| Fiction |

The Exchange

Six boys. Six yeshivos. Six chasunahs — well, seven, if you counted Yoni’s first marriage. Now they were starting to marry off the grandchildren

Some people do deep cleaning all the time, Mariam tells herself.

Yeah, right, says her reflection over the bathroom sink.

Tackling the upstairs bathroom is on today’s agenda. She wrings a sponge and peers into the mirror. Green eyes, hemmed in by crow’s feet. She gives the merest smile. The feet take deeper grip.

Raising the boys. Six boys. Six yeshivos. Six chasunahs — well, seven, if you counted Yoni’s first marriage. Now they were starting to marry off the grandchildren.

Her face is cobwebbed by life.

Mariam shakes her head and reaches for the spray bottle. Women her age are doing Botox treatments, laser resurfacing. But she’s okay with her appearance, okay that the years show. She doesn’t need go to bat against nature.

She starts with the bathtub. Ceramic, on claws. She’d bought it on a whim, a showroom sample, 15 percent off, imagined she’d feel out at sea in a raised tub in an all-blue bathroom. Swish, swish over the intricate bronze feet. At sea, what a laugh. She doesn’t get farther than the grocery.

Her sisters-in-law get out, Shaindel and Mira, they were in the office, Zalman’s domain, ever since Papa had retired. Now Zalman was waiting to retire.

All these years she hadn’t worked. At first, she’d been home with the kids. And then Mama. Zalman’s mother had lived with them for years; for the last couple of years, when she’d needed round-the-clock care, she’d been in a home, a short walk away. Now the shloshim are coming up. And what good was Mariam now that Mama was gone? What could she do?

Mariam picks up a tube of mascara — was it even hers? — the brush hardened and peeling, and dislodges it. A dozen eyelashes rain into the sink. Work now? Where? Take orders from some cocky guy young enough to be her grandson? It was too late, too late for so many things. Painted lashes. The computer. Going into seminaries and teaching like her friends Batya and Yael. They weren’t wallowing in a too-blue room, shaking hands with the bath claws.

The phone. Something. She will call Malky, see if she can do anything for the aufruf.

Her daughter-in-law sounds harried, hurried.

“Malky, how are you?”

“Okay, I guess, Ma. Yeah, Deena, here’s $200. No, I don’t want you taking my card. And hurry, Tatty’s giving you a ride to the subway station. Sorry, Ma, what were you saying?

“Nothing, nothing. You know what, where are the girls going?”

“To the mall.”

“I want to help you. Let me take them.”

“What? No, no, Ma, it’s fine, they’re going with Nussi. Don’t bother yourself. Sorry, Ma, that’s the caterer.”

Click.

She shouldn’t bother herself. What, then, should she do?

She flings the cabinet back open. A sparking lip gloss rolls toward her. She doesn’t do lip gloss, not anymore. They didn’t talk about it, thinning lips, didn’t tell you that what you had was not only going to wilt and wrinkle, but half disappear. The bottle is too glittery to throw out. She sets it on the side, a gaudy ornament in a sea-styled bathroom.

“Mariam?” Zalman calls up the stairs, back from morning shiur.

“I’m up here.”

He plods up the stairs, but before he can begin talking to her, his phone rings. He shows her the screen: Berman, Caterer.

“What should I tell him?” he whispers, as he presses talk.

Nail file, clippers, sponges. Back in the cabinet.

“I think you should just leave it to him,” she finds herself saying, “He’s good.”

She’d wanted to be more involved in the shloshim seudah. She’d choose Mama’s favorite colors — lilac napkins, silver tablecloths — but the number of people who said they were coming was staggering. Mama loved people, and they loved her. She drew people. Even after her death.

Zalman leaves without so much as an expression of surprise — “Cream of chicken, sounds good,” she hears him telling the caterer — and suddenly, she is possessed. All those people, the life she thought was full the last decade, was it all Mama?

Was it? She scrubs the bathtub viciously. It wasn’t really, it couldn’t have been. There are her boys, grown and bearded by now. They are everything to her. But they had lives. She wanted them to, of course.

She grabs the bubble bath, squirts, lets the water run. The bath fills with bubbles, more, more, glinting like so many half-dreams. She empties the bottle, then tosses it into the garbage. She doesn’t need it anymore; there are no more toddlers for her to bathe. She swishes her sponge around half-heartedly.

