Jake’s dad drove him to Rabbi Miriam’s house every Sunday through the summer and fall. The rabbi’s house was twenty-five miles from where Jake and his parents lived, but his father seemed to look forward to these excursions, despite giving up sleeping late on Sunday mornings.
Jake’s mother would already be sitting at the kitchen table with a third cup of coffee and a stack of work. She would look up and smile with what Jake thought of as her real-life face, un-made-up, the planes of her cheeks settling toward her mouth, the border of her lips indistinct without the usual slash of lipstick, her blue eyes floating in the naked rims of her lids. Jake wasn’t so young or so oblivious that he didn’t notice how fast her smile faded when she turned to his father.
“Feel like coming with us?” Jake’s father would ask, as he always did. His mother would shake her head and purse her lips around her coffee cup. Jake’s father would shrug, swipe his keys from the counter, and squeeze Jake’s shoulder in a way that made Jake shiver.
“Okay—your loss,” his father would say, and they’d head out to the car.
Jake had just been allowed to start sitting in the front seat, having achieved the milestone of five feet and a hundred pounds a few months after turning twelve. The rides to the rabbi’s house gave him an opportunity to study his father’s face. He noted the similarities to his own face, and, oddly, to his mother’s, gravity having exerted on both his parents the same downward tug of the flesh. His father didn’t shave on Sundays and Jake thought the stubble of his beard gave him a sketchy look that was kind of cool.
His father had talked a lot the first few times they rode together to the rabbi’s house. This was the most time they had spent together alone since Jake was a toddler. At home their separate interests absorbed them: Jake’s father down in his basement woodworking shop, Jake nominally in his room but really off somewhere in Farlands, sucked through the glowing portal of his computer screen.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” Jake’s father had said on the first ride. “Gives us a chance to spend time together.”
The talking had petered out by the third trip, replaced by talk radio. His father seemed addicted to this kind of chatter, the host going on about some current event, railing against his conservative counterparts. Jake listened for a while and then let the radio voice become background music as he watched the office parks flash by along the interstate.
Rabbi Miriam headed no flock; no temple contained her free spirit. She taught private classes from her little house at the edge of town. A jungle of ferns grew on either side of the path from the street, as tall as Jake and reaching their creepy fronds down to tickle his neck when he wasn’t looking. Inside, the house smelled of cat boxes and macaw and the gamy stench of a white rat. Rabbi Miriam kept as many animals as Noah.
Jake’s mother didn’t want him to be here. She had grown up secular—had never gone to temple, never observed a Jewish holiday, could never answer Jake’s questions about how to pronounce a Hebrew word. But his dad had gone through it all and, with the sadistic delight of a surgeon or army general, wanted to inflict on his son the same rituals he’d had to endure.
The Rabbi Miriam situation irritated Jake. The work wasn’t a problem; Jake spent less time studying than the boys who took their instruction the traditional way from the rabbi at the temple with a circle of receding hair under his kippah and breath that smelled like a barn in the old country. It was irritating because it was part of his parents’ unconventional lifestyle, which they foisted upon Jake. For example, the ceremony and reception couldn’t be at the temple because his parents didn’t, they said, “buy into the whole organized religion thing.” Why bother with a Bar Mitzvah in the first place if they didn’t buy into it? And if the ceremony was going to be at some weird little restaurant that specialized in stuffed grape leaves, then where would the band set up? Would his parents even hire a band? And if they didn’t hire a band, how would he ever have an excuse to put his hand on Helen Dobson’s back and get close enough to smell her Herbal Essences?
* * *
Rabbi Miriam’s rat was named Suki. At first Jake didn’t go anywhere near it. But one Sunday morning the rabbi greeted Jake and said, “Why don’t you go over your Torah portion? I have to talk to Leah for a few minutes.” Then she disappeared with her cell phone into the bedroom to talk to her daughter.
