Authors: Una LaMarche
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
here’s a story my mother tells about the night my grandmother got lifted up by the wind. After the first time I heard it, when I was about four, I would demand it constantly, sometimes every night. And so my mother would crouch beside my bed and tell it over and over: How the sky darkened over the beach house where she was honeymooning with her new husband, my zeidy. How the winds blew so hard that their clothes flew off the line, the freshly laundered shirts swirling in the air like a flight of doves. How my grandmother, Deborah, after whom I was named, ran down the wooden steps to the beach to collect them, and how, moments later, my zeidy saw her rise up, her skirt billowing under her like a parachute, and float ten feet before falling into a heap in the dunes. According to the story she ran back up to the house laughing and told him that she had finally learned how to fly.
Storms like this always make me think of her.
From my white-knuckled perch on this sticky gray hospital waiting room seat, I can see rain hitting the window in violent sheets, as if someone has turned on a fire hose and then left it to whip and twist on the sidewalk like an angry snake. It’s another hurricane, and a bad one—the kind that sends people to the supermarket in a frenzy to buy up all the batteries and bottled water, or out of the city completely, piling into cars to escape in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the musty futons of their luckier, inland relatives.
Just this morning my oldest brother, Isaac the Know-it-all (not his given name, but might as well be), informed us that the mayor had begun to issue evacuation orders in the zones closest to the rivers, that the bridges and tunnels are already shutting down, and that the subways will stop running tonight. In fact, there’s a television about ten feet from me, bolted into the wall above the sparse rack of coffee-stained magazines, that’s proving Isaac right. It’s tuned to a barely audible static, but I can still hear news anchors rattling off updates and lists of precautions in their calming, accentless voices. I desperately want to know what’s happening, to see it for myself from some other angle than this suffocating, antiseptic room I’m trapped in, but I can’t—I
—bring myself to look up at the screen. To break the rules now would surely bring bad luck, which I can’t afford on a day that has already brought so much.
About an hour ago they turned off the air conditioning in the waiting rooms, to preserve power for the patients, and without the drone of the fans I can hear every tiny sound as if it’s coming through a loudspeaker. Across from me, on an identical bank of scratched plastic chairs, two preteen girls in tank tops and jean shorts are tapping furiously on phones despite the sign hanging above their heads that expressly forbids it. Their bare legs squeak sweatily against the seats as they shift, pulling their brown knees up to their chests and revealing rows of bright toenails in flip-flops worn down so much they look as thin as film in some places. They have a short, muscular maybe-much-older-brother-maybe-very-young-father who has been intermittently wandering back to check on them, wiping sweat from his furrowed brow and assuring them that someone named Crystal is “killing it,” but otherwise their eyes stay trained on their tiny screens, and I wonder idly if they even notice I’m there.
An idle mind is the devil’s workshop
, I think—Zeidy’s favorite admonishment when he catches one of us daydreaming, delivered with a wink and a tug on the earlobe—and feel an uncontrollable giggle rising in my throat. I curl my fingers more tightly around my chair and look past the girls, back to my window, which is now being reinforced with fat Xs of thick red duct tape by a janitor in a mud-colored jumpsuit. He finishes just as a tremendous gust of wind claps against the side of the building, sending the lights flickering and the nurses rushing every which way to check on the medical equipment, and for a minute I can’t breathe. Finally, my lungs release and the sharp, hot air comes rushing in and I squeeze my eyes shut and start reciting chapter 20 of Psalms, the prayer for times of trouble, as fast as I can. From the sudden break in button-pushing I can tell that the cell phone girls are looking at me, but for now I don’t care. Only one thing matters tonight, and that is to keep Rose and the baby safe.