She doesn’t need toddlers over, though the teenagers would have been nice. She enjoys spending time with the bigger ones, people she can sit and chat with. But they’re busy with school-friends-camp-midterms. They come on Shabbos — when they remember — and schmooze with each other on the couch.

Drip. Drip. Drip. She looks down, sees the tiles wet. The bath. She shuts the faucet.

In front of her, sudsy fairy castles grow tall and distorted. What is she doing?

What should she bother herself with?

Mariam goes to her room, changes her housedress for a knitted sweater. Looks down at her orthopedic shoes. In the bathroom, the bath is full of burst bubbles; the lip gloss glows. On a whim, she opens the bottle and applies some carefully.

 

She is going to get there faster than the train. Their old grandma’s still good for something. Mariam parks carefully and sits down on a bench at the entrance to the mall. It’s a blustery day, and no one shares her bench. So what? She can handle a bit of wind, some staring.

She hears them before she sees them.

“Hello, but it’s my brother, and I’m next, y’know,” Deena is saying dramatically. “I have nothing for sheva brachos.”

They are feet away. She sees Tammy roll her eyes.

“We’ll help you, okay?” Baila is nice as always.

Behind them trails Mindy, Baila’s older sister.

With her three sons all living in the area, the cousins are practically sisters. She rises off the bench just as they come past.

“Bubby?”

They look at her as if she’s apparated from Pluto. Oh, well, surely she could bring everyone back to earth.

“I’ve come to assist,” she says, and the words are pretentious, ribboning away in the wind. “And advise,” she amends.

Four girls blink.

She used to help their mothers dress them.

“That’s so nice, come along then,” says Baila, taking her by the hand and sweeping them all in. Mariam tries not to notice the looks the girls exchange.

 

An hour of walking around the mall, and she’s had it. In Macy’s, she finds a little platform and sits. She leans her aching back against a mannequin in a jumpsuit.

“You sitting, uh, for a while?” Deena asks, trying for diplomacy and failing.

Mariam forces her a grin. “Yeah, pretending to be a model.”

Deena laughs and deposits her bags at Mariam’s feet. The others follow suit. She is a bag lady on an island of dead fashionistas.

The girls flit around the store, come back to dump, to throw their finds into the fray. She is as good as a shopping cart. With free security. She issues some suggestions — green does nothing for you; I like that blouse — and wonders if they are listening at all. What is the advice of their old grandmother worth?

But her granddaughters are living it up. They spend the better part of an hour sorting through the enormous jumble around her, then troop off to pay.

As they approach the checkout counter, Mindy nudges her. “What about these?” She points to a pack of elegant hangers.

“For you?”

“No, no, for you. We all got stuff. You should get something.”

Mariam is touched. She takes a packet of the pearl hangers. They’re overpriced, but why not? You could never have enough hangers.

Mindy beams at her, and Mariam holds the little pearl handle protectively.

They’re next in line. In front of them, Baila turns back, she’s short $15. Mariam offers her card.

“Just ring up the whole thing,” she tells the cashier.

“I asked for $15, not $99,” Baila wails, but she’s smiling broadly.

“It’s on me,” Mariam insists.

They walk her to the parking lot and wave her away. “Bye, Bubby, it was so much fun. Thanks.”

“Sorry, I can’t take you.” Her car’s too small for another four, with all Zalman’s boxes rattling around in the back.

The girls turn to the exit. She pull out of the space, then stops and rolls down the window. “Let me know when you go next, girls. I need a face cream every so often, and I’d rather not go myself.”

“Sure thing.”

And just like that she is part of the shopping clan.

 

Meir and Zevi are bantering when she comes home. She likes that she’s on the other side of the door coming in, instead of being perpetually there in a housedress. She’s got places to go, to come from. She can almost forget that she’s an old woman going crazy in a bathroom.

“What did you buy?” Zalman says.

His expression, genuinely perplexed, says Why did you go? Gallivanting after the grandkids, really.

She looks down at her hands. What has she procured from the land of opportunity? She’s holding her old pocketbook. And those hangers, gleaming with a strand of fake pearls.

