My bag has a Bais Yaakov Convention key chain on it, a gift from my older sister. And my best friend is walking next to me, wearing blue jeans
My phone pings, startling me out of my statistics-induced haze. It’s another text from Talia.
I’m not going on the date. Nothing to wear. And the Jailers won’t give me money to buy anything.
I smirk and then sigh, passing a hand over my eyes. The girl has many nicknames for her parents; “the Jailers” is one of the nice ones. A paradigm of kibbud av v’eim she’s not, but her family life is difficult, and if anyone needs to get married and fly the coop, it’s her.
Be there in 20, I shoot back. I throw open my closet and pull out my three new dating dresses. It’s all right, I already wore them on dates one, two, and three with Yehuda. I smile at the thought and then grab my car keys.
I should really be studying for my math final, but Talia needs me.
Maybe she didn’t really need me last Erev Shabbos, but her text said she was starving and her house was filled with oily baked goods and various other foods she wouldn’t touch with a twenty-foot pole. So I ran out to 7-Eleven to stock up on her favorite low-calorie snacks and dropped the bag by her door with a smile and a hug.
It’s not a hero complex if you never get thanked, right?
He was everything the shadchan said he would be. Tall, good looking, out of the box. And yet, he was so much more than that. Am I really going to marry my first boy? My face hurts from smiling so much; I’m just happy when I’m with him.
“Would m’lady care for a drink after a strenuous day pursuing higher education?” he asks, curving into a deep bow.
I giggle and wonder if we’ll ever reach a point in our relationship where I find his theatrics embarrassing. My guess is yes, but that’s fine with me.
We enter Dunkin’ Donuts, inhale the scent of burned coffee and blink in the fluorescent lighting. I look around, surveying who will see me on this impromptu date outing so I can assess how far the gossip will travel. Not that I’m overly concerned. I’m definitely not embarrassed to be seen with Yehuda.
We stand in line behind a woman with long, ashy blonde hair, wearing a red sweatshirt and faded jeans. Yehuda asks me how my math final was. I try to answer, but then the woman in front of me turns and it’s not a woman, it’s Malki.
Malki’s in line in front of me in Dunkin’ Donuts. I think I have an out-of-body experience and then I can’t help myself.
She turns, nose wrinkling in confusion, and my heart stops, because she looks terrible. Worn and tired, there’s a cigarette dangling from her fingers and she looks… cold.
“Do I know y— Sari?”
I nod and hesitate only a millisecond, very aware of the yeshivah bochur at my side, before reaching over and hugging her.
“Wow.” She looks genuinely amazed. “How long has it been?”
I’ve lost the ability to speak, so it’s incredible that I can squeak out, “Long.”
We laugh and then it’s her turn to order. “Coffee, black,” she says. “Gotta pull an all-nighter, taking the LSATs soon.”
I think my mouth moves, but no words come out.
“Hey, let’s swap info, yeah?”
And with that done, she waves at me and strolls off, ashy hair falling over her face as she swipes at something on her phone.
I say nothing as we head toward Yehuda’s Subaru. My mind is buzzing like a thousand angry bees, and I feel faint.
But I’m present enough to steal a glance at the boy walking next to me. He looks calm, but there’s a furrow between his eyebrows that frightens me. Thoughts of Malki fall to the background as I contemplate losing the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
I sink into the front seat when he holds open my door and he hands me my iced latte before going around to the driver’s seat.
I’ve never been treated like a princess before. I don’t deserve this. Malki…
And suddenly, she is right back at center stage.
“I don’t know what to say,” I whisper, just to break the silence.
Yehuda gives a half smile. “Do you want to say anything?”
He presses a button on his steering wheel and Shwekey crooning “boee kallah” fills the car.
“Oh, that’s really awkward,” he says, turning red.
I snort and then clap a mortified hand over my mouth. We look at each other and burst out laughing.
And because of that more than anything, I tell him the whole story.
They hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. The jeans. When we’d entered the mall and I’d asked Malki to wait while I ducked into Macy’s to return something, she had been wearing a long black slinky skirt.
I know this because I’d been regretting getting so dressed up; I hadn’t realized it was a slinky-and-sweater kind of outing. But now, apparently, it is a jeans-and-sweater kind of outing.
I blink for a few seconds, trying to even my breathing, before pointing a shaking finger. “Malki. What are you wearing?”
