I tore open the envelope, thinking how nice it would be to hear from Lydia after all these years. According to the return address label, she was living in Salem, New Hampshire now. Did she marry Jerry? Her name was still Lydia Solomon, but maybe she didn’t use his last name.
But it wasn’t a letter in the envelope; it was a two-page hand-written bulleted list of my faults, with the big, bold title, Martha Anne’s Faults. Lots and lots of them but nothing else. Not even a signature. Just a list of everything I’d done wrong.
- You didn’t air out the kitchen when you made fish or broccoli.
- You read the newspaper while you ate breakfast, only nodding when I tried to talk to you.
- You didn’t stack the dishes properly in the dish rack.
- You left your pajamas on the floor in the bathroom.
On and on. You did this; you didn’t do that. Sometimes the faults were written in black ink and sometimes blue, sometimes printed in Lydia’s neat, first-grade teacher handwriting and sometimes hastily scribbled in her loopy, immature script. She must have kept a running list, faithfully recording the things I’d done wrong as they occurred.
Lydia had been my room-mate back when I was in my twenties. We both liked the same television shows, and we’d laugh together in the kitchen after one of us had a particularly bad blind date. We were always going on blind dates. She even met Jerry on one. After a year of sharing an apartment in Cleveland Circle, Lydia moved in with Jerry who lived in Southern New Hampshire. I moved into a new, one-bedroom condo in Coolidge Corner near the school where I taught Kindergarten.
I chewed a Tums as I skimmed the bulleted list of my faults. How dare she! These things happened 35 years ago.
What about the way you clogged up the shower with your hair, and the way you and Jerry sat in the kitchen together, not bothering to ask me if I wanted a cup of coffee? Do you think you were so perfect, Lydia Solomon?
Yes, I did read the newspaper while I ate breakfast. My quiet father did too, and nobody minded. Yes, sometimes the smell of broccoli lingered in the hallway of my building because I didn’t air out the kitchen. So what. If these are my worst faults, then I’m doing pretty well.
Did Lydia think this was a practical joke? Lydia was quirky like that. Instead of just telling me I left carrot peels in the sink, she once drew a large, elaborate sign with dancing carrot peels and a crying sink and put it under my door. She even hid her favorite coffee mug in her bedroom so she wouldn’t have to yell at me if I accidentally broke it.
I smiled, but then I wanted to cry, remembering the way we stood together by the bay window in our living room, sipping 7-Eleven coffee as we watched the movers lug our boxes and furniture up three flights of stairs. Lydia was petite with a cute pixie haircut, but she was strong and could lift heavy boxes and move furniture. I’m taller but not particularly strong, so I let Lydia manage things.
“Let’s put the TV against the big wall in the living room, and we can put the sofa across from it,” Lydia suggested.
“Where do you think we should put the little chair?” The little chair was mine, a hand-me-down from my parents’ attic.
“What about off to the side, but facing the television?”
It made no sense, but we unpacked the kitchen things first and then shared a pizza from Pino’s before setting up our own bedrooms. I had the front bedroom, and Lydia had the one in the back. They were both the same size, so there was nothing to argue over. Come to think of it, I don’t ever remember arguing about anything with Lydia. We retreated into our own rooms if we were annoyed with each other.
“You can take the first shower in the morning. Then I’ll take mine,” Lydia offered.
“I can make dinner for us tomorrow night,” I counter offered. “At least, I’ll try, but I’m not a very good cook.”
Lydia ended up helping me with the rice. I almost burned it.
“God, this is awful,” I said, after valiantly eating a few bites.
“We’ll get better at it,” Lydia assured me.
Lydia and I sat in our large, eat-in kitchen after one of her blind dates, passing the box of Sun-Maid golden raisins back and forth to each other because we didn’t have any cookies. The pantry shelves were mostly empty. It had been a few weeks since we had gone shopping together. I was already in my pajamas; Lydia still wore her black pants and frilly sweater.
“He was nice enough, but he kept complaining about the food. It was too hot, too salty, overcooked.”
“Well, I guess you won’t go out with him again.”
Then she met Jerry.
“He’s the one, Martha Anne,” she told me the next morning as we ate Frosted Flakes together. “I just know it. He’s it, the man I’m going to marry.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Lydia looked at me, searching my face for a sign that I was happy for her. She looked away when she got nothing from me.
