| Family Tempo |

The Understudy

I know what a sad picture I must be to this happily married mother of three — the ex-wife who never moved on, who is still haunted by the past

Goldie talks about what she’s learning in school, what her teacher said, and drama with her friends, and everything except for the other family that she inhabits, her three siblings and happy parents and the life that she prefers.

Goldie talks to me, but she doesn’t wait for my answers, my reassurances, and my advice. She gets that from another woman, shiny-bright-perfect Elisheva. Ima.

I wrench my hand away. She is the very last person I want to speak to now, the woman who has inherited the new-and-improved version of my ex-husband. The woman who has never experienced any of what had ruined me.

We’re not friends. We’re two women forced to coexist for the sake of our daughter. I have never lost sight of that.

GOLDIE IS TWO YEARS OLD. I am holding her tightly, and that’s the only thing keeping me upright. Tehila is standing next to me, glaring at Yossi as we leave. I am leaving. This isn’t the first time that he’s gone too far. But it’s the first that he’s crossed the one line that he never has before, done the unforgivable, and Tehila will not let me stay.

I’m your big sister, she will tell me later. It’s my job to keep you safe.

I am no longer safe in my own home. Goldie clings to me, recoils from Yossi as he reaches toward her.

“Please,” he chokes out. His rage has faded, and all that is left is the hollow horror of someone who knows there is no return. “Please, if we can just… she’s my daughter.”

I can’t speak. I don’t know how to open my mouth around Yossi anymore, not without a bolt of fear leaving my body on edge like a live wire. Tehila speaks for me, simmering with righteous fury. “You can tell that to Rikki’s lawyer,” she says. When the door closes behind us, I am still shaking.

GOLDIE IS THREE YEARS OLD. I have lost her. Not forever, not completely. Just three weekends a month. I don't fear for her safety, not as I had my own, but the weekends still leave me in despair every time. I sink to the floor of my modest little apartment, the lights out and the air conditioner on so high that goosebumps erupt across my arms.

I have to see him when the weekend comes. I pass Goldie to him, and he talks to me sometimes, little tidbits as though he is desperate for me to know that he has changed, that he is better. That his therapist has him doing breathing exercises and that he’s dealt with disappointment at work without blowing up.

Maybe he is. When he takes Goldie now, she doesn’t cry. She holds his hand trustingly and talks to him about nursery. Watching him makes me feel nauseous and on edge, like two and a half years of suffocating fear have returned, but I can tell that he’s calmer now. After the weekend, Goldie chatters happily about his house full of toys, about the cholent that she loves and a trip to the park.

I spend weekends in the cold emptiness of my home, drowning in memories of the past. I snap at Goldie without thinking, instinctively repulsed by the pictures she paints of life with him. Goldie’s smile falters.

He is smiling when he returns with Goldie. I don’t smile back.

GOLDIE IS FOUR YEARS OLD. He has insisted that we all meet together first, at a cute little restaurant that is brightly lit and has a play area in the back. Goldie eats three bites of her pasta before she is gone.

He exchanges a sheepish smile with her. I don’t let my eyes leave either of them. I’m on edge. This is a terrible place for us to meet. I still have trouble in loud places. They may be brightly lit and full of joy, but one shout, and something freezes in my heart. One sharp word or impatient rumble from another parent and I’m ready to flee.

I can’t flee this.

She smiles at me, young and sweet and earnest. She must be seven, eight years younger than I am, this pretty little girl who glows with the hopeful optimism of the recently engaged. Elisheva, I remind myself. Her mother hadn’t called me or even Tehila before she’d gone out with him, not like some of the other mothers. No, they must have asked someone else. His rav, maybe?

Such a complicated situation, his rav would have said. Definitely a personality mismatch. He’s spent years working on himself. I really am confident that he’s changed.

It must be nice, having the luxury to change. Having the ability to remake yourself, to spend a few years rehabilitating your life and image and personality until you no longer hurt the people around you. It must be nice, being able to recover from what you’ve done, instead of having to recover from what’s been done to you.

Still, I have no choice here. I must be gracious. “It’s so nice to meet you,” Elisheva gushes. “Goldie talks about you all the time.”