She follows my finger and looks down at the offending article of clothing. For a moment, she seems just as shocked as I am, her face registering a sort of comical surprise. Then her eyes shutter. “Relax, it’s totally chill,” she says, laughing. And flinging an arm around my small shoulders, she ushers me into the Gap.
When Malki first moved from Atlanta, she’d shown up on the first day of sixth grade wearing white tights. Really. But today… things are different. I feel self-conscious and anxious the entire time we’re in the mall. My bag has a Bais Yaakov Convention key chain on it, a gift from my older sister. And my best friend is walking next to me, wearing blue jeans.
I could have been happy for whoever got picked as eighth-grade valedictorian, even though I really thought it would be me, if it was going to someone more deserving. Okay, “happy” was pushing it, but I’d practiced a “disappointed yet gracious” look in the mirror, and I’d just about perfected it. But Malki? Malki was going to be valedictorian, just because her GPA was two points higher than mine?
Was I really the only one who knew what was going on?
“I’m not going to mention G-d once in the entire speech,” she confided to me before the big night. I listened carefully. She really didn’t.
Summer was spent finding the perfect bag for high school, stressing about the big adjustment, and relaxing after a busy year. I spent most days with Malki, listening to her theories about why we don’t really need to keep the Torah, and having long conversations with Hashem to assuage my guilt about listening to her: I know she doesn’t mean it, and I don’t believe her anyway, I’m just trying to be a good friend. We also spent hours sprawled on her bedroom floor, listening to CDs she’d picked up at Target and Walmart, the sort of music I’d never listened to before. There were DVDs too, but much less frequently. She didn’t want to push me into anything and I appreciated that. Not that it took much to convince me. A bored and anxious fourteen-year-old is totally ripe for trying new things.
But the nights were different. I spent the nights at home with my sisters, swimming and roasting marshmallows and listening to them predict which teachers would love me and which ones I’d better avoid.
Malki had her own nightlife. I saw her sometimes when my sisters and I went for a late-night Slurpee run. She didn’t even look happy, just tired and grumpy. She hugged me the first time we met at 7-Eleven, but I guess I broke free too quickly, because the next time, she just gave a faint wave.
It was almost like there were two Malkis: the day version and the night version. I was intimidated by Night-Malki. She seemed older, more sophisticated, and world-weary. I started making excuses about why I couldn’t join my sisters on their trips to 7-Eleven.
Maybe that’s why Cheli told Ma, because honestly, Ma would never have noticed herself.
Grandma Bea was dying, although no one would say it aloud, and that’s probably why Ma had such a strong reaction. “I forbid it,” she said, her voice rising with each word, so that “it” came out in a sort of hysterical shriek. I was openmouthed, because Ma never shrieked. I looked over her shoulder to see Cheli shrug apologetically and Tzippy shake her head lightly to tell me it’s no use arguing, Ma’s under too much stress. So I shut my mouth, nodded, and went upstairs to try to figure out how to say goodbye to my best friend of three years.
I could’ve been nicer, let her down easier, maybe, but I was too tired, too worn, too wary that growing up, in general, was going to hurt as bad as this. So I just told her, point-blank, straight out. No sugarcoating or beating around the bush.
“My mother said we can’t be friends anymore. I’m really going to miss you.”
She texted me once after we hung up. You broke my heart.
And then I didn’t speak to her again for the next six years.
I saw her now and then. She didn’t look good. Smoking, a pierced nose, green-streaked hair. Bright, beautiful, confident Malki had turned drab. Gray. Faded. Faded into the bricks in front of 7-Eleven. And always surrounded by other faded teens, until one day, they disappeared into the backdrop and I just stopped seeing them. And when months went by, and Malki completely vanished, I blamed myself.
I told them I couldn’t be chesed head. Rebbetzin Zeitchik pushed me, she really did, but it was a joke. Malki was gone because of me. I was her last link to this world, to our world, and I’d severed it. Rudely, abruptly, I’d pulled away. I didn’t blame Ma, I never even took the time to explain things to her. She’d been under duress, and Grandma Bea had in fact passed away one week after that conversation. But I knew. I knew that our friendship had been strong, maybe too strong, and that with the right direction, I might have been a good influence on her, instead of her being a bad influence on me. I knew I’d jumped ship, and left her to steer alone. And so I wallowed in regret.
I met Talia at a Regents prep class.
“You have your license?” she asked me.
I looked at the dark, pretty stranger and something inside me, that I’d thought was long frozen, thawed.