“Hangers,” she says after a moment. “Oh, and a Shabbos top for Baila.”

Baila is Zevi’s second daughter. He gives her a grateful look. “That’s nice of you, Ma, heaven knows she deserves it. What about Mindy, did she go too?”

“Yeah,” Mariam says.

“What did she get?”

There had been that strange sports top, angry green and tight. “For running, y’know,” Mindy had said when she’d thrown two sizes at Mariam’s feet and run off for more browsing.

She didn’t press. She doesn’t need to educate them. Better to be on their good sides. And, and, Mindy had pressed her to buy something for herself. She’d also complimented her on her lip gloss. She didn’t care much what she looked like anymore, but Mindy noticed. Seventeen years old, and Mindy thought her gloss “a touch of glam.”

Mariam makes a who knows face. Zevi sits down, big guy folded over, head in hands.

“Vos vet zein?” he says between his fingers.

She remembers this pose from when he was nine, when he was 14. Friends, yeshivah. Big things in their time. Things she tried to fix, make right for the boy huddled over himself at her table. Now he’s 40 and it’s not as simple as a phone call to the rebbi.

Instead she pats him on the back.

He straightens, then helps himself to another piece of her kugel. He sits there, eating slowly, like a comfort. She tells herself it’s a good thing, even if he was supposed to be watching his weight.

Meir comes in from the garage where he was fiddling with the Shabbos light system.

“Should be working now,” he says.

He stays for a bite, too. It’s hot and steamy in her kitchen. Crowded, jovial.

Later, Zalman pulls one of the new hangers out of the coat closet.

“Mariam, look at you,” he says. “You’re getting tchotchkes while the girls pad their wardrobes. You’re not even interested in shopping.” He waves the hanger.

“Who says?” She says it quietly.

“Oh, Mariam, I know you. I was thinking, why don’t you join Senior N’shei? Intellectual stimulation, like-minded people…”

She glares at him. Senior N’shei was where Mama went.

In his hand a pearl dislodges itself and falls into the recesses of the coat closet.

He looks contrite.

She’s still thinking. Mindy, Baila. “Zalman, maybe they need me, the girls? Maybe I can still do something?”

 

She told them she’s coming back for a face cream, she should at least check out Sephora before meeting them. It’s upstairs somewhere. She takes the escalator. Retinol, collagen, she doesn’t do any of it. Who knows, who cares?

She walks down the shiny floors. Endless tile and glass. You think you’re indoors, ensconced and cushy, but you’re covering miles getting from here to there.

Near the elevator is a store she can’t help noticing, neon green sign and bright lights. Nicole’s Nails and Piercings.

“Better luck next time, Mandy,” calls a saccharine voice from the store.

Mariam looks back.

Mindy walks out of the store.

Mariam walks on. No. She should turn back, take Mindy by the hand and lead her away. See what she’s done there before any of the others arrive. But instead she slinks away, the distance between them growing, store after store. In Sephora, Mariam fingers tubs and tubes, but she doesn’t see a thing.

Text from Deena: Downstairs, you here yet?

She dashes out without buying anything. Takes the elevator and makes her way to the main entrance.

Mindy’s already there, tagging behind Baila and Deena and Tammy, but doesn’t she always? Mariam tries not to stare. No long nails, no hideous-colored nail polish. What about piercings? Nothing she can see, aside from the earrings Mindy already has. What else could she have in mind?

“Nordstrom,” Deena calls out. “Shoes for my gown, puleez.”

There’s a sale section toward the front of the store, and the girls converge on it.

“C’mon, you always need a dress,” Tammy says, noticing her face.

Mariam thinks about the last time she bought herself a dress. Yoni’s second wedding, nine years ago. She can’t recall what it looked like. She digs her hand into the rack. The things they made these days. She holds something out, black and functional. Mindy looks at her hopefully. Mariam blinks. What did the girl care?

Deena approaches, cradling something in her hands “Hey, guys, what do you think of this?”

This is a necklace, tree of life design, inlaid with crystals catching the light, like silver fruit.

“Won’t it look gorgeous with my gown?”

“Those colors,” Mindy breathes. She fingers it, notices the tag. “Sheesh, Deena, expensive.”

Tammy walks over to the jewelry counter. “What about these? I need earrings.”