Jake had been over his Torah portion the night before at his father’s insistence and was still upset with his father for the timing of the demand. The request had forced him away from his computer in the middle of a particularly delicate Farlands quest, during which LargeHead2 and GimmeMyCandy had been counting on Jake’s superior health to withstand damage from the new attack force. Now, in defiance of the rabbi, and, in some vague way, of his father, Jake sat on the couch and left his notebook closed beside him.
Suki’s cage occupied an end table next to the couch where any ordinary person would have placed a table lamp and maybe a book of photographs of the Appalachian Mountains. The rat had never shown any interest in him, but now it came to the side of the cage nearest Jake and poked its small pink nose through the mesh. The nose looked almost like a cat’s nose. Jake found himself leaning toward it. The rat fastened its eyes on Jake’s. The eyes were the same weird creamy blue as the marbles Jake used to collect.
Jake heard Rabbi Miriam’s voice through the closed bedroom door rise high and taut the way it did when she led him in song. He extended a finger toward Suki’s nose. The rat sniffed the proffered finger and then retreated to the tiny cushion at the other side of the cage, where it curled into a ball and closed its eyes.
* * *
The first big snowstorm of the season arrived one Saturday night in mid-November.
“You shouldn’t go out in this mess,” Jake’s mother said to his father at breakfast. “You’ll slide off the road.”
“That’s why we got the Jeep,” his father said.
“I don’t care. I’ll be a wreck, sitting here worrying about you.” About Jake, she meant; she never seemed to worry much about Jake’s father.
Thus it was decided that, during the winter months, instead of visiting Rabbi Miriam’s house, Jake would take his instruction over Skype.
* * *
“She can’t be that old if she Skypes,” said Bryan, Jake’s friend and fellow Farlands quester.
Jake shrugged. “She’s kind of old. Her daughter’s in college.”
They were stretched out on opposite ends of the couch in the family room at Bryan’s house, banned from playing on the computer until three o’clock. Bryan’s mom was a control freak with the computer—always worrying about Bryan’s brain development. They tried to spend most of their time at Jake’s, but Bryan’s mom had caught on that Jake’s parents left him alone to do whatever he pleased, so now she insisted that Jake come to her house where she could employ her brutal oversight. The one benefit was the food. There were always fresh chocolate chip cookies or brownies or sometimes even a red velvet cake. At Jake’s house you were lucky if you got packaged Entenmann’s donuts. You might even be forced to resort to Nestlé’s chocolate chips straight from the bag.
“Plus she has a rat,” Bryan said.
“Yeah. The rat’s cool.”
In the months since that first tentative sniff, Suki had grown bolder. She seemed to take an interest in Jake, so much so that during one of the last visits before the Skyping had begun, Rabbi Miriam took Suki out of her cage at the end of the lesson. The rat lay along her forearm.
“Go ahead,” the rabbi said. “She likes to be petted.” Jake touched the rat’s back and felt the quiver of skin under the soft fur.
“What does Marmalade think about her?” Jake asked. Marmalade was the rabbi’s tabby cat.
“Marmalade’s sixteen. They don’t pay much attention to each other,” Rabbi Miriam said. “Of course I never let Suki out unless Marmalade’s in the other room.”
Jake’s parents knocked then and Suki went back in her cage. His mother had come along that day at the rabbi’s request because the Bar Mitzvah was less than six months away and they needed to talk about plans.
Jake let himself out the front door and sat in the chilly late fall sun on the concrete steps. He didn’t want to hear their discussion. He hoped it would be quick because he wanted to be home and logged in at 4 p.m. when a Farlands update was scheduled for release. Besides, he’d already heard the worst news: the Bar Mitzvah venue was indeed to be Café Dordogne.
“It’ll be nice and intimate,” his mother had said. “But the maximum capacity is fifty, so you can’t just invite your whole class. You have to be discriminating.”
From inside, Jake heard the back and forth of his father’s voice and the rabbi’s. His mother wasn’t saying much. It had been that way since they had first started talking seriously about his Bar Mitzvah, when he was ten.
“That’s your thing,” his mother had said to his father. “I don’t know anything about it.”
