Shulamis: I know I’m hurting you, but there was no other way.
Everyone assumed I would move back to Brooklyn. But they didn’t say that — they said “move home.” Like the whole year of being married was just a mirage, like I hadn’t ever tried to build another home in another place, like it was all erased because I was “lucky” not to have kids, and now we were free to pretend none of it ever happened.
I didn’t want to go back to Brooklyn — move into my parents’ house, carry their pain with mine at every moment, never be free of trading the guilt. I’m sorry, Ma, I never meant for this to happen. I’m sorry, Kayla, I should have protected you.
So I stayed in Wilmere. I left the apartment, of course; I found a new one, with plain white walls that didn’t have holes in the places where portraits of glowing smiles once hung. I brought the dishes and the pots but I left the cookbooks; cookbooks were for making meals for other people. But I didn’t wallow. I’d stayed because I wanted to build a new life for myself. I tried to do that.
It was weird, I’d been here a year and had made no friends. At first that was because I was a newlywed, couldn’t see past the bubble of bliss. When the bubble popped, I couldn’t see past the pain. So here I was, trying to piece together a new life, and I had nothing to center it on — no husband, no kids, no friends.
That left work. Work was the only time I talked to people.
I liked doing Early Intervention. The kids were cute, the mothers were people like me. I loved watching the kids progress and knowing I had a part in it.
Like Yossi Klieger. He was almost two — dark curly hair poking up in every direction and hiding his huge brown eyes.
“He never lets me put anything in it,” said Shulamis, apologizing at our first session. “The BCBA said I should force him, and reward him for keeping it in for a few seconds, and then longer. I guess I’m not such a good mother.”
“I guess not. A good mother always makes sure her kid looks perfect. Caring for a PDD kid, having therapists coming and going all day — that counts for nothing.”
Shulamis looked surprised, then laughed. “You’re a good therapist.”
“I’m a speech therapist, not a social worker,” I corrected her. But soon I became more than that — a friend.
“Say, ‘Go!’” I jiggled the blanket that Yossi sat on. “Go! Go! Go!”
He looked up at me expectantly, waiting for the ride.
“Hurray!” I pulled the blanket like a sled, Yossi squealed in delight as we slid across the hardwood floor. “Go! Go!”
Shulamis sat down near me as I was completing my paperwork. “He did fantastic,” I told her.
“I know.” She was quiet. “You have no idea what it’s like, the tantrums, everything. And he can’t communicate. If he wants something, he just melts down, he doesn’t have any way to get his needs met. And if something bothers him, he can’t tell us what, he just screams. And everything bothers him, always.”
“Go!” Yossi called.
Shulamis looked over at where he was sitting on his blanky, waiting for a ride.
“Other kids just start talking.”
I put down my pen.
“I hear other mothers saying things like, ‘Be quiet for a minute.’ I can’t imagine ever telling Yossi to stop talking. It’s like everyone else has something that I don’t have, and I have something that they don’t have. Am I making sense?”
“If it makes sense to you, it makes sense.”
She looked directly at me. “That’s what you say. Maybe you’re not a real therapist after all, because that’s not what all the other therapists say. They just give me a zillion instructions and ideas and ‘follow up.’ Then they come back and quiz me on what I did or didn’t do and threaten, I mean remind me, that this is the time the brain can learn new things, and if I lose this opportunity, the window will close.” Her face reddened. “They don’t live here, they sail in and out for an hour a week. Let them come live my life for a day, and then they can talk!”
“And it makes you feel even more alone, like you’re being abandoned by the people who are supposed to understand.”
Did that make us real friends? I don’t think we ever talked about anything unrelated to Yossi until I got stuck on the Weiss shidduch. Trying to find out about a divorced guy is just so complicated. Besides the guy himself, there’s the divorce — why did it happen? Is that the official version or the truth? Is there any way to actually find out the truth? Does an objective truth even exist? Am I a total hypocrite for making these considerations? Could I rely on the information I was getting? Could I trust my own judgment? I was totally out of my depth. My parents were overly invested and also afraid to make another mistake. I had no way to move forward. I was going around in circles. I needed help.
