The Problem with Yael| October 6, 2022
Everyone knew this had been all she had ever wanted and now she was harboring a secret, her first, and she hated it
The old man sported a flannel shirt, a white goatee, and flaming red cheeks that had nothing to do with the events of the day and everything to do with seventy years of hard work and harder drink.
He slammed the door of the dented pickup behind him and began walking, his prominent limp exacerbated by the uneven ground. Four young men scrambled out from the bed of the truck, adjusting their pace so they’d stay a safe distance behind. They followed him as he headed toward a little white church at the far end of an empty country road. For the most part the boys looked down, caps pulled down over their eyes, sweaty hands pushed deep into their pockets, eyes trained on their scuffed Converse sneakers and frayed jeans, the cracked pavement, an ant hill — anywhere but at the man in front of them.
Yos smacked Kivi lightly on the shoulder as the dusty church loomed closer. Kivi looked up at the steeple and gave Yos a shrug. After what he just went through, he’d follow the man anywhere. Off a cliff, straight through the underworld, certainly into a church. Who was he to ask for a religious exemption? I deserve whatever’s coming. He looked down at the cut that ran from his wrist to his thumb, deep and still bleeding. The paramedic had given him some antiseptic cream and a Band-Aid and said it would be fine. Could have been worse, Kivi. Should have been worse.
“Uh, Mr. James?” Yos piped up. “Are we going into the —”
“Settle down, boy,” the old man bellowed without turning around. “No church.”
Instead, they made a sharp right and followed a path around the side of the building where they found a tidy little cemetery. Mr. James made his way to a stone bench a small distance from the smattering of graves and sat in the shade of an oak tree, dabbing at his face with a bit of crumpled tissue. The boys stood around, shifting awkwardly, collectively wishing the ground would give way or a monsoon would come or the world might tilt suddenly, sending them sliding elsewhere...
“You think he’s gonna shoot us?” Donny whispered in Kivi’s ear. Kivi kicked him lightly in the shin and cleared his throat.
“Mr. James, sir, we uh, we’re sorry—” He exhaled, pointed to himself. “I’m sorry—”
“Sorry’s not gonna cut it, boy, and you know it. Pipe down. All four of you — sit.”
The boys complied, plopping down on the grass while the old man heaved himself off the bench with a groan.
“This is the family church, family graves. My wife’s buried right over there. You understand where I’m goin’?”
The boys looked at the cluster of willow trees and colony of gnats hovering in a cloud six feet up and not at the empty space waiting to be filled.
“Gravedigger coulda’ been here right now.”
Kivi pushed his nails through the soft grass, straight into the earth, as hard as he could.
“Now I know we might see G-d differently, but you boys gotta be talking to Him. You talk until you figure it out. You aint’ kids; you gotta figure it out.”
“Figure what out?” Ari asked.
Mr. James was already limping away toward his pickup. He let out a laugh that sounded more like a wheeze. “If you don’t know, then you gotta figure that out too.”
“You’re just gonna leave us here?” Yos called after him.
“You bet.” He wheezed again. “And no more drinking neither! It ain’t a life.”
And they were so deeply miserable, after all that had happened, they didn’t even laugh at the irony of the old man telling them to stop drinking. They sat in silence, listening to the truck roar to life, the crunch of the tires over the gravel as it backed out, turned down the road, and faded to a hum.
Four nineteen-year-olds who’d all been told to figure it out before. Numerous times. Only this time it was different, maybe because Mr. James wasn’t an elementary school menahel hollering to shape up, nor was he a school guidance counselor gently outlining a dark future; he was a hick town drunk and that made it so much worse. So they sat and stared at the sinking sun beneath the willows, and maybe for the very first time in their very short lives they actually tried to figure it out.
“I’ll get my GED, I guess,” Donny said after a long time. His voice came out hoarse, as if something inside of him had cracked and the shards were all caught up in his throat.
“My brother’s been trying to get me to Israel. I think I’ll go. For a bit,” Yos mumbled.
“I got into Queens. Just didn’t tell anyone.” Ari shrugged. “I’m gonna go to med school, eventually.”
Donny punched him hard in the shoulder and all the boys looked at Kivi.
“I’m gonna ask Chaya to marry me,” he said.
And he did. The very next day, after making his way back to 16 Cherry Road and throwing his few belongings in a garbage bag and taking the early morning bus back to the city and showing up at her doorstep looking like something the cat dragged in.
She said no.
I can tell you that in all the places that shadows live there are people who draw close, if only to stuff secrets in the corners for safekeeping and take shelter in the darkness and watch from obscurity.
But Yael had never been a shadow person. The whole breed disgusted her. Wide-eyed sneaks. Shrouded lurkers. Creeps. She certainly wasn’t going to watch any goings-on from some dark corner inside the house, nor would she peek through the banister like a four-year-old. The evening air, still pungent with the smell of afternoon rain, beckoned loudly. She exited 16 Cherry Road and stepped into the night.
Kiley sat on the porch next door, slowly smoking a cigarette, and Yael skipped down the steps, crossed over the driveway and sat down on the hard rocking chair next to her.
“Shift starting soon?”
Kiley looked down at her phone. “I got a few minutes. How was day camp counseling?”
“Like shepherding.” She let out a sigh. “Herding six-year-olds from one activity to the next until their owners come whistling.”
Kiley let out a long puff of smoke.
“You miss New England?”
