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Tag : fiction

The Lilith Blog

March 24, 2020 by

Real Life Mysteries: A Lost Voice and Communication With the Dead

Everyone loves a great mystery on the page, but what about in real life? Victoria Zackheim decided to ask a group of writers exactly that question and she collects their answers in the new volume, Private Investigations: Mystery Writers on the Secrets, Wonders and Riddles in Their Lives (Seal Press). Caroline Leavitt’s mystery began with her losing her voice, and the endless medical quest she embarked on to find out why. Hallie Ephron was prompted to write about a friend’s belief that she could communicate with her dead brother. Both of these writers talk to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how their essays were informed by their experience as Jewish women.

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March 16, 2020 by

The Fraught and Frayed Bonds of Sisterhood

The fraught, frayed bonds of sisterhood is a subject beautifully explored by Lynda Cohen Loigman in The Wartime Sisters (St. Martin’s Press) a WWII-era novel that probes the connection between Millie—beautiful, impractical—and Ruth, pragmatic yet desperate to protect the life she’s carved out for herself.

Loigman talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she found her way to their story and where it took her.  

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What attracted you to the subject of the Springfield Armory and how did you go about doing your research?

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December 26, 2019 by

A Jewish Girl’s Summer Among New England WASPs

It’s 1987 and Eve Rosen, a young aspiring editor, abruptly leaves her lackluster job in New York City and decamps to Cape Cod. Once there she becomes the assistant to a well-regarded older male writer and is ushered into the kind of heady literary life she’s only been able to dream about. Author Karen Dukess talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about The Last Book Party (Henry Holt), her witty and tender debut novel.

YZM: Does Eve feel intimidated by the largely non-Jewish crowd she finds herself in withkaren dukess that summer? 

KD: Eve is definitely intimidated by this crowd, but the aspect of their difference from her own background that most unsettles her – and also attracts her – is not that they are not Jewish, but that they are writers and artists. Eve believes that if she had been born into a literary world instead of the conventional, upper-middle class, professional world of her family, her path to becoming a writer would be smoother. She’s comfortable with people like her parents who read The New Yorker (or just subscribe and let it pile up) but she is intimidated by people who write for The New Yorker. Everything about this crowd is “other” to Eve – they are accomplished, sophisticated and worldly in a way that Eve yearns to be. That they are mostly WASPy is just one more factor of difference.

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November 6, 2019 by

Fiction: Diamonds and Ashes

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The water is a silk sari, pleating, unraveling beneath us, falling away. Eucalyptus trees blink in the morning sunlight. I am on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, with my aunts Esther and Hannah. With their short dark hair and stocky figures, they make it hard for me to believe that they are—were—my mother’s older sisters. 

“Can you believe this is what he tells me?” Aunt Esther gestures at the older of the crew members. The men wear black t-shirts emblazoned Holyland Sailing. “He says last year a group of billionaires are coming from Texas with the ashes of their loved ones. They mixed them with, how you say? yaholamim.

“Diamonds,” Aunt Hannah helps out. Like her sister, she has a strong Israeli accent.

“Yes, diamonds, and they throw them in the water.”

“So they are used to it, even though it is not so Jewish. People scattering ashes.”

“Really?” I ask. “Are these stories true?”

I shake my head in amazement. Tucked under my arm is the box labeled Rose Williams: Cremated Remains. Hudson and Son, Bath.

“Of course,” says Aunt Esther. “By the way, your mother’s name was Shoshana Ullmann. We never called her Rose.” History hangs in the air between us, my aunts’ skin darker than my mother’s as if 40 years of disappointing English summers had drained her of any color. She was also slimmer than her sisters, and more reserved.

For two weeks in Israel, my head has been spinning with questions. Why did my mother leave Israel when she was twenty- one? Why did she never return? Why did she distance herself from her parents? Why did she anglicize her name and deny her Judaism? Why did she make a monthly payment to her sisters? And most curiously of all, why did she request her ashes to be scattered on a lake she never visited?

My aunts have introduced me to so many cousins that I have struggled to remember which children and grandchildren belong to which aunt. I have been conscious that my white skin and cautious demeanor must seem as alien to them as their effusiveness appears to me. Now that both sisters live again in the family home, Esther (widowed) and Hannah (divorced) fill their days with family. They eat at a large dining table, served by their Arab maid Mimi, who limps slightly as she carries plates of food in. I am intrigued by her.

Mimi looks like a woman in her twenties, dark hair twisted into a bun, her nearly black eyes downcast, her brown skin smooth. Beautiful and silent. The aunts thank her for her service, but she does not reply, just nods her head slightly in response.

Wrapped around this stone house in Herzylia like a sash, the garden bursts with mangoes, pomegranates gleaming red; passionfruit and guavas concealing their moisture beneath rough skins. Banana trees with wide leaves; palms with golden dates stored high like jewels; olive trees fluttering their silver foliage and a single rose bush, its pink flowers blushing at their incongruity in this exotic terrain.

‘We grow this for your mother,’ says Aunt Esther as she shows me their garden. Aunt Hannah walks silently on.

The days spent with them have been filled with love and warmth but I have sensed that they are holding something back. We have eaten many meals together in their pleasant home: books straight on the shelves; fruit in wooden bowls; framed black-and-white photos, including one of my teenaged mother and her sisters, Mum in a short skirt and beaming surprisingly broadly. In her later work as an administrator in the hospital, she always looked smart, her skirt below her knees, her shoes flat, nothing Mediterranean about her apart from the slight Israeli accent she could not lose. Her dark hair and eyes often led to questions she just waved away with the reply: ‘I was born in Israel but left many years ago. England’s my home now.’

My aunts have opened my eyes to Israel: Jaffa, its yellow stone and bobbing boats in the Mediterranean; Tel Aviv, its busyness and sophistication a surprise to me; Ashdod, a new city gleaming with pride in the white light; Haifa, its harbor spread below us like a feast; Jerusalem, where I laid my hands on the hot, golden Western Wall; and the Druze market where I bought my father a silver coffee pot with tiny espresso cups on a matching tray.

But with all the pleasures has been a tension. Not only the soldiers carrying guns and security at every mall and train station. Not only the stories of Orthodox spitting at secular girls because of their immodest dress. Not only the way that Israelis are overtly political in a way that the British are not. My aunts scan the papers daily for news. One day while I am there the headlines tell of an Orthodox Jewish man who has stabbed a young woman in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. A Palestinian family with a baby daughter is burned alive in their own home. Jews and Arabs live their lives against a backdrop of fear.

The tension has been closer to home, too. Hannah and Esther have been constantly bickering, slipping into Hebrew to do so, excluding me from the conversation, glancing in my direction and then looking away. They return to English when they are calmer, and I am included again.

“What kind of studies you are doing, Claire?”

“I’ve started a Ph.D. at Bath University.”

“Near your home?”

“Yes. Near where I’m living with my father.”

“We met him when we came to England once. Do you remember we came to see you when you were still at school?”

“Yes I do.” I recall, aged 14, that my mother’s two sisters briefly entered our lives.

“What you are studying?” “I’m researching literature, culture and identity.” The next morning, Esther gives me T. Carmi’s At the Stone of Losses and his words reduce me to tears. She lends me poems by the poet Rachel, “In My Garden” and “Will you hear my voice?” She takes me to see Rachel’s grave in the Kinneret cemetery, and the single, simple name on her headstone: Rachel. I place a stone on her grave.

