| Family Tempo |

Twisted Tango      

 It’s tough to make friends when my mother is cleaning their houses

She’s focused on the cutlery (l-e-f-t, four, f-o-r-k; r-i-g-h-t, five, k-n-i-f-e, she whispers to herself, an old familiar habit), only half an ear on her mother and grandmother’s conversation.

“Yeah, the lawyer…” At that, Tammi’s head snaps up. Yaffa notices, grimaces in Babba’s direction.

Tammi catches the look, grabs the bull by the horns. “What lawyer?”

Yaffa sighs, looks at her daughter in the eye.

“Well, I guess I’ll just tell you now, Tammi. They…” She’s stammering. “They… I mean, the other side…”

It’s always “the other side” when the mother speaks, never “Daddy,” or “your father.”

Yaffa takes a deep breath. “The other side wants to depose you. For now, they’re just subpoenaing the social worker’s notes. You need to tell her that I’m taking care of all your needs. Emotionally… and… and…” Her voice gets quieter, and she looks down. “Financially.” Yaffa throws out the word like it’s a dirty thing, and Tammi resumes setting the table, as if this monstrosity isn’t sitting there.

She sticks her AirPods (courtesy of Daddy) into her ears, even though there’s no music attached, as Babba and Mommy continue whispering in the kitchen.

Money — it seems everything’s about money.

The funny thing to Tammi is that in Daddy’s house, halfway across the country, everything’s about money there too, but in a totally different sort of way.

Somehow, they get through dinner, Papa regaling them with stories about his yeshivah bochurim. Even Tammi is smiling; a typical rosh yeshivah, Papa isn’t.

Tammi studies him, considering. The world might revere his name, but he never takes himself seriously. She wonders, observing the scene, if he took up all the humor in the family.

“And then the bochur tells me I must be confusing him with his first cousin! Can you imagine someone mixing up me and Cousin Sol?” Tammi smiles again at the mention of Papa’s relative who lives down the block with his blind wife, Sylvia.

“First cousins don’t generally look anything alike….” Papa guffaws so hard, the small wooden chair shakes beneath him. His chuckles subside enough to get out some words. He shakes his head. “They really think I was born yesterday.”

“Papa, wasn’t that like insulting? I mean, he was legit lying to your face.”

He shrugs, eyes twinkling, lifts his palms heavenward.

“It takes two to tango, my dear.”

And with that, he crosses over to Tammi, stands her up by her shoulders, and twirls her around and around in an exaggerated mock dance.

Her mom lets out a full-bellied laugh at the ridiculous scene, but since Tammi is still mad at her for not being straight earlier, she pretends not to notice.

It’s the first day of ninth grade.

It’s been a long summer for everyone, and Tammi tingles with apprehension and excitement at the prospect of meeting girls her age.

During lunch she sits near Laylee and Rachel, and Tammi ascribes mental points to Sarala, who loves Hermione, too.

It’s the last class of the day, and they’re winding down the period, when a teacher makes everyone fill out one of those let’s-get-to-know-each-other questionnaires. Tammi balks — as if my entire essence can be distilled into five questions.

She scans the list and rolls her eyes at the lack of creativity; teachers are all the same whether here in Florida or back in Brooklyn. What do you want to be when you grow up?

She twirls a stray strand of red hair around her finger, gnaws at the pencil in her left hand. What do I want to be when I grow up? The first obvious answer, “a lawyer,” jumps to mind, but she quickly dismisses that option. No way. She’s traumatized from her grandfather on Dad’s side, and Tammi’s own father is eerily similar. Too smooth, it’s too draining to figure out what they’re ever really thinking.

Her mother would never say a negative word about her ex, but that’s because she’s a malach. Tammi doesn’t hold her private thoughts to the same high standards.

What does she want to be? She pauses. In a nearly indecipherable scribble, she scrawls the only true thing she can think of: happy.

The bell rings, and Tammi shuffles out of there, lost in her own thoughts.

First days always stink. It super stinks as the new kid in a familiar town from visits to the grandparents, yet everyone else is still basically strangers. Oh, and your mother is their cleaning lady. What else can one expect her to do, post-divorce with no degree? A malach who cleans houses — how’s that for degrading?

Tammi’s walking home from school, knapsack heavy and uncomfortable on her back. A group of girls suddenly appears, all giggles, smelling like too much floral hair product. She glances backward, catches a flash of silky white-blonde hair; that’s all it takes to know it’s Shani and her BFFers. Tammi’s fairly certain her mom works for the majority of them.

