don’t know where I’m putting everyone” Chava Konig said into the phone. She spoke an octave higher than necessary. “There’s no room. Plain and pashut. My house is not the Beis Hamikdash.” She twirled the phone cord around her fingers enjoying the sensation it gave her — feeling it tighten cut off circulation and then unwinding it feeling the release as blood pooled back into her fingers. You couldn’t do this with a cordless she always told her kids.
“What about Shevy’s room?” her sister on the other end of the line suggested.
“You’re right!” Chava said. “I didn’t think of moving Shevy her room is the biggest after the master — I could fit a whole family in there!”
“One problem ” her sister interrupted her. “Where are you putting Shevy?”
Chava frowned and wound the cord around her two middle fingers. “That I’ll have to think about.” The front door opened with a loud creak; it only creaked like that if it was opened all the way and only one person opened it like that. “I’ll talk to you later Shevy’s finally home — she’s working like a ferd this tax season.”
Chava placed the phone in its cradle as Shevy her single daughter came into the kitchen
“How was work sheifeleh?” she asked. She already had a steaming mug of tea steeping and three crinkle cookies on a napkin. Shevy sank into the corner chair and rolled her shoulders slowly several times eyes shut. After a minute she looked at her mother.
“Nu how was work?”
Shevy waved her hand then cupped the mug lovingly. “Tax season it’s crazy nothing new.”
“It’s a quarter to twelve. That’s new.”
“They have more clients this year and didn’t make any new hires so it’s bit rougher than usual. But the way the calendar works this year is good — the deadline is before Pesach so I can enjoy it like a person not a shmatteh.”
Chava tsked for her daughter’s sake; Shevy shrugged it off again.
“They actually have a company policy that if you’re in the office past nine dinner is on the house. Past eleven they comp a hotel.”
Chava raised her brow. “Such fancy perks how come I never knew?”
“I never said because I never used them.”
Shevy picked up the mug and inhaled the steam letting the heat flow through her nose and spread throughout her body. “Aaaah ” she exhaled. “Who needs a hotel when I have this?” And she took a sip. She put it down and looked at her mother deliberately.
“Speaking of food and hotels I was talking to Leah on the way home.”
Chava leaned in; Shevy’s best friend Leah was usually good fodder though she got her get a month ago so the yentishkeit was dying down.
“Her family’s going to Florida for Pesach.”
Chava nodded not surprised; the entire Treitel clan went somewhere every Succos and Pesach.
“Leah thought she’d need a hand with the kids what with a new place and schedule and some company for herself — she doesn’t want to be the fifth wheel the entire yuntiff…” Shevy trailed off at this point.
“She asked if I could come with her ” Shevy said quickly. “All expenses paid.”
Chava stood back. Yom Tov not with family? She twitched her shoulder after too long a pause. “Do what you want.”
And she knew that Shevy knew that what she’d really meant was If you dare.
Shabbos was a respite for Shevy after the exhausting week. To blow off steam, she visited Leah Motzaei Shabbos.
“Shhh, all the kids are sleeping,” Leah said by way of greeting.
“What’s the plan?” Shevy asked.
“Cookies,” Leah said, her eyes twinkling madly. “I have none.”
“We’re making — a lot.”
Leah’s kitchen gleamed chrome and was bathed in warm light. In one corner of the island was the KitchenAid; the rest was covered in flours, nuts, sugar, caramel, butterscotch chips, and a bunch of other toppings too healthy for Shevy to identify.
“It’s a baking party!” Leah yelled.
“Thought the kids were sleeping.”
“Eh, so they wake up — join the fun — eat chocolate chips,” Leah said, pulling open a bag of mini caramel chips and popping a few into her mouth. She offered the bag to Shevy who smiled and accepted.
For the next four hours, the two friends made chocolate chip cookies, granola bars, cinnamon buns, and other things Shevy didn’t have a name for. They laughed, danced, and sang in the kitchen using a dirty spatula as a mike.
“That was too much fun,” Shevy said as she washed out the bowl. “I need to do more things like this.”
“Well, hanging out with you, but the singing and dancing — and baking. I forgot how much I love to bake!”
