| Teen Fiction |

Styles of Belonging

 Buy yourself something special, Leah! Love, Mommy. I beam at the note and reread the words. Wow! This is simply… amazing!


Mommy is the epitome of Hungarian when it comes to cooking, but she’s oblivious to shopping fads when it comes to teenagers.

And I was okay with it, that is, until the subject of sleepaway camp came up. Because while I have Baila to help me munch on homemade babka and chocolate chip cookies, I was determined to expand my circle of friends, to actually make it.

And clothing, I believe, will be the dominant factor in reaching the ranks of popularity, particularly for my first year of camp.

I hesitantly broach the subject on Thursday while peeling potatoes for the kugel. “Mommy, I’d like to stock up my wardrobe. You know, like, for camp. I’ll need some new stuff.”

Mommy clicks the Braun into place and turns to face me. “Clothes? Leah, don’t you have enough?” She shakes her head. “Didn’t we just buy you a new Shabbos dress?”

I know what she’s thinking. Elisheva and Shifra, my two older sisters, didn’t need stuff. They were happy with what Mommy bought them. But then again, when they were my age, no one needed Adidas sneakers and long floral skirts to help them climb the social ladder.

“We did,” I say. I assemble the potatoes in a row. “It’s… it’s just that I want something that’s a bit more in.” I sigh. I need Mommy to be supportive of my passion. I need her to understand that my camp experience this year won’t only depend on late-night DMCs, campfires, and swimming pools.

“Hmm.” She slips a potato into the food processer and nods. “I’ll think about it, sweetie.”

Shabbos is a blur of nephews and nieces and food and schmoozing. Mommy doesn’t bring up the subject even once. But on Sunday I find a 50-dollar bill resting on my dresser. There’s a green Post-it Note attached, scrawled with Mommy’s looped handwriting.

Buy yourself something special, Leah! Love, Mommy. I beam at the note and reread the words. Wow! This is simply… amazing!

I speed-dial Baila, setting the phone on speaker while brushing my hair into a bun.

“Leah,” she answers groggily after two rings. “10:30, on a Sunday morning. What. Is. Up?”

“Shopping!” I burst into the phone. “I’ll be by you in 15. Go get ready.”

“Whoa! What in the worl—?”

“I’ll explain later,” I cut her off. “Just make sure you still remember camp styles.”

I rummage through my drawer and pull out my purse, adding a bit of my own to Mommy’s 50. Not all clothing comes with $50 price tags, and I’m determined to be part of the “in-crowd” this summer. Whatever it takes.

I find Mommy sitting at the kitchen table, skimming through a recipe book. “Ma, you’re the best!” I lean in for a hug, nearly toppling her coffee.

“Wow, someone is excited around here!” Mommy winks.

“You bet!” I grin and grab a banana and a Greek vanilla yogurt. I’ll need some energy to get me through the day.

Shopping on the avenue is bliss. Clothing and shoes are my guilty pleasure. We roam the tree-lined streets, talking and laughing as we brush by other shoppers, their mishmash of voices adding to the fun.

“Leah.” Baila points. “That is exactly what you need.”

I turn to the mannequin Baila’s indicating and my heart does a little jig. Draped around the plastic dummy is a ribbed, cotton-candy colored matching top and skirt that would look flawless on me.

“You think?” I ask as I twirl in the mirror.

“I love, love, love it!” Baila flashes me a thumbs-up. “It looks amazing on you.”

The set is gorgeous. The pink complements me perfectly. It’s the perfect outfit that will flatter — not only my figure, but my status too.

I tap my pocket, making sure the money is still in place. Though the top and skirt ring up to a total of $109.99, I feel like I’m walking on a cloud.

I float into the house with loaded bags and an overloaded smile.

“It’s nice,” Mommy says as I show off my finds. She strokes the ribbed set, her fingers gliding over the soft fabric. “You’ve got really great taste.”

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. It is nice.

It’s nice of Mommy to approve my choice. It’s nice of her not to mention that I could’ve bought a slinky and two T-shirts for the same price. Mommy may be a bubby many times over, but she gets what’s important to me.