Then I found out that Shulamis’s husband had grown up on the same block as Weiss and learned with him for a few years.
“I know this is weird.” I was standing with my hand on the doorknob, but I forced myself to do it. “Could you ask your husband about this guy for me?”
Shulamis didn’t ask any questions, she just did what I needed her to do. It was only when I finished talking to her that I felt like I could agree to meet him.
“It’s the first guy I’m dating since my divorce,” I blurted out.
Her response was perfect: “You’ll do great.”
It was so nice to have a friend again.
When I wrote the date on Yossi’s session notes two years after my divorce, I was shocked to realize it was almost his third birthday. “Wow, he’s aging out in three more months,” I said. Early Intervention only services kids until they turn three.
The sense of loss was so strong I couldn’t talk for a minute. “I can’t believe it.” I reached over and tousled Yossi’s head. “Still with the curls in your eyes, mister. Only worse.”
Yossi shook me off. “Want a candy,” he demanded.
“My, how far we’ve come.” I made a show of searching in my bag for a treat. “Here, take one.”
“Two.” A sly smile lit his face. “For Miri!”
“Three going on thirteen,” said Shulamis wryly. Her face changed. “I know this is going to sound funny, but I don’t feel like it’s ‘just’ his upsheren. I feel more like it’s his bar mitzvah.” She looked embarrassed. “I mean, it’s a major milestone. Remember what he was like when you started working with him? He didn’t talk, he wasn’t engaged. He used to take all the blocks and just line them up in a row. He used to flap his hands. It’s still hard for me to admit it.” She looked over at Yossi. He was riding his little tricycle and making siren sounds. “Now I feel… I have hope now.”
I had to blink and look away. “It really is a milestone. You put so much into him.” The tricycle rolled to a stop near me, I pulled on one of his curls. “Guess those curls are coming off soon, though!”
Shulamis made a face. “A haircut, sure, for Mr. Sensory. I can hardly wait.”
I watched Yossi. It felt good to have made a difference. I made a difference in his life. I made a difference in Shulamis’s life. I thought I understood what Shulamis meant when she said that she feels like it’s a major milestone. I kind of felt that way, too.
The sense of loss trailed after me at our sessions for the next three months. Yossi had changed and grown, but so had I. I was really going to miss Yossi.
I was really going to miss Shulamis.
Shulamis was feeding the baby in another room when I wrote my notes for the last time. Yossi has made tremendous progress over the last two years... He can communicate verbally and initiate interaction... We look forward to more progress from Yossi!
I handed the paper to Miri. “Give this to your mother,” I said. I stood up. “Bye, guys. This is my last time here.”
“What?” Miri was outraged. “Why?”
“I only work with kids under three,” I explained. “Yossi’s turning three in a few days, right?”
“Right!” Miri bounced up. “And on Sunday we’re making a big party and everyone is gonna come, even Bubby and Zeidy and Tanta Zissy from far away and all the neighbors and cousins and we’re gonna cut off Yossi’s girl-hair and he’ll have a Tatty-haircut and get a yarmulke and everyone will get tons of nosh.”
“And pekelach,” Shaindy added.
“Pekelach is nosh,” Miri shot back.
“Ow, stop it! Maaa! Miri’s bothering me!”
Shulamis bustled in, the baby over one shoulder. “Stop fighting, I’m here.” She handed me an envelope. “There’s no way I can thank you. It’s just a token…”
I stood there, flustered and confused. “Uh, thanks.” I forgot to smile.
“Okay, guys, let’s say goodbye to Morah Kayla!”
It was a mistake, I told myself. Of course, Shulamis is going to invite you. You’re a huge part of Yossi’s life. She just had a baby, she’s busy, she’s tired — it was an oversight.
For the next few days I was vaguely distracted. Every time my phone rang, every text, I thought it might be Shulamis. I’d poured my heart and soul into Yossi. Shulamis and I had shared so much together. Of course, she’d invite me… right?
On Sunday morning I went to the gym and then to the grocery and then I drove the long way home.
Why was I doing this? What was the point?
Maybe Miri was wrong, maybe she had dreamed up the whole thing.
