Muscle Toning| April 3, 2023
Wrinkles are an honor when grandchildren count them. He has his four grandchildren from his son Meir. I, as he’s well aware, am a bubby to no one
Maybe the problem isn’t Chanoch.
My husband isn’t asking for anything crazy. All he wants is for us to stay with his son Meir for Asher’s bar mitzvah Shabbos. And it does make sense, it’s a fifty-minute walk each way from our house.
Maybe the problem is me. Because staying with Meir means acting all Bubby for an entire Shabbos, and I can’t, I just can’t do it.
Maybe Chanoch’s snoring — better put, his roaring — isn’t his problem either. It definitely is mine.
Not that I’d sleep well otherwise. I’ve gotten enough sleep in my lifetime, throughout all the years that my friends were up at night with babies. My body doesn’t seem to need all this rest.
Five o’clock, I wrap my scarf around my neck and gently close the door behind me. The world slumbers as I hurry off to Black Mug to get the coffees brewing. I like this time; I need my solitude in the morning.
It takes 15 minutes for the espresso machine to heat up. I start with that, then move on to the other machines, getting them all humming. By the time the first coffee is ready to be served, the frostbite in my fingers is gone.
Nobody’s thinking about their morning brew at this hour. They dream blissful dreams as I load milk bottles and whipped cream dispensers into the fridge, stack cups and sleeves and lids on the counter, empty a pack of stirrers into their holder.
Five-thirty, there’s a text from Chanoch, which means he’s up. I look at the message: it’s a picture of Meir’s toddler Huvi, her face smeared with ketchup.
I guess I should reply with a bunch of giggling emoji faces, but I don’t find her dirty face all that funny, so I stuff my phone into my apron pocket and return to work. The first round of pastries should be out of the oven now. I pass the metal double doors to the kitchen, mumble good morning to the pastry chef and his crew, and hoist a tray of hot corn muffins off the counter.
By six o’clock, when Mrs. Turner unlocks the front door, the shop is ready to greet its customers. Neat rows of muffins, croissants, doughnuts, and scones are lined up in the display case. Fresh breads, baguettes, and bagels tower in the bread baskets, and an assortment of chocolates and pralines glistens on the corner counter.
Another morning, another cup. I can get a coffee shop up and running with my eyes closed.
Some workers break for coffee at seven o’clock, but I don’t join them. I find a quiet corner and eat the cut-up fruit I’d brought from home. Coffee? I get my coffee fill by serving it eight hours a day. Besides, I don’t subscribe to the caffeine religion. Water quenches thirst, sleep quells fatigue. I’ll sleep at three o'clock, when I get home, for 45 minutes. That’ll take me until the night, when I’ll dose on and off, palms over my ears, until I’ll flick my alarm clock off ten minutes before it’s set to ring.
I’m refilling the chocolate croissants — always the most popular item — when I suddenly go blind.
“Aurgghh!” I splutter, working my gloved fingers to peel someone’s hands off my eyes. “Whaaa, hey, who… Margie!”
The second shifters have arrived. Okay, things will get colorful now. Margie’s already laughing and making everyone else laugh, and I suspect she didn’t even say anything. They’re only laughing because Margie’s laugh makes you laugh.
Or maybe they’re laughing at me?
I’m annoyed — really, there’s nothing funny about blinding me, I could’ve dropped all the croissants to the floor — and make my way to a quiet side of the counter.
The day crawls along. I serve coffee, pack pastries, ring up orders, wipe down counters. My job hasn’t changed in the past 33 years.
But Black Mug has. The décor: exposed brick in place of mint green walls, rustic wood instead of Formica countertops, dim lighting in favor of florescent bulbs. The staff uniform: black canvas aprons with an embroidered store logo instead of disposable white plastic. (“Because black aprons makes coffee taste so much better,” Margie had solemnly declared after Mrs. Turner distributed the uniforms.) Even the menu; where it was once humble coffees and teas, it’s expanded to a range of blended beverages and custom hot and cold drinks with names I can barely pronounce.
“It’s the vibe,” Mrs. Turner explained. “We need it for the vibe.”
“Eleven-thirty vibe break,” Margie would whistle for months after that comment.
