Part 1: Menorahs & Mistletoe
Posted on 2013-12-11
When William Darcy was growing up, every house in his neighborhood sparkled with festive green and red lights. Red ribbons wound around columns, plastic penguins lined the walkways, inflatable Santas and plastic manger scenes populated the front yards. But his house was dark, the lawn bare.
His school's holiday pageant included a Christmas tree and a menorah on stage. He was never chosen to light a candle, but when he was in second grade, his name was picked from a Santa hat. He would be his classroom's honorary ornament presenter, and would hang the class ornament on the tree in front of the entire school. Will had never been near a real live Christmas tree before. He hadn't known the needles were sharp and would prick his finger, bringing tears to his eyes and making him drop the pretty tinfoil snowflake he'd cut out. The entire school sat in silence, hearing his cries of "Ow!" and watching the snowflake drift slowly to the floor of the stage. The laughter began in the third row, when his most hated classmate, George Wickham, started chortling, "Told ya so!" The teachers shushed them, but Will remembered George's complaints from earlier in the day: "Why is the Jewish kid hanging an ornament? That's not fair!" Will dreaded the bus ride home. In his mind, not even the glimpse of Jamie McPhister's Power Rangers underwear when she'd reached up to light the menorah could overcome such notoriety.
His parents heard the story at a neighborhood party. His father called him to his study and reminded him that he was not to celebrate Christmas, that he should have declined when his name was pulled. He was Jewish and should be proud of it. His mother, as usual, said nothing.
That memory returned every year, even now, twenty years later. He stood in the doorway at his best friend's HanuKrismas party and wondered why holidays were supposed to be so fun. This party was fun, if you were moved by the spirit of the holiday or the spirits Charles had arrayed on his bar. But Will was not moved by any of it.
His parents had been gone for more than 10 years now. The breach their marriage had created between their families had never healed, not even with their deaths. His universe remained centered on boarding school, college and the kindness of friends who enjoyed his company at their Thanksgiving tables.
The winter holidays, he'd spent traveling. All of the important holidays his father had impressed upon him and which they had solemnly marked--Passover, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah--went by without notice. Much notice, anyway.
He did wander into synagogue occasionally, but he felt disconnected from the familiar words of the Torah. They made him grieve. By age 19, he'd decided to minor in comparative religions and figure out what bits and pieces felt right to him. As a result, "optimistic agnostic" was the best way he could describe himself now.
A peal of laughter caught his attention and drew him back to the party. Charles was laughing in the corner with his latest flame, Jane Bennet. Charles was always so happy. He was always with happy people. Sometimes Will wondered why they were friends. What did Charles find fun about him?
"Excuse me, can I squeeze by?"
He looked down. A brunette in a black sweater carrying two glasses of punch was trying to get through the doorway.
"I said, excuse me!"
Her eyes were a fiery green and she was giving him an annoyed, disapproving once-over.
He scooted to the side. "Sorry," he mumbled. She passed through the doorway to a loud group of partygoers. He recognized one or two from previous parties, and gathered himself.Dammit, mingle.
He approached the group and stood silently, listening to their jokes about ugly Christmas sweaters.
"How about you, Mr. Tall, Dark and Quiet? No stories about hideous reindeer sweaters or mustachioed great-aunts?"
Will realized that it was the girl with the drinks talking to him. "Um, no. I think my grandmother had a bearded wattle, though."
Four of the people standing in the group looked confused. The girl burst out laughing. "So did mine!"
She moved closer to him and reached out her hand. "I'm Elizabeth. My sister over there is dating Charles. I'm the hanger-on. Third-wheel. Designated driver."
"Yada-yada-yada," Will replied quietly. "Sounds familiar."
She laughed again.
He nodded and realized he was smiling back at her. "I'm Will Darcy, resident humbug."
"So I noticed." Elizabeth suddenly looked past him and grinned wickedly. "You do realize you were standing under the mistletoe for like, 10 minutes, right?"
He spun around and spotted the offending greenery. "Oh god, no. Did I...I mean did I look desperate or anything?"
She wrinkled her nose and considered him "No. You just looked like you wanted to be anyplace but here."
She swallowed the last of her drink and put the glass on a table. "Do you have someplace else you'd rather be?"
Will thought of his quiet apartment. The only signs of life were swimming in his fish tank. He often preferred it there, alone with a book and his music, but not right now.
"So, you're not a party guy. Hmmm," Elizabeth said, stroking her chin in an exaggerated manner. "Let me see. Are you the designated "Debbie Downer" of this holiday fest?"
