Miri – Julie Rosenzweig

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Who knew from kosher cruises? Well, Becky knew, but only from ads. She couldn’t remember when she’d last spent a night in a regular hotel, let alone a luxury liner. It was one of those things that didn’t compute for her and her staid and frugal spouse.

She did plan getaways periodically. Nothing too fancy. Even a modest bed-and-breakfast up north would be opulent compared with the annual family campout by the Kinneret, which hardly constituted a vacation. She’d show the itineraries to Nissim, obtain his grunt of approval, and things would end there.

Why couldn’t they follow through? Was it Nissim’s pronounced lack of enthusiasm? She sometimes teased him about being a nerd, and even about being cheap. She’d compare him to a certain Eighties sitcom dad who famously set up a fence around his living room and hunkered down alone for a week of non-stop TV, calling it his “world tour.” Nissim did, in fact, regularly tour the galaxy, courtesy of his old sci-fi video collection, scattered among Barney and Teletubbies DVDs on the shelf above the ancient computer monitor that served their family for viewing purposes. This was yet another thing Becky liked to tease him about. But unlike the Eighties sitcom dad, Nissim didn’t care to trek alone. He usually recruited Becky or one of the kids to make the nightly foray with him into Federation space.

She was married to a geek and a homebody; what could she do?

And then there were the Vogels. Leave it to Shimi Vogel to secure a four-month entertainer gig on a cruise ship taking Jewish singles on Eastern Seaboard tours. Leave it to Shimi Vogel to finagle space for a wife and child on the luxury liner.

“Some people’s skills are really in demand,” Becky baited her engineer husband.

Nissim snorted.

Becky had come to say goodbye to Shosh Vogel, her friend and neighbor. She’d brought her ten-year-old daughter Sari along for a play date with Miri Vogel, who was also ten and a classmate of Sari’s. The Vogels were leaving in a few days, and were supposed to be packing and getting their apartment ready for hypothetical Airbnb renters. Becky was amazed they were trying to do the prep themselves. To judge from how the Vogel home looked in normal times, she doubted they could get even one room into shape on their own. She never set foot in there without itching to gather strewn-about clothes into manageable piles, clear crumbs off tabletops, scrape grease off the kitchen splash-back.

“Coffee? Tea?” Shosh had set a tray of homemade Moroccan treats on the kitchen table, and was now laying out mugs and plates. Becky eyed the gunky dishes and shook her head, pleading caffeine issues, weight-watching issues. Actually she’d have adored a cup of nana tea and one of those delicious stick cookies so perfect for dunking. But disgust at the dirty kitchen far outweighed her admiration for Shosh’s baking skills.

Becky hadn’t always been a neatnik. Tidiness was a trait of Nissim’s that, by marital osmosis, had become her own. She remembered their first few months together, her guilt as Nissim gathered up clothes she herself had strewn about. Not that Nissim ever complained. She had a demanding job herself, and he had no hang-ups about who did what chores. She simply became hypersensitive, in that early period, to the tension that would flicker in Nissim’s face whenever a certain threshold of disorder had been passed. That tension pained her, so she’d pre-empt it by straightening up beforehand, until neatness became a habit.

Habit sometimes seemed like the beginning and end of their life together – habit and a kind of mutual interpenetration of qualities, desires, opinions, and goals. She might tease Nissim, but really it was like teasing herself. When had it happened, that folding and blending into a bland pasty dough of coupledom? She thought of herself physically that way, too: bland and pasty, pounded into a soft yielding mass by the incessant demands of motherhood. How did the Vogels maintain the frisson of contrast? How did Shosh manage to remain a woman of fascinating and regal beauty? Was it a learned thing, like the Moroccan baking skills? Or was it genetic? Perhaps the latter, if young Miri was any indication.

#

“Take this; it’s small on me. Besides, I’ll be getting new stuff in chutz la’aretz.”

Miri handed Sari a pullover with sequins, arranged in a heart shape that darkened or lightened as the sequins flipped up or down – the fourth-grade fad.