With the new vibe came a new clientele. We still got staid businessmen and scrub-clad hospital personnel, mainly very early in the morning, but throughout the day, the vibe attracted knots of giggly friends and trendy sisters who seemed to have endless hours to kill and no qualms about spending eight dollars on a cup of coffee.
One of these pairs — I can’t make out if they’re sisters or friends, they’re both giggly and trendy — walk in a little after twelve. While they pore over the leather menu cards, I catch the eyes of the toddler in her stroller. The kid picks up a pudgy hand and waves. “Hi, Bubby!”
Like the hundreds of lattes I serve each day, I froth.
What makes me a bubby? The wrinkles on my face?
Chanoch gets perplexed when I complain about those wrinkles. He thinks I’ve earned them and should be proud of them. What he doesn’t realize is that my aging is different. Wrinkles are an honor when grandchildren count them. He has his four grandchildren from his son Meir. I, as he’s well aware, am a bubby to no one.
“Coming for lunch?” Eniko asks.
I shake my head. Eniko’s been asking me the same question every day since she was hired as a barista two months ago. A few more days and she’ll learn. Everyone knows I need my own company over lunch.
But today she persists. “Why do you eat alone every day?”
“I prefer to.”
My eyes whiz across the hot pink and yellow stripes on her sweater. Eniko always dresses in flamboyant colors. She’s always chatting and humming and laughing, as though life is one big carnival — and maybe for her it is. It certainly appears so, with her pushing 50 and not a wrinkle to show for it.
Eniko clucks her tongue. “You should join us in the stockroom. It’s cooler in there, and with Margie around, you might even smile by mistake.”
Here we go again. Since Eniko started working at Black Mug, she’s made me her mission: to pull me into her cheery life, make me join her carnival.
I won’t let her get away with that smile barb. I catch her eye and stretch my lips as wide as they go.
“On purpose,” I tell her.
I grab a Clorox wipe and swipe it across the counter.
On Wednesday, Margie asks for a favor. “I need to take my mother to the doctor this afternoon. Can you cover for me? I’ll treat you to a coffee, of course.”
Margie comes in at ten every day and stays until six, when Black Mug closes. I’ve been on my feet since five a.m. She’s asking for too much.
On the other hand, this is Margie. She’s always nice to everyone, and though I don’t care for her jokes, she gets people to laugh. Also, she covered for me when I flew to London when my brother Akiva married off his daughter. I’ll lose my nap this afternoon, but so what? Maybe I’ll sleep better at night.
There isn’t much traffic in the store after five. I step away to call Chanoch to tell him I’ll be late.
“Should I confirm our Shabbos plans with Meir?” he asks.
No. I know you’re all excited for Asher’s bar mitzvah, but I’m not.
I wish I could explain to him how awkward I feel at these events. A pretend-Bubby, with the real Bubby radiating genuine simchah just a few feet away. Instead I tell him, “I guess so” and hang up abruptly.
Maybe things would have been different had there been other children. Our children. The way I’d innocently pictured it back when Chanoch and I were newly married. Then, it had been easy to accept Meir, even to enjoy his sweet presence.
The store is empty when I return to the counter, and the cleaning lady is mopping the floor.
Six o’clock, I meet Eniko at the coat rack. She places three large Black Mug paper bags on a chair as she slips into her jacket. I squint at the bags, wonder what she’s carrying home.
“Leftover croissants,” Eniko says, and I jerk because this lady just read my mind.
Eniko looks uncomfortable. “They go to the garbage otherwise,” she explains, almost defensively. “So I take them over to… I donate them. Mrs. Turner likes the idea.”
“Uh… that’s nice.”
We leave the coffee shop together.
“Good night,” I tell her, and I turn to head down the block.
“Menuha?” She calls my name hesitantly; her Hungarian tongue can’t master the “ch” sound.
“Do you want to come with me?”
What? Why would I want to go with her? Where?
“It’s only three blocks from here,” she says.
Maybe the bags are heavy. Another favor?
It’s so late already, I need to fix supper for Chanoch. But there’s something in her gaze — a sort of pleading — that makes me turn back to join her. I extend my hand to take a bag or two. For a moment it looks like she’s going to refuse, but then she shrugs and gives me one. It doesn’t weigh much.
