Whatever we might wish to believe about ourselves, we are only the result of how others have treated us.
— Rachel Cusk, Transit
My mother rejected the idea that anything in the world cost more than five dollars. She took great pleasure in disputing this with every person who would listen, as though they were the ones who had it out for us rather than society at large. I felt any criticism of her debate model would be insufficient in its own way, so I learned to let my face grow hot and explore other parts of the store while she waited in line to pay. I rarely had any money, and even if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Her opinions often grew sharper and louder around the holidays, perhaps due to price markups, or menopause, which she blamed as the source of our contention for an impossible length of time. I remember the plate she hurled at the wall after a particularly unpleasant seder—how it shattered into pieces, ceramic fragments raining down around us, and the apologies that lasted well into my twenties. Maybe I was remembering a dream. I never knew anymore.
In the house where I grew up, my mother kept a Ziploc gallon bag of batteries inside the freezer behind a carton of lactose-free vanilla ice cream. She said it helped them last longer. She also told me if I plucked my eyebrows, they would grow back three times as thick. I waxed them while I was away at college. When I returned home after the semester had drawn to a close, she didn’t ask about classes. Instead, our only exchange was a chastising onceover, and then: “Why would you do that to yourself?”
I ate my breakfast in silence—one egg, wheat toast, watered-down orange juice, fish oil supplement—while she glared at me from across the table, huffing air through her nose. I turned on the menorah, an ancient relic from the early aughts, which took its time hiccuping to life. We recited the Hanukkah prayer with spiritless precision and slept on opposite sides of the room. Later, I woke up to a gift bag on the table and a note in her illegible chicken scratch: To my beautiful babochka. XOXO Mom. Inside was a knit hat with a pom-pom on top.
“In case you wanted to hide those eyebrows,” she said, grinning sheepishly. “They’ll grow back.”
There was no lactose-free ice cream in my freezer. In fact, there was no ice cream at all—only frozen vegetables and chicken breasts and kernels of sweet corn that had escaped from the bag. Batteries were something I only bought out of necessity, but I still found myself hopelessly rummaging through the ice box as though I could manifest a Ziploc bag through sheer willpower alone. The freezer door rattled in protest when I slammed it shut.
Outside, the night was stiff and damp. Christmas decorations hung limply from our neighbor’s house, obscured by a real estate sign that went up five days ago. I looked clownish in my winter clothes. A group of kids huddled together near the intersection that seemed perpetually under construction, where unsightly chunks of earth and concrete had been upturned and spewed all over the asphalt, quarantined from the intact street by a length of orange fencing. They couldn’t have been older than thirteen. I approached the crosswalk, careful to leave a generous gap between us. Thirteen-year-olds were the cruelest people in the world.
Eighth grade came to me as a distant and unwelcome memory: acne veiled beneath greasy sidebangs, dark pit stains on my Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt, a girl named Kelsey who made Hitler jokes because she assumed I didn’t mind. My mother asked her not to attend my bat mitzvah. I remembered when she slammed down the landline with all the force in her ninety-eight-pound body, muttering goy this, goy that, how could I think it was funny to make a joke about Hitler’s gas bill, and I had to explain to her no, Mom, Kelsey made the joke about the gas bill, and I only laughed because—
One of the kids hocked a loogie and spit it into the street. I heard somebody say, “Gross!”
The light changed, and we shuffled along the crosswalk, past a row of headlights threatening to mow us down. Ahead, neon signs cleaved through the darkness.
My mother was born nervous. “Always with the tsuris,” my grandfather used to say, propped upright in his moth-eaten armchair, waving her away each time she came to make sure he hadn’t stopped breathing.
When my mother first signed me up for Girl Scouts, she lingered in the gymnasium long after the other parents had left, watching me from her perch by the bleachers. This went on for several weeks. Eventually, the troop leader, a woman named Miss Barbara, assured her I was in good hands. My mother nodded, blinking back tears. Miss Barbara wore V-neck sweaters with modest cleavage and a silver cross necklace that glinted beneath the fluorescent lights. She smelled intoxicating. Bright and sweet, like lip gloss. My mother didn’t allow perfume in the house. Whenever Miss Barbara took attendance, I inhaled twice as hard.
For weeks, it went. My mother dropped me off in my flimsy uniform—a skirt, sash, and matching beret—and held my hand for a few moments before disappearing into the hall, where she waited with bated breath to learn I had died under Miss Barbara’s supervision. The holidays drew nearer. I earned several useless patches for acts of good samaritanism I no longer remembered. My mother got me a pair of denim jeans for Hanukkah instead of sweatpants that looked like jeans.
I was nine years old when a boy who bit the peeling skin off his chapped lips asked why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. His name was William Barnstead Jr., but he went by Billy. “Like Billy Joel,” he said. “That guy who loves pianos.”
We were partnered for an assignment, laying on our bellies, materials spread across the floor in front of us. Billy was drawing circles on the linoleum. His arms and legs were too long for his body, and he moved as though he wasn’t quite sure how to maneuver them. Every once in a while, I would glance up from the work we were supposed to be doing, lean over, and add a little face.
“Those are good,” he said.
“Thanks. I’m going to be an artist.”
Billy propped himself up on his elbows. “My mom says artists don’t make any money. My sister is an artist. She used to make all the flyers for our church events until she left for Paris with her boyfriend.”
“My mom makes portraits of animals and dead people,” I said, drawing a steep, narrow triangle. Bits of lead from my pencil trailed behind each stroke.
I wasn’t sure where to put the cross, so I stuck it on top. “Does this look like a church?”
“The cross part does,” Billy said. “Haven’t you ever seen a church?”
“Not up close. We go to synagogue.”
“What’s synagogue?” he asked, stretching out the syllables so they sounded foreign. Sin-ah-gog.