She’d stopped wearing that pullover a couple of months earlier, though she wasn’t altogether convinced it was too small. She liked the way it looked when she modelled it before the mirror in her room; but her mother had nixed it. She’d seen the vexed expressions on her teachers’ faces as well; realized that her looks had become a jarring, discordant element at school, best left to her appreciative mirror.

Miri watched as Sari explored her room, which despite the packing campaign didn’t look much different from the way it usually did: the floor an obstacle course, drawers half-open with clothes hanging out of them. Miri’s room was hers only; Sari bunked with two younger sisters. Whenever Miri visited Sari they had to put up with the sisters, a culture of accommodation that Miri found faintly exotic.

Even more exotic to Miri was the neatness of Sari’s bedroom, the closed drawers and wardrobes that told nothing of their contents. Even the pull-out beds on which the younger girls slept were rolled back while not in use. Miri couldn’t imagine a life where things stayed inside like that.

She watched Sari examine the beauty products vying for visibility on her desk and dresser. Hesitantly her friend would pick up a tube of lip gloss or vial of cologne, sniff, then replace the item with shy reverence. Until a few months ago Miri’s room had been full of dolls, stuffed animals, arts and crafts. But lotions and lipsticks had replaced them in a process both imperceptible and relentless. Not that she could wear makeup to school – even nail polish wasn’t allowed – but experimenting with the stuff at home had lately become an obsession.

Her mother permitted it. “Better she fools with it here, where it doesn’t attract attention,” Miri had heard her say on the phone to one of her women friends, perhaps Sari’s mother.

Ever since that overheard snippet of conversation, the word attention kept popping into Miri’s mind. She found it both disturbing and gratifying. Had she been asked earlier why, exactly, she was drawn to this activity of primping and preening before the mirror on the back of her door, she’d have had no answer to give beyond, “It’s fun.” But now a different answer seemed to hover in her mind, inchoate and sub-verbal yet centered, somehow, around the idea of attention.

#

You couldn’t not give him your attention, Becky thought as Shimi Vogel walked through the door, ending her conversation with Shosh. His presence had that kind of effect, Becky noticed. You couldn’t look away from him. .

Partly it was the clothes – the loose, colorful, vaguely Indian tunics he favored, so different from the garb of pretty much every other man of Becky’s acquaintance, religious or secular. And the big elaborate Bukharan kippot, like the ones her boys had worn in preschool. She’d seen her husband eye Shimi’s getup disapprovingly, though Nissim was too disciplined ever to mention it even in private conversation with her. She, personally, liked that bohemian vibe; was sometimes tempted to ask Shimi where he bought his clothes.

A guitar was slung over his chest on a rainbow-colored strap, a typical accessory for Shimi.

“Where’ve you been?” Shosh asked. Then, looking more closely at the guitar: “That’s not yours.”

Shimi playfully slapped the guitar, then tilted it to show it off. He flashed an especially warm smile at both women. Shosh shook her head slightly.

“You sold your Les Paul?”

“Heck no, I’m leaving it in storage and taking this baby along. Got a great deal. A Strat’ll serve me better on the cruise.”

Shosh started to answer, then left off; something in the kitchen claimed her attention. Shimi turned to Becky and asked after the kids, Nissim. Becky gave perfunctory answers. It always embarrassed her when Shimi sent his regards to Nissim, as he often did. Nissim, she knew, found Shimi’s company distasteful. She sometimes wondered whether Shimi perceived Nissim’s dislike. Could the cloud of positive vibes in which he moved shield him from such disfavor?

Nissim was the only person she knew who seemed immune to Shimi’s charm: to the spontaneous musical eruptions with which he punctuated conversations; to his boyish cleanshaven face, his overgrown sandy hair, his kaleidoscopic headgear and tie-died tunics.

He made a striking contrast with Shosh in all ways – a playful American pup to her noble Mizrachi gravitas. Shosh was a beautiful woman, far too beautiful for Becky to bother envying. Shosh and Shimi could pass for a celebrity couple, though Shosh, a math teacher by profession, was as decorous and undemonstrative as Shimi was laid-back and emotive.