The turn for Shulamis’s block was approaching. What was I doing here? I should just go home. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
I had to slow down as I approached Shulamis’s house. There were cars squeezed into every available spot up and down the block. The music was loud. An enormous bouquet of balloons danced at the mailbox. There was a moonwalk on the lawn with a zillion little kids bouncing up and down.
A little boy came running out of the house. He ran toward the moonwalk with an ecstatic look on his face. He was wearing a brand-new yarmulke on his short, short curls.
I sped up, hurtled down the block, turned randomly at the corner.
If I could tell Shulamis one thing it would be: After all the years I invested in Yossi, everything we’ve shared together, how could you leave me out on his special day?
Chayala and I were friends in high school, but when we both got married and moved to Wilmere (or Nowhere, as Chayala called it), we became like sisters. We would get together every Sunday morning, exhausted after a long Shabbos with the kids, and they would entertain themselves for hours while we schmoozed in snoods on the couch. Whoever went to the grocery always picked up what the other needed. Chayala knew my combination so she could get things from my house when I wasn’t home: oil or sugar, or the shoe her kid left behind, or the bow she needed to borrow for her toddler to wear in their family portrait. That’s how it is when you live so far away from family — your friends become your family.
When Chayala’s brother got engaged, she missed the vort. It was in Brooklyn, where the kallah’s family lived, and it was too far to go just for a party.
“It’s not only that I’m missing the vort. It’s like I’m a nobody,” Chayala mourned. “The kallah’s never going to know me. I’ll just be the over-the-hill sister-in-law who lives in a weird place. We’ll see each other once or twice a year and try to be polite and pretend to remember the kids’ names.”
I came over the next morning with an iced coffee to comfort her. I didn’t find her in need of comforting, though. She looked ecstatic. “They’re moving to Wilmere!”
“I just spoke to my mother. She said that Baruch and Kayla are moving to Wilmere!”
“What? How can that be?”
She looked defensive. “Why can’t it be? I live here. You do too, I might add.”
“I’m aware.” I was stunned. “I just — what are they going to do in Wilmere?”
“Who cares?” She laughed delightedly. “Baruch will join the new kollel in Greater Wilmere, it’s not far. Kayla is a speech therapist, so she can get a job anywhere.”
“Wow, I’m so happy for you.” And jealous, too. If Chayala had family here, where would that leave me?
But it turned out there was no need for me to have worried that I would lose Chayala. The newlyweds were in their own world and Chayala loved grumbling that she never saw them.
Then she stopped mentioning them.
Then she told me they were separated.
“Hi, Shoo-lamis. It’s Yvonne.”
Yvonne was Yossi’s EI case manager. “Hi, Yvonne. How are you?”
“Great.” I could hear papers rustling. “I’m looking at Yossi’s paperwork and I see he was approved for two sessions of speech therapy each week. That’s great.”
“Yes, thank you so much.”
“The way it works is that the case will be picked up by one of the agencies contracted with the state. So you’ll be contacted by them and they’ll assign a therapist to you.”
That threw me. “I don’t get to pick the therapist?” I’d imagined hours of interviewing, calling references, choosing the perfect therapist for my precious child.
“No. But if you’re unhappy with the therapist for any reason, you can request a change.”
When Kayla walked in for the first session, I didn’t know who she was — I had never met her before. But then she introduced herself as Kayla Brenner, and I realized immediately that she was Chayala’s sister-in-law.
Augh, this was awkward.
But it wasn’t, because I realized right away that she didn’t know who I was. (After all, who was I? Her husband’s older sister’s friend. Why should she know me? She barely knew Chayala.) I figured we could get through this one session, and afterward I’d request a different therapist.
The thing was, it was a great session. I could see that she “got” Yossi. It just clicked. I had seen enough therapists work with Yossi to know I didn’t want to give her up so fast.
And anyway, what reason was I going to give? I could just imagine myself calling Yvonne: “Hi, Yvonne, this is Shulamis. I want a different therapist… What’s wrong? Oh, nothing major, she’s a great therapist. It’s just that she’s separated from my best friend’s brother.”
