| Calligraphy |

Sound Check

These women don’t even know her, but they want to know about her deepest struggles

She is the twelfth person at a table made for ten.

Eliza had invited her to the wedding at the last minute. It was her youngest son. Oh, we invited her to the other kids’ weddings, let’s invite her now too, they must’ve said.

Sarah is seated with the other employees of the company she retired from almost five years ago. Mrs. Geller is there, looking a bit out of it. She doesn’t recognize anyone else.

She fiddles with her place card. What is she doing here?

Across the table is a young woman with a very large, very fake-looking dragonfly brooch. She knows her from somewhere. From the office, obviously. Could it be Nina, that young secretary, very eager-beaver style, just home from seminary?

She smiles across the table. “Nina?” she mouths.

Dragonfly leans forward. “And so it is,” she says in a high-octave voice that immediately brings up so many memories. “Who are you?”

“Sarah Kessler. Remember, from the office down the hall…? You were just starting out when I left.”

Nina scrunches her eyes. “Down the hall? I don’t remember. We moved to a new building a couple years back.”

“Kessler?” someone else says. “Kessler, related to Sruli Kessler?”

“His mother,” she says mildly.

“That’s him singing tonight.” The woman is smiling, Sarah can see Invisalign braces.

What? Sruli is singing? Why don’t I know? She feels herself go hot and red.

“Oh, but he doesn’t do weddings anymore,” Sarah says stupidly.

“That’s why it’s so special,” the woman says.

“Eliza Spira isn’t just anyone,” Nina concurs.

Sarah pretends to blow her nose, then smiles like Sruli Kessler’s mother should.

“I remember him as the voice of my youth,” a woman is saying, eyes faraway.

“Gosh, we were obsessed with that little boy on the grainy videos,” someone else says.

“And when his voice changed… and he stayed in the industry….”

She lets the comments fly over her head.

“How was it for you, as his mother?”

She jerks, the place card in her lap falling to the floor. Invisalign cocks her head, smiling, those unnerving plastic brackets catching the light.

What’s the point? They’re not invisible, they’re a sham, and expensive, she wants to say of the braces. She won’t say it, too personal, but it’s a lot more personal to ask about being Sruli’s mother. These women don’t even know her, but they want to know about her deepest struggles. Let them turn their own tzaddikel into a star and see how they like it.

What did they even know? Did they know what it’s like to get offers you couldn’t refuse? To use the money your son earned to pay for your husband’s medical expenses? When Yosef fell he had to relearn everything, like a child. He couldn’t work for a year, and needed all that therapy. What did they know of pushing your son to do something because you were desperate, but biting your lip until it bled because you were selling his childhood?

She is never as grateful when the music starts again and ends the conversation.

*

 

“He didn’t even tell me he would be there, Yosef. He knows I know Eliza.”

The place card is clutched in Sarah’s fist. When did she pick it up? Why? She starts to rip it slowly. Who cares why?

“Sarah, it’s been ages since you left the company. Why would he associate you with the Spiras?”

“He could’ve told me because I’m his mother.”

Yosef sighs into his sefer. “Y’know, Sruli…” He mumbles something else, “Busy… Erev Yom Tov…”

The discussion is stale.

She is tireless. “Busy? Why are you always defending him? And we won’t even see him over Yom Tov because he’ll be at one of those hotels. Nevada, maybe? Dominican Republic, whatever.”

She is working through the monogram. Harder to tear, but much more satisfying. “Kessler. It’s like I don’t exist on my own. I’m just Sruli Kessler’s mother. Hung onto Sruli.”

“What came first, the chicken or the egg?” he quips.

She snorts, drops the mangled place card in the garbage.

“Sarah, there’s a lot going on, but tell me, were you proud to hear him?”

“I am proud.” She gestures to the picture of Sruli on his wall, ten years old, in his Shabbos suit, and much too solemn. She goes right up to the wall: Sruli, Tzippy, Adina, the grandkids, all smiles, fancy dresses. But what is a photo? The girls are in Israel. Sruli’s just an hour away, but he might as well be in the Middle East too. “I’m also hurt and wounded and confused,” she says to three random photos of Sruli in turn.

He is smiling in the last one, cocky, confident, impervious. Holding the mic like a trophy.

Yosef follows her gaze. “Maybe tell him for real this time.”

 

*

 

She finds his contact, clicks send message, and starts typing. Do you know how I feel about last night?