“It’s not so hard to turn on music.” She proffered the spatula to Shevy. “Music, mike, there’s plenty of room in your room — you’re ready to rock and roll.”
Shevy laughed. “Not gonna happen — my mother can barely tolerate Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.”
“You need your own place,” Leah said offhandedly. “Your rules, your way. People thought I’d move back to my parents after I got my get — as if. I couldn’t go back to that.”
Shevy shrugged. “It’s crazy late, I gotta go,” she said looking at the oven clock. Leah stifled a yawn. “See ya next weekend when you get to have a life for two seconds.” The two friends hugged, gave each other loaded smiles, and parted.
“It’s almost 1:30.”
The words came at her from the darkness. Shevy flipped on the light. Her mother was sitting on the couch.
“Why are you still up, Ma?” Shevy asked.
“I don’t go to sleep until everyone is home. Why didn’t you call?”
Shevy’s eyes darted around the room, unconsciously seeking exits. “Ma, seriously? I’m 31. I don’t have to call ‘Mommy’ every time I’m running late.”
Chava scowled, “I’m your mother, this is my house. If I ask you to call, or to come home early because it makes me feel better — you do that. Kibbud eim.”
Shevy’s face registered confusion. “Sorry, Ma.”
Chava nodded and accepted her daughter’s apology.
In her room, Shevy dumped her bag in the corner next to the beanbag chair. She slipped her shoes onto the polka-dotted shoe rack. She pulled open a drawer, and noticed for the first time in a long while, the Hello Kitty decals on the handles. Her eyes roamed the room, taking it in like a stranger. The linen was multicolored stripes, bold and youthful. The bed was a high riser. There were furry pillows and stuffed animals, a wicker wastebasket. Her room was pathetic. It was outdated, and cobbled together, and not her. She thought of Leah’s space, and mess, and joy, and her mother’s stern face when she came home late.
She picked up a pillow and tossed it in the air like a mortarboard. “Guess who’s getting a makeover?”
Then she lay down on her bed and opened her laptop. She let her body sink into her current mattress, the area was concave, the mattress so old it molded itself to her frame. Shifting positions at night was like crawling up a hill only to fall back moments later. Mattress, she typed.
In quick succession, she added things to the list: new linen, throw pillows, carpet, furniture, lamps, art. She eyed the closet door, noticing it was slightly ajar, a hint of metal hangers, a jumble of fabrics. Modular closets.
She closed her eyes a moment. It was all ridiculous. But something pushed her, and she added soundproofing to her list.
She opened her browser. A Google Image search for fresh sophisticated bedroom brought up large windows with streaming light, fresh linens with neutral accents, rustic benches with nailhead trimmings, and starburst mirrors on the walls — she wanted that.
A few more clicks brought her to Contemporary Concepts website, a top-tier furniture conglomerate. As Shevy browsed — clicking on headboards, zooming in — a window popped up.
“Having trouble deciding which direction to go? Consult with our designers, free. Available 24/7.”
Shevy glanced at the time. 2:30 a.m. She twitched a shoulder and clicked on chat now.
The process was easy. After asking a few questions about her taste, Lisa displayed several options on the screen, a selection of beds, then linens, drapes, and accessories.
Shevy selected a large ombre rug with an abstract print for the floor. What color are you painting the room? Lisa typed. I recommend a neutral eggshell white, with an accent wall of tender meadows.
Shevy looked at her walls; they were a boring, dying, neglected white fading into yellow.
Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll consult with a painter tomorrow. She looked again at the time, it was 4:30 in the morning. Today, she amended. Good thing it was Sunday and she could sleep in. Shevy entered her credit-card information, and gave a deliberate click: Place order. She barely made it to the confirmation page before her eyes closed.
She woke at noon. She jumped out of bed, knocking her laptop off the night table. She whisked it up and it opened to the Contemporary Concepts receipt page. The first glance closed her throat, but the next moment found her smiling serenely.
Boldly, she strode across her room and tugged the window open triumphantly. Her new room would arrive in a week; there was much to be done. No painter would come down on Sunday, but one agreed to come at eight the following morning. It would have to be quick; she needed to be out of the house by eight fifteen to get to work.
