Every teenage girl worries about fitting it, but for Chava, the pressures of ordinary teenage life are as terrifying as a war zone. Cody, seen and heard only by Chava, is her feet personified. He tells her how to stay safe from the bullies and avoid any unknown risks. Until one assignment could mean the difference between graduating high school.
Slam. Click. Twist. There. I’ve closed my locker for the last time this term. It feels like a symbolic gesture to slam my locker door as hard as I can. The sound echoes throughout the entire hallway, and for one second it overpowers the noise of a thousand excited kids and teachers. Tonight begins sixteen blissful days of quiet and freedom. Not only is today the beginning of the Winter break. At my house, just before the sun goes down, we will begin Shabbat and the first night of Chanukah. It would be darn near impossible to top this right now. I’ve been waiting for it since I walked through those front doors on the first day of school in September.
My friend Summer closes her locker right next to mine, though far more gently than I did, and locks it.
“Let’s go find April and everyone else. This morning she said she wanted to go get pizza after school. We’re free from school for two whole weeks! We should celebrate with a heart attack on a plate. We can even go to that kosher place you like. That way, you can eat it too.”
My shoulders slump. She just had to suggest doing that today of all days. “You know I can’t. I’m all for dangerous amounts of fattening foods. I’ve got lots waiting for me at home. I just can’t do it with you guys on a Friday night, especially this week. Besides, Tov Li isn’t even open on Fridays. I’ve told you that before. There would be no point.” I pull my backpack over my shoulders and start walking. No point in continuing the conversation. She’ll never figure it out. “I’ll see you later.”
I know I should suggest going on Sunday, but they do this all the time, and it pisses me off too much to care anymore. No matter how many times I’ve tried to explain to Summer what Shabbat is, she just doesn’t get it. I doubt if anyone in my grade does. Then again, I’m just about the only girl in grade twelve who still isn’t allowed go out on Friday night, not the way Summer and April do anyway. If I do go anywhere, it’s to the synagogue with my dad, or to the Chabad House.
“Sorry, Miriam, I forgot,” Summer says as she runs to catch up with me. “But can’t you ditch it just this once? You said yourself you don’t believe in God, so what’s the big sin in skipping Shabbat every once in a while?”
“It’s not about believing in God. It’s about being with my family and maintaining our traditions. I like my routine, and my mother wants me to keep it, too.”
The voice of Cody, my oldest friend, echoes in my back of my mind. “Keep to your routine, and life stays safe and predictable. When life is predictable, you always know what to do, and you take fewer risks.”
“Besides,” I add, “how many people do you know who celebrate Christmas because they believe Jesus is the son of God? They do it because it’s a family celebration, it’s fun, and they get presents. They like it. That’s exactly how I feel about Chanukah and Shabbat.”
Summer raises her eyebrows in a “whatever” expression. “Well, have fun with your dreidles, then.”
I hold back a sigh. She always looks at me that way when I tell her how I feel about my Jewish traditions, or anything personal like that. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother. None of the girls I hang out with ever do anything religious. Some of them have never even stepped inside a church.
“Tell April I said I hope she has a good break, and I’m sorry I couldn’t join you guys. Maybe we can hang out one day after Chanukah.”
“Okay. I’ll call you later.”
“All right. Bye.”
Summer goes down to the hall where April’s locker is. I head out the door and cross the street to the bus stop. I know Summer means it when she says she’ll call, but I doubt she’ll remember. If she does, it’ll be during Shabbat. Mom isn’t all that strict about the rules a lot of rabbis insist on. I mean, we’re allowed to turn lights on and off, and we’ll drive to the synagogue in bad weather. At the same time, she wants Friday evening and Saturday to be a gadget-free time. That includes phones, especially cell phones. I could call Summer tomorrow, once the sun goes down. The thing is, the longer I know her, the less I believe it’s worth the effort. She’s been my friend since grade ten, but we’re so different I don’t know why she ever wanted to hang out with me in the first place.
