THE BEST IS YET TO COME:
ALISON R. SOLOMON
Table of Contents.
1. A letter to the Reader
2. Running Scared: A Gulfport Mystery
3. An Unorthodox Love: Laurie
4. An Unorthodox Love: Ruth
5. The Challenge: A Young Adult Novel
6. Split Loyalties: Cappy
7. Split Loyalties: Jessica
8. Along Came the Rain
10. Winner’s Club
11. Kissing the Rabbi’s Wife: A memoir
This book is your opportunity to interact with me. I put it together with the express purpose of hearing back from you.
The Best is Yet to Come contains chapters from several books in various stages of completion. Two are novels that could be told from the perspective of one or both of the protagonists (An Unorthodox Love and Split Loyalties.) One is a suspense novel that would be the first in a series set in Gulfport, Florida (Running Scared.) One is Young Adult (The Challenge) and one is a general women’s fiction novel I began many years ago (Winner’s Club.) I’ve also included the first chapters from two novels that are already published and available for purchase (Along Came the Rain and Devoted.)
Before I published my two suspense novels, I was working on a memoir (Kissing the Rabbi’s Wife.) Memoirs are a somewhat saturated market and quite hard to sell, so I’d love to know whether you think I should persevere with this one.
I would LOVE to have feedback from you about all or any of these chapters. What interests you most? What doesn’t appeal? At the end of certain chapters, I have some specific questions for you and would be so appreciative to receive answers.
Please feel free to forward this book to anyone you think may be interested.
My email address is: [email protected] and my website is www.AlisonRSolomon.com. I’m always looking for beta readers and folks for my street team and would love to hear from you.
Thank you for taking the time to read this book.
I truly believe the best is yet to come!
Alison R. Solomon
Running Scared will be the first in a series of cozy mysteries set in Gulfport, Florida. Several of the characters in it are from my previous two novels which I did not have the foresight to make part of a series, including Kat (Devoted) and Wynn (Along Came the Rain.)
When Kat’s friend, Wynn, is badly injured in a hit-and-run, she assumes the police will track down the driver. But when law enforcement point the finger at Kat’s new girlfriend, Lil, Kat is forced to find the true perpetrator herself. Things come to a head when, fearful of being deported, Lil takes off. Will Kat track down the real criminal before the police find Lil?
Afterward, when they asked her to describe what happened, all she could say was, “A thud and a whimper.” The thud was more like an explosion, and she didn’t realize until much later that she had been the one whimpering.
How many thousands of times had she take the trash out over the course of her sixty-two years? Even though it was usually early morning when she dragged the heavy garbage can from her backyard into the alley, it wasn’t unheard of for her to do it at night. There was no law against putting it out the evening before. Old Mrs. J. next door always put hers out last thing because she didn’t get up until mid-morning and the garbage collectors came long before that.
If only she hadn’t chosen that particular moment of that particular evening to venture outside, none of this would have happened. Five minutes earlier she’d have placed the can where she always did, walked past the chopped up tree branches Jose had piled at the side of the garage, and opened the back gate. Then she would have stepped inside the backyard and whistled at the dogs who would have come running from their favorite corner of the yard where they’d just peed against their favorite plants. After that, all three of them would have hurried through the mudroom into the house and gone to bed just like they did every night.
It didn’t even have to be five minutes earlier. Even one minute and she’d have been safely inside the gate, calling Queen and Latifah to her. Instead, the dogs were inside the yard alternately barking furiously and whining, while she lay on the other side of the fence, smashed against the woodpile, her arms pinned beneath her, the pain in her head so sharp it felt like her friend Sherry had taken all the knives from her blade sharpening business and stuck them inside her brain. She had a feeling blood was oozing from various parts of her body, she was having difficulty breathing, and she couldn’t seem to feel her legs at all.
She tried to call out, but her chest hurt too much, and anyway, she’d never make herself heard over the dogs. Surely someone would rescue her soon. Wouldn’t Val hear the dogs and come outside to see what the commotion was? Maybe not. Just the other day Wynn had apologized for the late-night barking and Val had told her not to worry about it, that she never paid any attention, barely even heard it. On the other side was Old Mrs. J. Wynn couldn’t see whether Old Mrs. J’s trashcans were lined up in the alley or not. If they were she was doomed because once the trash was out, Mrs. J. would have taken out her hearing aids and be quite oblivious to everything. She wondered when everyone had started referring to her neighbor as “Old Mrs. J.” instead of just Mrs. J. Did you reach a certain age and become officially old? When would they start calling Wynn “Old Ms. Larimer?”
Her head was throbbing, her legs were numb, the pain in her arms was excruciating and she desperately wanted to drift into a pain-induced sleep. She knew enough to know she mustn’t, so she forced herself to keep thinking.
Why hadn’t the car stopped before it hit her? The driver must have seen her. First of all, it wasn’t that dark a night. She hadn’t bothered with a flashlight because the light from the half-moon was strong enough to light up the alley. Even without that, the driver must surely have been able to see her since his headlights had definitely been on. There was no question in her mind about that. As she’d deposited the trashcans and turned back toward the house, the dazzle from the car’s beams had completely blinded her. She’d turned her head away, assuming that the car would stop when the driver saw her, and the next thing she knew she was being crushed into the woodpile.
Wouldn’t any decent human being have stopped to offer help? Why did the driver just carry on down the alley as if nothing had happened? She felt rage rising up inside her. What kind of a person did that? The anger was partly directed at the driver and partly at herself. She could have waited until morning to put the trash out. But she’d done it tonight so that she could completely clear her schedule for the next day. There were so many jewelry orders to fulfill for Valentine’s Day it was overwhelming. The kids were always nagging her to get organized, so she’d taken their advice. She’d created a list and a schedule for the following day so nothing would distract her. Not even taking out the trash.
It wasn’t like she didn’t know how to make lists. When she was a teenager, her domestic science teacher had taught her class how to prepare dinner. Before they started cooking, the first thing they had to do was list all the tasks involved, then break them into steps and write out a detailed schedule: when to peel the potatoes, at what point to put the dessert in the oven, when to cut the bread. Everything had to be thought out so it would all come together at exactly the right time for when the assumed husband came home from work. Even back then she’d been pretty sure there would be no husband, but the planning process had been useful. Over the years, she’d forgotten all about it until recently when the kids had said that if they were going away to college, she had to find a way to get herself organized. She’d muddled through all the December holiday orders, getting them done only by pulling all-nighters several times and had determined that this holidays it would be different.
The list was sitting on the drafting table in her studio. Above it, little papers with individual orders were hanging on a clothesline she’d strung up. (She’d stolen the idea from Kat’s restaurant where they clipped all the food orders to a clothesline and the short-order cooks picked them off one at a time.) Her tools were laid out and everything was ready for her to cut, clip, twist and cajole metals, stones, gems, clasps and chains into the beautiful pieces her customers expected. Now as she lay crushed against the woodpile, she knew for certain, none of that would happen. Three years of slogging away to create a successful business, and in a few seconds a stranger had just blown it to pieces.
She heard a car in the street and for a moment her heart lifted. If only they would turn up the alley. But they didn’t. Why would they? No one ever drove up the alley at night apart from that damn stranger.
She’d been so pleased with herself for making the list that her reward had been to take out a bottle of pinot noir and call Michaela. Sipping wine and catching up on her daughter’s exploits was the best way to end any evening. Wynn was so proud of both her daughters, and when you thought about how far they’d come and what they’d had to endure, it was pretty amazing that they were so well adjusted. Most moms complained that their daughters were taciturn and didn’t want to share anything with them, but Mikki was an open book and sometimes it was hard to get her off the phone. They’d had such a lovely conversation but then it started getting late and Wynn felt guilty because she knew she had to get up early the next day, so she told Mikki she needed to end the call and put the trash out.
“But Mom, don’t you want to hear about this really cool yoga class I took yesterday?” There was a wounded tone to Mikki’s voice, but Wynn reassured her that not only would she hear about it next time they talked but she’d also look forward to finding out what happened to Mikki’s best friend, who’d been accused of plagiarism. Now she wished she hadn’t been in such a hurry, or that Mikki would remember something she needed to tell Wynn and call back. What would her daughter do if Wynn didn’t answer the phone? Probably just assume she’d placed the phone on silent and gone to bed.
If the dogs didn’t stop barking, someone would come out eventually. She was always trying to get Queen to shut up, but for once she was happy her dog was so badly behaved. Or perhaps it wasn’t bad behavior at all; this time Queen was looking out for her. What about the Russian couple across the street? Wouldn’t they wonder what was going on? She never spoke to them beyond saying hello because they barely spoke a word of English, but surely they’d know how to call an ambulance?
How long had she been lying there? She was starting to feel cold. She’d padded out in only her pajamas and slippers, thinking it would only take a minute, but the slippers had flown off when she was hurled into the woodpile and the pajamas weren’t enough to keep her warm on such a chilly evening. Only a few hours earlier she’d crowed delightedly to Michaela that the temperature was going to fall into the 30’s overnight, a rare occurrence in this part of Florida.
“Finally we’re having a real winter!” She’d smiled, excited that she could wear something other than the flimsy nightshirts she lived in for ten months of the year. Now she wondered how long she could lie there, cold and injured. The light from Val’s bedroom went out, and Wynn felt hope drain from her. Her body started shaking, and the shock and anger she’d been feeling began to morph into something else.
What if no one found her until it was too late?
It’s love at first sight when Laurie Kushing spots Ruti Halami in a swimming pool in Jerusalem. But Ruti is an orthodox Jewish Israeli, married and trying to have a baby, while Laurie is a secular American on a study abroad program. Can she find happiness or is she doomed to be the victim of a one-sided love?
