Bar Mitzvah – Shana Attar

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Gayil’s first rebellion, she slashes her hair to her ears. Eleventh grade, she enters the salon Friday noon and says All off, please. Not for donation. No one to benefit from this but herself. Beautician Ula says Your chin not strong for the look and Reconsider hair donation, yes, but Gayil sits stoic. Chop. The hair tumbles. This weekend Uziel’s bar mitzvah which means no school, enlistment for kitchen services. Gayil’s specialty in cutting roast in perfect slices, is poetry to her now, sitting in the salon. She cut and now she gets cut, a circumcision. A covenant with herself that she has agency. That Gayil’s copying Tzion’s hairdo from last week makes this no less hers, no less sweet, except her dad’s rage.

Gayil can’t separate if it’s Iranian traditionalism or ultra-Orthodox traditionalism or even worth effort to disentangle. Bottom line he stares at Gayil in the kitchen, her hair stiff and short, his eyes sad in ways Gayil reads because hers go softer brown the same. This you needed to do today, he says. Added embarrassment the whole family is here to witness his daughter’s shearing. She thinks her father recognizes the absence of her hair for the symbol it is, but this is fanciful. To him it is yet another example of Gayil’s — the words escape him.

The hair refeminizes, curls to midback and pleases her father: at twenty three, Gayil knows this each time he rebukes her to stop tying it up on her head in a knot, how utterly unattractive, maybe worse than butchered hair, he hopes she never does that on a date, likely for this she is single still. In part Gayil’s glad to please her father, which doesn’t overall please her. She aches to be cousin Batya, young mother of two young girls, who hoots when she doesn’t please mother dearest. This isn’t Gayil. Gayil can’t crush — and maybe shouldn’t, she thinks, in a rush of self-awareness, she should cultivate parts of her that want to make her dad proud, it’s healthy, says the good doctor, natural, or else Gayil thinks, she might just be surrendering, raising her flag to Freud, she’ll never outgrow the child struggling to please Father, shouldn’t even try.

Joshua tells her at twenty-five the hair’s a beauty, god, like the rest of her. Friday night, wall to bed’s edge Gayil Joshua no wasted space, bodies kissing they’re so close almost fruitful&multiply. Joshua says So beautiful like a mantra but Gayil thinks not. She’s nervous the roommates heard, her body’s too soft, prickly, marked. Self-consciousness plus bra and black shorts the only birth control. Gayil whispers in his ear Wanna sleep over? Unsure of this genesis, where is the firmament from which this desire descends? Cross-off Gayil of old, this half-dressed kid disappoints, fell in the arms of golden blonde temptation. Yet indulge in Gayil sacrilegious with her body, that she shares it, that she feels she can, victory outside the marriage court. A counting of rebellions Gayil loses track in Jerusalem, but maybe this is the sin most cardinal. If only father knew what trouble the hair got up to.

Twenty minutes for Gayil to arrive home from the salon, a five-minute trip by car. Ula presses bottles of hair oils into Gayil’s hands, begs her Every day application. You must to shower first. It will help. Ula pulls at the bottoms of Gayil’s hair as if she might reverse the service. We must to hope, she says. Ula’s graciousness costs Gayil an extra thirty dollars, but she is pleased to invest in herself so, it opens her eyes to her face everywhere: there Gayil is in the inky surface of the metallic hair oil bottle, in the wide windows of the salon, in the curve of eldest brother Yitz’s car. Gayil here there everywhere. A village of Gayils escorting her to the canopy. For the ceremony she needs time to prepare a face to meet the faces, fifteen minutes she tries on the most defiant, the most uncooperative. A face to disavow. So much neck and so little hair in the driver’s mirror. One foot in front of the other, as if down the aisle she goes, no bar mitzvah here. Gayil thinks This is the day I walk out and she puts her hands on the key to go go go and sees Yitz’s psalms hanging from the mirror’s neck. All this time just below her visual field.