Yael turned the question in her mind while the crickets’ hum settled deep into her bones. She far preferred the occasional mosquito bite over the constant electric zapping on their own porch (You perpetuate insect genocide she’d told her mother when she installed that lovely thing). Kiley watched her face, waiting for an answer. But Yael didn’t miss New England. In fact, as the summer marched on, the dread of going back to her dream school and all the supposed truths it had to offer became heavier. Not that she could ever admit that. Everyone knew this had been all she had ever wanted and now she was harboring a secret, her first, and she hated it.
“Well at Brown I’m the sheep, herded from one class to the next. So the question is, what’s better, sheep or shepherd?”
Kiley smirked and the two young women sat in the comfortable silence of a lifetime of summers; bruised knees and salamanders and wild honeysuckle and all the many neighbor moments that bridged the gaping pit of religion that yawned between them. Now, Yael thought, the canyon’s closed, turned into barely a sidewalk crack — not even the breaking-your-mother’s-back variety.
“Ma’s doing a weekend. It’s gonna be insane. So much company, the house feels like a hotel. The party planner practically moved in.” Yael picked at a splinter in the curved arm of the chair.
Kiley squished her cigarette into the ashtray next to her.
“You looking for sympathy, Yael?”
She pronounced it Yell, which amused Yael, as if her very essence was intent on shouting from the rooftops.
“Am I supposed to feel bad that you have a big family and two married parents paying your college tuition while I’m stuck living in Woodridge all year, working a dead-end job at Walmart until the day I die?”
What Yael loved about Kiley was that she ignored the eggshells, didn’t even realize there were shells to be wary of in the first place. Yael was used to the tiptoeing; everyone around her was so careful to keep her close, to love love love, accept, zip the lips, widen the road, no such thing as off the derech, she could practically teach a kiruv kerovim class. But Kiley had always been a bit brutal and it felt like truth; jagged and sticky and lovely and real. Yael adored the feeling of truth.
“Not complaining,” Yael mumbled back.
A car came crunching up the driveway that separated Kiley’s ramshackle house and Yael’s massive Summer Residence. A classic Mimmy and Simmy situation (if Simmy were a slender twenty-five-year-old Protestant working as an assistant manager at Walmart and Mimmy were a Jewish nineteen-year-old black sheep of her family).
Kiley squinted, trying to make out the driver, but Yael knew exactly who it was and for a moment she considered staying seated, nestled in her Petri dish so as not to out the bacteria too quickly.
Then, with a sigh, she stood up and leaned over the porch rail to get a better look. I’ll never be a shadow person.
A guy got out of the car, grabbed a black hat off the dashboard, and straightened his tie while Yael and Kiley watched from their perch.
“Who is it?” Kiley whispered.
And it was something stronger than her distaste for shadows that stopped Yael from leaning forward and yelling into the night, Welcome, sir, allow me to introduce myself, I am The Blight.
Love love love.
He knocked on the front door, went in, came out with a perfectly preened Ruchy, opened the passenger door for her then scrambled to the driver’s side, backed out (far more carefully than he’d pulled in) and after they’d disappeared down the road, Kivi and Chayala followed like an old couple (though they both often passed for thirty-ish) and stood on the porch, under the bug zapper, staring into the night as if the magic of a first date had left a trail of pixie dust.
Yael watched her parents from Kiley’s porch and rolled her eyes. Magical, she thought. Two strangers driving into the moonlight together to make awkward conversation over soft drinks for two hours—
“Wrong guy for Rucky.” Kiley’s voice broke through her thoughts.
Yael blinked in surprise. “What makes you say that?”
Kiley narrowed her eyes, her voice low. “Trust me on this one.”
I should have started by telling you that the Weiszin family was a normal family, so that you fully understand the type of people we’re dealing with here. So normal, in fact, they made it look easy, which is the ultimate form of normal and the hardest to maintain.
Only a very keen fly on the wall would recognize the tremendous effort that goes into curating such a perfect level of normalcy. Thankfully, the Weiszins didn’t keep company with flies, as they ran in a normal circle, comprised of people who fell within the normal range of yentish, and those sorts generally spend an inordinate amount of time wondering how everyone else looks like they have it all together (especially the Weiszins) when they themselves felt like they were drowning.
They lived on the right block, in the right community, sent their kids to the right schools and had just the right amount of money. There were only two aberrations in their normal life, the first being The Summer Residence. In their twenty-one years of marriage, that was one of the only things Akiva and Chayala fought about. Chayala wanted a normal bungalow in a normal colony and then, after Kivi was making enough, she wanted a nice summer home in one of those developments, but Akiva was insistent that the house in Woodridge was good enough for his grandparents and parents and good enough for him.
But it wasn’t good enough for Chayala.
So she ripped up every floorboard, every tile, every layer of wallpaper; she tore out every closet and bit of carpet and redid the entire thing. Some things twice. On the second round of renovating the porch Yael asked, “Ma, is there anything left of this house that’s original?” And she studied the disappearing lines on her mother’s face, the crow’s feet and small crease between the eyebrows that waxed and waned in four-month cycles, while her mother thought hard.
“The driveway,” she said at last. “And not because I didn’t try.”
“Tatty didn’t want you to redo the driveway? Why not?”
Her mother cocked her head to the side and her eyes looked a little glazed for a minute. “You’ll have to ask him that.”
Of course, when Yael asked, Kivi gave a vague answer about money wasted and a perfectly good driveway, but oddly, he didn’t meet her eye.
