| Family First Serial |

Lie of the Land: Chapter 4

“I remember how we were warned about your father when Ezra was in shidduchim. A nice girl, but a strange family



the end of the first day of shivah, the stream of people who knew Abba peters out. Rivi expects it, knows that most of their visitors will be her neighbors and acquaintances, but it’s humiliating when her sisters-in-law are underfoot.

Some are kinder than others. Sweet Eliana, the newest one, hangs out with Rivi’s kids, playing dolls with the twins and board games with the boys. Chaya had stopped by for a few minutes and then run out for a carpool. Suri and Atara, though, lurk in the shivah room, chatting with each other or the few visitors and casting a judgmental eye on the mostly empty room.

Rivi? Of course she has no family. She’s always busy with that job of hers. She has no time for family, let alone friends. It floats in the air between them, carried by every low whisper and furtive glance.

Rivi had spent her high school years trying desperately to fit in, then giving up on the fruitless exercise. This is nothing new, though it should be long over in her mid-thirties.

To make matters worse, Gabe makes zero effort to be normal. He speaks passionately to a glazed-eyed Suri about some species going extinct in Madagascar and seems oblivious to the way that Suri’s lip curls when she asks questions, slyly mocking.

“Gavriel,” Rivi says in a low voice. “I’m sure that Suri isn’t interested in any of this.” Rivi isn’t interested, either, though there’s a part of her that longs to understand, to grasp the stranger sitting beside her on a too-low chair. Gabe is still awkward around people, but there’s an ease to him, a confidence that he’d never had in childhood. His years out in the world are alien to Rivi, and he is, too, now.

“Oh, no,” Suri says, her eyes widening and her face pursed in a defiant smile. “I think you’re fascinating. Really helps me understand Rivi a little more. You’re both so… accomplished.”

From her tone, it sounds like an insult, and Rivi tenses. Suri’s husband is one of Ezra’s favorite brothers, and that’s the reason Rivi plays nice. It’s also why Rivi’s been quietly helping them for the past year, though Suri is oblivious to that fact. She’s so proud; knowing that her husband’s work isn’t doing as well as it seems would crush her.

Rivi likes to think of it as her teshuvah insurance. If nothing else, the chesed of giving to someone who’s so consistently obnoxious to her should hopefully offset some of her aveiros on Rosh Hashanah.

“Gabe’s always been interested in science and history and all of that,” she says, refusing to give Suri an inch. “Anthropology kind of incorporates both.”

“It’s a little more complex than that,” Gabe says, and Rivi kicks him hard in the ankle.

Suri examines her cuticles, then asks innocently, “Was your father like that, too? Into archaeology, I mean?”

Rivi kicks Gabe again before he can be offended at Suri’s mistake. “Abba did odd jobs,” she says coolly. “He was good with his hands. He used to fix things in the neighborhood.”

The few visitors they’ve had who knew him were mostly elderly, and had hired him often. “But before Gabe was born, he was an accountant out in Bearwood. After our mother passed away, he just… couldn’t be there anymore.”

Rivi has only vague memories of her mother, helped along by photo albums full of pictures of them together when Rivi had been a toddler. There are only a couple of pictures of an infant Gabe with Mommy, after she’d already been hospitalized.

“So sad,” Suri says, shaking her head. “That’s when he became a shut-in?”

Gabe shakes his head. “He wasn’t a shut-in,” he corrects her. “He just… he didn’t like crowds. He used to take us out on hikes.” He laughs suddenly, his knees knocking together. “Do you remember that time — I must have been six or seven—”

Be normal, be normal, be normal, Rivi chants in her head, a silent plea to Gabe that’s clearly unheard.

“He took us out to a clearing in the woods and taught us how to shoot a hunting rifle. I could barely hold it.” Gabe shakes his head, heedless of Suri’s widening eyes. “Rivi managed well, though. Rivi always manages well.” He shoots her a look, what might have been an overture if Rivi weren’t so stricken with terror at what he’s revealed.

Suri looks appalled. “Your father had a gun in the house?”

“No,” Rivi says tightly. “I got rid of it when I was old enough to take charge.” Abba hadn’t been stable enough to have a gun, license or not, and Rivi had hated knowing that it was in the house. It would just take one garbage can toppling over in the wind to startle Abba to paranoia, and that’s why she had taken steps to make the house safer.

“Wow.” Suri toys with the edge of her sheitel. “That’s terrifying.” She laughs, turning back to exchange a glance with Atara. “I remember how we were warned about your father when Ezra was in shidduchim. A nice girl, but a strange family. We didn’t know the half of it.”

“Well, I didn’t let it stop me,” Ezra says easily, entering the room. He brings two glasses of water, one for Rivi and one for Gabe, and fresh rugelach that one of the neighbors had sent over.

Suri and Atara are silent, and Rivi knows, like the hostility lingering in the air, that they’re wishing that it had stopped Ezra.

It’s a relief when the sisters-in-law have to leave. Suri says HaMakom and gives Rivi a halfway hug, light and quick. “I’m here for whatever you need,” she says, plastic-sweet, and Ezra sits down opposite Rivi and smiles.

