| Fiction |

A Tiny Wrinkle

Whatever happened to that spunk? That spark? When did I become such a fuddy-duddy?

Tzvi coos at me, then bats my nose with his tiny fist. I’m in Bubby heaven.

Until Boruch and Shaya come barreling into my legs.

“Hey, you two, this is not a good place to be wild.”

They can’t hear me over their whoops and laughter.

“Boys! I nearly dropped the baby!”

They don’t even glance my way as they chase each other out of the room. I let out a big sigh as I sink into the sofa. I love watching Ahuva’s kids, but it’s exhausting. Maybe I should exercise more. Or sleep less. Or eat healthier. Or… I’m out of ors. I guess I’m just feeling my age.

Yocheved enters, holding a notebook. “Bubby, Mommy said you’d help me with this family tree.” She sits down next to me.

“Sure, sweetheart.”

“Here we have to write in yours and Zeidy’s names, with your parents’ names.”

I spell the names out for her. “There, all done.” I settle back into the cushions.

“Great!” Yocheved turns a page. “Now the aunts and uncles. On both sides.”

“Er, both sides?” I yawn.

“Yup. And then…” She turns another page, and another. “…all the cousins.”

I check my watch. “What time is Mommy coming back?”

Yocheved scoots over even closer, till she’s practically on my lap, and points. “Let’s start here.”

The front door opens. I’m saved!

“Hi, Mommy.”

I try not to let my disappointment show. It’s Kaylee, my kallah, not the mother of these adorable and extremely energetic youngsters.

She stops short when she sees Tzvi and Yocheved. “You’re babysitting?”

I muster up a smile. “Baruch Hashem.”

“But you promised you’d take me to the mall for a makeover today. To try colors.”

Oh. Right. Maybe I can push it off a few days?

I look at Kaylee. Her eyebrows are furrowed, her shoulders tense. I make a mental calculation. It’s Thursday. Pushing this off means either battling Sunday shoppers or dealing with Bridezilla till Monday.

“Right after supper. These cuties are going home soon.”

I discover a container of frozen meatballs for supper, but it’s still late by the time we leave.

Kaylee practically dances into the store. She homes in on the makeup counter and engages Amber, who’s more than happy to be of assistance. I watch in awe as Amber trowels layer after layer onto Kaylee’s face.

During a protracted discussion about bronzer versus highlighter, my mind wanders and I find myself staring at my reflection in a countertop mirror. My crows’ feet are sprouting wings, and my laugh lines are becoming singularly unfunny. There’s a tiny new wrinkle between my eyebrows.

“Mommy, what do you think?”

What I really think is that Kaylee has the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen, and that it’s a crime to hide it under all that gunk.

“You’re lovely,” I say. For now, it’s enough.

Before I know it, Kaylee’s decided I absolutely must get a makeover, too. Between her subtle manipulations and Amber’s full-out frontal attack, I don’t hold out long. Amber takes possession of my face, starting with a pre-base -base layer and finishing off with a sealer, which feels like a lacquer that will keep all these layers glued to my face for weeks.

Amber helps us pick out “our” colors. I, the official killjoy, write down product numbers and agree to return after due deliberation. I also insist Amber remove my bulletproof mask.

Amber, acutely aware that no actual money has changed hands, roots around until she finds a small tube of what she calls one-of-a-kind anti-aging face cream. By this time my face actually hurts, so I let her apply the cream. I feel instant relief. In fact, my skin is positively tingly.

“It’s a very special cream,” Amber says confidently. “It practically turns back the hands of time.”

I try not to roll my eyes.

“See for yourself, you look younger already!”

Kaylee agrees, rotating the mirror in my direction.

My skin actually does look good. I turn my head right, left. I angle my chin down. I can’t find the new wrinkle between my eyebrows.

I laugh at myself for allowing a saleslady’s smooth talk to color my view of myself. Still, my skin feels wonderful. “I’ll take a jar of this.”