“Where are you going?” her mother asked as Shevy slung her tote over her shoulder. Shevy arched an eyebrow in her mother’s direction. “Out.”
She’d never gone shopping for a mattress. It would probably be more fun to do with someone, but she wanted to do this by herself. No Leah, definitely not her mother.
Like Goldilocks, she lay on the beds, “too soft” for one, “too hard” for another, and back and forth until she finally found her “just right.” The proprietor guaranteed delivery in a week.
Shevy kept to herself the rest of the day; she ate supper with her parents, but was busy texting her boss updates and expected deadlines.
“Put your phone away, it’s not nice at the table,” her mother said. Shevy nodded, then quickly sent off a last text.
“Do I have to confiscate it?” her mother teased. Shevy’s features drew into a frown. She finished eating quietly and then excused herself from the table. Her mother just watched her curiously.
The painter arrived promptly at eight the next morning. Shevy was fast, she knew what she wanted. She quickly picked out the shade from his fan of samples and he promised to return the following day. Her father came home as the painter left. He gave Shevy a look, but Shevy just waved goodbye and ran out the front door.
Work was work — numbers numbers numbers, forms forms forms, busy busy busy. Her phone rang; she looked down, it was her mother. She made a silent grimace and set the call to silent. Five minutes later, her phone rang again, again her mother. She figured she should just get it over with; the longer she avoided the call, the more complicated things would get, adding ignoring to… what was her first offense against her mother? She couldn’t recall.
“Hi, sheifeleh.” Her mother’s tone was aggressive. “Tatty told me a painter was at the house early in the morning. What’s going on?”
Shevy hesitated. “I decided to do my room over. The painter came by this morning for a consult. He’ll be back tomorrow for the job.” She tried keeping things matter-of-fact.
Shevy inhaled deeply — her mother wasn’t going to make this easy.
“I’m redecorating. New bedroom set, accessories, painting.”
“You’re redecorating in my house?”
“It’s my room.”
“In my house.”
“I’ve lived in that room for the past 25 years; don’t I have some ownership to it?”
Shevy stopped talking. She wanted to scream. But she was at work, at her desk, others were around. And this was her mother.
“Wait,” her mother said. “New furniture?”
“Yes, the bed and stuff are coming Monday.”
“Bed?” Her mother’s voice rose. “But I need the hi-riser in your room for Chaim and Leeba on Pesach.”
Shevy felt a stabbing pain in her eyes. She pushed her way into the ladies’ room, locked the door, stared at herself in the antechamber mirror, and tried to restrain the yell in her voice. “Wait. You’re kicking me out of my room for Pesach?”
“Well,” her mother said, “it’s one of the biggest rooms, and I need the space. Where is everyone supposed to sleep?”
“Did you plan on asking me? Or is this a ‘my house, my rules’ assumption?”
“You don’t need such a big room.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What is the point? What’s the big deal about moving out of your room for Pesach?”
“Ma, I’m 31, and you treat me like a teenager. What time I come home, when I should call, what I can or can’t do for yuntiff. Pretend I got married at 20. I’d be married for ten years now, probably have, I don’t know, four kids — would you tell me what time to come home, what I should do for yuntiff? No, I’d probably be making yuntiff myself by now!
“Out of respect, I listen, I don’t complain. But please, please. Look at me for what I am. I’m a senior accountant at my firm, I pay taxes, pay my own health insurance, pay my own expenses, and to you I’m still a child. Because I’m not married, I’m a child. Does that make sense?”
There was silence on the other end. But Shevy knew her mother was still there, she could hear her heavy breathing. The heavy breathing that comes with tears. She almost wanted to regret what she said, but her own breathing was deep and steady and empowered.
“It’s gonna be a long day at work,” Shevy started again. “I think I’m gonna take up my company on their hotel perks. I’ll see you tomorrow night. Maybe.”
“What about clothes?”
“There are stores.”
She paused before hitting end call.
“Bye, sheifeleh,” her mother said. That made her press it in disgust. Sheifeleh, still a sheifeleh. The grandkids were sheifelehs.