“Can you at least plan the reception?” his father had asked.
“Like I’m the only one who can plan a party?” His mother’s voice was doing what Jake thought must be called “dripping with sarcasm.” It seemed the only logical explanation for what she’d said, since she was, in fact, a party planner—she worked as the event manager for a large financial company.
That had been the first of many discussions about the Bar Mitzvah, most of which Jake had been left out of but had overheard from the sanctuary of his room. After a while he began plugging in his headphones when he played Farlands so he didn’t have to listen to his parents. The poips and plings of the game’s music soothed him. He especially liked the undulating roar that accompanied the extermination of a monster.
Now, on the steps in the cool air, he heard his parents talking civilly, or anyway his father was. His parents would never argue in front of the rabbi. Outside their own house they were all united we stand.
Jake zipped his sweatshirt and looked up at the ferns swaying over the walkway. He wondered if Suki minded running on the wheel in her cage instead of outside. Rabbi Miriam had told him she rescued Suki from a company that bred rats for experiments, so the rat was lucky to be in her cage on the coffee table in strapping good health instead of in some lab with a thousand tumors bulging under her soft white fur.
Jake’s mother came out of the house and sat on the step next to him. She put her arm around his shoulder in a way that made him want to jump up but he decided to force himself to sit still because he saw, or thought he saw, a tear glistening at the corner of her eye.
* * *
Jake had more time on weekends to work on quests without the long Sunday drive to the rabbi’s house. Since Bryan wasn’t allowed on the computer until the afternoon, Jake ended up playing with guys—he thought they were guys, anyway—he met online. Technically you were supposed to be thirteen to sign up for a Farlands account, but he and all his friends had started playing when they were ten, lying about their ages when they’d opened their accounts. Now Farlands thought they were young men ready to head off to college.
One Sunday morning in early December, Jake was deep into a quest with Omnivore8, chatting about tactics in the little text box at the corner of the screen. This was their final mission before they could unlock the next level. Jake lost track of time and forgot to log into Skype. His mother appeared at 10:30 with the phone pressed to her chest and a black look on her face.
“It’s the rabbi,” she said. “She wants to know if you’re okay.”
She thrust the phone toward Jake and clutched her bathrobe tighter. “Here. You explain what was so engrossing you had to miss half your lesson.”
In contrast to his mother’s pinched voice, Rabbi Miriam’s was as cheery as ever. “Suki and I were wondering what you’re up to,” she said. “We were scheduled for a session this morning.”
Jake hung his head as if the rabbi were there to see. Omnivore8 typed madly in the text box, “bro? u thr? wassup?” Jake had not yet mastered the adult skill of cupping the phone between chin and shoulder so he let Omnivore8 go unanswered.
“I—forgot.” He turned away from his computer and looked out the window. Snow was falling again.
“I have another appointment this morning,” the rabbi said. “Let’s reschedule for later. Do you think you can remember to get on this afternoon? Four o’clock?”
“Yes!” Jake said. “I’ll set my alarm.”
By the time Jake turned back to Farlands, Omnivore8 had let out a stream of invective, furious at having been abandoned to battle the swamp monster alone. “a**hole!!!! that was a p*ssy move.”
“srry,” Jake typed, “called away.” Because he couldn’t exactly say he’d been talking to his rabbi.
* * *
Jake’s parents wouldn’t let him have a pet. A dog would be lonely, at home by itself all day. His mother was allergic to cats. Fish—well, what fun were fish? So when Jake chose for his mitzvah¸ the work he would do for his fourteenth year, to volunteer at the local animal shelter, his mother rolled her eyes. His father began the usual comparisons: “Why can’t you do something like Henry Rostrow? He’s working at the homeless shelter for people.” But Rabbi Miriam thought Jake’s choice was perfectly fine. It was about giving and compassion, she said, and never mind if the objects of that compassion were furry and four-legged.
