In this novel, recommended by book critic Alan Cheuse on All Things Considered, Melissa Bank charts one woman's search for identity and love over 25 years.
Excerpt: Chapter One, Boss of the World
You could tell it was going to be a perfect beach day, maybe the best one all summer, maybe the last one of our vacation, and we were going to spend it at my cousin's bat mitzvah in Chappaqua, New York. My mother had weeks ago gone over exactly what my brothers and I would wear; now, suddenly, she worried that my dress, bought particularly for this event, wasn't dressed-up enough. She despaired at the light cotton, no longer seeing the tiny, hand-embroidered blue flowers she'd been so charmed by in the store. She said the dress looked "peasanty," which was what I liked about it. Maybe tights would help, she said; did I have tights? "No," I said, and my face added, Why would I bring tights to the seashore? When she said that we could pick some up on the way to Chappaqua, I reminded her that the only shoes I had with me were the sandals I had on. I said, "They'll look great with tights."
"You don't have any other shoes?"
"Flip-flops," I said. "Sneakers."
My older brother came to my door. "Dad says we have to go."
She turned to Jack now and said, "Is your jacket small?"
If it was, I didn't see it, but my mother had already worked herself up into what she called a tizzy. "How is it possible for a person to outgrow a suit in a matter of weeks?" she wondered aloud, as though we had an unsolvable mystery or a miracle before us, instead of the result of Jack lifting weights and running all summer. He'd lost his blubber and added muscles where once there had been none; about once a day I'd put my hand around his bicep, and he'd flex it for me.
My father appeared in my doorway. "Just unbutton the jacket," he said.
Jack did, and my mother said a small, "Oh."
Then my father said, "Let's go," meaning, We are going now.
We followed our leader out to the driveway.
My little brother, Robert, was already in the station wagon, reading All About Bats, in his irreproachable seersucker suit. Beside him, our standard poodle sat tall and regal, facing the windshield as though anticipating the scenery to come.
When my mother tried to coax the dog out of the car, Robert said, "He wants to come with us."
"The dog will be more comfortable here," she said.
I thought, We'd all be more comfortable here.
Robert said, "Please don't call Albert 'the dog.'"
My father said, "Never mind, Joyce," and my mother said, "Fine," in the tone of, I give up.
I was about to get in the car when she said, "You're not wearing a slip." I'd decided slips were a pointless formality, like the white gloves my mother had finally given up asking me to wear. But she said, "You can see right through."
I was horrified: All I had on were white underpants. "You can?"
Robert said, "Just in the sun," and I relaxed; bat mitzvahs were seldom held alfresco.
My father said, "Everybody in the car."
I sat in the way back of the station wagon with Albert, farthest from my mother's tizzy and my father's irritation, though I would also be farthest from the air-conditioning, which would be turned on once my mother realized the wind was messing up her hair.
Until then, my brothers rolled their windows down all the way, and Albert and I caught what breeze we could.
I had to close my eyes when we drove by the parking lot for the beach, but Robert turned full around at the tennis courts.
"Dad?" he said. "If we get home early enough, will you hit with me?"
I could hear the effort it took for my father to make his voice gentle: "We won't get home early enough."
Robert said, "But if we do?"
"If we do," my father said, "I would be delighted to play with you."
Robert was just going into fifth grade and would probably be the smallest boy in his class again, but he was almost as good a tennis player as my father. Robert ran for every shot, no matter how hopelessly high or unhittably hard; he was as consistent as a backboard. At the courts, he'd play with anyone who asked—the lacquered ladies who needed a fourth, the stubby surgeon who kept a lit cigarette gritted between his teeth, the little girl who got distracted by butterflies.
On the Garden State Parkway, nobody spoke. My parents were miserable, probably because they'd agreed not to smoke in the car. Robert was miserable because they were, though he was the reason they weren't smoking. He was always begging them to quit, and they half pretended they had.
I was miserable because we were rushing toward the boredom only a bat mitzvah could bring.
Jack seemed oblivious; he was looking out the window. Maybe he was imagining himself away at college, which he and my father talked about nonstop. Whenever I reminded Jack that it was a whole year away, he'd say how fast it would go; I'd say, "How do you know?" a question apparently undeserving of a reply.
Rebecca, whose bat mitzvah we were going to celebrate, was hardly even related to me. Our mothers were distant cousins who'd learned to walk on the same street of row houses in West Philadelphia, and then when their families had moved to the suburbs, the cousins had gone to the same private school, camp, and college. I'd seen pictures of them as babies in sun bonnets in Atlantic City, as girls in plaid shorts in the Adirondacks, as young women in sunglasses in Paris. Both were petite, both had dark hair, and my mother said that both had gotten too thin during their phase of Jackie Onassis worship.
In my opinion, Aunt Nora still was, and Rebecca was even thinner. She was a ballerina and kept her shoulders back too far and her head up too high; she would sometimes swoop into ballet jumps out of nowhere — when the four of us were trying to find the car in a parking lot, for example.
