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Abby's Hanukkah Tales!

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Hanukkah.

The Festival of Lights.

And possibly the best holiday we invented, and we came up with some great ones. Sounding a ram's horn to ring in the new year, dressing up like Esther on Purim, everything about Passover from the house-cleaning to the four questions -- actually, everything about all the holidays. They're awesome. Wouldn't trade them for the world. Even the terrible ones, like Yom HaShoah, and the thoughtful ones like Yom Kippur. When I was little I hated anything that required you to keep quiet but now that I'm older, it makes sense. You need some time out in your life, to think about the things you've done, to set things right when you've screwed up. When you know the taste of crow as well as I do, it's kind of a must-have holiday.

But enough about that. Hanukkah. When I was little, I admit, I mostly loved the eight-days-of-presents part, the latkes, the gelt. Actually, now that I'm older, gelt's still probably my favorite part of Hanukkah. I give it to my baby-sitting charges. I give it to my roommates. I give it to people in the hall. When Hanukkah falls during exam week (which happens way too frequently), I give gelt to the proctors. It makes me feel rich, chocolate makes people feel happy, I figure it's the world's most perfect solution to exam anxiety. Which may be why Hanukkah is an exam-week holiday.

After a day of exams, sometimes you need to go back to your room, crash in your hammock, and light candles to remind you of what's truly important in the world.

So, okay, lots of times the lesson we're learning begins with people trying to kill us, which -- you don't want to think is true. But they all end the same way: evil failed. We're still here. The candles are still shining, eight nights later, brighter than ever, the lights of faith and family and friendship and love.

Okay. Enough with the sermon. (Or what my twin Anna calls 'an Abbylogue.' If you ask me, she should stick to being the serious one, because I've got funny all gift-wrapped and shipped parcel post, whereas serious-me could put G-d to sleep. I digress).

Abby's Hanukkah Tales!

That sounds like it should be the name of a TV special, yeah? Move over, Shari Lewis. Or, more likely, roll over in your grave, given the not-for-kiddies content of the stories I am about to tell. So fasten your seatbelts, make sure you've got both eyes firmly attached to your eye sockets, and hold on tight because.

Actually, first let me tell you about the Baby-Sitters Club. As you can guess from our name, you can call one number and reach seven experienced dog groomers. Nah, you're right. We are (were) baby-sitters, and, except for occasionally keeping kids quiet through the generous application of gelt, we were damn fine ones. College and all put a damper on the sitting business, and left a wide-open space in our charges' hearts. And you don't want to know about the parents. Oh, there was weeping and gnashing of teeth in Stoneybrook that day, although our president (Kristy Thomas, queen of the free, last of the brave) assured them that if they just scheduled meetings and dinners out for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas break, they'd hardly notice a difference. The heartest-broken, though, was Charlotte Johannson, which leads me, by a circuitous route, to my first story.

When my story begins, it was not a dark and stormy night. It was a mildish wintry day in eastern Connecticut, which means it was, oh, fifty below freezing with winds upwards of thirty miles an hour blowing all the snow in Stoneybrook straight into Stacey McGill's face. Winter is my favorite most favorite season, because of the obvious -- holidays, more holidays, several weeks off from school and best of all no allergens. They all freeze to death with the first big frost. Halleluia! G-d is good.

And Charlotte had been very well-behaved. She should have been merrily wrapping gifts, assured of a great haul from Santa the next morning, because she had made good grades, been kind to her friends, and not spent Thanksgiving weekend grounded for being high at the family dinner like her best friend Becca had. (If you had to eat dinner with Becca's Aunt Cecelia, you would have wanted to get as high above the fray as you could, too, trust me. Don't judge, walk a mile, you know how this works.) Charlotte was the very model of a modern majorly teenaged chica (oh, teenspeak. So recently abandoned, and missed so very little), and all the nail polish and romance novels and emo CDs she desired would be tucked safely in her stocking come morning.

Only. The only thing Charlotte really wanted was the woman currently struggling against the wind, wrapped in a black coat dusted with snow, and she was labeled Cannot Have. Not because she was taken, and not because she was straight, because she was neither, but because she was a college student, and therefore older (by the few years that mean so much when you're sixteen), and most of the year, she was faraway, and in those pre-driver's license years, the few miles that separate Stoneybrook from NYU might as well be light years. Oh, Charlotte.

Also, there was the small matter of Stacey not knowing, dreaming, or imagining that Charlotte was in love with her. And you might think that struggling through the snow when she could have been cozily drinking tea was a sign that Stacey had more than sisterly adoration for Charlotte, but it's hard to tell with these things, especially when you're quiet like Charlotte (or so I hear; my picture is next to "quiet" in the dictionary with a great big NOT in front of if), whose dark, serious eyes grew wide with wonder when she looked at Stacey but who couldn't manage the words, "I love you," not since she turned twelve, not since things turned serious, not since Stacey became a former baby-sitter.