I have been emotional on this trip, which would surprise Hugh, his ongoing complaint about me that I don’t connect. In spite of liking him, I have been unable to commit, scared of the age gap, my 25 to his 38. Worried about what kind of mother I might be. I have felt homesick here, missing Hugh, missing my father’s soft, genial kindness, missing our English garden and cottage, the honeysuckle which curls around my bedroom window. Missing my mother, who when she passed away in September, was not fighting the cancer but letting it take her at 62, submitting to it as if she felt that she deserved it.

Ours was a quiet, understated family, my sweet doctor father with rumors of an early unsuccessful marriage before my mother, which no one really spoke about. And my mother, dutiful, always supportive of me, attending every concert and play at my girls’ school tucked genteelly away in the hills. And yet when it came to the bear hugs I witnessed other families exchanging…it didn’t happen with us. My father would pat me on the shoulder if I did well; my mother would put her arms around me but almost without touching. If I asked about her past in Israel, the details were sketchy.

“I grew up in Herzylia, a lovely house with my parents who ran a pharmacy and two older sisters. I went to the army, and then a kibbutz for voluntary work and came here to study. That’s all.”

And then she would turn away, a clear signal that she didn’t want to talk about it. When I was asked my religion at school, my mother would tell me to state “No religion,” as I was brought up with no Judaism at all. We did not light candles on Shabbat; we did not go to synagogue on the High Holy Days or any days; we did not have a Chanukiah; we did not dip apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah. I learned about these festivals in school but they remained theory, not practice. At home, we celebrated Christmas modestly, a small tree with white lights and not overly lavish presents, as if she was ashamed of celebrating a Christian festival.

I learned more about her after she died. She left me money to continue my Ph.D.; she made a bequest to the Centre for Peace Studies in Jaffa, and to the Divan orchestra. She requested a humanist funeral to include music by Louis Armstrong and Bach. And most curious of all were these lines in her will: “I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered on Lake Kinneret.”

It took me months to face sorting out her wardrobe. I put her copies of Country Life magazine in a pile for recycling. I folded her clothes—the sensible skirts, the flat shoes, the beige cardigans, the long cotton nighties and white underwear—into bags for Oxfam. All the while, I fought back tears and felt that I was handling the costumes of a young actor who plays an older character, as if she had assumed a false identity. I felt overwhelmed with regret that only after she had gone had she really come to me.

And in the darkness at the bottom of the wardrobe a wooden box inlaid with purple anemones and a bag of poems she had written. I knew she liked reading poetry, especially Keats, Shelley and the Romantics but I did not know that she wrote it herself. I read her words:

Once we walked at the lake’s edge,
Purple anemones tucked in our hair
And there my dust will settle.
I am the lake. I am the fish.
I am the leaves that float.
I am a part of whatever grows.
There is no other eternity that I desire.

Even seeing the word desire shocked me. My mother, who never expressed her wishes and did not seem to demand anything, not even a biscuit to go with her tea.

I phone my father a few times. I keep in touch with Hugh, whose replies to my emails are always warmer than mine to his. Something restrains me. Would it be right to open myself like a book at its center? To let him completely in?

I think of the times we have had, watching the swans puff themselves up on the river; the meals in our favorite trattoria; the nights where I have opened myself physically to him even while emotionally I have been closed.

On the boat, the men have taken us to the centre of the lake where no shoreline is now visible, and have stilled the vessel. My aunts say Kaddish together, which they tell me is the mourner’s prayer. Then together we take the bag from the red box, our hands overlapping, and scatter Mum’s ashes on the water. They remain on the surface for an instant, then dissolve and vanish.

The tears come fast and my aunts hug me close, so that I can feel their breasts rest on mine, in no hurry to run away. “Thank you,” I whisper. “Thank you for your kindness.”

‘She is at peace now,’ says Hannah.

I finger the locket around my neck my mother gave me, her tiny photo trapped inside. I wonder why she asked to be scattered on this lake?

Esther and Hannah exchange glances. “I want to tell you,” says Esther. “You deserve to know.”

Hannah glares at her. “Esther, remember what we agree.”

“No,” says Esther. The boat has begun to sail again and the motion seems to spur her on. “I will tell you, Claire. This is your history.”

Hannah moves to the other side of the boat, turning her back to us and staring out at the water, disapprovingly.

“Your mother,” begins Esther carefully, “was very clever at school and our abba—our father—was very proud of her. He has high hopes. After the army, she does not know what job to do so she, Shoshana, goes to the kibbutz there.” And as if on cue, the community comes into view. I can see sugar-cube houses in the distance, clinging to the hills.

“When she is there she meets a young man, an Arab, Ibrahim, from Um-el-Fachem. They fall in love. He was a carpenter for the kibbutz.”

I recall the wooden box with the anemones on its lid. “What happened then?” “Abba finds out. He is very angry.”

Hannah turns to stare at Esther, calls out something in Hebrew which I don’t understand. “I have said enough.”

“Please. I need to know.”

“Your mother got….” She mimes a round stomach.

“Pregnant? My mother was pregnant?” 

“Yes. Abba, angry, come to the kibbutz, says Shoshana must not have the baby. Must get rid of it. Your mother said no.”

“My mother had a child before me? With Ibrahim?” I feel my heart thump in my chest and my legs quiver.

“Yes. A girl.”

“I can’t believe it. What happened to her?”

“She go to…how you say?” “An orphanage?”

“Yes. She is not well. And your mother sent away to England to study. Abba says she must not return. But the child is not happy in the home so we help out. Hannah and me.”

“What was the child called?”

Esther pauses. “Mimi,” she says.

The bottom of the boat collapses beneath my feet and I am falling through water.

“Mimi? The Arab girl who works for you?”

“She is half-Arab,” says Esther. “She helps us in the house and we support her. Your mother always sent us an allowance for her, too. She likes to draw.”

“Mimi is my sister?” I think of the dark-haired girl who stumbles into the dining room carrying a jug of water, a plate of watermelon.“Does she know her story, who her parents are?”

“No,” says Esther. “She does not.”

“But surely she is curious?”

Hannah is still staring at the water, searching for answers there.

“She is a quiet girl. She asked once who her parents were and we just said that we didn’t know. It’s easier that way, less complicated.”

The lake and land spin. There is nothing beneath me. I think of my parents, about my strong sense that they loved me, in spite of their secrets, their understated ways. It seems wrong that Mimi does not know who she really is.

We leave the boat and thank the crew. I wonder what they think of me: cheerful at the start, weeping in the middle; stunned at the end.

In a restaurant in Tiberias we order salad and fish. Porcelain dishes are brought to the table. They form a ceramic patchwork on the cloth: hummus, tahini, pickles, salads, yogurt, roast cauliflower with sunflower seeds, eggplant dip, chopped beetroot stained by its own juices.

We eat in silence, the sisters angry with each other. “Does my father know about Mimi?” I ask. The aunts shake their heads.

“I am pleased you told me,” I say quietly. “It is a shock, but now I know my mother’s history.”

On the last day of my visit, my aunts go shopping for gifts for me, but I ask to stay at the house. I have packing and washing to do.

Once they have gone, I walk through their garden to the small house where Mimi lives. I knock and wait, watching the olive leaves shift in the breeze. At last the door opens tentatively and she peers round the frame.

“Shalom. Salaam,” I say. “May I come in please, Mimi?”

She looks uncertain but she lets me in. Her home is functional: a wooden table and chairs, one settee, tiled floors, beautiful sketches on the walls. It strikes me that her home may be simple but her history is not. In the corner of the room is a chair and desk with a half-finished drawing upon it. Then I realize that the framed pencil drawings adorning the walls are by her: the serrated edges of shells; the outside and inside of tropical fruits; mountains delicately drawn. No portraits, only nature.

“These are really good,” I say, pointing to them, and although she does not comprehend the words, I am sure she understands the message.

