“I heard that her neighbors used to hear yelling from the apartment — you know, before they sent her away”
Blue-and-white-striped shirts colored the auditorium as the girls waited for Mrs. Baum, the principal, to begin her orientation speech. Racheli sat with her close group of friends. She couldn’t believe they were in 9th grade and that they’d all made it to the high school of their choice.
“My sister says I can’t wear scrunchies now that I’m in high school,” Riki said. “I’m so mad.” The girls laughed. They all knew Riki’s obsession with scrunchies.
Oh, there came Pessi Newman. Racheli put on a bright smile. “Do you want to sit here?” she asked kindly. Her friends moved over to make room for Pessi. Racheli had already met her outside and done her best to show her some warmth. She and her friends had been informed about Pessi’s sensitive background back in camp. Their bunkmate Tobi had told them about a few girls in her elementary school who would be joining them for high school, among them Pessi Newman. “She’s the oldest, and her parents aren’t able to raise her, so she lives with her aunt and uncle. It’s very sad. Be nice to her.”
That conversation most definitely bordered on lashon hora but if the information helped us help Pessy now that she was in school with us, than it was probably okay…
They all looked at her sympathetically now.
“I love your watch,” Malky said.
“Thanks,” Pessi answered. The sorrow was obvious in her eyes as she stared back at them, and then away.
The girls continued their chitchat, rehashing the ins and outs of high school. They quieted down as Mrs. Baum stepped up to the podium and cleared her throat. “Baruch haba, girls,” she said warmly. Racheli played with the keychain on her wallet as she listened to Mrs. Baum’s parable comparing high school girls to soldiers training for war. “Whatever personal circumstances you’re in, we’re all on the same mission, gearing up for the same battle. Life as bnos Yisrael…” Rachei’s eyes fluttered to Pessi. She saw her quickly glance down at her hands, her face pale and fragile against her raven ponytail. Certainly, she was thinking about her own personal circumstances, which were no picnic whichever way you looked at it.
After the principal’s speech, the girls played a game to get to know each other better. Racheli and her group of friends moved over to the rest of the new girls who’d joined their class. They laughed as they asked each other questions. It seemed that Pessi actually had a sense of humor –– it probably came in handy having to live with so many challenges. Yet her eyes kept fluttering away when the girls looked at her, as if her burden was too great to share with them.
They turned to the next girl, who had freckles and curly blond hair. “Chaya’la Walter,” she introduced herself. Oh, that was the other girl Tobi had told them about in camp –– “A heaven kid who’s really gonna liven up your class.”
Riki’s face brightened. “We were in camp with your former classmate Tobi Stern. She said you guys had a blast.”
Chaya’la laughed, and her freckles seemed to twinkle. “Yeah, Tobi’s such a nice girl.”
Mrs. Laufer was definitely the no-nonsense type of teacher. Her pen clicked as she dictated her lesson, and Racheli sweated trying to keep up with her notes.
“Can you please repeat the last step?” Malky asked.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to learn to pay better attention,” Mrs. Laufer said coolly. “I don’t repeat myself more than once.”
Malky made eye contact with Racheli.
“And the final step,” Mrs. Laufer continued, “is to research for similar— Yes, Pessi?”
“I didn’t understand the last step,” Pessi said. “Is it possible to explain it again?”
“Certainly,” said Mrs. Laufer. “When a scientist has completed his or her observations, he must then organize…”
Malky and Racheli exchanged glances again.
“Hey, that looks good!” Riki commented on Chaya’la’s salad as she sat down for lunch.
Chaya’la laughed. “Personally, I rather go for pizza, but I have my cousin’s wedding coming up.”
“Oh, don’t talk to me about it,” Yitty sighed. “I—”
“Hi, Pessi — why don’t you sit over here?” Racheli interrupted.
Pessi looked at her funny, like she didn’t have much experience mingling with others too much. “Sure,” she said, and sat down.
“So what do you have to say about Mrs. Laufer?” Riki queried.
“What should I tell you,” Pessi said. “High school is stressful. And it’s not like we don’t have stuff going on outside of school. I mean—”
The girls leaned in.
The girls nodded encouragingly, pitifully.
Pessi fell quiet.
“Nebach, my heart goes out to her,” Malky said as they walked home from school.
“She tries so hard to fit in,” Riki continued. “But let’s be honest, how can she?”
