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November Short Fiction: “Holy Day”

It was a few days before Christmas, and Marcos was telling Devon over breakfast about a performance project a friend of his was working on, how he felt obliged to go, though he didn’t want to.

“What’s it about?” Devon asked.

“I don’t know,” Marcos said. “It has something to do with the holidays, something cliché.”

Devon squinched her face, briefly, as though she were winking a grimace. “I don’t think the holidays are cliché,” she said.

“Oh come on,” Marcos said. “Of course they are.”

They were sitting across from each other at a small table in Marcos’s pale yellow kitchen.

“What are the holidays,” Marcos asked, “other than cliché?” He drank the last of his coffee and set the mug down with a sound that resembled a slap. It seemed as though they both might have felt a spark.

Devon took in a breath. She knew where this would lead, but she could hardly let him squelch her beliefs. “They’re ritual,” she said. “They’re history. What people do—the insipid musak version of Christmas carols, the ubiquitous fruitcake—is cliché. I grant you that. But the holidays themselves are still, you know, holy.”

“Whoa,” Marcos said. “I thought I was dating someone from the twenty-first century. I didn’t think anyone used the word holy seriously anymore. Except as in ‘wholly in need of repair.’ Something like that.”

There it was: his personal attack on her, covered by a silly joke. How could he have so little feeling? Devon crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair, so that it tipped onto its two rear legs. She couldn’t recall having done this since high school—certainly never in her own home—but here she was in Marcos’s apartment, sitting in his chair under which was his hardwood floor, arguing with him, so why not take some liberties?

Marcos, though, didn’t notice. Instead, he slowly twirled his mug on the table, making a steady hurrr, hurrr, hurrr sound.

Wasn’t that typical of men? Devon thought. When you were forced to do something to them out of spite, they really didn’t notice, didn’t have a clue.

“It’s not like I’m Catholic or anything,” Devon said. “But, don’t you read any history in your seminars? This stuff has meaning that dates back thousands of years, across cultures. Solstice, The New Year, Christmas—whatever you call it.”

“But we’ve changed,” Marcos said. “We’ve evolved. We don’t believe what people used to.”

“Well,” Devon said, “maybe we should.” She set her chair back on all fours and slid it backward a bit over the floor without lifting it up. Surely the noise—something—would get his goat. But nothing seemed to.

The table that lay between them was against the only window in the kitchen. It looked onto a fire escape, unless you were sitting where Devon was now, then you could see a sliver of St. Paul Street—the bakery-diner across the way, the fire hydrant, the occasional walker-by bundled in scarf and hat against the wind that shot up through the streets from the Inner Harbor.

“I mean,” she said, “do you really think about what you pick and choose from the past? Or do you base it all on The Foucault Reader?”

“What are you talking about?” Marcos said. He got up and opened the fridge. He did this when he was weary of where a conversation was going, or had just lost interest in the fight. He got out the carton of milk, poured two deliberate sloshes into his mug and returned the carton to the fridge. Then he emptied the coffee pot into his cup and stood a moment—as though he was trying to find another excusable task to avoid sitting back down.

Devon waited in silence: it was the only way she could make him aware of what he was doing, besides actually telling him. When Marcos was finally seated again, Devon continued. “What I mean is, you use this language, English, you use ideas like democracy and humanitarianism, and all that good stuff, all rising from the western tradition—even cynicism, for god’s sake—but age-old rituals, like celebrating the end of one year, like just being thankful we exist rather than not, you don’t want any part of.”

“No,” he said, “because that tradition has worn away. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s hollow, it’s stupid.”

They both sat silent then, looking out the window. Marcos’s last word, Devon thought, had had a wriggling tail of spite at the end of it. She glanced over at him as he stared at the brick wall beyond the fire escape. He seemed occupied with something very calming, as though he were counting the number of bricks that had turned black over time.

Devon hated this, hated the meanness that occasionally burst between them, and how evenly Marcos could ride it—but she wanted him to see her side, she wanted to be right. “Remember last summer after the hurricane, when the water was turned off for a week?” she asked.