That winter she'd been the understudy for Clara in The Nutcracker Suite in New York City, and my mother had insisted we go. I said, "In case the real Clara breaks her leg?"
"We're going because it'll be fun," she said. "It's an enormous honor for Rebecca to be in the ballet."
"She's not in it," I said.
During the ballet I tried to be open-minded, but it made no sense to me; it seemed as likely for a girl to dance with a nutcracker as with a corkscrew or an egg beater.
During lunch, when Aunt Nora asked how I'd liked the performance, I said, "It wasn't my cup of tea," a phrase my mother had instructed me to use in place of yuck but which now seemed to affect Aunt Nora as my yucks had my mother.
Flustered, I told Rebecca that I was sure the ballet would have been better if she'd been in it, and added a sympathetic, "I'm sorry you weren't picked."
I didn't realize my mistake until Rebecca scowled. Aunt Nora gave my mother a look, which was the same as talking about me while I was there.
On the train back to Philadelphia, my mother pretended that the four of us had enjoyed a splendid afternoon. She admired how thin and delicate Rebecca was. "Like a long-stemmed rose," she said.
I said, "She's more like a long piece of hair with hair."
I expected my mother to be angry, but instead she seemed almost glad — not that she said so. What she said was, "You might become friends when you're older."
I said, "I don't think so."
"Why not, puss?"
I shrugged. I told her that Rebecca had turned down a piece of gum I'd offered by saying, "I don't chew gum — it's not ladylike."
My mother saw nothing wrong with this; it was something she herself might've said. She repeated a ditty from her early life with Aunt Nora: "We don't smoke and we don't chew, and we don't go with boys who do."
My mother told the same stories over and over—maybe twenty-five in all; if you added them up, there were only about two hours of her life that she wanted me to know about.
At a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, we stretched our legs until my mother returned from the ladies' room.
When she did, Robert said, "You look great, Mom."
She did look great. The day before, she'd driven herself to Philadelphia to have her hair professionally colored, a wise decision, as her hair had turned orangey in the sun.
Back in the car, my father said he liked her dress, a mod print in yellow and pink.
I said, "It's a designer dress," which was what my mother had told me.
Now that the trouble seemed to have passed and the air-conditioning was on, I considered asking Robert to trade places with me.
My father, who could be what my mother called a reverse snob, said that all dresses were designer dresses; someone had designed them.
"Not Pucci," my mother said in a haughty voice.
"Ah," my father said, "putting on the dog," which was supposed to be a joke, but she didn't laugh.
I stayed where I was. I patted Albert's fleecy black coat. Looking into his sad eyes, I said, "I know just how you feel."
We were on the exit ramp for Chappaqua when my mother turned around and smiled in a way that had nothing to do with happiness. It was her way of saying, Smile, without risking the opposite, at least from me.
Before we walked into the synagogue, she said, "I'm so proud of all of you," like she was making a commercial about our family.
This synagogue was about twice as big as the one we went to, and the service seemed ten times as long, as it was almost entirely in Hebrew, a language I did not speak.
Finally Rebecca went to the podium, her toes pointed out. She seemed glad to be up there, in her chiffony pink dress, white tights, and black Mary Janes. She wore her hair back in a looped braid tied with a pink satin ribbon, though she might as well have been wearing a halo the way my mother gazed up at her.
For a second Rebecca looked out at the audience, at her family and her friends and her family's friends and all of the religious fanatics who had chosen to spend the most beautiful day of the entire summer inside. It occurred to me that she saw us as her public, and maybe she wished she could dance the part of Clara that she'd worked so hard to learn.
Then she looked down at the Torah the rabbi had ceremoniously undressed and unscrolled, and she began to read aloud. I kept thinking that she would have to stop soon, but I was wrong about that. She seemed to be reading the entire Torah up there.
Maybe she'd learned how to pronounce the Hebrew words, but you could tell she had no idea what they meant. She read with zero expression, as though reciting the Hebrew translation of a phone book or soup label, the only semblance of an intonation a pause at the end of a listing or ingredient.
In contrast, my mother, who was no more fluent in Hebrew than I, appeared utterly enthralled; she even nodded occasionally as though finding this or that passage especially insightful and moving.
Hebrew comprehension wasn't the only thing my mother was faking. When I pulled her wrist over to look at her watch and made a face that signified, I'm dying, she posed her mouth in a smile. Then she held my hand as though we were in love.
I couldn't see my father, but I thought he probably liked how long the service was. He'd become more religious since his own father had died. Before, my father had only gone to services on the major holidays with us, but now he sometimes went on Friday nights, too. He walked, as the Orthodox did, even though he was heading toward our Reform synagogue, the least religious one possible. Usually my mother went with him, but one night he'd gone alone. I'd watched him from my window, and it was strange to see him walking down our suburban street by himself.
I was so relieved when the service was over that I let my mother kiss me. Then it was time to go downstairs to what was called a luncheon instead of lunch.
The catering hall was decorated with pink drapes, pink carpeting, and pink tablecloths; a pink tutu encircled each centerpiece of pink roses. Even the air seemed pink.