However, because she had verified that the driveway was indeed original, it became Yael’s favorite part of the summer residence, simply because it was cracked and pockmarked and old, not glazed, or pruned, or mowed, or lacquered or filled in with caulk or glue or clostridium botulinum so the wrinkles won’t show. It was truth. And sometimes if she closed her eyes, she could almost feel the heavy tread of life in the driveway, the way you can wake up at seven p.m. and walk outside and still feel the day you slept through — if it had been hot, or cold or light or sad; an imprint, if you will. She liked the imprint in the driveway, it felt real.
There you have it — the second aberration in the Weiszins’ very normal life was their nineteen-year-old daughter Yael.
After it happened, in the summer of 1998, and Kivi came stumbling down the mountain and rolled back into the city and proposed to Chaya within 24 hours of the whole thing going down with Mr. James at the cemetery, Chaya had crossed her arms and said, “First of all, it’s Chayala now.”
And Kivi knew in his gut what was coming because what girl adds a “‘la” at nineteen unless she wants people to believe she’s so cherished by her immediate family that they simply can’t drop the endearing “‘la,” and that wasn’t the case because neither one of her parents had the emotional capacity to love Chaya the way she deserved. And Kivi had known that very crucial lack would get in the way somehow one day, and finally there he was, standing knee deep in the moment.
“Second of all, I want a normal life, Kivi. I went to that summer program in Israel, you know. And I’m going back for the year. You should get yourself together. Figure out your life. Go to yeshivah or something. You’re very smart when you’re not being incredibly stupid.”
That was what everyone told Kivi — that he was very smart — as if he wasn’t smart enough to realize it on his own.
“I also want a normal life. I changed. I. I figured it out, Chaya!” he said. “La,” he added quickly.
She stared at his baggy jeans and his Giants sweatshirt with a huge tear in the sleeve and his two-week-old stubble and the dirty Band-Aid with blood peeking out of the sides that went from his wrist to his thumb and she scrunched her nose and walked away without ever looking back.
And I mean that — she literally didn’t turn around as she walked into the dilapidated semi-detached her parents lived in.
But I also mean it in the sense that when a shadchan redt her to 21-year-old Akiva Weiszin two years later — top boy in Rabbi Rosenfader’s shiur in Monsey — she didn’t even blink. She simply asked why Rebbetzin Krausman thought it was a good idea and listened to a long, drawn out story about a Shabbos meal, and the very balanced boy who said over a stunning piece of Torah, so put together and smart, Chayala, so smart, and you need smart, Chayala, but also normal because you need normal, Chayala, not someone with their head in the clouds and his rebbi already looked into you and thinks it’s a great idea.
And Chayala had stayed still as granite and asked in a very even tone if he had a past and Mrs. Krausman answered that she couldn’t imagine he did because he was so normal, and it didn’t matter that Chayala knew that in fact he had a significant past, because as long as no one else knew, that’s all that really mattered.
And when he picked her up from the family she boarded at, he indeed looked normal, barely discernable from the last boy who’d picked her up, and he introduced himself and shook her very normal boarder father’s hand and led her to a very normal looking Acura that smelled clean and not at all like illegal herbal substances or alcohol or anything that could be burned, swallowed, or inhaled. He took her to a normal hotel lobby and ordered her a normal diet coke and she still didn’t look back, didn’t even break a smile, and he respected the act for a good hour and thirteen minutes until he was halfway through a story about the previous Succos when he’d spent bein hazmanim in Yerushalayim, half-day learning half day tiyul-ing and he’d sprained his ankle on a hike.
“You know when you actually see stars? I thought for sure it was broken but the doctor slapped on a Band-Aid and told me to be a yeled gadol and that,” he said, with a sad shake of his head, “is why I’ll never be able to run again.”
“Wait, what?” Chayala blinked. “For real?”
“No.” He laughed. “It’s fine.” And then he grew quiet as if all the playacting was suddenly too much and he leaned back in his seat and asked in a small, vulnerable voice, “Is this all normal enough for you, Chaya? La?”
She took a long sip from her drink and told him that the normal amount of time to date is between two and four weeks and he mumbled something in response about a waste of time and that he’d known he’d marry her since he was sixteen, and that she knew it too even if she didn’t know it, and she shot him a look that spelled out all the rules right there in the Marriot which boiled down to we aren’t looking back and they didn’t. Usually.
They lived in a normal basement apartment in Lakewood for two years and she worked as a secretary at a dentist’s office until Kivi started with credit cards on the side which brought in a stunning amount of money because he was smart and understood how things worked faster and better than most people. Chayala found them a house and decorated it the way normal people do as the kids came, and they got them into normal schools and Kivi did the normal thing after a long while in kollel — opened his own business doing normal stuff that included a normal amount of selling on Amazon (but somehow brought in an abnormal amount of money) right before everyone and his brother was doing it. And I’m sure you can understand that for most normal people, keeping up the perfect level of normalcy is not a want but a need, and all the more so for Chayala and Akiva Weiszin, who grew up with all the cards stacked against them and managed to make it to the big leagues, meaning people thought of the Weiszins as very normal. Exceedingly normal, even. Picture-perfect normal.
Which was why Yael was an absolute mystery… but also not. Because what people didn’t know was that neither Chayala nor Kivi grew up with all the pieces in place. Neither of them graduated high school, they’d barely made it through elementary school. They’d hovered in a tight cloud of other misfits and questioners and broken hearts from broken homes with parents drowning in their demons. A group of likeminded souls who didn’t have enough of any of the important things. They were shadow people who survived by shrinking against bricks and slithering between concrete and questioning the reality of everything because their foundation had never existed in the first place.