“Cheaper, for one thing,” Deena says.

Mariam stands to the side. If she doesn’t do dresses, she definitely doesn’t do earrings.

Baila holds up a pair, flat gray pearls. Very demure, easy, match with anything. “For Mommy?” she asks, showing Mindy.

“No, Mommy needs something dangling,” Mindy says. “Hey, what about Bubby?”

“Yeah, what about Bubby?” Mariam can feel their energy. She’s here, she’s tagged along, babysat their bags, held their place in line. The girls would feel good if she got herself something too, especially Mindy, who’d made her a project.

She looks at their eager faces, touches her earlobes. “Sorry, never got these old things pierced.”

“What, like a shitah or something?” Mindy says it like a dirty word.

“No, not like that. It just never happened. When I was growing up, it wasn’t a given like today, and then I don’t know, the boys came. It was never the right time.”

“How about now?” That’s Baila.

“Oh, it’s too late for me,” Mariam says too fast. “I’m past that. Who cares?”

She sees Mindy flinch.

The piercings, she remembers. What did she do today?

But Mindy turns back to the display with the others. Mariam watches them hold up the little things of beauties to their ears, smile in the mirror, dangle chains of rose gold and silver from their wrists, and something inside her is cresting like a sea.

 

“You did get it,” Mariam says, fingering the necklace, genuinely happy to see it.

“Fifty percent off at Bloomingdales,” Deena whispers. “Not as nice, but nice enough, no?”

“Of course, sweetie, you look beautiful.”

It’s not the gem-studded one, but anything looks great on this girl, the suave sister of the groom.

She’s sitting near the kallah, when her other granddaughters swoop down on her all at once. It’s fun to recognize their stuff, Tammy’s shoes, Baila’s bangle. And Mindy.

Mariam bites her lip. Even she can’t deny that Mindy looks different. This is not just a shopping trip, when the girls threw on hoodies. It’s a family wedding, and Mindy’s dress is on the other side of passable, that bit too short and way too tight. The iffy sleeve doesn’t help.

Mariam doesn’t want to look at her daughter-in-law. Naomi looks beautiful, as always, but her battles show in the grim line of mouth, the effort to curve it into a smile.

Mindy hovers near, but not quite beside, her mother. Mariam just wants to hug her, hug them both. What’s going on for Mindy that she’s pushing the lines as far as she can go — and then further?

Zevi comes over to wish her mazel tov. Catches his wife’s eye. “It was this or nothing,” he whispers to his mother. “Coming as she wanted or not coming at all.”

She can’t even picture this side of Mindy. Issuing an ultimatum?

The music starts up. People come, go. Mazel tov, mazel tov, a sach nachas. There is Mindy, just standing, not eating, near the sushi bar, a wimp in stilettos. The kid screamed insecurity where she was trying to affect nonchalance.

Mariam walks out to the chuppah in a haze, stares at the mass of white tulle, at the chassan grandson who grew up like a beanstalk. Meir’s wife wraps an elegant scarf around her. She closes her eyes and wonders if Mindy is cold.

Outside, she prays. For her tall grandson, he should have a hoiche mazel, for Mindy, for Naomi, Zevi, for Baila the too-good other daughter, and for herself. Because her family means everything, but even six sons, even tens of grandchildren, can’t fill all the holes of time in her day.

Mindy finds her hand during the dancing and doesn’t let go. From her place in the side circle, Mariam spots Tammy and Baila twirling near the kallah, she sees Deena, a silvery feather blowing here and about. But Mindy stays near her, matches the pace of her slow grandma steps in wide-fit shoes.

Where does Mindy fit in? Mariam doesn’t want to think about it. A cousin had whispered to Meir’s wife that this girl’s farsheiming the mishpacha, she should leave. Mariam’s never known this sort of rebellion, this desperate teenage pushing, but even a thousand exposed right-angled elbows wouldn’t justify throwing her Mindy out.

Mariam grips her granddaughter’s spangled hand, jounces her tired arms, and wonders how much you can say without words.

 

She is meeting the girls again. They hadn’t gone shopping for some time since the wedding. Deena, their chief instigator, is over-shopped. But it’s sale time; who can resist a bargain?