My mother found the pink place card with my name and table number; she announced that I was sitting with Rebecca and the other twelve- and thirteen-year-olds at table #13, as in, Great news! Like most adults, my mother seemed to believe that a nearby birth date was all kids required for instant friendship.
I told her that I hoped she got to sit with the other forty-one- and forty-two-year-olds.
I spotted #13 at the edge of the dance floor but took my time getting there; I circled tables, pretending I didn't know where mine was. When I did sit down, Rebecca didn't even look up; I imagined her saying to her mother, Does Sophie have to sit with us?
The boy next to her resembled the boy I liked at my school, Eric Green—blond, dimples—and he must have asked who I was; I heard Rebecca say the words My cousin, while her tone said, Nobody.
The bandleader called Rebecca's grandparents up to the stage to say the blessing over the candles; he said, "Put your hands together for Grandpa Nathan," while the band played "Light My Fire."
I felt free to eat my roll.
Then a girl wearing a gold necklace that spelled Alyssa in script said, "Where are you from?"
"Surrey, Pennsylvania," I said. "It's outside of Philadelphia."
"I've been to the Pennsylvania Dutch country," she said. "You know, the Amish?"
I'd been there, too, and was about to say so, but she turned away from me, as though living in Pennsylvania instead of New York made me less like her than the somber people whose beliefs forbade the driving of cars and the wearing of zippers.
To the table at large, Alyssa said, "Who's going to Lori's bat mitzvah?"
I felt a pang that I hadn't been invited to the bat mitzvah of a girl I didn't even know.
I was wishing I could get up and leave, but a second later there was no need; the band went from "Hava Nagila" to "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog," and everybody at my table got up to dance. I saw that all the girls were wearing tights; they probably had slips on, too.
I ate my chicken and watched the dance floor.
You could tell Rebecca saw herself as the belle of the bat mitzvah, but the grace that served her so well in ballet deserted her at rock 'n' roll. Maybe she wasn't used to dancing with her heels on the ground; she marched like a majorette in a parade or, it occurred to me, like the nutcracker in The Nutcracker.
The boy who looked like Eric Green danced like him, too; he barely did anything except jerk his overgrown bangs out of his eyes and mouth the occasional phrase, such as, "Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea."
He stayed in one spot while Alyssa go-go danced around him. I studied her, trying to memorize the way she shimmied and swiveled; then I remembered that I'd tried moves like these in front of the mirror in my parents' bedroom and discovered the huge gap between how I wanted to look when I danced and how I actually did look.
I got up to visit my brothers. But Robert was performing his disappearing-nickel trick for the children's table, and Jack was sitting between two girls. One with wavy hair and glasses was making him laugh, and the other, very pretty, was jiggling one high heel to the music. I wished that for once he would like the funny one, but as I stood there I saw him ask the other girl to dance.
I almost bumped into Aunt Nora greeting guests at the eighty-plus table. She wore a pale blue sleeveless dress and her hair up in a bun plus bangs. It seemed possible that she was trying to look like Audrey Hepburn, and she did a little; both gave the impression of fragility, though Aunt Nora's seemed to come from tension and Audrey's from innocence.
Aunt Nora made a kissing sound and squeezed my shoulder, which felt less like affection than a fact — not, I like you, but, You are the daughter of an old friend.
I knew there was some appropriate thing my mother wanted me to say, but I couldn't remember what and just offered the standard, "Thank you for having me."
She said, "Thank you for coming," which came out cubbing; Aunt Nora suffered from allergies.
I said, "You're welcome," and asked where my parents were sitting; she pointed.
As a judge, my father was an expert at making his face blank, but I could tell he didn't like the man who was talking to him. I cruised right over.
I heard the man say, "Am I right, or am I right?" and then my father noticed me and excused himself from their conversation.
In a low voice, he said, "How's it going?"
"Bad," I told him. "Very bad."
He stood up and put his arm around my shoulders; he walked me away from the table and said, "Want to dance?"
The band was playing "The Impossible Dream"; I said, "This one's kind of schmaltzy."
He said, "Do you know what schmaltz is?"
"I thought I did."
"Chicken fat," he said. He told me that people spread it on bread, and we needed to go to a Jewish restaurant so I could try some.
I said, "Could we go right now?"
He took my hand, and I let him move me around to the chicken-fatty music.
Back at the table, he told me to take his chair and went off to find another, leaving me between Mr. Am-I-Right? and the actress my mother had become.
"Hel-lo," she said, with the two-beat singsong of a doorbell. To the table, she said, "This is my daughter, Sophie."
"Hi," I said.
My mother said, "Are you having a good time?"
I said, "I am having a great time," and then just loud enough for her: "Everyone is more dressed up than I am."
Her smile disappeared, my goal.
She didn't realize that I was kidding until I suggested we drive around and look for tights.
My dad pulled up a chair, and he and I sat very close.
I asked if he was finished with his lunch.