So Kivi and Chayala gave their children a life full of air and love and open spaces tethered to rock-solid ground, but they couldn’t help it that Yael had questions. They’d had questions once too and somehow she’d inherited the questioning gene, despite all her circumstances being so very different.
It had started when one of Yael’s teachers told her the color of her neon green headband was too out of the box. (But obviously, it started long before that, only Chayala had managed to sweep it under the rug until then.)
That was that day that eleven-year-old Yael turned to the anti-neon green teacher, Mrs. Haffler, and answered, “Well, maybe I don’t fit into a box.” She liked the way the words sounded as they rolled off her tongue.
Mrs. Haffler sneered. “Noch a hundert un tzvantzig everyone has to fit into a box, mamale, and what will be with your neshamah then? Hmm?”
Yael blinked a few times.
“What does that mean? A box? Like a coffin?”
Mrs. Haffler looked suddenly flustered. “Nothing, nothing. Go back to recess, Yael.”
And she did.
But she saved the sentence in her secret pocket. She’d found the pocket in second grade — if she concentrated hard enough on something she could put it in the pocket in her brain and remember it forever. A line in a book, a song, a scene in a play; she assumed everyone had such a pocket in their brain, deep and wide and bursting with scraps of this and bits of that.
When she came home and pulled out that particular bit, her mother was at the stove putting up a pot of noodles. “That’s what she said, but her eyes were mean, Ma. I know that’s lashon hara. But they were. And what does that mean — we all fit in a box? She meant a coffin, right?”
Chayala was so startled she dropped the whole handful of spaghetti in the pot and the boiling water came shooting up, drops searing the side of her hand. She grabbed a dishtowel, pressing it against the pain, and moved toward the table. She stared at her second eldest daughter, and that’s when she knew.
“They’ll kill her, Kivi,” she told her husband later that night. “She’s smart. You smart. Her questions are only going to get harder and deeper and she won’t stop asking and they’ll take our… our Yael and they will squish her until—” She stopped short, hearing a knock on the door of their bedroom. Yael’s little head peeked in.
“What’s up, Yael?”
She stepped into the room. Kivi saw Yael holding his copy of The Laws and Rituals of Jewish Burial, a small pamphlet someone had given him after his mother passed away that had been sitting on his seforim shelf ever since.
“In Eretz Yisrael they don’t bury people in a box,” Yael said.
Chayala looked at Kivi. Kivi looked at Yael. “You’re right, munchkin.” He walked over and tousled her hair. “Can I have that? Maybe we’ll put it away until you’re a little older?”
“But I want to show Mrs. Haffler!”
Kivi gently took the pamphlet from her hands and bent down so he was eye level with Yael. “Mrs. Haffler knows.”
“But she said we all end up in a box, and that’s a total lie, and I want to show— ”
“Yael. Sometimes, people…” Kivi began, straightening.
“From an older generation—” Chayala cut in.
“They uh, say things, and it’s best to just let them say what they need to say, you know what I mean?”
“Even if they’re wrong?” Yael’s eyes were wide. “Don’t people want to know when they’re wrong?”
“Yes. No. Well, I mean yes, they do,” Chayala mumbled.
“Sure, sure they do. Generally.” Kivi shrugged.
Yael nodded. “Okay.”
Kivi and Chayala looked at each other as the door shut.
“I can’t do this,” Chayala whispered.
“Oh, yes, you can,” Kivi answered, then lowered his voice. “You did.”
And at long last, Chaya let herself look back. She let her past rise up around her, all the things she faced, and all the things she fought, and all the things she failed at, and all the things she won.
“And you will,” Kivi finished strongly.
She nodded. “Okay,” said Chaya. La.
And that’s how they decided the problem with Yael wouldn’t be a problem. They would simply love her with everything they had.
“I don’t get it. You know the guy who just picked up Ruchy? The greatest twenty-two-year-old male on G-d’s green earth? The one my mother has been discussing nonstop for the past two weeks?”
Kiley walked to her clunker of a car and opened the door.
“He’s not for your sister. I’m late for work. But you gotta put a stop to that relationship, Yell. Okay?”
Yael stared at her friend as she climbed into the car.
“Uh, moi? No no no no. Uh-uh.” She wagged a finger. “I will have nothing to do with any of that.” Yael jerked a hand toward the corner where her sister and the King of Lakewood had disappeared.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kiley rolled down the window a crack.
“You know this, Kiley. We’ve discussed this! It means that I will not participate in this corrupt, backward, discriminatory system! I am diametrically opposed” — Yael climbed onto her soapbox — “to this matchmaking business. It’s unfair in so many ways. It’s demeaning! Don’t you think everyone is flawed? Every human on earth? And yet this system of ours” — contempt dripped from the words — “highlights the flaws before you even get to know the person! How does that give people a fair chance?”
“So you’re saying you won’t help your sister,” Kiley said blandly. “I’ve seen the guy around, he comes into the store…”
Yael plugged her ears. “La La La. I’m not listening. I’m not collecting information. I’m not doing research. I’m not getting involved. It’s the principle of the matter, Kiley. Some girls, they barely stand a chance. Some guys too. If things don’t look perfect on the outside, it’s messed up—”
Kiley let out a tight laugh. “You know what’s messed up? Letting your sister date a guy who might be no good because you think sticking to your precious principles outranks love.”
“Love has nothing to do with shidduchim! It’s a nonfactor—”
“I meant the love you have for your sister.” Kiley sighed. “Never mind. I’ll deal with it.” She turned on the engine and drove off, leaving Yael waving away the fumes.