AN UNORTHODOX LOVE
Jerusalem, November 1982
The first time I saw her, she was standing at the edge of the pool, running her hands down her legs and arms to shake off the excess water after finishing her swim. I’d been aware of her presence as I swam my laps because she’d kept pace with me which was unusual, especially here. I watched from the far end of the pool, and as she pulled off her bathing cap and shook her head from side to side, my heart started racing. Her stance was strong and confident, as she pushed her hands through her short, cropped hair without a trace of self-consciousness. She wore a simple one-piece bathing suit which clung to her body. Not only was her hair almost a buzz cut, but I could see she didn’t use a razor where other women might. Clearly she was a member of the tribe of Dina—a lesbian. And a mighty fine specimen at that.
The woman disappeared into the changing room and I swam back to the other end of the pool, wondering who she was. The only people who came to this Jerusalem swimming pool on a Tuesday afternoon were either the religious neighborhood wives and girls who came for the segregated women-only hours, or university dykes like me who came for the same reason. I’d discovered this delightful oasis in a grungy neighborhood where the apartments crowded in on one another fairly recently. I’d been oblivious to both the Turkish baths down the street and this pool until I was griping one day about the men who plowed into me whenever I tried to swim laps at the university pool. Now I swam three times a week and reveled in the segregation, although I hated seeing women and older girls wearing t-shirts and capris over their bathing suits as if their bodies were something to be ashamed of.
I thought I knew all the university dykes, given that we were a pretty small, tight crowd, but I was positive I’d never seen that woman before. I wouldn’t have forgotten a gorgeous female like that. My heart hadn’t stopped hammering since she’d pulled herself out of the water and even though I hadn’t completed my laps I didn’t want to miss her. What if she were visiting from another town and left before I was done? I heaved myself out of the pool and walked through the swinging wooden door into the changing room. There was no sign of her, just empty benches with a row of hooks where the religious women hung their dresses in front of their lockers, and placed their wigs above them. It looked like a macabre row of faceless, legless women.
I stood shivering, wondering whether I’d call it a day and start toweling off. Just then the door of one of the showers opened. She stepped out of it, her dripping bathing suit dangling by her side, a towel wrapped around her body. She jumped when she saw me.
“Sorry if I startled you,” I said. “I’m Laurie. I don’t think we’ve met.”
She looked a little taken aback that I’d spoken to her. “I am Ruti,” she said and even though her English was good, I caught her accent in the way ‘am’ sounded more like ‘em.’
An Israeli. How exciting! As an exchange student from Philly, the only lesbians I’d met were other girls studying at Hebrew U.
“Do you come here often?” I asked and then groaned out loud. Could I have sounded any cornier if I’d tried?
“Three afternoons a week, when I’m able to.” The women-only times. I was excited. A new lesbian, and not only was she hot, but her accent made her even more adorable. Wait till I tell Sue about her, she’ll be so jealous! Sue was my roommate who constantly bemoaned the fact that the only lesbians she met were other Americans.
The woman withdrew a plastic bag from her locker, then turned her back to me. I realized she wanted some privacy. My choice was either to return to the pool and finish my swim, or start changing. I decided to forego the workout. I moved towards my locker, and pulled out my towel. Respectfully keeping my back to her, I asked, “Are you a student at the university?”
“No.” She chuckled. “I am a school teacher.” I was surprised. She didn’t look old enough.
“In this neighborhood?”
“Yes, around the corner.” The way she said ‘the’ sounded like the way I would say the last letter of the alphabet.
“Well, that must be quite the experience!”
“Yes, I’m loving it!” I couldn’t imagine what it was like to teach in a school where the children looked like they’d stepped out of the nineteenth century, the girls encased in long sleeves, high collars and black stockings, their brothers long side curls and tziziyot flying, in a separate school. Hard enough for any secular person, but probably even worse if you were a lesbian. She must be pretty closeted at work.
I heard clothes rustling and decided it was probably safe to turn around.
For a moment, I thought she’d disappeared, and in a way she had. The attractive, confident dyke who had stood before me a few minutes earlier had been replaced by a straight woman who wore a shapeless navy blue dress, beige stockings and flat sandals. The cropped hair I’d thought was a telltale sign of Sapphic tendencies was now covered with a badly fitting mousy-colored wig, atop of which she was carefully affixing a dull blue headscarf.
“Oh!” I was too startled to stop myself from exclaiming.
“What?” She looked around, unaware that my gasp of surprise was aimed at her.
“Nothing.” I paused, wanting to talk to her and not knowing what to say. “You’re one of the religious women. How come you didn’t cover up your bathing suit when you swam? The others do.”
“I know. But I don’t believe it’s necessary in this situation. We’re all women; nobody is going to be looking at us in that way.” She didn’t elaborate on what ‘that way’ was, but I knew what she meant. I also knew she was wrong. “I enjoy swimming too much to be weighed down by clothes.”
“I didn’t think you were allowed to bend the rules,” I said, unable to keep the scorn out of my voice. I’d never been crazy about how Orthodox Judaism treated women. Now that I was in Israel everything I saw made me even more frustrated. I detested seeing young women aged before their time as broods of nine and ten children trailed behind them and I hated knowing that those same women not only did most of the housework and childcare, but also went out to work so their husbands could study all day. In coming to what I thought was my homeland, I’d become less tolerant than ever.
She smiled. “The rabbis say we should build a fence around the Torah. This is one fence I don’t need to build.”
I had no clue what she was talking about.
I should have let her go right then. I should have turned my back, returned to the swimming pool and never given her another thought. I should have stopped coming to the pool, or at least not spoken to her again. I knew—surely I knew?—that this woman and I could never have anything in common. But my heart was palpitating and the tightening in my stomach had intensified.
“Will you be here Thursday?” I blurted out.
She smiled that little smile again. “Unless The Holy One, Blessed-be-He has other plans for me.”
I groaned inwardly. Aloud all I said was, “Great! I’ll see you then.”
She nodded and turned towards the exit.
I can still see myself standing on that cool tile floor, my wet hair dripping into my eyes, a naïve twenty-year-old secular American girl, who’d never fallen in love or had her heart broken. Did I think I was immune? What did I think could happen between a married, orthodox woman and a visiting secular student who despised any form of religious practice?
However, we don’t think with our hearts. We only follow them, hopelessly, wherever they take us.
Ruth Halami’s neurologist has told her to reconstruct her life story as a way to hold on to her fading memories. She begins at the moment when everything changed and a spunky young orthodox girl forces herself to conform to her community’s expectations. After she’s married Ruth meets a secular woman named Laurie and long-ago feelings resurface. If she follows her desires, she risks losing her family, her community and the only life she has ever known, with no guarantee of future happiness. But if she ignores her feelings, will she live a life of regret?
AN UNORTHODOX LOVE
Jerusalem, July 1973
This I remember: how getting my period changed everything forever.
I was a 12-year-old girl living on the east side of Jerusalem that hot summer of 1973. In the secular world the talk was all about the possibility of war but where I lived in the religious neighborhood of Elef Dlatot, we had far more interesting things to talk about.
“Did you hear? Dina turned down Reb Moshe’s son!”
“I don’t believe it. They’ve been betrothed since childhood. The ideal couple. What happened?”
I was picking up a bag of milk and loaf of bread from the tiny storefront near our apartment and had bumped into my best friend, Shira. I was sweating all over since there was no way to stay cool in my thick, black stockings and high-necked, long-sleeved dress.
“Nobody knows. They spent three hours together and when she went home she told her Ima she wouldn’t marry him.”
“Did he try to touch her?”
“He couldn’t have. The door was open and her aunt was in the room next door. Do you think he revealed some secret about himself?”
I couldn’t imagine what might have happened, although years later I would find out in the most unlikely way imaginable. Anyway, I had other things on my mind. Right there in the middle of the store I could feel my insides slowly oozing out of me. It had happened the night before and when I went to the bathroom I’d been horrified to see a dark sticky mess in my underwear. How could I have soiled myself without knowing?
After a day of trying to ignore it, I finally decided I had to tell Ima about it.
My mother was in the kitchen, standing over a chopping board covered with raw chicken wings, chicken liver, onions, cilantro and half-chopped carrots. On the stove a large pot was coming to the boil and the steam made the curls that had strayed loose from Ima’s headscarf stick to her forehead. Ima made chicken soup every Thursday evening in preparation for Shabbat. I once made the mistake of asking her why she didn’t make something else in summer when the temperature outside was hotter than the pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove.
“The Almighty, Blessed-be-His-Name, didn’t give you a brain to ask silly questions with,” was all she said, rubbing her hand across her forehead to wipe away the glistening sweat.
Now she saw me sidle into the kitchen, scratching my stockinged legs and pulling on the back hem of my dress. I caught a long-suffering look flash across her face before she quickly covered it up. She was always in a hurry and it was hard for her to practice patience with me, though she certainly had enough opportunities. I would start to do some chore or task she’d requested, and then an urgent thought would come into my mind and I’d get caught up in trying to figure it out and forget what I was meant to be doing.
Right now, I was meant to be dusting the bookshelves behind the dinner table that held all our prayer books.
“You finished cleaning already chochele?”
“So, what are you doing here, getting under my feet?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“Now? On a Thursday evening? What is it that it can’t wait till a time when I’m not trying to beat the clock?”
“I-I think there’s something wrong with me.”
“Something wrong?” Her hand froze in midair, the chopping knife suspended above the row of raw carrots providing them a momentary stay of execution. “What do you mean?”
I couldn’t bring myself to put it into words. I looked down at the floor and began to cry.
“Is it something in your head? You think you went crazy like the Rabbi’s daughter?”
“No, not my head. My insides. I think they’re falling out and making a mess in my underwear.”
Ima put down the knife gently on the chopping board. I grabbed my stomach as a sudden twinge of pain seared my insides. A look of relief swept over her face and she sighed.
