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Straddling Worlds

Rivka Streicher

“The first year it was fun. Maybe the second. But now… A little difference never harmed anyone. Can’t these ladies get out of their boxes?”

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

 Mishpacha image

SUDDEN COLD He states it so simply, and she realizes that the question had cogitated in her mind all the way home, thrashing and flailing but not quite floating to the surface. “He should come and stay.” She feels cold suddenly; it’s her father, what’s wrong with her?

"A rabbit, look, a rabbit on the Tube!”

All around, gasps and exclamations and comments, but they don’t register, they simply merge with the clak-clak rhythm of the train, until it is all one long, jolting song. Lea is too tired to pick out the words. Happy tired. She leans against the window, pulls her hoodie over the garish sheep costume she wears underneath.

The train lurches and stops at King’s Cross, people spill out of the doors, stepping on each other’s toes, briefcases flying as they scatter in all directions. So many people, running, all running at 8:45 in the morning. Except them. Daddy never runs. Life should be played leisurely, he likes to say.

The line made her laugh when she first heard it — as if life was a game to be played.

But today they are playing for real.

“Look, a man in an orange rabbit suit! And that girl, she’s half a sheep,” someone says.

Amy stirs near her and pokes her in the ribs. “You should’ve kept the whole costume on, now they’re wondering if you’re a sheep with a hoodie.”

“Hey, I thought you were sleeping.”

“Sleep through London rush hour?”

They both turn to look at their father. He clutches a collapsible tent between orange furred hands, rabbit buck teeth grinning merrily overhead, fast, fast asleep on the packed train.

“Only Daddy,” they say together.

*

“A sleep-out. Yeah, we did it when I was 12.”

“A sleep what?”

“A sponsored sleep-out, to raise money for a charity that supports homeless people. You know, ‘Simon on the Streets’?” Lea says, looking around the circle of women for a flicker of recognition.

The women are silent. She can hear the soft breathing of Tobi’s slumbering baby.

“Never heard of it,” Bracha says finally. “And I don’t know, it sounds a bit odd.”

Odd, Lea thinks, and I haven’t told them the half of it. The costumes, the farm animal theme…

And she can’t, she realizes, they’d never understand, they’d think she was weird. If they didn’t already.

“Any other ideas for the Mothers’ Guild fundraiser?” Miri asks, throwing her an apologetic look.

No apologies needed, she wants to say, I’m just suggesting something a little more fun than the bake sales, and bric-a-brac markets, and oh, the Chinese auction, always the Chinese auction.

Instead, she fishes in her purse for her diary. She’ll write a shopping list, while the others go round and round in circles and come back to the Chinese auction. The women babble about prizes and sponsors and a chairlady with oomph in her voice. Lea bites the inside of her cheek and wills herself not to laugh.

*

“How was the meeting?” Shai asks when they sit down in the study-cum-studio after the kids have settled for the night.

They’re working on an abstract picture of the coming of Mashiach. Shai has made a cloudy background out of white chalk. The clouds are soft and alive and he dabs on the reflection of her rose-gold sun, blows the chalk dust.

“Mm.” Lea pulls a sequin from between her lips. “I told you they wouldn’t buy it. They wouldn’t even listen to the half of it before someone stopped me. A bit odd, they said…”

She shakes her head and scatters gold sequins over the wet paint.

“Oh, Lea.” He looks up. “I’m sorry. I know how excited you were.”

She sighs. “It’s back to Chinese auction now. The first year it was fun. Maybe the second. But now… A little difference never harmed anyone. Can’t these ladies get out of their boxes?”

Her fingers are agitated, like her questions. She strews the sequins over to one side; the effect, born of her anger, is beautiful.

“Lea, we chose this community, remember? For the chesed, for the goodness here, and in a sense, I guess that means we chose their sheltered-ness too.”

“I know, but still… I guess I was really hung up on the sleep-out.”

Lea looks at his work and considers how her sun will look juxtaposed against his clouds. He hunches over the canvas in a way that’s bad for his back, but his mind is not on the piece, it is far away, higher, all the way to the beyond. She can see it in his eyes. And suddenly he’s the person he was back in college, the art student who ruminated about life over the easel, who looked beyond the canvas.

Tehilla whimpers from her crib and Shai jerks his head as if deciding something. “Lea, let’s do it, the sleep-out, just our family. We’ll raise money for the school and have a grand night out…”

“For real?”

“Why not?” he says easily.

“Why not?” she echoes, smiling.

*

Lea savors her early-afternoon tea and considers the magazine half open on the table. Aesthetica Monthly, the Art and Culture Magazine, the cover proclaims. What has Shai signed up for now?

She yawns. She doesn’t want to read now, she wants a schmooze. The thought makes her smile; she doesn’t know when that word became part of her lexicon, but it’s almost onomatopoeic, just sounds so right. What would the secular equivalent be, a talk? A chat? Nah…

So who? Amy?

She checks her watch.

 

It’s 2:57, and an hour later in France. Amy will be swallowed by her work.

She can feel her sister’s vibes just thinking about her; how frum women waste their day, how she’s squandering her college degree, and why don’t you get yourself a normal job?

It isn’t as if she strictly needs to. Shai brings in enough for their standards, if not quite Amy’s. Amy of Parisian design and couture. Amy, CEO of a high-end womens’ wear line, who’d just opened a charitable foundation named for her business. I like to choose where my taxes go to, and besides, it’s good PR for the company, she’d said. Lea had only been glad that the foundation’s objective was to support the poorly dressed children of Israel. One could never know with a politically correct sister like hers.

No, she wouldn’t call Amy now.

Daddy, then?

Her fingers trip over the familiar number. What is it, a week, a week and a half, since she’d last called?

She gulps guiltily. Her dad’s lack of acceptance is harder than her sister’s, because where Amy loves her one minute and point blank refuses to accept her frumkeit the next, his is laced with love, always.

You have reached the Morris residence, please leave a message and have a wonderful day.

Why isn’t he answering? An irrational squeeze of fear.

“I’m going over to Daddy,” she declares to the empty kitchen.

She leaves the GPS in the drawer, letting her memory guide her the 40-odd miles to her childhood home. The windshield is wet and confused, streams of rain coming and going like endless veins on the glass.

In the traffic at the Dartford Crossing, she has her first intelligible thought: Call Shai, ask him to pick up Tehilla from playgroup. She crosses the bridge and counts the exits, fingers off the great arm of road. The 17th is hers.

The cars crawl and slow completely. Lea feels too comfortable suddenly. She pats her head and feels her snood. I left home without my sheitel, I never do that. She pulls down the rearview mirror and sticks out her tongue at her reflection. She looks quite cute, actually, in her flowery snood. And the craziest part is that somehow on the highway it matters less than “in town.” There, you have to look presentable just to make a grocery run.

Strange that in the place people understand snoods, there’s a pressure to avoid them. Just another thing she doesn’t understand about the community they joined. Just another of “those things” in an endless, unwritten rulebook.

The traffic starts to move again, the miles flying faster than her thoughts, and she turns onto the road that led to home for 21 years. (excerpted)

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