice I’d made. Worried that it would make you want to stand up and leave. I was worried that we had crossed some sort of border, that we had reached a place that we couldn’t get back from. I was worried that I had been too angry, too petty, too uncommunicative. This dinner, this holiday that none of us celebrated–I had been worrying about it for weeks.

+ + + + +

The carolers had reached the end of the song, the religious climax, the last time they would sing the word holy. It is drawn out and reaches further than any other note in the song, to an unexpected high E.

The carolers dug in their heels and let out aching, pulsing sounds. Harmonies that I felt on my skin. Orchestral sounds, symphonic sounds, such that I wondered who else as singing, where all the music was coming from. But of course it was just the four of them, singing a capella.

And then they were quiet, because the song was over. There was a half-second where we and the carolers looked at each other without talking. Mark was crying. You were also crying. Then we thanked the carolers, and you looked at me and said thank you, thank you for picking that song. And I said sure, but I muttered it, because I could barely talk, I felt out of breath. The carolers were already at the next table.

Any requests?

Yes.

Jingle Bells.

+ + + + +

You and I had a running joke about a dessert called the chocolate bag. The chocolate is the shape and size of a brown paper bag and filled with white chocolate mousse. We were infatuated and a little confused by the persistent existence of this dessert. Neither of us had any idea that they offered it at Lawry’s. We ordered it, and also a hot fudge sundae.

We sat for a while and ignored the desserts while we finished the wine. Then I picked up my spoon and rapped it lightly against the chocolate bag’s middle.

Nothing. It was frozen.

I tried again. A small fissure.

You picked up your spoon and started to help me. The way I remember it, we brought our arms as far back as they would go and swung them in with maximum force.

I doubt it really went like that. But I do remember that after some violence, the thing finally collapsed.

 

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