“You got your period. You should know that. Haven’t we discussed the laws of purity of hundred times?” Before I could respond she swept out of the room.
Yes, we had discussed the laws, but I’d imagined something entirely different. A minute later she was back, thrusting a package of cotton wool and a belt-like contraption at me.
“You’re a woman now,” she said. “A blessing and a curse,” she muttered as she gently slapped my face, hugged me and then turned back to chop the last remaining carrots and throw them into the boiling pot.
“Write down your entire life story,” said my neurologist. “What you don’t remember, try to imagine.” For me, the line between remembering and imagining is very fine. I don’t know if this is true for other people. Perhaps they know with a certainty what happened to them. Professionals describe memory like a filing cabinet that we gradually fill throughout our lives. Once, all my memories were tidily stacked in files, but now the cabinet feels as if not only is it overstuffed, but some of the drawers have been emptied out into a thick, sticky swamp.
My focus is on the files that are still inside the cabinet. I need to hold onto them until they too get tipped into the sludge.
My transition into puberty might have sunk to the bottom of the morass if it weren’t for what happened the next day.
Did you get your period yet? Are you a woman too? I was dying to ask my best friend, Shira, as we waited for the bus together the next morning, but it was too private a thing. When the bus arrived, it was already full of all the secular girls from Ramat Levi. There were no seats left so we held tight to the poles and stood in between the seated girls, as the bus swerved down the street.
“What do you think happened to Dinah?” I asked Shira, ready to focus on the conversation from the day before, but before she could reply, the bus made a sudden turn and I lost my balance, stepping hard onto the foot of a Hilonit, a secular girl whose long, brown legs barely fit under the seat in front of her.
“Be careful!” Despite the irritated expression in her brown eyes, the girl was so pretty she looked like a fashion model in her little white shorts, bright pink tank top, with her black, silky hair falling lazily across her face. My mother would have made a comment about prostitution if she’d seen her teenage breasts pushing out of the tank top. “Why are you religious girls such klutzes? Don’t they teach you anything apart from how to dress like frumps?” The girl looked me up and down from head to toe, taking in the long sleeves on my ill-fitting cardigan, the high collar on my blouse and the black stockings enveloping my legs.
“Yes. They do. They teach us to be polite,” My voice was steady, though inside I could feel my stomach churning. Usually we just ignored the Hiloni girls, but despite her rudeness, I wanted to keep talking to this pretty girl from another world. I wanted to figure out why my heart was hammering so desperately.
At school I felt rambunctious and brazen. I was a woman now and I wanted everyone to know it. It was easy for boys. They had a bar mitzvah and then everyone knew for sure they were no longer children. We girls only got a gradual initiation into womanhood. I had heard that Jews in America gave girls bar mitzvahs too, but everyone knew how ignorant they were. As I sat in history class, listening to Mrs. Rozenblum drone on about the establishment of the Beth Din, the Jewish High Court in the Middle Ages, I began to feel as if no one would ever listen to me, or any of the other girls in our class. We were destined to become nameless women, women known as mothers and grandmothers, but never as identities in our own right. As we heard about the surprise ascension of Rabbi Eleazar over Rabbi Gamliel, my mind wandered to the girls and women in those historic families. Who were they? Why weren’t they in the dog-eared, brown-paper-covered text sitting in front of me?
Suddenly my hand went up. Mrs. Rozenblum looked surprised. She was used to us not showing any interest in what she said. It was an unspoken rule. She read to us from the textbook, barely glancing up or pausing for breath, while we took notes, passed coded messages to each other, or gazed out of the window. We knew she had the job because the Principal felt sorry for her. Her husband should have become a Rabbi by now, but he kept failing his exams, so even though they had five children, and she was pregnant with the sixth, she was still the breadwinner.
“Ruti, Mrs. Rozenblum.”
“Mrs. Rozenblum, who was Rabbi Gamliel’s wife?” The girls who sat in the two rows in front of me turned their heads, craning to see who was breaking the unspoken rule.
“Is this some kind of joke, Rivka?”
“Ruti. No, not at all. I was just wondering what we know about Rabbi Gamliel’s wife?” Some of the girls began giggling and Mrs. Rozenblum looked annoyed.
“Why would we know anything about her? Her identity is quite irrelevant to the establishment of the Beth Din.” She picked up her text to signal that the conversation was over. “Let’s continue.”
“But Mrs. Rozenblum, it might not have been irrelevant. You said that when the Beth Din made Eleazar president over Rabbi Gamliel, Gamliel accepted his humiliation with good grace. Suppose what actually happened is that he went storming home and told Mrs. Gamliel that he was going to break away from the Beth Din and form his own body of authority? Then suppose Mrs. Gamliel said she thought it would be really disastrous for the unity of the Jewish people if he did that, and that if he really cared about them, he should accept his being deposed with good grace. Perhaps she even said, ‘after all, if you act gracefully enough, maybe they’ll re-elect you.’ And suppose that’s why he did what he did and ended up getting re-elected? Then surely it would be really important to know who Mrs. Gamliel was?”
By now the class was laughing hysterically, but I wasn’t trying to be humorous. I meant everything I said.
“Then the identity of Mrs. Gamliel is still completely irrelevant, since what is important is what Rabbi Gamliel did and how he inspired other people. It seems to me Miss. Ruti that you have too great a sense of your own importance. Real women of worth do not need recognition for the deeds they do.”
“They why do men of worth need recognition?” Something inside me was building and I couldn’t seem to stop myself from blurting out the question. I had gone too far. Mrs. Rozenblum placed her hands on her desk and heaved herself out of her chair. With the full force of her large stomach she pointed me to the door.
“Leave the room! Go straight to the Principal. And the rest of you can stop all your noise instantly.” But she didn’t need to quiet my classmates. The giggles had turned to silent gasps. None of us had ever been sent to the Principal.
“But Mrs. Rozenblum, I was only—” I wanted to explain that I hadn’t intended to be rude or badly behaved, but by now she was at my side and pulling me out of my chair.
“Be quiet, and leave!” She yanked me towards the door and almost threw me out of it.
Standing in the hall, I was furious at what had happened. I was right and she was wrong. Why couldn’t we learn about women for a change? Why couldn’t I ask questions about women without getting punished? She was a woman, surely she understood? I was angry. And I was terrified. I had never even been in the presence of the Principal, a wizened, stooping Rabbi we all worshipped because of his legendary wisdom. I had daydreamed about a time when I might have occasion to talk to him. Perhaps I would write a perfect exam, maybe even make a discovery about a commentary in the Talmud. He would tell me that even though girls were destined to be mothers and teachers, he was proud that one of his students was going to be such a treasure for future generations. Instead, my first interaction with him was for a scolding.
My heart was pumping and my knuckles barely made a sound as they knocked on his office door.
“Come in.” The voice was deep and quiet. I pushed open the door and at first all I saw was rows and rows of books. The entire room was lined from floor to ceiling with so many volumes that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. There were, of course, shelves full of the commentaries in Hebrew and Yiddish, but there were also books in other languages, English, German, and others I couldn’t decipher. The room had a rich scent of heavy paper and well-worn leather and in the back corner sat a small man, his head bent so far over the desk that all I could see was his big black yarmulke and two long side-curls hanging from either side.
“What brings you here?” he asked, tearing his eyes away from his text and looking directly at me, his eyes surprisingly blue and alive.
“Mrs. Rozenblum sent me.” It came out in a high squeak and the next thing I knew, I had burst into tears. He waited as I wiped my face furiously, unable to staunch the tears of frustration and humiliation. Still he sat there, his face revealing nothing as I gulped and caught my breath.
“We were learning about Rabbi Gamliel and I asked about Mrs. Gamliel and Mrs. Rozenblum said Mrs. Gamliel wasn’t important, and I said I thought she was, and then Mrs. Rozenblum got angry and sent me to you.”
The Principal stroked his beard, pulling it down towards his waist. His voice had a singsong quality as if he were praying.
“Little girl, you were right to feel that Mrs. Gamliel was important. All women are important. The very well-being of our People depends on our women. Men can pray for us and study for us. But it is the women who teach our children, the women who make our homes a haven.” For a moment I felt my heart lift. Perhaps Mrs. Rozenblum had been too quick to judge me. “And because of that it is important we respect all women – those in our history-books and those in our classrooms.” I felt as if his eyes were boring holes in me. My cheeks were burning and I felt hot all over.
“Your place in this world is very important, and I am sorry if you have ever been made to feel that it isn’t. However, you must learn how to gain the respect you deserve. You cannot act disrespectfully to someone and then demand their respect in return. Mrs. Rozenblum is a woman of worth and you must treat her as such. Therefore I expect you to apologize to her. Maybe you could offer to help her out in some way. After that, we will say no more about this incident.”
At the end of the afternoon instead of being one of the first to rush out the door and into the hot, freedom-filled streets, I hung back. I waved Shira and the others ahead and waited until they’d all filed out. Mrs. Rozenblum was pulling papers and books off her desk and trying to get them to fit into an overflowing cupboard.
“I’m sorry I was rude to you,” I said. She looked up and frowned, a momentary look of confusion on her face, as if she’d forgotten who I was.
“Oh, right. Well. Thank you…er…”
“Ruti. I’m Ruti. Would you like me to tidy your closet?”
Her eyes lit up. “That would be wonderful.” As she pulled herself out of the chair she muttered something about having time to bake a cake for dessert. I bet she’ll be glad when the baby comes, I thought. Then her friends will bake for her.
I busied myself with her cupboard and decided I would pull everything out and start from scratch. I could be as scattered as Mrs. Rozenblum apparently was, but I always enjoyed having a good cleanout. I pulled at the piles and notebooks, pencils and textbooks tumbled out. I was careful to catch any that might be prayer books so they wouldn’t be dirtied by falling to the floor. As I worked, my mind wandered back to Mrs. Rozenblum, and my mother, and all the other women who worked so hard. Most of them found their reward in the song of praise recited to them by their husbands on Friday night. My father had died when I was little, but I pictured Shira’s father looking lovingly at her mother as they gathered around the Shabbos table, the candles throwing a warm light on them both as he recited the words, “A woman of worth, who can find? For her price is far above rubies.”
