The door to Puck’s studio apartment closes hard, too hard, behind him, and Puck sighs. Two seconds later, his phone chimes with another news alert, and as he reads it, he sinks down onto his bed.
“2017 wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says out loud, and it echoes.
A year and a month earlier, they’d been on the verge of Election Day, and Puck and Finn had optimistically, like 65 million other people, been sure they’d be happy by midnight of the next day. Puck had been equally sure that things were going to work out in every other way: he and Finn would both get into their top choice grad schools, which happened to be at the same university; they’d graduate in May of 2017, taking only eight semesters each; and even though they’d never explicitly discussed it, Puck had been sure that if he pointed out to Finn how close they were to being romantically involved, it would be an easy gap to bridge. Puck had had it all planned out, when and where they’d talk, in early January of 2017.
They had both graduated in May, but long before Puck’s planned talk, Finn had started talking nonstop in November and December about a woman in many of his senior classes. In the midst of post-election despair, Puck had assumed the worst and scrapped his plans. It’d been February before he’d realized it had been nothing more than a friendship, but he’d been unable to convince himself to reconstruct the plan. There had been marches and protests to attend, Senators’ offices and Burt’s office to call, to feel like they were doing something, all along with finishing their last semester. Puck hadn’t felt like he got his feet back under him before grad school acceptances had come in.
They hadn’t gotten into their top choices, either of them, which meant no move out of state. They had regrouped, each of them getting into their second choice schools, which were at least in the same city. Puck had looked up apartments in Cleveland equidistant from their two campuses, but when June rolled around and the apartment search became tangible and not virtual, it had been all too obvious that the rents were too high and the drives too long to make a shared apartment work. Puck had found a studio off his campus, Finn was in an efficiency near his, and while they still saw each other as much as they could, and Puck knew it was better than it could have been, it hadn’t been what he wanted. He was pretty sure it hadn’t been what Finn wanted either.
Puck tosses his phone down on the mattress and flips on more lights, studying the calendar on the wall. Finals start in four days, on Monday, and the next night, Hanukkah starts. Puck glances around the apartment and shakes his head. Nothing about the apartment looks festive, which means that he needs to add Hanukkah shopping to his whiteboard to-do list. Study, buy potatoes, buy a menorah, set iTunes up to send Livi eight songs, send something from Amazon for his mom, plan to call Nana, and buy Finn a Hanukkah present.
“Sure,” Puck says to himself, studying the list. “Piece of cake. Finals, no big deal.”
By Sunday morning, Puck’s managed to set up Livi’s iTunes songs, buy himself a menorah, find his mom’s present on Amazon, and even buy potatoes. His studying is coming along, and when he stops to eat lunch, he puts up the paper Hanukkah decorations he bought on a whim when he got the menorah at Target. It doesn’t take him long to decorate, but it feels almost festive when he puts his nose back into his books for the rest of Sunday. He’ll worry about the rest of the to-do list, he tells himself, after the first final on Monday, and maybe after the second final, on Tuesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, Puck goes back to the apartment as soon as his final ends, and he makes himself sit down with his laptop and finish the paper due the next day, the final of his finals. He still has to proctor and grade a final on Thursday, but he doesn’t have to write the exam himself, so he’s ignoring that part of his life while he focuses on the paper. He finishes it just as the sun is setting, which is as good of a reason as any to light the shamash and the first candle, then take out the jelly doughnut he’d picked up earlier, and eat it. He waits until the sun’s been down for over an hour before he decides it’s time to fulfill one of his other list items, calling Nana.
Nana launches into a story about her cat and the menorah, then asks Puck what he sent his sister and his mom, and something in his voice must give him away.
“You don’t sound very celebratory, Noah.”
Puck sighs. “Sorry, Nana. I don’t feel very celebratory, but I’m trying.”
“Tell me what’s going on,” Nana says, and it’s not a question. Puck tries to keep it succinct, even though Nana keeps asking for more details, and instead of bringing up Finn, Puck tries to steer the conversation to politics.
“It’s hard to keep up the motivation when I don’t even know if I can afford to keep going to grad school, Nana,” he says, and Nana huffs.
“That’s not really the biggest thing weighing on your mind,” she says. “You always did leave what was bothering you most for the very last.”
“There’s nothing I can really do about any of what’s bothering me,” Puck points out.