Despite the paired charisma, there had been a period, many years before, when Becky had almost pitied the Vogels. Shimi had gone off to work as a cruise musician for a few months, leaving Shosh home in Jerusalem with two young children. That was the only time he’d ever been away for any major period, as far as Becky knew. Though it was never spoken of, Becky was almost sure Shosh had been at the beginning of a pregnancy when Shimi left for that earlier cruise; she might not even have realized she was expecting until after he’d gone. On several occasions during that time Becky noticed that Shosh was unwell, and evasive about being so. Yet no “baby bump” had ever materialized. Becky supposed that Shosh had miscarried, the source of the almost-pity.

For a religiously observant couple, the Vogels were a small family: only two kids. The teenaged son Dani, who was away at yeshiva most of the time anyway, wouldn’t be joining them on this cruise. Becky had already agreed to host Dani for Shabbatot while the rest of the family was away. Nissim liked the boy, had often praised his maturity and good character traits, the implication being that he’d had an uphill climb against unfavorable moral conditions.

Any pity Becky had felt was long gone. The Vogels weren’t people one pitied. Everything about them was right, fitting and inevitable. It was entirely appropriate that Shosh’s beauty hadn’t been ruined by multiple pregnancies in rapid succession. It was perfectly natural for the home of a free-spirited artist type such as Shimi to have socks strewn about like the bedroom of an entitled suburban teenager. It was awesome that Shosh could whip up mouth-watering Moroccan meals in a kitchen so dirty that her own recently-deceased mother refused to enter it, as Shimi had once hilariously related.

The Vogels broke quite a few of the rules of their social set. No one seemed to care.

Here comes another broken rule, Becky thought as she watched Miri Vogel sashay toward the kitchen, diminutive Sari trailing behind her like a freckle-faced kid sister. On the prowl for snacks, the girls stopped at the kitchen table with its pastry tray. Becky was struck by the radiant softness that suffused Miri’s face as she noticed her father standing nearby.

#

Sari wondered what it would be like to have a dad who was more like an older brother. A smooth-faced dad with a jokey demeanor who wore funky clothes and seemed always to be on his way to or from a party. Her own older brother didn’t look or act like that, but still it was easier to think of Shimi as her friend’s brother than as her friend’s dad.

Nibbling a cookie, she watched as Miri gestured toward Shimi’s guitar, which he obligingly unstrapped from around his neck and hung around Miri’s. He took a seat and Miri nestled against him with the guitar, strumming inexpertly and glancing up at him with a supplicating timidity that Sari found faintly distasteful. Shimi gave Miri casual fingering tips, basic stuff they’d been expected to master ages ago in the guitar class that Sari and Miri attended together weekly. Miri still had trouble with the basics. Shimi didn’t criticize, though. He just smiled and nodded benignly as Miri mangled the song they’d been working on lately in guitar class.

Sari thought that, if she played that badly, her dad would ask her if she was getting enough practice time in. If things didn’t improve, he’d start approaching her with suggestions that she take an art course, or gymnastics – something she “might have more aptitude for” than music. He’d clear his throat nervously and look down, too obviously trying to cushion the blow. He wasn’t a good actor.

Miri had told Sari that her father was going to let her accompany him onstage during the cruise. Sari had almost burst out laughing, but checked herself, not wanting to hurt her friend’s feelings.

She wondered when Miri’s parents were finally going talk tough to her about her nonexistent musical future; perhaps never. Tough didn’t seem to be how these parents operated. After all, look at how they let Miri keep her room.

Sari didn’t much like the cleanup she was obliged to perform daily in her own room. She wouldn’t have minded a little of the disorder in which Miri lived, though she recognized its downsides. Miri, for instance, often came to school without necessary supplies. Not that she suffered for it much. She was a popular girl and had a way of getting classmates to lend or give her whatever she needed. She, Sari, often provided her with pencils and such. In fact, her mom, to whom she’d once mentioned this, sometimes told her to make sure she had an extra pencil for Miri.

Sari knew she should be content with what she had, but she did fantasize about having her own room, like Miri, or about being whisked off for a cruise a month before the school year ended. One thing she didn’t envy, though, was Miri’s recent growth spurt, which made her look like a teenager. She, Sari, would never want to stand out like that. It was like breaking a rule without meaning to. It might not be your fault, but blame would cling to you nonetheless.