“Of course she does,” I say flatly. “I’m her mother.”

GOLDIE IS FIVE YEARS OLD. All she talks about is Elisheva. Elisheva says that broccoli tastes better when you eat it on the couch. Elisheva did my kriah with me yesterday! Elisheva sewed up the hole in my pajamas, look, Mommy!

I have grown to loathe Elisheva, the saintly woman who graces Goldie with her perfection most weekends. I comb Goldie’s hair before I drop her off, nod curtly to Elisheva, and am only relieved that I don’t have to see him when she opens the door.

But each weekend, there is a new reason why I have been found wanting. Elisheva says that curly hair needs a special brush — look, she got me two! Elisheva took me out for pizza and we got french fries! Elisheva and I raced down the slides at the playground!

I am not fun and bright and happy like Elisheva. The past is like a weight on my shoulders, bending them inward until I feel old and stooped and incapable of joy. Goldie begins to see it when she is five, her little brow wrinkling as she takes in our dull little apartment, the way I struggle sometimes to smile.

My mother tries. Tehila tries. My therapist tries. But in the darkness, I only see him, moving toward me, his lips curled into a snarl. I don’t know if I ever left that moment in time. I struggle to break out of the darkness.

Goldie shines like the northern star, the only brightness in my life. And oh, is she bright — full of joy and energy and love — and when she is around, I am alive again.

When she is gone, I am nothing.

And then there is Elisheva.

She calls my name one Friday after Goldie has disappeared into the house. “We live so close by,” she says, an absent hand on her protruding stomach. “Why don’t we meet up at the park on Shabbos afternoon?” She looks so hopeful, as though I will jump at this opportunity.

It is an opportunity — for more time with Goldie, dangled by someone who holds all the power right now. I want it, want to savor more time with the child I have been forced to share with this pleasant, carefree stranger.

I can’t take it. I can’t give Elisheva even more power over me. “I have a late meal this Shabbos.” My lie is cool, unreadable.

Elisheva is not appeased. “We’ll do it next week, then,” she says firmly, and then, a little tentative, “I know that you and Yossi—” I flinch at the name, and she clears her throat. “You’re kind of a mystery to me, you know? But Goldie loves you and she’s such a great kid, and I just… I want to get to know her mother.”

It could be bald-faced manipulation. But little Elisheva with her shining eyes and shy smile can’t be capable of manipulation. And in the end, like a single-minded horse, I am too drawn to the carrot on a stick to fight this. “Next week,” I agree, and I vow to ignore Elisheva for the duration of our Shabbos afternoon playdate.

GOLDIE IS EIGHT YEARS OLD. “Ma,” she says — because she calls me Ma now, another separation. Goldie rolls her eyes at me and flounces like a teenager when she doesn’t get her way and sometimes yells, sending jolting fear through me that I have to struggle to hide.

“Ma,” she says again. “Would it be okay if I stayed over at Ima and Daddy’s on Sunday nights, too? It’s just that Raizy and Shlomo miss me when I’m not around. Ima says I’m the only one who can sing Shlomo to sleep.” She puffs up her chest, proud of how good she is with her little half-siblings. “And Raizy cries whenever I leave. I always promise that I’ll be back in five days, but she’s three! She doesn’t get it. She just keeps saying, ‘Tomorrow you come? Tomorrow?’”

Goldie looks so earnest that I can’t argue with her. There is no use fighting with her when it comes to them. I have gotten better at pretending I’m not on the verge of a panic attack whenever there’s conflict, but Goldie will still pout and sulk and glower at me with that look that breaks me every time. Those eyes that say, It would all be better without you.

“Of course you can spend more time with your siblings,” I say, and Goldie gives me an exuberant, grateful hug that tears me to pieces.

Elisheva is apologetic when she picks Goldie up that Friday. The original plan had been that I would drop Goldie off on Fridays, but it has changed over the years. Elisheva might be a constant irritant to me, a forever reminder that there is an Ima now and not just a stepmother, but she has recognized, at least, that I go stiff with restrained trauma when I see him, that it is a kindness to me if she gets Goldie.