“Hmm,” Nana says, and Noah sighs, bracing himself for the incoming lecture. “Is there not? There’s nothing you can do? Or nothing that you think is reasonable?” Puck doesn’t answer, and Nana continues. “It’s not a rhetorical question, Noah. Think about it. I know you. You have ideas of what’s reasonable and not. Maybe you need to stop playing it safe.”
“I don’t play it safe!” Puck says, frowning at the wall, as if Nana can see it.
“Oh, you do sometimes,” Nana insists. “Think about it, Noah. It’s Hanukkah! Celebrate a little!”
“I missed the part of the Hanukkah story where ‘don’t play it safe’ comes in,” Puck says, and Nana laughs.
“Have a little creativity, Noah. And call me next Tuesday.” With that, Nana hangs up, and Puck stares at the screen of his phone for a few minutes.
“Have creativity. Don’t play it safe. Don’t stick to what’s reasonable,” Puck says out loud after a bit. “You have a weird way of celebrating Hanukkah, Nana. Why couldn’t you have just lectured me about latkes again?”
Still, Puck thinks about what Nana said through turning in his paper the next day, cleaning up the apartment, checking in with Finn on his finals—starting Thursday and ending Wednesday—and then proctoring the undergrads on Thursday afternoon.
The hard truth is that he can’t change a lot of things, like he told Nana, no matter how unreasonable or creative he gets. Politics is what it is, graduate school is what it is, and the world is more or less what it is. He has to think a lot smaller, a lot more local. He’s actually doing well in his grad school classes, even if it was his second choice, so there’s really only one thing he can even have a hope of impacting.
It’s a lot scarier than he would have thought it would have been, maybe because he’s lived through a year of uncertainty that he never would have imagined, already. Still, if he is consistent in any way in his life, it’s listening to his Nana, so he starts making a list while the sound of pens in blue books echoes in the room.
After the exam, before grading, he stops three different places, picking up information at two of them and buying a few things at the third. He putters around the apartment Thursday night, avoiding both his list and grading, before buckling down Friday and Saturday to finish grading the exams.
Last exam graded, Puck lights the menorah, a little later than he technically should, and shoots Finn a text.
You’re coming here Wednesday night for Hanukkah/end of semester
Finn texts back Well ok if you insist followed by a string of emojis mostly made up of smiley faces, potatoes, and a synagogue.
Puck spends Sunday feeling vaguely guilty for watching football, but tells himself it’s the first time he’s watched all season, and he’s not buying anything from any of the advertisers, especially not Papa John’s. Monday and Tuesday, he feels a mix of anticipation and pure laziness for the first time in months.
Puck’s considering going to bed on Tuesday night when his phone rings, and his hand shakes a little picking it up, because the phone insists it’s Nana, despite the time.
“Nana? Are you okay?” Puck asks as soon as he answers.
“Noah, it’s a Hanukkah miracle!” Nana says, sounding jubilant.
“That bastard Roy Moore just lost,” Nana says, and Puck laughs.
“Really?” he asks. “Really, really?”
“Yes!” Nana says. “See, Noah, anything can happen!”
“Anything?” Puck says, still a little skeptically. That makes Nana launch into a detailed description of everything she heard on Maddow, Nate Silver’s blog, and overall voter turnout for the Alabama special election, a recounting that takes at least fifteen minutes.
At the end of it, Nana takes a deep breath and then abruptly changes the subject. “Well, Noah? Are you working on your own Hanukkah miracle?”
“Uh, I don’t know if it’s a miracle,” Puck says.
“Do you need help?” Nana asks, and Puck sighs, about to put her off, when he decides to take a chance and explain the entire thing in detail.
It’s nearly midnight before Puck goes to bed, but he feels better than he has in a while, even with his previous plans. Now he has something cohesive, some errands to run the next day, and latkes to fry up.
Errands and everything are done just before sunset on Wednesday, and Puck starts grating potatoes while he waits for Finn’s knock. When Finn does knock on the door, it’s a complicated rhythm that Puck realizes might be intended to be “The Dreidel Song.” Puck snorts and washes the potato off his hands before going to open the door.
“I didn’t buy any gelt,” Puck says as he opens the door.
Finn holds up his hand, dangling a mesh bag of gelt. “They had it two-for-one at Chief.”
“Nana’ll be so proud of you when I tell her.”
“She might be less proud if you tell her I already ate the other bag.”
“We’ll keep that at least between us,” Puck says wryly. “Latkes’ll be ready in ten or so.”
