Thus concluded Day One of my Pretend. One phone call, and not much else. It felt disappointing. I was hoping for more
As told to Devorah Grant
If only I could take those words and stuff them back into the furthest corner of my mouth. If only I could be the girl that I used to be — run-of-the-mill, unobtrusive, innocent. If only I’d chosen to be true to myself, this would never, ever have happened.
Ruty was the beginning of my downfall. Which is funny, really, since she was just a classmate, far more popular than I ever was, with a cute blond lob and dancing blue eyes. But when she got sick, that’s when it began.
At first, it was just lots of absences, when Ruty’s seat in the middle row at school was empty for days. Chevi said Ruty had the flu, but when Ruty came back, she looked worse than after a flu. A whole lot worse.
The rumors began.
“Ruty’s sick, I heard my mother speaking to her mother!”
“She has to go for special treatment in Arizona.”
“My cousin had the same illness and she can’t see properly anymore!”
The worst thing was, the rumors were truer than we believed.
Ruty was sick. Very sick. A rare cancer; an unusual case. When Mrs. Rothman walked into our class holding a Tehillim, we knew things were serious.
After that, our class rallied. We split Tehillim; made brachos parties. Wrote cards and baked cookies. Chevi and Malki even went to a studio to record a song for Ruty before she flew to the treatment center in Arizona.
And meanwhile, envy reared its ugly head inside me.
It’s not like I wanted to be sick. I never in a million years wanted to go through the pain Ruty suffered, as she battled her way through countless treatments; one step forward, two steps back. But each time I heard an update on Ruty, or another gift was arranged, it pushed something deep inside me. I was struggling socially, floating between crowds, never quite sure if I belonged or not. I was used to being just ordinary Elisheva, nice-and-nothing-special, with not much talent or sparkle or anything, really. And Ruty’s situation just rubbed it in. I wondered if anyone would miss me if I ended up in hospital. I imagined how maybe, just maybe, people might notice, might care. So I tried it.
Skipping school was the easy part. I’m the youngest in my family, and my parents let me get away with a lot. When Mom came to wake me up that Monday, I furrowed my brow and told her I had a headache. Mom looked concerned and asked me if I wanted Tylenol. I groaned and said I guessed so, but when she left after bringing me a cocoa and a couple of pills, I slipped the little white pills into my bedside drawer and went back to sleep. It was nice having a day off.
That night the phone rang just once. It was Sarala. I mustered my most sorry-for-myself tone and told her I hadn’t been feeling good. When Sarala asked what the matter was, I quickly said, “We hope it’s nothing serious, we’re checking it out.”
An awkward silence filled the line. “Oh!” said Sarala, in a strangled kind of tone. “Well, I hope you’ll be back in school really soon!”
“Oh, I’d love that!” I replied, sadly. And with a confused goodbye from Sarala, our conversation ended.
Thus concluded Day One of my Pretend. One phone call, and not much else. It felt disappointing. I was hoping for more.
The next day, I thought about going back to school. But I’d been up all night, because I’d slept the whole previous day, and besides, I really did feel yuck. When I told Ma I wasn’t getting up, she sat down on my bed and felt my head. I winced as she touched it, and fell back on my pillow. Ma looked worried.
“Maybe we should take you to the doctor, Shev?”
“Let’s see how I feel tomorrow. Maybe by then I’ll feel better.” As my bedroom door clicked behind Mom, I discarded the delivered Tylenols, and headed back to sleep.
That evening the phone chimed four times. Things were picking up! The feeling that I was missed, and noticed, filled that void inside. People do care. I didn’t say much to most of my classmates — just that I was feeling sick and would hopefully be back soon. But when Sarala called, I took it up a notch.
“They think I’m really sick. We’re doing tests.” I said, a serious tone in my voice. “I’m so scared…” Sarala gasped.
“Oh, Elisheva! You must be so nervous! Will the tests hurt?”
“I don’t know. Probably… Sarala, I have to hang up, but have me in mind, kay?”