She’s chronically late, which I love and hate. Love, because it’s more time with Goldie, an opportunity to have her bake with me and taste some of the Shabbos food. Hate, because it’s like stretching out agony for an eternity, the line going tauter and tauter as I wait with building dread for it to snap.

Today, I am prepared for a longer gap without Goldie, and it makes my hands unsteady. Too much salt goes into the cookies for my Shabbos hosts, and we tackle a second batch. They’re just out of the oven when the doorbell rings and I buzz Elisheva in.

She exclaims over the cookie that Goldie presses into her hands. “This is amazing. As always. Rikki, you should start a business. I have a friend who sells baked goods for simchahs and she makes a really respectable living from it — some people buy them every Shabbos, too.”

“I don’t need another job,” I say stiffly. I have a job doing payroll for a company across the country. It’s simple and I can do it from home and it pays enough to support Goldie and me, if not much more. It’s nowhere near the money of a two-parent household, but it’s fine.

“Right, of course not.” Elisheva bites her lip. “I didn’t mean…” She puts a hand on Goldie’s shoulder. “Goldie, why don’t you bring your bag out to the car? I want to talk to your mother for a minute.”

I don’t want to speak to Elisheva, except for the part of me that does. It’s not about Elisheva, who is my antithesis, sunny and warm where every smile from me is a struggle. It’s just….

This is my week, day by day: First there is Elisheva, dropping Goldie off and giving me a quick overview of the weekend; then there are emails, and Goldie, and occasionally a phone meeting; then there is Elisheva, picking Goldie up and making unsolicited conversation; then there are Shabbos meals where I’m one of a group of guests, fading into the background at every picture-perfect table; and then there is Elisheva again, dropping Goldie off.

I love Goldie so desperately that she will always be enough for me. But Elisheva is an adult, no matter how young she seems, and she is the only one I ever speak to, no matter how little I like her.

“I know you texted me that it’s fine for Goldie to stay over on Sunday,” Elisheva begins once the coast is clear. “But it’s not. You get Sunday nights. It’s simpler that way, too. She’ll keep her uniform and her backpack with you, and she won’t—”

“No.” I cut her off, tired of these frantic attempts to please me. I know what a sad picture I must be to this happily married mother of three — the ex-wife who never moved on, who is still haunted by the past. I do not want to be pitied. “This is what Goldie wants. She misses her half-siblings.” I strike low, because I’ve never picked myself up enough to go higher. “Unless you’d rather not have her—”

“Of course I’d rather have her.” Elisheva’s eyes flash, a hint of fire behind them. “She’s my—” She stops short, before she can say what I know came instinctively to her. She’s my daughter.

The room drops a dozen degrees. “Just go,” I say. “I’ll see you Monday morning.” I turn away deliberately and leave Elisheva standing in the doorway, half a cookie still clutched in her hand.

GOLDIE IS TEN YEARS OLD.  Somewhere along the way, she has developed an Elisheva-inspired sensitivity to me that makes me feel as though I am being handled. She is careful to keep to our preexisting schedule — now Tuesday through Friday with me, the rest of the week with Elisheva and him — and she rarely speaks about what is going on there. A gulf grows between us, wide and careful, but I can’t bear to bridge it at all.

It isn’t all bad. With Goldie’s newfound maturity comes a fierce protectiveness that is more forgiving of my flaws. “We’re going on a walk,” Goldie decides some afternoons, and she holds onto my hand and tugs me outside into the sunlight. I blink like I haven’t seen daylight in days, and Goldie talks about what she’s learning in school, what her teacher said, and the drama with her friends and everything except for the other family that she inhabits, her three siblings and happy parents and the life that she prefers.

We try new things sometimes. My therapist wants me to be more physical, to spend less time in my apartment. So we hike together when the weather is good, huffing our way up craggy mountains and stretching out at the top to watch the sun set. I savor the quiet of the wilderness, and Goldie likes the sense of independence that comes with exploring the unknown. “I could stay up here forever,” she sighs.

I know it isn’t true. Goldie talks to me, but she doesn’t wait for my answers, my reassurances and my advice. She gets that from another woman, shiny-bright-perfect Elisheva. Ima.

