He had a gun. There was a gun in the house. A gun a gun a gun.

Yael told herself to stop it. Boaz was Tamar’s husband. Tamar was her sister. Half sister. Anyway, he could have a gun if he wanted a gun.

The gun was resting in some kind of gun holder attached to his belt. “You can hold it,” Boaz said. He was cheerful to the point almost of whistling.

“It might be better if I didn’t,” Yael said. “Who knows what I’d do with a gun.”

“Guns are safer for children than laundry detergent,” Tamar said.

“I bet,” said Yael. “Kids, right?” She had no idea of what she was saying. She just wanted to be agreeable, but the words’ meanings were slipping away from her. It was also the way she felt after too many sleeping pills.

“You look beautiful, by the way,” Yael said. “I can’t believe there was just a baby inside you.”

“Oh, stop it,” Tamar said, but she was smiling.

Yael had come to Dallas (a Jewish community on the rise! Tamar had explained on the phone, sounding disconcertingly middle-aged) for the bris. His ritual circumcision, Yael’d had to translate for her non-Jewish friends. You know how it goes, on the baby’s eighth day of being alive, we just put him on a pillow, chop some skin off his penis and chant joyously. Everything normal in Hebrew was terrible in English. Or maybe it was that everything normal in Judaism was terrible. That actually might be it.

But Tamar was Yael’s favorite of her half-siblings—the others mostly ignored her. When Tamar had called to invite Yael to Dallas for the bris, which coincided so nicely with the Thanksgiving long weekend, all Yael could think of saying was of course. She’d love to. Tamar’s son. Yael remembered when she used to babysit for Tamar, idly stuffing graham cracker after graham cracker into her mouth, occasionally doing homework, while Tamar lined up de-frocked baby dolls dressed in peach polyester non-clothing, their bald heads gleaming. Be good, Tamar used to tell the line of baby dolls. Listen and behave. Now Tamar had a real one. It was only too bad that the real husband she’d found to go with it had to have a gun.

“You’d better hurry it up if you want one of your own,” Boaz said.

It took her a second to realize he didn’t mean a gun.

“Boaz,” Tamar said.

“What?” he said. “We’re all friends here.”

Yael made herself laugh, a wheezy in and out that sounded like a donkey’s dying breath.

“See?” Boaz said. “Yael knows what I mean. So you’ve got to get on it. You and what’s his name, your…friend?”

Her “friend.” He just couldn’t bring himself to say “boyfriend” or, better yet, “the man you’ve lived with longer than I’ve lived with my wife.” Instead, he had to behave as though the thought of a man and a woman cohabitating was so far from his frame of reference it was simply unfathomable.

“His name’s Sam,” Yael said. “I don’t know that he’s the marrying type. Not like you, Boaz.”

“Well, sometimes in the secular world it takes the men a little while,” Boaz said, vaguely.

“Yael’s probably tired from the trip,” Tamar said. “I’ll show you where you’re staying.”

The bed in the guestroom had been carefully made, a mint centered on the pillow. On the nightstand, a bottle of water, a thin stack of magazines. The room reminded Yael of Tamar’s childhood dresser, where she’d kept her treasures: a package of gum, a box of mints, ponytail holders with glued-on, but falling-off, flower petals. Yael felt almost like crying. Tamar always cared too much. There was no protecting someone who cared as much as Tamar did.

“You made it just like a hotel in here,” Yael said.

“Did you see the mint?” Tamar said.

“I love it,” Yael said. “The perfect touch.”

“Boaz doesn’t mean everything he says,” Tamar said.

“I know,” Yael said.

“He keeps the gun in a safe.”

“That’s good.”

“I don’t even know the code. I asked him not to tell me. It’s just his thing. People in Dallas all have guns. Our rabbi has a gun. It’s no big deal, outside New York.”

“I get it,” Yael said.

And even though she herself had lived for a time in Wisconsin, where no one she knew had even a water gun, she did get it. Talking to Tamar, she got it. The trouble was when Tamar wasn’t there to explain it to her. Then everything went right back to being crazy.

“He feels like he has to protect himself,” Tamar said.

What else was Yael supposed to say? Yes, it’s a big, bad world out there? It’s shoot or be shot? We’re all a bunch of scrappy rapscallions living in a Western?

“He didn’t have to bring up Sam,” Tamar said.

“It’s no trouble. We can talk about Sam all day, if he wants. I’m a fan of Sam’s.”

