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.”

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.”

“Yael.”

“Sa-am.”

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.

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