For me, her chatter is a mere expression of kindness.

She has learned it from Elisheva, who talks too much and has grown into the habit of invading my home, just as she has my place with my daughter. “Goldie says that when you study with her, she retains the material better,” Elisheva sighs, wandering into the kitchen as she waits for Goldie to finish showering. Goldie has picked up Elisheva’s predilection for lateness, only worse. “When I try testing her on millim or the Chumash, she gets so distracted.”

Because there are three other children clamoring for their mother’s attention. It is no character flaw on Elisheva’s part, because Elisheva is perfect. I know that by now. “She just needs absolute silence when she studies,” I offer. “We go over the material for a few nights beforehand and then review again right before the test day. If you chunk the material, it’s much easier for her.”

“That makes sense.” Elisheva pops a cookie into her mouth. It’s my Friday ritual with Goldie, baking cookies, though I don’t have any Shabbos invitations this week. These are still warm, and Elisheva sighs when she eats one. “Unparalleled,” she informs me. “I tried baking cookies last week. They went all flat and merged into one giant cookie lake in the oven.”

“Try making the cookies and then sticking the cookie sheets into the freezer.” I don’t do that, but it’s an easy beginner tip. I remember being a newlywed with the same problem, finding an answer online, and so thrilled when I’d presented the cookies to him. He’d eaten a few, and it had felt like I’d finally been able to do something right.

Then he’d knocked over the tray, and I must have let out an annoyed sigh because he’d blown up. I remember shouting and fighting — and it had been early enough that I’d shouted back, had imagined that I could somehow win if I got louder and angrier.

My vision dims, and a hand lands on mine. Elisheva stares at me, her eyes empathetic. “Rikki,” she says. “Are you okay?”

I wrench my hand away. She is the very last person I want to speak to now, the woman who has inherited the new-and-improved version of my ex-husband. The woman who has never experienced any of what had ruined me. “Why are you here?” I demand, because I have found my anger over the years. “What are you doing?”

Elisheva blinks at me as though I’ve lost my mind. “I’m… picking up Goldie. It’s Friday.”

“No. I mean—” I clench my fists together. “You can just wait outside, you know. I can call you when she’s ready, and you can get her then. You don’t have to come in here and pretend that we’re friends.” We’re not friends. We’re two women forced to coexist for the sake of our daughter. I have never lost sight of that.

Elisheva looks stricken. Six years in my life, and she is still so naive. “I thought you… I thought we were—” Her lips go tight and thin. “Right. I’m sorry to impose.”

I refuse to respond. It isn’t my responsibility to make Elisheva feel better. I’m Elisheva’s chesed project, her little good deed of the day. Time to go over to Rikki’s and make some conversation so she won’t sink into a void of despair. Time to pretend that there’s anything Rikki can tell me about Goldie that’s useful when I’m her favored mother. Time to play friendship with a woman who can barely function when her daughter doesn’t need her.

When Elisheva leaves with Goldie, I call Tehila. I’ve done a good job at appearing self-sufficient, independent enough that I don’t need constant care and companionship from my sister or mother. We don’t talk as often as we used to, but I am suddenly lonely, a long, quiet Shabbos stretching ahead of me.

Tehila says, “Rikki! It’s been ages! Sorry, can I call you back after Shabbos? It’s bath time — Gershy, no!” She hangs up in a hurry, and I am left to my thoughts, grim and sad and echoing in the silence of the apartment.

GOLDIE IS 12 YEARS OLD. Her bas mitzvah is two separate celebrations. Her school doesn’t allow classmates to attend, so there is no real question of one unified event. Instead, Elisheva arranges one for his side and Tehila arranges the other for mine.

The gentle Goldie of last year is gone. In her place is an adolescent, terrifying and uncompromising. Every comment sparks a defensive comment, every glance is a reason for hostility. Goldie doesn’t tell me about school anymore, and my queries are answered with a scathing stare, a curl of her lip as though she can’t believe that I might dare to ask.

I practice breathing exercises and go over conflict resolution with my therapist. I get good at pasting a smile on my face when we’re out together, that rueful You have a preteen, too, huh? that you can exchange with other mothers in public. This is normal. This isn’t personal.

