From Darkness to Light| October 6, 2022
Sara Leah Steinberg. My neighbor. But never my friend
eaves dance in the air, a collage of brilliant reds and golds framing the streets. The breeze is brisk against my cheeks as I walk home from school with Malky, our shoes tapping rhythmically against the concrete. Va-ca-tion — va-ca-tion — va-ca-tion. Succos is in the air!
“… Rik? Rik! Earth to Rikki!” Malky taps me on the shoulder, looking amused. “Did you even hear what I just said?”
I grin. I’m slightly infamous among my friends for my tendency to be a bit dreamy. “No. Sorry.”
“I said, we’re going away this Succos!” Malky’s cheeks are pink with the cool air, her green eyes sparkling. “To Toronto! All my cousins are going to be there!”
“Oh yeah?” My step loses a bit of its bounce. We used to go away for Succos too, all the time. Sometimes we went to those Yom Tov programs in hotels, and once we’d even gone to Eretz Yisrael. But since Tatty lost his job, things are pretty tight. We’re staying in town for Succos. Again.
Malky’s still talking about her upcoming trip. “… and so we’ll probably stay in a hotel with my whole family over Chol Hamoed, or maybe rent one of those mansions, ‘cuz everyone’s coming this year, even my cousins from California —”
Something unpleasant is knotting in my stomach — jealousy? Anger? — and I just can’t muster up the willpower to smile and nod. I cast my gaze across the street, looking for something else to focus on, when a girl hurries into view. The knots in my stomach tighten.
Sara Leah Steinberg. My neighbor. But never my friend. Her designer bag swings casually from her shoulder, diamond-encrusted ring flashing into view as she taps on her phone, eyes fixed on the screen. Her $300 shoes thump against the sidewalk.
My lips curl at the sight. She’s pathetic. Who spends three hundred dollars on shoes? I conveniently forget that not so long ago, I might have had the same pair. But not anymore.
I startle, glancing around to Malky, who has a slight pucker above the bridge of her nose.
“Rikki Levine! Did you hear anything I just said?”
Malky sighs. “Okay, well, I’m home already, so… have a good Yom Tov, and — call me, ‘kay?”
“’Kay,” I echo as Malky walks up to her front door. But I know that I won’t call Malky. The thought of being stuck at home while my best friend is having a blast weighs down my shoulders, which is probably why I didn’t hear Sara Leah behind me.
She whooshes past, her lingering perfume enveloping me in a cloying cloud. Her cell phone pressed to her ear, she ignores me — which is usual behavior. But today, when I’m feeling pretty bad already, my shoes begin tapping out a new rhythm: Lo-ser – lo-ser – lo-ser. The depressing sound follows me all the way home.
Sunlight streams in through the half-closed shades, sending rainbows sparkling on the surface of my full negel vasser cup. My eyes blink sleepily at the clock — it’s eight. Too early. I yawn and turn over. But just as I’m drifting off, the door bangs open and my little siblings’ voices penetrate the haze I’m in.
“Mommy says you hafta get up!” shouts six-year-old Chana. “It’s Erev Yom Tov!” I don’t have a chance to resist. Without warning, my blanket is ripped from my bed. Cold floods my body.
“Fine, fine, I’m up.” I push myself into a sitting position.
I head downstairs to the kitchen where I find Mommy talking on the phone, in front of a cutting board half-filled with chopped celery, looking very serious.
“Okay, I understand,” she’s saying. “Fine. We have enough room for all of them, so don’t worry about it.” Seeing me, she mouths, dessert, please!
My brow wrinkles. Enough room for who, exactly? My older brother Shua is home already, and he takes up one whole room with all of his junk. And weren’t Bubby and Zaidy supposed to be coming too? I start sifting through cookbooks, wondering all the while.
Mommy finishes up her call, ending off with, “It’s our pleasure. Really. Take care.” She puts the phone down and turns to me. But before she can say anything, my younger sister Aliza walks in, lugging a massive sack of potatoes over her shoulder. “Gosh, Ma, we could feed an army with this! Should I start on the potato kugel now?”
Mommy laughs. “We might just be doing that. Yes, that’d be great.”
I wait for Mommy to turn back, to explain her phone call, but she’s back at her cutting board, chopping celery. Her brow is furrowed. Dread burrows in my stomach, settling in for an extended stay. What could be the matter?
At around five-fifteen, when all the ovens are on, the heat is oppressive, and the kids are hurtling around the house all hyper, there’s a sharp rap on the door.
Over the noise of the blender, Mommy calls, “Rik, can you get it?”
I dash away from my second batch of yapchick, fingers fumbling to redo my messy ponytail. I nudge the door open with my knee, finishing up with my hair —
And my jaw drops.
Standing there, as if she’s carved of marble, is Sara Leah Steinberg. Her face is a glacier, her bearing just a little bit too stiff. Sara Leah’s three siblings are clustered around her, all carrying pillows and duffel bags. Seeing me, Sara Leah’s lips compress into a thin line. I stand there, completely dumbstruck.
I’m not sure how long we stay at the front door, just looking at each other, but eventually Sara Leah drops her gaze, and I close my mouth with a sharp swallow.
“Um — hi,” I croak, feeling dazed. “Um… come in.”