#

If you’re going to break the rules, break them with aplomb, Becky thought. The girl seemed to have inherited her parents’ talent for that. Of course Miri couldn’t have engineered her own physical precocity; but having been fated to stand out, she seemed to be making the most of it.

Repressed memories flooded Becky these days whenever she saw Miri. Memories of being a ten-year-old overwhelmed by the burden of unwanted womanhood. Of being the only fourth-grader who looked like a teenager. “What’s that rash on your forehead?” her classmates asked.

The tacky discount-store clothes she’d worn in those years hadn’t helped. Her father had decamped, and money was short.

The early puberty was an extra layer of unfairness, on top of the broken home that already made Becky stand out among her affluent suburban peers. Later, in high school, she met other girls whose parents were divorced, but in the younger grades she felt shamefully different. And even the divorced families she came to know in high school weren’t broken the way her family was broken. The dads hadn’t moved to the opposite coast. They paid child support. The girls saw them regularly.

Remembering her own fourth-grade experience, Becky had worried about Sari, watching for the signs, which thankfully seemed nowhere in sight. The girl’s clothes still fit as they always had; her sweet face remained unblemished and untroubled.

Lately Becky had read a number of pop-science articles about a connection between absent fathers and early puberty. Apparently lots of ten-year-olds were transforming overnight into mini-women these days, and researchers were attributing this to rampant marital breakups and fatherless homes.

Did her and Nissim’s stable marriage explain why Sari, at ten, was still the child that she, Becky, had ceased to be by that age? Did having a dad around trump genetics, or had Sari simply not inherited bad genes from Becky?

Miri clearly didn’t lack a father in the home. Becky observed Shimi’s unflappable amiability, his angelic tolerance of the girl’s awful guitar playing. You could see how Miri adored him. It made her skin crawl, but who was she to judge? She’d had no father around to adore at that age.

She was too old to envy Miri the presence of a father, but not too old to be impressed by how well the girl wore her incipient womanhood. Miri looked graceful and comfortable in her own skin, and she had that regal quality Becky so admired in Shosh, the same dark, striking features and serene impassive countenance that no starburst of zits could disfigure.

“Remember you’ve got company,” Shimi told Miri, who returned the guitar to him with complaisance. He made a little shooing motion with his fingers, and the girls scooted back to Miri’s bedroom.

Shosh suddenly excused herself and followed the girls, saying she needed to make a phone call. Becky watched her as she walked down a hallway cluttered with random items that could surely have been stored neatly elsewhere. How did Shosh maintain that stateliness of hers amid such chaos? Like royalty in a tenement.

#

You are a princess, Maman said before I married him, but he is no prince. You should be marrying Yossi, someone hardworking and steady, a good man your father has known since he was small. Not this flighty American boy.

But I was in love.

So proud of my English, so eager to practice it with the American chatich on a post-high-school program, playing guitar in Zion Square instead of learning in yeshiva as he’d been sent to do.

What a shock when I brought him home. They couldn’t object to the wedding of course, due to the … extenuating circumstances.

There are always extenuating circumstances. There’s always something to soften and legitimize things you might once have found outrageous.

All it takes is a boyish smile. A sweet crinkling around the eyes. A look that penetrates you with its warmth, dissolving any barrier of selfhood that might stand between you and him.

He’s giving Becky that look right about now. I can feel it. I always know what he’s up to, even before he knows it himself.

How exactly is he phrasing the request? Not as a request, of course. You can’t ask for a thing like that, you have to talk of it as self-evident, so desirable no one would dream of objecting.

And if she objects anyway? Becky’s diffident and diplomatic, but I’ve seen the way Nissim looks at Shimi, at us. Becky no doubt shares her husband’s opinions. Their barriers aren’t so easily dissolved. Concern for the child will well up in her, bolster her resistance. “But Miri thinks she’s going with you! I’ve heard her talk of it, she’s so excited. How can you change plans on her at the last minute? How can you leave her behind?”

