“Everything’s okay, honey. It’s just that your husband was brought in. He was in a car that spun out of control.”
“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist but you have ceased to live”
Francois de Fenelon
Everything’s different tonight. For one thing, Shalom’s home early. Yes, he works on Chol Hamoed. Yes, we talk about it, or don’t talk about it, or scuttle around it until my words are like a coral-colored crab, coming at everything from the side. Tonight, though, he’s home at seven, instead of his usual 10:15.
Atarah emerges from her room and I drop a kiss on her forehead. She’s pale beneath the blush. The house is unusually quiet, the other kids all at their cousins. My sister has this thing for Succos sleepovers; tonight, it’s a heaven-sent blessing.
She’s going out for the first time tonight. The boy — a Yair Landstrom — sounded good through all our enquiries, as we poked through the words to find hints of trouble, or maybe even droplets of truth. A learner — not one of the sparkly, insecure types who asks questions to make the rosh yeshivah frown in concentration and who has a small following of chassidim. The solid, dependable type. Atarah needs that. She’s like Shalom. Besides, I couldn’t bear the thought of her going out with some firecracker of a boy.
I’ve got a show on tonight, so I splurged on a cleaning lady and the house looks great. So great that I’m not even embarrassed when there’s a light tap on the door and in walks Yair Landstrom, hat set back on his face, cheeks tinged with uncertainty. Sweet. He talks to Shalom in the dining room and then we usher the pair — couple? — out the front door. Atarah ducks back to give me a kiss goodbye. And then, in a flash of dark brown hair and light peach silk, she is gone for the night.
I close the oak door to a feeling of bereavement. I can’t help but think of the first time I met Shalom, all those years ago. I was into magic tricks back then, too, helping out at bas mitzvah parties, babysitting kids no one else wanted to watch. I called it sleight of hand, just to be safe, so I wouldn’t be stuck with a label that would be too heavy to carry through shidduchim.
In the middle of our date, when there was a small amount of Coke in my glass — danger point, where a slip can turn into a slurp — and conversation was sparse, I took a deck of cards from my pocket and told him to pick a card, any card, and keep it to yourself.
My sister was mortified when I gave her my post-date report, but the shadchan said that Shalom thought the date went okay, not great, but not bad either. And he wanted to see me again to know the secret of that card trick.
In 20 minutes, maybe less, a bus of 40 girls will pull up outside the house. They’re coming straight from the ice-skating rink and are heading on to pizza. They’ve come for an hour of gasp-inducing, wondrous illusions from a famed magician. That’s me. Ha.
I started my job when Shalom decided that he had not just one family to support, but two. And money didn’t grow on trees, it couldn’t be magicked out of thin air, poof. But then we realized, well, maybe it could. I started off small — a birthday party here, a Bnos performance there. But word of mouth did its job and soon I was doing, three, four shows a week. In the summer, it could sometimes be three shows a day.
Now I mainly work at the rehab center, coaxing stroke victims to shuffle my cards and pluck coins from the air, to help them regain movement and dexterity. I still do shows, though, especially on Chol Hamoed when mothers are desperate to keep their daughters entertained, somehow, anyhow.
Tonight, the extra nerves give my performance an edge. I flit around the house, adjusting cushions, washing the single glass in the sink, until there’s a knock and the girls pour into my basement wonderland.
“Who’s coming to feel the coin?” I ask when the girls are quiet and have loosened up enough that I’m in command of the audience. It’s a silver dollar, wrapped up in a piece of pale blue paper. Half a dozen girls raise their hands. I choose a blonde girl with unreal violet eyes who sits toward the edge of the group. She stands and takes a skip toward me; blushes, realizing she is too old to betray enthusiasm, and the skip turns into a lope. Beside me, she smells of expensive fabric conditioner and I make a big show of asking her name: 50 percent of a show’s success is not about the illusions, but the way you work the audience.
I look at her once. Twice.
The basement spotlight is too hot. My sheitel sticks to my neck.
The last time I met Yael Reiner she was maybe three years old, clutching a stuffed giraffe with an impossibly long neck. I was at the hospital, shadowing Rita Evans, the chaplain with a pink rinse and a tendency to call strangers honey and pull them into big, motherly hugs.
Little Yael had — thank G-d — been strapped into a car seat when a driver had lost control and slammed into her father’s SUV. She was fine, not a scratch, just confused. She was thrust toward me and I took her into a side room and tried to distract her by throwing my voice so it came out of the giraffe. I’d read about the principles of ventriloquism, never tried it before. Every so often a doctor banged in, stared, and backed out. The father was in surgery, I heard. I acted that giraffe like my life depended on it. Not just for Yael, but to keep my own mind off the horror. So hard to see Yidden there in the hospital, hear their stories, watch the wholeness of their lives desiccating.
