A Christmas Story

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

This piece was a Christmas gift a few years ago by a guy I was seeing (slash in love with). He was the first person I dated after a long, serious relationship and of course, I was smitten. Besides his charm and Adam Levine looks, his creative talent was an icing on top. But like after any breakup, the transition into a new one tends to get tricky. My emotions were unstable. Plus moving to a new city I demanded so much attention to pacify my insecurities and loneliness. I was so flattered by this gesture but couldn't even appreciate it at the time. Since then have reread it a few times and I felt it was too thoughtful and well crafted to leave in an inbox. Even though each time I read this my heart skips, just a little bit.

Her name is Cara.

One day a mutual friend wrote and said, Cara just moved to your city; you really should meet her and wouldn’t it be nice of you to show her around?

There are two different ways to say Cara (that I know of) but the friend didn’t include any pronunciation notes. Cara and I exchanged text messages for a few days, and I felt unsure about how to say the name lighting up my screen. 

In American English Cara is a name and, to my knowledge, a name only. Care-uh is the accepted pronunciation. The word itself carries no meaning other than whatever personal meaning you ascribe to it. Which of course depends on your experience(s) with people that share that name. I’d never met any Caras, so there was nothing for this Cara to live up or down to.

In Spanish cara is not a proper noun, and it has two different meanings: ‘face’ and ‘expensive,’ and it’s pronounced car-ah, like if you were speaking English, talking about the automobile, and tacking an -ah onto the end of it.

I had spent years dutifully observing Spanish teachers point at the word on a chalkboard, point at their face, and say car-ah.  Or point at the word, point at their wedding ring, half-smile, and then say car-ah. I’ve said cara like car-ah and meant my face or the cost of something thousands of times. 

I’d heard the English pronunciation in passing—television, movies, enough to be aware of it—but I had never personally met a care-uh. 

I couldn’t bring myself to ask this Cara her preferred pronunciation. I wanted to get it right automatically. I wanted it to seem effortless. I decided to wait to meet her in person and let her say her name first. 

I told her to meet me at this gay bar, this ancient one, near the movie theater. She smiled and hurried over to my place at the bar, keeping her eyes down, slinking under me and hanging her jacket on a hook under the old, wood bar. 

We hugged a hello. Her hair fell in her face as she was pulling away from me, these long streaked stalks falling over an eye, and then there was her left hand, tucking it up and away behind her ear, like this happens a lot, her hair misbehaving like this. 

Suddenly her hair was gone and it was just her face there, in front of me, and she caught me staring, and for a second she stared back and then we looked away, embarrassed and half-smiling to ourselves. 

When I looked back her left hand was still near her mouth, holding that hair in place behind her ear, rings on the two knuckles I could see, one of them turquoise and perched close to her lips. Her lips were this kind of reddish purple, this dark half-moon, the top one perched just a little further out, and then she started to smile.

It was so smooth. All of it. I don’t just mean the texture, her skin, that is too, of course, but I mean the whole structure of the thing, of her whole face, I mean it’s smooth. Like it all works together, no hitches, no kinks in the delivery. 

Her cheekbones were these rounded little orbs, and as she started smiling they drew up closer to her eyes, cozied up to them, and her eyes started to wrinkle ever so slightly underneath, a few off her nose and a few further away, like three to five carefully chosen little sinews you can pick out and name.

Her eyes were shaped like almonds, and I think about almonds when I think about her skin color, too, but I want to take her face to the paint store and hold swatches up to it because I want to get the color exactly right. Because I want to do better than almond, because I want the fancy words. Farro. Caraibe. Serengeti. Verde Marron. I want to call the writers who name colors and say Have I Got A Job For You. 

The cheekbones were sliding up and nudging her eyes smaller just a little, gently making room for themselves. There were dimples, too, not childlike ones, but little accent marks at the end of her lips, tiny parentheses that bracketed her mouth and made sure your gaze didn’t wander too far.

Later, I’d ask her a question, one that made her think, and I’d watch her nibble on that lower lip, the left corner of it, while she considered it.

Also later, I’d make her I’d make her laugh, and I’d watch her mouth drop open like I’d pulled some magic lever, and she gave a little yelp, and the white of her teeth flashed out at me as my reward, bright white lights on a marquee, my name in lights.

Everything about her face was very proportional, it all measured up, and then I started counting the moles, which finish off her perfectly symmetrical face in a charmingly asymmetrical way. There were maybe five of them, on her cheeks and her nose, one in the Marilyn spot, the others in more interesting places.

And then the bus boy walked over and introduced himself, because she just has the kind of face that bus boys introduce themselves to. He said he was from El Salvador, and he said his name, and she said hello and said that her name was care-uh.

And then he froze a little at her name, staring at her face, recording her pronunciation, saying it back to himself.

I wanted him to look at me, I wanted to give him a knowing nod, I wanted to whisper to him, I guessed wrong too, man.

That’s how she says it. Not car-uh, like his word for face, or his word for expensive, even though, as he and I had both been thinking: this is a fucking expensive face. 

Now, when I say her name, I just don’t look at her face. It helps my pronunciation.

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