Will was smiling until he realized perhaps this very attractive, very friendly woman wasn't joking around with him. Maybe she was just annoyed with his solemn personality at what was supposed to be a fun night. Crap.
"I'm afraid so," he stuttered.
"Whew, good," she replied. "I don't know anybody here, and they all keep talking about who they want to sleep with and which overpriced, immediately obsolete electronic thingie they want for Christmas. Want to go for a walk and look at the lights?"
She stared at him for a second and looked away. "I'm not trying to pick you up, sorry. I'm just not in the mood for vacuous holiday banter."
"Me either." He nodded dumbly. "The coats are in Charles' bedroom."
"Okay," Elizabeth whispered. "But be very careful. We have to pass under the mistletoe in every doorway. Could be a very dangerous mission."
"I'll protect you," he said, his heart swelling.
They'd walked two blocks, commenting on nice window displays and taking turns dropping coins in the buckets of Salvation Army bell-ringers, before she said it.
"I love the red and the green lights, but I think the blue and white lights for Hanukkah are so beautiful. I want to mingle them, but it's probably not politically correct."
"That's a great idea."
"My mom is half-Jewish," Elizabeth said. "But it was all Santa, all month long at our house. Her parents raised her that way. My sisters loved it. But I've always wondered if maybe a little mistletoe and a little menorah would make a good mix."
She stopped and watched the train putter around the tracks in the Grimsley's Toy Store window. "There's magic in both."
"A little gelt in your stocking?" Will said, his heart pounding.
Some long-ago lyrics popped into his head. Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel. I made it out of clay...
She turned her head and looked up at him. "Exactly. Dreidels and candy canes."
They stepped back from under the store awning and Will felt snow falling on his face. It felt cold and wet. It felt wonderful. He brushed it off his lashes. "You wouldn't mix Halloween and Valentine's Day too, would you? Or New Year's and Labor Day?"
He waited for her to answer, but she just smiled up at him, stifling a laugh and shrugged. A large snowflake drifted down slowly, landing on the tip of her nose. Will reached his finger to brush it off. She caught his hand.
Part II: Frosting & Festivus
Posted on 2013-12-18
The plastic Santa Claus stayed on the Bennet family roof all year long. Once Elizabeth's father had secured it there, sometime back in the early 1990s, he'd sworn he'd never again climb a ladder with more than three rungs. Santa's red suit had faded to a murky shade of pink, but he continued to glow. The lightbulb's 30-year warranty appeared to be a trustworthy one.
When she was a girl, Elizabeth wondered why her mother always yelled if her second-oldest daughter refused to use green frosting and preferred creating blue and yellow frosted star, reindeer and bell cookies. She liked a little blue, a dash of yellow or white, perhaps some red, and those crunchy little silver sugar balls, the kind that weren't sold anymore at the supermarket. Something about the toxic ingredients, she and Jane had surmised. Her mother had stocked up, though, with a lifetime supply which she feared Elizabeth would waste on her less than merry creations. The silver balls didn't taste all that good and she had a nagging fear that they might crack her teeth, but Elizabeth was just grateful to have relief from raisins, cinnamon candies and boring candy sprinkles. Anything to make the holiday less generic, more distinctive, more meaningful.
The family only went to church twice a year--on Easter and Advent Sunday--but all the decorative accoutrements of the holidays were stored in the attic. Her mother had embraced Christmas and created her own brand of distinctive, with the white plastic tree in the living room, ceramic or crocheted Santas atop every horizontal surface, and the radio playing Christmas carols beginning the day after Thanksgiving. The pine-scented candles, the bowls of candy canes, and the empty beribboned boxes wrapped in colorful foil paper and stacked on the stairs and tables added that extra "touch." Touched was right. Her mother was touched in the head, immersed in her love for commercial holiday themes.
When Elizabeth was six and her parents had found her watching the "Peanuts' Christmas special for the seventh time, memorizing the speech about the real meaning of Christmas, her father had laughed and insisted on calling her Linus for the rest of the month. Her stocking had included a Snoopy ornament that year rather than the snow globe she'd hoped for.
Every year was the same, even now that she was 23 and fending off her mother's offers to deck the halls in her daughter's new apartment.
Elizabeth sighed and looked at the cheery holiday revelers surrounding her. Charles' party was nothing like the ones her mother had hosted. There were no wienies in ketchup/chili sauce, no pickles with frilly toothpicks, no sputtering chocolate fountain. Everything was elegant and trendy, fun and culturally smart. Just like the people who crammed inside the apartment, comparing their phones and their skiing vacations and their investment portfolios.