So I didn’t say anything to anyone.
Including Chayala. She knew all about Yossi, of course. She was the only one who knew.
“Wilmere,” I told her, “turns out to be the silver lining.”
“What do you mean?”
“The advantage of living so far away is that I get to control what people know about me.” I scooped soggy raw rice grains out of the bathtub. “They can all go on thinking we’re totally normal and functional. They’ll never see any evidence to the contrary.”
“You are normal and functional,” Chayala protested.
“Normal, possibly. Functional, well, let’s just say we’ve adjusted our expectations.”
“That’s a good thing. You’re not in denial, you’re doing what your kid needs.”
“How do you get raw rice out of a bathtub drain?”
“I have no idea. Um, how did you get raw rice into the bathtub drain?”
“Just that adjusted functionality you mentioned.”
We laughed. It was good I had Chayala. She was the only one I confided in.
Her… and Kayla. Because that was the thing about Kayla. She didn’t only get Yossi, she also got me. It was great that I didn’t have to deal with relatives asking personal questions and judging or pitying. But I also didn’t have any support.
I didn’t mean to lean on Kayla like that. But she kind of slipped gently into our lives and filled such a big need. It just happened by itself.
We were waiting for Kayla to arrive one day when Chayala called me, sounding strange. I wanted to tell her I’d call her back. The last thing I needed was Kayla arriving while Chayala was on the phone. But then Chayala said, “Listen, Shulamis, I’m not really in the mood for talking. I just need to tell you this.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Baruch gave… her… a get yesterday.”
My mind was blank. “Oh. Okay.” The doorbell rang. Yossi shrieked and pulled at my sleeve.
“Is that Yossi?”
“It’s okay. Go on,” I said.
“I can’t think of anything to say.” She was crying. I batted Yossi away. “I can’t process the whole thing… so much pain.”
I didn’t say anything. The doorbell rang again. Yossi screamed and tugged on me.
“I’ll let you go,” she said dully.
I hung up the phone and answered the door. It was Kayla, right on time.
Was I doing something wrong? That was the question I asked myself twice a week for almost two years. And I answered myself that I wasn’t. My child needed therapy; Kayla was an excellent therapist. Why should I hurt Yossi and Kayla just because she was divorced from Chayala’s brother? Of course, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
But I couldn’t let Chayala find out. And when you’re doing something that would hurt your best friend so much that you have to keep it a secret, it definitely feels like you’re doing something wrong.
Chayala picked the color scheme for the upsheren. “Do you want cobalt blue and silver, which is bold but classy, or red, which is more fun?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. Did I tell you Zissy is coming?”
“I think you might have mentioned it once or twice or a hundred times.”
“I can’t pick a color scheme. You just tell me what to do.”
“Cobalt and silver,” Chayala said promptly. “It will look gorgeous in this room. You can set up kiddie tables outside near the moonwalk and do fun kid colors there.”
“Okay, perfect.” I wrote it all down. “What else?”
“I’ll make cupcakes, blue and silver sprinkles for the adults and red sprinkles for the kids. When you set up, do an entire platter of blue and an entire platter of silver. Don’t mix them up, okay?”
“Wait, let me write this down.”
Chayala groaned. “Forget it, I’ll come early to help set up.”
I grinned. This party was going to be amazing. Yossi was doing so well. I couldn’t wait for everyone to come and celebrate with us — although they wouldn’t even know how much there was to celebrate. Only my husband and I really knew. And Chayala. And Kayla.
I felt the blood drain from my face. Kayla was going to be at the upsheren! How in the world was I going to explain that to Chayala?
“Oh, do you guys know each other?”
“Oh, she’s Yossi’s therapist, didn’t I ever mention it?”
“Listen, I can explain…”
Maybe I could tell Kayla to come early (how?) and tell Chayala to come late? No, I needed Chayala to help set up. Maybe I could tell Kayla to come late? But Chayala would be the last to leave. There was no way I could invite Kayla without Chayala meeting her. So there was just no way I could invite Kayla.
If I could tell Kayla one thing it would be: I know I hurt you, I know I was wrong. I didn’t know what else to do.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 727)
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