Marcos sighed.  “I guess so,” he said, but did not look at her.

“Well, you were so happy when the water returned. Remember? You even said how you never really realized what an amazing convenience it was.”

She let this neutral memory sink in. “That’s all the holidays are,” she said. “Putting yourself in that place, imagining the water is turned off and then seeing how wonderful it is that it isn’t.” Devon had come to the end of her point sooner than expected and found herself suddenly extended out into time with no purpose. And the world—or at least Marcos’s kitchen, which acted as its representative—rushed up upon her. She lifted her cup in defense and took a sip of the nothing that was left. She breathed out into the interior of the cup, recovering. Why had their morning turned sour, just like that?

Marcos cleared his throat, as if to get her attention. “So,” he said, “being thankful is holiness? Just noticing is holy? It sounds more Buddhist than Christian.”

“Yes,” Devon said, exhausted. Was she conceding or was he? She raised her eyes just above the lid of the cup and looked out onto the street again, wondering if the day felt as cold as it looked. The walk home would take twenty minutes. Sometimes Marcos drove her, but she would not ask him today. She would feel the cold, the particular harshness of the day, and then enjoy the warmth of her own apartment. She would make the day holy on her own.

“Well, of course,” Marcos said, “I’m not saying we can’t be thankful of things, but we don’t have to attribute them to a god.” The way Marcos said it, the word sounded dirty. “I just assume someone means something churchlike when they say holy. The Lord at least. I mean, I think that’s how it’s commonly used.”

Devon set her mug down “Not always,” she said, still looking outside. “Perhaps holy was the wrong word. Or, I mean, it was the right word for me, but for you—” She was becoming too frustrated to talk. “Well, I just meant other things…”

Devon pressed her fingers to the window pane. The glass was cold and yet it felt no different than the burning in her chest from their fight. The morning was ruined. She wanted now only to get out. She stood and lifted her heavy wool coat from the back of her chair, planning to leave without a word.

Marcos saw her and stood as well, taking their dishes to the sink, as though he were already beginning his day alone.

Within a few hours, Devon knew her anger would wash away into some activity, perhaps a book, and eventually this rift between them would sink below the surface of their lives, like others had before it. Things would return to good. But still…

Devon pushed her arms through her coat sleeves, and began to button each button slowly while Marcos arranged dirty dishes noisily in the sink, refusing, it seemed, to turn around. He was going to let Devon leave in silence.

Fine.

She stared at the back of his neck, one of her favorite spots on his body, so long and uninterrupted. Certainly, she thought, better moments would come, but why did they have to fight at all?  Then, as if someone else were saying it, the answer struck her: these arguments were exactly what she had been arguing for—her moment without water. They existed to remind her of what she and Marcos did share.

She took off her coat, feeling as if new evidence had been rushed into the courtroom, proving her irrefutably right. She beamed with confidence now and had a quick desire to explain to Marcos everything she had just thought. But she stopped herself. Instead, she went over to him and laid her hands on his shoulders.

He turned around, a look of surprise on his face. His body leaned away from her, pressing itself against the edge of the sink.  But she leaned in close until she could kiss him on the chest. Nothing, not even Marcos, could shake her good will. In a little while, after she helped him finish the dishes, she would even ask him to take her home.

 

Want Friends Journal to publish more fiction? Give us your feedback in the comments section, or send your thoughts to [email protected]​friendsjournal.​org. And don’t forget to read this month’s interview with writer Nathan Ailling Long about his inspiration for “Holy Day.” 

 

Photo credit: Mark Gregory

Nathan Alling Long grew up in a log cabin in the Maryland Appalachians, lived on a queer commune in Tennessee, and studied writing in Virginia.  His stories and essays have been published in over 50 publications and have appeared on NPR and in several anthologies.  He lives in Philadelphia, Pa., and teaches at Richard Stockton College in Galloway, N.J.

 


Posted in: Departments, Fiction, November 2012: Quaker Books, Writing, and Poetry
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