Tag : fiction

The Lilith Blog

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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The Lilith Blog

November 15, 2018 by

Female Friendship and Competition in a Novel of the 90s

Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks with author Catherine Hiller about her sharp, smartly observed period novel that deals with female friendship, office edition.

feud_cover_2-x_smallYZM: Why did you choose to set the novel in the 1990s?

 CH: It was a pivotal time in American life, when email, digital cameras, and cell phones were coming into common use. I wanted to dramatize the impact of these digital technologies. For instance, the book opens with Nikki opening her email at work (she doesn’t have email at home) and seeing a message and an attachment from an unfamiliar address. She idly opens the attachment to find it is a photograph of herself and two men, naked. She’d been drugged and raped on a business trip but hadn’t known she’d been photographed. 

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October 11, 2018 by

Nazi-Occupied Normandy and a Family’s Wartime Secrets

news ofFiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Abigail Dewitt about her lyrical and haunting novel, which tells the multi-generational story of a French family and the way the Nazi occupation—and the Allied invasion—have shaped their lives.

YZM:  You write so beautifully and intimately about France—what is your connection to the country? 

AD: Thank you! I’m a dual citizen of France and the U.S. My mother was a young, French, theoretical physicist when she came to the States in the late 1940s to study at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. She’d lost half her family in the D-day bombings and intended to go home after two years to re-join her three surviving siblings, but instead, she met my father and married him. Still, she was deeply committed to helping r-build France after the war, so, to make up for marrying an American, she founded the École de Physique des Houches in the French Alps. She and my father taught at the University of North Carolina, but we spent every summer in France so she could run the institute and we could know our relatives.

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September 27, 2018 by

Fiction: In Rhodesia

AS SOON AS HER FATHER DROVE THEIR rental car out of the Meikles Hotel garage, Laura felt that they were outside the protective shell of the hotel lobby, its white walls and marble doors, golden brass chairs and chandeliers, glass crystals dripping from the ceiling. The streets were gray and gritty. If not for the sea of black faces they could have been in an American city, with its busy, crowded streets, tall office buildings you had to crane your head back to see the tops of, and people in a rush to get somewhere. Only 10 minutes later, they had left Harare behind and entered the dry maize-colored land of the bush. Boundaries crossed so effortlessly. Just as only this morning they had own into Harare, stepping straight onto the tarmac from the plane just as her parents told her they had done when they left the country in 1977 for America.

“We are in the bush now,” her father said. When she heard her father say “the bush,” she expected to see wild animals herding past, stampeding bison, a lone elephant. She expected something more exotic than dusty, at land, looking like the Midwest plains except for an occasional bare tree, standing alone, poised as if in a Japanese watercolor.

She kept waiting for her parents to explain things. Usually her father was the one to ll the silence, to tell stories, jokes, but he was quiet, preoccupied. They must be thinking about her brother. Didn’t they care that it was her first time back to the country of her birth?

She felt that familiar feeling of not being able to access her parents’ thoughts or emotions, of a barrier between them. She forced herself to think of her brother, of what she knew of him. When she was a little girl, she used to imagine him sometimes as a bearded angelic figure, stepping down magically from the attic to protect her and express brotherly love. All her life she wanted to be someone’s favorite, for someone to love her most of all.

As if her mother sensed she felt ignored, she said, “Those white bundles are bird’s nests.” She pointed to tufts of white so spun straw buried in the limbs of some of the bare trees, like white cotton candy.

Her mother spoke with the assumed certainty of a tour guide, and she, Laura, was the tourist, the only one who had never really lived here. She had been only two years old when they left, too young to think of this as her homeland. Were her parents thinking about her brother’s death now? They never spoke about it. When she thought about her brother, it was only her parents’ pain that she imagined. She could feel no emotion herself towards this brother she had never known. Only the strange realization that if he hadn’t died, she would not have been born.

Now she was looking outside at a countryside that belonged to her in some way, but she felt empty inside, at and dull like the land outside. This didn’t feel like her birth place; she had no connection to it.

Back home in Long Island, her mother would sometimes bring out a red leather album of photos of her house in Rhodesia: “Would you like to look at pictures of my garden?” she would say, sounding like a little girl showing her treasures, opening the album to reveal photos of herself, newly married, standing in her garden, the tropical bougainvillea, wisteria, jacaranda and rose bushes towering over her with their petals and vines, everything in bloom, the flowers, and her mother, her face breathing in their smell, smiling patiently and happily as if to say, I am young and beautiful, and this happy life, my family’s life, among the lovely flowers will continue forever. In the photo her mother wore a white dress, cinched tightly at the waist and blooming out at the hips, her breasts full to bursting, ready, as if full of milk.