I grab a black suitcase and haul it up the steps to my room. My siblings have arranged a grand goodbye party — it’s not every day that the youngest aunt sails off to camp — and I don’t want to be busy with last-minute packing afterward.

Towels, water bottles, swim gear, and toothpaste. Piles of items. Piles of clothing. Piles of gadgets that I might never even use. I try cramming it all in;  Baila had warned me to pack in the most compact way, and I want to do it right. I delicately place the ribbed set on top of the suitcase and head to the dining room where a pizza party awaits me.

Ahh! The paradise of mushy nieces and nephews. Boy, am I going to miss them! Pizza has never tasted so good. The kids scamper onto my lap, squeezing me with bear hugs and kisses and crumpled up goodbye artwork. I tickle Avigail’s chin and promise Esther I’ll write her a letter.

“So what are you going to give us?” Esther demands. “Because, you know, you’re going to camp.”

I resist the urge to pinch her cheek. She’s cute, Esther, and she knows how to get me. “Laffy Taffys!” I announce, “for being the most adorable kids ever!”

There are whoops and more hugs and I’m followed up the stairs by a troop of nieces and nephews. It’s no wonder I’m their best aunt — what’s there not to like about an aunt dispensing sugar?

But nothing prepares me for the sight of my four-year-old nephew scavenging through my suitcase, green permanent marker in hand, dyeing my priceless ribbed skirt.

I squeeze my eyes shut and draw in slow, steady breaths, but it’s no use.

“Out!” I snap, and point a trembling finger to the door. “OUT!” I shout. Four-year-olds should know to color only on paper, even an overly rambunctious boy like Chezky.

Chezky’s eyes widen. The marker drops from his hands and he scampers out the door, little feet dashing down the staircase.

The kids all gape. Their placid, fun-loving aunt has suddenly gone mad, and frankly, I don’t even care.

I grab the skirt and race toward the laundry room. This has got to be salvaged. I attack it with Shout. I try OxiClean. I spritz it with hair spray. I dump it into the washing machine and watch it spin around the drum, the whir of the machine hammering a headache into place.

The 35-minute cycle is endless. But finally, I pull cold wetness out of the machine and hold it against the sunlight streaming from the window.

There is a big blotch of green marker right in the center of the skirt. So permanent marker lives up to its name. The skirt that I had bought with Mommy’s money, with my money, is now gone.


And camp starts tomorrow.

I’m being petty, I know.  There are other things to cry about. I’ve got an overstuffed suitcase bursting with clothing — I have what to wear. But this? This was essential to me.

I collapse into bed and pull the covers over my head, allowing myself the liberty of self-pity. I’m angry.  I’m irritable. I’m upset.

I don’t bother thanking my siblings for the party they arranged. I don’t answer any of Elisheva’s texts, full of emojis and apologies on behalf of Chezky’s actions. And I don’t pick up Baila’s calls either, although she probably wants to hash out last-minute details for tomorrow’s trip.

Mommy comes in bearing a plate of marble cake and lemonade.  I pick at the cake and allow the crumbs to fall.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Fine,” I croak. “Thanks so much. For everything.” I prop myself up. “I know I’ve been acting awful, but the skirt was my hot-ticket item.”

“I know.” She smiles. She pours me a cup of lemonade. I take a gulp and swish the coldness around my tongue. I feel unsettled and dazed and humiliated. I don’t know what Chezky told everyone. My outburst wasn’t pretty.

Mommy looks exhausted, but there is an odd smile playing on her lips. She holds out an envelope and presses it into my hand.

“Open it,” she urges.

I gingerly tear at the flap. A crisp $100 bill falls on my lap.

“It’s for you. For camp.”  She sits down near me and places a hand on my shoulder. “The stores are still open; you might be able to find something similar.”

“I, uh, I…” I attempt to crack a smile and feel my eyes tear.

Do I really need a ribbed skirt and brand-name clothing to give me the feeling of belonging? Are my cravings for materialistic standards obstructing my true values?

I steal a glance at the ruined outfit on the floor. I fumble with the envelope in my hand. Some decisions don’t come easy.

“I… it’s okay,” I manage. “I don’t even need the skirt,” I finally say.

It’s Mommy’s cake and love that I need, to really get me places in life.


(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 870)

Oops! We could not locate your form.