Anchor| December 13, 2022
Was it her son's fault he was so weak?
It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind; everyone says so.
Sharon walked into the room her husband had just finished treating Pauline Coleman’s daughter in.
“I’m canceling, Daniel.”
Her husband hummed a hi and carried on scribbling in his file. The Coleman kid had chosen bright-pink bands for her braces. Sharon perched on a Lucite chair and waited for him to finish and look up.
Daniel blew out his cheeks as he chucked the file onto the desk and swiveled to face her.
“Be reasonable, we can’t go now!”
He swiveled to and fro and then stopped himself with his foot. Good, she was getting dizzy.
“I’m being reasonable. Yes, we can. We’re not canceling a cruise we booked five months ago because of Akiva. Sharon, the man is turning 30 next month and is perfectly capable of managing by himself for a week. We’ve been through this too many times, we’re going.”
Sharon compressed her lips and went to check the autoclave. Ridiculous, seeing as she was the one who’d convinced Daniel to take a winter cruise all those months ago. Who wanted to go on a cruise in the winter? Who was running such a cruise? He thought it was crazy; she thought it was just what they needed after marrying off their youngest.
Now she powered off her computer and looked down at the red line she’d drawn on the calendar through all of next week, trying to remember the Sharon she’d been then, turning the pages forward to December with its picture of the Aurora Borealis. The excited Sharon, the mother-of-the-glowing-bride Sharon, the life-was-so-beautiful Sharon.
Slowly, she flipped the pages back to June with its picture of Castelo dos Mouros at sunset, when Portugal had seemed like the perfect place to celebrate their happiness.
Imagine I could do that in real, she thought, as Daniel set the alarm, and they both walked out of his practice to the car.
Sharon had hoped a last-minute stomach upset might sway Daniel’s mind, but neither that nor her dire premonitions for coming down with the flu or sudden Ministry of Health inspections could make a dent in his intransigence.
“We ate at home this Shabbos even though Avital and Yonatan invited us. I know why you turned them down, and it has nothing to do with needing to pack. You’ve got to let go, Sharon.”
Sharon bent her head over the Samsonite case and thought of her young couple’s small studio apartment, its tiny table with four stackable chairs. No room for Akiva. Daniel knew her too well. She sighed and pushed her winter socks into a corner of the case.
They were going and that was that.
Once they were on their way, Sharon felt herself relaxing.
The idea of a cruise touring Europe’s anatomy one day at a time with no crowds to navigate tickled her fancy. A few hours at a Grecian fingertip, a day at Italy’s heel, the Rock of Gibraltar, and the pièce de resistance — a weekend to themselves in Lisbon, a place that had always fascinated Daniel, the amateur historian. His Portuguese ancestors had fled the Inquisition and traveled through centuries of transnational persecution before reaching the shores of a very reluctant British haven. He had an old friend who was now a professor of history at the University of Lisbon and would be showing them around.
They were impervious to the seasickness that overtook their Israeli compatriots. Sharon and Daniel strolled the deck like crusty old seadogs, enjoying the gentle drizzle. It would take a deluge to scare Brits away. The only thing she’d forgotten to pack was some kind of warm shawl or scarf to tie over her sheitel, which she kept holding down against the wind. The saline spray whipping over the deck wasn’t doing it any good either.
When they docked at Santorini, Akiva texted her.
Sharon looked with sympathy at her fellow passengers staggering off the ship into small boats and peeked at Daniel. He was reading a tourist information leaflet, so she allowed herself to check the message.
Mom, you take all the painkillers?
She couldn’t help it, her breathing sped up.
Are you okay? Paracetamol in bathroom cabinet.
I think I’m coming down with something.
Daniel looked round at her. The tender boat to Skala Port was waiting. “Coming?”
She slid the phone into the pouch around her waist and smoothed her sheitel down again.
Daniel pointed out the Caldera Cliffs as Sharon stifled the need to pull out her phone. No one knew what it was like, could remember the hundreds of nights, those thousands of minutes comprising millions of seconds that she’d spent sitting at Akiva’s bedside, watching him struggle to breathe through another asthma attack. That indentation in his neck, deepening with every wheeze. The inhalers and nebulizers and humidifiers. The rising panic in his eyes, in her chest — to call an ambulance? To take him to the ER? To wait for the steroids to kick in?
That kind of thing never goes away. Even when your son is almost 30 and in a bigger mess than he ever was.
