Every year, our friend Tom has his annual “Christmas Walk,” where about 25 of us congregate in the lobby bar of the Roosevelt Hotel, walk up Fifth Avenue to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, cross the street to look at the way the windows are decorated at Saks Fifth Avenue, and then stop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral before finishing up at the lobby bar of the Omni Berkshire Place hotel on 52nd St. and Madison Avenue.
Here’s another way of describing the walk: go the Roosevelt Hotel and slam down two bourbons. Step outside, walk a few blocks and then Tom cracks open a bottle of champagne, which we all drink on the sidewalk out of plastic cups. I make my way to the tree at Rockefeller Center, at which point I’m so toasted, I usually just stare glassy-eyed at the tree’s colorful lights and miss the group photo taken out by Fifth Avenue, with the tree in the background. Another bottle of champagne is opened at Rockefeller Center, and we walk across the street to look at Saks’ windows, which usually tell a story I never understand because I’m so wasted, and it’s so inane. Plot is not the store’s strong suit.
When we get to St. Patrick’s cathedral, I usually have one mission and one mission only: find St. Bernard. At the Christmas Walk of 2001, my father had died just two weeks earlier, and as I strolled through St. Patrick’s, weepy from alcohol and my father’s recent death, I came upon St. Bernard, and I burst out laughing. I’m Jewish. My people don’t have saints. But if we did, I’m not sure we’d name them after dogs. I knew if I was going to light a memorial candle in honor of my father, who had a sense of humor like Peter Sellers, it would have to be in the little chapel dedicated to St. Bernard.
The following year, I stumbled around St. Patrick’s looking once again for St. Bernard, and he was nowhere to be found. I felt a profound sense of loss. How could a saint be there one year and not the next? He had a statue and a gold plaque with his name on it. It wasn’t some temporary installation like a Picasso exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. I figured if there was going to be an unreliable saint, a fair weather friend, it was going to be one named for a dog. And then the following year, when I once again wandered around St. Patrick’s woozy on bourbon and hunting for St. Bernard, he reappeared, like an apparition. And he’s been there ever since. It turns out he shares his little alcove chapel with St. Brigid. She’s on the left side, he’s on the right. In my bourbon haze, I saw only St. Brigid and failed to see St. Bernard on the other side.
I knew the walk was going to be different this year, given that I was pregnant and not drinking. I anticipated conversations that become repetitive and orbit the same point. And I knew my husband, Bruce, would get drunk, and that he, too, would become silly and repetitive and that his breath would smell like alcohol and cigarettes because he likes to smoke when he’s had a couple of drinks. What I didn’t anticipate is that Bruce would get lost from the rest of the group – half a block from our starting point at the Roosevelt Hotel – and that we’d all have to wait for about 20 minutes on 46th Street in the cold as everyone who had Bruce’s cell phone number tried to get in touch with him and tell him where we were. Tom had just opened up the first bottle of champagne, and we were poised to make a toast when it became clear that Bruce and one other member of the party, a man called James from Barbados, had gone missing.
“Why are we waiting?” I said. I rolled my eyes.
I was annoyed. I had watched the whole thing unfold and knew it didn’t have to have happened. We all walked out of the hotel together, and then suddenly, James and Bruce, who were at the back of the pack, got it into their heads that Tom had not come out of the hotel yet, and they wanted to wait for him.
“He came out already. He’s up ahead,” I said.
“No, man. I saw him in the bathroom. He was behind me. He hasn’t come out yet,” James said.
“He did come out. He’s up ahead,” I said, pointing to the group as it was crossing Madison Avenue.
“I didn’t see him come out,” James said. “I’m going to wait for him.”
“I’ll wait here with James,” Bruce said.
At that point, the group was less than a block away on 46th Street, but I couldn’t get James or Bruce to budge.
“I’m going. I’ll see you guys later,” I said and walked across Madison Avenue to meet up with the others.
When Tom opened the champagne and was about to make a toast, people started to wonder where Bruce and James were, and I kept pointing over to the hotel. I finally walked back to where I had left them, but they were gone.
Our friend, David, continued to try to call Bruce and after about five minutes, Bruce finally picked up and said he was already on 50th Street.
“What the heck is he doing all the way over there?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” David said. “You’re the one who married him.”
Everyone knows this part of Bruce. He’s always the guy who gets lost from the crowd because he’s not paying attention, either because he was buzzed and became enthralled by some blinking light in a shop window, or he was sober and rode his bike away from the pack to investigate some building or monument off in the distance and then couldn’t find where everyone else had gotten to.
Under normal circumstances, I find this part of his personality irritating. With a baby coming, I find it alarming. What if I go into labor, and I need him, and he’s nowhere to be found. There’s already been several instances where I’ve tried to call him, and he failed to answer his cell phone because he’d put it on vibrate hours earlier and forgot to put the ringer back on.
“Dude!” I said, as he came walking up the street to rejoin our group. “What the fuck?”
“I didn’t want to leave James,” he said.
“Yeah, right,” I said. I suddenly hated James.
We lifted our plastic cups and had our toast and then made our way over to Rockefeller Center. As we walked, Bruce and I once again got separated, but that always happens on the walk as it’s one of the few times we see these people all year, and it’s nice to catch up with them. When we got to Rockefeller Center, I left the group behind and moved through the crowd to get to the tree, trying to dodge the oncoming stream of people who’d already seen the tree and were trying to get back out to Fifth Avenue. I made my way to the front row, overlooking the ice skating rink, and stood by myself looking up at this spectacle as I do every year, and despite being stone cold sober, the tree looked glorious. Tall, chock full of multi-colored lights, its long branches swaying slightly in the wind like a hula skirt. Suddenly, I felt someone come up behind me and put their arms around my waist.
“Nice tree,” Bruce said.
“Gorgeous,” I said.
We stood there looking at the tree, us three, me, Bruce and baby Eddie.