Would that be enough for me? I was sure I’d want to be told everyday how clever I was, but perhaps adult women didn’t need to be told because they knew inside their own worth. I sorted and arranged Mrs. Rozenblum’s belongings into neat piles of books and notes, set aside two cardigans and five pacifiers and threw out a stale bag of peanuts and a half-eaten pastry. I was just sitting back on my haunches to admire my handiwork when I heard the siren warning the entire city we had twenty minutes until Shabbos began. Twenty minutes? Ima would kill me!
I fled the building and started running down the streets. They were deserted. Everyone was home doing last minute preparations for Shabbos. In twenty minutes time there wouldn’t be a vehicle in the entire neighborhood and even now there were barely any. To my surprise, a car pulled over.
“Need a ride?” I couldn’t make out who it was, but the style of his side-curls and hat showed he was from our neighborhood. I hesitated. He must think I was still a little girl or he’d never have asked me into his car. But I had my period so I was a woman now. Getting into his car would be a sin, but if I got home after Shabbos, that would be a sin too. If I got home late, I’d get a scolding from Ima. “If you live in this neighborhood, you better get in. Only fifteen minutes until candle-lighting.”
He was right. I headed for the back seat but he leaned across the car and opened the front passenger door. I jumped in, avoiding looking directly at him and he pulled away from the curb.
“Where to?” He asked, and I gave him my address. He nodded, intimating that he was familiar with the address and as he did so his wide-brimmed black hat bobbed back and forth. I tried to sneak a look to see who it was. Surreptitiously, I turned my face. He was staring directly at me. I was shocked and looked away quickly. When we got to the top of my road, he yanked on the steering wheel, pulling it so that we made a sharp left down a side street.
“It’s straight head,” I corrected him quickly. “No need to turn.”
He looked at me, then pulled over. I thought he was going to turn the car around but suddenly he lunged toward me and grabbed my hand pulling it into his lap.
“What are you doing?” I whispered. He placed my hand on top of his trousers where his legs met, and when I tried to pull it away, he covered it with his own hand.
“Stop!” I tried to say it firmly, but it came out as barely a whisper.
“Shut up,” he rasped. With his other hand he pulled my shirt out of its waistband and pushed his hand upwards. I could feel it on my chest. I felt paralyzed. I had never even touched my skin where he was touching it. His hand was still clamping mine on his trousers. It felt as if there were something inside them, though I had no idea what it could be. I felt nauseous. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even breathe. I tried to bring myself back to the present so that I could fight him off but it was as if I’d gone away and was looking down from some far off place, at a scene where a girl sat bolt upright, her left arm flung out at an angle, held in place by a large monster, his hand on hers moving up and down in his lap causing his black hat to bob back and forth, as if in prayer. Elohim Shebashamayim, God in Heaven, I prayed, stop him.
I heard groaning and then he let out a kind of yelp, like a dog in pain. He flung my hand off his lap as if it were contaminated with a disease.
“Get out!” He ordered, opening the car door and shoving me forward. He sounded angry. I stumbled onto the street and pushed my shirt back into my skirt. The car peeled away from the curb with a screech and I stood for a moment, looking down the street I’d lived in all my life as if I were in a foreign county. The long, oblong, buildings with their identical rows of apartments four floors high now looked like a prison. That still moment before Shabbos, when the second siren sounded to signal the beginning of the Sabbath had always filled me with a sense of awe, knowing that all over Jerusalem women were lighting candles and men were blessing their children before they spilled into the street and hurried to the shtiebels and shuls where they prayed. Now the silence just felt eerie. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. I stood in the street, trying to get my bearings, then, remembering that the reason I took the lift was so I could get home before Shabbos. I bolted down the street. As I approached our apartment building, I saw Ima hanging over the balcony looking anxious. I put my head down and brushed away the tears that were streaming down my face. She couldn’t know. Nobody could ever know.
By the time I’d climbed the stairs and entered the apartment, my face was dry. The moment I opened the door, Ima began scolding me. I knew I deserved it. Not for being late, but for what happened in the car
In my room, I changed quickly out of my school uniform and into my white Shabbos dress. I searched my mind for everything I knew from the religious texts, trying to find an explanation for what had happened. What had the man done, and why? What had I done to make him think he could do what he did? I knew that the laws of purity dictated that a married woman shouldn’t share a bed with her husband when she is unclean; nor should she serve his food to him directly, nor in any way contaminate his presence. I wasn’t married, but I should never have got in the car. Maybe there was a way men could tell when a woman was in her time of impurity.
Ima was always telling me I was too headstrong, too confident in my own opinions. I challenged too many of the rules of our life, especially those that seemed to apply only to girls. She said I needed to learn from people who were older and wiser than me.
It wasn’t that I disliked being religious or female. I l oved both. I didn’t want to be like the empty-headed secular girls who would spend more time choosing an indecent bathing suit than they would praising God for giving them the health to wear it. I didn’t want to be a boy either, but sometimes I wished I could lead a service or give a talk about the torah portion and get told how clever I was too.
There had to be a reason for what had happened in the car. The Almighty Blessed-Be-His-Name had a lesson for me to learn so that I wouldn’t suffer even more later on. Maybe Ima was right. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t challenged Mrs. Rozenblum.
I might not like what He was telling me, and it seemed a harsh way to learn it, but I would not ignore it. I had been arrogant, thinking I knew better than those who were older and wiser than me. I thought girls could do anything if we were only given the chance, but I was wrong. Unless we were very careful, our mere presence really did incite men, even pious men, to wrongful deeds. If just walking home alone had this effect on a man, how could I possibly have expected to be able to perform songs or prayers in the middle of the synagogue?
That night, as my first monthly bleeding ceased, I went to bed with a new sense of purpose and resolution. I decided that I would change the way I presented myself in the world. I would see what it felt like to be the kind of young woman they thought I should be.
Over the next few weeks, I changed the way I walked, treading lightly and pulling my body in so that I might become unnoticeable. I stopped asking questions and answering back to people. When my friends teased me I held myself aloof and said I was a woman now. I kept my head lowered when I walked. People noticed, and I heard them saying, “Ruth is no longer a child. She acts like a proper young woman.”
A part of me ached for the rebellious child I had been, but it felt good to hear their praise. I told myself that I had no need of a bar or bat mitzvah, of some external validation. I merely had to act a certain way and everyone could see I was a woman after all.
I want to describe how the events of that day affected everything in my life, especially the part where I met Laurie. As I type her name, I feel a tug in my heart and try to focus on my memories, but a curtain is starting to pull across my brain. As fast as I try to grab hold of it, the swifter it falls. Stay calm, I tell myself, remember what Dr. Salima said: “It comes back. Wait for it to come back.”
I re-read the last paragraph and wish I knew. What did happen in the end?
Shul: a synagogue
Shtiebel: a place for prayer that’s much smaller than a synagogue
I started this novel at about the same time as the new wave of YA Dystopian novels burst onto the scene with Hunger Games and Divergent. While those novels are compelling, they are also extremely violent. My goal with this novel would be to write something that draws readers in without resorting to violence.
“My darling Ennea,
If you are reading this letter, then the Aunties have done their duty by you. How I wish I could be standing by your side on this, the most important day of your life. A daughter should have her mother with her when she makes her choice and yet today you will stand alone. Be strong, my precious girl, and know that my whole life was lived for this moment, when you would rise up to accept the Challenge.
The Challenge is the culmination of all your learning. Today is the day you must tell the world who you are. Of course it wasn’t always so. In the old days no such announcements were necessary. We didn’t separate ourselves into the groups we do now. People from all faiths and backgrounds lived side by side, working together, talking to each other, and sometimes even marrying each other. You will have learned from your history books that this way of living didn’t work. There were too many different opinions, too many conflicting beliefs. People couldn’t get along any more. Disagreements turned into conflict. Those in power used the conflict to enact laws that incensed many people. Citizens got upset and started taking matters into their own hands, attacking those who were different from them. We all became afraid. Imagine never knowing who your enemy might be! Children on a school bus didn’t know if another group of children might attack them because of who they were; adults couldn’t get on an airplane for fear that someone had planted a bomb. Clearly something had to change. We had to figure out what to do, and through that process a new society was born. You know all this. What you don’t know is my role in it, and why I couldn’t be the one to raise you. But now you have come of age and deserve to know the truth.”
The girl sitting cross-legged on her bed pushed a hand through her unruly brown curls and shoved them away from her forehead as she looked up from reading the letter. She could feel her heart pounding through her purple pajamas as she tried to take in the words on the page.
Her day had started off exactly as she’d expected: the Aunties had knocked on her bedroom door, then entered, Aunt Julia, tall and imposing, singing Happy Birthday in her off-key contralto and tiny Aunt Amelia with an enormous smile on her face, carrying a wooden tray with Ennea’s favorite breakfast foods: juicy, red strawberries dipped in white chocolate sauce, granola loaded with pecans and dark chocolate chunks, a short stack of blueberry pancakes and a tall glass of vanilla milkshake. A blue vase on the tray held yellow daffodils, heavy with the scent of the approaching spring. This birthday morning ritual was a tradition they followed every year and the only difference this time was that propped against the blue vase was a thick, cream-colored envelope with Ennea’s name engraved on it in unfamiliar hand-writing.
Before returning to the paper in her hand, Ennea turned her head, ready to bombard her aunts with questions, but they seemed to have slipped out of the room. Did they know the contents of this letter? They obviously knew who it was from. Where had they kept it? For how long? All those times when she had begged them for information, did they think to themselves about that cream-colored envelope, sitting somewhere in their possession? For years they had resisted her entreaties.