“Sure,” said Sarala hurriedly. “We’ll daven!”
My stomach churned as the cordless plopped softly onto my duvet. Had I really just convinced someone that I needed tefillos? What was I thinking? Was I crazy? My head started to pound, for real this time. What is wrong with me? And yet, even when these thoughts were swirling around, the feeling that people had noticed I was missing, warmed me up.
Guilt and shame; friendship and belonging. With these warring thoughts and feelings, I went to eat supper.
I couldn’t lie in bed another day, though. I was already getting bored of my books and four grey bedroom walls, and anyway, I didn’t want to go to the doctor for no reason. On Wednesday, I went to school.
A hush came over the class when I walked in the classroom door at 8:50 that morning. Everyone turned around. A small circle, gathered around Sarala hurriedly moved apart to let me get to my seat. I felt like an alien from outer space. At that moment, Mrs. Kohn walked in. Everyone scurried to their desks.
I stopped short when I got to my desk. A chocolate bar lay on the top; a bright pink Get Well Soon card stood in full view. Bile rose inside me. Imagination and reality collided. I looked around at my classmates staring at me as I fingered the card. Some girls had eyes filled with concern, others with fear. Ruty’s were the worst. There was empathy in her expression. An encouraging smile. It will be okay, her eyes seemed to say. All I could signal back was pure and utter panic. My classmates think I’m sick. What on earth have I done?
I don’t know how I made it through that day. I made countless trips to the bathroom, dodging people at every corner. Lunchbreak found me holed up in a cubicle, waiting for the bell to ring so I could race into class together with that session’s teacher. I felt like a convict. A fugitive, running for her life.
I didn’t want to lie further, and I didn’t know how to do anything else, either. The feeling was one of utter paralysis. And when Minchah came, it all came flooding out.
Hashem, I whispered, the tears raining down my cheeks onto my siddur. I promise I won’t lie again. I know it’s wrong and I should never have done it. But please, please, help me out of this mess! I can’t live like this!
The yeshuah came that day. And boy, did it hurt.
“Elisheva,” my mother said, when I had put my briefcase down. “Ta and I want to talk with you.” My body started to tremble. My parents on the couch, me on the armchair, the conversation was a nightmare.
Apparently, Tanya, the school social worker, had called. Somehow, the “news” had traveled fast and Tanya wanted to know how she could help support me through my “challenge.” My mother, completely bewildered, had told Tanya that I was completely fine, thank you, and just recovering from a couple of days of pretty innocuous headaches. Which had seemed strange to Tanya, who had been under the impression that I was chronically ill, and needed tefillos and extra TLC. And why, my parents wanted to know, did she think that?
The shame was enormous. Between spurts of tears, and half a box of tissues, I embarrassedly stuttered out what I had been feeling to my bewildered parents. How all I’d wanted to do was see if people cared, and how I wasn’t even sure how I had gotten into this mess.
I bless you that you should never have to have a conversation like this with your parents. It was awful.
The clock’s hands traveled slowly as I shifted and squirmed in my seat. When my parents were sure that I utterly regretted lying, they told me they thought I had been punished enough for my mistakes. But there was one thing I still had to do: tell Sarala I was okay.
In the end, my father called the rav, and the rav told them that for the sake of my wellbeing, I should just tell Sarala that we had discovered I was fine, without giving more detail. But when I did pluck up the courage to pick up the phone and tell her, I felt a weird distance in her tone, as if she wondered… Things have never been the same.
I haven’t lied again since that day. I even have to stop myself being too honest and blunt sometimes, in the quest to never again end up in that mess. Over the years, I’ve learned more about making friends and reaching out. How usually it’s less about drama, and more about genuineness and caring that makes people value you.
Lying is outright wrong — and even if it seems tempting, it’s never worth it. If my story can save others from falsifying facts, I’ll have achieved something. Stay true to yourself and don’t make the mistake I did. It might just make your life miserable.
Please note: The psak received was unique to the circumstances and should not be applied without consulting with your own rav.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 860)
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