Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Short story: An "Out"-standing Chanukah

NOTE: This story (really flash fiction, length-wise) was originally published on Liberty Island website as an Honorable Mention in a Non-Traditional Holiday Story contest. Below is a somewhat cleaned up and expanded version. I made a choice to keep a reference that might already seem dated. Since the story set in the future, there is no telling which memories would survive to inspire the future generations, especially if our society takes a turn for the worse and parts of history get lost to time.


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An “Out”-standing Chanukah

I stand frozen in hesitation, staring at the door of Uncle Jay’s office. It is a standard  six-panel door, painted white, with an old-fashioned doorknob free of electronics, the kind you turn by hand. I raise my arm to knock, then lower it again.

What am I doing here? I am fooling myself. Clearly, this much indecision is a sign that I’m not ready. Maybe I should wait another year. I’d be in college by then, and—

No. I’m not going off to college without letting my family know the truth. It’s not fair, and besides, I don’t think I could hide it much longer.

I glance at a small white rectangular box mounted on the side of the doorway. It’s called a mezuzah. These are legal again to sell in stores, along with Christian crosses. I don’t know what a mezuzah is, exactly, or what it’s supposed to do, but the sight of it makes me feel better. I take a deep breath and knock on the door before I lose my nerve.

“Uncle Jay? Do you have a minute?”
“Sure, come on in.”

I open the door and poke my head inside. The room intimidates the heck out of me, even after all those years. It’s like some kind of museum, only I know the people in the photos so it’s… I can’t even explain it. Like something I have to live up to, but can’t.

Uncle Jay turns away from the photo collage above the bookcase, smiles and waves for me to enter.

“Hi, Eddie. Great to see you. What’s going on?”


Chanukah at Uncle Jay’s is a huge family tradition, and one of the reasons it’s my favorite holiday. Alex is an amazing cook, so the food is great. But it’s not just food. Jay and Alex are just fun to be around, not nearly as stuffy as my other relatives. There are two rules for Chanukah, though, and as far as I know they’ve never been broken. One, no Manischewitz wine allowed. I have no clue why, but I’m too young to drink anyway. Two, anyone can say anything while at the table. So big family announcements, especially ones that could start a fight, usually happen at this house, on Chanukah. That one, I can guess why. I’ve heard conflicting stories from my cousins, and even news records from that time are spotty. My dad would know, obviously, but he’s the last person I would ask. That’s the reason I’m in Jay’s office right now—to confirm what happened decades ago, and to help me decide.

“I, uh…” I freeze up. It’s what I do. Anything important needs saying, and my mouth disconnects from the brain like I’m a broken robot in a sci-fi movie. “I have a question,” I finally manage.

My uncle points me to a chair. A chair looks pretty tempting right now because I feel like I’m about to pass out, but I’m also too nervous to sit. I come up and join him at the photos. I’ve seen them all before, including a laminated news clipping of Jay and Alex getting arrested. That picture used to inspire me, but now it’s not helping.

“You have to actually ask the question, kid. That’s how it works.”

“What? Oh.” I break out of my trance, enough to take a deep breath and blurt out the words. “Is it true you came out on Chanukah? I mean… uh…”

“I know what you mean, Eddie. Yes, it’s true. Mind you, it’s one of those stories that became bigger as time went on because of what happened later, but…” He trails off, looking suddenly much younger than his fifty-something years, then comes back to reality, his eyes meeting mine. “You want to tell me why you’re really here?”

I look away, but, incredibly, he understands.

“You know what? We have a little time before dinner. Let me show you something that might help.”

Uncle Jay reaches into one of his desk drawers, pulls out an ancient-looking piece of electronics, plugs it in and presses a few buttons.

“Here you go. I was messaging with Alex while it was happening. You only get to see my side because the screen is messed up. I know it’s silly of me to keep it, but… I don’t know. Just never felt right to throw it out.”

I nod, somewhat shocked, and take the device. It’s thick and unwieldy, hard to hold in one hand. The screen is made of what looks like cheap plastic, not meant to last. It’s covered in scratches and even dented in a couple of spots, yet the text of the sent messages is clear. I settle into the chair as Uncle Jay quietly leaves the room, and I am now alone with his memories.



Hi, it’s Jay. And I might die today.

….

Yeah, I know it rhymes. Shows you how fried my brain is. Sorry about that. Seriously, though, Alex, I want to make it official. If I don’t make it, you’re getting my music player. I just got complete Disturbed collection downloaded. Took forever to find, now that the idiots decided to ban it. No way I’m letting it go to waste. In fact, I want The Vengeful One played at my funeral.


What? You don’t appreciate my sparkling sense of humor? Fine, be that way.

Anyhoo, I don’t think Dad would actually kill me, but you never know. It’s not like there’s precedent in the family, that I know at least. I think my second cousin Pete might be one of us, but he’s like thirty five and I can’t exactly come right up to him and ask. Wouldn’t be polite, you know?

OK, Mom needs something downstairs. Guests are coming in a few, so I’ll keep in touch. Have your phone on; I’ll be updating. Wish me luck!


*

Yikes, I forgot. They’re serving Manischewitz. Why is beyond me. A full liquor cabinet and they’re putting out the gross stuff. Somehow they decided it’s a Holiday tradition. Oookay. Don’t know any holiday that requires drinking crappy wine, but whatever. My problem is, the whole plan to wait till everyone’s a little buzzed? Yeah, I can forget it. No one ever drinks enough Manischewitz  for that to happen. As of now, I’ll have to give them time to fill up on soup and latkes. Maybe they’ll get sleepy. In retrospect, should’ve done it at Thanksgiving. My timing stinks.