“Tell me again, Aunt Ju-Ju what she looked like?”
“Tell me Auntie Meely how she sounded!”
Their replies had always been the same.
“Remember the peacock you saw with its magnificent plumage of crimson and purple and yellow? She was more beautiful than that!”
“Listen to the gentle rain falling on a summer’s day—that’s what she sounded like!”
Ennea had one memory of her mother that was so old she didn’t know if it was a true memory or just the repeated telling herself about it that she remembered. She had been sitting curled up in her mother’s lap. They were in a log cabin in front of a fire. Her mother had been rocking her, and singing in a whisper, lulling her to sleep. She had buried her fingers in Ennea’s curls and twirled her hair around them. Her singing turned to a soft muttering. At first Ennea thought it was the words of the lullaby. Then she realized her mother was talking to herself but the words were directed at Ennea.
“How can I best help you now my angel? What will happen to you if I stay? And what will happen if I go?” Ennea had raised her head sleepily.
“Where are you going Immy?”
Her mother had been startled. “Hush now my little one. Immy loves you. She’s not going anywhere.” She’d stroked Ennea’s forehead and hummed to her until her eyelids were so heavy she couldn’t keep them open. It was a fragment of a memory, the only one she had. Ennea didn’t know if that was the last time she’d seen her mother, or whether she just remembered it because she’d felt so completely safe and loved.
That image had lasted her for 15 years and she’d always thought it would have to last her a lifetime. But here was a letter, in her mother’s handwriting, and as she turned the page something dropped out. A picture! It was maybe two inches by two inches. Hazel eyes stared out of a woman’s face, lips in a half-smile, and an expression Ennea couldn’t place. The woman’s hair was covered in a scarf much like she’d seen in books that had pictures of Hebrew women or Mohamedans. Was this a picture of her mother? And if so, why was it so small? Then she realized—it was a photograph, and it must have been taken with one of those personal digital cameras or phones that people used to own years ago. In her social studies class they had examined how dangerous those seemingly innocuous personal electronics had become, and how the New Society had unanimously decided to ban them. Nowadays photographs were only taken by professionals, for very special occasions.
Ennea stared at the picture, holding it carefully between her fingers. Was her mother a Hebrew? But Hebrews had pale skin and this woman’s was the color of her beloved russet leather purse. Was she a Mohamedan? It didn’t seem possible; there were several in her community who were descended from Hebrews but she’d never known anyone whose family had once been Mohamedan.
Ennea turned back to the letter.
“Today you will tell those around you how you intend to rise to the Challenge. You will have been raised in a secular world, where life is based on logic and reason, truth and beauty. You will have learned that those who hold to these values will never hate and will never cause harm. Some around you may have told you about the spirituality that lies deep in beauty and truth. You will have come to believe that this is the best option for your soul. As you approach your Challenge, you will have been thinking about whether you will become a Universalist, a Naturist or a Heartist. There will be people in your life who will have inspired you to be one of these things. I believe any one of these choices would be good for you. If you have grown into the young woman I think you might be, perhaps you have decided to have none of these as your Guiding Light but instead to become a Leader, one who needs no Guide but who instead guides others.”
How did she know? What made her think that this might be Ennea’s path? Ennea shivered and pulled her patchwork quilt closer to her, her knees bent, forming a lectern on which she had propped the letter.
You will be shocked at what I am about to suggest and I ask only that you read these words with your heart and your soul.
You might have read about the Old Religions in school. Most likely you read that these Old Religions, the O.R.s, caused all the ills of the world – war, famine, conflict. You will have read that putting your belief in a deity is unnecessary and even harmful. Your Aunts will never have talked to you about the O.R.s. I asked them not to and I imagine this was not difficult for either Julia or Amelia since they despise all the O.R.s. And yet… and yet. You are old enough and it is time for me to let you know that we may have been wrong. Maybe there was something we missed. Maybe there was something we could have done differently. It is too late for my generation, but it is not too late for you.
Today you will announce your Challenge, and then you will have a year to live it.
In writing this letter I cannot know what the practice is today regarding those who follow the Old Religions. Do they still live in the Enclaves? I know not. Perhaps what I am about to suggest is impossible. Perhaps it is too dangerous. If it is not, might you consider it? Might you consider making your Challenge an exploration of the Old Religions?”
Ennea stared at the firm, rounded handwriting, trying to make sense of it. When had this letter been written? Why would her mother want to send her into such a strange and evil world? The New Society was a good and loving one. People were happy and safe. There was no conflict and there were no serious disagreements. If her mother thought Ennea would make a good Guide how could she think that exploring the O.R.s would be a suitable activity? Ennea turned her eyes back to the end of the letter.
You will wonder why I even suggest this mission. I can give you only one reason: if you have ever wanted to know more about who you are, who your mother was, and who your family were, this exploration will give you the answers you seek. I ask you to consider that while your life is good now, there could be deeper ideas to discover and new awareness that will enrich and excite you.
I realize this letter may be heretical, perhaps even a criminal offense. Therefore, please burn it once you have read it. You will know what to say to your Aunts and what to tell those around you.
I wish you all the love in the world and I will love you always, no matter what you do.
The milkshake was warm on the tray, its froth long gone. The strawberries looked overripe and the pancakes cold and unappetizing. Ennea picked absently at the pecans in the granola. She stared at the letter as she read and re-read it. Her mother was right: it was heresy to suggest that The New Society might be wrong. She was right about something else too—her aunts did indeed hate to hear any mention of the O.R.s. She remembered doing a Culture project in fourth grade and asking them whether their parents had ascribed to one of the O.R.s. Aunt Meely had said quietly that the past was past and no need to bring it up, upsetting people. Aunt Ju-Ju had frowned, her eyebrows rising high into her forehead as she wondered aloud what education was coming to if the school had set this question as homework. To which Ennea had to admit they hadn’t, she’d just been wondering whether the aunts had gone through the process of rising to the Challenge. No, they said, the Challenge had been instigated after their day. Then they changed the subject abruptly.
As Ennea mused on everything she had just read, her mind flooding with strange ideas and long-forgotten memories, an idea was bubbling to the surface, one that demanded her attention. The letter didn’t say why her mother hadn’t raised her but it implied that her mother had rebelled in some way. If she were to take on the challenge Immy was setting, she could find out the truth behind why her beloved Aunts had been the ones to raise her. Not only that. A notion was forming and growing in Ennea’s mind, one that felt as if it were traveling from her brain to her heart, making her chest pound almost to the point of bursting and she couldn’t help but think it: perhaps her mother was still alive!
The thought excited her but it also scared her. What if Immy lived in an Enclave, or even in Rebelia? If Ennea discovered her heritage and it wasn’t good, it could affect her entire future. She might never be a Guide. She could be shunned by her friends or her Guides. Her life was good. She’d been poised to choose between the Big Three: Universe, Nature and Heart. Now her mother was asking her to delve into the things she’d avoided all her life: Mystery, Darkness and Hate. There was nothing about this Challenge that would make sense.
She would ask her aunts their opinion.
No sooner did she have this idea than she knew it was a bad one. The aunts hated the Old Religions. Whatever had happened with her mother, they would never condone anything that involved approaching this unknown.
She would talk to Jasper or Carrie, her best friends. She already knew what they would say. Jasper’s large brown eyes would grow even larger and he would be unable to contain his excitement.
“Oh my heart!” He would exclaim with an exaggerated flip of his hair across his brow, as he did about everything. “You have to do it! How could you not? We never get to learn about the O.R.s, but if it were your Challenge they’d have to let you! You’d find out what happened to your Mom? It’s a no-brainer!”
Carrie would tuck her long, blonde hair nervously behind her ear, and a little frown would appear above her eyes.
“Let well alone,” she would say, “you have a wonderful life, why mess it up? You’re a top student. You’re on track to be anything you want. You could be a Guide or a Leader. Stick with what you planned.”
She could risk everything, or she could risk nothing.
Ennea was suddenly ravenous. She shoved large forkfuls of pancake into her mouth. The blueberries in them exploded on her tongue, rich with a sweet-tart essence. She gulped her milkshake and savored the vanilla, made even more intense now that it wasn’t ice-cold. She uncrossed her legs and swung them over to the floor. She had no idea how she would make up her mind. All she knew was that today, in a few short hours she would announce her Challenge. And if she made the choice Immy was suggesting, her life would change forever.
Ellen Capperson, (Cappy) wants to take her loving, committed relationship with Jessica Golden to a deeper level, but first she asks Jessica to seek therapy to deal with her bad nightmares, obsessive tendencies and a drinking problem. Jessica starts seeing a therapist called Ginger who quickly convinces her she was abused by her father, despite having no memory of it. Cappy doesn’t trust Ginger, nor does she believe Howard is an abuser. When Jessica decides to sue her father, Cappy decides it’s time to leave. X, her ex-girlfriend is also struggling in a relationship and when X and Cappy get together to offer mutual comfort and support, Cappy feels the old spark pulling at her. Will she figure out a way to win Jessica back, or will the spark of an old flame suck her in?
Ellen Capperson, known to her friends as Cappy or The Capster, removed her favorite San Francisco Giants baseball cap from her head, dipped her fingers in a small jar of pomade then slicked her chocolate-brown hair back towards her crown. She put the pomade back into her leather satchel and stole another quick look at herself as she admired the Skylines logo above the washroom sink. She was never comfortable when she had to dress in anything other than jeans and a sweatshirt, but she’d pulled out all the stops for this interview. Her favorite turquoise silk shirt wasn’t used to being tucked in and was straining over her large breasts. She pulled it out of her waistband a little, adjusted her silver bolo tie and smoothed down her tailored black jeans, wondering what management would make of this six foot, awkward soft butch. How exciting it would be if she could really pull off this contract with Skylines. She was so ready to take her relationship with Lofty to the next stage and getting a permanent gig would definitely help.