Eniko chatters as we walk. I am so tired, I hardly hear a word she’s saying. She doesn’t seem to mind. She continues talking, and I can’t help feeling like an idiot for being roped into this stroll.
We arrive in front of a white stucco building with a cheerful sign over the entrance: R.O.A.D.S. Group Home. Eniko motions with her head for me to follow her up the stairs. She puts the bags down and rings the bell.
We’re buzzed in, and the woman sitting at the front desk stands to greet us. She’s tall and bony, ashy hair cut to her chin, and her face erupts in wrinkles as she exclaims, “Eniko!”
They know each other; that much is clear. Eniko gestures at me, says something in Hungarian that seemingly authorizes my visit.
I need to go.
“Here,” I tell Eniko, extending the bag to her. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Oh, but I wanted you to meet the children. They’ll be so excited to see a new face.”
I am not interested in meeting the children. I need to go.
The bag is still in my hand. I consider putting it down, but the tall woman waves for me to follow her, and I feel foolish leaving.
She leads us down a brightly lit hallway. We pass a glass wall, behind which appears to be some sort of recreational room. A little further down, I’m overtaken by the awful combination of smells of pine and commercial mashed potatoes. I want to ask Eniko to explain this place and what we’re here for, but she’s deep in conversation with the tall lady, their Hungarian too rapid for me to follow.
We reach a room at the end of the hallway, and the tall lady waves an electronic key to unlock the door. We enter the room — a playroom — and I see them, the children.
I’m a little startled as they notice our presence, one after the other. A petite girl with coiled black hair trudges over with her walker, a huge smile on her face.
“Hiiiiiii!” she calls out to Eniko.
Eniko lifts her hand for a finger-flutter wave. “Hi, Lucy!”
Another girl runs over, pounces. “What did you bring? What did you bring?”
Eniko laughs, rubs the kid’s back, and gently peels her arms off.
As the children gather around, I observe their faces. Some of their challenges are obvious — the ones in wheelchairs or with braced legs, the ones whose faces immediately tell you they’re “different.” Some of the kids look completely normal, and I can’t help wondering what lurks behind their sweet faces.
I stand like some inert statue while Eniko opens the bags and, with dramatic excitement, distributes the goodies. “Look what I have for you, Ann.” And, “Jalisha, we were out of chocolate, will vanilla be okay?” as she winks and extends a chocolate croissant to a scrawny girl with stick-straight blond hair.
She chats with them for a few more minutes, they laugh together. Some of the children eye me questioningly, too genuine to conceal their curiosity. I don’t say a word. I have no idea what to say. I don’t understand why I’m here.
Eniko wends her way over to a wheelchair-bound girl with braced legs who is trapped outside the circle of girls.
“Katie,” she says warmly. “How are you?”
Katie’s face bursts into the sunniest smile, and she clumsily claps her hands together. Eniko wipes drool off the girl’s chin with the bib that hangs from her neck and pats her cheek. “Do you want me to read you Curious George?”
Katie bobs her head eagerly, and Eniko goes to fetch the book. Now all the girls gather around to listen. When she finishes, the tall lady tells the kids to say goodbye.
“Eniko has to go now.”
They don’t want her to leave. She promises to return.
Outside, I have so many questions, but I can’t string together a proper sentence, so I’m quiet. Eniko is quiet, too. It’s only when we reach the corner where we part ways that she pauses, taps me on the shoulder, and tells me, like she’s talking to a six-year-old, “You know, Menuha? My Mama always told me it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile.”
I can’t put a finger on what’s roiling in me the next morning as I step out of my house into the chilly predawn street for another day at Black Mug.
It isn’t fatigue. My circadian rhythm is stronger than the blackest brew I’ve ever prepared. It also isn’t my conversation with Chanoch the night before about Asher’s bar mitzvah. He wants me to buy a new dress, but I have my classy black dress that I wore to Akiva’s daughter’s wedding. Buying a new one would be a waste of time and money.
Would I have bought a new dress had Asher been my biological grandson?
I don’t want to think about it. Asher isn’t my biological grandson, that’s a fact. It’s enough that I have pictures of him and his siblings hanging all over my house.
Chanoch is disappointed, and I don’t like disappointing him. But still, this isn’t it. This isn’t what’s making me feel so agitated.