It wasn’t like Yael hadn’t realized Ruchy would start dating straight out of seminary. Of course she realized and of course she had feelings on the matter because she had feelings on all matters, but she hadn’t truly thought about the role she played in her sister’s shidduchim until Ruchy came home from seminary the previous summer and Yael overheard the hammering out of The Résumé.
“Why can’t we just write that she’s in a BA program? Isn’t that what college is? It’s the same bogus degree the rest of us are getting from Excelsior! Just like a billion times more expensive.”
They were at the kitchen table, laptop open in front of Chayala, Ruchy biting her nails down to the nubs. Yael could hear them clearly from the dining room.
“It’s always good to have some color on your résumé, Ruchy,” Chayala said in a calm voice, though she didn’t believe it at all.
“Um, hi, Chananya is in Torah Vodaath and Hillel is in Torah Temimah, that’s enough color for any family.”
Yael walked into the kitchen in typical Yael fashion — loudly. “Just write: Yael, age eighteen, deliberating between Speech and Special Ed while working as a part-time parshah teacher’s assistant’s assistant.”
Chayala tilted her head, staring at her brilliant, confusing daughter. Love her, just love her. Raising Yael had sometimes felt like freefalling into an abyss. The problem with Yael was etched in the creases across her forehead, the crevice between her eyes. She found the comments from her friends hard to swallow, and as Yael changed the way she dressed and switched schools in tenth grade, Chayala became increasingly thrilled that she didn’t summer with the rest of them but had her own private summer residence where Yael’s differences wouldn’t be highlighted for two months of the year. And while it hadn’t always been easy because she was so highly attuned to keeping her family looking oh so normal, she’d loved her, she loved her, she would always love her daughter.
Chayala had created Ruchy, molded her into the pretty, perfect, diligent little girl she hadn’t had the chance to be. Then Yael had come along and jumped out of the mold and ran for her life, but Chayala never stopped repeating the mantra: Love her. Just love her. She’d practiced so hard, for so long, she thought maybe she loved her Yael more fiercely than her other kids. And what terrified her was that for all her brilliance and tirades and thoughts, Yael didn’t have all the answers. And one day she’d realize that. One day she’d understand that everyone is flawed and no system is perfect and Chayala thought the journey, the quest, was sometimes the only thing that kept her Yael going. What will happen when she realizes that right now all this world has to offer is opportunities for growth?
“No, but for real, can I write that?” Ruchy asked. “Like, you don’t care, so what difference does it make? Just, you know, the optics are better…” She trailed off awkwardly.
Yael shook her head. “Go right ahead! Straight-out lie. That’s what shidduchim are all about, right?”
“What do you plan on going for anyway? Maybe we can just write that?” Ruchy offered, switching gears.
Yael took a long sip of water.
“Definitely speech or special ed. It’s hard to choose between two such unique and lucrative careers, especially in light of the endless room for advancement and salary increases. I was considering PA school but thought that might scare off the boys…”
Ruchy cracked a smile before rolling her eyes.
“Honestly, I have no idea. And the beauty”—Yael let her fist down on the counter—“the beauty of being eighteen and not knowing is that in my world I don’t need to know. Unlike—”
“The rest of us nebachs. Yeah. Spare us another derashah on the endless flaws of our society and the utopia you’ve found outside the ghetto walls.”
“Well. I give you permission to write whatever you want. Just don’t involve me.”
“Yael,” Chayala said lightly, watching her daughter’s cheeks grow pink. Because she saw it now — behind the bravado there was guilt. Yael had no interest in making things difficult for Ruchy. She couldn’t help the person she was — different. Very different. Wonderful and inquisitive and brilliant and so different, and there were ramifications of different in their normal, normal world.
“Why don’t you just leave it blank?” Yael continued. “The whole page. Don’t even put any information, just your name. Who needs words when you can just whitewash the whole family in one go?”
Siblings: “Yael Weiszin.” Chayala adjusted the laptop, dictating as she typed. “Age eighteen. Entering Freshman at Brown University.”
Ruchy groaned. Yael blinked.
“But why? There are so many other ways we can phrase—” Ruchy moaned.
“Because!” Chayala yelled (and she never yelled). “Your sister is not a… a blight!” And though she couldn’t move her forehead due to her recent “eyebrow treatment” (that’s how she marked it on the calendar), her eyes burned with all the love in the world.
Kiley didn’t really mind the store. It felt like home. Her coworkers came in every day wearing the same tired faces as the day before, lined with stories of dead dogs and deadbeat husbands and strained relationships and bad hair color and hip replacements and holiday plans — real people who laughed as hard as they cried.
She didn’t love the store either, it was like an old couch throw with holes she couldn’t bear to get rid of. It was family, she guessed, considering she didn’t have much in that way. Grandpa James had died when she was ten and it was just her and Ma in the house since Dad left. Things were quiet. Except for the summers, when the Weiszins would pull up in a shiny minivan and the world grew a bit brighter. She lived for those summers as a girl (which is ironic, considering she nearly died for them at first). Mr. and Mrs. Weiszin would let her come along on trips, big trips that took all day, and she’d arrive home late at night and crawl into bed happy and exhausted. They let her play all Saturday afternoon in their big airy house, and then when they put in the pool she’d come to swim every day during girls time. She ogled over their big meals and big barbecues and big weekends, but they always included her. She learned to anticipate a knock on Friday night and read between the lines to figure out which lights had been left on or if the AC was set too low, and she liked helping when she could.
