A Holiday Exclusive: La Gelure (or Frostbite) by Sydney Warner Brooman

Text reads: Free story, La Gelure (or Frostbite), by Sydney Warner Brooman, author of The Pump. Image is two beavers in bathtub.

I only agreed to be stage manager for the St. Andrews Sunday School nativity play cause Lachlan Reese gave me his key to the sacristy and said my boyfriend and I could drink boxed communion wine and watch Veggie Tales VHS tapes in there whenever we wanted. I’m easily persuaded by bribery, which I guess makes me a heretic.

On the Friday three weeks before Christmas, Laurent and I, still in our long black cassocks, stuck around after choir practice to play our favourite drinking game.

Oh, this one’ll be challenging, cher amour, Laurent said, his syllables slurring. John 17:21.

I shut my eyes tight. Okay, I said. Okay. The first part’s, like…we all gotta be one. May all be one.

Laurent chuckled mid-swig and spit up wine down the front of his robes. Half point, he said.

Just as…just as you Father are in me and I’m in you, I continued, and they’re also in us, so that the world believes that you…that you…that you did some things that were great, and we’re all one body, and I’m the leg and you’re the baby toe and Jesus is the head, obviously, cause he has great hair—

Now you’re just making it up, Laurent interrupts. No points. Drink.

I groaned and threw myself onto the floor. Your turn, I said. Taylor 24:11.

That’s not a real verse.

I took a swig from my own Styrofoam cup and shook a finger at Laurent. His blue eyes greyed under the fluorescent light. He looked so good it made me nervous.

It’s from the extended version, I said. The book of Taylor. And then the Angel Gabriel came down to Laurent and saith, give thanks to the Lord for your lover’s perfect-smelling hair and mesmerizing wit and irresistible charisma and twelve out of ten kissing ability.

God gives grace to the humble, Laurent said.

Then he put his cup down and crawled across the floor to where I was sitting. He took my face in his hands. I felt my cheeks get hot.

Jsrais pas capable de vivre sans toi, he said, tracing his thumb along my bottom lip like he was wiping off a crumb. It was dumb and cliché and very attractive.

As I studied Laurent’s smiling face, I couldn’t remember anything bad that had ever happened to me and I wasn’t worried about the bad things that hadn’t happened yet. That little piece of time and space in the sacristy of St. Andrews belonged to us and nobody else.

I think I’m in love with you, I thought.

It’s, um, getting late, I said.

***

Snow mounds lit up the dark on our way home. We held hands as we walked. The long shadows of tree branches stretched down Main Street like tight ropes. Laurent stuck his tongue out and tried to catch flakes, most of which landed on my knitted green scarf, which was wrapped around his neck.

He looked happy, but I wondered if a little of it was for show. I couldn’t stop thinking about how disappointing it must be for him to spend the holidays in The Pump instead of Montreal, where there were backyard skating and hot sugar caramel snow candy on wooden sticks and an unlimited supply of beautiful people with tragic childhoods who probably knew how to pick your car door lock with a stud earring.

Christmas in The Pump was the wet cold of not-quite-winter. It was dead brown pine needles stuck to the bottom of your Walmart sneakers. It was the scratched Bing Crosby CD that never let him finish “Jingle Bells.” It was townspeople cranking their ovens to the highest setting and leaving them open to heat their houses. It was Christmas crackers, the cardboard string that always ripped before you opened it properly, spewing shitty tissue crowns and red foil fish and racist jokes that only your grandpa liked. It was spoiled eggnog and eating all twenty-four pieces of advent calendar chocolate on the first of the month. It was tree limbs scattered by the wind across front lawns on the twenty-sixth. It was loving each other for a day, and then pretending like that love never happened for the other three hundred and sixty-four.

***

My mom didn’t wait before our coats and boots were off to pounce on Laurent. She ran into the foyer and hugged him tight like he was her flesh and blood or something. The first time I brought Laurent home, she did the same thing, and Laurent full-out froze. His bones locked in place. I couldn’t tell if he was terrified or confused or a little of both. He said thank you when she let him go and exhaled like he’d been holding his breath the whole time.  