* * *
Jake stared hard at the murky tunnel on his screen where Omnivore8, in the form of an armor-plated being that looked like an upright armadillo, galloped along beside Jake’s own avatar, a willowy creature capable of twining itself around things and slipping unnoticed through the tiniest of cracks.
“lk out ahd,” Jake typed. “arx bsts.” Araxian beasts lived in little cut-outs in the tunnel walls, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travelers.
Jake pressed his finger on the up-arrow to advance his avatar in front of Omnivore8’s and then quickly hit the space bar to shoot a stream of paralyzing energy at the lurking Araxian. The creature shriveled into a puddle of blue protoplasm.
“nice shot,” Omnivore8 typed.
As winter’s gloom had deepened toward Chanukah and the good cheer of Christmas, the voices of Jake’s parents from downstairs had grown louder. Occasionally, he could hear them even with his headphones on.
Now, in the middle of typing “thx” to Ominivore8, he heard a ringing crash followed by a tinkly splatter he thought at first was from the game. Jake lifted the pad of his right headphones away from his ear and heard his mother’s shout, the single word “No!” followed by footsteps up the stairs and the slam of a door.
“weird shit here,” Jake typed. “gotta go.”
But by the time he logged out and took off his headphones, the house was silent.
* * *
The first big melt of the spring happened over a weekend in February. The sun blazed outside Jake’s window one Sunday morning and made a sheen over the rabbi’s face on the computer screen. Outside, snow dissolved to reveal the forms of shrubs and mailboxes.
That week, Jake’s father announced they would resume the Sunday trips to the rabbi’s house. His father seemed almost giddy; his mother was as taciturn as his father was excited. Jake tried out taciturn, a vocabulary word for the week, while observing his mother’s drawn brow and scowl.
“Have a ball driving through the slush,” his mother said. “And wasting all that gas.”
The darkest day turned out to be March 21, the vernal equinox, Jake’s actual 13th birthday and two weeks before the Bar Mitzvah. His father had offered to take Jake and a few close friends to the family’s favorite steak house, a grown-up kind of place with dark wood paneled booths and red leather upholstery that Jake had first visited when he was only six.
It was Saturday night; they arrived at seven and pulled up to the waiting valet. Jake and Bryan—the one true friend who wanted to share the steak house experience—stepped out of the car and followed Jake’s parents inside. They were all dressed up: the boys in khaki pants and button-down shirts with clip-on ties, Jake’s dad in a suit, and Jake’s mom in a swishy black dress and heels. This was his work-mom, his put-together, constructed, made-up mom, so Jake was a little shocked at the words that exploded from her in front of the hostess and the patrons lined up at the long bar to the left of the door.
“You forgot to make a reservation?” She leaned toward Jake’s dad and made air quotes when she said the word forgot. “What the hell were you thinking? Oh, wait—you weren’t.”
Jake stepped back as if his mother’s outburst was contagious. Lately she’d been prone to respond with emotion disproportionate to the situation. It scared Jake, as if someone he didn’t know had replaced the person who lived inside his mother’s body. Now his discomfort was magnified by the public setting and by the feeling that he would owe Bryan an explanation.
Jake’s dad opened his mouth, but before he could say anything the hostess said, “Sir? Ma’am?” She scanned the list in front of her. “I’m sure we can fit you in. Let’s see what kind of wait there is.”
The wait, it turned out, would be nearly two hours for a table in the dining room. “But I can seat you in the lounge in a half hour.”
“That’s fine,” Jake’s father said. “The menu’s the same in the lounge, right?”
“I am not celebrating Jake’s birthday in a goddamn lounge!” his mother said.
“Thea,” his dad said. The hand he put on his wife’s arm was flung back.
“You do what you like. I’m waiting for the table in the dining room.”