“These were my roses, the tallest roses in Salisbury,” her mother said when looking at the photos of her garden. To young Laura the roses looked towering, as if there were a jungle, a rainforest, in her mother’s backyard. Her mother, a transplant herself, born in Frankfurt, Germany, had arrived as a baby in Salisbury straight o a boat in 1939, and as a young mother had conquered this foreign African soil, learned how to make things grow in the dirt.

When her mother showed her these pictures, it was as if Laura was being let into another life, a world and a past that did not include her. Her mother never said that she regretted coming to the States, yet surely the patch of earth in their backyard in which her mother planted herbs and vegetables, and the circular bed in the front yard around a big oak tree in which she planted tulips in the spring, impatiens in the fall, must have been a let-down from that beautiful garden. If they had stayed, her brother, almost 12 at the time, would have been drafted into a civil war. To risk losing his life for a cause, Zimbabwean independence, that they did not believe in, did not make sense.

Her mother was the one to make the choice. She had lost one son accidentally and was not going to lose another. They were lucky to get out when they did. “If it had been up to Daddy,” her mother said once as they paged through the photo album, “we would never have left. You should always know when it’s time to make a change.”

THEIR CAR WAS NOW IN FRONT OF THE cemetery gates. A sign said Warren Hills Cemetery. The gates were black iron and looked 10 feet high, designed to keep something or someone dangerous out, or possibly to protect what was within. The trees and grass behind the gate were thick, green and lush, in contrast to the relentless dull ochre of the bush. A black man nodded at them, opened the gate, waved them ahead. Her father drove down the dirt path.

The earth was a reddish clay, and little clouds of red-tinted smoke stirred up around her parents’ feet as she followed them out of the car. Her legs felt heavy. She felt dread for the first time she could remember. She didn’t want to see the grave. She didn’t want to follow her parents. What was the point? Duty, obligation, doing the right thing.

“Laura, come on, don’t move so slowly,” said her mother.

Just ahead of them, four black men in white clothes were digging, making holes for graves, or filling in the holes of newly dug graves. They stood several feet away from each other, working fervently as if there were many more graves to dig and not enough time. She didn’t see any Jewish stars on these graves. A thin layer of red smoke wafted into the air around the men. There were no mourners there, just men digging fast, no time for ritual. Just enough time to dig a hole and put the coffin in before the next dead body arrived.

Her father said, “Those must be all the AIDS deaths.”

As they passed, one of the men looked up, paused. The bright whites of his eyes like moons, he looked right at her, nodded, and said, “Good afternoon, young lady.” He spoke in such clean diction, sounding almost English. “The Jewish cemetery is ahead, up on the left.”

She felt uncomfortable. He wasn’t here to mourn anyone but he knew that she was. Ahead of them she could see neat rows of tombstones, gray marble and granite, sticking straight out of the earth like obedient powers. Each had a Jewish star engraved in the top center of the stone. There were more Jews buried here than Jews still living in Zimbabwe. Almost all of the Jews, like them, had left. For a better life. In search of what they had originally come here for, crossing oceans, continual motion. Her own cousins were in Australia, England, Israel. Her family’s graves were scattered across the globe, a diaspora of the dead.

She thought of the yahrzeit candle that once a year on the anniversary of her brother’s death her mother plugged in on the white stand in their narrow front hallway, its Jewish star orange and pulsating. She never saw anyone actually plug it in. It somehow magically appeared on the yahrzeit days, then quietly disappeared before dawn. She would come home from school, see the glowing star, aflame within in the glass, and think, this must be the day that he died. She never said anything. There were a few other days during the year when the candle was lit. But she knew her brother had died in June, a few days before his birthday. Her parents didn’t say anything about her brother on these days; they hardly ever spoke of him.

Once, she had pushed, trying to break into the silences, and asked her mother if she thought of him often and she had said, “Every day.” She remembered being shocked. Every day? That her mother had these thoughts every day, of which she had no clue, 30 years after her brother’s death— did she not know her mother at all? How much of her mother’s life, she wondered, remained hidden within her, only revealed if she asked the right questions?

AS THEY WALKED CLOSER TO THE Jewish graves, their feet kicking up red clouds, she trailed behind her parents, sensing her parents didn’t want her to walk beside them.