He’d gotten a lot more comfortable since then, but still wasn’t ready to hug her back. He probably never would be. I don’t think she minded.

It snowed while you were gone, she said. You saw. You must’ve. Wait—my outside is the same as your outside. Of course you saw it. Yes, of course. Whoops, I’m old. Don’t cryogenically freeze me when I die, please Taylor? I want a real death in the ground with dirt and singing and the like. Sing whatever you want so long as it’s your choir at church singing. Choose anything. I like all kinds of music. You know I listen to a lot of Bob Seger. Oh but don’t sing any Bob Seger at my funeral. I don’t know how’d that make my sister and her family feel.

She turned to Laurent. Tu devrais chanter à mon enterrement.

I’m literally right here, I said. English. Please.

Non jsrais trop occupé de chigner pour toi, Annie, Laurent said.

It bothered me when Laurent and my mom switched to French right in front of me, but I let them do it anyway. The only other time Laurent got to speak French was at home, with his own mother, who sharpened her words and threw them like darts. I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have a permanent association between language and pain, knowing you’d be spending your entire adult life trying and failing and trying again to detangle them from one another. I could see my own mom literally rewiring Laurent’s brain as she spoke, working away at the mess of knots with careful fingers.

The three of us decorated the fake Home Hardware Christmas tree while The Sound Of Music played on the TV. My mom made Laurent and I eggnog with vanilla extract instead of rum. Laurent pretended to like it, nodding as he took a sip.

So, she said, what first dance song are you going to choose for your wedding?

Laurent choked on his eggnog and couldn’t make himself stop coughing for a full minute.

I glared at my mom.

No rush, she said, you just got to start thinking about those kinds of things, you know.

We watched Liesl receive her first kiss, wide-eyed, mouth agape, arms spread out like angel wings, screaming in pure delight beneath the gazebo roof as fake movie rain poured an ocean onto her family’s Austrian estate.

I thought about how a thirty-year-old woman playing a filthy rich sixteen-year-old falling in love with a Nazi was the epitome of what I knew about young love. I wondered if the world in The Sound of Music had people like me—people like us, hiding just off-screen. Men glancing at each others’ hands during a carriage ride through Salzburg. Making love on the mountainside once the sun was down, the sky was a circuit board of stars. Whispering soft notes to themselves when they couldn’t be together, so quiet that passersby would never hear. Do. Re. Me. Fa. So. La. Te.

***

The next weekend, Laurent and I led Sunday School in one of the classrooms above the parish hall while the adults were in service. We moved the green Ikea craft tables aside and passed Ritz crackers and fruit juice boxes around. Then the group of us sat cross-legged in a circle on a round carpet that looked like a map of the world. Laurent started us off with a prayer. Six-year-old Kevin McMahan interrupted to ask if John The Baptist was Johnny Storm’s brother. After a short investigation, we realized that he meant the guy from Fantastic Four who can light himself on fire.

Maybe, Laurent said in his teacher voice. That’s a good question Kevin. Do you think they look like brothers?

 John shows light, Kevin said. Light is fire. Fire’s a superpower. Superpowers come from the Fantastic Four. Johnny Storm’s in the Fantastic Four. He has fire. Brothers. The end.

Jesus has light too, Eliza chimed in.

Uh no, Kevin said. You don’t know any things at all ever. You look like a lightbulb. A dirty one.

Eliza started to cry like she had broken a bone.

Go to the red mat Kevin, I said. We don’t call our friends dirty lightbulbs.

Kevin threw his juice box on the ground and dragged his feet over to the soft puzzle-piece-shaped mat on the other side of the room. Above it hung a hand drawn sign:

HELL
5 MINUTES

Then it was time to give the kids their parts for the nativity play.

Gather round, I said. Rule number one: no arguing about your part. Rule number two: no improv. Rule number three: only Laurent and I make the rules.

