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Sam had wanted to come with her. He was fine with sleeping in separate rooms, even, as Tamar and Boaz would have surely insisted. I’m your boyfriend, he’d said. And she hadn’t meant to, but she made a heart with her two hands and said, My boyyyyfriend. It was really almost an accident, that heart. She might’ve meant to do something else with her hands. She didn’t really mean to thump the hands-heart against her real heart and say, Va-va-voooom!
“Anyway,” Yael said now. “Tamar said guns are safer for children than laundry detergent. Does that sound like something you’ve heard?”
“When are you coming back?”
“I’ll be back to put Wendy June on the bus for her first day of school.”
She liked to give his names two syllables. When they first met, he’d kept mispronouncing her name and she could never figure out a good way to get back at him. How do you pronounce that again? she’d say. Bam, is it?
“Just tell me when you’ll be back.”
“I’ll stay until the mohel’s had his way with the little guy.”
Sometimes, it was as soon as she said something that she heard how wrong it was.
“It’s just some nights. You already know that. I’ll bring you a bagel and shmear. And blue and white jelly beans, if they have any.”
“Blue and white for Israel?”
“Blue and white for boys.”
“It’s getting late,” Sam said.
“Give Wendy June a kiss for me,” Yael said. “Tell Wendy June she’s loved.”
Yael swallowed the sleeping pill without water, one straight line down. She went right to bed. Closed her eyes. Waited. The psychiatrist had instructed Yael to go to sleep immediately after taking the sleeping pill. Stay up after taking a pill and you ran the risk of night-eating, night-shopping, night-cracking-the-code-to-the-safe-and-shooting-your-brother-in-law-through-the-head. Half brother-in-law.
The psychiatrist had also told her to only take the pills in case of an emergency. Yael didn’t want to wind up addicted, the psychiatrist said. No, she didn’t want that. But she did want to sleep. Was it possible that every night was an emergency?
Yael thought she wouldn’t fall asleep, that this would be the night the pills stopped working for her. She thought this every night, which, according to the psychiatrist, was part of Yael’s problem. Then she found herself in a dream. In her dream—which she knew and didn’t know was a dream—she was one of her patients, Courtney, a young mother who couldn’t stop talking about how much she wanted to drown her child in the bathtub. Courtney had checked herself into the hospital before she could do anything. She spent her sessions begging Yael please not to send her home. I don’t know what I’ll do, Courtney said. Please, I don’t know what I’ll do. In real life, Courtney’s child was a three-month-old named Jack, but in the dream, the child was Wendy June, age six.
In the dream, Yael was Courtney, but she was also herself. She was also herself, but she looked like Boaz. She was holding a gun. Take it, she said to Courtney. Hold it. Feel how heavy it is. Does it feel heavy to you? Wendy June, who was there and not there, began to cry. She had lopsided pigtails, scabs cross-hatching her knees. She was wearing glasses with pink plastic frames that hooked around the ears.
It was the baby who was crying. Yael was awake, and sweating.
“I hope he didn’t wake you,” Tamar said when Yael staggered into the kitchen for coffee. It was 10:30. Yael was a despicable cretin of a person, a leach on society. Waking up at 10:30 was fine only if you were a teenager and your body was using the time to unfurl and lengthen, turn into itself.
“I was up,” she said. “Just catching up on some paperwork in my room.”
“You always work too hard,” Tamar said.
A laugh and a half. She’d discharged Courtney that Wednesday, just in time for Thanksgiving; she’d had to, because Courtney’s insurance had run out. But Yael might have spent longer on the phone with Courtney’s insurance representative. She might have written a letter—to whom? Maybe called a lawyer. Gone to Courtney’s house, broken down the front door, and gotten baby Jack out of there herself. Instead, You’ll be fine, she’d told Courtney. You’re a good mother. Nothing will happen.
“I can hold the baby, if you want,” Yael said.
The problem with holding the baby was how aware Yael was of the softness of his skull, the weakness of his neck. He only weighed seven pounds, a scattering of ounces. Here was an entire person. She only had to open her arms, and that would be it for him. How many important things had she dropped in her life?
She smelled his head. There was nothing, she told Tamar, better than smelling a baby’s head.