Isn’t, except when I’m out shopping one Sunday afternoon and I see Elisheva and Goldie. They’re walking close together, and Goldie is grinning, chatting with Elisheva like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Like the girl she was a year ago still exists, is buried away only when she is with me.

She has chosen her favored mother. Of course it’s Elisheva, who still gives me warm smiles and hesitates at the door when she dares to come up to my apartment. Elisheva’s sunny, loud home is nothing like the spartan silence of mine. Elisheva’s empathetic adoration is nothing like my desperate affection. I am obligation. Elisheva is home.

I don’t mean to resent Goldie for that. My love is unconditional, as it always will be. But the hurt claws fault lines through me, leaves me fractured when I speak to her, and she must see what leaks through. She grows more distant, more irritable. She disappears into her room for most of seventh grade and comes out only when Elisheva swoops in to take her to her other, happier home.

Mornings are particularly rough. Goldie is still eternally late, and she staggers out of bed and ignores me when I say, “There are a few of the yogurts you like in the fridge.”

I try again. “You need something for breakfast.” A grunt. “Can I put some cereal in a Ziploc at least?”

Goldie scowls. “I’m not hungry.”

“You’re going to be hungry soon if you don’t eat now. Goldie, please—”

“I don’t want it!” Goldie snaps. “I’m twelve. I know when I need food. You don’t have to baby me. Ima never—” She stops short, her eyes going wide and aghast. Even this new, hostile Goldie isn’t that cruel.

But the words linger between us, and Goldie sits down stiffly and eats a yogurt without further complaint. I drive her to school and then stare at my blank computer screen for a full hour before I can get to work.

I fall into the rhythm of it after that, losing myself in numbers. The numbers always add up, always make sense in the end. When they don’t, they can be moved and investigated, can be maneuvered until they add up. There is no pain in numbers, no dread, no sorrow. There is nothing to fight in numbers — only truth.

At three-thirty in the afternoon, someone rings my bell. I buzz them in absently. If I’m not expecting Goldie’s arrival or pickup, my doorbell is a delivery. Some of the workers go above and beyond and bring packages straight to apartment doors. I expect a thump of a box hitting the ground outside.

Instead, there is a strong, steady knock, and I open the door to Elisheva. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Nice to see you, too, Rikki.” She always says it with that tinge of affection, as though she expects my distaste and finds it familiar. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I pick up my phone and hold it to my ear in exaggerated mockery. “And does this not work anymore?”

“Rikki.” Elisheva’s voice is strained, and I set my phone down. Elisheva only gets this tense when it’s about Goldie. She shifts in place, then seems to make a decision and strides into the apartment. She sits on the couch. “Goldie got the lead in the middle- school play.”

What? She hadn’t even mentioned trying out. The middle-school play is a big deal in Bais Yaakov. Last year, we’d gone to see it together, all three of us, Goldie sandwiched between us and alternating between commenting to each of us. It’s done in a local public school with a professional stage and set, the rare middle- school play that is enjoyable to watch, and tickets are expensive but still draw most local women and girls.

This year, I hadn’t dared to ask Goldie if she’d wanted to go with me. Twelve-year-old Goldie would die to be seen with me. Twelve-year-old Goldie is going to be the star, and she hasn’t told me. She’s been practicing during the school day and on weekends, probably for weeks now, and she’s never said a word.

“I don’t know why she didn’t tell you. I didn’t even know that she didn’t until she told me that I’d only need to get two tickets — just for Raizy and me. She said that you were doing your own thing, but that wasn’t true, was it?” Elisheva looks at me, imploring, and I hate her in that moment like I’ve never hated her before. “Maybe she’s planning to surprise you.”

“Maybe.” My voice is flat. We both know it isn’t true. The play is scheduled for this Motzaei Shabbos.

Elisheva rummages in her bag and emerges with a printout. “Anyway, I got you a ticket. Right near the front.” It must have cost a fortune. “You don’t need to use it. I just…” Her face softens, and I hate her a little less. It’s impossible to hate Elisheva for long. She’s too gentle. She loves Goldie too much. “I thought that Goldie might regret it if you weren’t there.”