He said, "Go ahead, sweetheart."
I snuck what was left of my father's chicken into a napkin when Aunt Nora came to the table and got everyone's attention: Did anyone want to dance "The Hokey Pokey"? My mother did. She and Aunt Nora walked off with their arms linked.
I spotted them with Rebecca on the dance floor as I made my getaway. The bandleader was singing, "Put your right foot in, and shake it all about," and the three of them did it along with everyone else, without thinking, as I did, Why? Why would you put your right foot in and shake it all about?
In the parking lot, I let Albert out of the station wagon and poured water into his bowl. "You're feeling sorry for yourself," I said, feeding him the leftover chicken, "but you don't know how lucky you are."
I was fastening his leash when I heard a voice say, "Hey."
It was the boy who looked like Eric Green.
I said, "Hi."
"I'm Danny," he said. "You don't have a cigarette, do you?"
"Oh," I said. A bunch of girls in my grade had tried smoking at a Girl Scout overnight, but I never had. I looked around the parking lot; we were alone. I said, "There might be a pack in the glove compartment." There was. "I don't see any matches, though."
"I have matches," he said. I handed him two cigarettes, and he held one and put the other behind his ear like a pencil.
He walked with me and Albert past the cars and along the grassy edge of the parking lot. He ran his hand along the bushes. I thought of the one afternoon Eric Green had walked me home from school, his finger through my back belt loop.
Now, Danny said, "Poodles are really smart, right?"
"I can't speak for the whole breed," I said, "but Albert is a genius."
"Can he do tricks?"
"Tricks are beneath him." I said that he'd been named for both Albert Einstein (Robert's hero) and Albert Camus (Jack's).
The sun was glinting off the cars, and in the bright light I saw that this boy looked less like Eric Green than I'd thought. It occurred to me that Danny was older, and I was right.
He told me that he was in eighth grade and his private school had already started. It always started early, he said bitterly, adding that he'd had to miss the last day of hockey camp.
I almost said, That's too bad, but it sounded like gloating.
As we walked, the bushes thinned out, and you could see a field on the other side. At a large gap, there was a path and Danny said, "You want to ...?" and I said, "Okay."
He took Albert's leash and cut through first. Then he reached his hand out for me. I took it, and he steadied me so I wouldn't slide down the hill, which was more mud than grass.
He said, "You okay?"
He seemed reluctant to let go of my hand, and when he looked at me, everything tingled — not the tiny on-and-off sparks of a foot falling asleep but single and continuous like flying in a dream.
The grass had been mashed down into a path. What had looked like a beautiful field turned out to be a vacant lot; a ratty blanket and rusted beer cans surrounded the ashes and burned sticks of an old campfire. Even so, the sun was lighting up the trees and the weeds with yellow flowers. There was the buzzing hum of insects in unison, loud and then quiet.
Danny lit his cigarette and said, "I can't believe summer's over," and I heard in his voice what I knew I'd feel in another week when my school started; it made summer seem less real now.
Danny blew a smoke ring. "Are you going out with anybody?"
I thought again about Eric Green, who had stopped talking to me. "Not at the moment."
At my feet, Albert was sniffing at what looked like a big finger of the flesh-colored gloves Jack wore while dissecting sharks in the basement.
I could feel Danny's eyes on me, and though we were in the shade, I thought of Robert saying that my dress was see-through in the sun. I suddenly felt queasy and nervous. "We should get back."
He didn't move; maybe he was hoping I'd change my mind. He used his first cigarette to light his second.
I got my voice to sound normal, but I felt the quiver underneath when I said, "Come on," to Albert.
I tried to pretend I wasn't hurrying, but I was, and Danny followed. Then we weren't on the path anymore; there wasn't a path. I was stomping down weeds. Pricker bushes were scratching my legs. Finally, I caught sight of the parking lot through the weeds. We'd wound up behind the synagogue, where only a catering truck and a maintenance van were parked.
I slowed down a little then; we walked side by side. In the distance, I could see guests leaving. A few wild children were running around while their parents talked. Rebecca's father, carrying a tutu centerpiece, was helping her grandmother into a sedan. I saw my father then; he was smoking near the station wagon.
On reflex, I crouched down behind a Cadillac, and Danny crouched with me. "That's my father," I said.
After a few minutes, Danny said, "You want me to see if he's still there?" He stood up. "What does he look like?"
"Tall," I said. "He's wearing a dark gray suit."
"I don't know."
I stood up. I didn't see my father.
Putting Albert in the station wagon, I noticed that his paws were muddy, and I wiped them with a rag.
Danny took the rag and wiped the mud off my sandals and pulled a blade of grass out from between my toes.
When he opened the door to the synagogue for me, I thought he was going to ask for my address so he could write to me, but all he said was, "Thanks for the cigarettes."
I was relieved and then disappointed.
In the hall, Alyssa rushed up to him and said, "My dad's here." She glared at me. I wondered if she was his girlfriend, or wanted to be; it was one or the other.
Danny didn't seem to care that she was angry. He said, "See ya," to me, and followed her out to the parking lot.