Mimi goes to the kitchen, limping slightly and returns with juice for me. I take it, “Todah rabah,” I say and drink. I taste guavas and passionfruit, the sweetness I need.

I nod and smile. She seems pleased. We sit together on the sofa and I search her face for my mother’s likeness. The downcast eyes, the modesty, the translucent skin. Yes, my mother is there within her, and in a strange way, I feel my mother’s presence. I may have scattered her ashes but she is here with me.

I hold out my hand and take hers. I wonder whether she will resist and refuse, but to my amazement she even curls her small fingers upon my skin. I am surprised at how comfortable I am with her and she with me. Before, when I have had to hold hands with a stranger at a dance, or even when someone has brushed by me in a crowd, I have felt uncomfortable but not here. We sit like this for several minutes in silence and I feel that I could stay in this position forever, but I don’t want the aunts to come back and find me here.

I take the locket of my mother—our mother—from my neck and place it around Mimi’s. Our faces are so near I can feel her soft hair. The gold catches the light as she moves.

Mimi lifts her face and her dark eyes are, without doubt, the eyes of our mother. We half smile while I drown in those eyes.

She gives me one of her delicate sketches, mangoes and lemons. I convey my thanks with an embrace.

By the time the aunts return, I have packed. They have brought halva for my father and books of poetry for me, which I will treasure.

At the airport, I ask:

“Isn’t Mimi lonely?”

And Esther says no, she likes to be alone to draw. They use the money Sho—Rose—sent to buy her materials.

“May I carry on sending her that monthly allowance?” I ask, and they agree. “And may I visit you all again?’ They smile and we hug again.

On the airplane I notice my gently tanned skin, as if I am edging closer to Mimi. I text Hugh, “I love you. I want you,” switch off my phone and close my eyes, opening them again only when I glimpse through the small window the thin green skin covering England.

Tamar Hodes’ latest novel is The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books).

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July 9, 2019 by

Inside the World of a Pregnant Ultra-Orthodox Grandmother

On Division by Goldie Goldbloom (FSG, $26) is a novel about a 57-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman in Williamsburg, mother of 10 and grandmother of dozens, who is shocked to discover she is pregnant with twins. Surie Eckstein is embarrassed by her condition and unable to share the news with her husband. Month after month, as her secret creates more of a gulf between herself and her family, it also allows Surie to uncover her own hidden reserves of strength and vulnerability, and to cultivate a skill and sensitivity that lead her beyond the enclaves of her own insular community.

Surie Eckstein’s entire life has been defined by her family. She loves and appreciates her husband of 41 years, a scribe who raises chickens in their yard: “His work with the holy scrolls had engraved itself on his body. His shoulders were rounded, his hips ached, he had arthritis in his ink-stained fingers. He had varicosities and a belly from so many hours of sitting. But his work had marked him in positive ways too. Yidel could concentrate on a single thing for hours. He never lost his temper. His face was calm and innocent as an angel’s.” She is very close with her in-laws, Dead Onyu and Dead Opa—“dead,” we learn, is the Hungarian word for great-grandparent, though the appellation never loses its humor—who live on the ground floor. And she is deeply involved in the life of her children, including her holier-than-thou daughter Tzila Ruchel and her own many children, who live one flight down. Surie’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws constantly wander in and out of her home, and it is only rarely that she has time to sit in her favorite spot in her bedroom overlooking the East River alone with herself.

When Surie manages to find time alone, her thoughts inevitably turn to her beloved son Lipa, whom she last saw four years ago when he died of AIDS in San Francisco: “He did not have his payos. He had a tattoo on his chest and a metal ring through one nipple. Around his neck was a dark purple line that came to a V in the front, like the neckline of an undershirt, and in the gray flesh of his neck there were dozens of small cuts.” Surie remains tortured by her love for Lipa and haunted by his death. She carries his green glasses around with her everywhere, as if now, after he is lost to her forever, she might finally learn to see the world through his eyes. Lipa is the one subject she and Yidel do not speak openly about, until the pregnancy becomes another secret between them. To Surie the two secrets are bound up in one another—until she comes to terms with what happened to the child she lost, she cannot bring herself to tell her husband about the new children she is carrying.

Author Goldie Goldbloom, a Hasidic mother of eight, is not the first to expose the inner world of ultra-Orthodox Jews, but she does so with a rare sensitivity to nuance and a resistance to stereotype. Surie’s community is close-knit and suspicious of outsiders—Surie worries that her seventeen-year-old son may be hiding a forbidden “lep tup” in their basement— but she is aware of and engaged with “the outside world,” to cite the title of a Tova Mirvis novel about a similar milieu. Surie develops a close relationship with Valerie, the senior midwife in the high-risk clinic where Surie travels by bus for her check-ups (“Where are you from?” a woman on the bus asks her, eyeing her nylon wig and scarf. “You don’t look like anyone I know.”) She grows resentful of the know-it-all male doctor who cannot understand her resistance to invasive testing: “She wished a sweet death—being run over by a sugar truck—upon obstetricians who used the collective ‘we’ when they really meant ‘you.’ The doctor wasn’t pregnant… It didn’t matter what happened to her or to the babies. Their births, her own health, it was all in God’s hands. Only those without faith worried about such things. Either there would be a disaster, or there wouldn’t, and stressing oneself, worrying about it, wouldn’t change a thing.”

The midwife Valerie appreciates the culture clash between the doctors and their Williamsburg clientele, and soon she hires Surie as her assistant to counsel other ultra-Orthodox patients, including a thirteen-year-old girl who is banished from the community a er she is tragically impregnated by a trusted adult. Surie decides she wants to be a nurse—an unusual decision for any late-middle-aged woman, let alone a Hasidic grandmother expecting twins—and she borrows textbooks from the clinic that she secretly studies at home. Surie Eckstein surprises herself, but she also confounds our expectations of a character like her. The fact that she remains, throughout, a sympathetic and convincing heroine is a testament to Goldbloom’s masterful skill as a storyteller. This is a novel that moves and affects us on so many levels—as a witness to the unremitting pain of losing a child, as an exploration of the dance of intimacy and interiority in a marriage that is nearly lifelong, and as a celebration of our endless capacity to create new life, and to create new lives for ourselves.

 

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June 7, 2019 by

“Jade Lily” Imagines Jewish Refugees Who Found Home in Shanghai

Song of Jade LilyVienna, 1938.  It’s clear to the Bernfelds that they are no longer welcome in their city and they have to flee.  But where? No one wants or will accept the refugees…no one except the Chinese that is, and so the family, or what remains of it, heads for Shanghai.   Novelist Kirsty Manning talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she accidentally stumbled upon this bit of Jewish history and what she did to bring it to life in The Song of the Jade Lily.

 

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April 3, 2019 by

Fiction: The Orphans

Still slender, short, and small-boned as adults, the orphans rush the buffet table at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and office parties–even when they know there will be dancing. In their good heels and Lord & Taylor dresses they form a line but sway from side to side while waiting, peeking around the person in front of them to see if there will be plenty of roast beef because there is never enough roast beef.

There is never enough roast beef, never enough chicken Kiev, smoked salmon, shrimp scampi, broccoli with hollandaise, pommes au fromage, those flaky miniature croissants, even the warm, gummy pasta in a pink sauce that has been a feature at these events lately.

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April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: What Forgiveness Might Look Like

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Dana and her husband, Jonathan, stand next to each other on a footbridge, separated by a loaf of stale bread and a gulf of regret. Below them, a few dozen members of their congregation lace the shoreline of Rock Creek. Save for Dana and Jonathan they are either families with children or gray-haired empty nesters.

