by Rafaella Safarian
It’s been two years since I’ve been home for the holidays. By holidays, I mean Armenian Christmas, celebrated January 6th. My parents never believed in celebrating Christmas the “American way,” so December 25th is a day I’ve started going skiing with David. We usually stay in his parents’ cabin. Well, it’s practically his cabin now, since his parents learned to hate the cold and prefer spending Hanukkah on the sandy shores of Maui.
I don’t speak to my parents much since I started seeing David. My mom still calls every week to see whether I’m still alive. She begins her soliloquy with Lav es? (Are you okay?) and then tells me about the latest gossip at church before she’s annoyed with my one-word responses and asks my dad whether he has anything to say to me. He used to take the phone from her and ask how law school was going. Lav, I’d say (Good.) And with a sigh of contentment, he’d pass the phone back to Mom. Now, he doesn’t take the phone from her, so Mom and I usually hang up within minutes.
When I first brought David to meet my parents, we were both in our last year of law school. I told my parents and grandmother I was bringing someone over for dinner, someone not Armenian. They didn’t realize I was bringing home a man. Dadig was stuffing dolma when we walked in. When she saw us her lips parted, and we stood in silence for a few seconds before she hugged me. But when I introduced her to David, she averted his eyes, nodded, picked up an eggplant to continue stuffing.
That day my family was quiet around the dinner table. David picked the meat out of the dolma. He gets nauseated by the slimy texture of cooked eggplant.
Mom stood up to serve us more. “Sona, can I give you? How about David?” She glanced down at his plate and saw it half-eaten. In my family, there is no such thing as a picky eater. Or a vegetarian. Dadig offered him the yogurt and also glanced at his plate. Then she looked at me. “This is the kind of man you want to marry?” Dadig rarely spoke in English because she barely knew any. But she had articulated this question with precision. Her thick accent did not shroud the sting she hoped to inflict.
David looked down. Dad swished his cognac in his hand, plate practically licked clean, fork and knife resting horizontally on his plate. Mom added more yogurt to her plate. I slowly put a hand on David’s knee.
When my parents and Dadig were finished eating, they left the table one by one. I stayed next to David and slowly sipped my third glass of wine while he force-fed himself the slime. He couldn’t meet my gaze even while we were left alone in the dining room and I kept whispering, Sorry. I am so, so sorry. He shook his head and mumbled unintelligibly, and I knew that on top of feeling unwanted, David felt uncomfortable hearing the word married. We hadn’t talked about it yet. Now, we’re just happy living together.
Everyone had a fit when I wouldn’t move back home after law school graduation. I needed to be married first to live on my own, they said. So why don’t you come back to your old room, take the California Bar Exam, and find a nice Armenian man here?
I took the Massachusetts Bar Exam. Now two years later I still haven’t told them David and I live together.
“You sure you want to visit your parents?” David asks, tearing out the dotted insert of a new box of tissues. “Why don’t you wait until you’re feeling better?”
“I can’t. I have to go for Christmas.” I dig out a handful of tissues. “It’s the first Christmas since Dadig died.”
“You’re really sick though, Sona.” He put a hand on my forehead. “You still have fever. I’ll go get the thermometer. You have to get better before your trial next week.”
“At least let me come with you.”
“Are you crazy?”
He doesn’t respond because we both know he is crazy for enduring my family for me. He came with me to Dadig’s funeral last March. He smiled even when my parents ignored him and the guests stared and whispered about us the entire time. “If it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother me,” he said. I never told him that it does bother me, that since my parents first met David, I suffered from acid reflux. My chest burned and burned no matter what I ate or took. The lack of my family’s approval is a weight I have tried to shrug off. But it’s impossible. Maybe it’s the Armenian in me. Maybe it’s growing up in the tight-knit household and wanting to hold on to those memories when I was five and I wrapped my first sarma; when I was seven and finally wrote out the Armenian alphabet without help and Dad bought me the Princess Jasmine doll I had been pestering him about; when every weekend I came home from college to spend time with Dadig, drink surj together, and let her read my fortune in the residual coffee grounds. I can never let those memories go. I can never let my family go, no matter how much they disapprove of—and Mom worries about—the life I’ve chosen for myself. David understands that, somehow and for some reason.
“No, I’ll go by myself this time,” I tell him, reaching for his hand to hold it for just a moment.
I take an Uber from the airport. Dad never offered to pick me up, and I insisted Mom not drive in LA traffic.
“Shnor havor sourp dznount, jan!” Mom hugs me.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Ma,” I say, before hacking up what had been building inside my chest on the airplane.
“Are you sick?”
“Just a little.”
Her hands cover my forehead then cup my neck. “You are very warm.”
The house smells like roasting lamb. I don’t to tell them I’m a vegetarian now.
“Sit down, sit down.”
I sit on the couch. She opens the windows.
Dad walks in. “Hi, Dad.”
Mom says something in Russian, the language they use to communicate secretly between them. I never learned it.
“Sona, let me make you some tea,” Mom says.
“Tea? You’re sick?”
“Yeah, Dad. I am.”
“Then come. Mara, she doesn’t need tea.”
I follow him into the kitchen while coughing into my sleeve. Mom is stirring something on the stove. I cough again and again. It’s the kind of cough that makes your body shake, forms tears in your eyes.
I do, and I watch him open the liquor cabinet. He brings to the table two shot glasses and a bottle of clear liquid. He pours me a glass. The liquid rises to the brim, almost ready to cascade down the side. He pours one for himself, then lifts his glass and nods before swallowing in one large gulp. I bring the glass to my lips, hold my breath, and—gulp! It burns down my chest and through my nostrils. Cough cough cough! As I recover, Dad refills our glasses again to the brim. He lifts his glass, raises his eyebrows this time, and swallows in another gulp.
“What is this stuff?”
“Touti oghi,” he says. Mulberry moonshine distilled in Armenia.
I stare at the shot glass, debating whether to follow suit.
“Noritz!!” he urges.
I lift it to my lips and—gulp! Cough cough cough!
He picks up the glasses and rinses them out. Mom calls us into the dining room for dinner and I’m surprised that the first thing she does after we pray over the food is ask me how David is doing.
The next day, my sinuses are clear. The pressure in my chest is gone. I come downstairs to help Mom clean the dishes from last night. The bottle of touti oghi is right where we left it.
“Come, have some breakfast,” Mom says, opening a jar of apricot jam. “I’ve toasted some bread. You want surj or regular coffee?”
Dad walks into the kitchen.
“Sev, you want surj or regular?”
“Regular.” He picks up yesterday’s shot glasses and holds one up to me. “Ready?”
“Dad, it’s nine in the morning.”
I sit across the table from him as he pours the touti oghi to the brim.
“Genatzt,” he toasts, and we throw our heads back. The liquid still burns. But I want this burning to last.
Rafaella Pearl Safarian is a writer and lawyer from Phoenix, Arizona. Her work has recently appeared in Tin Can Literary Review.