Nah, too needy, too hurt.

She swipes away and hits call by mistake. She quickly presses off.

What is she going to say when he calls back?

Sruli Kessler is not a guy who calls back. Duh.

She kicks off her heels, sinks into the recliner. She’d forgotten to turn on the light, thought this would be quick. Now she is too comfortable.

Who is he?

She puts Sruli Kessler into the search bar on a whim. A full page of options comes up. A few are clips, most are posts. She opens one. Pictures, sharp, richly colored: Sruli singing in L.A., Sruli at Oorah, Sruli on a boat. And comments.

Nachi Hey man, tonight was awesome.

GavGav Rock the boat, guy.

Fooddude Kessler on sea, ahh the ears, the eyes…

There are more: grand venues, Sruli posing with distinguished men, with underprivileged children. Where are his own children? Surely he could afford them one post, one picture, a nice picture of him with Shaya and Moishy? Or a picture of his parents. His siblings. He didn’t spring out of nowhere, you know.

Her finger hovers over his portrait. Handsome young man with Yosef’s eyes and the hint of a dimple, like she had. The tailored suit, expensive shirt, crystal shot glass he was holding, about to clink with the conductor.

They didn’t have that when he was growing up. That is self-made.

She swipes, swipes, swipes, until it is a blur of images, like she’s on a speed train and he’s in a thousand windows along the way. The last one is new. Today, 3 mins ago, it says. Head raised in song. Eyes closed. Ecstasy. Her son is not just a subject. She tears up, blinks the wetness away.

Spira-Lisser wedding is the caption.

So this is what he’s doing now instead of returning her missed call. He’s telling the whole world online, but he couldn’t even tell his own mother.

PR, it’s a crazy market these days, I’ve got to keep up, he’d told them once.

Public relations. How about P for parents?

She watches the comments roll in. Thumbs up from Fooddude. Tzion we need you at the weddings more often, and Lisa2 a voice from the past, was sooo nice meeting your mother.

No! Lisa2? Was that Invisalign? She tried to remember who else was talking about Sruli. That lashes woman? Mrs. Geller, what’s her first name? Oh please, what does she know of posting online?

Lisa2. She clicks on the name.

Nina? She can hear the comment half an octave too high.

How could it be Nina? This is Lisa.

Who says it has to be true? Who’s Fooddude anyway? It’s just an anonymous identity. Isn’t that how it works here?

Her phone screen dims. The room is dark, huge. She is a small, old woman in a too-deep recliner. She can’t see the age spots on her arm, the pretentious heels falling over themselves on the rug. Why, she can be anyone.

She swipes the screen, blue light. She squints. How do you even do this? Create account. Easy. User name?

Sarah? It’s anonymous enough.

No, no, she wants to write as one of the masses. Just another fan in the nameless, faceless crowd that’s cheering him along. She will be a man. Charlie? Dennis? She laughs out loud.

Hmm. A character around Sruli’s age, low thirties, cool streak. What would they say to this clip of his solo at the wedding?

Yo, man!

YoMan. She likes it. It’s a long way from a sixty-seven-year-old grandmother.

She adopts a southern accent, says it like scraping sawdust, in the dark room. Yo maaan.

She shakes her head, but she’s in. Two clicks to follow Sruli.

That wedding picture is a good start. She deliberates over her comment, playing with the options in her mind. YoMan is quick and decisive. Naturally you, tonight!

How YoMan knows that, when this is ostensibly his first comment, is anyone’s guess.

She leans back, puts down her phone, closes her eyes.

It chimes within the minute: Sruli responded, a blushing emoji.

I got him, she thinks. I’m his mom, I know him.

When has he ever responded to you so fast?

But the emoji dances in her mind for a while, blush-spots growing and shrinking over the hint of a dimple.

 

*

 

A slice of sanity in Brooklyn. Her slice. Sarah putters around the garden with her watering can. A sprinkle here, a soak there. Yosef got her a sprinkler once, but she prefers the humble can, likes to get up close with the marigolds, the calla lilies. She hums, pulls a leaf here, prods, tweaks.

From the little stone ledge comes a ping. She puts the can down. Removes a glove.

Sruli.

It’s an ad for a conference. What you should know before you invest. Program 4–7 p.m. Dinner 8 p.m. Vocals by Sruli Kessler and Niggun Choir.

Sruli’s added: Singing in the city tonight #NYC

This is one way for a mother to find out.