But he won’t lose his composure. He’ll answer her with radiant sweetness – and with perfect emotional logic: “But what would we have gained by upsetting her in advance?” And: “It’ll still be a fun change for her!” And: “She and Sari’ll have a great time! Like sisters!” And: “Kids are resilient!”

And: “Thanks for doing us this favor! We owe you one!”

Of course I’d feel better about it if Maman could take her, instead of having to impose on these friends … but Maman is no longer here.

Sometimes you have to choose a lesser evil; sacrifice one thing, a newer thing, to save something else that takes precedence. I’ve made the sacrifice before. That’s nonsense, I can hear Maman saying. There is nothing to save. You made a bad deal. Cut your losses and come home. But there’s no home to go back to anymore, and I couldn’t even if there were.

The last time he got a cruise gig I let him go alone. I knew it was a bad idea, but didn’t have the energy to oppose it. I did what I had to do then, to make sure he’d stay once he returned. If I hadn’t, he might have walked in the door, taken one look at me, and walked right out again. All things considered, this isn’t so bad. It’s better than snuffing out a life. Shimi’s right about one thing, bless him, the girl’s resilient, and anyway there are things she’s better off not seeing. Things he’ll be doing, things I’ll have to do. How can I hold it all together, guide him safely back home, if I have to see to her as well?

The important thing is to hold onto what’s mine. If I don’t, what will become of me? And for that matter, what will become of her?

#

What will become of her, Becky thought as she rinsed the last of the dishes. I can do my best by her for a few months. Then what?

She dried her hands and went to the playroom. Nissim had put the younger kids to bed; Avi, their oldest, was away on an overnight class trip. That left Sari who, sure, enough, was snuggled against Nissim on the beat-up playroom couch. Becky sat down on Nissim’s other side, and Sari leaned over to her. “Daddy corralled me,” she giggled. “Corralled” was Avi’s word. He’d outgrown the evening snuggle and decided Star Trek was lame in all its iterations; he now humored his dad only occasionally by joining him for the nightly hour of Treknobabble. But Sari was still into it. Becky knew the “corralled” comment was just pro forma.

“What’s tonight’s episode?” she asked.

“The one with the grups,” Nissim answered, adding, for Sari’s benefit, “There’s a girl in this episode with the same name as a friend of yours.”

“But Daddy, I thought there weren’t any Jews in Star Trek.”

“I guess this is Star Trek’s only Jew. In the Original Series, anyway.”

Becky watched inattentively, her mind returning to her conversation with Shimi that afternoon, and to his extraordinary request. Or command. Or whatever.

She’d been too stunned to broach the subject with Nissim over dinner. She knew how he’d react, anyway. He’d express outrage, and appeal to her sense of justice; to the universe’s sense of justice. She’d acknowledge the enormity of the crime. Then he’d see the pained look on her face, and pity would win out over justice.

It could wait till morning.

They could manage it, they really could. They’d been planning to move Sari into the playroom next year; it would just have to happen a little sooner. They’d have had to get another pull-out bed anyway, so Sari could have friends sleep over. A four-month sleepover was a bit much, Becky had to admit, but they’d manage.

A scene from the aftermath of her talk with Shimi suddenly clicked into focus. Shosh had returned to the kitchen from her phone call, proceeding to the stove where she’d left a pot simmering. As she stirred, a large glob of something tomatoey – matbucha, perhaps – had splattered from the pot onto the splash-back. Becky, Shosh and Shimi had all watched, mesmerized, as the red clot trickled down to the counter, leaving a vivid trail. Making no move to clean up the mess, Shosh had turned and faced Becky, a small, not-entirely-dignified smile playing on her lips.

Onscreen, Kirk was working his charm on the adolescent humanoid female. The girl looked back at him with radiant softness. Then the music went all drastic as an ugly lesion on Kirk’s hand came into view.

“I don’t think this episode is for her, Nissim … Nissim?” She nudged her dozing husband.

“Huh?”

“Find a different episode.”

“Oh.”

A few clicks of the remote and they settled back in, a somnolent crew in the flickering dim, making their journey together.

1 thought on “Miri – Julie Rosenzweig

  1. Pingback: Short story up at the Jewish Literary Journal – Julie Rosenzeig

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