She looked at her reflection in the expansive bathroom mirror. She was tall, high cheekbones, thick hair. There was youth. She peered closer. Around her eyes, the webs were spinning, and when she furrowed her brow, it didn’t uncrease the moment she relaxed her muscles. She didn’t look 21, or even 25. She shrugged; no number would matter to her mother. The only thing that mattered was a sheitel on your head. Leah had it right, she thought. She may be divorced, but she’s a woman, and I’m still a girl.
Shevy looked at her reflection again and forced a smile. The first was a sad offering to herself. But then she thought happy thoughts, dancing in Leah’s kitchen, sampling too many muffins, and she laughed aloud. Her smile traveled to her eyes.
She pulled open the bathroom door, and reentered the world. It felt different walking back to her desk, an independent, self-reliant woman. She stopped at HR; she’d worked at the company for eight years and for the first time inquired about the options and compensation of overtime.
It felt weird as she pushed through the revolving door. Exciting, though. Something to be shared with someone; the last time she was in a hotel was on a trip to Florida with Leah two years ago. They had giggled until the morning as if they were in high school and not a woman with two kids in a sad marriage and an older single.
The check-in process was efficient; the welcome from the woman behind the desk seemed cold. There was no one waiting at the elevators and she rode to the 14th floor alone. The lock to the room beeped twice as she pulled out the key. Automatically, she looked around to flash a smile; hotels were occasions and fun — and people, where were the people?
The door swung open and Shevy took a small step forward. White sheets, square furniture. There was little attempt at color, just variations of sand and wheat. But it was a room and it was hers. Shevy dumped her satchel on the bed, along with a Macy’s bag. She pulled back the shade and looked down upon the city, masses of people, each with their own life. And she was up here alone.
It had been weird to go shopping herself during her lunch break, for clothes for tomorrow. Usually she put on a bit of a fashion show for her mother after shopping. She’d twirl and walk down an imaginary runway, and she and her mother would think of all the different outfit coordination she could do with any one sweater or skirt. This was supposed to be fun, but Shevy felt like she was waiting for something to happen, for someone to come.
It was late. Shevy climbed into the king-sized bed and sank into the downy sheets and memory foam mattress; she felt pressure at the base of her neck seeping toward her chest, and a dull ache near her heart that she couldn’t name. Thankfully, sleep came soon enough.
The sun filtered through the shades differently in the hotel room. It was more forgiving. Shevy stood for a moment at the window, taking in the sun in the city and she in a room all to herself. Yes, the night had been lonely, but the morning solitude was glorious.
With calm and ease, Shevy dressed for the day, drank a black coffee, and ordered fresh fruit from room service. Yes, she would do this again tonight, and the next, and if there was enough work — and there probably would be — she’d stay all week. She’d go home for Shabbos — maybe.
The workday went quickly and efficiently, even though the hours were long and exhausting. That evening, she approached the hotel with anticipation, not the trepidation and uncertainty of the previous night. Every transaction was smoother, the check-in, the elevator, there was no slow meandering to find her room tonight.She strode through the hallway, a fresh Neiman Marcus bag in the crook of her arm.
It didn’t take more than five minutes, though. Five minutes to settle everything in its place and plop into a chair, when the old feeling surfaced… she was there, alone. Shevy had no time or energy to entertain her struggle, tomorrow was another hectic day, and she very purposefully went to sleep, closing the blackout shades.
Morning came and there was no sun. Shevy woke and was unsure of the time, was it night, day? Why did she wake? She looked at the clock on the night table. It read 9:50. Shevy took a sharp breath; she had never been late to work before. The white starched shirt and yellow pencil skirt she’d so carefully purchased the day before were hastily pulled on, without a moment to admire her professional look in the bathroom mirror. There was barely time for a swipe of mascara. Good thing she was just blocks away from the office. Yes, good thing, she reaffirmed, but a little voice told her this would have never happened at home, her mother would’ve popped in if she wasn’t downstairs by 8:15.
Being independent, she told herself, is like anything else. Some times are good, some times are bad, and the good outweighs that bad, so just go with it. She didn’t go to Neiman Marcus during her lunch break or even Macy’s. She went to Century 21 and bought two sweaters and one skirt to match the two.
And for that night and the next, she walked to the hotel like it was nothing, had no more significance than a place to sleep. It was easier that way. There was less loneliness, but also less joy in the morning when the hotel didn’t symbolize independence but just a simple necessity.