Now I was middle aged, living alone with my routines, getting up at 5:30 every morning and going to bed at ten. I shivered as I put Lydia’s list back in the envelope. My hands still shook as I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed.
A long-forgotten memory stabbed at me. A blind date—a man with a fetching smile and tantalizing eyes–had asked me why I wanted to go right home after dinner. “I’m a teacher,” I mumbled, not meeting his dark, alluring eyes. “I have to get up early in the morning.”
It had been 9:30 on a Saturday night. I didn’t wait up for Lydia to come home. She would be with Jerry anyway. I just went to bed, since we didn’t have any raisins or cookies for me to eat by myself in the kitchen. The radiator next to my bed clanged, but it was still cold in my room. I pulled the covers up over my head.
I dreamed that he did come home with me. I woke up with a start, bathed in sweat and went into the kitchen and stood in front of the open refrigerator until I cooled down.
I listened to the cozy way Lydia and Jerry worked together, laughing as they sealed boxes, packing up to move together to New Hampshire. I sat in the kitchen alone, eating an apple. If it hadn’t been raining, I would have left the apartment.
“We need some more boxes. Either that or get rid of some of your stuff,” Jerry said.
Lydia laughed her shrill, girlish laugh.
I had some extra boxes, but I didn’t offer them. Instead, I brought the apple into my room and shut the door. I could still hear Lydia and Jerry, although their voices were fainter.
Lydia would no longer blabber to me about passive aggressive behavior and insist that I simply must read I’m Ok—You’re Ok, even if I wasn’t passive aggressive. Lydia loved self-help books—Games People Play, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—I’m surprised I remember the titles. What a bunch of nonsense those books were! Lydia claimed that people who are not OK withdraw and avoid painful intimacy. Maybe I wasn’t OK according to some silly book, but I couldn’t wait to withdraw and just live by myself.
At school, the list of my faults danced in my head, taunting me like a bad report card. You didn’t do this; you didn’t do that. Lydia stayed with me all day, chiding me. Was this what it was like to go crazy and hear voices in your head?
You don’t even know your students’ names, Lydia scolded when I mistakenly called Billy his brother’s name and blanked on Patricia’s name altogether.
It’s the beginning of the year, I retorted. There are 23 children in my class. I’m 60 years old. I make mistakes sometimes. And so do you, Lydia. Sending me that list of my faults was a mistake.
The other Kindergarten teachers are going out for lunch together on Sunday. Why didn’t they invite you, Martha Anne?
Because I’m older. They’re in their 30’s; I’m 60. They want to socialize with people more their own age.
Is that really the reason, Martha Anne? Is that really why?
“Ms. Kravitz, Ms. Kravitz,” Billy tugged at my sleeve.
“What?” I snapped.
His sweater was on inside out.
“Let’s fix your sweater now. Here. I’ll help you.”
He tried to wriggle away from me.
The children gathered around me on the rug as I read one of my favorite stories, The Boy Who Bugged People and the Bug That Helped Him.
“Why do you think the boy was so annoying?” I asked when I finished reading.
“The boy was mean.”
“The boy didn’t share.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right,” I smiled at the children, trying not to think about why the other Kindergarten teachers didn’t socialize with me. “How did the bug help the boy?”
“The bug was a good friend.”
“Yes, he was,” I nodded, but for the first time in all my years of teaching about friendship, I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a good friend. Could it be that Lydia was acting like one by showing me I wasn’t the person I thought I was. After all, it took the brave bug to show the boy in the story how he came across to others. Was she just trying to be helpful like the bug? Maybe she was trying to tell me I wasn’t the warm, insightful person I thought I was.
Over the next few days, I allowed myself to be the sort of person Lydia thought I was. I made brussels sprouts for dinner and didn’t open the window, forcing myself not to care if the smell seeped into the hallway and bothered my neighbors. The sulfur smell reeked, making me stand longingly at the window, until I finally decided that a truly annoying person wouldn’t care about the stench bothering the neighbors.
I talked loudly on my phone in the coffee shop, pretending there was a real person on the other end. When no one noticed, I made myself talk louder, forcing myself to discuss the details of my acid reflux until the acid in my stomach gurgled up and I had to go home.