Food looks great, though. The latkes are actually fried. In real oil, if you can believe it. And the brisket—I didn’t even know it was still legal, what with the new anti-meat regs and all. Turns out, Mom has a little rebel in her. Too bad it’s only when it comes to food. Dang it, I should be enjoying myself right now. Maybe I should just come out and tell right away, get it over with? What do you think?

Alex? You there?

….

Oh. Sorry. Forgot you’re also with family. Take your time.


Yeah, you’re right. Let them eat in peace. I guess I should get some food myself, or they’ll notice something’s up. I’m probably all nervous-looking enough as it is.

You have a good time, though, alright? Appreciate you being there for me and everything, but it’s my problem, not yours. Don’t ruin your Holiday for my sake.

Oh come ON. I’m doing this because I want to, OK? I’m 18 for crying out loud; it’s time. They’ll accept it or they won’t. Might as well know. Seriously, relax. I’ll live. Maybe. KIDDING! Bad sense of humor. That’s why you like me, remember? Fine, I’ll shut up for now. Time to eat. Last meal and all that. I know, I know, not funny. Later.

*

WHEW! I told. Wish you were around to see it. So get this… They’re finishing up the meal, and Uncle Mike starts talking politics. The poor this, the minorities that, the President still farting rainbows—you can imagine. Everyone’s nodding, fine, whatever, standard crap. Then he starts on how we should respect the differences and stuff. I’m thinking, it’s my chance, right? A little pause in conversation, I clear my throat, as if for a toast. Family loves toasts; it’s an Old World thing. So I get everyone’s attention, and I tell.

Quiet. For, like, 30 seconds—crickets. Then Grandma just smiles at me, asks if anyone wants more food, and people start talking again. About food. Like nothing happened. AWKWARD!

I’m in the bathroom right now so I could message you. Probably won’t be able to do more till everyone’s gone.

Oh and Cousin Pete is definitely one of us. He totally winked at me when no one was looking. How he’d kept it to himself all these years I’ll never know, but at least someone would be supportive if things get bad. The rest, we’ll see. Just feels great to let it out in the open. Thanks again for being there. You’re the best.

Going up to my room with a bunch of cousins. Might be offline a while, so don’t worry. Don’t have TOO much fun without me!

*




Hey, sorry didn’t get to message you last night. Stuff happened. Bad news is, I got in a fight with Seth, one of my older cousins. Stupid. Make it moronic. Couldn’t help it. He called me… well, you know, THAT word. So I said at least I wasn’t a loser living in Mom’s basement, TOTALLY forgetting he does martial arts.


Yeah, you’re right. Hence the “moronic” above. The best I can say, at least it was over quick.


I’m OK. Sort of. I think he tried to break my arm, but the others pulled him off. Could’ve been worse.

...

Alex? Chill. It happens. Comes with the territory. Didn’t expect this crap from family, but hey, might as well learn to deal. You have, right?


True. You family’s different. Oh well, can’t pick ‘em. But speaking of good news: maybe it’s because they feel bad I got beat up, but my parents have been quiet so far. Mom gave me the whole “We love you no matter what” spiel. Dad’s glaring, but at least no yelling so that’s something.

Give me a few. Have to get some ice packs.

*

Sorry, got intercepted. Parents wanted to ‘’talk.” What am I, five? I know what I’m getting into. I guess it’s good they’re worried rather than mad, but these next few months before graduation might get annoying.

Anyway, I know what you want to ask. I’m not a total idiot. Not when it comes to you, at least. No, I didn’t tell them about us. Too much, too soon.

But.

If you’re OK with it,

Sorry. Brain still fried from the whole thing. What I was going to say, I thought it would be best if they just met you. I’m sure you’ll charm their socks off, and maybe it’ll make them feel better. What do you think? Would you do that?


YAY! Did I say you’re the best?


Of COURSE I’m still in! That’s the reason I had to come out this week, remember? Let me pull up the proof on my computer.

Alright, here’s what I’ve got:

GREENVILLE TEA PARTY

This New Year’s Eve,
RESOLVE to RESIST!

Friends * Fun * Freedom

December 31, 2029 @ 10 PM

Hosted by
Alexandra Berman and Jay Savitsky

Can I put your number for RSVP? You sure?


You know, once I post, there’s no going back, right? No idea how people would react. Probably get us in all kinds of trouble.


OK, then. Hope you saved enough bail money for both of us.

Done.


Love you too, Alex.


I feel vaguely guilty, as if I intruded on something private even though Uncle Jay wanted me to read it. And now I have no choice. There’s no way I’m passing up the opportunity—in this house, on Chanukah, now that I know the full story of how the tradition began.

Of course, it went beyond the family. Way beyond. My own uncle and aunt helped resurrect a whole movement, whose very name was forgotten back then. It took decades, but so many things are better now because of what they, and those like them, started. Most books and songs aren’t banned anymore. It’s pretty easy to get whatever food you want, even meat and fried stuff . True religious Holidays are coming back. You can even put a menorah in the window or have Christmas decorations outside this year. Not everyone does it because people are still afraid. But I guess it’s something. My generation can continue to fight for more, and I want to help.

I know that many in my family will despise me after today. A few will never speak to me again. I will lose friends, too, and probably get in trouble at school. I’m ready for it now. I’ve got good examples to follow. It would be great if at least my parents were accepting, but it’s not guaranteed. The only way to know is to stop hiding.

In the dining room, everyone’s already seated. I take a chair and meet Uncle Jay’s eyes across the long table. He nods, just a little.

I sit quietly through the first toast (with scotch!). Some Old World traditions never go away, that’s for sure. I wait till everyone has some food on the plate. Then I stand up and clear my throat.

“So, uh. Happy Chanukah, Everyone. I have something to announce today…”


I see Aunt Alex smile at me as she takes my uncle’s hand in hers, and I know that no matter what happens tonight, I would be just fine.