Bethany White hated the holidays, although she pretended to love them. She was, despite her name, the daughter of two Long Island conservative Jews. When the first Christmas carols hit the airwaves after Thanksgiving, she snarled through gritted teeth, but smiled.
Her humbuggery only became an issue after college, when she moved to Rhode Island. Bethany found a shared rental in Providence and bonded with the five other young women in the unit. They spent the summer at the beach, went apple picking in the fall and fully expected to go skiing together, if snow ever fell.
Then, in December, her roommates began to decorate.
Jojo kicked it off by wrapping her bedroom door in green recycled paper with a big red bow made from shredded plastic bags. The floodgates opened. The living room was measured for a Christmas tree, Melanie hung a wreath on the front door and a Secret Santa gift exchange was organized. Danita set the rules: a $25 limit, nothing alive, no hints and no asking.
Bethany should have mentioned that this year the first night of Chanukah was on December 25, but kept her mouth shut. Then she drew Jojo as her recipient, and nearly screamed.
Bethany hated Jojo.
Jojo was a crusading political activist. She worked for a non-profit and volunteered at three more, including the animal shelter. On Sundays, when the girls got together for brunch, Jojo insisted on dairy-free cream cheese and bagels from a “sustainable local” bakery.
“What other kind of bagel bakery is there?” Bethany muttered to herself.
Truth was, Bethany was attracted to Jojo. She’d experimented in college, dating both men and women. Both sexes had advantages.
In August, on “Victory Day,” the roommates schlepped down to Scarborough Beach for some sun and sand.
While Bethany rubbed sunblock onto Jojo’s shoulders, Jojo debated the ethics of celebrating the Japanese defeat in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then, in mid sentence, Jojo fell silent and relaxed, leaning into Bethany’s hands. Bethany noticed Jojo’s smooth warm skin. Application of UV protection went well beyond a recommended dose, and might have gone further if Danita hadn’t laughed. “Get a room!”
Now Bethany was supposed to buy Jojo a Secret Santa gift? What can you get for less than $25 that says, I like you, and might even want you, but we’re roommates and it would be awkward as hell?
Meanwhile, an Advent calendar had appeared on the refrigerator. Rhonda’s phone alarm woke everyone with the Peanuts Christmas theme. Gift boxes piled up under the tree.
Bethany longed to be in Mamaroneck, eating latkes. But when she called her Mom’s cell, Mom said that they were asleep in Switzerland, which Bethany would have remembered if she was a good daughter, instead of scaring them half to death that there was an emergency.
Escape was impossible.
Three days before Christmas, at an unlicensed pop-up craft fair in Olneyville, Bethany finally found the perfect gift.
It was a beautiful steel Chanukah menorah made by a bisexual Palestinian RISD grad named Baraka who worked for Greenpeace while waiting for her artistic career to take off. Yes, it cost $125, but it came festively wrapped.
If that didn’t send Jojo a message, nothing would.
On Christmas Eve, the girls watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Bethany drank too much eggnog spiked with 151 and woke at 10 with a killer hangover.
“Finally!” Danita said. “Merry Christmas! Time to open prezzies!”
Danita handed Ellen a candy-striped snuggie. Bethany winced and slurped coffee. Ellen gave Rhonda an assortment of gourmet cheeses. Rhonda presented Louise with a student ticket to Trinity Rep. Louise gave Danita a pair of pink bunny slippers.
Through all their squealing, Bethany kept her mouth fully bageled.
The two last gifts were a big sliver and blue box Jojo had bought for Bethany, and the big green and red box Bethany had bought for Jojo.
I’m screwed, Bethany thought.
“Me first!” Jojo grinned, unwrapping carefully, so the paper could be recycled.
She opened the box, looked inside, burst into tears and ran from the room.
“What did you do?” Danita hissed.
“I made a mistake,” Bethany answered, miserable. The menorah was too shiny, too expensive and too much of a fuck you.
It took the other girls 20 minutes to bring Jojo back into the living room.
“I’m sorry,” Bethany began, but Jojo interrupted.
“Don’t be.” Jojo sniffled. “It’s my fault. I overreacted. Open yours.”
Filled with dread, Bethany tore it open to reveal an identical stainless steel Chanukah menorah.
Bethany felt tears welling in her eyes. She walked to Jojo, and wrapped her in her arms. Jojo looked up. Bethany looked down. And they kissed.
The other four girls cheered, clapped and whooped, which didn’t help Bethany’s hangover at all.
“Merry Christmas,” Bethany said.
“Happy Hanukkah,” Jojo said.
Mark Binder is a writer and storyteller. His latest book, The Misadventures of Rabbi Kibbitz and Mrs. Chaipul has been called “the feel good book of the season” by GoLocalProv. It is available in print at Stillwater Books, Books on the Square, and in book, ebook and audiobook form everywhere.