Stacey rang the doorbell, and Charlotte, who'd been watching out the window, face pressed against the glass, actually ran to answer it, and barely remembered to become dignified when she opened the door. "Hi," she said, voice just above a whisper. "You came after all."

"Of course I came," Stacey said. "Duh. Brought you a present."

Charlotte's eyes lit up, and she reached for the package eagerly. It was wrapped in shiny red paper dotted with Christmas trees, tied neatly with ribbons, the kind of beautiful package that usually only comes from the mall, but this was home-wrapped and Charlotte had the familiar sensation of breathlessness at the sight of Stacey's perfection. And Char hadn't even looked at Stacey herself yet, stripping off her coat, dressed in black pants and a white blouse edged in gold rick-rack, glittery like a hard rock Christmas tree. When she did look, well.

Charlotte couldn't breathe. This was something new. Stacey'd always been breathtaking, sure, growing from a sophisticated teenager into a curvy woman, fresh-scented and shiny, perfectly made up and just pink-faced enough from the cold to look human and not like a plastic model. Thinner than the last time Charlotte saw her, and her cheekbones were more defined, her eyes brighter. Or maybe Charlotte had forgotten, had let absence dull the memory of Stacey's beauty, sharp and chilling. Either way, she couldn't breathe.

When you can't breathe (which is a subject on which I'm an expert, thank you asthma, for this and all your gifts) you start to panic, which makes your lungs constrict more, and you think you're going to die and just start praying. Charlotte's not religious, but she idolizes Stacey, and the moment she stopped breathing, she looked at Stacey, eyes glazed, lips parted, and the package slipped through her fingers like powdery snow and Stacey knew.

Like that, Stacey knew. She told us afterward that it was like the past eight years had been a dream and that moment she woke up, like the past eight years were a jigsaw puzzle that looked like nothing, just a swirl of colors and arguments and disease, divorce, and delinquency and when Charlotte looked at her like that, she realized what the puzzle was a picture of. Me, I don't get it. If I like someone I tell her, or him, and we go to a movie and if the making-out is more exciting than the film, I figure the relationship is worth it, if not, I got free movie tickets out of the deal so no big. Shrug shoulders, end of story.

But hearing Stacey talk like that, and seeing her and Charlotte, with Charlotte's gloved hand tucked in Stacey's pocket, both girls -- well, women, really -- laughing, looking at each other, ignoring landmarks and traffic patterns and the foul weather -- the whole world goes away for them. And every day's a holiday.

Sniffle. No, not allergies. I'm just getting sentimental, thinking about my friends, and my parents, and happy couples I have known, and the unhappiest non-Jewish couple who ever celebrated Hanukkah.

Oh, look, it's Abby's Hanukkah Tales -- part two! Unrelated to part one, except that both happened during the same eventful winter break and both deal with love and other stickiness.

Kristy Thomas is my neighbor, so I have to say nice things about her (she knows where I live and she's seen where I sleep and she may be tiny but her mouth is not), but the truest thing to say is that Kristy is loud. I am a loud person, myself, and as you are already aware I'm very fond of hearing myself talk, but Kristy takes this to a whole different level. She is pretty much unable to believe that any occasion is not entirely about her, even when the occasion is a special dinner on the last night of Hanukkah, which Anna and I prepared for our mom and our friends. For a rare change, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas break, so we'd spent most of the holiday on Long Island with relatives and childhood friends, but the last night we wanted to spend with our favorite people, counting blessings, celebrating togetherness.

How this turned into the Kristy Thomas Show, I do not know, except I know Kristy, and everything is the Kristy Thomas Show, even including other people's funerals. (Especially if the deceased had small children, in which case -- look. My dad died when I was nine. When even I feel that Kristy's behavior is beyond tasteless a) I tell her and b) there are problems). But this is beside the point. Kristy had behaved herself through dinner, was being relatively quiet while Anna's girlfriend Shannon told a complicated story about a conflict between rugby practice and marching band that culminated in her deciding to study for a calculus test instead (the Shannon-and-Anna adventure is, I'm sure, full of literary allusions and candlelight serenades, but to hear them tell it it's mostly about squeezing couple-time between Anna's deadly serious violin practice and Shannon's graduate level classes). Kristy was politely ignoring Dawn Schafer, who was playing footsie with Mary Anne, her stepsister.

If this all sounds terribly confusing, it's actually much worse. You see -- I do love a good drama! -- Mary Anne and Kristy have been best friends since they were in diapers, but Mary Anne and Dawn's friendship has roots that go even deeper. Mary Anne's dad and Dawn's mom were high school sweethearts, and when they met up again years later, insta-sparks. The chemistry didn't skip a generation, either -- Dawn and Mary Anne click in a way that boggles everyone else. Anna and I call our communication the twin frequency, and I think that Mary Anne and Dawn have something similar. The yowza-zam, "I always know exactly where she is even when a continent separates us" chemistry, combined with a very non-sisterly attraction into which I will not pry but I sometimes suspect it involves slumber parties and the joys of pajamas.