Friday had Shevy anxious. She had texted her mother that she’d be coming home for Shabbos. She had considered going to Leah for Shabbos, but it seemed a little cruel. She’d go home for Shabbos, talk to her mother, see if maybe, maybe, they could come to some kind of truce.
Her mother had texted back. “Can’t wait to see you, I miss you, sheifeleh.” Shevy had tossed her phone on her desk after reading that. Maybe she was just being an idiot, she was gone almost a week, maybe a clean break would be best, going home might mess everything up. But then she’d have to look for an apartment or something because April 15 was fast approaching and free hotel nights were not to be had for much longer.
All morning, Shevy vacillated between going home for Shabbos or spending it with Leah. Then she got another text. “Mommy tells me you’re coming home for Shabbos. I can’t wait to see you, I miss talking to you.” Shevy pushed her lips together trying to keep the tears from falling. It was from Tatty.
Of course she’d go home.
Her mother sat at the table. She’d had a tea steeping and cookies waiting when Shevy opened the door. Shevy looked at the tea, and walked to the cabinet, took out a mug, and prepared a coffee for herself.
“You’re right. I treat you like a child,” Shevy’s mother said heavily. She shuffled slowly across the kitchen, and for a moment, Shevy realized her mother was old. “I missed you and worried about you. I was talking to your sister Chani on Tuesday, telling her how nervous I was for you, and that I didn’t know if you were okay and had everything you need. And you know what Chani said?” Chava looked at Shevy for a response, but Shevy wasn’t ready to play nice.
“She laughed at me,” Chava continued after a too long pause. “She said, ‘Shevy’s a big girl, she can take care of herself. You don’t worry about me when I go on vacation, or go shopping, you just nod and smile and say “Enjoy.” I’m five years younger than Shevy.’ ”
Shevy listened, but said nothing. She took a sip of her coffee. Her mother pushed the cookies toward her, Shevy shook her head curtly.
“She said a bunch of other stuff, I don’t even remember what. It sounded so much like what you said to me. But I couldn’t even hear it when you said it.”
Shevy’s mother stopped talking. And though she tried to remain stoic and unmoved, Shevy felt the tug in her cheek, and the rapid blinking in her eye. Her mother looked at her plaintively, waiting.
Wasn’t this what she wanted? Her mother to realize all of this? So why did she feel so mixed-up and hesitant? Shevy looked away, and then met her mother’s gaze. “I’m sorry I put you through this, but I’m happy you’ve realized what I’ve been trying to say.” Shevy paused, struggling with how to best phrase the next thing. “But how do I know you’re gonna follow through? I mean, you called me sheifeleh in your text today—”
“But I always call you sheifeleh!”
“But it’s— ” Shevy started, but her mother put her finger to her lips, stood up, and beckoned Shevy to follow.
Her mother stopped short at the hallway closet. She wiped her hands on her floral model’s coat, and opened the coat closet. Inside the closet, she pulled out the step stool, stepped up, and reached up to the second high shelf. With the tips of her fingers she jiggled a white box toward herself, and then gently pulled it down. She stepped off the stool and offered the box to Shevy. Shevy didn’t take it.
“That’s Tatty’s chaburah matzos,” Shevy said.
“I don’t know what you’ll decide to do for Pesach, but I spoke to Leah, she tells me they have good food at these Pesach hotels. These are good matzos to go with it.”
Shevy nodded, she didn’t trust herself to speak. She reached out and embraced her mother. As they hugged, she felt her mother’s shoulders release the tension they’d held all week, and she squeezed harder. Abruptly her mother broke the embrace, and looked at her finger as if there were a string around it to remind her of something.
“I let the painter in on Monday,” she said.
Shevy’s hand went to her mouth. “I totally forgot!”
Her mother shrugged, “Don’t worry about it, he did a beautiful job, interesting colors,” she said, with no condescension. “I’d love to see the rest of the stuff you picked out before it shows up.” Shevy raised her eyebrow, but her mother was sincere. Shevy clutched the box of matzos, blinked hard, and nodded. “Come,” she said. “I’ll show you."
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 534)