It would be one thing if I didn't love being Jewish. If I were more like my cousin Marni, who boasts about exchanging Hanukkah gifts on Christmas because she's such a bad Jew. Perhaps I'd understand if I grew up in some small remote town, in the only Jewish family for miles on end, total assimilation the key to survival. But I didn't. Raised on New York's Upper West Side, I never even rebelled. Shiksa wannabee nowhere on my wish list. So standing next to my gorgeous goyishe boyfriend, a la American Gothic, I'm way beyond bah, humbug.
I watch Peter carve the ham as expressionless as the girl in that portrait. Knowing I don't want to be here cohosting this party. Guiltily wanting to leave now and go back to work. Wishing I could just celebrate Christmas the Jewish way, with Chinese food and a movie.
"Hey, everyone," Peter calls out to the room of hungry orphans, half of them tangled up in a game of Twister. Oh. Not what you think. It's an orphan Christmas party, for people who can't make it home. "Listen up. Dinner is served."
"And," I chime in, "after Christmas dinner we're going to play dreidel, dreidel, dreidel and then have latkes and sour cream for dessert."
Baxter, Peter's lovable mutt, barks in approval. But his master only shakes his head. "Aimee Albert."
"What?" Like I don't know.
"It's enough you brought bagels," says Peter, looking at the mixed dozen strategically placed between the green bean casserole, marshmallow sweet potatoes, and his grandmother's pumpkin pie.
"Well, you told me to bring bread." A publicist, I always know a good spin.
"Hey, great party, McKnight," interrupts Jax, Peter's new best bud from the LaughTrack. He grabs an everything bagel and with a fork smears the insides with mustard. "Making myself here a big ole ham sandwich. And then point me to those latkes. Christmas was never like this in Scranton."
"See, P. What've you got to say to that?"
Peter doesn't answer. For a stand-up, he's not so fast with the comebacks.
"You made it," he says, instead, greeting the couple who just walked in. A couple who happen to be my parents.
"Will you look at all this," says Maddie, unzipping her black down coat before handing it to my dad. "Peter, you did all this yourself?"
Running her red manicured fingers through her touched-up brown hair, my mother's sure to catch my eye when she speaks. We had a big to-do this morning when she found out I was going into work instead of coming straight to Peter's.
"You're not going early to help him?" she shrieked into my cell phone. "You're just going to show up? Like a guest?"
The working-on-Christmas tradition began almost a decade ago with my then boyfriend. Sam's gone more than six years, but it's continued. My tradition's harder to break than my fast on Yom Kippur. Besides, Peter managed just fine.
"Everything like my mom," he answers, I think a little sad. The first Christmas he's not spent at home. Last year, we'd only known each other a few months, and he went without me. This is his first with me, and a first for me.
"Hey, can you heat up more of those latkes?"
"Mom, Dad, this is Jax," I introduce. "Peter's friend. A comedian from the club."
"Sid Albert," my father says, extending his hand. "So how's the comedy business, Jax? I'll be honest with you. I always wonder how anyone makes a living at that."
So do Jax and Peter, I think, grateful at least one of them is out of earshot.
"What do you do, sir?" Jax responds, appropriately ignoring the question.
"Advertising. Consumer. Like Aimee here," Sid eagerly explains, seventy-two, retirement nowhere in sight. He talks over his shoulder as he goes to the food table to make himself a plate.
"Actually I'm in consumer PR, and it's a totally different thing," I tell Jax before I head to the kitchen. I hear the voice of my father, who's found a captive audience, trail behind me.
"Aimee says PR creates news you can use, but all that's the spin. You're really just talking about a product. I'm telling you, Jax, if you have good advertising . . ."
". . . you don't need PR," I mouth, finishing the sentence along with my father and suddenly my mother, who followed me into the kitchen. We shake our heads and laugh while I pick up a potholder to open the oven door.
"This party is so lovely," says Maddie. She pulls a small ice-cream chair out from under the small, round table and sits. "Daddy and I just dropped by for a bit. We're making a matinee. I thought we'd all go, but I'm glad you're here with Peter. You should celebrate with him. After all, it is his holiday."