The first year they were married, Jonathan had pulled her along to the tashlich service, the symbolic casting away of sins at the start of the Jewish new year. The ceremony, in which bits of bread are thrown into a body of water, didn’t move Dana the way it moved Jonathan. As far as she could see, they were both good people without much to apologize for. She wasn’t too stressed about her name being inscribed for another year into the Book of Life, whatever that meant. Jonathan had said it was a nice excuse to take a break from the busyness of life, to experience a sense of renewal. Dana had said it was an elaborate way to feed ducks.

But now she is five years into her marriage and wonders if redemption is possible. What forgiveness might look like. 

Their synagogue dues have been paid for by Jonathan’s parents, Howard and Barbara. If only Dana and Jonathan lived closer, Barbara had lamented, they could come to Temple Beth El for services. But since the annual fee at B’nai Israel included tickets for the High Holidays, the in-laws reasoned, the membership almost paid for itself. Plus it had a nursery school, Howard had said with a gleaming smile.

What Howard and Barbara never considered was that it wouldn’t have occurred to Dana to worry about attending services on the High Holidays. Her parents had separated during the year leading up to her bat mitzvah, and while they had shielded her from their feuds over child support and visitation times, they did not spare her the spectacle of their arguments over the guest list or the budget for her party. Her father accused her mother of thinking she was planning a wedding, while her mother retorted that she couldn’t do everything on a shoestring, and solved the problem by slashing most of her father’s guest list. To the extent that the day had felt joyful, it was because the whole ordeal was over. After that her parents let their synagogue membership lapse. That it was no longer needed seemed to be the one thing they could agree on. Dana didn’t attend services again until she met Jonathan.

And now here she is on a bridge, cradling day-old bread. Cantor Joan, a slender woman wearing a flowing lavender dress, white prayer shawl, and beaded kippah made of silver wire, smiles as she leads a niggun. The notes of the wordless chant seem to lift her body. She does not look like someone who has come to the water to unburden her soul, Dana thinks. She looks like someone who loves her job. As the song concludes, Cantor Joan opens her prayer book. In the open space of nature, with no walls or ceiling, and with the sound of cars passing on the parkway above the water, she shouts to make herself heard.

“Micah said, ‘God will take us back in love. God will cast— tashlich—our sins into the depths of the sea,’” she calls. “Micah is telling us that we can separate ourselves from our past sins.” She pauses and surveys the crowd. “Just as the water carries away these crumbs, our mistakes can be carried away too.” She closes her prayer book and throws some bread into the water, then turns out her dress pockets to shake them over the water’s edge.

Dana clutches the crusty oblong loaf, which protrudes from the white paper bag. She feels a tug as Jonathan breaks off a piece. He holds it in both hands. He is crying.

“I don’t know where to start,” he says.

“We probably should have brought more bread,” she says. 

 

JUST WEEKS BEFORE, THEY HAD BEEN STANDING in their kitchen prepping dinner when Dana said, “I called the clinic today. There’s been a cancellation. They can see us this Friday.” Dana was chopping vegetables and didn’t look up when she said this.

“Have you been calling them every day?” Jonathan asked, peering from behind the open refrigerator door.

“Well it’s not like we have time to waste.” Dana pushed a pile of carrots to one side with the back of the knife blade and set to work on a red pepper. Jonathan came to one side and picked up a couple of carrot spears.

“I’m sorry, Babe, but I have a meeting Friday.”

Dana wondered why he had to chew so loudly. “You didn’t even ask me what time.”

“Okay, what time?” Jonathan took another bite of carrot.

Dana put the knife on the cutting board and turned to look at her husband. “Unbelievable,” she said.

“Well who knew getting pregnant could be so inconvenient? Can’t we just go the old-fashioned route?” Jonathan shimmied his hips from side to side and licked his remaining carrot stick. Dana was unsure whether he was trying to be sexy or if he was making a joke about how people look when they are trying to be sexy. Either way she was not impressed.

“We’ve been going the old-fashioned route for over a year. We could’ve had a baby by now.”

“My parents said it took them two years to conceive me.” Jonathan slid the carrot into his mouth and reached for a bit of pepper. His temples pulsed as he chewed.

“You’ve talked to your parents about this?”

“My mom says that women who are too health conscious sometimes don’t ovulate.”

“She’s just pissed because I actually have some control over what I put in my mouth. And what comes out of it for that matter. She’s probably blabbed to her whole book club that I can’t get pregnant.”

“Why do you care what some old ladies are talking about at their book club?”

“You’re right. I don’t care about that. I care that you talk more to your parents about our problems than to me. You’re not a child. Your parents don’t need to be involved in every aspect of your life.”

“I just think you should relax.”

“Who gave you that advice—your mom or your dad?”

“How about we open up a bottle of red? I bought a nice Cab on the way home.”

Dana wiped her hands on a dishtowel and shouldered past her husband. “I’m going to work out. The appointment’s at 2:30 on Friday. Make it work.”

At the gym, Dana set the treadmill to a faster setting than usual. The whirring of the machine coupled with the pounding of her feet on the belt didn’t quite soothe her, but it brought some satisfaction. Her phone lay in the cupholder, and she saw it light up. A text from Jonathan.

“Remind me and I’ll c if I can move my meeting”

This, Dana thought, was what passed in Jonathan’s mind as an apology. She tossed the phone back in the cupholder, turned up the incline of the treadmill. Her phone flashed again.

“Have you called insurance to make sure fertility covered”

Dana typed, “maybe you should have your parents call the insurance company,” but didn’t hit send. She tossed her phone back into the cup holder, with the screen turned away from herself.

That’s when she noticed Marco from her spin class. When they met she had enjoyed his flirtatious asides—his funny facial expressions evoking the instructor’s overplucked eyebrows, the way he would wink at her and sing along every time a Madonna song came on. He had suggested they exchange numbers so they could coordinate their workouts. Dana had assumed he was gay.

He wasn’t.

She found out when she complimented his new workout clothes, green-trimmed mesh shorts cut high on the side with a tank top that showed off his arms. Dana had reached out to pinch the piping along the hemline. Marco caught her hand and gave it a squeeze. Dana pulled away and hopped onto her bike. When the class ended he asked if she wanted to grab a bite to eat. She told him she had to get up early for a work meeting.

Now she decided to ask him for a drink. Marco didn’t seem at all surprised by her invitation. He said he knew a place a block away with a great deal on margaritas.

They found two seats at the end of the bar. They laughed easily over small things, inventing nicknames for the other spin class regulars. When Dana realized they had drained the pitcher Marco had ordered, she hopped off her barstool, said she should be getting home. Marco stepped down from his seat too, leaving only inches between them. “Let me guess—early meeting?” he smiled, his eyes on her mouth. His teeth were perfect.

“Well, not too early,” she said, rolling onto the balls of her feet to kiss him.

 

NOW, DANA STARES DOWN AT THE WATER. “I never meant for it to happen,” she says.

It’s warm for September. A hint of sewage wafts upward, turning Dana’s stomach. She takes a bit of bread and holds it in her mouth. Focuses on the sensation of it moistening and softening upon her tongue. A bicyclist coasts across the bridge; the wooden boards rattle under Dana’s feet.

Cantor Joan and the congregants begin to drift away. A little girl in red leather shoes and oversized hair bow toddles to the water. She leans forward to grab a stick that is peeking above the surface. The front of her dress dips into the creek. Muddy water drips down her shins, soaking her lace-trimmed ankle socks. Her father, unruffled, rolls up the sleeves of his crisp buttondown shirt and scoops her up from behind. Dana expects him to be annoyed, but he bends his neck to kiss the top of his daughter’s head. He is tall and slender like a heron, or a stork. He holds his child like a prize.