She pulled the phone out and typed quickly.
What are you feeling? Fever? Cough?
The slightest cold could set off a reaction all the way down to his bronchioles.
Headache. Took a painkiller. Going to bed.
Okay darling, feel good, keep me posted.
“What’s with Akiva now?”
Sharon pulled in some air. Married so long, of course Daniel read her mind. “Just a headache, he needed to find painkillers.”
Daniel made a pffft sound but said nothing more as they debated the merits of starting off with the cable cars or doing some touring around Fira first.
It was easier for him. He didn’t have the memory of all those nights. He’d needed his sleep, being so busy setting up his orthodontic practice. And Sharon wasn’t working then.
Still, she wished now that she’d dragged him out of bed some nights, made him coax that horrible Bricanyl syrup down a crying Akiva’s throat, adjust the mask, hold him over steaming bowls of hot water and Vicks VapoRub. Then maybe he’d have more patience for her flapping, as he put it. Stop getting yourself worked up, Sharon. He’s an adult, Sharon. He needs to work it out, stop flapping, Sharon.
Who wouldn’t flap at a time like this. Sharon left the ringer on and zipped the phone into an outside pocket. First Akiva was out of a job. And then Odelia left him. And here she was, on a cruise.
The wind was fierce; they’d see the pottery and art galleries first.
Sharon lay still, ears pricked to catch the sound that must have woken her. When she heard nothing, she poked her hand out from under the cover and pressed the dark screen of the phone propped up against the lamp. 06:09. She could barely make out the numerals from behind crusty eyelashes. What?
Slowly, her other senses roused themselves from their slumber and began transmitting some disquieting messages to her brain. The smell of unfamiliar fabric softener. The sensation of silky sheets beneath her. As her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she could make out a ceiling sloping downward over her head.
Where on earth was she?
Please, please, not amnesia. Hyperventilating, she bolted upright, clutching at her throat.
Had she screamed, she might have made an awful fool out of herself, because all it took was a snuffling sound from the right to propel her straight into reality. Daniel. Lisbon. Tiny attic apartment.
Oh. Bom dia, Sharon.
Wide awake now, she slipped out of bed and into the living area. The hideous red shawl Daniel had surprised her with at the Port de Palma was draped over a chair, and she pulled it off and draped it around her trembling shoulders. It warmed her, she had to admit. If she closed her eyes, the wool was soft and delicate beneath her fingers, and she could almost imagine it an ivy green or autumn russet and orange. Red! All these years married. He could read her moods like an almanac, but still hadn’t a blessed clue about which colors she will or won’t wear.
Still, the memory of him noticing her sheitel troubles and his quiet pride in presenting her with an expensive solution warmed her inside, too.
She leaned over the kitchen counter and flicked the switch on the tiny chrome kettle she’d actually schlepped all the way from Israel. It came to life almost immediately with a hiss — just enough water there to pour herself an Earl Grey.
Admittedly, she couldn’t stand hot drinks in paper cups, but Daniel wouldn’t hear of kashering more than was absolutely necessary, so they’d have to live rough for the next three days, and their carbon footprint would grow two sizes.
It was dark last night when they arrived, and pouring, so Sharon had no idea what sort of view there was from the tiny window. There had been a little spat, too, Sharon remembered suddenly as she tried peering out into the darkness. She sipped a mouthful of scalding tea to burn away the sinking stomach feeling. Akiva, Akiva.
He needs to take responsibility for his own life, Sharon. You know how patient Odelia was for so long.
She took a bigger swallow and winced. What do you want from him, Daniel? It’s not his fault he’s so… weak. Do you think I want him back home?
She blinked away the rest of it and gave up on trying to see anything outside before sunrise. The owner of this place had showed little patience for making himself understood, even with Google translate. See view not to be bleived said more about his disdain for English than anything else.
On a mad impulse, she crept into the bedroom, grabbed her Sauconys and sheitel and tiptoed out. Their cases were in the corner under the window, and her clothes were in neatly folded stacks of tops and skirts, so all she had to do was pick one of each and pull them on.
What fun to go down to the water and find some of the famous fishermen of Lisbon! She could choose a fish with fins and scales, throw down some Euros, wow the fisherman with a perfect muito obrigada, and they would have fresh roasted fish for their Shabbos meal tomorrow night.