Her mother kept her distance. Kiley knew why, she’d heard the story enough times, though she didn’t remember a thing. As she got older she understood that guilt played a part, however small, in the relationship between her and the Weiszins, even though she didn’t have much to do with Mr. Weiszin himself. He was always polite, inquired about her job and how she was doing. She didn’t really care if the roots of the relationship grew out of guilt; she considered the Weiszins family — especially Ruchy and Yael.
And she, more than anyone, knew why it was important that Ruchy not marry a guy with loser friends who came into the store drunk, loud, and obnoxious, and always made a ruckus. She knew what could happen. And that’s why it was so easy to sidle up to the register when she saw Ruchy and The Guy get in line, each clutching a Dasani water bottle and a board game and giggling about something. What was this — their third date? Fourth, maybe. She’d tried talking to Yael again, but she knew she was up against a brick wall. The girl was fire, always had been, and Ruchy had been out when she knocked the day before. This was the perfect opportunity.
Ruchy was so enthralled by her date she didn’t notice Kiley gesture to Maxine to take a ten-minute break so she could man the register. “I’ll explain later,” she mumbled to Max, who shrugged and headed outside. Two chassidic boys paid for fifteen cases of cola, a mother and daughter bought $397.80 worth of toiletries, and then it was their turn.
“No, I loooooved seminary, that’s not what I’m saying.” Ruchy moved forward toward the register, still deep in conversation. “I’m just saying I don’t think every single girl needs — Kiley!” Ruchy broke out in a grin. “I didn’t realize you have a shift Sunday afternoon, I would have looked for you!”
Kiley smiled. “Hey, Rucky.” Then she turned to the guy. “And hi.” The guy smiled politely in response. “No friends today?” Kiley asked him, scanning their water bottles and Scrabble box. The guy’s smile faded, replaced by a slightly panicked look that made Kiley weirdly happy. “Last time you all came in, Joey had to call security, remember that? I think we still have some footage.”
“Those kids weren’t my friends…” The guy looked flustered and Ruchy looked confused.
“Wait, you know each other?” Ruchy asked. “Kiley’s my summer next-door neighbor, she’s practically part of the family! How do you —”
“I don’t know her!” The guy held up his hands in a gesture of innocence. “I guess she saw me with the boys when camp was in session. They liked coming here and they would get, uh, loud sometimes. There were a few… incidents.” He jammed his credit card into the card reader with too much force.
“Oh yeah, very loud. Lots of incidents.” Kiley handed him his receipt.
“Oh,” Ruchy mumbled, clearly confused. “Okay. See you, Kiley.”
Kiley watched them head toward the exit, happy she’d done her part. That’s what family was for.
Yael scrolled through her grades again. She’d done well. Very well. The classes weren’t the problem; the dorm wasn’t the problem; the friends weren’t the problem. It was just… she’d thought that those hallowed collegiate halls would provide an abundance of truth. And they hadn’t. She felt let down. Empty.
Ruchy knocked on the door, then barged in, her face a burning scarlet.
“Don’t tell me Kiley didn’t say anything to you. Don’t you dare lie to me! Do you know how humiliated Shloimy was? The poor guy works with teens at risk during the summer, you could have come to me and asked me! He looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole! He’s going to say no. I bet you anything. It’s over,” Ruchy wailed, flopping dramatically onto the bed.
“I never lie.” Yael crossed her arms. “I didn’t let Kiley tell me anything about him. I already told you, I’m not getting involved in your shidduchim, I don’t want anything to do with it —”
“Oh, that’s cute.” Ruchy sneered. “Cuz you have everything to do with it. Everything. You know that, right? Instead of Nachlas or Bnos Sarah or Masores Rochel it says Brown University next to your name on my résumé!”
Something that looked an awful lot like pain flitted across Yael’s face but Ruchy didn’t care.
“I’m sooo sorry I’m the weirdo who’s ruined your perfect shidduch score. Terribly sorry.”
“Oh, I don’t care about you being a weirdo. I care about the fact that you are so utterly selfish you couldn’t come to me with the information—”
“The system is flawed—”
“The system is flawed,” Ruchy yelled back, and like her mother, she never yelled, so her voice came out strangely high pitched. “The pictures floating around like we’re prizes to be auctioned off, the fact that we’re scrutinized and researched, that our dress size somehow matters, it’s flawed! Okay? Major flaws. Huge flaws. Is that what you want to hear? Because it’s true. Everyone knows it!”
Yael stood very still, shocked by the veins popping on Ruchy’s forehead.
“But it’s what we have, okay? It’s not any better in the great wide world. And it’s not changing this summer, Yael. And I want to get married. And now, your… your ego and self-centeredness has ruined everything.” She paused, breathing heavily. “And I don’t even blame you. I blame Mommy and Tatty. They love you so much, and want to keep you close so badly, that they can’t see how you put your own ideals over everything else. They chose not to teach you to be better than that.”
Ruchy stormed out of the room and Yael felt like the scum of the earth. And also somewhat startled by the realization that while Ruchy was a perfect little lamb, at least she knew her own truth, at least she knew what she wanted. And that Kiley was right; she’d chosen her ideals over her sister. She shouldn’t have let Kiley, who didn’t understand the nuances of frum society, get involved. It was wrong. She’d made the wrong decision. Just like she’d made the wrong decision about Brown; she’d thought if she went far away to soak up truths in a bastion of academia, that would somehow fill something inside her, and she’d been wrong. So wrong. She sat on the bed, discombobulated, heart in one place, head in another, wondering how everyone else seemed so solidly rooted to the ground.
When the kids were little, they’d run a pudgy pink index finger over the raised scar that ran from Kivi’s wrist to his thumb and ask how he got it.