She is pulling her glove back on. Let Sruli sing at that bigwig conference. She’ll have her chicken sans vocals, a bit of peace at dinnertime. But she is YoMan now. She notices, she comments, she enthuses.

Fooddude’s already commented. Go get ’em.

After a pause, she writes: Taking singing for your supper to the next level. It’s not so YoMan, but maybe she doesn’t want to adapt now. The salad bed is waiting.

The snow peas are growing on the fence, but some of the vines are falling. Sarah uses a twig to guide them and wraps some of the bigger tendrils over. Her mind is here, on the newborn shoots and climbing plants, but it is also far and away. Sruli is everywhere. In the city. On the vines. Singing on the Washington Bridge, arms and legs stretched out. Tall on Trump Tower. She drags two fingers through the soil and looks down. She’s made a wiggly pattern. He would be here beside her, poking his fingers in the soil, trying to see how far they could go. He would sing, too; a lilting voice in the sunshine, singing to the flowers because she’d once told him it helped them grow.

And then Maggid from the choir had recruited him.

He’d come out here still, to practice solos, harmonies, positions, a young child in a man’s choir, practicing alone. How had she let him become the wonder child? What was wrong with singing right here, for yourself, for the flowers, for your family? Why, two decades later, does he have to sing in the city?

 

*

 

“Hi Ma, I’m in the area.” Brusque and cheery. Sruli doesn’t have time for how-are-yous. “Wanna meet at Café Caffeine? Breakfast on me,” he says.

“I need to stay in. I’m expecting a delivery, and c’mon Sruli, my babka beats Café Caffeine any day.”

“Sorry Mom, ain’t got time to stop by. I have to be on the Avenue around midday so happy to meet you—”

A beep on his end, he loses the call.

She calls back. Busy.

She makes room in the fridge. Seedlings are arriving today from that new mail-order garden place. They need darkness and low temperatures until she’s ready to plant.

Her babka, dripping chocolate, comes out of the freezer. For this, he might still come.

The doorbell rings. There he is. She greets the Amazon Prime driver with an ebullient hello, which falters as he holds out her package.

“And a good, good day to ya, ma’am.”

At least she’s made someone happy.

She unpacks the package, puts it carefully in the fridge. Considers eating a slice of babka. It’s a comfort food, or a together food. Yosef’s out. Is Sruli coming, or not?

She calls again. Voicemail. It’s 11:45. He should be on the Avenue now. Is he there in the café? Is he waiting for her? Maybe he left his phone in the car and is just sitting, tapping his foot against the barstool?

Fat chance. Still, she’s antsy in the kitchen. She’ll go out to the Avenue. If he’s not there, she’ll do a grocery run, instead of ordering and then sending back the oversized onions they always sent. Who did they think she was cooking for anyway?

She gets dressed, grabs a shiny black pocketbook, applies a dab of lipstick in the downstairs mirror.

By the time she’s made it to Cafe Caffeine, she is hot and annoyed. She opens the glass door. Brewing coffee, smell of bread, yapping diners. Why are so many people here in the middle of the day? She tries to look around. She doesn’t want to turn her head back and forth, searching so obviously. She fishes for her phone, trips over his number. The row of bare bulbs, minimalistic look, low hanging, make her feel flushed and conspicuous. Beep, beep. No answer.

“What will it be, madam?”

She turns. The barista thinks she’s going to order something to go.

“No, no,” she says quickly. “I’ll just sit over there.” She points to a mercifully empty table.

“Can I bring you something to drink?” the barista asks.

“Yes,” she says briskly, “two lattes please.”

She puts her shiny bag down on the other seat, reserving it for Sruli. Her latte comes and she savours the frothy foam, the scalding drink.

She sits and drinks alone in an upscale café.

Five minutes, ten. The drink loses its sweetness, the hint of brown sugar evaporating along with her verve.

She always felt bad for people who ate solo in restaurants. If you don’t have who to eat with, she’d think, stay home. Now she is that woman, and she’s too old to care what that sweet, dewy-eyed couple at the next table is thinking.

Twenty minutes, twenty-five. She is still turning to the door every half minute, as though she has a twitch. Her neck aches. She is frustrated and angry. She should have eaten the babka in her own kitchen. When she dials Sruli again, it’s not because she wants to see him here anymore. It’s just something she’s doing.

As it rings, she watches a woman slip onto a barstool next to the couple. A woman she knows. It’s Eliza, out for a happy brunch with her newlywed son and daughter-in-law.