“Ah, well, this cream is out of stock, but we should have it within a day or two. When you come back for your order, you can pick it up then.”

Really? Bait and switch?

“But,” she adds, smiling widely, “you’re welcome to take this sample home with you.”

I’m pleasantly surprised. I make a quick escape before she can talk Kaylee into anything else and head straight for the exit. A young woman thrusts a sale flyer into my hands.

“Ooooh,” Kaylee squeals, “that’s the exact linen I wanted, and it’s on sale!”

“It’s pretty,” I agree, “but bottom sheets should be prints, not solids.”

“Oh, Mommy, you say no to everything,” she pouts.

Which is ironic, considering how long I just stood having my face lacquered and stripped.

“You don’t understand,” she continues. “Not everything has to be practical.”

But I do understand. And one day Kaylee will thank me for sharing my life experience with her.

 

*****

“You’re serious.” I blink involuntarily.

“Quite serious, Emmy. I’m retiring at the end of the year, and I’d like you to take my place as principal.”

I can’t think of a single thing to say.

Fraidy Bernstein leans back, a small smile playing at her lips.

My heart drops into my stomach, then flutters back up into my throat. For many long seconds, nothing comes out of my mouth.

Finally I manage, “Why me?”

“I’ve been at the helm of Bais Temima for 20 years,” Fraidy says, “and I’ve watched you grow. As a person, as a teacher. When I took you in, what was it, ten years ago?”

“Nine.”

“Nine years. When I took you in, you were green. Green!” She smiles broadly. “You dusted off your ancient, unused degree and opened your portfolio full of lessons and activities that went out with the ditto machine.”

I have to smile. My ideas back then were older than my students.

“Fortunately for both of us,” Fraidy continues, “I saw past the archaic lesson plans and prehistoric stencils. I saw you. Your potential. You’re a natural, you’ve always been a natural. You’re effective. The girls like you, they listen to you.”

It’s true. I’ve never held a strictly administrative role, but besides my own fifth-grade class, I’m in charge of the eighth-grade performance every year. I’m good with the students, good with the staff too. But still.

“Fraidy, I’m flattered. And yes, I’d love to take it on. But you know my Kaylee is getting married soon. You’re talking about a huge transition! The timing’s all wrong.”

Even without the wedding, where would I find the energy? I like to think of myself as a young middle-age, but the truth is my body is starting to feel closer to “age” than “middle.”

“Why didn’t you offer this to Ilana Simmons? She’s got ten years more experience.”

“Yes, ten more years teaching experience. But it’s your life experience that makes you a better candidate. Your personal growth and development over the years.”

I chuckle. “Sure, and I have the wrinkles to prove it.”

Fraidy waves her hands. “You know what I mean. You’ve been through things, worked on things.”

I certainly can’t argue with that.

“And,” she adds, “the board of directors has already approved.”

I exhale loudly. “Okay, I appreciate the offer. I’ll go home and discuss it with my husband.”

Fraidy smiles broadly.

Of course she does. My husband is on the board.

*****

I ease down into Fraidy’s chair. I’m perfectly happy to occupy my regular seat, between the pencil sharpener and the overstuffed bookcase, but Fraidy insists. Now that I’ve agreed to step into her shoes, she wants me to begin the transition.

At the moment, the only transition I’m busy with is this year’s eighth-grade play, between the end of the first scene and the beginning of the second. Chanie Bloch appears in both scenes, and she’s starting to unravel. The real problem is that the substitute eighth-grade teacher can’t handle Chanie. So I’m shuffling props, stagehands, and fragile egos.

“Mrs. Kaufman!”

I look up.

“Mrs. Kaufman, we need you please! Immediately.”

Brachie Shein, the sub, is standing in the doorway. She took over last week, when Devorah Moskowitz was unexpectedly put on bedrest. Brachie is so young and petite that it’s easy to mistake her for one of the students.