She looked at her parents and saw that they were now holding hands. She couldn’t remember having ever seen them hold hands before. She had never felt so alone. Weren’t her parents supposed to take care of her, to comfort her? Now she saw them bend down, almost in unison, like one body, and then with their free hands, like dancers executing a move, each of them took hold of a small white stone from the ground.

“Take a stone, Laura,” said her mother. Why did she have to be told? Was her mother only going to speak to her to instruct? Still, she bent down to pick up a stone. She rubbed it and felt how smooth it was. What was really the point of this stone? She knew it had something to do with respect, duty, Jewish ritual. But a stone felt lacking, empty, dead. It just sat dumb and cold in her hand.

Her parents stopped in front of a small, unassuming gray tombstone. There were larger tombstones around, tall ebony and marble pediments, but so many of these small ones. Her father put a stone on top of the tombstone. Her mother lay down a stone next to her father’s.

She tried to imagine what her parents were thinking. She had thought from time to time of the awful pain of her parents upon coming home from a Saturday night out, returning home happy to that quiet house, imagining the children asleep in bed, or maybe they opened the door into a house filled with wails, the wails of the African woman who was their nanny, then discovering their eldest son, age 11, whom they had said goodbye to earlier that night with maybe a quick kiss, now dead on the floor, having choked on his late night snack because the nanny forgot to make sure he took his medicine for the epileptic 

SHE STOOD NOW BEHIND HER PARENTS, still holding hands, their heads tilted down, angled towards the grave. From the back, her parents looked so frail, so slender and pliant, like two entwined plants, bending towards the grave for comfort as if towards the sun. She clenched and unclenched her fingers around the stone, wishing she had someone’s hand to hold.

Suddenly a sharp, high noise came out of her father’s throat. It was something wild. It sounded like a dog’s yelp when his tail has been stepped on. He raised his hand to his throat, clutching it, as if he wanted to stop another cry from emerging, as if he were choking. Her father’s sobs seemed to fill the air; they seemed as if they would last forever, like the at land of the bush that they had passed through. The sounds were ugly, raw, inconsolable.

Her father embraced her mother, sobbing. Then he was quiet. Her parents stood, holding each other. Still leaning on each other, they looked down at her brother’s grave. They didn’t even know she was there. She had misunderstood. They didn’t really care about her. Maybe they didn’t really love her. She was an obligation, something they had to care of. They had thought they wanted a child in their old age, to make up for her brother’s death, but it had been a mistake.

Suddenly her father turned around to face her. He was standing right in front of her now.

“Laura,” her father said. Laura, Laurence—her whole life that had been what she shared with her brother, the only thing she shared with him, a direct link, her name given in memory of his, the constant reminder that she had followed him, her life was meant to honor his, and that if not for his death, she would not be here.

“Daddy?”
“I have something to tell you.”

Her father embraced her. Her mother was still standing by the grave, facing it. Her father’s body was overcome by shudders and his sobs went right through her, shaking her along with him, as if his sobs were her own; his tears fell, warm and wet, on her cheek.

Her father moved his head back a few inches so that he looked right into her eyes. “I see him in you,” he said. “I’ve never told you this, but I see him in you. I always have. I hear him in your voice, see him in your face. Every day.”

The words washed over her, each phrase smacking her like a small wave. He spoke as if these were words that until this moment had been stuck inside of him, words spoken as a revelation, a consolation. So they were connected beyond a name, she and her brother. But she felt sorrow pressing down on her.

Her father looked at her, his eyes wide, imploringly, as if awaiting a response, expecting some words. She wanted to tell him that she felt a burden now. But she didn’t say anything.

“Hannah, I just need a minute.” He walked past her mother in the direction of their car.

Her mother was still facing the grave. Then she turned towards Laura.

“It’s time to leave. I’ve said everything I needed to say,” her mother said. She looked at Laura. Her eyes were dry. “It’s easier in life to be like that, to cry,” said her mother. Laura wasn’t sure what she meant at first. Then she realized she was talking about her father. Still, she wondered, did her mother want to be like that but was unable to?

“I can’t cry,” she said to her mother. “I want to. But I can’t.”

“That’s because you’re like me.” Her mother meant—strong, not overly emotional.

She wanted to say no, she wasn’t like her. But for all she knew, maybe she was. She looked back at her brother’s grave and said to herself, goodbye. She knew this probably would be the last time she saw his grave, the last time she visited this country.

Her father was up ahead of them. He looked steadier somehow, more solid, as if shedding those tears had strengthened him.

