I finally shared my secret — and she betrayed me
I look at my watch and see that there are five minutes left till the end of recess. And because it’s my birthday and I’m feeling brave, I don’t go up the stairs toward my classroom. Swarms of girls flow around me as I walk against the tide to the facilities.
There’s always a group of girls hanging around the mirrors, chatting casually, playing with time and the teacher’s potential wrath. I’m a good girl and an obedient student — I don’t come late to class, don’t even cut it close. But today is my birthday, and really, it’s not so much that I’m feeling brave, it’s that I’m trying not to feel anything at all.
I push the door open and catch a shriek of laughter. Five girls clustered around some pictures. I hesitate, wondering if I should pretend that I’m in here to wash my face. But just then the bell rings, its incessant peal a call to duty that I don’t want to reply to right now, so I lean on a sink and wait for a break in the conversation.
But that conversation dies — three girls make a dash for it as the last echo of the bell fades. I’m disappointed. I was hoping for some distraction because I’m scared of the noise my mind might make if it’s too quiet around me. Geography isn’t interesting enough to keep the buzzing low.
A girl from the grade above me gives one last pat to her hair and casually strolls out, probably relying on past luck to get into her classroom.
And then it’s just me. And Shira, my classmate and friend… and partner in crime?
“Not like you to skip class,” she says.
I force a laugh. “Hey, it’s my birthday! I’m allowed to cut class once a year, no?”
“Heeeeey, that’s so cool! Doing anything special?”
“Yeah, we had a barbecue last night,” I go into details, trying to make it sound interesting and fun, but suddenly I’m thinking of the things I want to tell her. It’s my birthday and I turned into a teenager and my mother wasn’t there.
It’s my birthday and my mother doesn’t live at home and I don’t really understand why and actually, I don’t want to think about this right now.
Still not good enough.
On birthdays mothers should be at home making a party, not sending cards in the mail because they’re not mentally capable of being there.
Shira is still talking, and I think I’ve been talking back to her but I don’t even know what we were talking about. My birthday cake, maybe?
I look at her. Shira’s a good friend. She’s known me since we were little. She lives across the street. She definitely knows that my mother hasn’t been living at home for a while, who doesn’t? I don’t know what else she knows, what rumors have been raging through the school, the shul, the grocery store.
I don’t know what to do with the mess that’s in my chest, so I look at the clumps of multicolored tissues stuck to the ceiling by years of bored students skipping classes and wonder if I should crumple and soak a wad of my own and throw it, splat.
Instead I swallow, hard.
“Um, so you know my mother wasn’t there, right?”
Shira startles, eyes skittering to the doors, the walls, anywhere but on my face. A slight flush is creeping up her cheeks, and I’m suddenly sorry I said anything.
It’s too late, though.
“Yes, I do know.” Now she looks at me. “I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk about it.” I don’t, I don’t, I do. I don’t.
“Yeah, so. Um.”
That’s how the conversation starts, awkward and stilted, punctuated with more ums and you knows and likes than meaningful language.
I’m not even listening to what I’m saying, because there’s a secret weighing heavily on me. The thing that’s been worrying me all day, been sitting heavy in my stomach and not letting me concentrate.
It’s not enough that my mother is “mentally unwell,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s not enough that she’s living with a family geographically close enough that we have to go and visit, not enough that everybody knows. It’s not enough that I’ve been waiting for my birthday for, like, forever, and instead of it being fun, it’s ruined because I have to go to a psychologist and talk about it.
I’m being reckless by skipping class, so what does a little more recklessness matter?
“Should I tell you something? But you’ve got to promise that you’re not going to tell anyone.”
Shira’s eyes round in curiosity.
“I promise!” she proclaims.
“Really, really, really promise. I mean it.”
“I’m going to a psychologist today.”
She wants to know why and where and who, so I tell her as much as I know myself.
My father seems to think I need to talk about what’s going on in my life. I don’t think I need to tell anyone anything if I don’t want to, but I’m not being given a choice.
Now that the secret is out, I suddenly don’t want to talk about it anymore, so I make some kind of silly joke, and we chat about other things for the rest of the period, wondering how much trouble we’re in for missing the whole class.
The next day I’m in a much better mood as I walk home from school; I’ve shoved the previous day’s appointment out of my mind with the help of some birthday cards and gifts from friends, and a huge assignment due next week.
I’m always the first one home, to be followed by my father and sister not too much later. Humming to myself to fill the silence I hate, I prop the refrigerator door open with my foot and swiftly transfer pickles, ketchup, mustard, and drink to the counter.
I’m playing the game I always like to play — pulling out plates and cups and setting the table for three as fast as I can to see if I can get it all done before someone opens the door.
Then I’m ready, but still no one is home. My sister’s usually the last one in, it’s a miracle she makes it home at all with the many friends she has to stop to chat with on the way. The clock is ticking, and I can smell the food — preset to warm up in time for the three of us — and I’m suddenly so hungry.
Abba should have been home by now. Still humming, I half skip down the driveway to peek down the block to see if he’s in sight. I never eat alone if I can help it.
I spy him a few houses down, deep in conversation with his maggid shiur. Okay, he’ll be home soon.
I reenter the kitchen, put on some music which only makes me more jittery. Should I eat? Go see if he’s still talking? I won’t disturb his conversation.