“It’s Chanie Bloch. She’s having a meltdown.”

I smile. “Oh? She’s a full week ahead of schedule. I didn’t have her meltdown penciled in until next Tuesday.”

“She’s hysterical! It’s making everyone else upset.”

“Take her to another room, calm her down. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Brachie bites her lip. “It’ll be too late by then!”

I look at Brachie and I’m grateful that I’ve seen this before, that I know it’s not as big a deal as Brachie is making it out to be. I start to say something about teenagers and stress, but suddenly I’m annoyed at Brachie. Why is she dumping this on me, when it’s her responsibility?

“Listen, Brachie, you’re a big girl and I’m sure you can handle a few tears. Be the adult!”

Brachie’s face pales. She takes a half step backwards.

“Fine,” I sigh. “Let’s go.”

I feel guilty as I follow Brachie to the lunchroom. It’s not her fault she’s young or that she was thrown into this situation unprepared.

We approach Chanie. I smile and ask her what’s going on.

“I can’t do both scenes!” she blubbers. “The change is too fast, I have to switch costumes, and my hair gets messed up!”

Brachie says, “But the change is—”

I lay a hand on Brachie’s arm and say to Chanie, “Wow, that’s so stressful. Tell me more.”

I let Chanie ramble, then say, “Okay, Chanie, we’ll give you more time for the costume change.” I explain that we’ll cut her last line from scene one and her first line from scene two. “It’ll solve the whole problem.” I smile encouragingly.

“No, it won’t!” Chanie wails.

“It will,” I say, too sharply.

Chanie stops mid-wail. Brachie looks at me strangely.

“I mean,” I say softly, “you can try it out at tomorrow’s dress rehearsal and see for yourself. Okay?”

Brachie says, “Or we can cut the lines now and practice.”

“Thank you,” I say crisply.

Brachie has that stricken look again. I clear my throat. “I’ll cut those lines now and send them down to you soon.” They practically push each other out of the way as they escape.

Where’s all this aggravation coming from? Exhaustion? I’m tired, yes, but not burned out. Am I biting off more than I can chew? Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. So I had an off day. No, not even that. It was an off hour!

I feel better.

I return to my office, fix the scene transition, print the necessary pages, and bring them down to Brachie myself. I give her an encouraging smile and say a few nice words to Chanie, smoothing all the feathers I ruffled, then return to the office to finish some work for my own class.

The house is empty when I get home. I go upstairs, splash some cold water on my face, and study my reflection in the mirror. My skin belies my inner exhaustion, and I remember the new face cream. It really does seem to be smoothing out the creases. I reach for it and apply it liberally. Just like in the store, my face starts tingling.

I hear the front door slam. I go down to the kitchen and am attacked by Shimmy. He’s half sobbing, half screaming, and I can’t understand a syllable. But his clothes tell the story: matching holes in the knees of his pants, ripped shirt, kippah nowhere in sight.

Shimmy is eleven years old, and it seems like he’s been getting into fistfights for ten of them. He’s the kind of kid who needs to cool down before his brain shifts into gear, so I pull him into a bear hug. He sobs and sputters and sniffles, and eventually regains his powers of speech.

“Zevi asked me if I want a peanut chew. Rebbi doesn’t let us eat in class, so I said no, and he said yes, and I said no, and Rebbi punished me for talking!”

I hug him again. “I can understand why you’re upset!”

Shimmy nods and wipes his eyes on his sleeve.

“What happened next?”

Shimmy shrugs. “Nothing.”

I point to his ripped clothes. “Did you get into a fight?”

“It was Zevi’s fault! He always gets me into trouble!”

His shout goes straight to the little bones in my ear, making them ring. Why can’t Shimmy talk, like everyone else? Why is everything so dramatic with him?