“Like church, but for Jewish people. We learn about the Torah. I watched Prince of Egypt in Hebrew School last week. We don’t celebrate Christmas, but there’s this one holiday where we have to eat parsley dipped in saltwater.”
Billy studied me, frowning. “You don’t celebrate Christmas?”
“I celebrate Hanukkah. It’s eight days long and I get a present every day,” I said.
“Are you lying?” Billy asked. “My mom says Jews are good liars.”
My palms were slick with sweat. I smudged pencil lead across the linoleum, destroying the church, although now it really seemed more like an amalgam of haphazard shapes. There were now two things I couldn’t draw, I decided: cars and churches.
“Take your time,” my mother said, clutching my arm as we tread over icy mounds of snow and slush. “You don’t want to slip and fall.”
“I’m okay, Mom.”
It was hardly six o’clock, but the sun had long since dipped beyond the horizon. We were running late because I tried to spit my broccoli into a napkin at dinner. By the time we finally left the house, she had threatened to take away my Gameboy twice, so I told her I was running away to Grandma’s house even though all she cooked were eggs and matzo ball soup because I’d rather eat food that tasted like nothing than food that tastes like broccoli. We drove down Long Island Avenue in silence. After a while, she asked if I wanted macaroni tomorrow, and I knew we were fine. We were always fine.
By the time my mother and I reached the gymnasium, I felt a bruise beginning to form. If I pointed this out to her, the incident would be brought up during arguments until one or both of us died—more for my sake than hers, I opted against it.
I’d already missed attendance, which meant Miss Barbara and her perfume had long since drifted past. I hovered by the door, arms crossed.
My mother looked at me, her outline barely visible in the darkness. She ran a gloved thumb across my cheek.
“I know you’re okay, babochka,” she said.
For a brief moment, I was overcome with the urge to turn on my heel and spend the night parked in front of the television beside her, eating lactose-free vanilla ice cream because the regular kind made her stomach hurt.
Instead, I smiled, squeezing her hand in mine. She nodded at me sadly, as though I had tried to convince her of something she knew wasn’t true.
The doors swung shut behind me. I considered waving goodbye, but the thought made my chest tighten. I tossed my jacket in a heap near the bleachers, smoothing out the wrinkled sash underneath. Months ago, my mother had tried to teach me how to sew on the patches myself, but each time my needle punctured the fabric she flinched so violently I thought I had stabbed her by accident.
“Girls, we have a very special surprise!” I heard Miss Barbara chime. I swiveled around, lost in a sea of brown berets—and then I saw him.
Santa sat on a plastic folding chair in the center of the gymnasium, swaying back and forth like an overinflated lawn decoration. His cheeks were glistening with sweat, legs spread too far apart, one hand patting his distended midsection as though he had just eaten an entire rotisserie chicken.
“Ho ho ho!” he bellowed. “Merry Christmas!”
I took a moment to examine my options. I could fake an asthma attack. Give myself a nosebleed. Make a run for it, maybe, while everyone was distracted. Anything to avoid explaining the situation to my mother. I imagined it: “Don’t they think about these things? Why doesn’t anyone think about these things?” Meanwhile, the other girls flocked around me, clambering over one another to secure a coveted seat on Santa’s lap.
Are you lying?
Miss Barbara stood by one of the basketball hoops, freshly-manicured hands clasped together. “We’re getting photos with Santa. Isn’t that exciting?”
She was dressed as Mrs. Claus, looking comically slim and glamorous in a short red dress beside Santa, who appeared as though he might succumb to heart disease at any moment. I shuffled past the horde until I was in right in front of her. She didn’t notice, too busy pinballing 4′9″ bodies in various directions. I tugged on her dress. The material felt like a cheap tablecloth.
She turned to face me, blonde curls bobbing. “What’s up, sweetie?”
“Miss Barbara,” I said, carefully measuring my words, “I would prefer not to take a photo with Santa.”
Her smile faltered. “Why not?”
My mom says Jews are good liars.
I closed my eyes. Billy’s voice echoed in my head, expanding infinitely in concentric circles. I saw pencil lead and lopsided triangles.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
When I opened them, Miss Barbara was surveying me with something colder than skepticism. Disappointment. Mild irritation. Pity, maybe. I opened my mouth to apologize and then decided against it.
Miss Barbara crouched down, but she didn’t reach out to touch me. The silver cross dangled several inches off her chest. I watched it float between us, a line of demarcation.
“Well, honey, I need you to go line up with the other girls,” she said, leaning in close enough that no one else could hear. Her perfume was making my eyes burn.
“Why?” I asked.
Miss Barbara smiled sweetly. “Because you people had your holiday. And now we have ours.”
In the basement, plastic bins of junk lined the walls, each labeled with thick, purple marker: SUMMER CLOTHES, GLASSWARE, SPARE BEDDING, and then, buried near the washer, HOLIDAYS. I popped off the lid, sifting through its content: the ridges of a plastic jack-o’-lantern, several pairs of New Year’s Eve glasses, a fistful of tinsel, expired fireworks from some Fourth of July that had passed without my knowledge or consent.
The menorah was certainly worse for wear, somehow still functioning after years of relentless abuse. I slid open the battery compartment. A pack of Duracells cost $6.36, which I found to be completely absurd. Criminal, even.
My mother had offered it to me as a parting gift—the closest thing we had to a family artifact—accompanied by a fistful of napkins for the train home. I thanked her for the menorah, and then, against my better judgment, asked why I needed the napkins. She shook her head in disbelief. My question was so foolish it didn’t warrant a response.
Before I left for the station, my mother licked her thumb and ran it over my eyebrows, smoothing them into place.
“My butterfly,” she hummed. “My little soul.”
The shamash flickered. Then, in the way that all things become holy: I was bathed in light.