“I heard that her neighbors used to hear yelling from the apartment — you know, before they sent her away.”
“It’s so sad,” Racheli reflected, even as she knew the information being shared probably shouldn’t be aired in public.
“But really, more should have been done about it,” Malky said. “My father says her aunt and uncle should have done more to help their relatives. They should have taken charge of the situation sooner.”
“I know. My mother says the same thing. But whatever the case, we have to be nice to her.”
“That’s true,” Malky said. “But it’s still no reason for Mrs. Laufer to show her favoritism. Did you see that?”
“Oh, you’re so funny!” Racheli said to Pessi as she held the phone to her ear. It felt nice to be able to boost her self-esteem. “You know, we live so close to each other. Next time you should come over to study.”
“I guess we could, why not,” Pessi responded.
Racheli grinned. She was sure Pessi could use some respite, and why not be the one to offer it to her?
“Um, Pessi? Oh, I have a beep. We’ll talk tomorrow!”
“Bye!” said Pessi.
Racheli answered the three-way call. It was her gang of friends.
“Hey, Rach,” Yitty said. “Malky’s birthday is next week. We have this nutty idea.”
“I’m listening,” Racheli said.
“So basically, we all dress up in black, and we wear face masks — not the Covid ones, but scary Purim style. And we barge in—”
“I love it already,” Racheli said. She smiled as she listened to the rest of the scheme.
“We’re thinking of inviting Chaya’la,” Riki said. “She’s new, but she’s really cute. It never hurts to expand the group a bit.”
“I agree totally!” Racheli said. For an instant, she thought of suggesting they invite Pessi too, but she quickly decided against it. Of course they had to be nice to her, but they weren’t obligated to include her in their tight-knit group. There was no need to change things up too much.
Racheli sighed with relief as she brought her test up to the teacher’s desk. She stretched and glanced over at Pessi in the back row. She threw her a meaningful smile. Pessi returned it. Mrs. Laufer’s tests were no cinch, and they had stayed up late studying.
Racheli then seated herself and turned around to schmooze with Chaya’la who sat behind her. Chaya’la was like a fresh breeze. They laughed and chattered, until the last girl handed in her test and Mrs. Laufer dismissed them. “Have a nice Yom Tov, girls,” she said.
It was a crisp night. Racheli sat on the front stoop with her mother and little sister. “It’s a shame we forgot about the Boston cream pie,” her mother said as she wrapped her cape around her shoulders.
They watched the men streaming home from shul.
“Hey, isn’t that your new friend, Pessi?” Leah’le squeaked as she hopped up and down the steps.
Racheli got up. “Yes!” Pessi was walking alongside a well-dressed woman. “That must be her aunt,” Racheli told her mother. They walked down the steps together.
“Gut Yom Tov!” Racheli said.
“This is Racheli,” Pessi informed her aunt. “The girl I went to study with the other day.”
“Nice to meet you,” her aunt said. She turned to Racheli’s mother. “Do I remember your face from Batsheva Engel’s wedding?”
“Yes, of course!” Rachel’s mother said. It wasn’t long before the two were lost in conversation.
Racheli and Pessi made polite chitchat.
“Why don’t you come over to our Succah after the meal?” Racheli suddenly heard Pessi’s aunt say. “For dessert!”
“Well, it just so happens to be,” her mother answered cheerfully, “that our Boston cream pie didn’t work out as planned.”
Racheli stood next to Pessi in the well-furnished kitchen, as she watched her prepare the dessert trays. Leah’le was running around with a handful of giddy kids. The atmosphere was cheerful and festive.
One of the little boys stuck his finger in the cream cake Pessi was cutting and licked it off. “Ari!” Pessi yelled. “Uch, my brother is so annoying.”
Her brother? Racheli hadn’t realized that Pessi lived there with her siblings.
“Well, brothers tend to be,” she commented appropriately.
“Ma! Can you make Ari stop?” Pessi yelled again.
“Um, Pessi,” Racheli stammered. “Don’t you… I mean, I thought… Don’t you live with your aunt?”
Pessi’s eyebrows shot up. “My aunt?” She put her knife down. “What?”
Racheli felt a little faint. “I just thought… I mean, we thought…” She trailed off miserably.
“I live with my parents.” Pessi looked at Racheli sharply. “But, um… Did you know that Chaya’la Walter lives with her aunt?”
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 878)
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