She turns away just as Sruli answers distractedly. There’s static in her ear. She is almost yelling. “Sruli, really…”

“Sorry Mom, I didn’t manage to come in. Have to meet my producer in a minute on the other side of Brooklyn. Save me some babka, okay?”

His blitheness is worse than everything else.

“I was waiting for you,” she chokes out.

She doesn’t say that she got all dressed up to go out, that she went to the café where she thought he would be. She doesn’t say that she is sitting there now and that the latte she ordered for him is cold and that Eliza is here with her son, that other people do this, meet their mothers, go out together.

He wasn’t even going to come.

She is prompted by a crazy urge. She gets up, walks past Eliza, spills Sruli’s coffee in the sink. She drops ten bucks down on the counter, waves away the change, and skedaddles out. There will be no grocery run. She walks up the avenue, big sprinting steps that knock her breath out. Her bones are old. But look what she can do. Up the stairs, into the kitchen.

YoMan; she fumbles for the app and finds it. Direct Message. What would YoMan say, a perfect stranger, someone who knows nothing about what happened today? Perfectly modulated tone, not angry, not petulant.

Hey, Sruli, you know how much I love your stuff. So I was thinking, you’re showing us your career here, where you’re going, where you’re singing. And it’s great. But, just a man’s thoughts, we don’t get to see your family much. Where you’re from. Your wife? Kids? Parents? Would be good for your image if we could get to know the family man in you.

She posts the message and puts her phone down. Now what? She feels the energy seep out of her. The whole thing is a farce. As if Sruli needs suggestions from followers. He’s going to throw YoMan to the wolves.

But what if he doesn’t?

 

*

 

Yosef has this thing about talking on speaker. She can’t understand it. Echoing voices, static, it’s a secondary use of the phone, she tells him. It should be a private portal of connection, you and the other person sharing a third space that exists for this conversation. But he keeps doing it. Today, when Sruli calls, Sarah is glad of it. Overhearing him talk to Yosef gives her a chance to swallow and think; she is not caught off guard.

“I was thinking of popping by today. It’s been a while. Such a nice day…”

Sruli is coming. No babka, nothing. He’s eating right out of YoMan’s palm.

Yosef gives her a look, incredulous delight. She feels sick suddenly.

“You do that, m’boy,” he says, her guileless husband. “Your old folks are waiting.”

 

*

 

A post pops up later that evening: Yosef in his study, looking down at a sefer, the hint of a smile creeping up his face. He is humoring Sruli, keeping up the pose as though he doesn’t know that Sruli’s snapping a picture. He’s good like that, Yosef. She reads the caption. My inspiration. Good, he deserves that. Even though he’ll never see it.

She wants to run upstairs and show the post to Yosef. But she can already see his bewilderment, Why are you stalking Sruli? And that’s without the YoMan part. If he would know…

Sruli posts another picture. Their old Brooklyn house, captured from the side, a perspective that makes it look almost grand. The home I grew up in.

And another. My family. It’s the wall in Yosef’s study. Shining eyes in canvas, her family.

She is proud; a lonely thing when you cannot share it. She is also exasperated. How much of it is platitude and how much is real?

Sruli’s followers — other people who don’t know too much, who are not looking at the pictures with the jaundiced eyes of an old woman — they like it. The comments are flying in.

Getting real.

Sweetest fam!

YoMan has to say something too — he instigated this. Sruli’s expecting the pat on the back. Fumble, type. This is the way, she posts finally, an emoji smiling too wide. And then, We want more.

The three words haunt her in the night. But when she opens his page the next morning, they are drowned out by more comments; she has to scroll all the way up to find them.

See, Sruli? Family works. Do you really need YoMan to tell you?

 

*

 

Later she is punching the challah dough, the cordless headphones still on from a conversation with Tzippy. She doesn’t want to get her floury hands near her tichel.

The doorbell rings. She washes one hand and goes to open it.

“Look, Bubby has headphones too.”

It’s Moishy. And Sruli. She almost laughs out loud, pinches herself. “Hello, my dears, what are you doing here?”

“Moishy had an appointment, we thought we’d come by.”

She wonders how many other appointments in Brooklyn they’d blithely come and gone from.

“How are you, Ma?” Sruli asks as they follow her down the hall. “What are you up to these days?”

I’m running a PR campaign.