As they get closer and overtake Tammi, their voices suddenly drop to a whisper, and she shrinks toward the side.

Their eyes meet, and it’s as if they’re just two classmates, bumping into each other in the street. Shani smiles, commercial-style, straight white teeth gleaming. Tammi rubs her own tongue self-consciously across her braces. Blue and orange rubber bands, she’d chosen them as a display of Mets pride. Now they seem conspicuously out of place.

They continue forward, Tammi trailing their pack, deliberately slowing her onward march. But now they’re no longer even pretending to whisper, and despite Tammi’s snail’s pace, their words catch her in the breeze.

“We should start calling her mom Juliana!”

She hears the laughter, and turns down a random side street so she doesn’t have to see their retreating backs, their shiny, perfect hair. She mentally agrees with Cousins Sol and Sylvia: yeshivah education needs a major overhaul.

Tammi pulls her sweatshirt tighter around herself, despite the Miami heat.

A shield. That’s what she needs against these girls.


“Tammi, come down for dinner!” Mommy’s back from her last cleaning job, so everyone’s going to pretend they’re a normal family now, eating dinner not even supper. Tammi kicks her Blundstones against the wall (a sick Salvation Army find), beating a tattoo of refusal. “Taaaammi… Tamtam, Bambam, Tamicheeks?” The slew of nicknames are a sure sign that she’s feeling desperate.

Tammi lays the book she’s reading across her chest, studies the shape of the boot against the faded pink wall. It’s the same bedroom her mom slept in as a kid, and she’s is weirded out all over again.

Mom knocks, peeks her head in, and takes in the scene. Tammi’s waiting for a reprimand about shoes on the bed, shoes on the wall, not coming down for dinner — three strikes, she’s out.

Instead, her mother walks over, studies the book in Tammi’s hand.

“How many times have you read this?”

Tammi shrugs. She likes Harry Potter.

Her mother does that move where she’s about to push Tammi’s bangs away. Before Tammi can shift the direction of her head, Yaffa sits down, brings her hand into her lap.

“How was your first day, sweetheart?”


“Hmm… how were the teachers?”


Tammi uses the trick like an old friend; monosyllables always seem to get her mother off her back.

“Were the girls nice?”


“Hmm. Okay then.”

Tammi is waiting for the reminder to come downstairs for dinner (as if that one term — dinner, not supper — will morph them into a normal, normal, normal family).

“Well, I just wanted to follow up, finish that conversation we started yesterday….”

Tammi raises an eyebrow. Started?

“Is there anything… you know… you want to talk about or, um, discuss?”

Where to even begin? Last night’s eavesdropping-cum-discussion still stings, and Tammi doesn’t want to say anything she’ll later regret. Diversion seems the best course of action right now.

“Umm… I’m thinking of getting another piercing.”

Her mother grabs her book, whacks her with it gently, and pulls her to a standing position.

They walk down the stairs, Mommy’s prattling filling the space.

“So it’s funny, I never made the connection, but one of my clients actually has a daughter your age….”

Tammi smirks. Befriending the rich kids was never her plan.

“And I’ve even met her a bunch of times, the daughter I mean. During the summer, while you were still in New York, she was around a lot. I guess she didn’t do the whole camp thing.” She’s babbling now, with a nervous giggle. Tammi winces at the cringiness of it all, at her mom’s desperation about Tammi making friends.

“When the daughter came home today, she said she’s in your class. I should’ve assumed, I mean you seem about the same age. And she was so sweet, said you’re invited over any time, you’re welcome to use the pool.” She keeps going, full-steam ahead, either blind to, or ignoring, Tammi’s very clear body language.

“Um the daughter’s name is… Shira?”

“Shira Katzenstein? Really? She doesn’t strike me as the type with a pool….”

“Oh no, that’s not it. Shani. Yes, Shani. Gorgeous blonde hair.”

Tammi nearly face-palms herself.

Game over.


The far-off meeting with the social worker is suddenly too soon. Tammi hates that this check-in is necessary, that the lawyers are putting her up to this. (Another strike against lawyers.) She knows she won’t suddenly wake up one day and be all, Ooh, actually, I wanna live with Daddy!

The fact he barely put up a fight when the negotiations were initially held left a bitter taste in Tammi’s mouth. It hurt like crazy, and now, to Tammi, this whole social worker thing is nothing but a formality.