Thinking of Lofty, or Jessica Golden as the rest of the world called her, helped calm her nerves and brought a smile to her lips. She thought of Lofty as a diminutive dynamo, constantly in motion, trying to save the world. Cappy admired her passion, and she loved being part of the Golden family where she was supported and appreciated. This Skylines gig was a perfect example. It had all started when they went out for dinner with Howard and Daisy, Lofty’s parents, to Milano’s, the family’s favorite Italian bistro.
Daisy had ordered a bottle of Merlot to the table then raised a toast. “To Cappy—for doing a superb job on that mansion on 40th Street in the Park District!” With Jessica’s encouragement, Cappy had decided to follow her dream and had opened her own landscaping business a few months earlier. Business was slow but Daisy had come through with a landscaping remodel contract from a friend who lived in the wealthiest part of town.
“You saw it?”
“I drove by there this morning. It looks fabulous, so modern. I bet all the neighbors will be calling you.”
“But I know of something even bigger and better,” Howard added, as they all clinked glasses. He put his glass down, began to twirl spaghetti around his fork and told them about a major contract his workplace was putting out. “Skylines is making all kinds of changes, and one of the things they want to do is update their image. You’d be great at bringing in a whole new look to the place.”
Cappy looked at Howard fondly. There was really no way you could call him anything other than ugly—his large, bumpy, nose was squashed into a round, jowly face that always reminded her of a British bulldog. Lofty took after her mother who had such natural grace and beauty that whenever Cappy saw her she thought, this is what Princess Diana is going to look like in 2015. As for Howard, what he lacked in looks, he made up for in generosity and kindness.
“It’s a great idea Howard, but its way bigger than anything I’ve ever done.”
“Come on Cappy,” Howard had urged. “This is your perfect opportunity to break into the big-time. Skylines is a fair employer and they’d probably welcome having a female contractor.”
Cappy was still shocked that her girlfriend’s father could be so supportive of them. So different from her own parents who’d pretty much disowned her when she came out. She wanted to make him proud, so she decided to go ahead and try for the contract.
She spent the next two weeks in-between the small jobs she already had, poring over books and landscape journals and driving all over Northern California to look at the best and worst designs of exterior landscaping. She borrowed Howard’s accountant to help her come up with reasonable costs —she’d have to hire several people if she actually got selected—and the day before the deadline, she submitted the proposal, expecting to get a polite rejection letter in the mail.
Instead, she was summoned to an interview with Clint Lynch, Vice-President of Marketing at Skylines Inc., where she now stood in front of the restroom mirror making final adjustments.
Cappy hoisted her satchel and portfolio onto her shoulder, winked at herself in the mirror, then strode out of the washroom and into the waiting area, where the receptionist ushered her into her meeting with Mr. Lynch.
Cappy entered the large oak-paneled boardroom, where three men sat on one side of a long polished mahogany table, leaning back on over-sized executive chairs. They motioned her to sit across from them, in a small upright chair. She squeezed herself into it and tried not to feel self-conscious as she looked at the three designer suits sitting across from her.
“I’m Mr. Lynch,” said the one directly opposite her. “You can call me Clint, everyone does.” He poured a shot of scotch and pushed it across the table as he started talking. “Terrific plans. We were particularly impressed with the low costs that go with them.” Cappy hoped she was the lowest bidder. After all, she didn’t have large overheads and wasn’t planning on making a big profit for herself. “It’s very important to us that we project a modern image and you’ve come up with just what we’re looking for.”
Cappy couldn’t believe it. They liked her proposal?
“We’d like to offer you the contract Ms. Capperson. Can I call you Ellen?”
“Sure, Mr. Lynch—uh Clint.” Cappy’s mouth was so dry she wished the glass of whiskey they’d pushed in front of her were a bottle of water.
“As I said, we’d like to offer you the contract. The only thing stopping us is a few thousand dollars. We examined your figures carefully, and came up with some ideas for getting them lower.”
Cappy tried not to give anything away, although she felt her body sag. She’d settled on the lowest possible figures that she could. “I’m honored that you’d even consider my company and I’m certainly open to any suggestions you have.”
“You’re obviously a generous gal, Ellen, but paying your workers that much per hour? Giving them benefits? If you do this work in the off-season, you can hire farm laborers who’d be glad for any extra work you can put their way. Right there you can cut your costs by thousands.” Cappy knew it was true. In her business many contractors used cheap immigrant labor, but she’d always avoided it. She either did the work herself or paid regular wages, whether the workers were immigrants or not. Her father had been a union man and believed any worker, wherever they came from, was entitled to a decent wage. “The American Dream is for all of us,” had echoed in her brain from the time she could remember, “red, yellow, brown or white.” Even though it turned out her Dad didn’t think gays were part of the American dream, Cappy still believed in the principle he’d taught her.
“I was hoping to avoid using unfair labor practices.” Cappy wished she were standing so she could use her height to gain the authority she lacked, instead of sitting in this cramped chair, her legs bunched up in front of her.
Clint Lynch got up and come around the table, giving Cappy a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “You’re a good kid, and a talented one. You could rise to the top of your profession. You need someone to help you make your break. Getting a contract with Skylines is your chance to become a major league player. You do this contract well and companies will be begging you to work for them. That’s when you can name your own price, give your workers a raise, benefits and even a college education if that’s what you want to do!”
It made sense. As she climbed the professional ladder, she could take her workers with her. Give them permanent jobs instead of seasonal ones.
Exploit them now and you’ll get so used to it, you’ll never change. She could almost hear her father’s voice ringing in her ears.
The man to the left of Clint drummed his fingers on the table, while the one on the right put his pen down and spoke up. “Honey, you need to know there were a couple other bids that were cheaper than yours. We like the idea of starting with a fresh face, and especially a female, so we want you to do the job, but right now we have to keep our costs down. We’re making our decision today, so you need to decide.”
Cappy was surprised that there were lower bidders, but perhaps her labor costs had made her bid higher after all. She thought about the contract. Redesign the entire landscaping for the company, give it a 90’s look instead of the dated 70’s image it carried now. She couldn’t do anything to change the shape of the buildings, those unimaginative blocks with unsightly concrete shades covering most of the windows to keep the sun out of the offices. She couldn’t make the buildings lighter and more airy, but she could certainly do something with the heavy-handed symmetrical layout of the lawns, the boring regularity of the bushes and shrubs that looked more like a prison than a voluntary place of work.
She could make her mark, if she just took the contract.
This guy’s willing to give you the chance of a lifetime. Don’t blow it!
Exploitation—do it once, you’ll do it again!
Cappy hated having to make quick decisions. It wasn’t her style. Her parents would have disapproved of her taking on cheap labor and so would Lofty. But Jessica’s father had helped her get this far and she didn’t want to disappoint him. Besides, she really wanted the contract. She took a breath.
“I’ve made my decision Mr. Lynch. I’m the right person for this job and I can easily make those budget adjustments. Do we have a deal?”
This is the same novel as the previous chapter, told from Jessica’s perspective instead of Cappy’s. This is the original version of the novel.
Jessica Golden has a loving girlfriend, a good job, and a supportive family, but she also has bad nightmares, obsessive tendencies and a drinking problem. At her girlfriend Cappy’s urging, Jessica reluctantly agrees to seek counseling. Ginger is an unorthodox therapist who suggests right away that Jessica’s father may have sexually abused her. Is Jessica the victim of her father’s abuse or an overzealous therapist?
I wrote this novel some years ago when the issue of False Memory Syndrome was one that many in the both the women’s community and the psychotherapy community were dealing with. (I am a clinical social worker who has worked with many incest survivors.) I hope that most readers will be interested in the main question the novel poses which is: how do we know who we can trust, especially if we’re not sure we can trust ourselves? Trigger Warning: Some readers may be triggered by the issue of incest.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.
This is the way we brush our teeth,
Brush our teeth,
Brush our teeth.
This is the way we brush our teeth
So early in the morning.
This is the way we put on our clothes,
Put on our clothes,
Put on our clothes.
This is the way we put on our clothes
So early in the morning.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush
So early in the morning.
English Language Traditional Nursery Rhyme
June 1995, Saliente, Northern California
Jessica Golden whirled around and raised her yellow rubber gloved hands in the air, as if the voice commanding her belonged to a stranger with a gun. In fact, it was her beloved Cappy, holding a bottle of bleach with her finger on the spray trigger. She was standing in the doorway, clad in only her boxers.
“Put the cleaning cloth down now!” Cappy’s voice imitated that of a police officer demanding she lower her weapon.
“I just have to—“
“No! Nothing in this kitchen needs cleaning. Everything is sparkling already. It’s bedtime.” Cappy walked over to her and took the cloth out of her hand.
“We need to talk. Now.” Cappy sat down at the Formica kitchen table and motioned Jessica to join her. Jessica removed her rubber gloves, pushed a stray hair behind her brow, and lowered herself into a trestle chair next to Cappy.
“It’s got to stop Jess,” Cappy’s voice was low as she leaned toward Jessica, a pleading look on her face.
“It’s just cleaning, that’s all.”
“You can’t sit down to have dinner or leave the kitchen to go to bed without scrubbing down every counter-top first. That’s not normal. I lock the front door and you go back three times to check it’s secure. That’s not normal. You shower at least three times a day. That’s not normal.” Cappy leaned forward, her pendulous breasts brushing the edge of the table. “You need to see a therapist.”
Jessica frowned. “I may be a tad compulsive about certain things, but I don’t think that warrants seeing a shrink.” Jessica envisioned a bald, bespectacled older gentleman, sitting in a dark leather armchair, a pad and pencil in his hand, while she lay back on a couch and talked to the ceiling. “Some people would be happy to have a girlfriend who keeps their house so clean, even if I am a neat-freak.”