Except for him--the tall, good-looking guy who seemed to prefer holding up the wall instead of mixing merrily. Maybe he knew something about the structural integrity of Charles' building and was doing a good Christmas deed. Or maybe he wasn't having much fun either, alone at an overly festive party on a beautifully starry night. Maybe, Elizabeth thought, he's like me. He needs rescuing too. He didn't look like he had much experience with Christmas revelry. Or egg nog. Or, she smirked, mistletoe.
She'd had enough of Mannheim Steamroller's electronic carols. She really wanted to get out this place, but if she was stuck, she might as well find some company that looked equally miserable. Besides, in the next room, there seemed to be a huge argument over ugly Christmas sweaters, and that looked entertaining. She grabbed an extra cup of punch and headed for the doorway.
"Excuse me," she said to Mr. Tall, Dark and Looming. "Can I squeeze by?"
An hour later, bundled up and wandering the glistening sidewalks, Elizabeth and her fellow refugee, William Darcy, had covered a gamut of subjects. They'd debated best and worst holiday songs. She liked "Oh! Holy Night." He volunteered that he hated Adam Sandler movies but really appreciated his Hanukkah Song. Elizabeth promptly broke into her favorite verse,
"Paul Newman's half-Jewish, Goldie Hawn's half too. Put them together--What a fine looking Jew!
"Put on your yalmulka, it's time for Hanukkah..."
Will burst into laughter. "You know the lyrics? I thought you only celebrated--." He quieted and looked at her curiously.
She shrugged. "Even my mother liked that one." But she also likes Adam Sandler movies, Elizabeth thought, shuddering.
After they dissected their favorite holiday specials and discovered both loved old stop-action animation--especially "Rudolph"--they discussed the best gifts they'd ever gotten. At eight, she'd ripped off wrapping paper to find a much-longed-for pottery wheel. At nine, on the final night of Hanukkah, he'd been thrilled to get a baseball autographed by Sandy Koufax.
They'd discovered a mutual desire to attend a Festivus party and participate in the "Airing of Grievances." And what, she wondered aloud, would her wall-hugging friend need to whine about?
"I don't know," he said, frowning.
Elizabeth tilted her head and considered. "Okay. I'll show you mine if you show me yours?"
He gave her a small grin. It looked more like a grimace, she thought.
Taking a deep breath, she simply said, "People who forget what this is all about. It's not gifts, or huge discounts, or the perfect tree skirt, or the best cookies. Christmas is not about showcasing your inner Martha Stewart. It's a time of year to just realize what you love and who you love and recognize how lucky we are and be thankful for it."
He didn't say anything.
"And um," Elizabeth added quickly, "I would like to register a grievance against thematic foods, like sculpted butter lambs and fruitcake and mulled wine."
She felt like an idiot but when she looked up at Will, he was nodding, his eyebrows knitted in thought.
"As long as we're going for deep thoughts here," he said, "and you promise not to challenge me in the Festivus Day Feats of Strength, I guess I'd have to say I'm tired of thoughtlessness," he said. "The little things, like people who don't hold open the door for the person behind them. Or don't give up their seat for a pregnant woman or an old man. Or who say `No problem,' instead of `You're welcome.' I really, really hate that."
He cleared his throat and placed his hand on his heart. "And thus I air my grievances."
Will Darcy was, Elizabeth decided, a serious man with good manners and a hilariously wry sense of humor. She was more than pleased with him as her partner in party avoidance.
But being out in the cold, literally and figuratively, was getting uncomfortable. As they'd walked along, snow flurries flying and the cold settling in their bones, they'd discovered everything in Charles' neighborhood was shuttered, closing, or completely unappealing. A tapas restaurant had locked its doors for the night, a dark bar was packed with drunken office party refugees, and a small diner glowed with harsh fluorescent lighting and lonely pie eaters.
"This is not pie season," she said, gesturing toward them in mock indignance. "It's cookie season."
"Did you make Christmas cookies?"
"Yes. Three dozen snowballs. And frosted sleds, stars and snowflakes."
Elizabeth looked down at their hands. She'd caught his finger trying to wipe a snowflake from her nose about 45 minutes earlier, and he still hadn't let go. He'd held onto her hand as they kept walking, up one block and then another, until they'd circled back to Charles' building. The snow had started coming down more heavily, so they headed inside to the lobby.
Elizabeth's phone buzzed. Oh. Jane. She'd forgotten she'd come to this party with her sister.
"My sister will be wondering what happened to me. Do you want to go back up?" she asked him.
Will bit his lip and shook his head. "I didn't see any cookies there," he said. "You didn't bring any of yours?"
"Oh, mine aren't frou-frou enough for that crowd. Just old family recipes," she murmured. Glancing up, she saw he looked disappointed.