“The usual,” she says too loud, as if he’d heard her. “What about you? Singing anywhere special?”

Mention the conference in the city. Tell me something, please.

But he just waves airily. “Oh, here and there, y’know.”

She knows.

She swallows and opens the patio door. Moishy skips outside, scales the wall in two seconds, grins like a Cheshire cat near the high flowers.

Sruli beams up at him, then strides through her garden and stops at the fence. “Remember these? Can’t believe they’re still blooming.” He snaps a picture of the purple flower. “Sweet rocket. The flowers with the crazy evening smell. I loved it. You know what, Ma?” He looks wistful. “It makes me think of you and me together in the garden. Remember?”

She walks over and extracts her voice from under a love-lump in her throat. YoMan, ShmoMan. Wasn’t it worth it?

“Remember how much time you spent out here?”

“I used to sing here.”

“You did. You were just ten years old and you would come out here, singing for hours on end, because you had a rehearsal. While the other kids were doing what kids do. Throwing a ball around, riding bikes, bothering each other.”

She is grasping a flower. Soft, liquid petals in worn fingers. Why is she taking him back there, letting her nail perforate the petal?

“I liked it, Ma,” he says quietly. “I felt special.”

“Did you even want to feel special when you were ten?” The flower comes off the twig entirely. She rolls it in between sweaty palms, killing it.

“It got me here,” he says quietly.

He scuffs the dirt with his shoe. “Look, things happen. You did it because you had to. And you opened up a world….”

It was her. She was the parent. She should have known what it would do to her child. She is quiet. She drops the blossom to the ground. She looks up and there is Moishy, scampering off the wall, bounding through the maze of plants, eight years old, on top of the world.

She can’t help but ask. “Would you do it to Moishy?”

He’s a parent now too, what would he say?

Long pause. The sun falls, the dance of dusk. The sweet rockets perfume the air.

“I don’t know,” he says softly.

 

*

 

New post: Purple flowers, thoughtful emoji. Can anyone name the flower of my youth? Sruli asks. There’s been a flurry of activity on the page, but no right answers.

She is staring at their favorite flower. What should YoMan reply?

The glass salad bowl clinks on the table. Yosef sits. He likes his salad diced microscopically. She’d learned that the only way to get it right was to have him dice it himself.

“Sarah?”

She is still clutching her phone. He looks at her strangely. She feels herself go cold. He’s eating dinner with a monster. A phantom monster.

“Sarah, I’m worried about you.”

In her lap, her phone vibrates. She feels guilty and sick. She’s had enough. Out with it.

“I’m just upset about Sruli,” she blurts instead.

He makes an inscrutable face.

She finds herself blabbing. “We touched it today. The elephant, it was in the garden, trampling the flowers.”

“Plain talk, please.”

“Sruli’s career, how it all began. I dared to ask if he’d want Moishy to follow in his way and, and…”

“And?”

“Does he even realize how far he’s leaving us behind? Is that what’s making him ambivalent about Moishy? Or is it just the loss of childhood, the craziness, the fame, everyone knows you, Insta—” She bites her lip. “Just,” she finishes.

“Listen, he’s a star, okay. It’s a long-rising teenagehood, a rollercoaster that only goes up. Like when you think you’re going to be seventeen and eighteen forever. He does what he has to do to stay in the sky. I can’t say I agree, but really, I wonder if there’s any point in pushing things? It has to come from him.”

Pushing things? She blanches. Does he know?

Still, she doesn’t give up. “But you have all these thoughts about it that you’re not saying. You’re forever letting things lie. Letting him walk all over you. Is that the right way?”

“I don’t see it like that,” he says softly.

His gentleness stops her.

He does his thing, lives his own life, trusts that Sruli will come around. It’s not like he’s telling her to get a life outright. But what if she could? What if she could delete the account, let YoMan go AWOL?

She fills her plate and begins to eat.

“That’s better.” He nods at the salad. He’s already buttoning his coat. Off to his shiur.

“See you, soon.”

What would Yosef think if an outsider was pushing things? A cyberspace puppet in her mama-hand.

She doesn’t want to think about that. And then she remembers Sruli’s post about the flower.

YoMan responds: #sweetrocket.

Sruli posts a thumbs up. Five thumbs.

 

*

 

There is his hand, waving. His real thumb hooked onto his belt loop. She’d hurried to answer the two quick knocks. Someone was in a rush tonight.

Sruli.