Uziel ends the silence in the kitchen. Gayil stands near the fridge, her body stiffer than her hair, her sacrifice a public trial. She must transport a dozen roasts to the synagogue and her mother has marked the chosen cuts. Gayil need only turn around, open the fridge. She leans her shoulders against the fridge door. Her father watches. She might cry. She crosses her arms. She looks at Uziel. He holds his new black hat. You look nice with short hair, he says. Oh sweet Uziel. To say so in front of their father. Gayil smiles at him. I like it, he says. For the first time Gayil feels some remorse over these split hairs. What irony that her becoming has coincided with Uziel’s coming of age: tomorrow he will submit to the yoke that today Gayil has shorn, and it is he who blesses her rebirth. The cousins will be jealous, Uziel says, and Gayil understands this for the loveliest untruth it is. The sheep are camped for his party, and the spotlight features Gayil with a pixie—why not revision their jabber a jealous bleating? They will not, says her father. They will not. Let us go, he says to Uziel. Out the front door Uziel follows their father but stops and turns to catch Gayil’s eye from behind the screen before he too goes the way of men.

Into the car, onto the road, enter the synagogue lot. Sun almost set. We welcome the Sabbath Queen in her carriage, roasts piled on the back seat. Gayil wishes for Uziel’s help transporting the goods to the back kitchen and his easy sweetness, but we are sorry Uziel is not available at the moment. This her father has been reciting every time a friend calls Uziel with Bible trivia questions, Mo brings a ping-pong paddle late Sunday afternoons, Gayil wants Uziel to move his pooping pet bird out from the den. We are most sorry, delivered with Persian solicitousness. My son for his Bar-Mitzvah must prepare. Try again soon. Yes, in, like, two years, have a cup of tea or a thousand while you wait. Sip it earl gray with sugar cubes in your teeth. Glass after glass for Mo and Gayil who wait on kitchen stools two years for today and now the coming of age is Gayil’s too. Yes yes yes she thinks, the roasts go up the stairs in Gayil’s arms. Gayil’s neck is sweaty miraculous it is to have no damp hair at all. Gayil closes her eyes in the synagogue lot, miraculous this wind on the back of her neck, if only father knew.

Gayil. It is Eliana, twelve years old. In the parking lot.

Hmmm, yes.

Gayil. You must come home. I was sent for you.

Gayil opens her eyes. What.

Hurry, Gayil.

Gayil stares at Eliana. Her curls have been blown straight.

Gayil, are you listening?

Huh?

Home, let’s go. I just walked here to get you.

Oh. Eliana’s nails have been polished cream. Alone?

I’m not a baby. Besides, I was told to find you.

The parents?

The mother.

What does she need?

To find you.

Here I am.

To find you a hairdo, I mean. Eliana snorts.

No.

Eliana once-overs Gayil’s hair. Gayil hates when she does that.

Oh yes. All the cousins brought their extra wigs. Shani bets hers will be the best color match. I think it’ll be Batya’s.

No way. Not happening.

Please, what did you think? You could do whatever you wanted?

Gayil sits in her mother’s white bathroom. Cousins Shani and Batya and Gittel and Zees the Aunt and Bubby the grandmother and Eliana the sister and Mother stand in a circle around Gayil who thinks they are bowing bundles of wheat. Excluding Eliana each clutch a wig. Gittel in both hands a wig. Fistfuls of shiny synthetic hair. Hair snipped and clipped for money. Hair shipped to the States and whipped into fat wigs flipped onto married’s heads. Hair to conceal Gayil’s trashed, Gayil’s dashed, Gayil in a pleather salon chair the broom across the tile floor, coveting the moments Ula sweeps her soft hair into a small pile and a bigger pile and slip, in the bin they fall. May this memory be a blessing always. On a metal folding chair in her mother’s bathroom she sits, butt cold. What blessing to have these wigs. Do what we must to ameliorate family embarrassment. That’s the spirit. Mother thinks: We will know now what wig is best for two years time. Some good to come from this balagan.

Gayil’s mother pats the ends of her hair.

Mother, stop.

With Gayil’s words so everyone else remembers they can speak.

Can you believe she did this?

I can.

Not now, Eliana.

What an embarrassment.

How entirely masculine.

What was she thinking.

I’d keep her in the house until it reaches her shoulders.

Uziel likes it.

Uziel is an idiot.

What did we do to deserve this.

On today of all days.

I never would have thought she had this in her.

I did.

Eliana, enough.

If my mother were alive—

Bubby, please, relax.