"How about your culinary skills?" Elizabeth teased. "Your mother passing on her kitchen secrets, or is she saving them for the future mother of her grandchildren?"
She didn't expect him to wince. Or his hand to tense.
"Um, no. I have her recipe box and her cookbooks," he said quietly.
Oh god. Elizabeth closed her eyes. Well, aren't I the holiday cheer champ. She squeezed his hand, waiting.
"She baked a lot when I was little. But she'd only let me have the chocolate macaroons if I ate her Tu b'Shevat bars." He glanced at the woman standing beside him. "That's, um, fruit bars to celebrate the New Year for Trees. She liked nature."
"Yummy," Elizabeth said, her eyes glowing but her insides roiling. Cripes. I insulted thematic foods. "You have her recipe?"
"Have you ever made them?"
He shook his head.
"Not a baker, huh. Can you boil water?"
Her heart swelled when he smiled.
"I cook a mean grilled cheese," Will replied. "And steamed vegetables and rice. And soup from a can like you can't imagine."
He met her eyes. Like his, they were sparkling, reflected in the twinkly lights strung around the marble lobby. Elizabeth let go of his hand and pulled off her gloves. She felt him watching her and when she glanced up, he looked disappointed. She shrugged. "Your fingers aren't cold?"
Will nodded and tugged off his gloves. Elizabeth reached out and took his hands. She examined them carefully, and traced his palms with her fingers.
"These are not the hands of a seasoned cook." She looked up. "Need some lessons?"
Will let out the breath he'd been holding. "Yes. Absolutely. Lots of them."
He lifted her hand to his lips.
Elizabeth gently drew her hand away. She traced his lips and cheekbone with her thumb, and slid her fingers into the curls behind his ears. She looked up at him, and laughed. "Uh-oh."
Will stiffened. "What is it?"
"Caught under the mistletoe. Again."
He glanced up at the green sprig dangling from the lobby chandelier, and bent down and pulled her closer.
"Oh, I did it on purpose this time," he said softly.
"I'll show you how to make a gingerbread house," she murmured. "You hold up the walls, and I'll frost the roof."
"We'll light the candles every night, and deck the halls," he whispered, just before his lips met hers.
The Hanukkah Song: FYI, I'm with Will. I really hate Adam Sandler movies except for the two he made with Drew Barrymore.
Sandy Koufax: A Hall of Fame pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, known as The Left Hand of God. And yes, Jewish.
Festivus: The Costanza family's holiday celebration on Seinfeld. The Festival for the rest of us. (Aluminum pole required.)
Part III: Starlight & Candlelight
Posted on 2013-12-26
From a young age, William Darcy had thought some things would never change. New Year's Eve was one of them. When the inevitable annual festivities rolled around, he'd cringe, show up where he was expected, and find a wall to hug. Expectations, inclinations, hopes and outcome invariably collided and missed hitting the target that the holiday's songs, movies and stories promised: a nice girl to kiss at midnight. Not that the garish traditions of New Year's Eve even celebrated the real New Year. Oh no. His grandmother had always reminded him that the real new year was the one they celebrated on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hoshanah. Hearing her words as a boy, he'd roll his eyes and go back to watching Dick Clark on TV in Times Square; when he grew older, he'd remember her words as he watched the mating rituals performed by fellow partygoers as midnight neared.
Tonight's party could have played out like the parties of previous years. Charles would be starry-eyed, fairly drunk, and happily kissing some true love; Caroline would be in hot pursuit of any man who arrived alone, dressed expensively and still had a full head of hair; and their mutual friends still would be comparing portfolios and best post-Christmas shopping bargains while sizing up potential mates for that seal-the-deal midnight kiss. And Will Darcy would find a reason to go play bartender or wander off to the bathroom as the countdown closed in.
Yes, except for the fact that Charles was engaged to Jane, the true love of his life, things appeared no different for Will. Here he was, hoping to escape the countdown cacophony, and determinedly inching his way toward the bathroom in the Hursts' townhouse. But there was one major difference this year: There was a woman he planned to kiss, and she was in that bathroom. Poor Elizabeth. Was she hiding? Would Bill Collins never get the message that she was taken?
Inviting William Darcy to go for a Christmas Eve walk a year ago had been the most brilliant impulse of Elizabeth Bennet's nearly 25 years on Earth. They'd looked at the stars, gazed at the lights and, dazzled, they'd found each other. Somehow the shabby, faded year-round Christmas decorations hanging on her parents' house had seemed less drab. That Christmas Day had sparkled because she knew that day would fade to night, and that by late afternoon, she would be heading across town to share leftovers and a bottle of wine with the man wearing a wry smile and a distinctly non-holiday sweater. The man who'd kissed her back, again and again, in Charles' building lobby. The man who she knew, deep-down in an unsettling but exciting way, would be kissing her forever. Will.