So I go. I feel like an absolute intruder, but there is no other option. Goldie won’t want me there, but she also won’t want me not to be there. I am a constant humiliation. I am her mother. I have to watch my daughter shine.

Elisheva is already in her seat when I come in, though her seven-year-old is absent from the seat on her other side. “She’s talking to Goldie backstage. I think it makes her feel like a real macher to hang out with the middle-school stars.” Elisheva winks at me. “She’s already dreaming about grabbing the main role in seventh grade. Goldie promised to introduce her to the director.”

An unwilling smile tugs at the edges of my lips. I don’t know Goldie’s half-siblings well, but Goldie loves little Raizy, spends time on the phone with her most nights when she’s with me and talks about her like she’s her tiny best friend.

Raizy has the same warm, open face as Elisheva does, with just a hint of him around the eyes and mouth that Goldie shares. “Goldie has stage fright,” she reports when she sits down. “Everyone was trying to calm her down. She didn’t even introduce me to anyone!” She pouts in her seat.

Elisheva and I exchange a glance. “I’m sure she’ll show you around after,” Elisheva says. “It’s a big role. She’s just nervous.”

The lights dim, and we sit back. The play is set in the early 1900s, and there’s an opening ensemble number that tells us all about it. The girls dance and sing and introduce us to czarist Russia, and I’m settling in for the performance when they move to the side of their marketplace and there she is.

Goldie, wearing heavy stage makeup and a rough-spun costume, walking out from the back of the stage. Her face is pale, and she looks sick. I haven’t done my research on this play, and I assume at first that she’s acting. Maybe she plays a young Russian girl who’s starving after a famine or who is struggling through an illness.

And then her slow steps bring her to the front of the stage, where she vomits across the floor.

Raizy cries out. Elisheva jumps to her feet. The audience murmurs in dismay. And I can only stare, frozen in place, at the way that Goldie dissolves into tears in front of half the community.

There is a brightening of lights, a request for our patience as the mess is cleaned up and Goldie is ushered backstage. Elisheva turns to me. I shake my head. “Go. It’s you she’ll want.” I have to be gracious, to put Goldie first.

Elisheva disappears into a side entrance to the stage, Raizy trailing behind her. I sit alone, the image of Goldie’s pale face in front of me. Maybe I should have seen it coming. Goldie has never been the kind of girl who loves the spotlight. She savored our quiet hikes just as much as I did. She has friends, but she rarely spends her nights on the phone with them, is never the flashy girl in the group. She is too much like me, though it must grate at her to recognize it, so far from the outgoing sunshine that is Elisheva.

I had once liked acting, too. Does Goldie know that? Have I ever mentioned childhood camp plays, when I could pretend to be someone else for a little while without judgment? Is that what motivates her? I don’t know. My daughter is a mystery to me. It’s Elisheva who will get through to her.

I’m surprised, after a long five minutes of murmurs and gossip, to see Elisheva emerge from the door where she’d entered. Her face is drawn and worried, and she hurries over to me. “Rikki,” she says, voice pleading again like it’s seven years ago and she’s trying to make friends. “She needs you.”

I laugh. I can’t help it. It’s so absurd. “She never needs me.”

“She’s just sitting there. Nothing I said got through. I tried to be encouraging, but Goldie doesn’t—” Elisheva wrings her hands. “You know that she listens when it’s you.”

I stare at her. “She listens? Have you met Goldie?” Goldie has made ignoring me a hallmark of her preteen experience. “She listens when she decides it suits her.”

Elisheva scoffs. “No, she listens to everything you say. She spends half her time at home parroting whatever you’ve told her. Ma studies with me this way. Ma never burns the meatballs. Ma is always on time for pickup. Ma says to clean for five minutes a night.” I stare at her, bewildered. Goldie wouldn’t. That Ima never — had been the closest she’d ever gotten to using one of us against the other. Elisheva shrugs helplessly in the face of my disbelief. “She always means well. I’m not the most organized or… or some star homemaker. But she needs you right now, not me.”