“I’m cold, says Mr. Giraffe. And he goes to one store and another and none of them — not one — have a scarf long enough to keep him w—”
Mrs. Evans tapped me on the arm. “Aviva, honey,” she said, “I’ll take over.”
Yael pouted. “But giraffe still cold! Freezing.”
I shook my head at Mrs. Evans. She crouched down beside me. “Everything’s okay, honey. It’s just that your husband was brought in. He was in a car that spun out of control.”
I focused on a blonde ringlet that quivered just above Yael’s left eyebrow. I was still holding the giraffe, and I pointed with it.
“That’s right. It hit this little girl’s daddy.”
And now, here she is, at 12 maybe 13 — short, a little round-shouldered, violet eyes that would eat me alive if she was my daughter. I drape my arm around her shoulder and try to ignore the tremble of my hand. I wonder if she’s the type of kid who keeps her stuffed animals.
“Well, Yael Reiner is going to tell us all: Is there a coin in the paper?”
Cheeks slightly pink, Yael nods to the audience.
“Out loud! Come on now!”
“Yep! There’s a coin inside.”
I lift the paper high so all the girls can see it and rip the paper — with the coin inside — into shreds.
“How did you do that?” they chorus.
“Well, Yael, thanks for the help. Let’s all give a round of applause for Yael Reiner. I’ll be calling on you again.”
I never do that. I never call the same girl twice. But Yael Reiner. If I haven’t spent half of my life making sure their rent is paid, and electricity, too. If I haven’t slipped extra under their door before school starts in September, and before Yom Tov, so she can have a new outfit even as I do without. In not too many years, I’ll — we’ll — be marrying her off. My thoughts flit to Atarah and how her date is going, and I have to pull myself back to my audience.
I break with the magic for a juggling routine. It’s Succos, so I lead them all out under the night sky, though it’s so cold that my breath comes out in little puffs of white — but who needs a roof over your head? Who needs anything when there’s a fire before you, inside you, glowing just out of reach. I pick up my clubs and light the tips, so that they’re a faerie fountain of silver and red against the black-cloaked heavens. I add another, and another, and all of a sudden I hear a clap, a familiar clap, it’s the sound made when two large, slightly flabby palms catch the night sky between them and explode. Shalom. He’s out here, watching the show.
I’m glad, suddenly, that it’s dark and no one sees the color that floods my cheeks.
I toss the clubs to the side and light a torch: a yellow-red flame that climbs higher, higher. The background music reaches a crescendo as I lean forward and swallow the fire. Forty girls gasp. I knew they would. People think it’s special but it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Absence of air. With nothing to feed it, the fire goes out. I look over at Shalom and suddenly the fire inside me dims. Dies. That’s all it takes to extinguish a flame.
I’m almost finished the show, and I have a pretty cool illusion with a goldfish and a vicious rabbit who keeps tearing through the netting of its cage. Before I start, I dangle the offer: “So, who wants to know how it’s really done?” I think originally it was our rav’s idea, a kind of spiritual insurance policy against the whole magic scene. I let them see how I set it all up, the sleight of hand behind the illusion.
When I ask who wants to see, my audience is usually divided. I see people closing their eyes, peeking between fingers, or looking down at their shoes. The other half stares right up at me, letting out a collective aaah as, step-by-step, they watch me set up the trick.
Shalom’s still here, watching me, and I wonder: Will he hide his eyes and enjoy the thrill of the illusion? Or will he look, carefully drinking in each of my moves, so he sees through the magic?
With one finger on my lips, I show my audience the pellet under my thumbnail that releases a plume of green smoke. In a minute, when I’ve attached the hose to the underside of the table, the others will look up and hey, the goldfish — and the water (that’s the really cool bit) — have disappeared, and Rambo rabbit sits there beside an empty fish tank.
I always wonder: If I were in the audience, would I look, or hide my eyes, leaving the illusion intact? And then I laugh at myself, bitter. What’s the question? I’ve been living in an illusion — the appearance of a solid family, great marriage — since the day I met Yael Reiner. I’m sure Shalom, too, will hide his face, allowing the show to continue — who wants the truth to stir up the chemicals beneath the flames?
But then I look up and see that, although both hands cover his face, those crinkled, wide fingers — they’re split apart. He’s peeking.
For the first time in 23 years of marriage, I’m surprised.
The girls have gone off for their pizza party and I’m left buzzing with post-show energy and daughter-induced nerves. I plop down on the couch, throw off my ridiculous sequined shoes, and look at Shalom. His laptop is open, though I notice the screensaver flashes across the screen.
I say the words that have been on my mind all day. All month. “If this does happen… work out. With Atarah, I mean.”
