“Are you aware that you’re spending Christmas night playing craps?”
That’s one of the dealers at Foxwoods and he’s talking to me across a bustling table as our game in the Pequot Casino enters its second hour.
I nod and smile. “It’s okay,” I say. “Every time I place a bet I ask myself ‘what would Jesus do?'”
He shakes his middle-aged head, looks down at an array of chips, then looks up again. “He wouldn’t do this.”
I can only shrug.
“Did you go to mass today?” he asks. I wonder why I’ve been singled out for interrogation. Yes, the crowd is mostly Asian. Yes, there are large groups of men wearing yarmulkes wandering around the property. But there are a number of other likely Catholics at this very gaming table.
I’d had a fleeting thought about calling the concierge and inquiring into the whereabouts of the nearest Catholic church, it’s true. I’d opted for the jacuzzi instead. Can this craps dealer smell the guilt? Do I have any?
He shakes his head in disappointment when I come clean about mass. But there’s no more time to chat.
“That’s right, man,” says the almost-loveable loudmouth among a pack of guys at the far end of the table. “Let the ladies have the dice. They’re hot tonight.”
I look left to my friend Elizabeth, who has been rolling an uncanny number of winning sevens and elevens all night. She smiles and whoops as I lean over to pick two dice from the five presented me. Everyone at the table trains their eyes on my hand as I stack the dice and toss. Someone shouts, “You go, girl,” and my roll turns up a seven. The table erupts, bets are paid, more are made, and as I collect my winnings and prepare to roll again, I’d swear that I’m happy. That something big is happening inside me. And that craps, which I’ve only learned to play in the last 24 hours, is by far the coolest casino game around.
“Don’t get too crazy, girls,” says my dealer buddy as he leaves his position to go on break. “And Merry Christmas.”
What would Jesus have done? Would he have spent Christmas at Dad’s girlfriend’s place? Would he have martyred himself, yet again, to the miserable family spinster who can single-handedly ruin any holiday — and has? Would he have trekked out to Chicago to spend the 25th with his brother’s perfectly nice and welcoming in-laws?
Yes, probably. Probably any of those options would have appealed to Jesus more than Foxwoods Resort and Casino. But I guess I’m what you’d call a lapsed Catholic, though perhaps not as lapsed as many. I don’t often go to mass on Sundays, but I do find myself drawn to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in Manhattan, during midweek, midtown lunch hours. I’ll sneak in on the tail end of mass or sit quietly to think or pray — Remember oh most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection or sought your intercession was left unaided. If the tourist flow allows, I sometimes light a candle in memory of my mother. She was the family’s big Catholic, and I often wonder whether it’s God’s house or hers in which I worship.
Christmas hasn’t been the same since my mother died 14 years ago. Not since the first year without her when my father took my brother and me to the Bahamas. Nor has Christmas morphed into something new and equally precious over time. These past few years have left me struggling to find the so-called magic of Christmas. I try to conjure it, I honestly do. I put up a tree in my Brooklyn apartment. I decorate it with all the ornaments I’ve accumulated over the years —Thimble Angle, Speedboat Santa, Reindeer Chimes — one Hallmark ornament for every year going back to 1970 and then some.
This year, I even threw a Christmas party for family and friends at my place. Dad turned up bearing two spectacular gifts — a hairdryer with a quiet motor and three Lenox wise men, sturdy yet delicate figurines that go with last year’s Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. When the festivities died down — long after a spontaneous but prolonged eighties dance-athon had ended — I sat alone in my living room (tree lit, John Denver and the Muppets’ A Christmas Together on the stereo) admiring my manger scene. I loved it instantly, but whether that love was purely nostalgic — an emotional paean to what Christmas once was and never will be again — or hopeful–a portent of what’s to come — I’m still not sure.
There was simply nowhere I truly wanted to be on Christmas day, and I’d always wanted to check out Foxwoods. Elizabeth, who’s Jewish, was easily convinced, particularly when the words “facials” and “massages” were thrown into the mix. We booked a room for three nights.
It’s not that my family is boring, per se. We just need new blood and unless my brother and his wife have kids, it’s up to me to find it, a fact I find depressing. I know there’s no rational reason Christmas should leave me lovelorn. Jesus never got married. But as the only single person in my family I find myself, year after year, longing more intensely for another figurine to add to our family nativity. Ultimately, I confessed to my father that I always felt like a third wheel around the holidays.
“I felt that way for a long time, too,” he said. “After Mom died.” It was probably the most we’d said on the subject in years. “Foxwoods, huh?”
I nodded and he reached for his wallet and handed me a twenty.
“Just don’t lose the farm.”
I’d been seeing someone for almost five months. A few days before Christmas we decided that if we weren’t ever really going to become a couple, we should stop behaving like one in the PM hours. It was the right decision — and a mutual one, I swear — but that didn’t make it any less sad.