“Because I wash the dishes?” If my apartment is cleaner or more organized, it’s because I don’t have five kids at home. I push aside whatever Elisheva has just revealed. It’s irrelevant. I have spent eight years aware that I don’t measure up to Elisheva in the most important ways. “Goldie doesn’t want me right now. She needs… she needs to know that she’s strong. That she can make it through this.”

“And I’m the poster child for strength?” Elisheva sounds incredulous. “I can’t even stand my ground when Yoss—” She swallows the name before I can recoil, and she leans forward. “Rikki, you’re the strongest person I know. You’ve been through… you’ve endured so much in your life, and you’re still here. Working. Mothering. Coexisting with me, even though I know you hate me.” She flashes a self-deprecating smile.

The strongest person I know. It’s a laugh, really, when most of the past decade has been me, living in the dark, waiting for Goldie to shine her light back into my life. Elisheva doesn’t know me at all. She’s just—

Just the only constant in my life. Goldie grows and changes and I don’t know who she is half the time. The world keeps moving around me. Other divorced women date and remarry and create tight communities. I’m still trapped in the past, in trauma I can’t seem to shake off no matter how much time I spend in therapy.

And throughout it all, there is Elisheva, eager to please and stubbornly reaching out, again and again. She must be wrong about my strength. I have always felt so weak. But there is something in the way that she speaks to me that makes me feel like I am not just a husk anymore but a person, worth something more than what I’ve been.

I have forgotten, I think, what strength can be sometimes. Not just being bright and beautiful and young but finding a place in this world and refusing to give it up. In eight years of darkness, I’ve learned to poke my head out to hike and bake, to do the things I love. To speak to therapists and reach out to Goldie, again and again. It feels sometimes like I’m just fooling the world, pretending to be okay when I’ll never be okay again.

It feels sometimes like I might be starting to learn how to be okay, after all.

I stand, and Elisheva smiles.

Goldie is holding onto the edges of her chair like she might fall off. Her fingers are white-knuckled against the plastic, and she stares straight ahead and doesn’t see me coming. I kneel in front of her, and she crumbles. “Mommy.” She lets out a strangled sob and buries her face in my shoulder, leaving makeup smeared to my shirt. “You’re here. You’re really here.”

“I’m sorry. I know you didn’t want me,” I say helplessly, but Goldie only holds me tighter, like she’s still two years old and I’m carrying her away from a volatile home. “I’m here.”

“I felt so bad,” she chokes out. “I don’t know why I didn’t tell you. And then I was getting on that stage and all I could think about was how stupid I was — how you were going to miss it — and I wish you had, I wish you’d never seen what just happened—”

No. I pull her back, and I find her tearful gaze, those brown eyes that are a perfect mirror of mine. “You got scared,” I tell her, and I know fear. I know the terror of being on display, of whispers about you and feeling as though the whole world is judging you. She’s still single, you know. When he remarries quickly and she doesn’t, it’s always obvious who was at fault. She doesn’t even date—

I know holding your head high and going on. Maybe this is the strength that Elisheva is beginning to persuade me that I have.

“But you know this role, right? You got this role. You practiced. You’ve done it before.”

“A million times,” Goldie says shakily. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the woman who must be the director glancing at us, then at the girl who must be the understudy. We’re running out of time. “But never with all these people.”

“They’re not onstage,” I remind her, and I squeeze her hands. She squeezes mine back in a vice grip, so tight that it hurts. “Don’t think about them. When you look out at the audience, look toward the front center. That’s where I’m sitting. Where your Ima is sitting, too,” I add hastily. Elisheva is still here, lingering behind Goldie, and she offers me a tremulous smile. “Just focus on us, okay?”

“Okay,” Goldie says, and she lets my hands go and stands. She takes in one deep breath, like we used to do at the top of a mountain, and she turns away.

She’s phenomenal. I hadn’t dreamed that she had the capacity for this role. She channels all her drama and fire into the part and inhabits it, blows me away and leaves me gaping at this magical creature who is my daughter. I seize the arm of my chair at one point and can’t let it go. I cry when she sings, a song I’ve heard her humming for weeks. She glances at the audience and finds me and Elisheva.