“As of this past Monday,” I said, jangling my car keys. “And a car that I share with my siblings.” Not sure why I was so proud of a 2000 Toyota Camry, but the girl was looking at me like I had the Golden Ticket and was promising to share my lifetime supply of chocolate with her.
“That’s so great. Want to drive somewhere?”
I didn’t know her, but heaven knew I needed a friend. “Ice cream? Then maybe we can do Regents prep together.”
“Sounds fun. I’m Talia, by the way.”
And we drove off into Sunday afternoon traffic. She became my best friend, the first one since Malki.
I hate to brag, but I’m pretty sure I was the most clichéd seminary girl there ever was. I just kept checking off the boxes for sem girl stereotypes, but I couldn’t help it. I was so inspired by everything. And it was the first time in a long time that I started out a school year with a friend. It wasn’t my first-choice sem, but it was where Talia wanted to go, and that was enough for me.
Malki was everywhere though. I thought I saw her at the Kosel, and at the olive wood shop in Meah Shearim, and one memorable day, I hopped onto a bus going to Maaleh Adumim because I was positive she was the blonde sitting behind the driver.
And I davened. At Kever Rochel, Amukah, Mearas Hamachpeilah. I davened for Malka Tova bas Shira, that wherever she was, she should be safe and happy. And I davened for myself, that Hashem should forgive me, that Malki shouldn’t harbor anger or hatred toward me.
It’s not that I thought I could’ve kept her frum. It’s more that I know that a real friend doesn’t just leave when the going gets tough.
I worked on myself, on my middos. I pushed myself, and I slowly built a reputation for being the most loyal, trustworthy friend a girl could have. It filled the empty spaces inside of me, yet sickened me at the same time. I still looked out for traces of Malki everywhere I went. One night, I logged on to a cousin’s social media page to see if I could find her. But she was gone.
“And,” I tell Yehuda, slightly hoarse, “I haven’t seen her until tonight. For the first time in all these years. While on a date…” I shake my head at the irony and then glance at him. The car is dark and I can’t see his eyes.
I’m scared. I’m really scared that I’ve just blown it, that Yehuda will never look at me again the same way, and he’ll tell the shadchan that it’s over.
“That sounds like a huge burden for you to carry,” he says, his voice rough.
I blink, because I was not expecting sympathy. I was all ready for him to tell me to get out of his car.
“All those years… all this time… all those decisions you’ve made because of what happened. She may have been gone, but she had her fingerprints on every big choice you’ve made since the summer of eighth grade.”
I blush now, because honestly, it sounds a bit pathetic.
“I, um, it’s not like I’m, uh, overly emotional or anything. Like, I know how to let go, and—”
Oh my gosh, I need to stop talking now.
He leans forward, and his eyes come into focus, and they’re looking at me with such kindness that I have to blink back tears.
“You’re a really good friend, Sari,” he says.
That’s all. Nothing major or deep or insightful.
But suddenly, the dam bursts and I’m crying so hard that I can’t breathe.
So much for not being overly emotional.
Absolutely terrified for the surgery tomorrow. If I die, you can have my Ferragamo bag.
Considering that her Ferragamo bag is Talia’s most prized possession, I am quite touched.
After that statistics final, I can assure you the chances of dying from wisdom tooth extraction are quite low, dear. But thank you!
Can you pick me up after?
I sigh. Not to sound totally selfish, but I wanted that time to catch up on my studying. Dating takes up so much time.
Then I feel awful. Talia has no dates, and soon she’ll have no wisdom teeth.
You got it. With ice packs and Advil. Party!
“Sari?” His voice echoes over the loudspeaker.
My cheeks turn red and I’m extremely grateful for my kosher phone so Yehuda can’t witness my burning embarrassment.
“Hi, Yehuda, just one second.”
I pull over to a side street, and hold a finger up to Talia, giving her a desperate, pleading look.
She rolls her eyes but remains quiet, thankfully.
“I was just driving, but I pulled over. How you doing?”
He chuckles and my face flushes once more. “I’m fine, but I’m not the one who just met a ghost from her past.”
I let out a weak laugh, but Talia is now making exaggerated sounds of pain, and if I don’t hang up now, Yehuda will think that I’m on a cow farm.
“Nah, I’m good. Listen, can I call you later? I just need to take care of something.”
Silence and then, “Sure. Speak to you later.”
I blink at the silent phone. Uch, he’s upset. I’m suddenly struck by the desire to push Talia out of my car and slam the door, but she looks so pitiful with her swollen cheeks that I laugh.
“Okay, Fro-Yo, here we come.”