“Thanks.” Sara Leah nods to her siblings, who are unusually quiet and subdued. Come to think of it, so is Sara Leah. Her usual sickening simper is gone. I feel like I’m missing something. Why is she here?
Mommy sails into the hallway just then, pushing her snood forward. Seeing her ratty T-shirt , long skirt and face tinted red by the kitchen’s unrelenting heat, I cringe. But Sara Leah doesn’t even seem to notice.
“Hi!” Mommy says, smiling. “Let me show you where you’ll be sleeping. Sara Leah, you’ll be in Rikki’s room, okay?” She leads the Steinbergs up the stairs and away, leaving me standing in the foyer, alone and baffled.
It’s Succos night, and we’re all seated around the table, Sara Leah and her siblings squeezed in with folding chairs on the corners. The food is steaming in the chilly air, and while everything looks good, I can’t work up an appetite.
It seems like everyone’s plate is fully loaded except for mine and Sara Leah’s. I stare at the platter of pastrami chicken. What is Sara Leah doing here? Yom Tov is for family — why is she intruding? Why isn’t she with her own family?
Chatter rises all around me. Bubby is trying to make small talk with Sara Leah, who gives nothing but polite, three-word answers back. Tatty, Zaidy, and Shua sing louder. Chana, playing with the baby, gives a shriek of laughter. And I feel totally disconnected from everyone.
No one’s told me anything. Mommy was too busy, Aliza didn’t know, and I’m certainly not going to ask Sara Leah herself. I glance at her quickly — Bubby is cajoling her to try the grilled vegetables. Sara Leah grips her fork tightly, as if she’s going to be attacked. And though I’m angry at her for ruining my Yom Tov, something in her face — fear? — arouses pity in me. It isn’t like Sara Leah wants to be here. But why is she here, then? Why is my nemesis, sitting with my family on the first night of Succos?
Later, long after we’d finished the meal and gone to bed, a strange sound jerks me from sleep. Eyelashes fluttering, I roll over, suppressing a yawn. There it is again.
My eyes swing, almost automatically, to the spare bed. Sara Leah is crying.
“Sara Leah — you okay?” My voice is slurred with sleep, so it sounds more like Sur-Lay-yoo-ukayy? It’s loud enough to elicit a gasp from her, and the blanket tumbles away. Sara Leah surfaces with sticky cheeks and swollen eyes.
“What’s it to you?” Her red-rimmed eyes flash aggressively. “Go back to sleep in your stupid, broken bed.”
My bed isn’t broken. Something snaps in my brain. “Excuse me?” I hiss. “I never wanted you here in the first place. Get your own family!”
Her nostrils flare. “‘Get your own family,’” she mimics. “Trust me, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t be here, with your dumb family who can’t even afford corned beef!” She sees my flush, and pushes deeper. “Yeah, don’t think I didn’t notice. Grilled vegetables — ha! What a joke.” Her lips curl into that familiar sneer.
I’m shaking. “Oh, I’m so sorry my family doesn’t meet your standards,” I snap. “So maybe you should go get your own! What, your father’s too high-maintenance to have his own succah?”
Something flares in Sara Leah’s face, and then, at once, it dies away. Her tense body slackens, and she slumps. “No,” she whispers, sounding close to tears again. “We don’t have a succah.”
I stop. The flaming rage burning within me dies a little at the defeated look on her face. It’s as if time has stopped, wrapping me and Sara Leah in a bubble, obscuring everything else. “W–what?”
She wraps her arms tightly across her torso, as if protecting herself. “We don’t have a succah,” she repeats, softly. “My father couldn’t make one this year.” She squeezes her eyes shut, and a single tear leaks out. “He’s sick. Really sick.”
Bam! It’s as if I’ve been struck by lightning. I reel backwards, hands over my mouth. No. Way. Mr. Steinberg is sick?! How could I not have known?
“We’ve been managing,” she croaks. “But it got worse. The doctors scheduled him for emergency surgery. And it happened this morning.” Sara Leah takes a big, shuddering breath. “He isn’t coming home until after Yom Tov. So we’re here with you. I don’t know anything yet. I wish I did.” She starts to cry, soundlessly.
I don’t know what to say. I mean, what could I say? “I’m — I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sara Leah mutters. “You have a perfect life.”
“Me?!” I blurt. “You’re joking! We pinch every penny just to get chicken for Shabbos! I mean, you know that!”
Sara Leah uncrosses her arms, slowly. She picks at her blanket. “I — I know that,” she says quietly. “I just — you’re so popular. I don’t have real friends. Maybe they like my stuff, or my clothes, but they don’t like me. Money isn’t everything, you know.”
“I — didn’t know that,” I admit. “I was always just so jealous of all your stuff. You always looked so perfect.”
Sara Leah lets out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, well — I’m not. Now you know.”
Both of us are quiet for a long time. Crickets sing outside; the overhead fan rattles as it twirls in the air. I gaze at the wall, while Sara Leah picks some more at her blanket, chewing her lip.
At last Sara Leah whispers, “I’m sorry, Rikki. I know I can’t change the past but – maybe we can start over. As… friends.”
“I’d like that,” I say softly. “And… for what it’s worth… I’m sorry too.”
Two days later, on the first day of Chol Hamoed, Sara Leah’s phone rings. It takes one minute for her to answer. 20 seconds to listen. And exactly one second for a large smile to break out across her face.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 931)
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