This is my daughter, grown from a tiny spark of light to sunshine, and here she is in front of an audience who loves her. I don’t know how I’ve ever resented Elisheva for moving into my territory or being the better mother — no one can contain her. Goldie is so bright, so wonderful, and so quintessentially her own.

I clap like a madwoman when it’s over, and I can’t find it in myself to be jealous after when Goldie races into Elisheva’s arms first, then my own. “You were incredible,” I tell the top of Goldie’s head. “You blew me away. Everyone’s going to be talking about this for years.”

“They’ll be talking about how I vomited onstage, you mean.”

“They’ll be talking about how you got right back out there after that and gave the performance of a lifetime,” I correct her. Goldie peers up at me, dubious. Then she looks at Elisheva’s encouraging smile and seems to relax.

Elisheva has that effect on people.

Goldie runs back to the other girls, Raizy happy to trail along, and she leaves me with Elisheva, the two of us standing awkwardly together. This is the part when I would normally wrench myself away, get some distance between Elisheva and me and a reprieve from this forced co-mothering that we do. But there is something still niggling at me, an echo of earlier words that have lingered through the performance.

I don’t bring them up yet. I say, “Thank you for bringing me.”

“Thank you for coming,” Elisheva says warmly, and I don’t know how she can always be so gracious, how she can push and push without giving up on me. I have never been kind to her, but still she remains, for Goldie’s sake.

“Not just for Goldie’s sake,” she says when I haltingly express that. She looks a little nervous, her hands rubbing against her sides as she speaks. “Rikki, you’re kind of my role model, you know? You’re crazy intimidating, but you’re so good at everything. Goldie looks up to you like you’re perfect. And you’re so tough—”

“I wasn’t always. I had to be.” It’s too much, to talk about him to her, but I see the way that her eyes flick to mine too quickly, the way that she takes in a sharp breath. And that thing niggling at me is still…

Earlier, Elisheva’s incredulous face. I can’t even stand my ground when Yoss—

He’s changed. I know this. Everyone knows this. He had mastered his rage when I couldn’t master my despair and he has come out of it a better man and a better husband. After all, how could someone like him keep someone like Elisheva otherwise?

But little clues come to me now, breadcrumbs left to trail to a terrible conclusion. I wonder suddenly at Goldie’s moodiness, at the way she pushes me away but chats with Elisheva like she had with me when she’d been ten and worried about me all the time. I wonder at the way that Elisheva hesitates in my doorway sometimes like she wants to say something more.

I need Elisheva much more than I’ll ever admit, a woman who talks to me like I’m worth something and who is there without fail every Friday and Tuesday. A woman who is gentle and sweet and has none of the simmering fire that had kept me going when he had been so angry.

It is shattering to think that she might need me, too.

My voice emerges in a croak, weaker than the casual tone I’m going for. “Elisheva, if he — if Yossi is—” But all my energy is spent just in getting out that name, in the power of casting away the block that it has on me. I have forgotten, I think, what strength can be sometimes. Not just being bright and beautiful and young but finding a place in this world and refusing to give it up. In eight years of darkness, I’ve learned to poke my head out to hike and bake, to do the things I love. To speak to therapists and reach out to Goldie, again and again. It feels sometimes like I’m just fooling the world, pretending to be okay when I’ll never be okay again.

It feels sometimes like I might be starting to learn how to be okay, after all.

Elisheva’s smile goes brittle. I take a moment, wait for my pounding pulse to quiet in my ears, and I say instead, “I don’t.”

Confusion puts a wrinkle in Elisheva’s tension. “What?”

“Earlier you said…” Even though I know you hate me. “I don’t hate you,” I say, and it scratches my throuat when it emerges, an inconvenient burst of honesty. “I haven’t in a long time.” Elisheva’s stiff expression wavers, and I plunge on. “I’m here. You know that?”

“You’re here,” Elisheva agrees, a tension fading from her face. She looks so young now, but she is only the age that I was when we first met. Was I ever really that young? I feel like I have aged an eternity in these eight years, like Elisheva is only a child still, to be protected as fiercely as Goldie.

And I will. That’s what family does.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 893)

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