She stands back. Why was he here? Showdown time?

He slouches against the wall. “Back again, I left a bag with Moishy’s prescription here, I think in the kitchen. I have a rehearsal about halfway back, soon, so figured I’d come all the way to get it before then. It’s important, something with his eye…”

“Oy, sheifele, you didn’t tell me. Not about Moishy’s eye, not what you’re rehearsing for.”

“Why bother, you know?” He looks tired.

“I don’t.” Sarah turns away to check the kitchen, mutters under her breath. “Just tell it all to YoMan and Fooddude.”

He stops following her down the hall. Stands very straight. A bear on alert.

“What did you say?”

No, no, no.

“Um nothing, I’m just tired,” she tries.

“Mom, how do you know YoMan and Fooddude?”

She is done. Done.

How do you know?

She drops her arms. “I follow you sometimes,” she says, aiming for casual. It comes out like a squeak.

“Really? I didn’t know you know how to use these things.”

“I do. I learn.”

She watches as he gets uncomfortable. Scratches his hair.

“Look, it’s a way for me to keep up if I don’t hear it myself from the singer,” she says pointedly.

He looks green. “It’s just that, I can’t imagine you keeping up with me like that, with my world.” He rubs his chin, thoughtful. “But you just looked at it once or twice, you mean? Not like a steady thing?”

He is grasping at straws and she gives him one. “Yeah, something like that,” she says, looking away.

When she removes her gaze, he starts to ramble. “It’s hard, Ma. I don’t like to rub my success in anyone’s face. It’s more comfortable to be vague about things, no details. You know what they say, people love you when you’re average. I feel uncomfortable being better than Tzippy and Adina, than—”

You. She freezes for a minute. He was going to say you and Tatty.

She thinks of Yosef. He trusts Sruli, doesn’t feel put down, maybe he understood this all along: Excellence is uncomfortable. What had he said, Yosef? He’s a star, he does what he has to do to stay in the sky.

“Sruli, I want your success.” She finds herself saying it earnestly.

“You don’t. You wish I never was a child success. You eat yourself up for sending me out there.”

She flinches.

“Listen, some things are destined to be, I was going to end up this way, some way or another…”

She doesn’t respond, just goes into the kitchen, finds the prescription, puts a few cookies in a bag.

He’s absolved her of guilt. Why does she feel so off?

“I am proud,” she says, handing him the package, and she is. But she is confused too. “Parents always are, even if it’s not a world we know… But Sruli, we want to be more involved, too.”

He nods awkwardly and leaves.

She looks at herself in the hallway mirror after he goes. We.

The woman in the mirror raises the wrong brow.

It doesn’t matter. They haven’t talked like this in maybe ten years.

Who needs YoMan anyway?

Although it was YoMan who prompted this conversation….

She shudders. Some scare, dropping his name like that. The last thing she needed after this honest conversation was for Sruli to find out.

 

*

 

Her old friend Bertha calls later. She wants to go running tomorrow.

Sarah is in. Get a life, do your own thing. Take a leaf out of Yosef’s book.

But Sruli throws her off-kilter again. A new post, gold font on black: If you know where you come from, there’s no limitation to where you can go. —James Baldwin

What? She sits down, savors it again.

Was this post born of their conversation? Does he really believe this quote?

She goes up to the storage closet to find her running shoes. Where are they?

Half an hour later, she comes back to the kitchen, wearing the blue sneakers. There are ninety-two comments on Sruli’s post. She scans them. Mostly yays, some nays, one or two hmm-emojis followed by lol. What a weird generation.

Doesn’t YoMan have to say something? She clenches the phone.

She keeps reading, just to distract herself, and there, innocuously, is a comment from Morty Ganz of Jewish News: How about we do an interview with you and your parents, find out where you come from?

Talk about PR. YoMan’s thing is taking on a life of its own now. An interview with the family…

Ping. Direct message in YoMan’s account from Sruli Kessler: Thanks for the PR tip, it’s been great. More followers, more interest. Who would’ve known the family angle was so important?

So the singer is grateful at last.

Where is Sruli now? At the rehearsal, on the highway home? She can read his thoughts: Spoke to Ma, but business is business. This deluge is coming in and it’s all just PR. Family sells, even prompting an interview. Give credit where credit is due….

She scans the message again, feels clammy.

Family angle. Is it all just a spin to him?