AND RULE FOUR LOVE EACH OTHER AND DON’T MAKE BABIES WITH YOUR NEIGHBOUR AND THEN KILL HIM WHILE HE IS SLEEPING, Jessie screamed. 

Exactly, I said. Jessie, you’re Joseph.

No, she’s not, Kevin interrupted from the mat. She’s a girl. She can’t.

No talking from Hell, I said. Joseph’s afraid of everything but really swell at moving his family from place to place. Make your best scared face.

Jessie stuck her tongue out and closed one eye.

Perfect, I said. Next. Emmett, Max, and Lauren, you’re sheep.

What’s a sheep? Max asked.

Next, I said. Nicole. You’re Balthazar.

I can’t say that, Nicole said. I can’t say the name.

You don’t have to, Laurent said. You’re a rich king. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to.

Kevin raised his hand from Hell.

No, I said. You can’t be Johnny Storm.

Kevin lowered his hand. His bottom lip trembled.

Tayyyyy, Louise yelled from the other side of the circle. You’re making Kevin cry.

I looked at Laurent, who was biting the insides of his cheeks to keep from laughing.

I groaned, clasped my hands together, and closed my eyes.

Dear Lord God, Father God, our most gracious, awesome, super cool, merciful God, I started. I have come to you asking if we should let Kevin, your very favourite Kevin, play the part of Johnny Storm in our nativity play. If it is your will, so be it.

What’s he saying? Emmett asked.

Shhhh, Taylor’s talking to God, Lauren whispered.

I counted fifteen Mississippis in my head before I opened my eyes and turned to Kevin. God says you can be Johnny Storm in the play. And He says you can come back from Hell now.

Kevin got up so fast that he almost fell over, then sprinted back to our circle.

Laurent nodded at me in approval.

***

The two of us sat in the first pew on the night of the performance. Pump parents dressed in long, moth-eaten peacoats lined the rows behind us. My mom sat at the very back, her hot pink digital camera held aloft, shooting us a thumbs up every thirty seconds. Lachlan handed out burnt coffee in white Styrofoam cups before we dimmed the lights and quieted the crowd.

Lily came out first, dressed in a sparkly red holiday dress from Sears and an elf hat—she’d refused to wear the Mary costume. She couldn’t even get one line out before Kevin sprinted on stage in his Walmart Johnny Storm bodysuit.

Mary! he screamed. You’re having a baby—Jesus! And God’s the dad! And then later we’re gonna kill him with nails but not right now.

Kevin shot his arms up towards the sky and made fireball sounds.

Oh, Lily said. Cool. Thank you, Johnny Storm.

I made eye contact with Kevin and pointed toward stage right, where he was supposed to exit, but he just stayed where he was.

There was a full minute of silence before Jessie arrived on stage, dressed as Joseph. I’m your husband and we’re gonna go do the census now, she said. You can ride my donkey if you want, cause you’re pregnant. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallel—

I waved my arms wildly to get Jessie’s attention and motioned for her to start the next scene. A couple of older kids brought out real bails of hay and the large green cardboard box that we used as the manger every year. Lauren’s plastic Baby Alive doll electronically wriggled back and forth in the box. Let’s eat, the doll repeated. Let’s eat. Let’s eat.

Look, Jessie yelled, it’s baby Jesus! Now we can open presents!

Let’s eat. Let’s eat. Let’s eat.

Another stretch of silence. I let it go on for three minutes before I shouted: And then the shepherds and sheep and wisemen and angels arrived.

The rest of the children stumbled in through the church’s front doors. Their uniform line fell to shit as they ran down the aisle, pushing each other out of the way to get to the stage first.

Baaaaa, Emmett said. Baaaaaaaaa.

Let’s eat. Let’s eat. Let’s eat.

Laurent started to cry-laugh as Kevin ripped the wire angel wings off three other kids and shot invisible fire into their faces.

You’re dead angel! He screamed. Bam! You’re toast!