My sister wasn’t due until October, but her water broke this morning—seven weeks early on the last Thursday of a record-breakingly hot August—as I was helping her inventory plastic utensils at our family’s paper goods store, which is my penance from June through September for not having anywhere better to be, like school or camp or a Birthright Israel tour. Maybe the baby was just trying to cure the mind-numbing boredom of counting variety packs of forks, but he-or-she gave us a terrible scare. Rose screamed and turned white, I fell and knocked over two cases of bar mitzvah–themed cake plates, and my hands were shaking so badly I had to get Daniel, who works at the bakery next door, to call first a taxi and then Rose’s husband, Jacob. And as if it wasn’t dramatic enough that Rose went into spontaneous labor two months too soon, this misfortune also happened to fall on the one day that both of our parents were upstate in Monsey visiting my aunt Varda, who recently had a bunionectomy but doesn’t have anyone to take care of her since her husband died last year (they don’t have any kids, but we don’t talk about that; my mother, who bore seven children by the age of thirty-two and would have happily had more if she hadn’t suffered a prolapse after my youngest sister, Miri, refers to infertility as her sister’s “curse”). My mother is understandably beside herself with worry, but there’s no getting into the city tonight since the bridges and tunnels are shutting down, and so, as the next eldest daughter, I am the one who has to hold court at the hospital, making sure my sister is well taken care of. Well, me and Jacob. But he’s not much help, unsurprisingly.
As if on cue, my brother-in-law comes stomping around the corner, returning from the cafeteria clutching a paper cup of coffee. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s too flustered to remember that I asked him to get me a ginger ale. His pale skin is flushed and damp, sweat is literally dripping from the borderline where his fedora meets his forehead, and his reddish-brown beard, which perfectly matches his dark, thickly lashed doe eyes, is curling from the heat. Jacob is sort of cute—when they were first introduced, Rose breathlessly announced to me and our sisters that he looked just like someone named Josh Groban—but right now he looks small and tired, shriveled inside his heavy suit. I want to tell him to take off his hat and jacket, to go splash some water on his face, but I know better. Jacob was raised in an extremely strict Hasidic family and prides himself on his piety. Compared to him, even I can’t measure up. And I get straight As, always dress properly, never break curfew, and am so unfailingly obedient that my best friend, Shoshana, likes to joke that I should change my initials from DFB—Devorah Frayda Blum—to FFB, short for “
from birth,” which is basically the Yiddish equivalent of “hopeless goody two-shoes.” My parents, of course, are thrilled with the virtuous daughter they’ve raised, but as their expectations rise, mine lower. Because the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. And as it rages outside I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the eye of the storm.
“Devorah!” Jacob groans, in the sour tone he always uses when he says my name. “What are you still doing out here? Why aren’t you in the room with her?” Then he flops into a chair two seats away from mine.
the news crackles.
“Watch for signs of disturbance.”
I’ve been disturbed by Jacob ever since I met him. And I don’t mean that he’s evil or sick or anything, because he’s not—he’s not interesting enough to be either of those things. It’s just that he’s so . . . morally superior. He’s a member of the Shomrim, which is only a volunteer neighborhood-watch group that’ll pretty much take anyone, but to hear Jacob talk about it you would think he was a police lieutenant. He talks down to everyone except my father, and even though they’re married he treats Rose with only marginally less disgust than he reserves for me. Ever since they were matched up by the
last year, my sister has been a different person. Growing up, she had a wild side. She was the one who stored fashion magazines in her school notebooks and used Scotch Tape to imperceptibly raise her hemline when our neighbors’ cute son came over for Shabbos dinner. She’s always been the family peacemaker—and in a family of ten, counting Zeidy, voices are raised, oh, about every five seconds—but she was never meek until she met Jacob. Now sometimes I sit and watch them, him with his stern looks, her with her head bowed reverently, and wish I could speak up for her. Tonight I guess I
her voice, in a way, but the awful circumstances rob the role of any satisfaction.
“She’s sleeping,” I say finally, trying to keep my voice even. “She needs to rest. When she wakes up they’re going to give her Pitocin if she hasn’t dilated.” Jacob bristles; I know he is against the use of any drugs, but since Rose’s delivery is premature it’s out of his hands. So far he has been nothing but cold to the doctor, a tall redheaded woman with kind, crinkly brown eyes behind bright turquoise-framed glasses (which Jacob says brands her “a hippie idiot” but which I think are pretty) and the incredibly goyim last name of MacManus. In keeping with the luck of the day, Rose’s midwife, not expecting any complications like this, is on vacation in Seattle until next week. “The baby is stable so far,” I assure him. “But the doctor says they need to get him out by midnight.” Part of me can’t help but feel angry at Jacob for not knowing this already—if it were
husband, I would want him by my side the whole time, holding my hand. Of course I know it’s not allowed; since Rose started bleeding after her water broke, she’s now subject to the laws of
, which means that Jacob can’t be with her for the birth. But still, he could act like he cares at least a little.
