ou sewed the gown for Dratler?”
I nodded. My knees were shaking, I had to sit.
Yocheved’s eyes narrowed. “Can you… explain?” Her voice was low. Eerie.
“She asked me—” I swallowed. “She asked me, after she canceled — she was desperate. I said no at first, I refused.”
Yocheved was quiet, listening. My throat constricted.
“She begged me,” I blurted out. “I was under a lot of pressure. The whole… Anuradha, the lace for Kohlman. I-I’m sorry. It was wrong, a big mistake.”
“One minute, Yelena, I’m trying to understand. Where does Anuradha come in? And the Kohlmans? I’m confused.”
“Oh, nothing, nothing at all.” What was I saying? Why did I mention those names? What was Yocheved doing in my house? This was a nightmare. I couldn’t breathe.
But Yocheved didn’t seem angry. She was shaking her head, her forehead creased. “No, please, Yelena. Tell me the truth. I need to understand.”
Why did she need to hear this? To torture me?
And then it clicked. Mina. She was angry at her sister, about her daughter’s gown. This was not about me.
I breathed again and stood up. “Look, Yocheved, let me explain. Mina really, really did nothing wrong. Her Shevy, she’s friends with Dratler’s daughter, right? She bought the gown from her without knowing that I sewed it. The Dratlers didn’t tell her, I never told her, either. It was too…”
Yocheved twisted her lips. “I understand.”
It was quiet again. Yocheved raked fingers through her wig. She leaned back, her eyes sweeping the room, taking in the ripped couch, the lonely bulb on the ceiling. “Yelena, can I ask you a question?”
“Do you — are you having a hard time, financially? Is money tight?”
My skin tingled. So she’d seen the fridge. Probably noticed the ripped upholstery on the dinette chairs, the rotting linoleum on the kitchen floor. Heat rose in my cheeks. This was humiliating, it was worse than getting fired, worse than…
But suddenly, I didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore, everything had crashed, my whole life was a mess. I started talking, faster and faster, spilling everything. I told her about Mama, and Anna, about Benish and his cooking, about computer-scientist Moriz and cheap bananas, about trying to earn extra money with private work, about Olga’s help and Anzel’s surprise.
Yocheved listened quietly. My hands were shaking, my pulse raced.
I gazed at her, trying to read her face, but it was blank. Finally, she cleared her throat. “Tell me about Anuradha.”
I bit my thumb. “It’s because of Anuradha. That’s why I accepted the Dratler job. She, she…” I drew circles with my index finger near my ear.
Yocheved drummed her fingers on the table. “I understand,” she said slowly. “I put pressure on you, with the Kohlman gown. I…” She licked her lips. “I’m sorry.”
I nodded, as a shock of warmth shot through my chest.
There was a noise in the kitchen, a cabinet closing. Mama was shuffling around with her walker. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t think of what.
Yocheved drummed her fingers on the table. Then, adjusting the strap of her bag on her shoulder, she stood up. “Come back to work tomorrow, Yelena. And don’t worry, things will be okay. I’ll have your back.”
(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 686)
Something had come over Yocheved.
She was back in the boutique, still not talking to me, but something had changed. She wasn’t stewing, at least not openly, yet she was acting strange, spaced out, mindlessly going from room to room, doing basically nothing.
I was making myself a coffee when she suddenly cleared her throat. “I’ll take one as well, if you don’t mind.”
I blinked. “A coffee, you mean?”
I reached for another cup.
When the coffees were ready, I walked over to the reception desk where Yocheved was sitting. I stood there awkwardly for a moment, unsure if I should say anything, but then I just put her cup down and started walking away.
“Sit down for a minute,” she said. “Take a break.”
A break, right.
I pulled the second swivel chair over and sat. The aroma of coffee was overpowering. The reception area suddenly felt claustrophobic.
So here it came, all her wrath? Over coffee? So romantic.
But Yocheved wrapped her beautifully manicured fingers around her coffee cup, and released a huge sigh.
“I feel terrible, Mina,” she began. “Absolutely awful.”
Yelena was back.
In a way, this “day after” atmosphere in the boutique felt like a sixth-grade classroom after huge politics were resolved. All shy smiles, exaggerated cordiality.
I had to give it to my sister. Yocheved’s courage to step forward and apologize was admirable — and humbling. “I was so angry,” she’d told me, “I didn’t consider that there might be more to the story. Which is wrong. I know you would never have hurt me like that. I feel awful.”
I assured her that I understood, I totally got where she was coming from. I apologized, too. For the slap-in-the-face declining of her gown offer, for the takanos contradictions. “And for… my opinions. I’m sorry, Yocheved, I’ve been so caught up in my beliefs, in my principles….”
What could we have done differently? Both of us admitted that we didn’t know, there was no clear right or wrong. And coming to that realization together was a relief. There was no reason to blame anyone.
And of course, finishing the conversation was the most challenging part. Like, hello, distraction, come and save us from this mawkishness.
Now Yocheved was acting overly friendly. “I ordered lunch,” she announced. “For the entire staff.”
“With flatware?” I asked, darting a glance at Anuradha.
Yocheved chuckled. But then her face got serious and she frowned.
“What should I do about her? She’s so talented, but her behavior… She can’t seem to get basic business protocol. Should I ask her to work off premises? But I like monitoring the staff’s work, it’s important to work as a team.”
I wanted to reply, Fire her, and not for her lack of social skills, but for what she does — raises the already ridiculous prices of your gowns.
But I bit my lips. It was not my place to tell Yocheved what to do. This was her business, her responsibility. I couldn’t change the world.
The phone rang and I took the call. Yocheved headed over to the sewing room.
When lunch arrived, Yocheved invited everyone to the conference table to eat. The seamstresses were shy at first. Yelena picked threads off her sweater, Olga was clearly squirming. But as everyone started eating, the atmosphere relaxed and the conversation was light and comfortable. Only Anuradha didn’t mingle. She sat at the edge of the table, taking mouthfuls of food, fixing her gaze on random people while she chewed.
When the table was cleared away and the dressmakers returned to the sewing room, the Davidowitzes showed up for a fitting — along with the bejeweled Kohlman sister.
So the gown was on. She’d caved to the pressure; Mrs. Davidowitz, she was an official victim of societal standards. It was sad, so terribly sad. I couldn’t do anything about it, shouldn’t do anything, but that didn’t take the edge off my disappointment. Like, Chaya, you’re better than this, you do have the strength in you to say no.
For a moment, I felt Yocheved’s eyes on me. I glanced at her, but she looked away quickly, an odd expression on her face. Had she read my thoughts? Yes, of course she had. I’d never been too quiet about my opinions on her clientele.
Mrs. Kohlman rubbed her palms together. “You assigned this gown to Yelena, I hope?” she asked.
Again Yocheved looked at me. Our eyes locked, and we grinned. “Yes, of course I did,” Yocheved responded.
And to my cruel satisfaction, Anuradha, who should have been sitting on her bench in the corner, but was loitering nearby instead, heard the exchange, and her face darkened.
I did my best to shut all biases from my brain as the fitting proceeded. This gown was happening, whether I approved of the decision or not, and I owed it to our client to provide our trademark boutique service.
Slowly, the gown came together. Another Lewin masterpiece. By some miracle, there was no mention of beading handwork.
Mrs. Kohlman left when Yelena started taking the kallah’s measurements. And then, as I escorted the Davidowitzes to the door, Mrs. Davidowitz tapped me on the shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
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