The birthday dinner stretched until nearly eleven o’clock. Jake wasn’t even hungry by the time his steak arrived; he and Bryan had sated themselves on onion rings in the lounge while they waited. Why was it okay to eat appetizers in the lounge, but not dinner? His mother had sat with her coat on, using the toes of her crossed leg to fling her shoe half off her foot and back on again, periodically sliding her Blackberry out of her purse to check the time. Jake’s father had tried to keep up conversation with the two boys. He asked about school and Bryan’s family and, finally, mercifully, about Farlands, which was good for a whole half hour. Then a basketball game came on and the three of them turned to the muted screen and watched the players dribbling and shooting.
When the steak plates had been cleared and Jake’s leftovers returned to him, wrapped in tinfoil twisted into the shape of a duck, the waiter brought Jake an enormous slice of chocolate cake with a single candle illuminating its shiny frosting. Jake’s parents and Bryan sang softly.
For the first time, Jake understood how even something delicious and joyful, like eating chocolate cake on your birthday, might become merely another obligation.
* * *
Jake’s mom wasn’t up the next morning when Jake and his dad left for the rabbi’s. “She’s not feeling great,” his dad said.
Hung over, Jake thought. He’d seen his mom ordering cocktails in the lounge, though he wasn’t sure, with the distractions of the Farlands discussion and the basketball game, whether it had been two or three. He’d caught the stormy look from his father at the table when she ordered first one glass of wine and then two more during their meal.
Jake wanted it to be one of those mornings like the ones early on when his dad would leave the radio off and talk. He wanted his dad to make it easy to ask questions, even though Jake wasn’t sure exactly what to ask. But as soon as they got in the car, on came the radio and the host’s strident, accusatory voice blasted them for the whole ride.
Rabbi Miriam came to her door holding a shoebox and looking solemn.
“It’s Suki,” she said. “She’s sick.”
Jake stroked Suki’s fur. He felt his father behind him and felt, rather than saw, the exchange between the two adults.
“What’s the matter with her?” Jake asked.
“It’s a respiratory infection. She’s on antibiotics, but they don’t seem to be helping.”
“That’s a shame,” Jake’s father said. Jake felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, two taps as his father backed away toward the door. “Have a good session. I’ll see you at noon.”
“I think Suki might feel better if you held her on your lap,” the rabbi said. “Do you mind?”
Jake sat and the rabbi gently set the rat and her cushion on his lap. Now, in the quiet of the house, Jake could hear the rough, quick rattle of Suki’s breathing. She didn’t wriggle under his finger as she usually did when he rubbed behind her ears.
“Is she going to be okay?” he asked.
“We’ll have to see,” Rabbi Miriam said.
Jake thought about Suki all day Sunday. It was amazing that such a tiny thing—the rat couldn’t have weighed more than a pound—could take up so much space in his head. He even had trouble concentrating on Farlands. He let a Teruvian Brine Snake sting him and had to retreat to his home world to restore his health. Finally, he logged out and sat staring at the game’s home page where a clever digital artist had arranged many of the creatures that populated Farlands—scaly, lumpy, graceful, awkward—behind fantastical trees veiled in nodding vines.
* * *
The morning of Jake’s Bar Mitzvah held none of the anticipation of a birthday morning. It felt more like the morning of a big test and a distant cousin’s wedding rolled into one. Jake’s mother came into his room before the sun was up and sat on his bed. He was already awake but pretended not to be, sneaking looks at her from between quivering eyelids. He thought how much better he liked this mother, the un-made-up one, than the one who waltzed around the house in her fancy shoes getting ready for work or the one who scowled and sulked through a birthday dinner.
She sat for what seemed like a long time before she jostled his shoulder. “Jakie, it’s time to get up. You said you wanted to take a shower, remember?”
“Mmmffff.” He rolled away from her and buried his head in the pillow. “In a minute,” he said. He felt the slight rebound of the mattress when she got up. Jake rolled back and saw his mother had pulled the door almost all the way closed, as she always did, so she could hear when he got up and shut it the rest of the way. He wished he had said something more to her, but he couldn’t think of what.
He got out of bed, showered, and began the construction of Jake the Bar Mitzvah Boy. He pulled on the rented tuxedo pants and ruffled shirt, the black ribbed dress socks that imprinted his ankles with their cruel elastic. His mother helped him with the bow tie and the cummerbund.