“It’s not just that, sweetie,” Cappy tried to hold her hand, but Jessica pulled it away. “You have that weird food-stuff going on too.”
“You mean because I don’t like tofu and brown rice?” Their differing food tastes were a cause of ongoing amusement between them.
“No, I’m serious.” Cappy pulled her chair closer to Jessica and turned to face her. “Every Saturday night you happily indulge in a DQ double chocolate fudge sundae but the other day when Aisha brought over vanilla ice-cream, you started shaking, said you felt sick to your stomach and threw it out without even tasting it. That’s weird.”
“Jeez, Cappy, what will I do next? Refuse a piece of apple pie?” Jessica tried to make light of what she was hearing, but Cappy pressed on.
“You drink too much.”
Jessica rolled her eyes. “Really? You’re back on that again?”
“I was embarrassed when we were at Aisha and Flo’s last week.”
“What was the problem? You had a headache and wanted to leave. That’s on you, not me.”
“No. You were starting to slur your words —that’s why I said we had to leave.” Cappy always thought everyone drank too much, just because she used to have a problem and didn’t drink anymore.
“Everyone has their quirks. Don’t you think we have a pretty good relationship? Can’t you put up with my idiosyncrasies?”
“Tell me you’ll at least consider going to talk to someone.”
Cappy stood up, put two glasses of iced-tea on a tray, then flicked off the kitchen light. “I’m going to bed. Are you coming?”
Jessica lingered a moment, sitting at the kitchen table in the darkness, remembering the first time they drank iced-tea together. They were on a second date and Cappy had asked what her Feminist Bean-Counter pin meant. She had looked skeptical when Jessica explained why it was so important to get Clinton to appoint women to his cabinet.
“Uh-oh, am I getting involved with a politico?” Cappy teased.
Jessica’s heart had skipped when she heard that word ‘involved’.
“Ideals are important,” she responded, “because they lead to action. And with enough action, we can change the world.”
“Nothing like having lofty goals.” Cappy smiled. “In fact, from now on that’s what I’m gonna call you – Lofty,” and they both laughed, because at barely 5 ft. tall, it wasn’t a nickname anyone else would have given her. She knew right then that she and Cappy had something special.
She woke hours later, screaming.
“Hush, hush, it’s OK. I’m here.” Cappy held her tight, rocked her back and forth, and untangled the sheet that was twisted around her legs. Her hair was damp and she was sweating. Tears poured down her face.
“It was just a dream. Don’t cry.”
Cappy’s arms felt so good enveloping her. She took a deep breath and let the sobs subside.
“Same one?” Cappy asked her softly. It wasn’t the first time she’d had a nightmare. Cappy even knew what they consisted of – the chase, the pinning down, the faceless attacker.
“Yes but—” she wondered whether to tell Cappy that there’d been something different about this one.
She shrugged. Surely she could trust Cappy? Why not tell her?
Cappy was stroking her hair.
“Jess, it’s time,” she said softly.
“Time to see a therapist. You want me to make some calls?”
Jessica shook her head. She didn’t want to feel like a child whose parent has to call the professional for her.
“Then promise me you’ll find someone?” Cappy’s hand was soothing on her forehead, her arm strong around her. She was such a good person, Jessica couldn’t lose her.
She nodded. Yes, she would call first thing in the morning.
The next morning Jessica ran her eyes over the long list of names in the yellow pages under the heading ‘counseling.’ The names meant nothing to her, so she decided she would call three and see who called her back first. She picked the first one because the description underneath her name stated that she specialized in the LGBT community. Jessica’s hand was shaking as she dialed the number and she felt a flood of relief when she got a calling service and just had to leave a message. The second one was a woman who had named her practice Serenity Counseling. That conjured up waterfalls and peaceful vistas. But the phone rang for so long that she hung up after ten rings. The byline for the third one said she was an expert in survivor issues. Even though she couldn’t remember them, Jessica knew that her grandparents had been holocaust survivors, so the idea of a therapist who would have some familiarity with her background was appealing. She picked up the phone and dialed, practicing the message she would leave, in her head.
“This is Virginia Oakley. How can I help you?”
Jessica was flustered but managed to blurt out that she wanted an appointment.
“An appointment? How about this afternoon at p.m.?” Now she was even more surprised. She’d assumed she might have to wait days or even weeks to see someone. Was it a good sign that this woman had an opening that day? Or did it mean she didn’t have many clients? If she didn’t, why not?
Jessica climbed the sweeping staircase of an old Victorian in downtown Saliente and entered a waiting room where a soft-rock radio station played Bon Jovi’s “Always,” and an enormous framed print of Georgia O’Keefe’s Petunia took up the entire wall. She barely had time to center the collar of her white silk blouse between the lapels of her black, tailored jacket, before the door opposite her opened and a stout, friendly looking woman appeared.
“Jessica?” The woman extended a plump hand towards her and as Jessica extended her arm in response, the woman grabbed her hand and grasped it tightly between both of her own hands.
“I’m Virginia. Welcome.” She let one hand drop and with the other pulled Jessica through the open door. “Quick, before you change your mind!” She smiled as if they were sharing a private joke, then motioned Jessica towards an overstuffed sofa while she wedged herself into an upright leather armchair just a couple of feet away.
Virginia Oakley wasn’t what Jessica expected. On the phone the therapist had been business-like while at the same time conveying interest and concern. Jessica had pictured her as a slight woman with salt-and-pepper hair, a grey wool suit, and expensive suede shoes. Or else, perhaps, willowy and ethereal, with long silver-gray hair, and a flowing Indian cotton dress. The picture that hadn’t come to mind was a redheaded version of Roseanne Barr dressed in a brightly colored, floral t-shirt and red, polyester pants.
“I know this is frightfully hard,” Virginia said, “but I want you to tell me everything I need to know about you. Don’t go overboard with your whole life history, and don’t be reticent.” She leaned closer to Jessica and patted her knee. “Just the facts ma’am, nothing more, nothing less.”
Jessica crossed her legs, then uncrossed them again, adjusting her skirt by pulling it over her knees. She paused, wondering how to start. Virginia, staring intently at her, jumped in.
“I promise I won’t interrupt too often, but let me tell you what I know already.” She paused for only a second before continuing. “It’s very important to you how the external world sees you. I don’t mean just your appearance, though clearly that matters a lot. I mean you want everyone to get the impression you’re confident, in a very quiet, but authoritative way. That’s what your outfit told me the moment you appeared in the waiting room. Your glossy hair, which probably tends towards frizzy if left untended, is pulled back from your face and you keep it shoulder length so that it never gets wild or unmanageable. You try to live your life the same way, but it hasn’t worked. Your hands were cold and clammy to the touch, and you’re perched so close to the edge of that sofa that you’d fall off it if I gave you the slightest push. You came to see me because your external life and your inner one have drifted so far apart, you feel like you’re an island that split into two. You have one foot on either side and the channel between them is widening, so eventually you’ll topple right over, or fall in the water.” Virginia sat back, her chest heaving. While she spoke, Jessica listened with a mixture of fascination and horror. On all the TV shows she’d watched, the therapist just sat and listened. She had no idea that they could be this forthright. If the description hadn’t been so deadly accurate, she would have wondered if this woman knew what she was doing.
“I’m not sure where to begin,” she said, “I’ve never been to a shrink before.”
“And you still haven’t. I don’t shrink people. I help them expand until they fill up their rightful place in the world. I’ll help you grow into exactly who you want to be. All you have to do is tell me who that person is.”
Jessica took a deep breath, and looked around her. The office was an enormous half-moon, the crescent side consisting of bay windows that let the late afternoon sunlight pour in. In front of the windows to one side lay a pile of large, corduroy cushions, while on the other side a foam baseball bat, a plastic sword, boxing gloves and several large, rag dolls were scattered in front of an artist’s easel and a desk. Jessica turned her attention back to Virginia. “The person I want to be is one who doesn’t wake up in the night terrified by nightmares,” she said.
“Ah.” Virginia leaned back in her chair.
“I get these real bad dreams…some-one’s chasing me, I can’t escape. They grab me. They’re choking me. Then I wake up overcome by terror and anxiety.”
Jessica rubbed the palms of her hands on her skirt. She could feel her underarms getting damp.
“It sounds like you’ve had this dream a lot. Is it always the same?”
Jessica’s heart began to pound so intensely it seemed as if Virginia must be able to see it banging out of her chest. Virginia said she could help her grow, but she didn’t want to get bigger. She wanted to shrink into the size of Alice or disappear altogether. What did growth mean to someone like Virginia, who was perfectly comfortable with her physical presence taking up so much room?
“Last night I had that same dream of being chased. I’m being held down and I struggle to get away .I always try to open my eyes to see who’s holding me, but in my dream they’re so heavy they just won’t open. Sometimes I manage to force them open —and that’s usually when I wake up.”
“What made last night’s dream different?”
“I was trying to get away and then all of a sudden I just decided that this time I wasn’t going to struggle. I remember saying to myself in the dream, you’ll never win, just give in. So I stopped fighting and lay still. Then, without even trying, I opened my eyes.”
As she spoke, the terror of the dream returned to her. Her throat felt tight and a wave of nausea swept over her.
“I lay there, my eyes looking directly into the eyes of a man. I don’t know if that’s always who my attacker is, but I know who it was last night.” Her chest rose and fell rapidly and she could barely swallow as she whispered, “the man holding me down was my father.”
She kept her head down, not daring to look up at the therapist. The room was still, silent. She could hear her own breathing. She lifted her eyes enough to peek at Virginia and waited for her to say something. Virginia was still sitting exactly as she had been, but there was something different about her expression. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have thought Virginia looked excited.