I shake my head as I cross the street to the bus stop. Now is not the time to be thinking such serious thoughts. Eight nights of celebrating with deep-fried food are waiting!
By some miracle, the red-and-white hybrid bus pulls up to the stop just as I get out my metro pass. Couldn’t be more perfect. I wonder if Cody will be waiting for me at home. He hasn’t been around for nearly a week, off on one of his walkabouts. He’s been around less and less often over the last few months, but he always comes home right on time to light candles every single Friday night. It’s been our tradition since I met him when I was six.
I arrive at home to the sound of potatoes being peeled. Mom works part time at a law office and since the lawyer is also Jewish, it’s easy for her to get Fridays off so she has lots of time to prepare a feast every Friday night. I pause to inhale the scent of raw shredded potatoes, onions, and cooking oil. It doesn’t sound like something that should smell great while it’s still raw, but it is absolutely heaven to me. When I smell those things, I know it means that I will soon be eating some of the very best grease-soaked food in the world. Every other time of the year, what we eat is supposed to have as little fat as possible. We should only use the minimum amount of oil necessary, if we use it at all. On Chanukah, the more oil you use, the better.
Mom is in the kitchen, hard at work. The sleeves of her sweater are rolled up past her elbows. Her thick black hair is tied into a tight bun, held by a black elastic, covered by small lacy kippah.
“Hey, Mom. Can I help?” I drop my bag on the couch and go to the kitchen, rolling up my own sleeves.
“Yep,” Mom answers. “You can chop the onions.”
I roll my eyes. “Always the best jobs in the kitchen for your one and only daughter, eh?”
“Of course. You will get the good jobs when you have your own kids and you can pawn the bad ones off on them.”
“Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen.” I go to the sink to wash my hands. “You’ve been trying to play match maker with me for months now. None of the boys at the synagogue are remotely interested in me. I haven’t met a single guy at my school who is worth the effort, either. Hardly any of them are Jewish, anyway.”
“Give it time,” Mom says, putting some chopped up potatoes into the blender, which already has the flour and eggs. She waits for me to finish chopping the onions so we can blend them together and she can fry them into pancakes called latkes. You couldn’t find a better comfort food if you tried.
I wouldn’t tell mom this, but there is only one man in my life that I’ve ever bothered with, and that’s Cody. Shabbat’s only two hours away, and he isn’t here yet. If he doesn’t get here soon, it will take a huge stack of latkes to make me feel better.
As soon as I finish chopping the opinion, and all there is left to do is the frying, I head upstairs. Before Shabbat, I always have a little quiet time to myself. The food is all just about ready and Dad came in about a minute ago, so I go upstairs to my room and sit on the window ledge. The sun will set soon, and Cody still isn’t here. Quiet time is supposed to be for us to talk about how the week went, make plans for things we know will happen in the coming week, discuss long-term plans.
But he isn’t here yet, and I still have to talk to someone. It’s been years since I’ve known how to talk to my mom or dad about serious things, so my only alternative is a journal. I pick my journal up off the desk, get my favourite black pen, and write.
It spins faster than a sailfish swims. It’s as mixed up as a dyslexic trying to read, yet as clear as air. But nobody realizes that this air is filled with black smoke, chocking you every step of the way. It’s a ball of words swelling in your throat that explode into half-digested pizza on the floor. It’s your best friend, and your worst enemy. It breaks you down in the name of protecting you. My heart, stomach, and lungs engage in a never ending battle that may one day claim your life.
I close my journal and toss it back onto my desk. That’s about as much as I can make my brain do right now. I look at the door and out the window. Where are you, Cody? You’ve never been this late before. Three years ago, when he started vanishing for days at a time, I tried to ask him where he goes and what he does when we aren’t together. Each and every time I brought it up, he changed the subject. He’d ask me how my week went, or if I’d started reading a new book, which I almost always have. When I tried to ask him where he was a second time, he would say something related to the question he’d asked me, but with a more serious look on his face that said, “You don’t want to know.” Stuff like that. I bet he goes to one of the clubs on Queen Street that I won’t be able to go to for another two years, then goes to sleep in High Park with the raccoons and deer.
