the gathering kind (part one)

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Remind me why you call me Lisa. There was that summer on the boardwalk when we walked arm in arm, our skin paled down to bone, thin legs poking out of jean shorts, and you told me that Felicia was a girl you used to know. And every time you looked at me you were reminded of your great, beautiful friend and how, when you became pregnant with me, you lost her. That was the year when you met a man who liked to play cards and paint houses. Although he emigrated from Tel Aviv, he knew English, knew it well, so it was confusing that my name was the one word he couldn’t pronounce. So instead he called me Lisa, and you acquiesced, whispered that there was something magical about playing two people.

I lived much of my life like that. Behind a mask. Straddling two names. Confused, divided.

Years passed, and we lived with a new man, an Irish one, in a basement apartment that flooded on the weekends. It was you who brought home those kittens and it was you who forced him to put them in a sack and drive them away. All because they were too hard. Back then you needed things easy. So when he dropped me off at school and heard a few friends say, Felicia, he squinted his eyes, murmured Lisa, and drove home. When he asked you about it, it was as if three syllables were more than you could bear. We lived Lisa for you, to make it easy.

A decade later it was just me and the Irishman because you’d found a new life of your own, leaving us stuck in the betweens. By then I called this man my father because he felt like the closest thing I’d imagine a father to be, and we celebrated the holidays with too much food and wine lips. One year I met my father in the city, at a restaurant that now no longer exists, and I treated him to a steak dinner. The waiters in pressed jackets practiced their seasonal puppetry, while I was determined to ruin. When two refugees find each other, they tell war stories. Compare battle scars and reminisce over the carnage. So both of us laughed when I regaled stories of holidays past, where it was common for you to disappear for hours in search of a pack of cigarettes. Come nightfall you’d return, saying you smoked through the pack. Who knew that everyone was practicing their division? All that time you were squirreling away a life of your own. At the end of the night, my dad and I surveyed our wreckage with bitterness. All that was left was a meal that had gone cold.

He had a limp then, couldn’t feel the soles of his feet. After I took him back to the train station and saw him off, I huddled in a corner, shaking. Because even though I shouldered all this hurt, I refused to cry.

That was how we used to gather*. When meals were a way to color the silences. When it was common to be alone, after.

And then one year my dearest college friend invited me to spend the holidays in Connecticut. Normally I hated places without easy escape routes, but I considered my options. Part of me was too proud to take her offer because that would mean admitting to the fact that I had no family of my own. But another part gnawed, tugged. The first story I had ever written was about food; I felt most comfortable with a whisk and a book, so the thought of equating meals with sorrow was unimaginable. I didn’t want to celebrate the holidays alone, and I wanted to be surrounded by a patchwork of people whom I love, and my friend gave me this great gift even if she didn’t know it. Even if didn’t know it at the time.

I had to turn this around. So I accepted my friend’s very kind offer, and I’ve spent the years with her family since. Never do I feel like a guest, but rather they’ve embraced me as one of their kind. A kind who loves delicious food, a warm home, and love beyond measure. So it is with great love that I travel to Connecticut tomorrow to see my dearest friend, Elizabeth. It’s you who I have to thank for making me fall in love with family and food all those years ago, all over again. It’s our friendship that will not alter.

Merry, Merry Christmas. xx

*Inspired by my friend, Elizabeth and this very lovely publication.

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