I remind myself that the best way to help Shimmy is to wait till he’s calm — something I learned when Ahuva was young. But then I hear myself say, “Come on, yesterday it was Moishe, today Zevi. You always find someone to blame.”

I can actually see the blood rise into his face. “Moishe stole my Sour Sticks!”

I cross my arms and glare at him. “And Aharon the day before?”

“He bumped into me on purpose!”

“You always blame someone else,” I snap. “When will you start taking responsibility?”

Like a kettle reaching full boil, Shimmy lets out a piercing screech.

“That’s unacceptable!” I’m cringing at myself, but somehow I can’t stop. It’s like watching a train wreck. “Go straight to your room, young man, and think about what you’ve done.”

Shimmy thunders out. I can feel the reverberation of each foot as he pounds up the stairs.

I grab a sponge and pour almost a cupful of soap on top. I turn the water on so hard it splashes halfway across the kitchen, then start scrubbing. The counter, the table, then I start on the cabinets. I cannot believe how much energy I have. I cannot believe how awful I feel.

Guilt. Frustration. Anger.

An hour later I’m calm. And contrite. I serve Shimmy’s favorite mac ’n cheese for supper. He’s forgiving but wary. I pull out the mixer with the promise of chocolate chip cookies and tell him to go play before homework. Confused but placated, Shimmy runs outside.

Truth is, he’s not the only one who’s confused. I’m also bewildered by my own behavior. I’m being impulsive. Judgmental. Condescending. Plain old immature. I remind me of me, when I was young.

Young. As in, not old. The opposite of old. Anti-old.

Anti-old. Anti-aging.

Can it possibly be?

I bend down and peer at my reflection in the oven door, angling for a good view. Amber’s cream is pretty powerful. It’s taking years off my skin.

But is that all it’s doing?

The increase in energy, the decrease in calm stability… Is the cream taking years off my skin or off my life?

The timer dings. I pull the cookies out of the oven as Yaakov walks in.

“Hi, Em.” He heads straight for the tray.

“After supper,” I say automatically.

Yaakov gives me a strange look. “Don’t worry, I’ll have some after supper, too.”

“Oh, you’re also ignoring me?”

Yaakov freezes, his hand an inch from the tray.

I blush.

“Sorry,” I mutter. “Don’t know why I said that. Have a cookie. Have five cookies.” I feel the tears swim behind my eyes and I drop onto a chair.

Yaakov makes me a cup of tea and I tell him everything. He’s a wonderful listener. Till he starts sneaking peeks at his watch. I thank him and let him fly off to his chavrusa.

I rehash our conversation and feel even worse. Because the one thing I did not share with Yaakov is my strong suspicion about this anti-aging cream. What if it’s true? What if I can be young again — in every sense of the word?

I should stop using it. Immediately. I should throw it in the garbage. Toss it under a bus.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t I enjoy the cream? Is it a crime to have younger skin? To be free of aches and pains? I’ll stay up later with the kids, babysit the grandchildren more often. Maybe I’ll take on chesed projects like I used to. The possibilities open up before me like buttercups in clover.

Soon I hear Kaylee’s singsong, “Hi, Mommy!”

“In the kitchen!”

She dances in. “You’ll never guess what happened. Nechama’s getting married the same night as me!”

“But… that means your friends won’t stay, they’ll run off to her wedding!”

Kaylee laughs. “She booked the same hall! We’re upstairs, and she’s downstairs! All our friends will come to both weddings, the shtick will be incredible!”

I barely hear her. “When I wanted to book downstairs, the manager said it wasn’t available. All of a sudden it’s available for Nechama? Is she his niece or something?”

“His niece? What does it matter? Upstairs is fine, and now everything is so perfect!”

“Nechama won’t be at your wedding. One of your best friends, and she can’t choose a different date?”

Kaylee stops laughing and looks at me. Almost as if she doesn’t recognize me.