She walks into the office, reviewing her main points: Yes, I still want to stay with my mom. No, I don’t want to move in with my dad and his wife. No, don’t be fooled by his giant mansion and fancy cars; did you know he fights over every expense my mother asks him to help out with? Yes, I still choose a mom who’s a cleaning lady. No, it doesn’t matter to me that I get made fun of for it. (Tammi acknowledges that that last one’s a lie, but justifies it; sheker for shalom is mutar.)

The social worker, Jennie, is shuffling her papers, and Tammi sees her taking a quick peek to recall Tammi’s name as she walks into the office.

“So, Tay-mar.” She gives a broad smile, and Tammi briefly wonders if that’s its own class in social work school, “The Many Faces of a Therapist.” (Face of Empathy. Face of Concern. Face of Validation. Et cetera, et cetera. All the faces nauseate Tammi.)

“How are things going at home?” Jennie speaks in random italics. Maybe that was another class: “The Power of Emphasis”

Tammi beams back at her. “Swimmingly.”

The social worker jots down something on her pad, and Tammi envisions her drawing a quick sketch of someone in a pool.

“Well, I’m thrilled to hear. Tell me more about that.”

Tammi starts kicking her foot against the metal desk. She catches Jennie’s disapproving glance before the woman rearranges her features back to Face of Interest.

“Babba and Papa are great, you know, and moving to Miami has its perks. I’m a total beach gal.” Just for the fun of it, Tammi flicks her hair back, internally laughing at her own performance.

Jennie looks momentarily confused.

“Good, good, yes, our weather is something special!” she trills. “Now, I understand from your mother that there’s been some trouble with girls, and with making friends?”

Tammi’s head jerks back from the poster she’s studying (You are special! it insists in Crayola colors) on the wall.


The social worker has on the face of a hunter, studying its prey, but mixed with an element of saccharin sweetness. She nods gravely, peering again at her notes.

“Yes, your mother said she’s been encouraging you to branch out a bit, get to know some of the girls whose homes she…” Jennie seems to be floundering, and Tammi feels a quick spurt of pleasure at her discomfort.

Jennie coughs softly. “…whose homes she takes care of.” She’s clearly proud of herself for her level of PC, causing Tammi to swallow a gag.

“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly the type to hang out with the kids my mom cleans up after.” Tammi had planned on being distant, but her defensive walls shoot up faster than she can notice them.

“Hmm.” Jennie nods, her eyebrows shifting together. “I’m sensing some anger. Is that right?”

“I don’t think it’s called sensing. Duh, there’s anger.” Tammi crosses her arms like the sulky teenager Jennie’s making her out to be.

“I see.”

Tammi stares down at the floor, counts until ten in her head, refusing to break the silence.

“How are things with your mom?”

She lifts one shoulder, notices Jennie jotting down some notes from the corner of her eye.

“Well, I’m glad you felt safe enough today to share some of your real feelings with me. I’ll have to speak again with your mom and the attorney, and we’ll decide how to proceed in terms of custody.”

Tammi’s head snaps up.

“Wait. What? Proceed in terms of custody?”

“Oh yes, Tay-mar. I got a real sense of your distress today, and it makes so much sense how hard all this has been on you.”

The social worker continues on in psychobabble, but Tammi can only hear one thing, her thoughts screaming a single sentence: “What have I just done?”


As hard as things are for Tammi at her grandparents, she doesn’t want to live with a man who thinks she still likes bright pink (the color of the latest Macbook he purchased her). And in Tammi’s mind, that’s the least of it. “Benign negligence” seems to be her father’s parenting motto, but it feels that neglect is anything but benign.

Tammi’s freaking out, and Mom’s freaking out, too, obviously.

But underneath this new panic, Tammi knows she just uncovered a part of herself she’s been hiding: her anger. Not that she can spend a lot of time on that insight; in school, the biggest problem everyone’s stressed about is the upcoming shabbaton.

Tammi’s not concerned, assumes she’ll end up with her crew (the ones from the first day — it’s true, first impressions are always valid). She doesn’t buy into the whole “room distribution is completely random.”

With a deliberate thump, Tammi throws down her knapsack.

“I hate algebra,” she moans to Rachel. Rachel pouts in sympathy, then looks over at Laylee.

Laylee stares back at her, pointedly.

“What? What?” Clearly something’s going on, and Tammi needs to find out what.

“Weeell.” Laylee takes a deep breath, her melodrama grating at Tammi.


She squirms, looks away.

“C’mon, what’s going on? Out with it!”