The past year, and this holiday season, had not followed the traditional paths for either of them. Will hadn't spent Passover at the movies or Yom Kippur debating whether or not he should have gotten himself a seat in temple. Elizabeth hadn't rolled her eyes at her mother's marshmallow lamb cake for Easter dessert. Over the months, separate calendars and lives and beliefs had converged and by November, they had celebrated Thanksgivukkah at the Bennet dinner table.
The doorway had been festooned with blue and white lights; little plastic stars and dreidels dangled from the chandelier. A few rules had been put in place: Mr. Bennet had been adamant that brisket would not replace his beloved turkey and stuffing; the Bennet girls had demanded that eight days of little gifts would not supplant their giant expectations for December 25; and Mrs. Bennet, while taking control over the latke making, had made it clear that Elizabeth and William had to bring some traditional dishes from the Darcy family cookbook. Despite burned latkes and singed egos, it had been a wonderful day and prompted a request for the young couple to host a Seder dinner during Passover in the spring.
Over the past year, they'd also shared birthdays, Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, the Fourth of July, and just days ago, their second Festivus-tinged Christmas. And in about five minutes, Will planned to ask Elizabeth to share all of those holidays for the rest of their lives together. If only she'd come out of the bathroom. He knocked softly and called her name.
The door opened and there she was. His green-eyed girl. Elizabeth.
"Hey you," she whispered. "Come here." She reached for his hand and gently pulled him into the bathroom.
It was dark; only flickering holiday candles lit his way in.
"It's the best view in the whole place," Elizabeth said softly, reaching behind Will to lock the door.
He smiled and looked out the window. She'd pulled up the shade and opened the sash. He pushed open the window and they leaned out, staring at the moon and stars above and the lights below, twinkling merrily; across the river lay Manhattan, glittering and beautiful. Silver and gold in the sky, red and green and blue and white below.
"Squint a bit," she said. And he did and the lights fused into a hazy kaleidoscope of colors.
"You're brilliant, my love." He kissed the top of her head.
"I know it's a bathroom in Brooklyn, but it doesn't matter to me where I get kissed at midnight." She blushed--he could see that much in a room lit only by candles and stars and holiday lights--and it melted his heart.
"Where? As long as it's your lips, right?" Will whispered.
"As long as it's just us." Elizabeth squeezed his hand, leaned her head against his chest, and gazed up at him. The happiest year of his life, all bound up in this woman. It scared him sometimes, how perfectly they fit together and merged their lives. It scared her as well. Both were just a little grateful to know that they could disagree, and that they could solve their arguments--all two of them so far-- in the best way possible.
Elizabeth had moved in with him last summer, on a hot day without a breeze when his building's air conditioning was less than optimal. She'd made the mistake of listening to her sister's feng shui ideas and had begun rearranging all of the furniture in their newly merged household. Beds pointing east, chairs facing north... None of it made sense and he'd had a difficult time explaining his frustration. Just getting her furniture through the door and figuring out how to make her beloved blue-flowered armchair clash less with his brown leather sofa was work enough on a hot, humid day. A few badly stubbed toes, bruised shins and heated words later, a happy compromise was reached on their newly re-settled bed. Both had agreed they already had enough spiritual traditions between them, and they'd promised to finish every disagreement in just the same way--in bed.
Their pact held as their only other "argument" began, and ended, in bed. After Thanksgivukkah, they'd celebrated the remaining seven nights of lights with friends or alone together. On the final evening, Elizabeth had called Will and asked him to pick up Chinese food on the way home from work. She said she'd burned dinner. After they ate their mu shu and lit the final candle, Elizabeth had claimed a headache and asked Will to tuck her in. A bit worried about her behavior, he'd followed her to their bedroom. There, on the bed, paws flapping and ears twitching, slept his now best-ever Hanukkah gift. It had taken two days of silly back-and-forth discussions to come to a mutual decision on the dog's name: Sandy, in honor of the player whose autographed baseball sat on his desk.
Now, through the bathroom door, they could hear the countdown. "Five, four, three, two, one..."
There was no right place, no right time. There was only this. Here and now. Her. Elizabeth.
They reached for each other and greeted another new year together. "Happy anniversary," she whispered. "Another year of holidays."
The ring stayed in Will's pocket. That was for tomorrow. Everything else was sparkling tonight. Elizabeth and her diamond would light up tomorrow, and shine on all their days to come.The End