She's so observant.
"How's Daph?" I ask. My sister and her husband, Rich, fled the New Jersey burbs of West Orange to spend the holiday at their time-share in Aruba. The luxury of being married to a partner in a law firm. Ever since Sam, this is a subject my mother and I no longer discuss.
"She sent an e-mail to say they landed. Your father got it out of the computer. I'm still not sure how to work that farkakte printer."
Maddie's Hanukkah gift from Sid. Or maybe Sid's Hanukkah gift to Sid.
"Hannah and Holdenn are having a ball," she says. Grandchildren courtesy of my younger sibling. The middle, I now think of my older.
"Jon still in Italy?" I ask, removing the hot dish from the oven and placing it on top of the stove.
"You want me to put the latkes on this tray?" Maddie stands, eager to help.
"He's on location. And I can tell by what he doesn't say my son's got a new one." She blows on a potato pancake before taking it into her mouth.
"He e-mailed something vague about an Italian Vogue model." The humdrum life of a Soho photographer. "So. Another lasting shidduch, huh, Ma?"
"Jonathan doesn't have to marry right away. He has more time. He's a boy."
"Hello. He just turned forty-four," I say, annoyed with the double standard, biology, and my mother's quick defense of the Jewish Prince, rightful pedigree of her firstborn son. "Speaking of, guess who I ran into today? Remember Michael Cohen?" He was all I talked about as a teen; how could she not? "He's in finance now, married, two kids. They're moving back to the city."
"Really!" Though my mother's quite fond of Peter, I swear she's disappointed I'll never reconnect with my old Hebrew school flame. "Jewish?" she asks, I know, of the wife.
"Converted." Finding more eggnog in the fridge, I begin to pour several containers into a big mixing bowl.
"Makes sense to me. Girls will do anything for a good Jewish husband. And why not?"
"That was really unkind," I bite, as the comment does. Though my mother has mellowed. If ten years ago I brought home a non-Jewish out-of-work comedian, Maddie would have gone through the roof. But that was before. Now having hurt her, my mother barks back.
"What's going on in here?" My father's gray curly head pops through the kitchen door. The damage control detector heard above the noise of the party.
"We're coming. Can you grab that, Ma?" I say of the hot tray, eager to escape the heat of the kitchen.
"Oh, Aimee, I forgot to tell you," Maddie chatters behind me. "I ran into Rosie and Bill in the elevator, and guess what? Stefani Carter's getting remarried."
Only I don't quite make it out unscathed. "Why are you so provocative, Ma?"
"Who's Stefani?" intercepts Jax, rushing to take a few latkes from the tray before Maddie even makes it to the table.
"Neighbors in our building. She grew up with Aimee," my father says, beaming at the mention of the buxom blonde.
I still shudder when I remember rehearsing our number from The Sound of Music for her church's Christmas pageant. As Maria, little Stefani danced barefoot across her living room, her hills alive. Meanwhile, I practically sweat to death as Mother Superior. My head clad in scarves, itching in my mom's black wool dress. A habit I wanted to break.
"Says the guy's crazy about Stef," my mother proceeds to tell Jax. "He's a director on that soap she's on," she continues, rearranging the food. "And this one's Jewish."
"And why not? Makes total sense to me," says Sid.
"How so?" asks Jax, reaching past him for the sour cream. Sid's new sidekick.
"She's what they call a Shiksa Goddess," says Sid, cleaning his wire-rim glasses with his shirttail. "Jewish men are very attracted to that," he explains to the clueless comic.
"So she's as cute as Aimee?" asks Jax.
"No one's as cute as Aimee," rescues Peter, putting his arm around me. "Hey, come on. We're ready to play Thieving Secret Santa. You guys in?" he asks my parents.
My mother looks at her watch. "We're going to have to leave," she announces. Not a moment too soon. "Thank you for everything, Peter. Sid, get the coats. And Aimee, come here for a second. I want to talk to you."