“You know I live for the latkes!” Finn says.
“There are worse motivational posters,” Puck says. He closes the door behind Finn and points towards the coffee table. “I guess put the gelt in the middle there with the present.”
“‘Kay,” Finn says, dropping the mesh bag of gelt on the coffee table. “Just us?”
“I mean, we could Skype Nana in, she’d like that, but she couldn’t eat the latkes.”
“That would be too mean to Nana.”
“I am good at latkes. Plus, she’s probably out celebrating last night’s Hanukkah miracle with her friends.”
“There was a Hanukkah miracle and I missed it?” Finn asks.
“Nana’s pretty sure that’s the only reason Roy Moore lost. When she called me last night, I thought something was wrong, it was so late for her,” Puck says.
“I mean, that was kind of a miracle,” Finn concedes. “But hey, if Hanukkah gets us the win, who am I to question it? Go Team Dreidel, right?”
“Voters like oil, or something,” Puck says. “Grab us traditional Hanukkah beer while I fry these things.”
Finn laughs at that, but he does go to the fridge and get out two beers, popping the tops off and setting one bottle down on the counter next to Puck. “We having anything else with the latkes?”
“Got a brisket and rugelach down the street, but I don’t have to cook those,” Puck says. “Two bowls of soup, too.”
“Sounds perfect for another cold, snowy night,” Finn says.
“A cold, snowy night with absolutely nothing due.”
“Praise Jewish God!”
“What were we thinking?” Puck drops some of the latke mixture into the oil. “Grad school? Are we nuts?”
“Definitely nuts,” Finn says. “We could be working a nice job somewhere right now. We could be working someplace warm.”
“We could have run away to Miami and been… bartenders?”
“Farther south, even. The Keys. We could be bartenders in Key West right now. No snow in Key West.”
“We would have been flooded earlier in the year, but we’d be warm.” Puck shakes his head. “First latkes are yours.”
“Awesome. I’ll get the plates down,” Finn says. He gets down two plates, setting them by the stove.
“And I got applesauce and sour cream,” Puck says as he carefully places the first of the latkes on one plate.
“I’ll do one with each,” Finn says as he takes the plate.
“Remember the year I came to school and said that the latkes were gross that year?”
“Yeah.” Finn laughs. “Wait. Did you put both on them?”
Puck winces. “Yeah. It was bad.”
“Yeah, that sounds disgusting,” Finn says. He sets his plate down on Puck’s tiny dining table, then returns to the kitchen.
“I was nine!” Puck says. “Soup bowls are in the microwave.”
“Okay.” Finn gets the soup bowls from the microwave and transports them to the table, then returns again. “Next?”
“I’ll grab the brisket if you take my latkes to the table.”
“Sure thing,” Finn says. He takes the plated latkes from Puck and brings them to the table while Puck opens the oven and pulls brisket out of it, then carries in a plate with some brisket piled on it.
“It’s a second Hanukkah miracle,” Puck says.
“Hanukkah meal in a studio apartment kitchen?” Puck says. “Nana said we have to work on our Hanukkah miracles. Or, well, she said I had to.”
“Well, I guess you did it,” Finn says. He holds his fist up for Puck to bump. “Congrats on your Hanukkah miracle.”
“Oh, this is just the first one, hopefully,” Puck says as he returns the bump. “Eat your latkes.”
“If you say so,” Finn says. He starts dutifully eating his latkes, pausing to give Puck a thumbs up.
“I could have just been a latke maker,” Puck says slightly mournfully.
“That’s sort of a limited job, though, isn’t it? You couldn’t do that year-round,” Finn says.
“You’re crushing my dreams,” Puck says, sighing as he gets a spoonful of soup.
“I mean, I could hire you to make latkes for me all year, but then I’d get fat, plus I couldn’t pay you that much.”
“I wouldn’t charge you, but that wouldn’t help with the business end of things,” Puck says.
“Yeah. Terrible business model,” Finn agrees.
Puck grins. “Eat your free latkes so we can have presents. I go first.”
“Sure,” Finn says. “You can go first, but you can’t complain if you don’t like it, ‘cause it’ll get in the way of my turn!”
“I save complaints for after Hanukkah. Remember Nana’s rule?”
“I was just making sure you remembered it.”
“Kvetching and Hanukkah start with different letters,” Puck says. He eats a bite of the brisket and shrugs. “Okay, not bad.”