Downstairs, in the pink palace, Robert and Jack were sitting with my father at a table that had been cleared of everything, including the centerpiece.
My father said, "Let your mother know we're going, please," and I walked over to where she stood with a woman wearing a big-brimmed straw hat with a beige ribbon.
"This is my daughter, Sophie," my mom said, in her fakest voice of the day.
The woman said, "And how old are you?"
"Twelve," I said.
She cooed at this impressive accomplishment. "And when is your bat mitzvah?"
I was about to say that I wasn't having one when my mother cut in and said, "We're just planning it now."
I was shocked to hear my mother lie, but I didn't give her away. I remembered a cliché that seemed to fit: "Rebecca will be a hard act to follow."
The woman tittered, and said, "She's darling."
At the car, my mother told me to sit up front and didn't speak again until we were on the highway. "Where were you?"
"Walking Albert," I said.
"She was walking Albert," Robert repeated, in my defense.
Without turning around, my mother said, "I'm talking to Sophie, Robert." To me, she said, "You were gone for over an hour."
I was wondering what she suspected, and then I realized that she didn't suspect anything, she was just angry that I'd disappeared. "It wasn't like anyone missed my company," I said. "No one at my table would even talk to me."
She said, "That's not the point."
We passed three exits before she told me what her point was. I was a guest, she said; I was a member of this family. She kept talking, but whatever she was angry about wasn't making it into her lecture.
I knew that eventually I would have to say I was sorry, even if I didn't know why I should be and wasn't. Until I said it, my mother would go on talking and get angrier until she became tired and hurt, at which point my father would take over.
"I'm sorry," I said.
My mother kissed me. "I know you are."
It felt a little less crowded up front then. My mother said what a wonderful job Rebecca had done and then, almost to herself, said she hadn't even started to plan my bat mitzvah.
I looked at my mother. I looked at my dad. It had all been decided. I couldn't argue; I was supposed to be remorseful.
At a gas station, I climbed into the way back with Albert, where I closed my eyes and thought about Danny. I didn't remember being queasy or afraid. I remembered him taking my hand. I thought of him saying, "I can't believe summer's over," which I heard now as a declaration of love.
I came home from my first day of getting lost at Flynn Junior High to the news that I had been enrolled in the Hebrew class required of the bat-mitzvah bound. My mother was relieved; she'd been afraid we were too late, but there was room for me after all.
The topic that night at dinner was varsity football. Jack wanted to join the team. We were all surprised. He took photographs and painted pictures; he wrote stories and acted in plays; he played soccer, but only intramurally.
My parents objected — he would be too busy applying to college, they said — but Jack argued with reason and passion. For example, he said that joining the football team would demonstrate that he was well-rounded, etc., and might even strengthen his applications.
My father seemed glad to give in, and I thought now might be the right time to discuss the bat mitzvah I did not want to have. But his good mood shone down on Robert; my father suggested they hit at the public courts after dinner.
Robert got so excited that he jumped up from the table to change and was on the stairs when my mother said, "Robert?"
He stopped. "May I please be excused?"
My mother said, "Yes," and took this opportunity to ask me to get their cigarettes. She didn't like to ask in front of Robert, who regularly talked to my parents about their imminent smoking-related deaths.
They were supposedly limiting themselves to three cigarettes a day, the best and last of which they smoked together after dinner, with their coffee. They'd switched to Carlton 100s so they'd enjoy smoking less. And they kept them in the basement; the inconvenience was supposed to make them more aware of each cigarette, but I didn't see how, since the inconvenience was all mine.
I thought of this tonight and every night I went down the basement stairs and into what we still called the playroom even though we never played anything in there anymore except the rare game of Ping-Pong. The net was still up, but the table's identity was otherwise concealed beneath the junk that overwhelmed the rest of the playroom.
The cigarettes were stored in the refrigerator of my cardboard kitchen, and to get there I had to step over Jack's barbells and around boxes and books crowned with such unstackable items as an old telephone with its cord cut. Only my kitchen was left uncluttered and
intact, which made me wonder if my mother hoped that one day I'd go back to whipping up imaginary cakes and pies for her and my father.
Upstairs, everyone was out on the porch, my parents on a chaise apiece and my brothers in the love seat, leaving an armless chair for me. None of the porch furniture was comfortable, though; it was metal, and when we stood up its diamond pattern was imprinted on the backs of our thighs like fishnet stockings.
Robert had changed into whites, but the excitement he'd had about playing tennis was gone; he sat silent and grim, all of his attention on the two cigarettes I'd put on the table between my parents.
When my father reached for his, Robert closed his eyes and said, "I can't watch this." His voice was matter-of-fact, as it always was, even when he discussed his future as an orphan.
My mother said a sympathetic, "Would you like to be excused?"
He nodded and rose, leaving his chocolate pudding behind in protest, and Albert followed him inside.