“Isn’t that a funny word?” she asked, fiddling with the clasp behind his back. But by this time she was his made-up mother and he didn’t respond.
* * *
The ceremony was over. The DJ had started playing songs while the waiters passed appetizers. The songs were from the seventies and eighties, nothing Jake and his friends knew. Jake couldn’t hear the music anyway; he was hidden in the coat-room among scratchy wool arms and slippery silk shawls, surrounded by the smell of perfume and mothballs, holding Helen’s hand.
Jake had loosened his cummerbund and all the tension of the last months and weeks and days and hours seemed to have drained onto the floor of the coat check room. Never mind his parents or what they were up to. They could go ahead and do it, the Big D, just like some of his friends’ parents had, leaving the kids dangling in the chasm rent by the divorce. Go ahead. Jake didn’t care. All his senses now concentrated on Helen and the sweaty tingling of his palm where it touched hers. This felt better even than the thrill he got from a well-aimed shot to an Araxian beast’s soft spot. The fingers of his other hand rested on a different soft spot, the place on Helen’s neck where it started into the curve that became her shoulder. The spot was partly covered by her hair, which smelled of Herbal Essences.
The rabbi’s voice came to them muffled by the coats. Jake’s hand froze. Looking into Helen’s widened eyes, Jake seemed to feel an invisible energy connecting his pupils to hers. It reminded him of the beam from the headlamp his Farlands avatar wore to light the path through the Myolesian Caves.
Then Jake blinked and backed out of the line of over-garments that hid Helen.
“I was looking for my Dad’s coat,” he said. He prayed the rabbi wouldn’t glance down to see a pair of legs and shoes that ought not to have been hanging with the coats.
The rabbi leaned on the counter in front of the coat check. Her face looked tired, like his mother’s un-made-up face, and older than he remembered, with lines around her mouth and a wrinkle on her forehead between her eyes. Jake moved out from behind the counter and stood beside her.
“I can’t find it,” he said.
The rabbi settled her arm around Jake’s shoulders. He felt the softness of her body and smelled her perfume, something sharp and rosy. She let him go. “Feel like getting some air?”
Jake gave a single, helpless glance back to the coat check and followed the rabbi out the restaurant’s side door into an alley that smelled of garbage.
“This wasn’t the kind of air I had in mind.” Rabbi Miriam laughed. “I just wanted to say you did a beautiful job today. You’re quite a young man.”
The rabbi leaned against the wall of the restaurant and looked up at the darkening sky. Jake leaned back and looked up with her. A sliver of moon hung enticingly just above the roof of the building across the alley. He liked how the rabbi never seemed to say more than was necessary. His mother, for example, would have added whole paragraphs on to the rabbi’s three sentences.
He heard Rabbi Miriam take a deep breath.
“I didn’t want to tell you earlier,” she said. “I didn’t want to distract you. Suki—”
She didn’t have to finish. Jake nodded, looking down at his shiny shoes sticking out from under the cuffs of his dress pants. Why did all the awful words begin with D? He was leaning against the wall but felt as if he was falling backwards. He brought his hand up to his face. His skin smelled sweet, like Helen’s shampoo. Snot leaked onto his fist.
Rabbi Miriam kept to herself against the wall until Jake was ready to go back inside. Then she offered her flower-print handkerchief and Jake blew his nose in the rose-scented silk like some kind of damn sissy, or maybe some kind of hero.
Audrey Kalman has been writing and editing professionally for more than 35 years. She has published short stories, poetry, and flash fiction, as well as the literary novel “Dance of Souls.” Her short fiction has appeared in “Fault Zone,” “Every Day Fiction,” “Punchnel’s,” and “The Sand Hill Review.” In 2013 she became of the Fault Zone anthology series, of which she is currently editing the 2014 edition. She lives in northern California and is at work on another novel and a collection of short stories. www.audreykalman.com