I put the food on the table and am just sitting down when the key turns in the lock.
“He-LLO!” I sing out. “I was about to eat already!”
Abba comes in and throws his keys down.
“What did you go and tell Shira for?” he says, and my heart flip-flops.
Abba’s maggid shiur is Shira’s father.
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you exactly what I mean. You told Shira that you’re going to a psychologist. And she told her mother who told her father who has just spent 20 minutes been giving me a mussar derashah about how careful I need to be with these things…”
I am mute.
Mute in the face of my father’s anger. Mute in the face of an accusation I can’t even defend myself against as I don’t understand it. Is going to a psychologist something bad? Something good? Good if you don’t tell anyone, bad if you do?
I murmur an apology, and we sit down to eat. I stare at my plate, at cold fingers gripping my cutlery. Eat. But the food turns to ash in my mouth. This must be the taste of betrayal.
Maybe more is said — anger appeased, more acting like we’re a normal family doing normal things — but the only thing clear in my mind is this: I will never trust anyone ever again.
I look at my watch and see that I’m five minutes late. For punctual me, that’s as fashionably late as I can handle.
Seeing as I’m the guest of honor, though, I can come when I like. I push the door of the café open, and I’m enveloped in a heady mix of enticing aromas and the happy birthday wishes of my sisters-in-law. Somehow, everyone has made it before me — a miracle of epic proportions.
“Look, we’re all on time!” Miriam laughs, and I solemnly pronounce that it’s the best birthday surprise ever, and then we pore over the menu, giggling like teenagers.
Some of us throw our diets to the wind, digging into creamy dishes dripping cheese, others pick carefully at arugula. The enjoyment is in the camaraderie and banter of the female contingent of my husband’s family. We don’t act our age — what a waste of the evening that would be.
Eventually, tiredness, babysitters, and duty draw one sister-in-law at a time. Then it’s just Miriam and me, washing down all that great food with a milkshake guaranteed to make the scale groan and my eyes water if I step on it tomorrow.
“That chestnut ravioli was out of this world!” Miriam says, swirling her straw around to get to the good stuff.
I stick mine into my mouth, wondering if I’ll ever be too old to chew on a straw.
“Yeah, it was. And that sweet potato thing, wasn’t that awesome? Such a pity your Elisheva couldn’t make it! Shanah rishonah, maybe I shouldn’t have even tried to invite her, huh? So cute!”
The look of distress flashing across Miriam’s face makes my words and smile dry up.
“Uh, Miriam? Is everything okay with Elisheva?”
“Well, yeah, everything’s fine. It’s your birthday! Hey, remember the time when…?”
But I’m having none of it.
“Miriam. You don’t have to say anything, but honestly, if this is about my birthday, let’s pretend it’s next week, okay?”
I see her hesitate, looking around at the tables that are slowly emptying.
And then she talks.
It’s one of those stories that make your blood curdle. My poor niece Elisheva. My poor brother- and sister-in-law, silently dealing with a tragedy about to explode, leaving maimed victims in its wake.
The waiter clears our table, the bill has been settled earlier.
And still Miriam talks — and what can I do aside from listen? Aside from putting my hand on hers and trying to hold the pain as a description of six months of sheer misery pour forth?
My straw has been chewed to a pulp; we’ve overstayed our welcome. We move outside and choose to walk home, Miriam talking, me listening, until the streets grow quiet.
“I’ve ruined your birthday,” Miriam says finally, voice raw.
“Miriam,” I put my hand on her shoulder and keep my voice firm. “I had an amazing birthday. None of this can take that away. Please believe me.”
I wish her strength — for what more is there to say? — and creep in to the quiet house.
The next day I’m rushing from a doctor’s appointment to a meeting when I realize that my phone has been suspiciously quiet. I pull it out and see that I’ve had the ringer off all morning.
Seven missed calls, five of them from Miriam.
I dial her immediately, thoughts racing with worst-case scenarios, my mind still full of everything I heard the night before.
“Mazal, sorry for driving you nuts,” Miriam sounds as though she’s run a marathon to find me.
“It’s fine, what’s going on?”
I hear a door close. “Mazal.” Now Miriam’s voice is low, slightly muffled.
“Look, I was talking to Yossi, and he’s really upset that I said anything to you. He was more than upset, actually… I…” A stammer. “Mazal, um, you didn’t tell Eli anything, did you? I know he’s my brother, but if our parents find out, if anyone finds out right now… not a soul knows about this. I just need to know.” She’s panicking, not giving me space to reply. “Did you, Mazal? Oh, please tell me you didn’t…”
“Miriam, listen!” She stops babbling. “I didn’t tell a soul. Not Eli, not anyone else.”
A sharp intake of breath and then a shuddering exhale.
“Oh, Baruch Hashem, oh thank you, Mazal, I’m sorry… I’m just not myself, you know…”
I assure Miriam that it’s fine, that nobody will ever hear a thing from me.
I end the conversation and hold the phone in my hand, thinking of a 13-year-old birthday girl with the taste of betrayal so sharp that the tang of it followed her as she grew, the aftertaste shaping her into the person she is today.
Confidante. Advisor. Keeper of secrets.
Someone to trust.
From the bitter came forth sweetness.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 799)
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