Sharon reached the door when she ran up against a problem. They’d received only one key. To lock the door and take the key meant leaving Daniel a temporary prisoner. To leave the door open in a strange city was unthinkable. She had no idea what kind of crime rate this place had, but she didn’t want to find out.
She hesitated. Should she stay until Daniel cracked his eyelids open? That might be hours, and Sharon had no intention of going stir crazy in 300 square feet now that her blood was up for a stroll. Well, maybe not a stroll, seeing as she was locking Daniel in. She’d just look around downstairs, get a feel for their surroundings.
She turned back to the kitchenette and scrabbled through her pouch in the weak light from above the sink. Pen, yes. Two, even. Paper, paper….
She settled on the bottom half of the travel insurance receipt they’d printed out from their health fund.
Gone down for some fresh air, sleepy head!
PS you’re locked in, be back in a few.
The stairwell was dark. And really cold. There was some dim lighting. Sharon reached the second floor and there was a brighter glow from a quaint, old-fashioned lamp over a mirror on the first floor. As she stepped out, the wind shrieked like a banshee at her and did its best to unwrap her shawl and tear the sheitel off her head.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Foreign land, foreign tongue…. She told herself to just go back upstairs and wait till Daniel and daylight made an appearance.
The faint roar of waves from somewhere nearby interrupted her ruminations. Forgetting everything, Sharon tied the shawl tighter over her head and turned toward the sound. Down the steep tiled street she marched, salt on her lips, wind frantic in her ears. The waves were massive; she could see the frothy whitecaps that dissolved and formed again and again. The sky was obsidian black with faint hints of royal purples and blues. The street ended, dipped gracefully into an arc where other streets fanned out behind her. And then she was on the beach.
The sea, the endless ebb and flow of the waves, soothed Sharon as nothing else ever could. As a child in England, it had been difficult to surpass the joy of summer vacations in Cornwall: As an adult in Haifa, nobody stopped her from getting into the car or even taking a brisk walk down to spend the morning on the shore.
So here they were, finally in Lisbon. Cascais, the coast town west of the city center, to be precise. Sharon filled her lungs with exhilarating sea air and wriggled her shoulders, trying to ease a knot in her back. She had some Brazilian friends in England, and with her ear for languages had picked up more than a few words of Portuguese. She pictured herself strolling round the city, liberally sprinkling passersby with cheery olás, bom dias, obrigadas, and boa tardes.
She stood and watched the waves crashing, mesmerized by the hypnotic motion, letting her mind empty slowly, until for no good reason she wanted to cry.
Some people couldn’t understand that life could be hard sometimes. So yes, she invited Akiva and his family almost every Shabbos. She sent over meals. She made sure Akiva had his vitamins and prophylactic inhalers and all the things he needed to feel good. Once upon a time, Odelia had been so grateful. Who wouldn’t want to feel taken care of?
She tried not to think of Daniel’s opinion, of his certainty that all Akiva had to do was stop faffing about and become a productive member of—
Sharon bit her lip and made herself stop.
The wind was too forceful to be comfortable, and there were no fishermen in sight anyway, so she took one last look at the stormy sea and turned back toward the apartment.
Now the streets spread out before her, houses lining them like snaggle-toothed rows in desperate need of Daniel’s orthodontic wizardry. Identical snaggle-toothed rows.
The panic Sharon had felt upon waking in a strange bed an hour ago was nothing like the panic that clutched her insides now. Idiot, she thought, taking solitary walks in the middle of nowhere without so much as a map. She had the voice-and-text-only SIM in her phone. Which way to go? One, two… seven tiled streets with a steep incline. And Sharon stood opposite, paralyzed.
No, no, calm down, you’ll recognize the name of the street… Rua Padro Manoel… doesn’t sound right, Sharon’s fingers were stiff on her phone, and her breath came in ragged gasps as she jog-walked from one green-and-white street sign to the next. Rua José Alamedo… also not. Rua Bela Cintra…maybe? No, Bela I would remember… oh please, please… Her lips grew numb while sweat trickled down her back. Let’s see, Rua César Jardim. Yes!
Relief poured over Sharon like a freezing shower, and her breath came in spurts as she ran across the street — their building was on the left-hand side, of that she was certain — when her foot hit the curb and she tumbled onto the sidewalk, her open bag scattering its contents about her. Then — a metallic clink of a key dropping down a small grate. Sharon could barely make it out, nestled some feet down on a bed of soggy leaves.