I reach the coffee shop’s back entrance and push the disturbing thing out of my mind as I enter and get to work. Soon the rich aroma of coffee fills the room, and I faithfully serve the first trickle of customers.
I keep the disquiet away throughout the hushed morning hours, but at ten o’clock, when the second shift shows up and the day’s traffic peaks, I know exactly what it is that’s churning my insides.
It’s Eniko. It’s my smile muscles.
I don’t greet her. I focus completely on my customers’ orders and pretend I don’t notice her every time she walks past me. Because who is she, this strange new hire who thinks she knows it all, who considers herself so wise and grounded and happy, who blithely accuses me of choosing my suffering?
But Eniko is on a mission. When Shay Kostelitz comes to the counter for his eleven o’clock coffee, I do what I do every day. I fix him his caramel latte, snap a lid on, pick out a stirrer. But before I have a chance to hand it over to him, Eniko takes the cup, plunks it into a cup holder, and says, “There you go, Shay. Enjoy and have a great day.”
Her smile is an upside-down rainbow. When Kostelitz leaves, I treat her to a muscle-heavy glare.
“So I took the risk of brightening his day,” she retorts. “Is that a crime?”
She doesn’t deserve an answer, and when she approaches to ask if I want to join her for lunch in the stockroom, I’m ready for combat. I have a sharp remark ready on the tip of my tongue — and the strongest glower on my face.
But at the last second, I hold back the remark. Our eyes lock, my fuming black ones to her glinting blue. Her stare is mighty, it’s frightening, and I lose my resolve.
”Hey, it really doesn’t hurt to smile sometimes,” she says. “Try it.”
My jaws hurt.
She’s still smiling.
I’m not wasting my lunch break doing facial pantomimes. I snatch up my bag and hurry out.
When the door closes behind me, I realize I hadn’t packed myself any food. Well, I’m not going back, I can grab a bite later. The perk of working in a coffee shop.
I have some errands to take care of. My potato peeler has vanished in the garbage can, I need to buy a new one. I also have some calls to make.
But instead of heading to the hardware store, I find myself walking the three blocks I’d walked with Eniko the previous day. I pause in front of R.O.A.D.S., analyzing the building.
A girl with a long, curly ponytail opens the door and comes down the steps.
“Are you looking for someone?”
No, I’m not looking for anyone. Why am I here anyway?
The girl waits for an answer, and I mumble, “Lucy. Can I say hello to Lucy?”
“Are you her grandmother?”
“No,” I say quickly. “Just a friend.”
The girl asks me to wait. Two minutes later, the tall lady comes to the door. She recognizes me and tells the girl to allow me in.
Inside, the children are painting. I see flashes of recognition on some of their faces, and Jalisha actually approaches me and asks, “Is Eniko come? Do you have me a chocolate?”
I regret that I didn’t bring any treats. Then again, I did not plan on coming here.
“I just want to see what you’re painting,” I tell her. “Do you want to show me?”
With the pride of an accomplished artist, she leads me to her canvas. I make sounds of being impressed, even if I can’t identify the picture, then I tell her I have to leave.
“Come again,” she tells me. “Come always.”
I smile, conscious of the muscle power. “I’ll try,” I tell her. “I’ll try to come again.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve been rude to you,” Eniko says, out of the blue, during one the busiest hours at the coffee shop.
I pull the lever of the French vanilla iced coffee. Three large cups, for those three adorable sisters with their identical beanies.
“Not to me,” I correct her. “To my muscles.”
“It’s coming from a good place,” Eniko continues. Her voice is earnest. She has a Black Mug napkin in her hand, and her fingers move swiftly in what looks like origami folding. “I feel bad, seeing you this way all the time. Like you bit into a lemon and can’t figure out how to swallow it.”
Wow, she’s blunt, this barista.
I gesture at her napkin and murmur, “Nice bird.”
She crumples it in her palm. “Why are you this way, Menuha? Is life really so terrible that you can’t enjoy the company of the people you work with? Don’t you appreciate a good joke? Don’t you ever burst out laughing, don’t you ever act a little silly, don’t you ever wish to wear something with color?”