“Broadsword,” he’d respond seriously, and wide little eyes would stare up at him questioningly until Chayala would say, “Kivi. Don’t tease.”
“Fine. You really want to know? It was 1991, the Giants were down a player, they’d heard about me of course, captain of Rabbi Gross’s sixth grade football team, and they reached out — I couldn’t turn them down. We won, but it cost me.”
“Kivi…” Chayala would say.
“Battle of Gettysburg. It wasn’t pretty, let’s not revisit right now—”
At that point the child usually lost interest, except for Yael, of course. She pushed. And he spun never-ending tales that usually ended with the Korean War and for some reason that was the one she believed.
The first time he realized he had a problem with Yael (while Chayala was still in denial) was when she came home at the age of eight and told him she’d looked it up with the help of Mrs. Abramowitz, the school librarian, and he couldn’t have gotten the scar in the Korean War because he was born in 1979, thirty years after the Korean war, and she knew that because she knew where they kept all the passports and she checked his birth year and she’d told all her classmates her father was a war veteran and now she realized he’d lied all this time and ohmigosh can you please not lie? Like ever? It’s just embarrassing.
That was just how she said it and Kivi would never forget it, the shock and sudden flush of shame and the realization that the problem with Yael was that she was good. So good. And later, through all the issues and all the meetings and all the permutations of the same question — What exactly is the problem with Yael, Rabbi Weiszin? What’s eating her? Why isn’t she happy in school? — he always knew it boiled down to the fact that she was good. Born with a moral compass and a sense of right and wrong, and he’d tell anyone willing to listen that the problem with Yael was her greatness.
He looked up at her now, knocking on the door of his home office, and he knew right away something had happened. She looked miserable.
“I did something bad.”
Kivi sat back in his chair.
“Are we talking you stepped-on-an-ant-and-feel-deep-remorse bad? Or ‘Ta, the-cops-are-on-their-way bad’?”
“Hey, I haven’t thrown an ant funeral in like six years.” Yael plopped into a chair opposite his desk.
Kivi smiled, twisting a pencil between his fingers.
“You’re not happy in school.”
Yael looked surprised. “Am I that transparent?”
“Clear as day.”
“I hate it.”
“I feel like every other nineteen-year-old on the planet has their life figured out and I’m like, drifting. I can’t even trust myself. I made a mistake.”
“That’s fantastic. Mistakes are what make us, Yael. They build us—”
“Can you just be disappointed?” Yael looked away. “Can you just not do the whole kiruv thing on me? I’m not going to become a drug addict, that ship has sailed, Ta. For once can you be angry at me so I don’t feel like some sort of special case? I might have ruined the shidduch with Ruchy and the Prince of All Men! Okay? I messed up!”
Kivi blinked in surprise, let the dust settle for a beat. “Not all nineteen-year-olds have it all figured out, Yael. There’s still room for mistakes. Big ones. Ones that change you for the good.”
“Oh? How do you know? You got married at 21, all la-di-da and perfect, I bet you had your life figured out by twelve.” She stopped talking, shocked to see the color drain from his face.
“Well.” He let out a hoarse little laugh. “Is that what you think?” His eyes bore into hers and she shrugged, confused.
“Well, I’m sorry, then. I’m sorry… your mother and I thought… to wait…” He cleared his throat and opened the calendar on his phone. “You’ll come with me on Sunday. And then we can talk about mistakes.” He rubbed the scar that ran from his wrist to the top of his thumb and Yael felt a curlicue of dread make its way up her spine.
When Kivi thought about it, which was often enough, he would picture the whole thing going down at the end of summer. He could practically smell the death clinging to the tips of the trees, the slow ginger burn creeping downward as summer slithered away, all stealthy and quiet so there wouldn’t be too much trouble. And he could hear the heavy sighs of the crickets at dawn when the early morning dew emerged with a chill and that’s why every year it caught him by surprise when he realized that it had happened in Tammuz, which falls out smack in the middle of the summer.
It was only the end of summer for him.
And the other three.
Their last summer really, if you wanted to get dramatic.
He pulled up to the church in his Genesis. Of all the places Yael thought they might be headed, a small country church hadn’t made the list. There were a few other cars nearby, parked in the midday sun.
“Um, are we going into the—”
“No church,” Kivi said simply, and led her around the side of the building to a little cemetery, where three slightly graying men stood on the grass.
One wore a knit kippah and khaki pants, one had a beard and looked very rabbinic, one wore a Rolex and a baseball cap; they shook hands all around.
“My daughter, Yael.” Kivi motioned and the men smiled politely. “Yos, Donny, Ari.” He pointed out the men quickly and turned back to Yael who looked deeply disturbed by the lack of context. “I thought we’d tell her our story,” Kivi said quietly.
The men nodded.
Yael took a quick breath. Her father, so often confused as her older brother, suddenly looked old. He matched the rest of the group, stooped shoulders and tired lines around the eyes. There was something unbearably heavy in this cemetery, she realized, something big.
“I guess I’ll start?” Kivi said.
“Is she coming this year?” Yos asked.
Kivi shrugged. “She usually tries to be here, but I didn’t tell her I was bringing Yael. I hope she doesn’t mind.” Kivi rubbed his hands together, trying to clear his head and stay focused. “It’s twenty-three years, right, guys?”
“Twenty-three,” came the mumbled response.
“Twenty-three years ago, we spent the summer here together. Upstate. Mountain air. Bubby and Zeide’s empty house on Cherry Road,” Kivi said quietly, speaking upward, toward the sky, the air, the trees. Yael thought he might be having trouble keeping it together, which terrified her.