But he’s Cody. It doesn’t really matter if I know where he is when he’s out wandering. What matters is that I trust him, and that he is here when I need him. He knows how to keep me safe.
“We’re lighting the candles now, Chava,” Mom calls, using my Hebrew name that no one outside my family uses anymore.
The aroma of latkes and gravy-soaked brisket waft up the stairs. It is absolutely the best smell in the world. People say that scent is tied to memory, and that smell can bring back memories long forgotten. When I smell latkes, I think of playing games with my friends in Kindergarten, and singing songs and dancing at Hebrew school. Of course that was all before I met Cody. In those days, I believed in God. I didn’t doubt that a one-day supply of oil really could last eight days, the way it does in the Chanukah story, or that a bush could be on fire without actually burning. One book I read says that even some rabbis admit that part about the oil was made up. It certainly helps to compete with Christmas.
“Just a minute,” I call down.
I look out the window. Still no Cody. For the first time since I met him, I’ll have to light Shabbat candles without him. I close my eyes and take a slow deep breath to calm the sadness that takes over my entire body. Mom doesn’t know what it means to have Cody around for Shabbat. There is no way I can explain it to her and Dad if I start to cry when I get down there. We’re celebrating the survival of our culture. We’re supposed to be happy on Chanukah. Maybe I should try asking Cody where he’s been again, and this time I’ll make him answer.
“Come on, Chava. Candle time!” Mom shouts. She isn’t angry. She’s just excited to get the holiday started. Though Chanukah is technically a minor holiday, it’s always been her favourite.
I sigh and sniff back the tears. Today should be a happy day for them, at least, even if it won’t be for me. I grab a kippah and gather a bunch of dark curls to clip the kippah to my hair so it will stay in place. It’ll never be as neat as Mom’s though.
Upon opening the door, I gasp and jump back a little. I feel a moment of panic at the sight of a man standing in my doorway, but only for a moment. The man is in his early twenties and dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and leather jacket, with spiked brown hair. Cody is finally here.
“Where have you been?” I demand.
Damn it, Cody! “Around” is his all-purpose answer to any question of that nature on those rare occasions when he does decide to respond to them. He’s not going to tell me where he’s been, not unless I push him.
“Why are you so late?” I ask, quieter than before. “We’re just about to light the candles.”
“I’m here now, just like I said I would be, just like I am every Friday night. You know you can trust me, no matter what.”
“I know,” I say, hesitant to look him in the eyes for a few seconds. He’s right. Things never go well when I don’t trust him.
“Now,” he says with a smile, “I believe we have some Chanukah and Shabbat candles to light.” He puts his arm around my shoulders and walks me to the stairs.
“I’m coming, Mom!” I shout, and gallop down the stairs. Cody follows behind at a much more leisurely pace. He only comes because I want him to, not because he celebrates, so it’s not nearly as exciting for him as it is for me.
“It’s about time you came back down,” Mom says, a big latke-filled metal serving tray in her hands.
“I was just writing in my journal,” I explain. Not a word about Cody. She would never understand. Nobody would ever understand. That was something I had decided for myself, not something Cody had warned me about, though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like it if I went around telling people about him.
“Well,” Mom says, “you will have more than enough time to write in your journal, or read, or do whatever you want, after Shabbat. The latkes will be cold if we wait any longer. You don’t want to eat cold latkes, do you?”
“Especially after all that wonderful greasiness has leaked out onto the paper towels,” Dad says. He’s wearing his white velvet kippah. His hair is so short he can’t clip it on, but it’s large enough that it stays on, anyway.