The next day I picked up a Christmas present for Elizabeth: the latest book by self-help guru Doctor Phil McGraw. It was a joke gift, of course. At least that’s what we’d tell anyone who asked. But when she opened it in our hotel room on Christmas morning, we dug right in, reading about Dr. Phil’s idea of the “authentic self.” As we ate cold Chinese leftovers with makeshift utensils, talk turned to the “10 defining moments” of ours lives, moments Dr. Phil argues impact our “internal dialogue” in significant ways. After one or two “moments” we were stumped, but memories had been dislodged and we found ourselves, over dinner that night, sharing trying childhood experiences and thoughts on our lives and what we’d like to change about them.
Maybe it was the kind of conversation one would more naturally associate with New Year’s and the making of resolutions and such. Maybe we would have had that very discussion at some point, even if we hadn’t ended up spending Christmas together. We’ll never know. But something about the complete lack of expectation placed on us by our surroundings, something about the utter anonymity of our Foxwoods existence, seemed to free us to just be. We shared saunas with big, naked Russian women, chatted with a jewelry designer from Queens and a phys. ed. teacher from the Bronx. We listened and swayed as Gary Segal’s band played poor replicas of “Mustang Sally” and “Jump, Jive’n’ Wail” in the Atrium Lounge. The very fact of not “belonging” seemed to liberate those “authentic selves” — and I dare say we liked them.
“I thought of another defining moment,” I called to Elizabeth, as we swam truncated laps through clusters of waterlogged kids in the indoor pool on the afternoon of Jesus’ birthday.
“What?” she asked.
“Christmas at Foxwoods.”
The boys of the family bailed early on Catholicism: my father after a dear uncle of his died young; my brother after praying for our mother — and lord, did we pray — did nothing to reverse her deteriorating health. I guess I never saw God as having a hand in such affairs, never imagined Him micromanaging the pulse of a heart or the rate of a cancer’s growth. Blaming God for death seemed to me a cop out. My God was bigger. I didn’t see Him in the cancer so much as I saw him in the awesomeness of the grief that accompanied it.
In fact, as a teenager I pretty much saw God as a massive, amorphous entity that inhabited every nook and cranny of my own emotional landscape. Humility — that most desirable of Catholic traits — was hard for me to muster when I was so completely fascinated by every last detail of life as I was experiencing it. When I stood in the cemetery, watching Mom’s coffin descending, I felt bereft, yes, but also thrilled that at least one boy I knew was wildly more intrigued by me today than he had been a week ago. The complexity of my own character, no matter how ugly, and the sheer audacity of the cycle of life, love, death, and love (My mother’s funeral, for chrissakes!) seemed somehow to point to God’s existence. It’s no surprise I was never any good at confession. When coerced I’d slip into the little wooden room and prattle on about cursing and lying and impure thoughts, all the while knowing that I didn’t consider myself a sinner at all. I was human. Fully. And wasn’t that what God wanted?
These days, having shed at least some of the self-centeredness of adolescence, I seem to see God everywhere — like on Coney Island last summer when I pressed out past all the other swimmers and stared at nothing but water — and stared and stared. As the roar of the beach frolic behind me assaulted my ears my self seemed to fall away and fuse with those of everyone who’d ever set foot in those waters before. I see Him at the Jersey Shore, when the ocean that kicked my ass all day calms itself at dusk and takes on a devilish hue, like jet fuel. I see Him in the crook of a hairy arm after sex; in my irrational love for my best friend’s new baby; in the gravitational pull that draws me to someone when logic screams run away; in secrets, like reading a novel and never talking to another soul about it; in the way my hands look more and more like my mother’s every day; and, yes, in the camaraderie of strangers throwing dice.
“The money in this game is really made behind the bar.”
Our friendly dealer has returned and he’s caught my eye.
“Put another five down now,” he says. And so I do.
“I love a woman who does what she’s told,” he adds, though he tempers it with a wink.
“Hard to find these days,” another player quips.
“Now, now, boys,” I say, palms to the air. “Let’s not all jump on the bandwagon.”
The dice are thrown and I more than double my winnings thanks to the dealer’s advice.
“See?” he says, having apparently forgiven me for skipping mass, having apparently decided, like me before him, to accept the moment for what it was. Just as the man I’d been seeing was meant to be my lover for a time — a roll in the hay, a roll of the dice — this is Christmas at Foxwoods. No more, no less. I doubt it’s going to become a new tradition (next year I’d push for Vegas), but neither is it the heathen holiday some might have imagined (definitely Vegas). In the end, Elizabeth and I would leave the craps table a little richer, and I’d leave Foxwoods ready to face my family, my faith, and my future as though all bets were off.
Tara McCarthy is co-author of Big Night Out: An Interactive Novel. She is a very worthy Tara McCarthy, but not the same Tara McCarthy as the one on Killing the Buddha’s masthead.