The only key. Daniel. Empty streets. How do you say help in Portuguese? HELP!
Sharon did the only thing any woman in her situation would do. She sat on the cold tiles and let the tears slide down her cheeks.
The sun wasn’t even up yet, and she was a quivering wreck for the third time in one hour. Middle age just didn’t agree with her. She should retire. Just spend her days knitting baby blankets.
Disjointed thoughts crammed her overtired brain as she sat and heaved.
Pull yourself together, Sharon. A voice of reason sounding like Daniel shut the babbling out. You’re not solving anything by sitting here and freezing your toes off.
Quite right, she wasn’t. She picked up miscellaneous pieces of her traveler’s life off the sidewalk, painfully shifted herself to standing and tried to think straight. She retied the shawl and looked down at the offending grate.
The key had no intention of walking off, that much was certain. Daniel’s phone was out of juice — she’d heard its dying beep in the night — and she had no idea if the apartment had a phone line, or what its number may be. So the first thing she needed to do was to try and wake up the hibernating creature without raising a ruckus and disgracing themselves with the neighbors.
Her phone beeped with an incoming text.
Hi! Didn’t you say you left enough rolls for the whole week?
Sharon looked at the text for a full minute. Didn’t you say… was Akiva serious? What time was it in Israel, anyway?
She gave her head a firm shake and pushed her phone deep into her bag. First things first.
Up she trudged, past the mirror with the old-fashioned lamp; don’t even think of looking, upward to the second floor with its dingy lighting, and the final flight of stairs to the attic.
Sharon knocked timidly. Not a prayer that Daniel would hear her. She jiggled the antique door handle, wondering if it would come loose and if that would make things easier or only complicate matters.
“Daniel!” It was hard to hiss a name like his.
She knocked a little louder. If the neighbors woke up she’d tell them the predicament she was in. Maybe one of them was a locksmith or had a spare key.
“DANiel!” She held her breath. Was that a creaking? She gave the door handle another shake.
“Zat you Sharon?” His voice was slurred but definitely his. The handle jumped in Sharon’s hand.
“Oh, Daniel!” Don’t get hysterical now. All you need is for him to lose his head, too. “Er, I’ve locked you in and the key fell down a grate downstairs… don’t worry, though. I— ”
“You did what?” His voice was sharp suddenly; no trace of the slur. He pulled harder at the handle from the other side.
“Sorry, sorry! It’s locked! I’ll tell you about it later, but do me a favor and stick that metal hanger from your dry-cleaned pants under the door will you?”
“The hanger, the hanger that came with the dry cleaning. Shove it under the door — I need it to get the key.”
The door handle Sharon still held came to life again as Daniel gave it a vigorous yank.
“No! Daniel, please! Leave the door alone. Get me that wire hanger and I’ll be back with the key in a jiffy.”
She heard him shuffling away from the door, then his footsteps coming closer again. A scratching and scraping, and the hanger was in her hands.
“Hang in there, Daniel!” He said something, called her name, but Sharon was already halfway down the stairs, untwisting the hanger as she went.
The wind hit her with a nasty jolt, but she hissed the breath through her teeth and leaned over the grate. It was still there, the key, shining blue under the light of her phone. She made use of the trick her brother had taught her years before and threaded the straightened piece of wire carefully through the slot, hook ready for the bait.
The tip of her tongue poked out while she lowered the hanger cautiously. No good if she shoved the key deeper under the mush down there. There it was, a little more to the left, Calculus (she was definitely losing her mind) got it, got it, slowly…
She actually shrieked as she dropped the hanger, key and all. A pair of scruffy Nikes almost touched her nose.
“Er, um, bom dia!” She tried to smile sunnily while willing her stiff knees to perform a graceful ballet movement. She surreptitiously brushed her skirt off and wiped her hands on the shawl.
Either she’d overestimated her fluency in Portuguese or this angry-looking man in jeans and a windbreaker was firing off Swahili bullets at her.
“Er, je ne comprends pas! No, I mean eu não entendo! Well. Do you speak English?”
Dark eyes flitted back and forth. A slight hesitation, then, “What you do here?” Obvious pride in the execution of his sentence unknit his ferocious brows. Sharon steadied herself on legs turned to jelly. Thank goodness he wasn’t wearing a uniform.
“My key.” She gestured downward.
“Yes, key! To my house! Down this hole.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. Out of all the people calling this progressive European city home, she’d landed with an ignoramus. Then light dawned.
