by Hillary Brenhouse
Our apartment was in the suburbs of Paris, but really the city was just up the street. There was a sign, “Paris,” three or four blocks from our door, and when you reached the sign, you were there. We’d met in the spring, and so we’d never had a Christmas together, and now it was December, and he wanted a tree. A very small tree. Apart from the bedroom, there was only the kitchen/living room, and the only thing that made it a living room was the two-seater couch. It was a kitchen, and it had low ceilings.
I said, “Okay,” though already I was feeling uneasy, and we walked to the hardware store. I say, “We’d never had a Christmas together,” but I’d never had a Christmas with anyone.
When Christmas cannot be yours, because you’re miserable, and Jewish—when Christmas cannot be yours even though Christmas, in these months, belongs to everybody—there are few options. You will decorate a Hanukah bush and top it with the Star of David, string it with tiny blue and white lights. Or, if you’ve any dignity, you will define yourself in opposition to Christmas, as lacking Christmas. I thought of myself as lacking Christmas. That lack is comfortable to me, and the longing is, too. I had longed for Christmas and now we were walking to the hardware store and in ten minutes we would have a tree and it would be mine.
I had longed for Christmas, and I knew I would never let myself have it so easily. I didn’t think I would ever let myself have anything so easily. We found a chubby tree that came up to my thigh and we took it home. I hung my first ornament—a yellow submarine with all four cartoon Beatles rising up from its roof. The tree shed needles and we’d sweep them up, and I hated it.
One year later I was in graduate school in New York and he’d come to be near me. He didn’t have a job; he’d been living off the French government. He wanted to sell Christmas trees on a street corner in Harlem. It was hard work, a friend had told him, but it paid in cash and he was likely to walk away with ten or twelve thousand dollars. He would have to live in a van for close to a month, parked in front of the stand, because there was nowhere to store the trees at night and they might be stolen.
I only visited the stand once. I watched him wrap a tree in white netting. He wondered if it was a conjugal visit and gestured toward the van. I said, “Hell no.” Other times, Becky, his stand partner, would assume watch and he could come visit, quickly. He missed my graduation. He missed Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. I longed for it, like always, but the longing felt strange, because there was someone who wanted to give it me but couldn’t, since he was giving it to all of the other people on 117th and Lenox.
When it was over, he came back to Brooklyn with an envelope of money much thinner than he’d expected, and he didn’t want to talk about what was inside.
I’d told him the week before Christmas, over the phone, that I’d been offered a job in Hong Kong. He’d said, “I’m going this afternoon to buy you a ring; Becky’ll keep watch.” I’d said, “Don’t do that.” He’d said, “I’m going to start looking for a Hong Kong apartment for us on Craigslist soon as I’m done selling trees.” I’d said, “All right, that’s fine.” But in January I booked one flight and then I left alone.