Jonathan watches the father pick his way up the embankment, then sends a morsel of bread sailing over the metal railing.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Why are you sorry?” Dana asks.

“I’m sorry I dragged my feet on fertility treatment. I’m sorry I questioned the cost.”

Dana swallows. “That doesn’t justify what I did.” She holds some bread over the water and lets it drop.

“True. You’ve ripped my guts out, Dana.”

Dana’s eyes fill with tears. She knows that if she blinks they will stream down her cheeks. But it doesn’t seem fair to cry.

“Who is it,” Jonathan asks, “that guy from the gym? Matteo?”

“Marco.”

“Marco. Jesus. I feel like such an idiot.” Jonathan takes a deep, jagged breath in, lets it seep out through his lips. “Can you at least tell me it’s over?”

Dana tears off another piece of bread and considers how to answer this question. Marco had been better at flirting than he was at fucking. Once inside his apartment that night, his clumsy fingers fumbled across her skin like furry caterpillars. He pushed his tongue so far into her mouth it felt like he was licking her molars. They shared his bed with a pile of unfolded laundry, which smelled like it had been forgotten in the washer for a day or two before being transferred to the dryer. A bit of trash crinkled under her shoulder blade as Marco moved on top of her. By the time he finished and heaved his body down onto the mattress beside Dana, one leg strewn across her pelvis like a fallen tree limb, she was sober enough to notice the row of half empty glasses lining the windowsill above the bed. The old metal blinds were open; the light from the street gave the room an orange glow. She reached under her back and pulled out the foil wrapper of an energy bar. Within moments, Marco was snoring. Dana pushed his leg aside and collected her clothes into a bundle against her chest. Deciding the shower was probably even filthier than the bed, she dressed in the hallway before slipping out for home.

After that, Dana stopped going to spin class. Changed her gym schedule to avoid running into Marco. He texted once, “where u been?” Jonathan read it over her shoulder, asked who Marco was. “Just a friend from the gym,” she said, and deleted his contact information from her phone.

Then her breasts were sore. Her period was late. She peed on a stick.

“It’s over with him,” she says. “It’s been over for weeks.”

 

IT HAD BEEN DANA WHO CANCELLED the clinic appointment. After her failed experiment with Marco, she needed time to think. She told Jonathan that he was right, that they should be patient. But then she avoided him. Stayed late at work. Went to bed early. After just a couple of weeks, going to bed early became less about staying away from Jonathan and more about giving her body something it craved. Rather than flailing in the darkness, she slumbered. Would wake feeling like she had been flattened by a steam roller, so would hoist the blankets to her chin and descend back into her dreams.

When she was awake it was difficult to mask the changes in her appetite. Vegetables held no appeal now. She kept pretzels and Wheat Thins at arms’ reach. She discovered that avoiding an empty stomach was the best way to keep from throwing up, so she stashed almonds in her nightstand. Carried a little container of grapes in her purse to pull out one by one on the Metro.

She sensed that Jonathan noticed a change in her. Felt his eyes resting on her as she trailed back to their bedroom at 8 o’clock. But he said nothing. She wanted him to confront her. Scream at her. Instead he looked at her with a searching sadness that told her he was worried about her. He would reach out to touch her elbow, her shoulder. She pulled away.

 

“YOU’RE PREGNANT.” HIGH ABOVE, a breeze rustles the tulip-poplar leaves. Dana drops another bit of bread into the creek, watches it bob in the water before the current pulls it under the bridge and out of sight.

“I don’t know how to wash this away,”she says.

“Would you want to wash it away? Even if you could?”

“I want a baby, but I don’t know if I want this baby. I want your baby.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure. I love you, Jonathan.”

 

FINDING OUT SHE WAS PREGNANT WAS nothing like she had imagined it would be. No rush of joy, no Jonathan scooping her into an embrace as they hugged and laughed in their narrow bathroom. Instead she sat on the toilet, pants around her ankles, watching the absorbent material inside the pregnancy test wick her urine upward, immediately turning both lines blue. She didn’t have to look back at the package instructions to know what it meant. She felt her heart—the organ, not the symbol of love—open and empty as the blood blossomed up through her neck and filled her ears, flooding her mind with fear.

 

“I KEPT TELLING MYSELF YOU’D GET pregnant when the time was right. But in the back of my mind I was afraid the problem was me. Looks like I was right,” Jonathan says. He puts his elbows on the railing, cradles his forehead in his palms. His shoulders rise and fall with quiet sobs. Clipped to his soft curls is the black suede kippah he wore at their wedding. Their names and anniversary date are embossed in silver on the inside. The same date is engraved inside their wedding rings. Dana tucks the bread under her arm and looks down at her ring, twists it with the fingers from her opposite hand. Whether it’s the heat or the pregnancy, it doesn’t want to turn. She slides the rest of the loaf from the bag and flings it over the railing. It lands with a thud in the shallows.

“I’ve ruined everything,” she says, and turns to go.

“That’s it?” Jonathan looks over his shoulder at her, his voice rising. “You’re giving up just like that?”

“Aren’t you?” she says, turning back around.

“You’re my family, Dana. Baby or no baby.” This word—family— makes Dana realize she hasn’t felt like a part of one for a long time.

“I don’t know how you’ll ever be able to forgive me,” she says. “Or how I’ll ever forgive myself. It would take an ocean to wash this mess away.” She crumples the empty bread bag into a ball.

“I don’t know either,” he says, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “But I think I want to try. If you do.” He moves toward her and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Do you want to try? To be a family?”

Dana looks at the water. With the exception of the soggy loaf of bread, it is beautiful. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand and allows her own tears to fall. “Yes,” she says. “I do.”

 

Briana Maley’s fiction has been published in Chaleur Magazine, Literary Mama and The Passed Note. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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April 2, 2019 by

Fiction: A Serious Infatuation

Art: Ofri Cnaani

Art: Ofri Cnaani

FOR THE LAST SIX MONTHS I’VE SAT in Margo G.’s office as she prepares to counsel grieving families. At first it was twice a week. Now, I manage a visit every day. My teaching schedule is lighter in the summer and this back and forth wouldn’t be possible if the law school and the hospital weren’t next to each other. We met last winter. I was interviewing health care professionals in preparation for the course I’ll teach in the fall, Euthanasia and The Law.

Margo is a terminal care nurse passionately committed to the dying—a cheerful, in-your-face kind of girl with smiling blue eyes and fabulous ginger hair. Her generous figure moves with purpose as she searches for a patient’s chart, or preens herself for a meeting. Discretion reminds Margo that the grief-stricken do not want to deal with the pink flesh of her upper arms, so she slips on a white lab coat over those sleeveless cotton dresses. She’s partial to square necklines and full skirts, large printed flowers. Peonies are her favorite—crumpled, mauve blossoms. Watching as she brushes her hair, powders her face and freshens the gloss on her full lips, desire overcomes me. I’ve never experienced anything like it, not even in the beginning with Ellie.

The truth is, I’m infatuated. I love everything about her. When something strikes her as humorous, she nearly comes apart with her rowdy laughing and coughing. There’s probably far too much smoking and drinking going on. I suppose when you’re involved with death every day, you cry more and laugh harder than the rest of us. No one knows about Margo—not my colleagues, not my friends. I feel awful.

Margo and Ellie are total opposites. Ellie Rutenberg, my wife. High strung, for sure, but what panache. Tall, with a lean 1930’s figure and bobbed dark hair, clothes look terrific on her. In fact, she looks better in clothes than—never mind. Margo, on the other hand, is far better out of her peony dresses. Ellie’s mother, Gloria, claims her daughter has always been tied into knots. Probably. Gloria sees eye to eye with me on many things, far more than Ellie. 