The question that was not addressed: Well, then, where is that terrific Sam? The answer, such as it was, almost made sense, but only from a distance. Up close, it crumbled, pixilated. He was home. Home alone, just like the movie. Lost in New York.

What Tamar wouldn’t understand—what Yael herself didn’t really understand—was that Yael didn’t want to marry Sam. She’d spent her whole life, basically, wanting to get married, but now that she was with someone who wanted to marry her, have a baby with her, she found she’d changed her mind. She didn’t think she wanted to end up alone, but, who knew, maybe she actually did. She was in therapy about this. She was taking sleeping pills about this.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Tamar said.

And then came the bleating infant cry, a car alarm gathering volume and speed. Tamar stood up from the bed. “I feel like crying all the time,” Tamar said. “Is that funny?”

“Everyone feels that way,” Yael said. “Totally normal.”

She should know. She counseled women who were not totally normal, women who fantasied about throwing their infants out the window, snapping their fragile necks, pressing down on the soft spots in the back of their skulls, and then actually also did it. Or only tried to, in the best of cases. The funny thing was, to them, she was the therapist.

Boaz knocked on the door. “The baby’s crying,” he said.

* * *

Yael unpacked. She was a terrible packer, and everything was wrinkled, even the stuff she’d thought she folded well. She hung up the long-sleeved, below knee-length, collar bone-covering dress she wore to any and all Orthodox functions. It occurred to her that her Orthodox family (half family) might think she was a little homeless. Destitute, at least. What was wrong with them? Shouldn’t her step-mother pull her father aside and tell him it looked like Yael might be in need of some help, wink-wink?

She ate Tamar’s mint.

She stretched out like a starfish on the bed, wiggling her toes over the covers, jazzing her hands. The bed was just a twin, but still, there was so much space. She felt like she could wrap herself in cashmere lengths of space.

She’d promised Sam she’d call, so she called Sam.

“Put Wendy June on the horn,” she said. Wendy June was their imaginary child, their trial run, their what our life would look like if.

Most women on the wrong side of forty didn’t need imaginary children. They wanted children. What wasn’t to want? Who didn’t want love, right? Or, if they didn’t want children, they knew this, too. They liked their lives just as they were, thank you very much. They traveled. Indecision, Yael knew, was an ugly color on a woman whose pregnancy, if it even happened, would be categorized as geriatric.

But Sam understood, or said he understood. He told her he was fine with waiting. As though waiting, if the waiting went on long enough, were not itself a choice.

“Wendy June can’t come to the phone,” he said. “She’s being punished. I have her in timeout.”

“That Wendy June. What’d she do this time?”

“She refused to come to the dinner table. She’s thankful for nothing, she said.”

“Not even turkey?”

“Not even yams.”

“She’s acting out,” Yael said. “Probably misses her mom.”

“Still, that’s no excuse. She’s supposed to start first grade soon, you know.”

“There’s a strict no-nut policy at the school,” Yael said. “So we’ll have to be careful when we buy her snacks. And we have to remember school supplies. Did you get the list from her new teacher?”

“Already on the refrigerator,” Sam said. “Glue sticks, markers and scissors. I can’t believe we’re paying 20,000 a year for her to do art projects. Isn’t first grade supposed to be serious?”

“Everyone’s all about the coddling these days. But our Wendy June deserves the best, don’t you think?”

“I only wish she weren’t so spoiled,” Sam said.

“I know it,” Yael said. “We’ve got to start doing a better job. She’s not a baby anymore. Six years old is a big girl.”

“Time really flies,” Sam said.

Only a few weeks ago, Wendy June had been an infant. But an imaginary infant was like having an imaginary housefly. There wasn’t much to work with. So time had zipped ahead, and here they were, the proud parents of an almost-first-grader.

“She has a uniform this year. And the lice check. So you might want to get that taken care of before I get back.”

“How’s Wendy June’s new cousin?”

“Half cousin. He reminds me of Wendy June when she was born. It feels like only weeks ago.”

“Time really flies,” Sam said.

“You said that already.”

“What?”

“You already used that line.”

Just like that, the conversation was broken. It was like coming up for air in a pool. It turned out you weren’t a mermaid at all. You were just a person. You needed to breathe.

“Boaz has a gun, you know,” Yael said.

“What do you mean, ‘you know’? How am I supposed to know?”

“It’s a way of talking,” Yael said. “Not everything is an accusation.”

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