I didn’t hold the door open for an elderly man trying to enter my building. Surely, he was thinking what a rude, self-absorbed person I was. If only he knew that I was a Kindergarten teacher who taught a unit on courtesy and kindness every fall and was just acting this way because an old room-mate I hadn’t spoken to in thirty-five years sent me a list of my faults.
Alone in my kitchen, I ate Taza chocolate.
On Yom Kippur, I stood in synagogue and recited Ashamnu followed by Al Chait, the confession of sins, with the congregation. We have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander. Nope, I didn’t do any of that. We have gone astray; we have led others astray. Nope, none of those either. Lying, robbing, cheating, stealing. Hard heartedness, immorality, deceit, improper thoughts, lewdness. At least Lydia didn’t accuse me of any of those things.
But that wasn’t the right way to think about the confessional. The rabbi reminded us that the confessions are in the plural because we are responsible for one another as a community. They are meant to intensify our feelings of responsibility for one another. I flushed when he said that the forty-four statements are not a list of our sins, but rather intended to identify the root causes of our mistakes. Whew, I certainly didn’t need another list of my sins. Lydia’s list was long enough.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by foolish talk. I hope Lydia took heart with that one, modifying foolish talk to include foolish acts. But I was supposed to be thinking about my own behavior, not Lydia’s. Besides, I was the one being foolish by letting this ridiculous list of faults upset me.
But it was more than the list of faults. A chill swept over me as if someone had opened the window. I draped my coat around my shoulders.
The last fault on Lydia’s list was this: Sometimes you are distant and withdrawn. The new school principal had given me the same feedback. He had delicately suggested, at my performance evaluation, that I collaborate more with the other Kindergarten teachers and plan lessons with them. I didn’t follow up on his suggestion, though.
Standing in the synagogue facing the Torah scrolls, I pictured the expectant way Lydia had looked at me when she told me she met the man she knew she would marry. I didn’t even pretend to be happy for her.
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us, I chanted in Hebrew, beating my chest with my fist, as is the custom.
Alone in my kitchen, I broke the fast with a tuna fish sandwich and a glass of cranberry juice. By the time I finished eating, it was almost 9:00 at night, but I put a jacket over my dress and went outside. I sprinted down Beacon Street, keeping to the right of the sidewalk, dodging distracted people who talked on their phones as they strolled past the stores and restaurants. The trolley chugged down the middle of the street, connecting people to downtown Boston–to plays, to theaters, to movies, to restaurants and museums. A couple swung their arms and laughed as they came out of Trader Joe’s. The woman clutched her baseball cap as the wind tried to tease it off her head. Brookline was alive. Students, families, seniors, single people—all out walking, and some were jogging or biking. I felt a flush of love for my neighborhood and the many types of people who lived in it. Annoying people and kind people. Each with their own particular faults.
I walked faster, faster, faster, until I couldn’t walk anymore and went home to sink into bed.
The next day I googled Lydia Solomon in Salem, NH and found her phone number. The phone rang once, twice, three times, four times. My stomach knotted when voice mail picked up. God, it had been a long time since I’d heard her high, squeaky voice. Hang up, I told myself, but when I heard the beep, I spoke into the phone, my voice wobbly like an old lady’s. When I sat down on my bed, I shook so hard the phone fell from my hands.
The phone didn’t ring again that evening, nor did it ring that Saturday. The silence tormented me, echoing through the walls. If only a telemarketer would call me. Someone, anyone so I wouldn’t feel so utterly alone and frightened. I ate raisins, staring at the silent phone. Part of me hoped it wouldn’t ring and she’d never call me back.
I jolted out of my rocking chair when the phone did ring at 11:07 on Sunday morning. I threw the newspaper down on the floor, gripping the phone so tightly, my hands began to sweat.
“I’m so sorry, Martha Anne. I’m just so sorry,” Lydia sobbed.
“Oh, Lydia,” I whispered.
“I don’t know what came over me.”
“But, why…why did you do it?” I stammered.
“I don’t know. I..I..I just don’t know. Jerry and I had a fight that night, and I…Oh Martha Anne. You know how I love self-help books. One of those books suggested I keep a list of people’s faults. I don’t remember the reasoning behind it, but I did it.”