It’s Sunday. In a couple hours, we’re hosting a barbecue for my graduate students. I’m sitting here in my study trying to finish up these lecture notes for my class tomorrow. Is it hard to swallow that Theodore Whistler is a professor of jurisprudence? Believe it or not, they wanted me as interim head. I declined, though I’ve been chairing the search committee. The administrative part is deadly. Thank God for the seminars and my writing. This morning I was up early intending to work, but I went for a walk instead. The air was fresh from last night’s rain. Too early for people, I saw a few cats and dogs obediently waiting on front porches, parked tricycles and bikes, doors closed—houses still with sleep. But now the cool air has disappeared and it’s hot and humid. Through my study window I see Ellie standing beside a daisy bush. The muggy heat surrounds her as she leans over to snip off dead blooms and gather fresh ones for her basket. She’s wearing the floppy hat that hides her eyes and a long shift—that raw linen thing with grass and twigs woven into the fabric. A friend of hers brought it back from India. It’s too predictably hippie for my taste, but I guess it’s attractive. Whatever she puts on looks good, but they’re just tasteful clothes, if you know what I mean. They’re never her statement, never an extension of her body and soul.

Ellie can spend hours alone in the garden. At least we have that in common. She teaches in Women and Gender Studies. Whatever.

After all these years, she still won’t drink with me.

“Jews don’t drink,” she says.

Even the kids say it when they catch me pouring a Scotch and offering one to Ellie.

“Daddy, don’t you understand? Jews don’t drink!” First Amy, then little David.

My mother-in-law comes to my defense. I’ve never known Gloria to refuse a Scotch, and when Ellie and the kids frown at her, she laughs it off.

“Well, I guess I’m not a very good Jew, and your daddy isn’t one at all, so there!”

Our daughter, Amy, is struggling with preparations for her bat mitzvah and Ellie’s been after me to attend services and convert. It has become a cause for her in these last few months. It began around the time I met Margo G., but that’s a complete coincidence. Sometimes I look out this window and see her working—the determined digging, the eager weeding. I watch, exhausted by her fervor. Does the possibility of my conversion goad her brain?

I’m toying with the idea. Why not? I wouldn’t be giving up anything. Religion has never been a part of my life. Despite everything, I want to please her, and the paths seem few. Incidentally, the thought intrigues my father. I called him last week.

“What a splendid intellectual exercise!” I could hear my old Dad pulling himself together at his kitchen wall phone in Oregon. He spends the days alone, studying his map collection, trying to keep from going under. He’s never been one for religion either. Mother was the keeper of our Lutheran heritage. It died with her—like the secret treasure, buried with her sea captain grandfather.

“Conversion?” Gloria was appalled when she heard. “You’re wacky. And as for Ellie, I’ve no idea where she gets off being observant’. She certainly wasn’t raised that way!”

“It’s her statement,” I tell Gloria, “she’s defining her territory.”

“Territory indeed! What baloney, what chutzpah! God knows, Joe and I never went in for that stuff. When the boys were of bar mitzvah age, then yes, briefly, but not before, and certainly not after.”

Two Scotches later, Gloria adds that Joe would turn over in his grave if he knew his grandchildren were attending religious school. “For Joe, that would be the opposite of progress.”

There she is, my Ellie, with the daisies in her hand and the hat brim covering her eyes. Is she hiding? Is she crying? My God, does she suspect? I’ve never wanted to hurt her. She glances towards the garden gate.

Gloria enters, smiling cheerfully, cheeks flushed, cake carrier in hand. She lives only blocks away and she walked. Vigorously, I’m certain. Khaki shorts, a pale blue T-shirt and off-white canvas hiking hat. She approaches her daughter. They exchange a pecky kiss, those two tall women. Despite Gloria’s consumption of Scotch and Ellie’s obsession with conversion, they’re very close. I must never forget I’m the outsider, in case my mind is so blurred by alcohol that life seems to be going my way. Ellie pats her mother’s back. Gloria gently touches her daughter’s face. She’s brought her famous strawberry shortcake and she’s come early to help prepare for the party.

I’ve been envious of their physical ease, their mutual affection. My mother never touched my face, and I didn’t pat her back. We didn’t do that in my family. Or maybe it was because of the gender thing, but it didn’t happen with my father either. Perhaps such crippling issues are dealt with in the Gender Studies Program. I sound sloppy and sentimental, but I covet Ellie and Gloria’s closeness, their naturally affectionate manner. Margo is the same. She hugs everyone. Her family didn’t, she once told me, but she’s learned. She’s learned to be demonstrative from those who are nearing death.

Does that mean it won’t happen for me until I’m dying? That’s a stupid thought. I’ve worked hard to achieve what I have—my family, career, home. I’ve been lucky, and I love my life. Am I a fool to throw it all away?

I wonder what Margo’s doing? Is she “lying out” as she refers to it? I don’t believe for a moment she truly exposes all that pink flesh to U.V. rays. She wants me to believe she indulges herself, that she’s still vibrant enough to challenge life with “risky” behavior. Margo knows I worry. What a piece of work. I need her, but we’ve agreed never to contact each other when I’m home.

 

“YOU’VE ALWAYS DEFENDED HIM, MOM, but I tell you, something’s wrong.” Ellie’s voice is anxious, her eyes soulful as she stares down at the basket, gently running her fingers along a daisy stem.

“Ellie, you’re such a worrywart! Can’t you relax, darling?” Gloria considers her daughter’s face.

This was the most difficult of all her children, by far the loveliest, the most intelligent, but certainly the most insecure. Gloria often wonders how she failed her daughter. What happened to the child, Ellie, to make her so unsure, so apprehensive?

“No, I can’t relax. His grad students will be arriving soon, and she’ll be among them. What if I discover who it is? How should I act?”

“Like a lady, my darling. Always like a lady.”

“Cut the crap, Mom! Just tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

“And how are you going to discover who it is?”

Ellie drops her eyes. “It might be something obvious, something

awful and obvious.”

“What? A clandestine kiss behind the wisteria?”

“You know what I mean!” Ellie removes her hat in exasperation. “Why do you insist on treating this as a joke?”

“I’m sorry darling, but you’re being silly. Theo adores you,” Gloria whispers, leaning towards her daughter until their foreheads touch. “Theodore Whistler positively worships you.”

Ellie pulls back, exasperated. “I wish I could be so certain.”

Gloria throws back her head and laughs.

“Never mind,” Ellie pouts. “Forget it. Come help me in the kitchen.”

As the two women walk around the back of the house and into the kitchen, Ellie turns to her mother. “He was watching us the whole time we stood in the garden. He watches from his study window. He stares at me when I work with the flowers. He’s jealous of us.”

“Honestly, Ellie, sometimes you don’t act like a grown woman with children.”

“Think what you want, but I’m telling you, he’s jealous of us,” Ellie repeats, a tight smile forming on her thin lips. 

Gloria realizes she hasn’t seen Ellie smile for days. Even like that.

 

THE CHILDREN ARE HOME FROM SWIMMING. I hear them talking in the kitchen, opening cupboards and drawers, probably helping themselves to cereal. Gloria will be “doctoring” as she says, the potato salad. She puts in lemon juice instead of vinegar, a spot of yogurt with the mayonnaise. Ellie lets her do what she wants in the kitchen. She doesn’t care. The kitchen is not her domain. The garden and children, her teaching, her recent obsession with the temple, these are Ellie’s preoccupations. In fact, I do most of the cooking. It’s one of my pleasures.

