You’re doing so well now, Shulamis, I tell myself. Why would you even think you’re not happy?
I can’t stop thinking about what Miriam said to me about my having become a happier person. The whole way home I tried to figure this riddle out, resulting in me almost twice losing sight of the escort my father arranged for me. But Mr. Joe, which is what he told me to call him, had the sense to keep his eyes on me and make sure I didn’t wander off.
“What’s on your mind, young lady?” he asked me cheerfully, after he located me for the third time. I blushed and said nothing. Mr. Joe smiled again and continued on his way, with me following him diligently, embarrassed of myself. Not only was I an 18-year-old, who, due to no fault of her own, could not read and needed a travel companion, but I also, very maturely, made the companion feel like a babysitter.
I slept through the short plane ride, and when we landed, I was simply focused on not losing Mr. Joe. When I finally settled into my father’s car, the disturbing thoughts that had chased me the whole week suddenly returned.
Am I happy?
What does happy even mean?
Nechami told me that according to the dictionary, the definition of “happy” is, “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.”
Am I feeling “pleasure and contentment?”
It’s such a strange thing to think about. You’re doing so well now, Shulamis, I tell myself. Why would you even think you’re not happy? Look at what you’ve accomplished!
I look back at my achievements, and I am impressed. From a wallflower, a depressed, moody complex child, I’ve turned into a mature and involved adult.
“It’s just your inborn inferiority complex,” I tell myself. I’d always felt so inadequate wherever I went. Whatever I did was never good enough for anyone. I was never good enough for anyone. Since I was nine years old I knew I was not good enough. Just beyond the reach of “worthy.” Just below the acceptable line of achieving, even though I was smarter than a lot of girls I knew.
Just because I couldn’t — can’t — read.
Can this ever change? Will I never reach my full potential because I cannot read? Will no one ever accept me and love me for who I am because I cannot read?
Who will even marry me?
I freeze when this thought crosses my mind. I’d never even thought about marriage. Why now?
I’m racing way too far ahead. No one in my family got engaged at 18. And anyway, I have a sister above me who’s coming back from seminary and has yet to start dating. Calm down, I tell myself. Worry won’t get you anywhere.
But under the surface, the discomfort still remains, the doubt still gnaws.
Why would anyone want me?
I have no time to think about anything once school starts again after the break. It’s all a flurry of awful papers, filled with ant-like lines of script, snaking along the pages, in some kind of wriggly dance. It’s test time.
I stare at the illegible dancing jumble on the paper in front of my eyes and begin to panic, until I remember that the school has arranged for a reader and writer to help me take the exam. I panic again when Miss Symons is late, and relax when I remember I was told to go to another room and meet her there to take the final, so the reading won’t disturb all the other “normal” girls. The pressure has made my mind go blank. I hurry along the silent corridor, and almost crash into Miss Symons headfirst. I blush so hard, you could fry an egg on my hot face.
Baruch Hashem, Miss Symons is great. She is calm and clear, and as she reads out the questions, in a cool, slow voice, I begin putting my brain back together, and somehow manage to procure intelligent-sounding answers. I see her face as she writes down my answers; she looks impressed.
At the end of the final, three and a half exhausting hours later, Miss Symons puts her pen down with a smile on her face.
“Well done, Shulamis,” she says. I sigh in relief.
“You were amazing!” she says. “How did you study?”
“Audio text books,” I answer tiredly. Faint echoes of the metallic voices I had listened to for the past few months flit through my exhausted mind.
“Wow,” Miss Symons says. Her eyes tell me I did well and for the first time in weeks, I allow myself to relax.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 883)
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