Of course, Dad is right. That wonderful greasiness is the whole point of Chanukah food. It could make even the thinnest, healthiest person in the world gain fifty pounds and have a heart attack if they ate it too often. Unless you’re me. I couldn’t gain weight if my life depended on it. Even the smallest clothes in the adult stores have to be altered to fit me properly sometimes.
Cody settles onto the couch to watch. Neither Mom nor Dad pays any attention to his presence. They never have, not since the very first time he came home with me. He winks at me as I go to the cabinet to get out my menorah and place it on the window ledge, next to the others. Mine is pewter and looks like many branches all twisted together, with nine of those branches sticking straight up and becoming candle holders. Mom’s is silver. Dad gave it to her as a gift for Chanukah a few years ago. Dad’s is ceramic. It’s shaped like nine matches sticking out of a piece of wood.
We place the menorahs on the window ledge so everyone who passes by will be able to see them and remember the miracles of the past, and know that they should never give up, just like the people in the story never lost faith that their temple would restored to them. These are things that I could never hope to explain to Summer and April. I don’t expect it to mean anything to them. I’m just different, so this is the way it has to be.
Mom and Dad have already put candles into their menorahs. They each chose a blue one to represent the first night, and a yellow one to be the shamash, the candle we use to light the others. I choose two white ones, and put the one for the first day on the far right. We each take the shamash in our hands, and Mom lights then with a match. Before lighting the other candles, we sing the blessings. Candle-lighting time is pretty much the only time anyone can get me to sing. I love it. I feel it in my gut that this is right. I may be a freak everywhere else, but right here, right now, I belong.
After we sing the three blessings, we each light the candle that represents the first night of the miracle. The shamash then goes into the elevated ninth position in the middle of the menorah. It deserves a place of honour because it gets used to light all the others. All the while, Cody watches, with a peaceful smile on his face. He enjoys it almost as much as I do because he knows how much it means to me.
Whether or not the miracle of the oil lasting eight days actually happened isn’t the important part. It doesn’t matter one bit. The real miracle was the military victory against all odds. Lighting candles on Chanukah is just like lighting fireworks on Canada Day or wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day. We remember what others have done so we can have what we have, and show that we are thankful for it.
That’s fine, though. Regardless of the reason for the ritual, it’s beautiful. A small light to help us remember the past and guide us out of the darkness to a better future, kind of like the Winter Solstice. That’s what makes it the perfect holiday for Winter. Sometimes I wonder if that’s what Chanukah originally was. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to celebrate it in a place where it doesn’t get cold in December, and the days are longer. It wouldn’t be right. You would also have to wait forever before you could light your candles and have dinner.
Since it’s also Shabbat, we all go back to the table and light our Shabbat candles.
With the candles lit, I sit on the couch next to Cody to watch the flames. It takes at least half an hour for all of them to burn out completely. Cody and I usually like to bet on which one will burn out first. He wins most of the time. Today, though, I don’t feel like betting. Instead, I snuggle up with Cody, my head resting on his chest, and sigh with relief. Everything is as it should be.
“Thank you for coming, Cody,” I say.
“You know I’ll always be here as long as you need me,” he replies. He puts one of his huge arms around my shoulders.
“Why would I ever not need you?” I ask.
“Let’s just watch the candles. I think your dad’s shamash is going to burn out first. It already looks a whole lot smaller than yours.”
I say nothing. Everything is so quiet and peaceful, I can hear his heart beating. A moment like this is too precious to spoil with silly games. All I want is to enjoy the quiet and ignore the thought that there may be a time when Cody leaves and never comes back.
As soon as the candles go out, we start dinner. Dad says a blessing over the wine. I say a blessing over the challah. Last year, Dad decided that I’m old enough and mature enough to handle one glass of wine, as long as I don’t gulp it, so there is no grape juice on the table. Cody doesn’t join us. He never has eaten in front of me. I stopped asking him years about it years ago. He always refused, and it’s not as if Mom and Dad ever noticed him.
Cody won’t go hungry, though. He’s Cody. That’s the way it always has been, and it’s the
way it always will be.