He swivels to face me. Nods.
It’s hard to say the words. There’s so much between us, that’s the problem. And if we begin talking, really talking, who knows whether we’ll fall into a pit that is endless, bottomless, so that we’ll never find our way out of it. We’ve skirted the pit for such a long time that the air inside has become thick, clawing and fetid, and if we even peek in there I’ll get so dizzy I won’t be able to breathe.
“Then how will we ever be able to continue with the Reiners?”
He’s quiet for a long time. “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.”
I think of Yael. When we had gone out into the darkness of the garden, the loom bands covering her arm had glowed. There’s no light in those bands, nothing intrinsic, it’s just zinc sulfide and strontium aluminate. I wonder if that’s what our home is like — just the glow-in-the-dark type, nothing intrinsic, no real illumination.
Or maybe not?
I can’t get the Reiners out of my mind, though I try and shift my thoughts to Atarah. When I pulled aside the velvet curtain for the disappearing rabbit — the one I wish really would disappear, the amount of vegetables it goes through — I think of another curtain. Years later, it’s strange the details that come back to me.
It’s just a cheap, thin, sky-blue curtain separating two hospital cubicles. Washed-out cotton, smelling faintly of antiseptic, that’s all there is between them, though it feels like there should be a wall of steel. Guilty and innocent: perpetrator and victim. Or maybe the curtain is right in its flimsiness, because after all, haven’t both lives been ruined because Shalom failed to heed the signs that stand sentry on the highway? Tiredness kills.
In this case, it didn’t kill. It made Yosef Reiner blind.
“Shh…” I find myself saying to Shalom each time he whimpers in his sleep like a child, or opens his eyes to reveal a look so full of terror it makes me feel like — this is it, the end of our life together. “It’s not your fault.”
It’s not true.
It is his fault. Of course it is.
I push that away and call the nurse for more painkillers and she bustles in, looks at his graphs to see what she can give him, and eventually, administers a blessed tranquilizer. I watch him doze off and wonder at how falling asleep is the gentlest, most comforting of human experiences: the way we feel the heaviness and can almost trace our own outline in our mind as our body slowly drifts into a place unknown. Shalom’s eyes flutter, and in a minute he’ll be in a cocoon of comfort.
But it pierces me, that this cocoon, just a few hours ago, is what made Shalom fade into the worn-down upholstery of his Ford Focus and rip through steel and glass into someone else’s life.
Shalom and I look at each other from across the living room. We’re not used to each other’s company. For the last ten years, since the accident, Shalom’s worked till late — nine to five for our family, and then five to ten to have an envelope full of cash to push under the Reiner’s front door on the first of every month, coming home tired and depleted from the guilt he wears like a second skin. It’s not enough money, so I do performances, shows, birthday parties, work at the rehab center.
Each night, about seven, he calls to tell the kids goodnight. And I lean against the kitchen counter and he says, so how was work? And I say, baruch Hashem, fine. And the kids? he asks. They’re fine. Doing okay, I say. A pause. And how was your day, I ask. Good, good, he says. Another pause. Well, see you later then, he says. And I lean back, defeated, because we haven’t said anything at all and it would be better if he didn’t call. If he didn’t call I could at least pretend I’m talking to him and that he understands and for once I could express the truth inside me all this time that we both refuse to look at: This is too hard for me. And maybe if I really want to be more truthful: I need you.
Neither of us knows what to do. What to say. I sit on the couch and listen to the Glickmans next door drive up, spill out of the car, shouts, laughter, the rustle of bags, a slam. Their front door squeaks, clicks closed. Silence. Shalom gets up, pushes back his chair, and goes upstairs. He returns with an armful of shoes. He spills them out on the dining room table, takes the basket of polish supplies out of the coat closet. Spreads a newspaper on the table.
I watch as he picks up Atarah’s black Shabbos shoes. He smears the tiniest drop of polish onto the leather, picks up the brush and starts buffing and buffing. Find something to do, I tell myself, unable to place the desperation I feel as I watch him. It’s 9:20, they won’t be home until around eleven. Find something to do. I prowl the living room and watch Shalom and I wonder where will the energy that’s building up inside me go? For it must spill out in something.
Meanwhile, Shalom just sitting there, half-moon glasses perched low on his nose. Smooth, brush, squeeze, hold up to the light, set the shoe carefully down on the newspaper. His strokes are hypnotic. Calming. And all of a sudden, in the slope of his shoulders, in the careful movements of his fingers, I see his love. Each flick of the wrist, each time he peers closer to look at the leather, each squeeze of the polish is imbued with heart, just as that sponge is filled with thousands of invisible particles.
And with a rush of anger, I wonder how Shalom has an abundant extravagance of love to give his daughter and there’s nothing left for me.