 

*

 

She waits at the corner for Bertha, looking down at her faded blue sneakers as the traffic passes her by. She stomps in place. The sneakers are still good to go. So is she. What does she want?

She wants to tell Yosef about the interview. She wants to confront Sruli. She wants to know about his life. But seems it’s too much to ask.

Her PR campaign is as good as over. YoMan will stop pushing the family angle. She could really keep it up; it’s so easy to push the buttons of a star, maybe because he’s more vulnerable, dependent on the masses to keep him in the sky. But instead she comments with the rest on an upcoming concert with chazzanim that he neglected to tell her about, and Sruli responds, posting from Chile. What? Isn’t that a volatile place?

Does he think about their talk at all? Does it make him wonder, in a hotel in Chile, if he shouldn’t call his folks? Does he think, it’s too far, too grand, wouldn’t want to make them feel bad, let’s keep it quiet and comfortable?

Beside her, Bertha pumps her arms, panting and grinning.

After a week of jogging, they are faster the next week. She looks down, counting the slabs of pavement. Just jog, don’t obsess, she tells herself, but she can’t fight the thoughts. There will be no interview. What’s a little comment from Morty Ganz anyway? Is Sruli even back from Chile? Alive?

They reach the traffic lights. Here’s where they turn back. 348 slabs of sidewalk and no answers.

 

*

 

She breathes heavily all the way back home. There’s a car in the driveway that she doesn’t recognize. Someone for Yosef, probably. She’s almost up the stairs when she looks back.

It’s Sruli. On his phone.

Is he even coming in? Or he’s found a hideout in the Brooklyn snarl, free parking just over from the Avenue?

She looks at him from the stairs. The star looks small in his seat. Just a man, just a son. It’s been two weeks, a bomb of a conversation, international travel, tens of posts, thousands of messages.

She walks down the stairs. He looks up, opens the window, smiles broadly, so blasé, as though there’s no water under the bridge. He’s like Yosef, in that way. And suddenly she feels heavy with all the calculations she keeps in her head.

He opens the door and stretches.

“Will you come out to the garden a bit?” she says.

He consults his watch.

I’ve ruined it, who says he has time for long visits every time? Maybe this is why he doesn’t come?

Stop blaming yourself.

She’s a mess. Why is he here? For the parking, or what?

Oh, surely this is about that interview, or for that dead PR campaign that you started. He’s not here for her.

She looks at him. All he says is, “I think so.”

She wants to ask a thousand things. Are you here because of YoMan? Because of us? How come you didn’t tell us about Chile, about anything else? Why? Why? She is claustrophobic in the breezy driveway; she can feel the words hanging in the air between them, heavy, bursting to be said.

She hurries up the stairs again, hears him coming, closets herself in the nearest room. One minute to calm her nerves in Yosef’s study — where her phone is charging in the wall.

She sits down and unplugs it, opens her account to the exchange between YoMan and Sruli. Thank you, family angle… She wants to throw the phone in his face, show him everything.

From outside, she hears a thin voice trilling. What? He used to do this, sing for the flowers, because the psychologists said it helped them grow. He used to take her seriously like that.

She is still gripping the phone. Through the study window, she watches him walk slowly up and down the rows of plants. Eyes closed, but transparent. Like when he was ten years old and earnest in song, like when he was fifteen and they sang together sometimes during the growing season.

He stops at the sweet rocket, tender and wistful.  She doesn’t need to show him the posts. Maybe, just for tonight, her boy is back.

She creeps out, a thousand feelings battering in her heart. She can see him now, from the kitchen, through the long doors. On the table are two innocuous cards. She holds one up. It’s a ticket to a concert. That huge one — YoMan had commented on the ad — singing with chazzanim, the bespoke. Grand in the way she knows makes Sruli uncomfortable around them.

But he’d gotten past that. He procured these tickets that none of his followers will ever know he’s given to his parents. Maybe this isn’t about the interview and more PR? Maybe the family-man campaign has finally effected something real?

Sarah runs her fingers over the raised text. October 27, right after Yom Tov. She doesn’t even know if she’ll make it, or if Yosef will want to go. But Sruli’s brought them, that’s enough.

Her fingers grope for the phone in her pocket. She holds it out, swipe, swipe, click. What is she doing? A pop-up on her screen, Are you sure you want to delete account?

She’d wanted to so many times before. She looks outside, finds the nerve. Yes.

 

(Originally featured inCalligraphy, Issue 781)

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Tagged: Calligraphy