Mariam parks, finds her phone under the box of tissues on the passenger seat. Two missed calls from Deena, one text message. Sorry, Baila and me had a last-minute choir rehearsal. Hope you see this in time, tried calling but no answer.

She should just turn back, go home. But maybe she’ll go get that long-awaited skin cream. She’s already here. She walks in, up the escalator, flashing signs, fried chicken, and fruity perfume lambasting her senses. Without a sense of purpose, without anyone to meet, she feels lost.

She turns the corner. And there, suddenly, is a very agitated Mindy.

A tired-looking woman — Nicole of the nails? — comes out holding a staple gun, the weapon of the trade.

“This is the second time you’re disappearing on me. Make up your mind, gal.”

Mindy nods too fast. She’s standing very straight. Face pale. Hair unruly. She’s clutching the tip of her ears. She looks at Mariam, stupefied. Seeing her and not seeing her, as if she’s sleepwalking.

“Come on in, Mandy.”

Mariam turns to her. “Do you know that the others aren’t coming?” she says, as if nothing is happening around them.

“I wanted them to.” Mindy is talking too loud. “I wanted them to see my piercings. Cuz I’m getting them. And I don’t care how they react.”

It suddenly occurs to her that her grandmother’s reaction is happening now.

Mariam stands still. What is her reaction? Mindy is confused, raw, vulnerable as a butterfly. Seeing her like this, it changes things.

The woman goes inside, puts down the instruments, comes back to Mindy.

“Listen, you’re scared, okay, but I already wasted two appointments on you. We’ll do it now, you’ll get that helix piercing in, you’ll be happy you did. Do something for yourself, girl.”

Mariam follows them into the store. For all the flashing lights outside, it’s cold and calm inside. She feels the quailing of her heart. She’s letting Mindy do this, letting her brand herself as different, making her mother cry.

Mindy looks straight ahead at the mirror, but she reaches out to grasp Mariam’s hand. What can she say? She can feel Mindy’s hand relaxing. Aiding and abetting, that’s what she’s doing.

The woman — Mariam was right, her nametag reads “Nicole” — turns.

“Hold her hand nice and firm. She’s terrified, look when I come close she ducks for her life.” She lifts her sleeve, shows a dragon with fangs. “Look at this tattoo, honey, a lot more painful, and I sat there like a good girl till it was done.”

Mindy’s hand compresses her fingers.

Around them, nail dryers whir. Mariam sees a wall comprised of a hundred colorful bottles, a case of earrings on the other side. And the photos everywhere — piercings in places she hadn’t known they could be, doubled studded, triple. The throbbing music. Nicole fiddling. Sparkle, color. This is ridiculous. What was she doing? She lets go of Mindy’s hand.

Mindy jerks.

“Mindy,” she whispers.

“What?”

She talks more loudly, forces cheer into her voice. “Mindy, you’re scared now. Give it to your old grandma. I want to get my ears pierced”

Mindy gives her a look like a puppy and clambers off the chair. Mariam moves over, sitting high. “Can I see your earrings, please?” she says.

Nicole looks flustered, then shrugs. “If that’s what you want.” She goes to bring the display.

Gems, ruby, sapphire, pearl, silver.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this, Bubby,” Mindy is whispering, standing over her, not quite sitting in the safety of the tub chair.

Mariam rubs her ears. Empty, but waiting.

“I know, but maybe we can change our minds about things in life.”

Nicole points to the tiniest gems. “Those are the starter earrings.”

Mindy watches her with a hint of a smile as Mariam touches something silver.

Who says she isn’t worth it? She’s been around the block, she’s come and gone. But something inside, the strain of sea, is starting to undulate back and forth. Rose-gold, emerald, facets glinting, winking, or maybe sapphire to bring out the blue in her eyes. Nicole holds out a hand mirror. Mindy looks closely, maybe there’s a spark there yet.

She takes Mindy’s hand. The girl cares. She cares badly. She can feel the pulse in her hand, beating, beating. It’s about Mindy, and it’s about her. Both.

Mariam can’t fight her, can’t control her, but today Mariam knows, this is enough.

“Here goes,” Nicole says, putting a sapphire stud at the tip of the gun.

Mariam closes her eyes to the thwank of the earring gun and clutches Mindy’s hand.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 664)

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