“We weren’t in a good place,” continued Yos.
The narrative seemed practiced, as if they’d memorized lines from a play.
“We, uh…” Ari trailed off, looking at Kivi for direction.
“Don’t spare the details, Ari. Yael can take it.”
Yael wasn’t so sure.
“We drank our way through the end of June and the first half of July,” he said carefully. “Cigarettes and alcohol and who knows what else. We were just… well, we were just existing. Barely.”
“We lived on noodle soups and we floated through the nights, getting into trouble, banging on a drum set in the basement,” Donny continued. “We all have our reasons how we got to that point by the age of nineteen. But there are no excuses.”
“No excuses,” came a mumbled response from the group.
“One morning we were out of toilet paper,” Ari said.
“It was beer.”
Ari sighed. “Every year, Kivi. Does it matter? I remember toilet paper.”
“It matters,” Kivi answered. He took a big, shuddering breath. “We piled into the one old Civic. I was driving.”
“It doesn’t matter who was driving,” Donny said lightly.
Kivi just shook his head and looked down at the ground and to Yael’s horror her father’s voice cracked when he said quietly, “It matters.”
Yael felt sick.
“There was a girl playing on the grass next door, she was two or three, looking for dandelions, we found out later. As hung over and immature as we were… we never saw her,” Ari said in a clear voice.
No, Yael thought. Then realized she’d said it out loud and quickly covered her mouth.
“We backed out so fast I can still remember the lurch of the car, we were swerving and goofing off, one of us tried to grab the wheel to be funny and we ended up on the grass and then there was a scream…”
Yael’s eyes were closed. She didn’t want to hear the rest.
“The sort of scream that makes your whole body freeze. It was bloodcurdling,” Donny said. “Kivi braked. We saw her coming down the porch, Tracy James, hair flying, shrieking, crying.”
No one else spoke. Yael opened her eyes, turning to her father.
“You hit the little girl?” she whispered, hating the way the words dripped with judgment.
“I did. She was lying flat on the grass and I ran over her legs. After the scream I put the car in drive and went forward so fast we smashed into our garage.”
Yael stared at her father for a long time, heart racing. “What happened to her?”
The emotion playing on his face made him look old, tired. “She’s an assistant manager at Walmart and doing okay for herself, last I checked.”
Yael blinked hard. The air seemed to exit her body in one big rush and she felt a deep heaviness come over her. She sat down on the little stone bench nearby while her father continued speaking.
“We all got out of the car intact, I cut my hand on the glass that shattered from the impact and we waited until the ambulance came but it was clear right away she’d be okay. One leg was broken. If she’d been standing instead of lying down, or if the wheels had hit her just inches up or at another angle” — the men all shook their heads — “she would’ve been buried here. Right here in this cemetery. And the fact that she lived made us all reassess where we were headed. It was the biggest and greatest mistake of our lives.”
As if on cue Kivi broke into a grin, the first Yael had seen all day, and the men shuffled into a little circle and began to sing Chasdei Hashem ki lo samnu, an old tune Yael didn’t recognize. Quietly at first, then louder, around and around. Yael watched them, mouth slightly open, unable to speak. Four flawed men, living in their biggest mistake, owning it. She thought they grew lighter with every turn, jumped harder, danced faster. Four boys who’d let their mistake mold them into great men and Yael knew she’d never forget the image as long as she lived.
“It didn’t affect me the way it affected them.”
Yael was startled by Kiley’s voice as she slipped next to her on the bench.
“They live with the fact that they were ten inches away from killing a toddler.” She nodded toward the men. “But I try to come every year because it’s nice to remember I’m a miracle. And I like the dancing.”
When they pulled up to 16 Cherry Road, Ruchy was coming out of the house all dressed up. She gave them a little wave and a wink and hopped into the car waiting on the street, with none other than BMG’s golden boy in the driver’s seat.
“So he didn’t say no,” Yael said.
“Apparently not,” Kivi answered.
“Should we start looking for gowns?”
“Oh, I’m sure your mother already has a seamstress lined up. And a date. And a hall…”
They sat quietly for a moment, time suspended within the confines of the car, hovering between past and future. It was the present Yael didn’t want to face.
Ten inches away.
“I don’t like being different, I don’t like all the hang-ups I have and the way I view the world. Sometimes I wish I could just turn my brain off and be like everyone else. If I was ten inches in either direction I’d be normal,” Yael said quietly.
“Don’t tell your mother, but I think normalcy is overrated. Plus, if you were ten inches in either direction, you wouldn’t be you.”
“Would that be so bad?”
Kivi laughed. “Twenty’s gonna be better than nineteen, Yael. As long as you make it better. You’re gonna have to figure it out.”
“What do I do? September is so soon. I don’t know if I want to go back.”
“I can’t be the one to make that decision for you, munchkin. You gotta figure it out.” He stopped for a minute, hesitating as if he wanted to say more, and Yael could see the eggshells beneath them, a graveyard of all the things he didn’t say, just to keep her close.
“You can say it, Ta.”
He met her eyes.
“I just think… that maybe, all the truth you’re looking for is closer than you think.”
His words came out rough, and halting, but also real. Jagged and genuine. She had to think about that.
“Thank you,” she said as she climbed out of the car. But she didn’t go far. She sat in the old driveway, among all the imperfections, the bits of grass pushing their way up between the cracks, touching the imprint of mistakes made and lives changed, and she told herself she’d sit there with the setting sun until she figured it out.
And she did.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 931)
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