Yes, no, I-dunno, okay. Deena kept quiet throughout, trying to maintain an even face. She hadn’t expected Miri to chatter, right?
Miri looked beyond precious when they showed up for the intake. She was wearing a Sonia Rykel sweater set with a sequin heart, Golden Gooses sneakers, and a Knot hairband in her hair.
She definitely did not look like a poor, orphaned kid.
Deena checked her reflection on her phone screen before they entered. She patted down her sheitel, squeezed Miri’s hand and rang the bell.
Miri stood stiffly as Deena took a seat in Sarah Beneloff’s office.
“Hi, Miri!” Sarah greeted her.
So much for looking precious.
“Do you want to sit down?”
Miri shook her head. Deena was about to coax her to sit but bit back her words. They were on the psychologist’s clock now, let her do whatever she saw fit.
Sarah didn’t mention sitting again. She made small talk, then took out some blocks and planted them on the table. Without looking at Miri, she laid out a series of blocks. Then she placed a pile of blocks on the other side of the table. “Can you copy what I did here, Miri?”
Miri hesitated, then approached the table. She copied the pattern, then sat down, staring at the wall.
“Good,” Sarah said. She moved the blocks away, leaned forward and caught Miri’s eye.
“What’s your favorite part of school?”
Miri shrugged. “Nothing.”
“You don’t like school?”
“Do you like to color?”
The questioning continued with Miri answering one-word answers: Yes, no, I-dunno, okay. Deena kept quiet throughout, trying to maintain an even face. She hadn’t expected Miri to chatter, right?
After 15 minutes, Sarah stood up. “Come, Miri. We’re going to go into the next room for a few minutes. We’re going to play a bit, all right? Mommy, you can come along.”
Miri looked at Deena hesitantly. “Come,” Deena urged.
They entered the adjoining room, which looked like a well-equipped playroom. Sarah invited Miri to join her on the floor, and after casting an uncertain glance at Deena, Miri took a few steps closer. She didn’t sit down, only watched curiously as Sarah positioned menschies in a dollhouse.
Deena took a seat at the corner of the room. She watched Sarah engage with Miri, slowly drawing her in to play. Miri didn’t speak much, but Sarah kept up an easy chatter, and here and there Miri contributed a few words. They spoke quietly, and Deena couldn’t quite follow what they were saying.
After a while, Sarah put down the toys. “You can continue to play, Miri. I’ll go to my office to talk to your mother now, we’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Back in Sarah’s office, she motioned for Deena to sit.
“Mrs. Lizman, can I ask you a few questions?”
Sarah squinted at Deena. “So you told me you lost your husband a little while ago.”
“How do you think that affected Miri?”
“Well…” Deena’s gaze traveled to the window, which was slightly ajar. “Of course, it’s a hard thing for a kid to experience. Very hard.” She reached for the pile of blocks on the corner of the desk and maneuvered them into a straight row. “But I’ll tell you the truth, Miri didn’t have much of a relationship with him. He was sick for over a year.”
“And before then?”
“Before then…” Deena picked up a block, ran her fingers over it. “Before then… honestly, he…” She swallowed. “He wasn’t much of a father.”
Her fingers were cold. Clammy. She kept her eyes on the block in her hand.
“I see,” Sarah said softly.
Deena looked up slowly. Sarah’s eyes were tender, almost sad.
It was so awful to say this, to talk about Zev this way. But at the same time, with the words out of her mouth, her chest felt light with relief.
He wasn’t much of a father. And — although they were here for Miri, this was all about Miri — Deena knew that this young and eager psychologist understood what she hadn’t said.
He wasn’t much of a husband either.
“What happened?” Leah’s voice was sharp.
Deena put the phone down on the table and gazed at the mess around her. She hadn’t done a thing since returning from the intake. After dropping Miri off at school, she’d come home and collapsed into a kitchen chair, burying her head in her hands. She hadn’t thought of supper, hadn’t picked up a toy or a dish to put away. She hadn’t even changed out of her clothes. And she had no inclination to do any of it.