My father lit my mother's cigarette and then his. As though in reverie, he held the burned match a moment before putting it in the clamshell that served as an ashtray. I watched him take another puff, and then I began. I said, "I've decided not to have a bat mitzvah."
My father turned to look at me, one hand behind his head in a futile attempt at comfort. He was used to people pleading their cases before him, and he waited for me to plead mine.
Jack seemed amused, so I tried to pretend he wasn't there. He'd become a less reliable ally over the summer, when he'd begun to see himself less as a camper than a counselor, less the oldest child than the youngest parent.
My mother glanced from me to my father. I'd been fighting with her lately as I never had before—twice that week I'd sent her down to the cardboard refrigerator—and though she'd told my father, he had yet to witness this behavior himself. It occurred to me that she hoped he would now.
I kept my voice calm. "The only reason I'd do it would be for material gain." With a pang, I thought of the stereo my parents had given Jack for his bar mitzvah. "In conclusion," I said, "this seems wrong."
My father nodded for me to go on.
I thought, Did you not hear my "in conclusion"? But I nodded myself, as though deciding which of my many powerful points to voice next. "I don't know what I believe in," I said. "So I don't think I should go up on a stage and act like I do."
Robert's voice came from behind the screen door: Softly, less to us than himself, he said, "Beema." He knew the correct term for the stage in a synagogue because, unlike Jack and me, Robert had gone to Hebrew school since kindergarten. He loved it. The only reason he wasn't going this year was that he'd been chosen to tutor fifth-graders less brilliant than himself.
We all turned to look at him, a small figure in white.
He said, "Do you know what cilia are?"
My father sighed. "We're having a conversation here, honey."
Robert had written to the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association for help, and often quoted from the brochures they'd sent. "Cilia are little hairs that keep your lungs clean," he said now. "When you smoke, you paralyze them."
My mother said, "Why don't you come out and finish your pudding?"
"Did you hear what I said?" Robert asked.
"We heard, honey," my father said and turned back to me, my
cue to continue. I thought of saying, Having a bat mitzvah represents everything I stand against. But I knew my father would say, For instance? and I hadn't prepared examples. I was working up the courage to say, My decision is final, when my mother spoke.
If she'd wanted my father to witness my defiance a moment earlier, I could see that she didn't now. "You used to love Hebrew school," she said.
I said, "That was in first grade." It was true that I'd loved my teacher, Miss Bell, and songs like "Let My People Go," and stories about jealousy; but it was also true that I'd been so little that when Miss Bell had talked about God as Our Father, I'd pictured mine.
The four of us were looking at my father now. All that was left was for him to deliver his verdict. I didn't know what he would say. He could surprise you, because he really was fair.
He said, "I'd like to talk to Sophie alone," and Jack and my mother got up and followed Robert inside.
My father's cigarette was down to the filter now, and he took the last possible puff. In his face I saw that he was sorry about that; maybe he was already thinking of all the hours that separated him from his next cigarette.
He said, "You seem to have made up your mind."
I barely managed to say, "I've given it a lot of thought."
"Have you?" he said. "It's a big decision to make on your own."
I said, "I can understand that," which didn't sound right, and I realized that I'd just repeated a phrase he often used during discussions.
He looked right at me and said, "Having a bat mitzvah is an important part of being Jewish."
In his voice I heard the unexpected magnitude of my decision: It separated me not just from my mother but from him, too, and maybe even from my brothers. I thought of the story of Moses parting the Red Sea for the Jews, and I saw my family safe on the far shore, waving as I drowned with Pharaoh's soldiers in the unparting sea.
As though underwater, I could barely hear my father's words.
He said that a bat mitzvah was a rite of passage into adulthood. "I still remember mine. I didn't like studying for it," he said. "No one does."
I thought, Robert will.
My father's voice sounded more normal when he said, "Your bat mitzvah wouldn't have to be like Rebecca's."
He kept his eyes on me. "We won't make any plans until you say so," he said. "But I'd like you to try Hebrew school."
It was more of a request than a command, and I was lulled by his respectful tone. I said, "Okay."
"Good," he said.
Another moment passed before I realized that I'd agreed to go to Hebrew school.
My mother appeared at the screen door. "Would you like a piece of fruit or anything?"
"Yes," he said. "I'd like a cushion for this goddamned chair."
"Maybe next year," she said. Then: "Robert's waiting."
My father looked at me. He said, "Are we finished, sweetheart?" and I said that we were.
My mother gave me a lift to Hebrew school. She brought Albert along to make me feel better and said that she wouldn't mind a little music, meaning that I could tune the radio to a station I liked.
I said, "Thank you anyway."
We drove in silence. The sun was still strong and the sky a summer blue, and I thought of the vacant lot and of Danny saying, "I can't believe summer's over."
We turned up the long driveway. The synagogue was pretty if I covered my left eye and just saw the old mansion part, where the offices were, and not the ugly new addition—a submarinelike tunnel of classrooms plus the actual temple with its trapezoidal stained-glass windows.
At the entrance, my mother said, "You know, Aunt Nora and I weren't allowed to have bat mitzvahs. They were just for boys."