My head feels like a violently frothed espresso. From where does this woman get her pluck? The people who know me talk to me with an unmistakable guardedness. Not that I like it — I’d feel more comfortable if they acted naturally in my presence — but their being careful does prevent awkwardness. I don’t take it to heart when people talk about their large families, but such conversations make them pity me, and I hate pity; it’s awkward for everyone involved. Best to keep talk safe.
I slide the beanie-sisters’ order across the counter, charge the credit card, hand them the receipt.
Most people like to stay in safe territory, but not Eniko. Eniko invites danger.
And if she invites it, I’ll give it to her.
“No,” I say. “Jokes are for children, life isn’t funny, I’m too old to act silly, and I have no desire to wear color. Are you done apologizing?”
A normal person would turn every shade of purple and shrivel, but Eniko gazes at me with confidence.
“Can I tell you what your problem is?”
She doesn’t wait for my consent. She plunges right in. “Your problem is that you think you own pain. You think you have exclusive rights to suffering, and it’s your privilege to be miserable.”
Her accented but smooth English astounds me.
“And that’s a lie you tell yourself,” she goes right on. “Nobody’s life is easy.”
A line of customers forms in front of the counter. We serve them silently, quickly. When I steal a glance at Eniko, I don’t see her smiling at anyone.
When the line clears, she continues talking.
“I had a daughter once,” she says, and it’s like she’s talking to herself, like she forgot I was standing there. “Nora. She was 14 years old.”
I pull a Clorox wipe out of the dispenser and run it across the counter.
Eniko’s voice becomes wispy. “She would have been 17 in May.” She picks up another napkin, flattens it on the counter, starts folding again.
“You can’t live your life grieving. It’s not a life. It’s just… not.”
I keep silent as she folds and folds and folds.
The next day, Eniko shows up to work in black.
It’s three weeks since my first visit to R.O.A.D.S. when it happens: I bump into Eniko. I don’t know how she’s here at this hour. My workday ends at two, she stays until six.
She doesn’t notice me right away, and I frantically search for an escape. Is there an exit other than the front door?
From my seat next to Jalisha, I watch as Lucy trudges over to Eniko, followed by Ann, Isabella, Mia, some others. Jalisha gives my presence away. “Hey, Eniko!” she cries, and when Eniko turns her head in Jalisha’s direction, her surprise is the most awful thing.
So what? I came to visit the children, it doesn’t mean anything.
But to Eniko — who’s wearing that hideous hot pink and yellow sweater again — it does, and I can’t stand the triumphant grin on her face.
We go to battle immediately.
It’s Lucy who breaks up our muscle fight.
“Katie left,” she tells Eniko.
All the girls nod solemnly to confirm her words.
Katie, the wheelchair-bound, non-verbal girl who is somehow so popular among the group. She possesses a hearty laugh, and without saying a word, manages to stir up mischief for the counselors. Everyone loves Katie.
“Where did Katie go?” Eniko asks.
“To the hospital,” Ann says. “She’s sick.”
“Very, very sick,” Mia adds.
Then Ann starts crying.
Her sobs are low and muffled, her round shoulders shaking as she swipes at her eyes with her sleeve.
It doesn’t take more than a minute, and Jalisha’s arms are around her, patting her back. Then, Lucy, holding onto her walker with one hand to maintain her balance, strokes Ann’s hair.
“We all miss Katie,” she tells Ann soothingly. “We hope she gets better soon and comes back to us.”
A few minutes pass, the girls clustered together, the simplest sadness reflecting off their innocent eyes, and then one of them starts singing. “You are my sunshine….” The girls take the cue, lifting their voices — some gruff, some screechy, all punctuated with too much breath — and they throw their arms over each other’s shoulders and sway.
A tear escapes my eye, and I quickly wipe it away.
Nobody notices when I leave.
Not even Eniko.
Something is up with Eniko. I sense it the moment she arrives at work.
Her hair stands up with static as she pulls her hat off and stuffs it into her coat sleeve, but she does nothing to tame it. She hangs up her coat and bag, washes her hands, and pulls on her apron.
I can’t take my eyes off her as she takes her place behind the counter. There’s a cloud as thick as creamer resting over her head. She looks so old. So weary. So despondent.
A strange cruelty rises in me. I don’t know where it comes from, but I can’t control myself.