I signal Peter to go on without me. My first mistake. Then I turn to talk to my mother, about to make my second.
"If I tell you something about other people, it has nothing to do with you, you understand?" she says. "So I don't know why you make everything so personal. I'm just talking."
"Good. Are you done?"
About to say more, she is interrupted by my father.
"Mad, come on." At the front door with Peter, Sid calls to my mother, her coat draped over his arm.
Maddie's eyes shift up, and with a quick glance I see her check the clock. Knowing her routines by heart, I expect she'll now remind me mine is ticking . . . and loudly. "If we waste time, we'll miss out," we both hear my father interject. Her point exactly, and so conveniently made, she just gives me a kiss good-bye and brushes past, leaving me to rejoin the party.
My mother is gone, but her words stay behind, sticking around for the rest of the day. By the end, they attach themselves to all the dirty dishes, glomming on to each piece of silverware, every glass and tray. Later, at Peter's kitchen sink, I clean up the mess. But despite many squirts of Joy, it will not be washed away.
Stefani marrying this Jewish director really bugs me. Everything does. In this round my mother and I did not go as far as usual. Thankfully, I did not have to hear At least she's making a life for herself. But it's as if I had.
From behind I feel Peter, lifting my long dark curls and kissing my neck. His right hand reaches past me to the faucet. He turns the water off. Leading me into the living room, he seats me under the tree. Let the gift giving begin.
"Ruff! Ruff!" Baxter nuzzles his way in, so he gets his presents first. He tears through the wrappings with vigor. His bulky, black body presses on a stuffed elf that squeaks "Merry Christmas" as he chews on a brand-new pig's ear.
"He's easy to please," I say. But so is Peter, who's already wrapped the gray cashmere Barney's scarf around his neck and tossed the matching hat on his head.
"Extravagant," he says, kissing me before he reaches behind the tree and hands me a very small box. "Here, Aimee. Merry Christmas."
I look at Peter taking the very smalljewelry-box-smallgift into my hands. Oh, no. He couldn't have. He shouldn't have. He's going to propose. And on Christmas! In all my fantasies of getting engaged, there was nary a one that ever took place under a tree on Christmas.
My heart thumps; my French-manicured nails slide across the package and carefully undo the red foil wrap. The rim of the little black box is lined with gold. I lift off the top, but instead of a dazzling diamond there's a square piece of paper.
Good for One Super-Duper Massage . . . PLUS!!!
I instantly burst into tears.
"Now what?" asks Peter, immediately removing his presents, placing them back in their gift box. "Not enough?"
Sad to be disappointed and sadder to note I also feel relieved, I find it easy to embrace my guilt. And a lot still lingers from Hanukkah.
"I love this," I wail, clutching the homemade coupon. "And you so already outdid yourself."
I gave Peter a Gap sweater, and he gave me a Jewish cookbook. Then, in front of the entire Albert clan, he gave me another gift: a state-of-the art thirteen-inch flat-screen TV. Peter worked like a dog, pulling in extra bartending shifts just to make the holiday a really big deal. A Jewish guy would have known Hanukkah's only a big deal for the kids. Not to mention a Jewish guy would never have paid retail.
"So what is it?" Peter grabs a beer from the cooler, twists off the cap, and takes a slug. He sits facing me on the club chair we found on the street and, not counting the stoop, schlepped up four flights of stairs. "Aim, just tell me what you want."
"I want," I begin, or try to. How can I describe what's going on to Peter when it is only now being revealed to myself.
"A guy who makes more money?"
We are off to a very bad start. Although not quite as bad as it would have been if Peter had actually given me a ring. Be careful of what you want. That it's time to admit we're not ready to marry is obvious. That we can no longer continue this way is not.
"It's not money. It's . . . ummm . . . direction," I finally say, practically whisper, my words still at the starting gate. Words I now feel are mine, not my mom's. "And . . ." I take a breath. "I don't see where this can go," I finish, letting them out as they race away.
"Just give me another year," Peter says, right away. "In another year I'm sure the work can turn around."
He said the same thing last year.