“We need to go wash our hands,” her mother said.

She followed her mother to a low gray stone wall where there was one silver metal spigot. Her mother turned the spigot until water came out of the faucet. Her mother put her left hand under the water, the reddish dust running over her hands, along the stone sink and into the drain like faint blood. She rinsed her right hand until it was clean. She turned the water off.

“We wash to leave the dead behind,” her mother said. Laura turned the spigot and felt the cold water wash over first one hand, then the other. The ritual was comforting. Her hands were clean. As they walked past rows of Jewish stars flagging the red African dirt, she took her mother’s cool, moist hand and held it in hers, and in this way they gave each other comfort.

Laura Hodes writes for the Forward, and has been published in Slate, the Chicago Tribune and Kveller.com. A version of this story will appear in her novel-in-progress, Arrivals and Departures.

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September 12, 2018 by

Anti-Semitism Among the WASP Elite

The idea for my novel Not Our Kind was born at Vassar College, where I was a student in the 1970s, where there was enough visible diversity to make a Jewish girl feel she was not alone. I encountered plenty of Jews, both students and faculty. Yet while I didn’t experience much overt anti-Semitism, I felt keenly aware that Vassar had historically excluded people like me—I was the “not our kindof my eventual novel’s title. 

I could feel it in the manners, the mores, the very air around me. Vassar was a WASP institution and bastion, and I knew I didn’t entirely belong. In fact, it was at Vassar that I acquired the nickname that became my pen name. I had commented to a friend that my Hebrew first name and Polish surname felt all wrong and that I should have been called Katherine Anne Worthington; he jokingly responded by calling me Kitty. It’s a name that stuck. 

The anti-Semitism at Vassar was occasionally overt—y648my freshman roommate casually noted, “Well, your people did murder our Lord,” a remark for which I then had no ready reply. But it was the more passive, almost nonchalant anti-Semitism that stung most. I remember an English lit class in which we’d been reading Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and I said that I found the stereotypical characterizations of Jews in their poetry—greedy, money-grubbing, hook nosed and so forth— upsetting. A fellow student raised his hand and said, “Oh, well, that’s what everyone was like back then,” as if that should have cancelled out my discomfort, and made it, somehow, all right. And then there was the memorable evening that I went to hear a lecture on 18th century Rococo painting that was to be given by a well-regarded scholar visiting from Germany. Before he came to the lectern, someone from the Art History department read a short bio by way of introduction. I don’t know what I expected to hear, but it surely wasn’t that during World War II, this man had been a high ranking official—a commander, a general, I don’t recall which—in the military.  A Nazi, in other words, though the word was not actually said.

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The Lilith Blog

August 21, 2018 by

A Female Friendship From the Catskills to the Wider World

bess and frimaWhen Bess and Frima―both 19, best friends, and from the same Jewish background in the Bronx―get summer jobs in upstate hotels near Monticello, NY, in June 1940, they each have dreams of love, but love means something different to each of them. Frima seeks safety and finds it with Bess’s brother Jack. Rebellious Bess renames herself Beth and plunges into a new life with Vinny, an Italian American, former Catholic, left-wing labor leader from San Francisco. Her actions are totally unacceptable to her parents―which is fine with Beth, who is eager to reinvent herself outside the tight and suffocating bonds of family.

As Alice Rosenthal’s novel of friendship, Bess and Frima, unfolds, the menace of world war is growing, and Beth and Frima must grow up fast. Balancing love, ambition, religion, family, and politics, each young woman faces challenges she never imagined in her girlhood. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to author Alice Rosenthal about the personal history she mined to write this tender story.

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The Lilith Blog

August 2, 2018 by

What the Lilith Staff is Reading Now

Welcome to another installment of this occasional recurring feature in which Lilith staffers reveal what books are on our nightstands, our e-readers and tucked in our bags for the commute. Share your own summer reads in the comments!

Kira Yates, Intern:

This summer I’ve decided to read two books at once: The Guide for the Perplexed by the Rambam himself, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Though one was written in 1190 Spain and the other in 1940s Georgia, the theological treatise and the novel explore God and the actions of human kind. In his investigation of Jewish philosophy, ben Maimon seeks to prove that God does not have a body–an assertion that became a scholarly sensation across Europe. McCullers, on the other hand, tells the story of four struggling people in a small Georgia town, a reminder of what it feels like to be forgotten and in search of human connection. Published 750 years apart, these books present parallels about the human need for understanding and unity with something greater than the self. 

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