I usually spend Sundays preparing food for the week. I put on music and cook up a storm. On the days that Ellie and I both get home late, I’ll call the children from the office, instructing them on the oven temperature for the casserole waiting in the fridge. Having instilled them with the fear of God regarding danger and accidents, I follow up with cautionary reminders about the hot oven. The truth is, I fret constantly, mostly about freak accidents: the toddler who blows away his mouth and chin by licking the outlet; the child who runs into the street for a ball; the teenager who dives into a murky, shallow lake and ends up a quadriplegic. I worried while Ellie was pregnant—gross deformities. Gloria laughed. I had to tell someone. It was such a relief when the babies were born, healthy and pink and screaming their lungs out.

I adore them, but I don’t tell them. Ellie says the words “I love you.” Gloria does too. I’m a professor of jurisprudence and I can’t articulate love. Gloria teases me. She can’t understand why I make myself so crazy. Neither can I. She says the kids are incredible—they’d never do anything dangerous or careless. I know, and they’re responsible, too. They set the table and make a dinner salad. Gloria’s always available, only blocks away, just in case. She’s been wonderful about taking over when we can’t be there—car-pooling, evenings, trips. Not that Ellie and I go away together. Not in years. She claims it’s too much of a hassle. The truth is, she’s not interested in being alone with me. I guess I’ve lost my charm.

Ellie is probably arranging her daisies in the blue glass vase. Last month I ordered it from the Chicago Art Institute gift shop. She was impressed, saying she wasn’t aware I was interested in museums and their gift shops. She asked what the occasion was.

“No occasion,” I blurted, tongue-tied. I should have said more.

When Ellie is done with her flower arrangement, she’ll step back to look, engrossed with the composition. There’ll be the adjustment of a stem or two, more yew for greenery, more water in the vase. Ready. She’ll carry it over to the mantle in the living room.

If I am to keep Margo G., I will have to leave my family. I’ll see the children once a week and they’ll spend every other weekend with us, probably hating Margo. Isn’t that the way it is—divorce, the division of property, custody issues? Conversion will be out. Gloria might still have a drink with me occasionally, but I mustn’t forget that I am the outsider when it comes to Gloria and Ellie Rutenberg.

“Mom says it’s time to start the barbecue.”

Amy is standing in the doorway. She’s wearing a turned-around baseball cap and her little bikini bathing suit. She looks so fresh and young. I want to tell her to change, to put on something more protective. My children’s skin shouldn’t be exposed to the sun, but I’m trying to be a good father. I say nothing.

“I’m coming.” I reach for my hat on the desk and follow my daughter outside.

It has turned into a perfect, summer afternoon. The clouds are gone, the sun is out and there’s a slight breeze to carry away the heat. I feel better. Walking towards the garage, I wave to Gloria in the kitchen. She’s standing at the patio door, smiling, drying her hands on a dishtowel. I see Ellie coming out of the supply closet carrying paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery. She looks stressed. Only 20 minutes ago she was picking daisies. If flowers can’t help her, how can I?

Amy is tagging behind me. She wants to help.

“It’s dark in here, Daddy.”

“I know. Watch your step, Amy.”

In the dim light of the garage, I find the bag of briquettes. I hear Amy behind me.

“What can I carry, Daddy?”

I look around. The briquettes are too heavy, and I don’t want her carrying matches. I reach for the can of lighter fluid.

“Carefully,” I say, handing her the can and bending for the briquettes.

I pass the clumps of peonies, flopped out across the lawn. They look heavy and exhausted. I think of Margo’s dress with the white field, the bruised blossoms. This year, I will have to dig them up, separate and replant, if we are to have decent blooms next summer. The thought of garden work is pleasing, but then I remember the party and the socializing with my students. I’m not up to it. I empty the bag of briquettes into the barbecue.

“Let me spritz it, Dad!”

“Better not, Amy. I’ll do the fluid. You can light it.” She agrees.

I watch as she carefully strikes the match. I’ll have to make small talk in answer to polite questions. They’ll ask if we built the house, if we designed the garden. Ellie will be aloof, Gloria, friendly. The kids will want to play ball with the students.

I watch as the flame licks up in excitement. Instinctively Amy pulls back her hand and drops the match. I see it fall to the ground near her foot.

 

LATER, AT THE HOSPITAL, I REALIZE that Amy must have squeezed the can as she carried it from the garage to the barbecue, spilling lighter fluid on her legs. There was no other way the liquid could escape. The can had to be squeezed or shaken. The lid was on, but I didn’t warn her not to squeeze. She’s only a child. What happened? I’m always so hysterically cautious. I was preoccupied, that’s what happened, I was obsessing while my daughter was dribbling lighter fluid down her legs. 

I sink, lower and lower, as we sit and wait, as I try to explain to Ellie, to Gloria, my Rutenberg women. It doesn’t do us any good. Ellie weeps, Gloria comforts her. I am the outsider. Ellie looks at me with hate.

I could buy a hundred blue vases and fill them with all the daisies in the world. I could convert to Judaism three times over. I could give up Margo. I could do all this and more, but the truth is, my wife does not hold me in her heart, and probably never did. It’s that simple.

Alone, I wait to see how bad it will be for our Amy.

 Nina Barragan was born in Córdoba, Argentina. Her three books of fiction are No Peace at Versailles, Losers and Keepers in Argentina and The Egyptian Man. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she is at work on a memoir. 

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January 10, 2019 by

Fiction: The Proper Care of Silver

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.53.05 AMMarianne wonders if people still say housekeeper. Maid sounds too Southern, and cleaner sounds industrial and it’s just the two of them here today, so without knowing the terminology—despite years together— they empty the sideboard of Marianne’s grandmother’s silver. Nana had used her oven to store shoes but owned a silver service for 22, including large wine holders cleverly designed to store ice in a hidden compartment. Nana had come to Washington Heights in 1939 with money rolled up and stashed in her vagina. Right in the hoo-ha, she’d told Marianne. Not once had Marianne seen the service used.

“What was she thinking, bringing it all here?” Marianne says aloud to Zelia. Despite knowing Zelia won’t understand, Marianne explains how sad it is, having such pieces all go untouched. Marianne pictures Nana, spidery hands clasped in her lap, waiting for partygoers who never show up. How tragic, she thinks, but then, just as quickly, she thinks how well preserved the set is now, right there in her sideboard. “See,” she points out to Zelia, “it’s like new!”

Zelia, perched on a folding ladder, passes a silver wine holder to Marianne who places it next to its pair on the empty dining room table. Small, decorative lions on the holders gaze out at them as though they, too, are baffled as to why this massive cleaning effort when both Lily and Daniel declared they aren’t coming for Passover this year; Lily because she is celebrating Easter with Mark’s father who has no one else with whom to eat lamb and mint, and Daniel because William’s parents asked them first, which only makes Marianne feel she—the mother—should have asked at Thanksgiving although if she had she’s sure to have been scolded for thinking too far ahead. “It’s not a competition,” Daniel had told her, his voice sounding interplanetary with hands-free. “That’s exactly what it is,” she’d said. “Well,” Daniel had said, “Maybe we’ll show up. Who knows.”

“Ohmygod.” Zelia, unsteady on the ladder, drops Nana’s teapot and it lands with a muffled thud on the carpet. “Ohmygod.”

Zelia knows only a few scattered words of English. Oh my god is all-purpose—torrential rain ohmygod; Marianne’s father has lymphoma ohmygod. If Marianne needs to convey anything she has to act it out—wipe the shades in exaggerated motions or mime mopping the bathroom floor all the way to the grimy corners. Anything serious and she emails Zelia’s fifth-grade daughter to translate.