“I still don’t understand why she’s your responsibility.” Yehuda grips the boardwalk railing a bit too hard.
I blow air out through my mouth, run my hand over my hair, and try very hard to remain poised and polished while trying not to scream from frustration. Why are we going in circles? Why does Yehuda care if I’m there for Talia?
“She’s not,” I say patiently. “She is my best friend, though. That’s what friends do for each other.”
Yehuda brings his yarmulke forward and then pushes it back, so his hair is standing straight up. He looks like a troll doll.
“Oh. So she’d do the same for you?”
I blink away sudden tears. Why is he doing this to me?
“Well, no, maybe not. But it’s different. I’m differe— you said,” I interrupt myself. “You said I’m a really great friend. So this is me, being a great friend. I don’t do it to get something in return. Not ’cause I’m like a tzadeikes or anything, just because I need to give and other people don’t.”
He doesn’t like this. He mutters something about needing the restroom and stomps off.
I grin at this and feel bad for my uncharitable thought.
Just for that, I’ll try to see things from his point of view. Okay, he wants a date who’s available, obviously. He also wants to date someone with healthy relationships. Do I have healthy relationships? I perch on a bench and stare at the water.
Well, I haven’t had many real friends. There was Malki… and then there is Talia.
I read Talia’s text and I’m already reaching for my car keys when Yehuda pops into my mind, troll hair and all.
But why is she your responsibility?
This is what friends do.
Do they, though? She knows I have a history final tomorrow. Wouldn’t a friend want me to excel at that, to spend the evening at home studying?
Would she do the same for you?
That’s not the point.
But all the same, I turn off my phone. Now they both can’t reach me.
I ace my history final.
I’m slowly getting the hang of this boundaries thing.
I turned Talia down twice this week, and didn’t do her any favors that were at inappropriate or inconvenient times. Yes, there was the Starbucks run at 8 a.m., which some might deem inappropriate, but I had a doctor’s appointment then anyway.
“Maybe you’re right,” I tell him when he calls Erev Shabbos. “Maybe Malki’s fingerprints have been on everything I’ve done.”
He doesn’t say anything, so I plunge forward. “I’m trying to wipe them off. To do things because they make me happy or because they’re right. Not because I owe it to a 14-year-old who no longer exists.”
Yehuda clears his throat. “Sari. I never meant to get involved or tell you what to do. But I’m really happy we met your friend that day in Dunkin’ Donuts. Because now I know who you really are. And I’m a lucky guy.”
Nothing to wear. Can I come in a garbage bag?
I smirk at Talia’s text and then frown. Not my problem. Honestly, isn’t there like a law forbidding people from stressing out the bride?
I walk to my closet and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I look the same as always. I don’t look like the main character in a fairy tale. But that’s how I feel. I put my hands on my cheeks, feel the warmth of my excitement. I’m so ready for this.
Studying my closet, I find my silver party dress. Talia would look great in it and it’s really just sitting here. But is it my job to dress my best friend for my own engagement party?
Though it really would look perfect with her eyes….
I pull it out and drape it over my arm.
I pick up my phone. Dresses on Demand, at your service. Be there in 20. My finger hovers over the Send button. My bracelet catches the light, diamonds winking, and for a moment I’m distracted. A week has done nothing to lessen the novelty.
I bite my lip and hit Delete.
As long as you’re there, you can wear your old school uniform. AHHHHHHHH! Can’t wait! Love you.
I catch another glimpse of myself in the mirror and give my reflection a little salute.
I sit in front of my computer, hands tapping on the keyboard. I flex my left ring finger, testing its new weight. I shake my head and straighten my shoulders.
Well then, here goes nothing.
Malki! Was so fun to see you the other night!
Crazy how we just bumped into each other… I can’t believe you’re taking the LSATs, that’s incredible. You’d make a great lawyer, if I remember correctly 🙂
I know it’s been years, but I just feel like I need to apologize for the way we left things seven (!) years ago. I should never have called you and just ended our friendship like that. I was young and immature, but still. I really hope you can forgive me.
All the best, Sari
I only check my email five hundred times that evening.
But the next day, after political science and before statistics, it comes.
Hands shaking, I click on it.
It was great to see you, Sari. I actually go by Maggie now, not Malki, but that’s okay.
Yup, being a lawyer’s the dream. Call me the next time you rob a bank. Just wait a few years first 😉
I actually have no clue what you’re talking about, lol. Loooots has happened since then.
It’s totally chill though.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 830)
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