Her head was spinning. She didn’t know what she was feeling. Not bitter, not angry, not even upset. Just… strange.
And this had been Miri’s therapy session.
She heard Leah clear her throat. “Hmm?”
“Nothing,” Deena mumbled, picking up the phone. Why had she bothered answering the phone? Why did Leah consider it her duty to check up on Deena ten times a day?
“Nothing,” Leah echoed. “Did I ever tell you what a terrible liar you are? If I did, it bears repeating.”
“I hate you so much, you have no idea.”
Deena was quiet.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, headway. You acknowledge that something happened.”
“Did I ever tell you how much I hate you? If I did, it bears repeating.”
Leah laughed. “River House. Tonight. I’m picking you up at eight.”
“No, you are not. I am so not in the mood. Besides, I have two adorable girls at home, I can’t leave them unattended. And I’m not calling my sister Raizy, don’t even mention it.”
“I’m not mentioning it, because you did, and stop being such a brat about your kid sister babysitting. It doesn’t make you a rachmanus when she comes.” Leah’s voice took on frightening purpose. “You know, Deena? You seriously have issues. You have this thing that if your sister babysits for you, your mother is doing you a favor, she’s helping you out. Which is debatable, you’d think Raizy is always home helping your mother if she isn’t babysitting for you.
“But let’s say you’re right and your mother is doing you a favor. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with your mother helping out? I call my sisters to babysit all the time. In fact, I beg them on hands and knees. You think it’s a favor reserved for widows?”
Deena clenched her fingers. Leah was a great friend and everything, however, in this case, she completely didn’t get her. And it hurt.
But when Leah was determined to do something, she always prevailed. That night at eight, she was waiting in her car in front of Deena’s house, considerately not acting smug about her victory.
They chatted about anything and nothing on the way. Then, when they got to the restaurant, Leah made Deena choose her food, “because I trust Nuts&Basil to pick a dish worth spending money on. Wait, are you going to review this meal and get it for us for free?”
Deena stuck out her tongue when she said that.
She had to admit that this had been a good idea. Sitting with Leah and slipping some of River House’s surprise steak onto a sizzle plate, the daze she’d been in since the morning’s appointment slowly lifted.
The waiter brought their desserts to the table. Strawberry panna catta for Leah, a deconstructed tiramisu with assorted toppings for Deena. Leah peered at Deena’s plate, then reached over and plucked a snow kiss out of her plate. “You’re not going to eat that, right?”
Deena winked. “Enjoy it.”
Leah took a small bite and put the cookie down.
Deena looked up from her plate. “Yeah?”
“Can we talk for a minute?”
Deena squinted at her. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing’s up.”
Leah’s face was serious. Deena lost interest in her dessert and stared at Leah suspiciously.
“I just… want to tell you something. But I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.”
“Skip your introductions. What do you want to tell me?”
Leah sighed. “Fine. I’ll just say it then.” She sliced through her panna catta with her spoon but didn’t bring it to her lips. “It’s been a long time,” she started. “Over two years. And everyone’s been giving you space, giving you space, giving you space.”
Deena’s stomach clenched. Not this, not now.
But Leah went right on. “You’ve been so stubborn until now. You’ve given a hundred excuses. But enough is enough. You’re torturing yourself, you’re torturing your kids. How much longer can this go on?
Deena straightened her back. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“You know exactly what I’m trying to tell you,” Leah said. “Everyone’s afraid to talk to you about it, they’re afraid to touch raw wounds. But I love you, Deena Lizman, I’m your friend, and I so badly want you to be happy. So even if you deny it a million times, you know the truth, Deen. Zev is never coming back. It’s time for you to move on. You need to remarry.”
Deena pressed her lips together tightly and slowly filled her lungs.
“I hate you, Leah Kugler,” she whispered. “I hate you so much.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 753)
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