I’m seething with jealousy. Toward the manager, toward Nechama, even toward Kaylee for taking it so well. I want to fix everything. Fix the unfairness, the injustice. Fix the entire world.

I turn away, hiding my eyes.

“Good night, Kaylee.”

I toss the dish towel and scurry out and up the stairs before I blurt out another word.

I’m desperately uncomfortable. Can I get a redo on the whole day? On Yaakov and Shimmy and especially Kaylee. I reach for my phone and shoot off a quick text: Order those linens. XX. Sure, as if making nice will fix everything.

My pillow beckons. I change into pajamas, debate for about two seconds, then slather on my new face cream.

I climb into bed. But my pillow suddenly loses its appeal. Not only does my face tingle but my whole body feels energized. Like I can get up and dance! I feel like dragging Kaylee back to the kitchen so we can bake rugelach and pop popcorn and have an all-nighter DMC. I feel like asking Ahuva to bring the kids over to play Lego.

Maybe I will call the hall manager, give him a piece of my mind. This is almost as bad as when Kaylee wasn’t accepted into Bais Minna, and I made such a fuss until they accepted her.

Whatever happened to that spunk? That spark? When did I become such a fuddy- duddy?

I reach for the phone again, but instead I bring my hand lower, into the drawer where I’ve stashed the cream. I stare at the tube in wonder.

A thrill shoots up my spine as I grasp the impact. I can be young again! I can have energy and drive! I can look good and feel great! I’ve only used this cream a few times and I’m already feeling it. If I keep using it, I’ll actually turn back the hands of time!

I look in the mirror and carefully check my reflection. My crow’s feet are vastly improved, my laugh lines gone.

My whole body is invigorated, anticipating where this can take me.

I’ll be a young mother, not an aging Bubby with more sag than swagger. Carefree and vivacious and vibrant. Young!

Young. Not old. Not mature…

Immature.

I’ll be trading maturity for inexperience. Is that what I really want?

My hard-earned growth will revert to potential. I’ll have get-up-and-go but my sensitivity will be gone. I’ve seen it happening already. Physical years will not leave their mark, but everything those years have taught me will be lost.

A young Emmy can’t be a principal. She first has to develop principles.

I pick up the tube and look back at my reflection. I can practically see my cells regenerating. But…

No. The price is too heavy.

I grab my purse and pull out the makeup list. The last item reads “anti-aging cream.” I draw a neat, thin line through the words.

I guess the old saying is wrong. Youth is not wasted on the young.

*****

The next day, I’m back at the makeup counter. I want to finish Kaylee’s order quickly, before I change my mind. Amber is nowhere in sight. I approach another saleslady. Her nametag reads “Shawna.”

“Excuse me,” I say, “I’m looking for Amber.”

“Who?”

“Amber. I’d like to order some products she recommended.”

Shawna shrugs. “Sorry, there’s no Amber in makeup. Or anywhere in this store. Maybe you mean Aisha over in jewelry?”

No Amber? But the makeover, the anti-aging face cream…

I pull out the list. There, right at the top, it says “served by A.”

I was sure it said “Amber.”

Shawna takes the list out of my hands. “I can help you with this,” she says with a big smile and starts pulling small, gold-embossed boxes out of drawers.

She places everything on the counter and rings up the purchase. I swipe my card and sign.

“Oops!” Shawna says, rechecking my list. “I forgot the face cream.”

“It was crossed out,” I say quickly. “I don’t want it.”

“But I have a different face cream. A better cream.”

“Thank you, this is enough. Really.”

Shawna eyes me carefully. “How about a free sample, and you’ll see for yourself how wonderful it is.”

I hesitate a second too long. Shawna rummages in a drawer and pulls out a small tube. “You’ll love this, it’s a one-of-a-kind vanishing cream.”

Vanishing cream? Vanishing cream?

Flee, Emmy! Fly like the wind!

“Thank you,” I call over my shoulder, breathless. I’m already halfway out the door.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 692)

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