I turned a blank eye to my mother, informing her that her words were irrelevant to me.
"Well," she said, forcing a smile, "I'll pickle you up at five-thirty."
I said my most wretched, "Good-bye."
After I closed the door, she said, "Sophie?" and for a second I thought that maybe she would say something comforting, or even, I don't want you to suffer: Let's go. Unlike my father, she was capable of reversals.
She said, "Did you want to thank me for the lift?"
The classroom was brand-new and modern, with petal-shaped desks, a skylight, and Hebrew letters in fluorescent colors tacked above the blackboard — probably an attempt to make us think that Hebrew was groovy. Instead, the room reminded me of the Muzak version of a rock song. I took the last seat in the last row so I could be closest to the door.
The teacher was writing on a pad and seemed oblivious to the dozen twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who faced him. I exchanged silent greetings with the ones I recognized from regular school, even Leslie Liebman, whose hands were folded on her desk.
The bell rang, and just when it was getting strange for the teacher not to start the class, he stood. He wrote his name on the board and faced us.
Very slowly, he said, "I am Moreh Pinkus."
I'm sure we all thought that moreh was his first name and were surprised to hear him say it to us; it wasn't until the second class that we learned that moreh meant teacher in Hebrew.
He was probably in his early thirties but seemed much older, as the very religious sometimes do. He was almost bald, which made me wonder if he'd glued his yarmulke on. He seemed to shuffle because the trousers of his suit were too long. I would have thought he was Orthodox, but he didn't have long curls in front of his ears or the beard that I thought was required.
After introducing himself, Moreh Pinkus rummaged through his briefcase for what turned out to be the attendance sheet. He read it over, and even then hesitated before speaking; it occurred to me that he didn't trust or like his voice.
He called my name first: "Applebaum, Sophie?"
"Here," I said.
He looked up at me for a long moment, so long I wondered if he'd divined how much I didn't want to be there. But he did the same with the next person and the next — calling the name, studying the face — until he said, "Muchnick, Margie?" and there was no answer.
It seemed possible that she had dropped out or was in the other class, and I hoped that she had or was. Margie Muchnick was one of the girls who lived on or around Foxrun Road — the Foxes, they were called — and though I wasn't one of their main victims, nobody was immune; they'd nicknamed me Sofa and tortured me about Eric Green.
Moreh Pinkus repeated, "Muchnick, Margie?" and she walked in and said, "Here."
Inexplicably, she sat at the desk next to mine.
Margie was short and solid, dressed in a baggy sweatshirt, jeans, and black high-tops. She had a round face and wore her red hair in two bunches, big fat frizz balls. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were almost white, and she had the yellow-brown eyes I imagined a fox might have.
I didn't acknowledge her, let alone mouth, Hi, as I had to my other un-friends. I pretended not to see her, just as I did when I ran into any of the Foxes.
There was an embarrassing silence while Moreh Pinkus waited for her to apologize for her lateness; then he looked down at the attendance sheet and read the next name.
To make up for Margie's rudeness, Leslie Liebman helped Moreh Pinkus distribute our Hebrew I textbooks.
Margie flipped through the lessons and exercises. "Fascinating," she said.
At the blackboard, Moreh Pinkus wrote out the Hebrew alphabet; slowly, slowly, slowly he said the name of each letter, pronounced the sound it made, and waited for us to repeat after him.
It was hot, and Moreh Pinkus removed his suit jacket and draped it around his chair. When he returned to the board, I saw that he'd missed a belt loop. I noticed, too, that he wore a wedding ring, and I thought it might not be a bad idea for Mrs. Pinkus to look her husband over before he left the house.
I tried to focus on Moreh Pinkus, but it was hard.
Margie pushed her sleeves up, revealing a wristful of baby bracelets — seed pearls interspersed with tiny alphabet cubes on a chain that turned your wrist green — last year's symbol of friendship. I'd lost mine in the ocean, but now, just as Moreh's wedding band revealed that he was married, my bare wrist seemed to announce that I was friendless.
I kept wishing Margie hadn't sat next to me. I wondered if it would attract too much attention for me to change desks.
She herself solved the problem. She had a coughing fit — a loud one — and you could tell it was fake. I thought that she was trying to amuse herself or to get our teacher to turn away from the board. But she was just setting up the pretext for her escape: She left the room, as though in need of water.
I felt better as soon as she'd gone. With the rest of the class, I repeated after Moreh Pinkus, but the Hebrew letters refused to enter my brain. I fell into a bored daze, which I interrupted only to check the wall clock and will its audible minute hand to tick faster.
I pretended to take notes, looking up at the board and down at my notebook, while I wrote out the words to Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." I lingered over "God said to Abraham kill me a son/Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on,'" which seemed pertinent.
It wasn't until I had to go to the bathroom that I realized how long Margie had been gone. She'll be back in a second, I thought. I wrote out all the words to "I Shall Be Released," until I was desperate to be released myself. I left the room.