This makes Kristy insanely jealous. Kristy has not been shy about asking Mary Anne out, at every opportunity, since both girls turned fourteen, and every time Mary Anne turns her down, Kristy gets a little angrier at Dawn. Admittedly, Dawn isn't actually dating Mary Anne, either (this would be too weird, since they are, in fact, almost sisters), and Mary Anne's lack of interest in Kristy has more to do with a chronic fear of loudness and the (probably accurate) conviction that Kristy would want to move faster than Mary Anne would, (i.e., skip the small talk, straight to the groping, my kind of girl except for we'd drive each other mad in minutes if not sooner if we ever tried for first base).

Where was I? Right -- jealousy, lust, Kristy, and the barely-contained animosity that was making my holiday distinctly ungay -- several of my least favorite things. Even lust gets old when everyone at the Hanukkah table is simmering with unspoken desire and the only people speaking normally to each other are those who've decided the other is too repulsive to try to date.

The menorah was shining gaily, trying to do its job and remind us of G-d's unlimited love for us, but it was failing. Kristy was seething. Mary Anne was close to tears for reasons that escaped me. Stacey was doodling Charlotte's name on her napkin, like dating a sixteen-year-old had reduced her to acting like one. Shannon was giving Anna a perfectly disgusting look. I wanted to sob, myself, and Claudia had skipped dinner entirely and gone straight for my stash of gelt.

"Not a bad idea," I told her. "Can I gelt you some more?"

"Gelt over yourself, Abby. Puns are so last century."

"According to my calendar, the century doesn't turn for another couple of decades."

"That's Abby time?"

"Hebrew calendar. Similar concept, but more holy days and fewer Saturday morning soccer matches."

"We should gelt out of here -- the tension is giving me a headache and I think Kristy's going to murder -- hey! Where did Dawn go?"

She was gone, and further observation revealed that Kristy was too. This wasn't good -- I didn't think actual murder was a possibility, but, well, it was dark and our house is big, and it was perfect murder mystery weather. Claudia shivered with what I was afraid was probably joy. Some people are a little too excitable.

"Let's go look for them," I suggested, poking idly at my leftover latke.

"Yeah," Claudia agreed. "You want to clean up while the kill is fresh -- dried blood sets in forever."

I rolled my eyes.

Kristy and Dawn weren't in the kitchen, weren't in the pantry, weren't in the living room, den, or family room. We have two spare bedrooms, and Anna's room looks hardly lived-in, but Kristy and Dawn weren't there either. They decided that my room, which Dawn has declared a federal disaster zone and which Kristy calls "the femme hole," was the perfect place for a fight, which was no longer about Mary Anne, the messiness of my room, or the relative merits of junk food and granola sprouts, but had devolved into an exhaustive list of everything that either of them had ever done to be annoying. It was a long list. I got bored halfway through the first reel (seventh grade: best friend stealing through seventh grade: bossiness and general pig-headedness) and offered Claudia more chocolate. "They'll be at this all night," she sighed. "Tell me this isn't the true meaning of Hanukkah?"

"I think it's something about light in darkness," I told her, "but who knows, it could be homoerotic bickering, too."

"Which is in fact the true meaning of every holiday," Claudia sighed. "Except Halloween, which is purely an excuse to pig out."

Kristy's voice had gotten dangerously low when she discussed ninth grade: wasting BSC meeting time by discussing eating disorder of California friend and ninth grade: failing to show up to baby-sitting job because of unimportant hair appointment, and I perked up -- perhaps the fight was almost over and we could go back downstairs for a rousing game of dreidel before everyone went home to make out with their girlfriends.

Dawn kissed Kristy. (So much for getting out of here before ten o'clock.)

This I was not expecting. Neither was Claudia -- we looked at each other in wide-eyed disbelief and missed the sight of Kristy slapping Dawn's cheek before dragging her into a bone-breaking hug and kissing her so hard I swear I thought Dawn would lose consciousness.

Claudia and I recovered our senses and started applauding, Kristy extracted herself from the kiss and took a bow, everything was happy from then on out. Except that Dawn and Kristy broke up that night, and spent the next year and a half trying to pretend the relationship had never happened. Except that Charlotte and Stacey's relationship is more like a plane wreck than a completed jigsaw puzzle. Except that things are never perfect and (warning, deep thought ahead) holidays are never quite so glowy perfect and sentimental on the inside as the shiny snowman wrapping paper would have you believe.

But I do know this: the lights of Hanukkah illuminate our truth. They remind us about the truth of our faith, remind us who created us and chose us out of the darkness to be a light to the nations, and they light the path for all of us, show us who our Creator is and the loves for which we were created, illuminate the Law to which we are subject and show us that we are chosen -- Stacey and Kristy and Dawn too -- out of all the people in the world --

to be G-d's beloved.

Here endeth the sermon, here beginneth the merry-making. As Claudia would say, "No more gelt trips, please."

Thank you. Thank you very much.