Baby Alive’s voice deepened and stretched as her batteries began to die.

LEEEEETTT’SSSS EAAAAAAAAAT. LET’SSSSS EAAAaaaaaattttt.

Bow! I yelled. You’re done! Bow!

Jessie was the only one who turned to the crowd and bowed. Laurent stood up and started clapping, prompting the audience to follow suit. I thanked the Lord that the world’s worst nativity play had made it to a fiery end.

***

I stayed at St. Andrews in the front pew between the nativity performance and midnight mass while Laurent and my mom went home to eat and change clothes. I told them I was staying to clean up, but really, I just wanted to sit in the church by myself, watching the street light from outside shine through the stained-glass windows to reflect little beams of blue and pink and green onto the middle pews. I felt like an imposter. I also felt like the guest of honour. I didn’t understand how both of those feelings could exist at the same time, in perfect harmony with one another.

Hey, I said aloud.

My chest felt tight. I shut my eyes.

Thank you, I whispered.

Light flickered against my closed eyelids. Or maybe I imagined it. I couldn’t clear my head. Snow. Johnny Storm. Communion Wine. Sixteen going on seventeen. Laurent.

Thank you, I said one last time.

I knew that God knew what I meant.

***

Laurent insisted we open our presents for each other just before midnight on Christmas Eve rather than waiting until morning. He said it was a weird French tradition, like sugar pie and that terrifying snowman mascot. My tooth dangled from his neck on a string as we walked through the frozen marshes, stepping on frost-covered leaves and sliding across the patches of uneven ice in our cheap shoes. Moonlight made the icy pine branches shimmer.

I’d only agreed to doing our Christmas exchange in the marshes because I knew the beavers would be asleep in their dams this time of year. It was hard not to imagine them cuddled together, leaving Santa a glass of swamp water and log rounds instead of milk and cookies. Maybe the problem wasn’t that we thought of the beavers like people, but that we didn’t see ourselves as animals, just like them. Suffering seemed more bearable when it was part of a larger cycle of hunt and survive; eat and be eaten; die and help new life grow.

We sat on a log by the frozen water and shared a Thermos of Tim Hortons hot chocolate. Then, Laurent took a small, perfectly green box wrapped with a red bow out of his canvas bag and presented it to me.

It’s a little silly, he prefaced.

I opened it to find a long piece of red velvet, tied off in small knots on each end.

It’s a scarf, he said. I made it. Out of a piece of curtain from the Parish Hall. Like The Sound of Music. When she makes the von Trapp children clothes out of curtains.

I wrapped it around my neck so that each end hung over each of my shoulders. My gift felt ridiculous in comparison.

I’m never taking it off, I said. Not even in the summer. They’ll have to bury me in it. Thank you. I reached into my backpack and pulled out a grocery bag.

Okay, so, I didn’t wrap it, I said. Bad wrapping is worse than no wrapping. It’s got to be. Right? Bad wrapping is embarrassing.

Sure, Laurent said, smiling.

Also, my mom and I did a joint gift, I continued, because we’re awful, so if you hate it and hate me and hate her and this Christmas is so bad that it turns you straight, I totally get it.

I handed him the bag. He peered inside it, then looked up at me, putting a hand over his heart. A stocking?

Yeah, I said. It, like, has your name stitched into it. So that you have one. For Christmas. Um, forever. Or whatever.

He held the stocking up. It was a red felt dollar-store stocking topped with fake fur, but my mom had stitched LAURENT down one side. She also filled it with maple fudge.

And I think he either meant to say thank you or I love it, but accidentally combined them, because he said, I love you, Taylor.

I gave him a second to correct his mistake, but he didn’t. He looked at me all Laurent-like in the moonlight, perfectly himself.

Yes, I said. I do. Also. Me, to you. What I mean is—love. Like you just said. You know.

Yeah, Laurent said, intertwining his fingers with mine. I know.

And I did not know how long the love would last, or what it might look like days or months or years from now, but in that moment, it kept us warm.

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