My eyes dash back and forth between the lattés I’m preparing for a pair of middle-aged friends and Eniko’s stiff back. When I’ve handed them their order, I slither over to her and sweetly sing out a “Good morning!” like I’m the hotel room attendant delivering breakfast to her room.
I get a grunt in return.
“How are you, Eniko?” I continue.
“Hmm,” I mock-frown. “That ‘good’ doesn’t sound very good.”
She ignores me.
I pluck a napkin from the dispenser, shake it open, and collect it from the center point to form a flower. I extend it to her with a twinkling smile on my face. “Better now?”
She finally turns her head to me. “Do you want something?” she snaps.
“Hey, it really doesn’t hurt to smile. Try it.”
I get a twisted frown in response.
Behind the counter, a line has formed. We turn our attention to our customers.
A teenager wants a small iced cap and a cheese Danish. When she hands me a ten-dollar-bill, I ask, “Hey, no school today?”
She blushes, and I wink, pulling my finger over my lips. She smiles shyly.
Ha. It’s not so bad, this muscle exercise.
I try it again on an elderly woman whose wrinkles have settled themselves on her face like a permanent scowl.
“I like your scarf,” I tell her sincerely. “It looks like a designer thing. Is it?”
Her wrinkles regroup and she smiles with pride. “Givenchy,” she says, like she’s talking about her sought-after grandson.
I nod, impressed, although I can’t help secretly thinking, You’re too old for Givenchy, aren’t you?
When I’m done with her espresso, I steal a glance in the mirror over the chocolate and praline display. Are my wrinkles curving my lips up or down? I can’t decide.
Up next is a young businessman, Apple pods in his ears and talking numbers on the phone. I serve him, and then to my surprise, spy the Marton sisters entering the shop. What? It’s already 12:00?
Wow, where has the day flown? I usually take lunch at 11:30. We stagger the timing so there’s always staff at the counter available to serve customers. I take a look around. There are enough baristas on hand now, I can slip away for a few minutes.
I have a cheese sandwich in my bag that hangs from my coat hook. I take out the foil package, wash, and head toward the chair in the corner that’s hidden from the customers’ view. After my first bite, I pause, rewrap the sandwich, and stand back up. A wicked thought has entered my mind, and I forget all about lunch.
I can’t keep the slyness out of my grin as I approach Eniko. “Would you like to join us for lunch in the stockroom? It’s cooler in there, and you know, with Margie around, you might even smile by mistake.”
This time she whirls around and throws her arms down with exasperation. “What do you want, Menuha?”
I don’t know. What do I want from this poor woman? Everyone is entitled to a bad day. This is hers.
But it’s not the day. This isn’t something related to the weather, it isn’t a messed up coffee order.
Eniko’s mood feels like an explosion that’s been simmering for a long, long time. Like a volcano, dormant for years, and when it erupts, you know it wasn’t happenstance. The magma had been roasting and brewing for a while and it was only a matter of time before the beguiling mountaintop gave way.
“Is it… Katie?” I venture.
She looks at me with eyes that are round with fear. I want to smile, but my lips are frozen. Gently, I lead her away from the counter, through the door to the stockroom. I sit her down on a chair beside the milk crate table and take a seat next to her.
“She’s such a sweet girl,” Eniko tells me quietly.
I poke fingers through the holes in the crate and nod.
“She can’t talk, but I get her. We communicate all the time.”
Her voice drops to an almost toneless sound. “My Nora,” she says. “She was… like Katie.”
My fingers go rigid around the plastic. A chill passes through my blood, and I lower my gaze to the ground. I’m afraid to look at Eniko, afraid to see the pain on her face.
It’s like I’ve known Nora all those years, like the loss is my own. My blazing void. The place in a mother’s heart where a child should be, but isn’t. “I try not to think, I try to forget about her,” Eniko says. “Because remembering her hurts. It hurts so, so much.”
That night, Chanoch’s snoring is worse than ever.
I get out of bed to open a window. It’s freezing cold outside, but the room feels stuffy. I need fresh air.
It doesn’t help. Half an hour passes and I’m still up. I pull the earplugs out of my ears and get out of bed. It’s no use trying to sleep. I may as well do something.
There isn’t much to straighten up. My house is pretty much always in order; who, exactly, would mess it up? The most clutter we get is Chanoch’s shoes near the recliner where he kicked them off, and maybe a magazine and some mail on the table.