The bris, scheduled for first thing in the morning, was packed with people Yael didn’t know, and also her family. Yael’s father, smelling as he always did, of cloves, gave her a hug. Tamar should have babies more often, if that was going to be what it took to see her! Her stepmother, in her for-special-occasions wig, told Yael she was so happy to see her. It was so nice of Yael to be there. As though Yael were not part of the family, but a guest who was welcome enough.
Which, actually, was true enough. She’d been mostly a Sunday daughter to her father, a vague, goy-like presence occasionally marring a family photo. No matter how many times Yael had tried to impress on her half siblings that, despite her and her mother’s lack of religious observance, she was still Jewish, they never quite got it. A Jew, to them, kept kosher and Shabbos and all the rest of the 613 commandments, plus the extra stringencies rabbis had added on over the years, as fences to keep the commandments away from being broken, plus, if you were a girl, wore skirts at all times and kept that collar bone covered. Also the elbows and knees. It was kind of nice, really, to get to be a sometimes-goy, however unearned.
The women’s section in the sanctuary was separated from the men’s by a thick curtain no one could see through. The reason for this, Yael had learned as a child, back when she was a Yeshiva girl, was women were too attractive to men. Men couldn’t focus on God when there were women afoot. So they had to be separate. In some shuls, the women’s section was a balcony looking down into the men’s, because women, Yael had been taught, were closer to God and would never be tempted to ignore Him. Also, women didn’t get attracted to men. Attraction was just a man thing.
So Yael could hear but not see the men as they crowded around the baby, who had been carried in on a white pillow edged in lace.
The rabbi began reciting the blessings, and then the terrible cry rose up. Yael was glad she couldn’t see the sharp-tipped knife going in, the spurting, she imagined, of blood. She pictured a battlefield.
Tamar was holding her mother’s hand and crying without sound. The tears were effortless. They just came down.
Boaz echoed the rabbi’s prayer, and the men in congregation responded to his call, their voices rising up together. The baby’s name at first sounded to Yael like part of the prayer, and she missed it, but she wasn’t the only one. They were like blind mice over in the women’s section, nosing around a cage, bumping into glass. Women around her whispered—what was it? Did you hear?
“It’s Shalom Yedidyah,” Tamar whispered to Yael. Her shoulders were straight now; she was wiping away the leftover tears. Shalom, which meant peace. Yedidyah had been their grandfather’s name.
The food part of the bris was in the shul’s basement, referred to, optimistically, as the “party room.” The decorations, though, were lovely. Bouquets of It’s A Boy! balloons were tethered to the floor, just barely, with clusters of silver bells; at the center of each table, there were the fake lace satchels of blue and white jelly beans Yael had hoped for. Everyone shoved past each other in a flurry of elbows and indignant excuse mes (from the very polite). There were vats of scrambled eggs assembled from a powder, piles of syrup-sticky French toast, bagels with the everythings somehow already scarce—at any time, it could all run out.
Yael was glad Sam hadn’t come. Sam never knew how to manage himself at these kinds of functions. He refused to push. He believed in waiting his turn. And he had all kinds of theories about why Orthodox Jews were rude; it was inherited trauma, he’d explained to Yael, more than once. She didn’t even know what that was supposed to mean. All she knew was how much she hated it when he started to talk like that—like he knew what it was to be a Jew, or her. At least he cared, he told her. At some point, someone had to care. That fight was an old standby of theirs, a classic rerun you could catch any time.
Boaz stood up, clinked his glass, said thank you to everyone, mazel tov to everyone. Joy belonged to everyone. “We named him Shalom,” he said, “because we have a great hope for him.” Boaz continued on to say how troubled these times were, how scary it was to be in the world, a Jew in the world. There were wars that wouldn’t let up; there were bombings, people afraid to leave their homes, but leaving their homes anyway.
“We hope the world will be different for him,” Boaz said. He looked so small and thin up there, his belt looped and tightly buckled. Stripped of his gun.
Everyone was silent for a slip of a second, and then came the Amens, the tipping back of glasses, the resumed scramble for food.
A woman holding the hand of her daughter, a pig-tailed Wendy June doppelganger, wedged herself into a non-space beside Yael. “Can you just help me grab…” she said, but Yael ignored her, was already reaching over her. There was one everything bagel left, and it was going to be hers.