Marianne had written the instructions for today because it was crucial that the silver be handled gently, that Zelia not scratch it or put it in the dishwasher as she’d done the year before. Marianne doesn’t criticize Zelia for living in this country eight years and knowing basically nothing, but when Zelia’s sister visited from New York and demonstrated her fluency (and sisterly love by splitting the housework that week) it did make Marianne think that if only Zelia would force herself to learn she’d be so much better off. She could negotiate more hours or apply for positions with people who had child care needs or have a job that didn’t require counting forks, though it was possible Zelia liked counting the utensils, proving they were all still there, not stashed in her lunch bag and brought home to sell or to melt down and then sell.

“Oh, it’s OK!” Marianne picks up the teapot, overly cheerful to hide her disappointment. The thin spout is dented and the lid dinged. The thing survived Nazis and 70 years of tarnish and hiding in Washington Heights but can’t survive four seconds with the Brazilian housekeeper.

“Never mind,” Marianne tells her and makes a big show of putting it with its imperfect lid next to the wine holders. If Daniel shows up he will certainly notice the ding. Martin will not.

Marianne will have to show her husband, displaying for Martin the small lid on her palm like a game show hostess with a tiny hummingbird prize, and narrate what happened. The ladder, the cleaning. Martin will shake his head and examine the spout as though a.) he were a silversmith rather than a radiologist who spends his days in the dark and b.) this mishap opens the door for him to have his bi-weekly whinge session about Zelia. “If I can’t find my socks I guess I should look in the produce drawer…”

“Okay,” Zelia says and hops down from the ladder. Marianne sticks her hand out to steady the cleaner, both of them working together to fold the stubborn ladder and begin on the silverware drawer, which is a chaos of cutlery, knives wedged into fork tines. Zelia is speedy at organizing these and Marianne takes a moment to marvel at her delicate fingers, the gentle ting of each item as she fits it in exactly the correct spot.

“That looks good,” Marianne tells her and Zelia beams, the one dead and slightly gray tooth of hers prominent in the late morning sun.

Marianne chose this room for its light, bought the house without Martin even seeing it. She was pregnant with Lily then, Daniel age four or nearly so she remembers, because he used the bathroom all on his own as she wrote a deposit check. Martin didn’t mind. He praised her, actually. We have the kind of marriage, she’d bragged to friends, where we don’t have to even talk about things. She’d meant she had jurisdiction, unlike one friend who couldn’t even buy a mug—a single coffee cup—without her husband’s approval of color, design. But perhaps in the end those small conversations were necessary, crucial in a marriage—who buys a house without even discussing it?

Zelia fits the final knife into its slot in the blue velvet holder, points to the empty space where knife number twelve should be. “I don’t know.” Her voice is lyrical, music in the vowels. Iiiidunnnoooo. She doesn’t know.

She could have walked off with spoons stuck into her bra and Victoria’s Secret sweatpants and Marianne probably wouldn’t have said anything. Even when Martin’s wallet went missing for two weeks and he was driving to the hospital without an ID and having to ask the attractive night nurse to buzz him in, Marianne didn’t accuse Zelia of any wrongdoing. And, sure enough, it turned up when Marianne went to get Martin’s car inspected. He’d locked it in the glove compartment before the trip to Marrakesh, taking only a single credit card and his passport. “There are other cleaners,” he’d said.

And there are. Lois has a housekeeper who bakes tortillas when her grandchildren are visiting. And there are certainly services that come in, speak English, and don’t leave the scrub brush in the bathroom sink or rearrange the living room furniture because they feel it’s better that way. There are better cleaners. But if Marianne lets Zelia go and this new, miraculously efficient and bi-lingual woman comes, and she leaves the house tidier and—this would be the key—orderly in a way that is rational, meaning their clothes are segregated by owner not color and the golf clubs are not with the similarly sized standing dustpan—well, then what in God’s name would Marianne talk to Martin about?

Because the sad truth of it is that Zelia’s foibles are some of their best conversations these days. Martin will listen— with his eyes and face and ears—as Marianne recounts today’s escapades and she will be rapt as he flings open drawers and closet doors to reveal the latest gross injustice with his dress shirts or the wrapping paper saved from Lily’s engagement shower to which she had only been invited by phone. Martin’s fingers might accidentally lose themselves over her knuckles and maybe he’d have taken Cialis and maybe. Well.

Zelia and Marianne have a generous understanding. Marianne never criticizes her terrible cleaning or suspect organizational skills and Zelia can’t—or doesn’t— judge her employer for a.) Marianne’s messy house, jam rings on the fridge’s glass shelves, hair in the soap or b.) having a cleaner when it’s just her and Martin now or c.) the fact that Marianne gives Zelia’s daughter presents on birthdays and Christmases even though she never asked if this was okay and, as Daniel pointed out, speaks more to Marianne’s needs than to the girl’s.

Under the silverware caddy are ripple-edged Haggadahs that haven’t been used in years but which Marianne refuses to recycle because they might be used again (they won’t) and they were her mother’s (they weren’t used then, either) and since Daniel and William were already exploring birth options, they might want them (they don’t—Daniel will make his own). “I just can’t be free of them,” Marianne says, fully aware that Zelia won’t get her Passover joke. She points to the Hebrew text. “Prayers.” Zelia smiles. Last year, Marianne had made a vat of matzoh ball soup, and presented Zelia with a bowl. Marianne thought Zelia would try it and understand something about Judaism or at least have a snack that wasn’t the Coke and Filet-o-fish she normally brought for lunch, but Zelia dumped the soup into the farmhouse sink, assuming Marianne wanted her to wash the bowl.

“I wash?” Zelia reaches for a small silver cup.

“Polish,” Marianne says, miming scrubbing and immediately wondering if she still has silver cleaner. “You have to do it gently, like this.” She leads her to the sink. Zelia watches as Marianne finds the polish, uses the pads of her fingers to apply the blue-gray goop and with the smallest trickle of tepid water, rinses while scrubbing with a paper towel. “It’s Elijah’s cup. You put it on the table and wait for him.”

Later, Marianne can hear Zelia on the floor above—putting laundry away in the wrong place, arranging pillows in a way that would make sleep or getting into bed impractical at best, possibly scraping the hardwood with the new vacuum.

Marianne, ripe from the success of polishing the chalice, has a pile of silver, even the dented teapot, by the sink, her hands slicked with tarnish. You won’t believe it, she will tell Martin, I had to do the silver myself. Imagine paying 20 dollars an hour to clean your own house!

Zelia gathers her lunch from the fridge and slings on a coat the color and texture of abandoned tires; it once belonged to Marianne. “I go.”

“Ok,” Marianne says, her fingers puckered in the water. Isn’t it early for Zelia to leave? Has she done all she can? She should say something.

“No. I go…” Zelia holds her arms, the Target lunch bag swinging and crackling as she appears to do yoga or swim.

Then Marianne understands, Zelia miming an ocean wave now, flying. “Vacation?”

“Noo. I sorry. Back to Brazil.” She said this before once and then came back because it had been a six-week leave. Marianne felt her insides fold up. Zelia wouldn’t even need the handed-down coat in Brazil.

Marianne stood looking for something to give Zelia for her trip—because it could be just that, a misunderstanding or language error, right? This Brazil trip could be just a holiday, nothing permanent. She’d just open the door with her key and come right back into Marianne’s life as though there had just been simple miscommunication.

Or maybe Marianne wouldn’t lock the door and she’d find Zelia right there having milky coffee at the kitchen table. Wasn’t that possible? Nana or the kids or Martin and the cleaner all sipping and waiting for her to find them, almost as though the door had been propped open the entire time.

Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes, and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac, and young adult books. Her work has been published in The New York Times, NPR, and named notable by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

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