“It’s good to see you two getting along,” he observes when Suri’s gone. “I thought you said she hated you.”

“Really?” Gabe looks bewildered.

Rivi sighs internally. Men. “She’s on her best behavior,” she tells them, because it’s simpler than explaining tone and implications to them. “I am sitting shivah.”

“I can’t believe it’s only been a day,” Gabe says, standing for a moment and stretching his back. “I thought that shivah would feel more healing, you know? Like time to recover and talk about Abba. But this is a slog.”

“Maybe it’s different when there are more visitors,” Rivi speculates. Or when the family that’s mourning is a little less dysfunctional.

Ezra looks worried. “We can ask more people to come if you think that’ll help. I know your father wasn’t exactly outgoing — he barely even came here—”

“I thought you told him to stay away,” Gabe interjects. “After Shimmy was born. Didn’t you say you were limiting his time with your kids?”

Rivi winces. Ezra blinks at them both, his brow furrowing. “You did?”

Gabe talks too much.

Rivi takes a breath. It had been the right decision at the time, but now it feels horribly wrong, and guilt washes over her. “He wasn’t exactly… he wasn’t a healthy person, Ezra. You’ve met him. You’ve heard the stories.” Hadn’t Gabe just announced to all of Ezra’s family that their father had put a gun in his hands when he’d been six? “I couldn’t let him do the kinds of things he did around us to the kids.”

Ezra nods, slow and thoughtful. He’s always thoughtful, so sensitive and caring that Rivi often thinks that her kids are fortunate that he’s their primary caretaker instead of her. “I get that,” he says. “I just wish you’d told me. We could have worked out supervision or house rules with him. It would have been nice for the kids to have known their grandfather.”

“No,” Rivi says flatly. The guilt bubbles up to her chest, a tightness she can’t restrain. Suddenly, she feels as though she might cry. “It wouldn’t have been.”

Ezra sits with them for a few more minutes, making small talk with Gabe. “We should be able to get a Shacharis and a Maariv minyan easily. Minchah is a little harder because it’s so early this time of year, but I have a few other rebbeim committed for tomorrow.”

Gabe laughs. “Ezra,” he says, “I work in the Amazon. I’ve been davening on my own for years. Another few days won’t make a difference.”

Rivi glances over at Ezra, afraid of his judgment, but Ezra just shakes his head and shrugs off that revelation. Technically, she supposes Ezra’s always known this about Gabe.

“You’re not there right now,” Ezra says. “Hundreds of Jewish families here — we should be able to get eight men together.”

Gabe shrugs, self-conscious. “If you’d like,” he says. “It’s not a big deal to me.”

Ezra claps a hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to go put the kids to bed,” he says, turning to Rivi. “You two just relax.”

As though they’ve been able to do anything but relax today. Rivi moves to the floor, stretching out her legs, and Gabe slides down to join her. “Been a day, huh?” He shuts his eyes, leans back against the wall. “Abba would have hated shivah. All those people coming and going, talking to him…. I don’t know how he did it for Mommy.”

Rivi doesn’t remember it. She’d been all of three, and she has no memories of Bearwood at all. “Look,” she says instead. “You can’t tell Ezra or his family this stuff. And definitely don’t mention the… situation.”

“You mean the grave mistake?” Gabe smiles, quick and humorless.

Rivi elbows him. “Our family is off enough as it is. We don’t need to give them more ammunition. They’re all so… ordinary.” She scrubs at her face for a moment. Without makeup, it feels bare and exposed. “And Abba was about as abnormal as they come.”

Gabe is silent for a moment. “It wasn’t all bad,” he says. “Remember Israel?”

“Always.” Rivi remembers her bas mitzvah, the way she’d cried in secret as she watched friends have parties and trips when she’d known that she’d have nothing. But Abba had surprised her. They’d gone to Eretz Yisrael for a magical summer, two months spent touring and eating out and exploring. Abba had been trying so hard, and Rivi and Gabe had both been determined to make the most of it. There had been no squabbling and no shouting — just a family, enjoying every day to the fullest.

Near the end of August, something had soured, and Abba had become furtive again, anxious and stressed. The last week had been cut short and they’d hurried home, but Rivi still holds the memory of the summer like a sacred gift, a brief dip into someone else’s life.

Beside her, Gabe smiles. He’s still a stranger to her, but this they still share. “I remember that time I got really sick when I was five and Abba panicked.”

“He should have taken you to the hospital.” Rivi had been furious then, sure that her father was going to let Gabe die. But Gabe had gotten better, and there had been no hospital visit. “He just lay in your bed with you.”

“He read to me for hours. Just stayed there until I felt better.” Gabe’s eyes are distant. “I think he really did love us, in his own way. Just kind of… messed me up at the same time. You did your best, though.” He offers Rivi a half smile. “At least you got good at being normal.”

It feels almost judgmental in a way that Rivi doesn’t like, leaving an uncomfortable tension in the room. Rivi makes a transparent excuse, gets up, and leaves.

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 900)

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