The wind howled over Grand Traverse Bay that winter evening, tried to make us dead in our tracks. Halfway up the Old Mission Peninsula we parked the car in the woods near Luke’s house, then walked the route he’d plowed to his drive. As close to the North Pole as you cared to be, you would say. Building a gingerbread house at an office Christmas party is not something Jews generally do, you would say, too.
Leaving your house in Kalamazoo, we had told ourselves it might be fun. A project together. “Putting up walls is something you’re good at,” you teased. “You’re so high maintenance,” I said, “it’ll never do to construct just one gingerbread house. Where will you summer?”
“Don’t forget the chocolate coins!” we had reminded each other, laughing.
Still, you pouted. Said I was throwing you to the wolves. Taking you far away to party with strangers. Strange traditions. I wanted to go because I loved my boss, Luke, and would follow him to a party at sea, if he so wished. Or overboard. You, who appreciate loyalty, understood. I thought the adventure was something for us to build on; it had been too easy to go our separate ways, north and south. There were two hundred miles between us. Distance, you said often enough, that I used to distance you.
Luke met us at the door, joking that the bread crumbs he had left along the path for us to follow were under a foot of snow. A dog barked a greeting from the basement, and a cat brushed against my wet leg. We shook off the cold and snow, less so the doubts, and after introductions to our hosts and a glass of wine, I thought you warmed up to the challenge. All of them. I introduced you to others I knew, and after more wine, to those I didn’t.
Following dinner—which included a ham, that we didn’t touch—Luke distributed the flat boxes, as heavy as laptops, telling us and the ten other couples invited that it would be a contest; bragging rights and a bottle of champagne to the builders of the most imaginative house. You and I smiled at each other, as if to say, we’ll construct a house unlike any other, and be the toast of the party.
“Chill those glasses,” I boasted to the room. “Drinks on us.”
We couldn’t miss, I thought, you with your background in architecture, me with a cocksure sense of mechanics and scale. I eagerly ripped open the box—and, regrettably, the instructions, too. Out spilled gingerbread walls and a gingerbread roof, frosting for trim that squeezed on like toothpaste, and candy buttons for doorknobs (so we were told). This was not your father’s Tinkertoys. None of it snapped together or made sense.
We were out of our element, and you wanted acknowledgment of that. Respect. Support. Those poor Jews! Here, let us help you build what you cannot possibly know a thing about. It’s a fragile thing, being an outlier yet at the same time yearning to be as welcomed as Saint Nick. But just where, outside the womb, does one fit perfectly anyway? I looked around the room at spouses of coworkers, or colleagues in the same department whom I hadn’t met before, and thought of my ex-wife’s friends from the same part of the state, who, on that long-ago wedding day—officiated by a rabbi—asked if I was Italian, being darker than they were.
Houses now started to sprout around us, and I envied the expertise. I had assumed our neighbors assembled gingerbread houses every Christmas, and only later learned that, unlike the two of us, they had read and followed instructions. They’d brought bags, too, from home, full of gumdrops and glitter, sanding sugar and icing, food coloring, cinnamon sticks, Red Hots. Candy windows, ready-made, with chocolate mullions and richly colored sills of M&M’s. Wax shutters. Sprinkles they scattered on gingerbread roofs to look like blackbirds. Ceramic Santas and reindeer in the front yard. Sleigh bells. Chocolate bars they’d chunk into logs, like firewood.
Clearly—with our one small collection of Hanukkah chocolates—we had brought knives to a gunfight; there would be no divine intervention. We cautiously attached our candies, sold in thin gold foil to resemble coins, to our gingerbread roof. They looked like crop circles.
Still, Luke encouraged us. He wore a crazy sports jacket with flashing lights, like a Christmas tree, and as he surveyed our work, I watched the reflection from his coat blinking on your forehead, like a traffic light. Stop, it seemed to be telling me. Stop what you are doing right now! Fool.
Other guests wore vintage sweaters decorated with Santas, elves, reindeer, pine trees. Everyone but us had on something green or red, including Raquel, my officemate, cat whisperer and advisor on all other things that mattered to me: my daughter, you, office plants, and house renovations. She inquired about Snowflower, my cat, who had died only a month ago. A well of tears swallowed my words. You touched my hand, and told Raquel about the seizures.
The deep pit of sorrow I fell into when Snowflower died was a safe place to shelter: walls, without doors. The world couldn’t get in, and I felt—foolishly, I suppose—stronger for it. I thought of how she leapt on my bed at night, startling you, then scratched at the door when I shut her out and how I had to put her down when she got sick and now I want to crawl into our unfinished house and again cry my head off in this new place we’re trying to build with chocolate on the roof, and hope for good things to come. You once told me you hate cats but I loved her deeply, and I want to punch a hole in our house, too, a small opening, a door for her, and pull soft gingerbread sheets over the three of us and just hide. Before I met you, she was my best friend.
Raquel didn’t know, and is shaken. Her husband, a retired pipe fitter, says their three cats are like children, they watch cartoons on TV when Raquel is at work, and wait for her at the door upon her return.
Another guest observes that our house is “wanting,” as he puts it, and suggests it needs more flair. He hands me an extra tube of frosting; it covers a lot of sins, this goo-like glue that holds all the pieces of a dwelling—windows, doors, hearth, chimney—together. I squeeze on a thick bead across the length of the roof, like a multicolored ridge vent. I step back to admire our creation, this building of what our hearts fancied, and pretend we belong here, Luke’s party, a cat in the yard and ham in the fridge.
We try to make the most of it. Try to build something where we both fit, if not fit in. But under the weight of too much confection, too much arrogance, too much left unsaid, the roof caves in on us, its single story—our story, of love and hope, like so many—not yet adequate to support the structure we dreamed. I want to find something more to hold it, hold us, together. A substance that will adhere to our bones, and repel our worst parts. Something magical to shake from a can, like pixie dust, or gypsum, that will secure our future, weave affection and understanding into the fabric of our being, into the walls themselves, put cats and dogs in the yard, deer, too, and a white picket fence around it. Bread in the oven, a log on the fire. Your forgiving arms to come home to.
I look around to see if others notice our handiwork, this house of cards with its golden roof. I behold upright, proud, and charming cottages amid alpine villages or wooded glens, sweet homes that beckon you inside to find satisfaction in tight places, cozy up to the hearth, and live happily ever after with their soundness, candied symmetry, perfectly gabled roofs, and neat woodpiles at the side of gingerbread entranceways. Hansel and Gretel themselves wouldn’t have been able to fill their guts with such finery.
“There are different ways to put a house up,” I tell you, apologetically.
“And bring them down,” you answer, smiling.
At the end of the evening, the houses are carefully moved to a long table where they stand (or slump), side by side. You and I are satisfied there is no award for last place, which we surely would have taken. We say our goodbyes, and once outside, follow our now faint tracks through the dark and snowy woods to the car.
Who knew that this house we built would collapse, improbably, under more sweetness than its walls could bear? The sky would fall again on us that night, but in a good way. The earth moved, too.