Margie wasn't at the fountain or in the hallway; nobody was. To
be safe, instead of going to the bathroom two rooms up, I went to the one across the temple, all the way down the hall, past the classrooms, the lobby, and the gift shop.
I opened the door to the powder room and tried to appear calm when I saw Margie. She was sitting sideways, her legs slung over the arm of one of the fat, maroon velveteen chairs that faced the mirror. "Well hello, Sofa."
I said, "Hi, Margie," and went through the second door, to the stalls and sinks.
I planned to say nothing as I passed back through the powder room on my way out, but she said, "Can you believe this?"
Assuming that she meant the misery that was Hebrew, I said, "I know."
She said, "Do you have any candy or gum?"
She took out a pack of cigarettes and asked if I wanted one.
I hesitated, but when she handed the cigarette to me I took it, and when she lit the match I leaned forward. I imitated my mother accepting a light from my father and exhaled as she did, ceiling-ward.
Margie held her own cigarette between her teeth like a killer; she was imitating someone, too—maybe the Penguin from Batman.
It was fascinating to see myself smoke, but I forced myself to turn away from the mirror in case Margie was observing me. I kept my eyes on the wallpaper, maroon-and-silver ladies with swirls for hair, such as you would see in a Peter Max print. Then, looking at the swirly wallpaper, I felt seasick. I pretended I'd dropped an earring in the shag rug so I could put my head between my legs.
"Did you lose something?" she said.
I couldn't speak.
When I felt better, I fidgeted with my earring and sat up.
I held the Marlboro until it had burned down low enough to be considered smoked and went to throw it in the toilet.
I stood there a moment, relieved to the point of elation: I hadn't gotten caught smoking and hadn't done anything Margie could make fun of or report to the Foxes.
In the powder room, she held out her hand in what I realized was an offer or challenge to thumb wrestle. I sat down again. We clasped fingers. Our thumbs tapped out the requisite side-to-side one-two-three.
Her nimble thumb danced while mine lumbered—hers was a swashbuckler, mine a polar bear. She pinned my thumb down hard.
"Best of three," she said.
I tried to copy her fancy thumb work, but again she won.
After best of seven, I said I was going back to class, and she didn't stop me.
She herself returned at the very end, when Moreh Pinkus was writing our assignment from Hebrew I on the blackboard. He faced us and asked if we had any questions.
Without raising her hand, Margie said, "Is this homework?"
He said, "Pardon?"
"We get homework from regular school," she said. "We're not supposed to get any from you." I wondered if this was true—I hoped it was—but it seemed more likely that it was just another coughing fit.
"If you wish to learn Hebrew," he said, in his interminably slow voice, "you will need to study."
He dismissed us with a formal, "Shalom," and a few of us mumbled shy shaloms back.
Margie walked outside with me, where all our mothers waited in station wagons. When she found hers, she turned to me and said, "See you 'round, basset hound."
At dinner, my father said, "Well? Was it the torture you thought it would be?"
I said, "Worse," and was ready to elaborate. I was hoping that if I told the truth, he would say that he was glad I'd given Hebrew school a try, which was what he'd finally said about tennis.
I could tell that he was both let down and a little angry; his eyes got tired, as they did when he looked over my report cards.
Robert rescued me by describing his first day of tutoring Doug Sloane, who'd been held back two grades; Robert imagined out loud how hard that would be.
It would be impossible, I thought, because you are a genius and Doug Sloane is mentally retarded.
Jack said that Doug's older brother, who'd also been held back, was on the football team. This led to a description of a catch that Jack himself had made off of what he called "a long bomb" in practice. He drew a diagram of the play on a napkin we passed around.
My father turned back to Robert. "So you think it was wrong for Doug to be held back?"
Robert said, "I feel sorry for him."
"I can understand that," my father said. "But didn't what you learned in fourth grade prepare you for fifth?"
For a while, they debated how the educational system might best serve Doug, and then Robert turned to me. "You know Doug Sloane, right?" Robert knew I did; he was just trying to include me in the conversation.
My mother jumped in: "Does anyone have any idea how high the adult illiteracy rate in this country is?" I doubted she herself knew. Like me, my mother didn't learn facts or acquire knowledge; instead, she had feelings — insecurity about not being knowledgeable, for example.
She looked around the table; none of us knew how high the adult illiteracy rate in this country was.
She said, "Seventeen percent."
I thought, Eighty-five percent of statistics are made up on the spot.
I hardly saw Margie in regular school. Flynn Junior High was huge compared to Surrey Elementary, and we didn't have any classes together. The first time I ran into her in the hall, she said a solemn, "Shalom," and I could tell by the way her Fox friends laughed that they thought she was imitating me instead of Moreh Pinkus.
Once, during her lunch and my math period, I looked out the window and saw her sitting on the high wall in the courtyard; the rest of the Foxes were stretched out single file, sunbathing, their shirts pulled up to get their tan stomachs tanner. Margie stood and said something that sounded like, "Good-bye, cruel world," and jumped down and landed hard. None of the Foxes even sat up.