“Oh, you mean qui! No, no. Key. Opens a door, look.” She made a twisting motion with her hand while jabbing a forefinger toward the grate.
He inclined his head and looked at the grate. Lifted those eyebrows quizzically at her and shrugged elaborately.
“You need help?” Another whole sentence in English — they were going places. Maybe by the time she got that key out (couldn’t afford to think of the alternative), she might actually invite him over for a coffee.
“Yes! Er, my key?”
Miracle of miracles, a tip of wire was still aboveboard. Señor Early-Lisboan-Bird gamely kneeled down and peered through the grate.
Sharon clutched the fringes of her shawl and hoped for salvation.
When it came, though, it almost gave her a heart attack. It came as a hearty, “There you are Sharon!” making her reel and almost collapse over her would-be savior who was probing the murky depths with no visible success.
For the second time that day Sharon sat on the sidewalk, shaking. She was deaf, she was blind. She was oblivious to two worried men standing over her, to a muddy key dangling neatly from a curved wire in front of her, to the wind howling behind her. She hugged her knees to herself and buried her face in her shawl.
I want Akiva to be okay. That’s. That’s all I ever wanted.
“Sharon?” Daniel’s voice is gentle with the slightest tinge of amusement. “Calm down. It’s okay. I’m safe, you’re safe — let’s get back to the apartment.”
“But how did you get here?” Her voice wobbled.
“There was a spare key in the information pack on the table.”
She tottered to her feet and tried to stop the world from spinning off its axis.
Why was her husband always so cool and collected? Always so level-headed. Always so right. The phone in her bag weighed her down. Heavy, so heavy. Didn’t you say you left enough rolls for the week?
Got another box of cornflakes?
Can you pick up my parcel from the post office?
Go there, do this, bring me that…
She looked at Daniel. Right about so many things. Why had she never listened to his voice of reason all these years? She was coddling a 30-year-old. Akiva needed to decide if he was going to shape up enough for Odelia or not.
“A spare key?”
“A spare key.”
Señor Big Eyebrows coughed.
“Oh!” Sharon turned to thank him profusely, pulling herself together sufficiently to throw a muito obrigada at him as he jogged off in those scruffy Nikes.
She stared at the key in her hands.
If you love him, you’ve got to let go, Sharon.
She looked at the man who’d been showing her a picture she hadn’t wanted to see.
“A spare key. Daniel….”
He looked at her quizzically. “Yes, that’s what I said.”
Sharon took the phone out of her bag — rolls?! — and turned it off.
“I… was thinking. You’re right. Akiva needs to move out.”
Daniel’s mouth dropped open slightly. “What did you say?”
She bit her lip and nodded.
He scratched his neck.
“You said — I think you said — that Akiva needs to move out. Er. What made you say that?”
Sharon thought she’d get emotional again, but it seemed like she’d already done enough of that this morning. And Daniel looked so puzzled, it was making her smile.
“I was thinking,” she said lightly. She couldn’t put it exactly into words. Distance. Fishing for keys by herself in the dark, incongruous requests for rolls, space she needed to see things differently.
“Well, then.” Daniel mirrored her light tone. “We can’t have you doing that too often, can we?” Sharon puffed out a small laugh. “Let’s go upstairs, maybe? My fingers are numb.”
Sharon nodded and started walking. A weak sun waged a valiant battle against a blanket of pewter clouds; she thought they would stay in this morning. The beginnings of a dull exhaustion headache told her sleep might be a good idea as well. Something in her shoulders eased even as she suddenly noticed a throbbing from where she must have scraped her knees. They had a vacation ahead of them, and she was going to enjoy every minute of it.
Something landed on her head. She looked up — was it going to pour again?
Daniel was staring at her shawl. Sharon lifted her hand but he stopped her with a sharp exclamation.
“Sharon? Er, that was a very talented seagull.”
“On my head?”
“Well, on that dreadful red shawl I was somehow possessed to buy you.”
And then they were sitting on the steps in some dim building in Lisbon, laughing loud enough to wake the people three streets over.
And somehow Sharon knew that when the worry crept in — Akiva, his job, Odelia, his health — as she was certain it would, she’d always pull up this memory. A beach, a fall, a shawl, a seagull. The laughter. And the burgeoning knowledge that she would let her son chart his own waters.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 822)
Oops! We could not locate your form.