And you, her namesake!

Oy.

It is a shame.

What will the school say.

What will the matchmakers say.

I’m sixteen.

That is the point.

I have a bad feeling about this.

The worst.

My stomach, I have not felt it since I heard the news.

Best not eat the gefilte, Zees.

Thank god for the wigs.

Thank god we are married.

Poor poor Gayil.

All right, all right! The men will finish their prayers and we will still be standing next to this toilet.

Eliana!

The child is saying something.

I am not a child.

Bubby, try yours first.

Onto Gayil’s head. A net of giant curls. Gayil cringes in the mirror.

Twenty three, Gayil’s led to a basement room of paneled mirrors. She signed up for judo to have steel in her body but she cringes and refuses to move. Alex says, Um, this is where all the private lessons are. Gayil shakes her head. She sees Gayil heads shaking left and right. Her cleavage. Forgot this outfit plunges by her breasts. It’s so you can see how your body moves, see? Alex flexes in the mirror. It’s important for the positions. So many blushed cheeks, she wonders if always she turns red. I can’t, Gayil says. Sure you can, Alex says, and he comes close to move her leg. Gayil gasps. She wants to touch his glossy black hair, his thick black belt. She wants to feel her body. Let’s start with riding-stance, Alex says, and pushes Gayil’s legs wider apart than her shoulders. Now bend, sink into it, that’s right. Her legs in the mirror. Gayil has never been before a man without a skirt. She feels heavy. I can’t, she says, closing her eyes. All right, take a breath. Alex places his hand on her shoulder, squeezes. Some people are nervous their first time. Don’t worry. It’ll come to you. Gayil looks at Alex. Trust me, he says. Breathe. Gayil exhales. Three hundred sixty degrees of deflated cheek. I can’t, she says. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. She cannot be, God watching from all directions, watching as the body falls.

Here there is light and only half of Gayil looks back, her forehead and cheeks blind under a bouncy wig. Gayil’s hands tense, her elbows lock. She does not touch her face, she does not move to move the strands of wig away from her eyes. She is willing herself not to twitch, teen girl in grandma’s wig wrestling not to rise give in throw. A bent metal chair on the floor by the toilet. Mother’s shocked face. Eliana’s glee. Almost. Fight or freeze Gayil thinks. Be still. Accept crucifixion with grace.

Not her look.

It’s terrible.

Try straight, that’s her original.

Batya steps toward Gayil with a honey brown wig. She tugs Bubby’s off, Gayil with a pixie looks at everyone slow. Batya bends to Gayil’s ear, says You go brave girl I’m sorry and pushes her wig on Gayil’s head. Everyone hears Batya snap the bottom clip. Pinned by one of her own.

It needs a comb. Who has a comb?

She needs more than a comb.

Here’s the comb. Batya, brush, its yours on her head.

Be gentle. We wouldn’t want to tug hairs out on the Sabbath.

Batya’s is the chosen. Due to time constraints or aesthetics Gayil doesn’t know, she can’t quite tell if the wig matches the face she’s got now but knows it is incongruous to the face she prepped. The women left Gayil, walked out in a line chattering about the meal to come. Gayil and her reflection remain. Gayil looks and looks. Minutes until the meal begins in the synagogue and Gayil feels she cannot, should not go. Uziel will address the family with a speech he prepared, one of three he’s memorized, and he will look for her in the crowd. Gayil knows this and yet she wants to yawn in her bed. She doesn’t know that she can be the face under Batya’s wig, that she can play this game, that it will be a person she wants to recognize who catches Uziel’s eye when he says I would like to thank my family. She wants to fall into sleep and forget her father saying This you needed to do today. Yes. She wants to tell him yes, blow the horn, say I am not what you push off a cliff I am not part of your ritual. She will don dress shoes and march to the synagogue and declare, yes, Uziel will understand, he always does, Gayil is the bull butting her head, impossible to tame, not for sacrifice, with her hide you cannot make demands or commands. Listen, Uziel will proclaim, Gayil has an announcement. Yes, go on now to synagogue. Return to familiar ground. Speak your truth. Gayil combs her wig. Exits the bathroom. Finds her place at the family table. Her father wants to know why she’s late. I couldn’t, she says, find my shoe.

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