It was the weekend. My grandfather had died only days before, a Jewish death on Christmas, the irony still laughing in my head. It was also New Year’s Eve. I was sitting in the middle of the room, alone, the people spinning around me even though I had yet to take a sip from the vodka-cranberry someone had shoved into my hand. Boys eyed me up and down, sleazy and appreciative in turns. My not-black dress squeezed the breath out of me.
A serious miscalculation, but I was stuck – my driver James was already in the corner of the room with a girl on his lap, the intoxicated rebound from his newly failed relationship of three years. We had different priorities tonight, and it looked like he at least was accomplishing his.
I contemplated my drink. Red-tinted ice cubes floated to the top, more cranberry than vodka. Tempting but still probably a bad idea. No one liked taking care of the sobbing drunk girl. Thanks to my poor brain chemistry and recent events, I was more likely than not to end up that way if I tried to match everyone else.
I exhaled, my bangs lifting off my forehead, before wandering into the empty second living room. A little easier breathing. I carefully sat down on the worn brown couch besieged with long white cat hairs. A little more difficult breathing. I closed my eyes and sank backward into the cat hair. Itchy eyes and a sore throat seemed a small price to pay.
In the last few years of Baba’s life, our relationship changed in a significant way. It culminated in my trip at Grandma and Baba’s house during Thanksgiving. Right away, I knew things were going to be different…
“Hey, what are you doing out here?”
Dean, one of the hosts, was making his way toward me from the kitchen. The cushions beneath me tilted in his direction. He threw an arm around my shoulders, concerned and nothing more. It felt good.
“Oh you know, trying to move the party,” I said lightly.
He smiled at me, his brown eyes gentle. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked down at my hands in my lap. The fingers pressed together in strips of red and white. “My grandfather passed away on Christmas.”
“Oh, shit.” Dean shook his head, and then he squeezed the arm around my shoulders. “I had no idea, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said, even though it wasn’t.
There was a small pause as he tried to figure out what else to say. I knew by now that no words would offer up much comfort, and it seemed kind to spare him the forced, awkward lines. I put on a smile, patted his knee, and stood up to join the rest of the party.
The other moments that forever changed the way I saw Baba was the hope and comfort we were able to give each other. He shared his fears about his cancer and the pain, and he told me I gave him hope that he had lost. Unexpectedly, he did the same for me …
Now that I had been noticed, I had to show some semblance of normalcy. It was the only way to avoid pity. So I talked to people. I must have made some amount of sense because they talked back. James came out of the bathroom and found his girl sitting on another boy’s lap. I sympathized. I changed into my jeans and flannel shirt. Everything looked different after I lost a few inches from kicking off my knee high black boots.
The closer it came to midnight, the thicker the presence of male around me. I eyed Dean but he seemed to be the only boy in the house who wasn’t noticing me. Instead he was happily filling plastic champagne glasses and handing them out to everyone.
My chest knotted. Was it from his complete oblivion or the easy happiness that seemed so elusive for me?
James wandered up to me. I saw him coming and I tried to escape but I was not fast enough. He tapped my shoulder and called my name and made himself completely un-ignorable. I cringed.
“Do you want to share a midnight kiss?” he asked.
“Uh, no, sorry,” I said in a small voice.
I bit my lower lip. I couldn’t be sure if he hadn’t heard me, or if he had and “sorry, what” was a reflexive response. I thought it safer to assume the first.
“No, sorry,” I said louder.
His face crumpled, and I stole away into the crowd that had somehow grown large enough to occupy both the first and second living rooms. Dean handed me a glass of champagne and was gone before I could make eye contact.
I had looked forward to this year for a long time. It was the year I would finally graduate from medical school and become a real, working adult. I had imagined the day of my graduation with a mixture of pride and anxiety at the idea of my grandfather standing up as they called my name, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Sheri, Baba’s proud of you! Atta girl!” as he had at all his children’s and grandchildren’s graduations. With his dying breath, he was still talking about how he would make my graduation.
An unexpected, terrible anxiety tore through me. I wasn’t ready to face a year that my grandfather had never lived in. The television turned on, the timer counting the minutes and seconds left of this year. Each tick came with a new burst of terror. One hand clutched the champagne glass, the other rising and falling on my chest with the quick breathing I was trying to slow.
I put down the champagne glass and grabbed a popper. My grandfather would not have approved the alcohol; he never drank or did drugs. He even broke up with a Cosmopolitan model because she smoked.
The crowd of people started chanting the final countdown; the blood pounded in my head:
He showed me that
regardless of what
we experience in life, we
can still be kind and gentle,
we can always take the high road, and
we can have firm beliefs that
no one else can shake.
He was, in short,
who I want to be.
Cheers and poppers exploded around me, a shower of silver and gold. The confetti cannon went off two seconds later. I celebrated with the few people I knew, but my heart was in the ground with my grandfather. I didn’t want to leave him behind, and yet Time did not seem to care.
“Hey,” I said, catching Dean as he was walking past me.
“Hey,” he said.
“D’you, uh, want to talk outside?” I asked.
His eyes lit up. “Yeah!”
I walked outside, and he followed me. The black iron-wrought door clanged shut behind us. Our breaths turned into tiny clouds, and he hugged me underneath my grandfather’s winter jacket. I found the large gray gloves in the pockets and offered them to him, but he shook his head. We talked. Every now and then he would jump up and say good-bye to a departing friend, and then he would wrap his cold arms around me again.
It was a small, quiet moment when Dean stared into my eyes before he leaned in to kiss me. I was entranced by his lips and warm embrace, and the strangeness of feeling his long, soft curls. It wasn’t until he pulled away that I realized for the first time all night, I had not thought about my grandfather.
I turned away from Dean. He pulled me in so my head rested on his shoulder, his head on mine. We sat there a long time, the mists of our breaths intermingling. I had coated only my top lashes with mascara so I wouldn’t turn into a black-smudged raccoon if I cried, but my fingertips still came away flecked with black. Dean didn’t care.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Looking out at everyone gathered here today, I had said, my eyes sweeping over the completely filled chapel, I find comfort in knowing that Baba’s legacy will continue. We all carry a small, special piece of him.
“Of course,” Dean said.
That’s exactly what he wanted.
Author’s Note: I was blessed to have had Samuel Rosen, “Baba,” as my grandfather for 27 years. The italicized portions of the story come directly from my eulogy for him. He is dearly missed.