He feels me watching and looks up. Pushes his glasses up his nose. “I haven’t seen you perform for years,” he says. “Not since you were a rookie.”
“Why did—” I don’t know if the words come out or just their message beams between us, like in the old days, when we used to understand each other from the line of his jaw, or the tiniest flicker in my gray-green eyes.
“Thanks.” I look down at the magic box next to my feet. I keep my supplies in a plain box, unvarnished. People comment all the time and I tell them that the most powerful magic is inside, hidden from view.
“Want a try?” The words surprise me. I lean down, flip open the lid, and hand Shalom a matchbox.
“What am I supposed to do?”
Isn’t that always the question: What are we supposed to do? I take the box, strike a match, and watch the flame burn and grow, before blowing it out. The tip is charred and black and I think of Yael Reiner. Was it wrong the way we turned our lives inside out to provide some semblance of normality for them? If not to put things right, then at least to make things easier? Or just easier for us to live with?
For years, I’ve chafed under the burden, even while I acknowledge the rightness, the truth, of what we’re doing. One day, Shalom stood up, exasperated, and flicked off the electricity at the mains. Even the little green light at the top of the freezer was extinguished. “Try living like this,” he said, and though his words were harsh, his voice was soft. “Try. And then tell me we’re doing the wrong thing.”
I wanted to tell him: No, that’s not true. Yosef Reiner doesn’t live in thick, dizzying darkness. Mr. Reiner’s grayness flickers and whispers and sends illusions of shapes and objects. If he really wants to see something, he’ll stretch out his fingers and reach forward. I imagine him doing that to Yael, running his fingers across the softness of her skin, the whirlpool of her ears, the whisper of her eyebrows, seeing her, seeing her. Blindness. Dancing shadows. Tables bleeding into chairs, day into night. And the sudden sheens of unknowable light — you don’t know where it comes from or why but it does nothing to illuminate the shapes before you that you wished you never, ever knew.
Now, as I watch Shalom take a match, burn it down, I wonder if Mr. Reiner, seeing through the gray flickering shadows, has something I don’t have.
Yael Reiner. What a sweet face. The gentle curve of her nose, the glasses on just a little bit crooked. She’s a beautiful child. I perform for these beautiful children all the time and why don’t I see it? Sorrow can make you selfish, and maybe it’s made me not just selfish, but blind. Because my vision has been contracted, narrowed, until all I see is my desperation.
Now, as I watch Shalom across the room, as I see him waiting, match in hand, ready to follow instructions, to try it out just to please me. And I wonder: Maybe Shalom was there for me all the time, but I never saw it.
It’s a long time since we went on a date. Maybe ten years. But Shalom wants a go at my tricks and I’m filled with a long-forgotten shiver. Shalom does as I say, slipping the match between his thumb and forefinger, while making a big show of opening the matchbox where he’ll find a burned-out match already there, planted. He tries, but the match crunches into two and he’s left with a splinter. I run to fetch the tweezers and I can’t help but smile. Shalom smiles, too.
“I’m giving up on the matches,” he says. “Let me try the juggling clubs.”
We go out of the house, squeeze past the succah, and stop in the middle of the garden. I breathe in the damp greenness of the evening, look up at the sky, and all of a sudden, the darkness is the center of a great celestial eye, one that sees past it all, through it all, to a vision unexpected, unexplained. Shalom grips the clubs, bends his knees slightly, and tosses a single club into the air. I reach up and snatch it out of the night. He takes it back, tips slightly on his heels and throws. One, two, three.
And he’s juggling, he’s doing it, though he has to jump around to follow the clubs and his glasses fall down his nose. I laugh. And he laughs, and then the clubs are on the grass and we both scramble to pick them up.
I stand there under the night sky laughing like I haven’t laughed in years, because I met Yael Reiner and I know the rightness of what we’re doing and I’m proud that we do it. And I know, in the movement of Shalom’s fingers and the way he shines those shoes and the way he took the time to watch what I was doing and the way he opened his fingers and stared through the cracks to see past the illusion — I know that he loves me, that he always has, even if my vision was too full of gray shadows to see it.
We hear a cough and look up like guilty children. Atarah. Standing, watching us. “I couldn’t find you. And then I heard the noise.”
“Atarah!” Shalom’s voice is filled with joy.
“What are you doing?”
“Mommy’s just giving me some magic lessons. The real thing.”
He leads her back inside. I follow. “So, how was the date?” he asks.
In the light I see the pink has returned to her cheeks. She looks good, really good, so I cut to the chase. “You want to see him again?”
Atarah tilts her head to the side and nods.
And Shalom looks over her head and meets my eyes. “It’s a second date?”
And I know that not all magic is an illusion.
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Succos 5775)
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