Laylee looks at Tammi square in the eye, and Tammi pays a mental compliment to her friend’s gutsiness.

“They posted the rooms for shabbaton. I guess you didn’t see it. You’re rooming with…” she lowers her voice an octave, “Shani.”


It takes two to tango. It takes two to tango.

She keeps thinking of Papa’s words, knowing the man might be a jokester, but also that he didn’t become a rosh yeshivah for nothing. He’s got some good advice.

Tammi considers, flips the argument on its side: Does it take two to tango, though? If one person’s a bully, why can’t the other just try to defend themself?

The butterflies in her stomach make it clear she’s already nervous for the shabbaton a week away.

She takes a deep breath, grabs a paper. What are her options? In a bold print, she begins her list: 1) Run away. Tammi looks at the words, hard. Isn’t that what Mommy did?

She’s mad at the school, mad at the stupid social worker for twisting her words, mad at all the million things that have led up to this point in her life.

And yeah — she’s mad at her mom.

She ruined everything, a voice whispers.

Tammi scrapes the desk chair backward, grabs her MP3, shoves the pods into her ears, blasts the music as high as it will go, and opens the novel laying on her bed to a world where things actually make sense.


“Sweetheart?” The voice at the door is indisputably her mother. The door is locked, and her mother doesn’t know that Tammi’s giving her the silent treatment, so she sticks her finger in the book, and walks over to unlock it. In one move she’s on her back, with the pages open on bent legs.

Her mother sits down next to Tammi, sighs.

“What’s going on?”

Tammi shrugs, continues to read.

Yaffa stares out into nothingness.

“Jennie called me… gosh, that woman’s annoying, isn’t she?”

Tammi has to smile at that, but still, she refuses to look up.

“There’s something I want to tell you, Tam, and just hear me out, ’kay?” Tammi nods, keeping her eyes on the page.

“If a few years ago, you had told me that at the age of 34, I’d be a cleaning lady, I would have laughed in your face, right? And honestly, if you had told me that at the age of 34, I’d be divorced, I’d have been…” she sighs, this time more deeply, and Tammi won’t look in her face, mostly because she’s scared of seeing that pain. “…I’d have been shocked. But listen up, Tammi: Being your mom at the age of 34?”

Yaffa smiles down at her daughter, and because Tammi’s scared her mom might start crying in a minute, she looks at her head-on and smiles back hard.

“Mom, please. I’m not gonna let a stupid social worker ship me out of here.”

The silence settles like a comfortable blanket. Tammi needs to change the topic, ASAP, so she reads her a line from the book that’s creepily apropos: “This is my favorite line of Dumbledore’s: ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.’ ”

“Mmm, I like that one.”

“Yeah, well, I think it sorta sums you up, Mom.”

Yaffa blushes, and Tammi can tell she’s pleased. And Tammi realizes with a sudden clarity, it really does sum up her Mom. Because although Papa says it take two to tango, maybe sometimes one person decides they don’t want to dance the moves anymore; instead, they choose to live. That’s what Mom did.

And suddenly Tammi realizes what she has to do about Shani.

“I don’t wanna go on shabbaton, Mom. Shani’s a total bully, and she exhumes psycho-hazardous waste.”

Yaffa studies Tammi, nods. No annoying Face of Empathy, but Tammi knows her mom is totally with her.

“I get that. I know things have been rough for you, and no one’s forcing you to go. If you don’t want to, don’t.”

Tammi lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding, and wonders if her mom sees parts of herself in her daughter.

“You’re pretty cool, Mom, you know that?”

Yaffa laughs and smiles down at Tammi.

“Mom, don’t accuse me of plagiarism, ’kay?” Yaffa gives a slow, confused nod. “But if you had told me, like two years ago, that at the age of 14, my mom would be a cleaning lady, I probably would have cried.” Yaffa looks stricken, and Tammi continues: “Wait, hear me out. Because Mom, if you had told me that at the age of 14, my parents would be divorced, yeah, I’d have been shocked, too. But really, having you as my role model at the age of 14? I’d have been thrilled at that one.”

Yaffa breaks into a smile, and Tammi knows she’s done something good. She speaks the truth, straight up, and her mother knows it. There’s no way Tammi will be leaving her mom’s side, and hey, grandparents and cousins make the ride even better.

Gam zu l’tovah, as Papa would say. Or, at least, gam zeh ya’avor.

And Tammi knows they’re gonna be alright.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 785)

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