“It’s pretty good. Maybe next year I can cook a brisket, though,” Finn says. “I need to learn how to cook real food.”
“Trader Joe’s frozen meals still don’t count.”
“I can make spaghetti, too.”
“From a jar?”
“I can add ground beef that I cooked myself,” Finn says.
“We’ll have to ask Nana if that counts or not,” Puck says. “I’m leaning towards no.”
“What if I added garlic bread to my, what’s it called, repertoire?” Finn asks. “Not from frozen. If I make garlic bread with my jarred plus ground beef sauce, does that count as a real meal?”
“I’m still leaning towards no,” Puck says with a grin. “Is the pasta the microwave stuff?”
“Nah, I can boil noodles myself.”
“Then you’re ready to attend a birth. Boiling water and all that,” Puck says. He pushes his plate away slightly. “Is it gift time?”
“Sure!” Finn says.
“If we were wizards, we could just summon them over here.”
“Did you get me wizard powers for Hanukkah?”
“That’s a miracle I haven’t managed,” Puck admits. “Okay, hit me.”
“Alright,” Finn says. He retrieves a lumpy package, rectangular and fairly thin, from his coat and hands it to Puck. Puck grins and slides a finger under the wrapping paper, opening it slowly.
“One day I’ll rip into a gift, but not today,” Puck says. He pulls out a folded map, along with what looks like thirty or forty dollars in cash, and he notices some handwriting on the map after that. “Cash and a map?”
“You’ve gotta look at the map,” Finn encourages. “It’ll make sense, I promise.”
“Okay, okay,” Puck agrees, unfolding the map and looking at the writing. “‘Grand Army of the Republic Highway Road Trip’,” Puck reads, noting the circles that he presumes are stops. The note under Wellsboro says “Wellsboro Diner—CASH ONLY.” Puck nods. “That explains the cash, then,” he says out loud.
“I figured we could go the first warm four-day weekend we get this spring,” Finn says, then he looks a little embarrassed. “I mean, you could go alone whenever you want, but if you don’t mind me going, too, you know?”
“Maybe we’ll get one of those warm weekends in March, the weekend we’re both on spring break,” Puck says.
“That would rock,” Finn says.
“What’s the Wellsboro Diner famous for?”
“Being cash-only,” Finn says, then laughs. “Apparently it’s still almost exactly like it was in the thirties.”
“Amazing,” Puck says. “As long as we can get a good breakfast for our cash, I’m game.”
“It’s supposed to be good. That’s all I can promise.”
“And if not, we can leave a review, and since it’s cash only, they won’t have a name off a card,” Puck says, laughing. “Ready for yours?”
“Oh yeah!” Finn says.
“It’s, uh, a little weird,” Puck says as he gets up to grab the envelope on top of the Bluray player. “And I had to get a little help with it.”
“Okay,” Finn says, accepting the envelope. He opens it and pulls out the letter. He stares at it for about a half a minute, head cocked slightly to the side, then looks up at Puck. “An offer to buy out my lease? I don’t understand.”
Puck shrugs. “Nana said to fix the things that we can fix. And we should have been living together, so I looked around more. Found a place where someone was breaking their lease at the end of the month, that we can actually afford. And then I asked Nana to help bankroll the two starving grad students.”
Finn’s face shifts from confused to surprise. “Wow. Puck, that’s a lot of money. I don’t know what to say! This is so great!”
“There’s, uh, one more thing. Before you go buy boxes.”
“Okay. Yeah. What?”
“It’s a one bedroom place,” Puck admits.
“Oh,” Finn says softly, then a little louder, “Oh! Oh, okay, wow. So, you’re asking if…”
“I should have said something months ago,” Puck says. “The world went upside-down and pear-shaped all at the same time, and…”
“And we both thought maybe it was gonna happen, and then it didn’t, so then we just never brought it up again,” Finn finishes. “Right? I mean, that’s how it went for me, anyway.”
“Yeah, and for awhile it seemed like we should do the things we ‘should’ do, but fuck that,” Puck says. “This is one thing we can have.”
“Sure would be a better end to the year than it started,” Finn says.
“So you think Nana’s right? We should make our own miracles?”
“I think Nana’s a pretty smart lady.”
“We can wait and Skype her to tell her that tomorrow, though.”
Finn busts out laughing. “Yeah, I think that can wait.”