I water the plants, stick a few seltzer bottles into the fridge. There isn’t enough laundry in the hamper to fill a load.
I can bake.
I don’t bake much these days. Chanoch has to watch his sugar, and I can always pick up a pastry at Black Mug for myself.
With the mixer out on the counter, I take out my recipe book and flip through the pages. The night is still long. I need a project that will fill up the hours. And for that, the logical choice is babka.
Soon I am lost in the rolling and filling. I don’t know where my energy comes from, and I will feel it later, when my eyes close on me at work. But for now, this is what I need to do to pass the time.
Chanoch is up and dressed, holding his tallis bag. The night is over.
“Yes, babka,” I tell him. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Oh wow, this is so nice. I mean…” he stammers, “not that you couldn’t sleep, that’s terrible. But the babka. And so much. Who is it for?”
I rip off a piece of paper towel and wipe my hands. “It’s for… well, we’ll have some on Shabbos.”
I look up, note with interest the pattern of wrinkles on my husband’s face, and add, “And maybe we’ll take some over to Meir. For the bar mitzvah kiddush. I think they’ll enjoy it.”
The smile on Chanoch’s face is wide and wonderful and full of the most beautifully shaped wrinkles.
We go together this time, me and Eniko, on our lunch break. It’s only three blocks and the walk doesn’t take long, but when we reach the front of the building, I stop walking and reach for Eniko’s hand.
“You were right,” I tell her. “We spite ourselves when we choose to focus on our pain.”
She wiggles her hand out of mine.
“No,” she says tartly. “I was wrong.”
“Why do you say that?”
She sits down on the bottom step of the building, and I join her.
“I don’t know,” she says quietly. “I thought… if I’ll just put it behind me, I’ll move on, I’ll forget. I worked so hard to be strong, to smile, to be happy.”
“But it didn’t work.”
I try to process what she’s saying. Does it not work? Is it better to live in a perpetual state of sadness, to constantly mourn our losses and voids?
That’s not a life, and I tell her so.
“You taught me this,” I say sincerely. “Goodness, Eniko, you made me dizzy with your smiles, you drove me nuts with your ridiculous happiness quotes. Now you tell me it doesn’t work? Seriously, what’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know!” she cries.
I stand up. “Let’s go inside.”
We find the children in the art room, a mess of paper and crayons all around. There’s a huge GET WELL KATIE sign rolled out on the floor. A counselor must have outlined the letters, and the children had shaded them in, their coloring skills as poor as their cognition.
The sign doesn’t reveal much talent, but the random scribbles shout their love.
“How’s Katie doing?” I ask Jalisha.
She frowns. “Katie sick still. But she be feel good. We make like this all signs and cards, she be very, very happy.”
A spark goes off in her eyes as she runs to bring me a card she drew. Her frown is gone.
Eniko and I admire the kids’ work. There’s a strange atmosphere in the room: sadness and worry tinged with an unmistakable positive energy.
I watch Eniko bend over Ann’s shoulder to see the card she’s working on. I detect a serenity on her face, a sense of vitality that had vanished with the news of Katie falling ill.
That’s when a smile starts creeping up my face. Not a muscular activity, but a pleasant sensation that roots from deep within.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Jalisha, and make my way over to Eniko.
Eniko looks up from Ann’s card.
“Just look at these children,” I tell her softly.
We observe them, and without exchanging a word, I know she gets it.
With their friend’s life in danger, they’re suffering. Goodness knows how these special children feel their friend’s pain. They’re anxious and worried, but they don’t mope; they respond. They move. They act. They take their sadness and channel it into something great. Into a project. They don’t move on. They move forward.
Eniko picks up Ann’s card and fans herself with it. A weak smile forms on her face. Lucy hobbles over, supporting her weight on one side of her walker and waving her card in the other.
“Look!” she squeals.
I tickle her chin.
I make a funny face.
She mimics it.
Back and forth, we contort our features. My muscles are at the gym, working up a sweat.
When I cover my face with my palms and spread them out to make peek-a-boo, my eyes land on Eniko.
Her arm is around Ann’s shoulder.
And there’s a goofy grin on her face.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 956)
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