“Ok, but why did you send…”
“Jerry and I had a fight. I can’t talk about it. I…I…I…I’m so sorry, Martha Anne,” she blew her nose loudly into the phone. “Jerry found the list in an old filing cabinet down in the basement. There was a list of his faults, too—wearing socks with holes in them, leaving wadded up Kleenex next to the bed, smothering French fries in Ketchup.
‘You’re a coward to keep those lists,’ he yelled at me, his face so red I thought he was going to explode. ‘Couldn’t you just talk to me and tell me?’
‘Well, if you think I’m such a coward, I’ll send Martha Anne’s list to her right now,’ I yelled back at him.
He stood and watched me go to my desk, take an envelope, fold the list into thirds, stuff it into the envelope, and walk around the corner to mail it. We didn’t say anything to each other when I came back. What did it prove, Martha Anne? Sending you that list was the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done.”
“Oh Lydia. It was just a silly list written a long time ago.”
“Was it, Martha Anne? Was it just a silly list?”
We’ll get together; you’ll come to New Hampshire, she said after awhile. Or you’ll come to Brookline, I told her.
We never spoke to each other again.
I buried the list of my faults in the back of the drawer in my bedroom where I kept old lesson plans and notebooks and pushed the drawer shut, slamming it harder than I intended. Then, twirling the buttons on my nightgown, I stared at my computer screen, impatient for the other Kindergarten teachers to respond to my email. I might have to wait until morning, since it was already past 10:00. I knew they’d say yes, though. How could they refuse to collaborate with me on a unit on friendship?
In the morning, the other Kindergarten teachers were standing together and chatting in Lucinda’s classroom. Instead of just walking past them the way I usually did, I smiled and called out good morning. Good morning, Martha Anne, they responded, clearly surprised. None of them had answered my email.
“Did you get that email from her?” I heard Lucinda whisper after I walked past her classroom.
“Yeah. I wonder why she suddenly wants to collaborate with us. She’s always been so standoffish.”
They laughed and whispered some things I couldn’t hear.
“Let’s give her a chance,” Lucinda said. “I think she’s a good teacher, just not very friendly.”
I ran into the bathroom, sure I was going to throw up. When the nausea passed, I weakly got up, went into my classroom, and threw all the clothes in the dramatic play area into a heap, carefully sorting and folding the tutus and the costumes into a neatly stacked pile.
She’s always been so standoffish, not very friendly.
“I love you, Ms. Kravitz,” Patricia snuggled up against me later that morning.
I choked up and couldn’t answer her.
I ate my lunch in my car. I didn’t check my email.
In the afternoon, I snapped at the children for leaving the aprons on the floor in the dramatic play area.
When I got home, I scrubbed the toilet. If I was going to throw up, I at least wanted a clean toilet. Sighing, I sat down at the kitchen table but then stood up and reached for the bar of Taza chocolate I kept in the back of my cupboard. I took out my phone. Ten new emails. One from Lucinda, one from Ashley, and one from Amanda. All three of the Kindergarten teachers. I put the Taza chocolate bar back in the cupboard, deciding I didn’t want it after all.
I’d be happy to collaborate with you, Lucinda wrote. Sounds good, Ashley wrote. Yes, I’d like that, Amanda wrote.
I shook. I just sat there and shook, but then I went to the cupboard and retrieved the Taza Super Dark chocolate bar. Bite after bite of rich, decadent chocolate. I went to find a Tums.
Great, I emailed. Can we meet next Tuesday before class? I put my phone away and didn’t check it again until the next morning. I needed to go for a walk.
When I opened the door to my apartment, the door across the hall from mine swung open. Instead of pretending I forgot something and suddenly shutting my door, I took a deep breath, smiled and said hello to the muscular man standing in front of me. He smiled back. We smiled at each other for a short minute that felt quite long.
Lucinda with her pink, spikey hair, Ashley with the tattoo on her ankle, and Amanda with her low-cut blouse smiled at me when I said good morning. I pranced into my classroom, singing “Hey Friend.”
Penny Kohn is a teacher and a writer living in Brookline, MA. She has published in Jewishfiction.net, Shark Reef Literary Magazine, and FridayFlashFiction.
Yes, very absorbing to get into the head of this Martha Anne. Not sure I know what makes her tick but I think that’s your point. It leaves one wondering, has she had a revelation?
Couldn’t stop reading … very absorbing
Beginning to end, just a great story by Penny Kohn.