“Him? It’s a boy?” Jacob breaks into a wide grin, looking for a split second like the nineteen-year-old rabbinical student he is, and not the cranky old man he seems hell-bent on becoming.
“Oh, no . . .” I stare down at my shoes, studying the flares of fluorescent light reflected in the shiny black leather. “I’m sorry. I just chose a pronoun at random. We don’t know yet.”
Jacob’s smile disappears, and he takes a gulp of coffee. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he snaps.
I hope for the baby’s sake that he
a boy. I can’t imagine having to grow up with Jacob for a father. He’d probably make me wear skirts down to my ankles, or maybe a bag over my head. This time I can’t suppress the giggle, and he glares at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say again once I’ve recovered. “But I’m scared, too.” For a second Jacob’s eyes soften, and I allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, this could turn into some kind of bonding moment for us (something that, despite my dislike of him, I’ve prayed for many times). I know that the laws of
mean that we wouldn’t even be allowed to sit together talking if the cell phone girls and the janitor and the doctors and nurses weren’t around to keep watch. But being the only witnesses to Rose’s premature labor, on the night of a crazy storm, might just be the kind of seismic event that could bring two very different people together . . . right? I look up at my brother-in-law hopefully, practicing my very best compassionate smile, when his face darkens and he makes a short, sharp clucking sound with his tongue.
“I’m not scared, I’m
,” he mutters, and pulls his hat down over his eyes. So much for that.
• • •
Jacob is snoring softly by the time the night nurse comes over to tell me that Rose is awake and asking for me. I get up and feel the sweat pooling under my tights, running down the backs of my knees. Just a few minutes ago the cell phone girls left, their bare thighs unsticking from the plastic seats with a series of satisfying thwacking noises. What I wouldn’t give to feel the air against my bare skin right now. What I wouldn’t give to make those thwacks. But for me, that’s as silly a fantasy as planning a vacation to the moon, so I banish the thought from my head as I peek into Rose’s room, stomping my feet a little to get the blood moving in my legs again. My skirt—a lightweight summer wool that actually seemed pretty stylish when we bought it at Macy’s in May, before my mother made the tailor on Troy Avenue let it out by three inches until it billowed around me like a Hefty bag—feels like it weighs ten pounds, and even though I know it’s horrible, I feel a little bit jealous when I see Rose reclining in her paper hospital gown, the long, thick hair of her dark brunette wig arranged prettily on the pillow, chewing on an ice cube. I wonder if she would let me have one to stick in my blouse.
“How are you?” I ask, squeezing her free hand. It’s cool and bloodless, although the monitor assures me that her pulse is seventy-one beats per minute. Rose smiles weakly and rubs her belly, which rises like a boulder under the thin white sheet. It’s not at all uncommon for Chabad-Lubavitch girls to be married and have babies at eighteen, but now that it’s my own sister it feels much too soon. That will be me in two years, and I know there’s no
I’ll be ready for any of that, no matter how many times my mother likes to tell me that I’d be surprised how quickly the heart can change. Rose and Jacob met just twice before they got engaged. Their wedding was eleven months ago.
First comes marriage, then comes love
goes the schoolyard nursery rhyme in my neighborhood.
“I’m okay,” Rose says. “But hungry.” She leans forward conspiratorially. “Want to sneak me some M&M’s from the vending machine?” I know she’s kidding; she’s not allowed to eat, and even if she were, M&M’s aren’t acceptably kosher. I’m glad that my sister is letting a bit of her old self shine through—I’m sure she never lets her husband see her eyebrows raised like this, or the flash of delighted mischief winking in her cheeks like dimples—but she knows that when it comes to contraband, I am the wrong person to ask for help. My allergy to rule-breaking is a running joke, so much so that my younger brother Amos likes to pester me with hypothetical questions every Saturday: “Devorah, what if you won a billion dollars and you had to claim it today, but you could only get it if you used the blender?”