Jessica lifted her head. “What do you think it means?” she asked.
“That my father was holding me down.”
“What do you think it means?”
“I—I’ve been thinking that what it means is –” she looked down again, unable to say the words.
“I’ll take a guess for you. You’re thinking that the dream might be something that really happened. That perhaps when you were a child your father really did do something awful to you?”
“You’ve heard of other women who were molested by their fathers and you’re thinking, perhaps you were too?”
All morning her body had felt like she was dragging a massive lead weight of fear around. She had felt it pulling on her neck, dragging her down. Now that Virginia had voiced Jessica’s thoughts aloud, the dead weight dissipated into a little sponge ball dangling from a string. She could just untie the string from around her neck and toss it away. She felt wonderfully relieved. She smiled. Dear old Cappy was right. Seeing a therapist had been a good idea.
“Ridiculous isn’t it? Now that I’m saying it out loud, I know that’s not the issue at all.”
“Yes. I’ve never even had that thought about my father before. I know dreams aren’t literal. I can hear how crazy it sounds.” Jessica sat back on the sofa. The lump in her throat was gone and her breathing was calm.
“It sounds crazy to you?” Virginia leaned closer to her, their knees almost touching.
“Sure. Doesn’t it to you?”
“I wish it did. I’ve known so many people who were abused, molested or raped, that to me it sounds sad, serious, compelling. All kinds of words come to mind, but crazy isn’t one of them.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that those people are crazy. Or that those things didn’t really happen. I just meant for myself, for me, it’s…” she paused, trying to think of the right word. “Weird. If you’d met my father, you’d know it’s crazy. He’s a good man, a good father.”
Jessica felt Virginia watching her intently. Something about Virginia’s expression had changed. Jessica had a feeling Virginia was looking at her with pity, and something else. Disapproval? She squirmed in her chair.
“My father’s the kind of man anyone would want for a father – loving, supportive, kind…”
Virginia raised her eyebrows. “You sound like you’re making excuses for him.”
Virginia leaned back in her chair a little. “Yes. One minute you’re telling me about this dream that leaves you fearful and nauseated. You imply that you’ve been having these awful thoughts about what the dream means. Then when I verbalize those awful thoughts for you, you back away, become defensive.”
“But dreams aren’t always true are they?” The words came out squeakier than she had intended, and Jessica felt her throat starting to constrict again.
“Something made you decide this dream was different. Something was weighing very heavily on you when you called me this morning. And of all the therapists you could have chosen, you picked someone who specializes in working with incest survivors.”
“Oh.” Jessica felt herself blushing inwardly. Incest survivors. Why hadn’t she realized that it had nothing to do with the holocaust? She certainly didn’t need an expert in incest survivors. “Actually, the reason I called was because my girlfriend…perhaps I could tell you about the other stuff, apart from the nightmares—”
“I understand that you want to change the topic; it makes you uncomfortable. But I suspect that if we can resolve what happened to you, all that other issues you want to tell me about will fall into place by themselves.”
Jessica felt frustrated. Nothing had happened to her. Did this woman see survivors everywhere she went? She pictured Cappy asking her later, did you mention the obsessive cleaning? Did you tell her about the booze?
“My girlfriend says I drink too much, and that—”
“Of course you do, dear. That’s what incest survivors do—cover up their shame in whatever way they can. So let’s not get into that for now. It’s my job as a therapist to take you places you don’t usually go. You want me to do my job don’t you? Otherwise you could just sit and chat with one of your friends, instead of paying me what some people consider quite a lot of money to help them get better.”
Jessica felt as if she were losing control of the situation. The light sponge of relief that she had been ready to bat out of the window was growing heavier and morphing into fear and anxiety. She felt it attach to her body, pull on her neck.
“I think if you’re going to be fair to yourself, you should take a little time to at least explore what brought you in here. Let’s start by having you commit to six sessions.” She felt Virginia’s eyes penetrating her soul, as if they could see just how dark it was in there. “In my experience, it’s the people who most need therapy who back out if it before they really get started.”
Jessica noticed for the first time how the orange in Virginia’s blouse clashed with the red in her pants. Did she know how uncoordinated her colors were? The Patchouli scent that seemed pleasant when she first entered, felt suddenly cloying.
“It’s just six sessions, Jessica. If you do it, you won’t have to live your life wondering, what if? You owe it to yourself and to those you love. Even your father.” Virginia paused, then added, “Especially your father.”
Jessica’s chest felt heavy, and she could feel sweat trickling down the back of her neck.
“I—I don’t know…”
“Here’s a deal. Next week we can talk about anything you like. No mention of incest or your father, unless you choose. How’s that?” It sounded reasonable. Not agreeing might mean she really hadn’t given it a fair shot. She didn’t want to go home and tell Cappy she’d failed at therapy.
She smoothed her brow into a smile. “Okay.” She breathed, and looked back at Virginia. Virginia was smiling warmly at her. She felt relieved. She had given the right answer and now she was being rewarded.
“Good! Now please, do as all my friends do. Call me Ginger.”
ALONG CAME THE RAIN
Available on Amazon
Well-intentioned. That’s what those birth moms are. The ones who won’t let their kids be adopted by some do-gooder, middle-class strangers. Year after year, they try to get off drugs, give up the abusive spouses, and get themselves permanent jobs so they can provide a stable home. Sometimes they succeed for a while, and the kids come home. Then something happens and they fall back to worrying more about where they’ll score their next hit than who’s hitting on their daughters.
They make me sick. They remind me of Claude, a cat I used to own, who would catch a bird in its mouth, drop it, play with it until it was half-dead, then walk away.
I know the drugs are to blame but it’s the kids I feel sorry for. While the politicians and activists argue about mothers’ rights versus children’s rights, nothing changes and the kids keep getting chewed up in the system, until they end up in the same sorry situation their moms were in.
Enough is enough. Someone needs to do something drastic, and that someone is me. It won’t be pretty, and a few people may have to suffer along the way, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll see.
Wynn, June 22
It’s raining when they arrest me. Not a light New England drizzle, but a heavy, Florida- summer downpour, the kind that creates puddles in seconds, and floods in minutes. As the two police officers hurry me out of the front door and down the drenched flagstone path, I have to keep myself from slipping on the wet ferns and sodden, scarlet hibiscus scattered in the storm. Barker looks like she is in shock. She keeps repeating in a low voice, “I’ll get you out of there,” like a Buddhist mantra. Poor Barker. She must be beside herself with worry.
It all happens so quickly. One minute we are sitting in the living room, watching a rerun of one of our favorite episodes of Friends (the one where Ross finds his red sweater). The next, Barker answers the door to two uniformed police officers who tell her they need to take Wynn Larimer down to the station for questioning. I don’t know who was more shocked—her or me. I could understand being arrested if I had committed a crime, or if I knew someone who had, or if I were connected in any way to any kind of criminal activity. I could comprehend it if I had a hidden past that had finally caught up with me, but I have been a model citizen from the time I was a straight-acting kindergarten teacher in my twenties to my current status as a middle-aged, suburban, jewelry-making lesbian.
“She’s on Aricept,” Barker yells at the officers as one of them pushes down on my head, shoving me into the patrol car. “It’s very important she doesn’t miss a dose.” She thrusts a prescription bottle at the male cop but he holds his hand up and says he isn’t allowed to take it. The young female one tells her to put it in my pocket. “She won’t be able to keep it, but when they take her property, they’ll have an accurate record of the dosage. If they keep her, they’ll make sure she gets some, eventually.”
My memory medication is the least of my worries right now.
The AC blows harshly on my wet legs and arms as I shiver in the back of the car, shaking out my dripping, lanky curls. I try to get the attention of the cops, but there is a metal grill separating us and they have no intention of turning around. When we arrive at the police station, and they bundle me out of the cruiser, I ask what I’m being charged with. The Mean Cop mumbles contemptuously, “Like you don’t know,” while the younger one says, with almost a hint of sadness in her tone, “We’re just arresting you. We don’t have to bring any charges yet. But if we do, it will most likely be for false imprisonment.” False imprisonment? Isn’t that what you’re doing to me? I want to ask, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea. When I used to visit Mom in the nursing home, half the ladies there would tell me they’d been kidnapped and were now falsely imprisoned. I hardly want to sound like one of them. But I’ve never imprisoned anyone in my life. Why would they think I have? Who did I imprison?
The next part is a blur but I know it involves being photographed and fingerprinted and repeating my name and address several times. Then they tell me I’m going to a holding cell. I can barely bring my feet to move as a large-boned officer walks me down the corridor. We pass cells that have no doors, just metal grates from top to bottom, where you can see everything the women in the cells are doing: slouching on their cots, shitting on the toilet. A young woman in a red bustier, black leather shorts, and boots that come up to her thighs, yells, “What did the old lady do? Rob Medicare?” I’m offended that she thinks I’m old, but I feel grateful for my age when we stop at a cell that has a proper door, with just a small metal grate in it, that they can pass food through.
After the door clangs shut, I look around me. Mom would have described this cell as barely having room to swing a cat, and although I detest that expression, it’s true. Two steps in one direction, three in the other and I’m at the perimeter of the cell. A foot away from me is the lower of two concrete slabs, each with a mattress so slim it would be more accurate to call it a gym mat. The slabs are attached to the wall and narrow enough to preclude two cellmates lying together should they be so inclined. I ought to claim one of the bunks as mine, since it appears I may be here for a while, but my choice is between a rock and a hard place. The upper bunk involves climbing up a little ladder, but lately my balance is so bad, I don’t think I should risk this. However, if I lower myself onto the other one, which is about knee-high, I may not be able to stand up again. So for now, I perch on the stainless steel toilet, which is awkward and extremely uncomfortable as it has no lid and the rim is cold and hard.
Sitting on the edge of this metal toilet, my whole body aches. I can feel the arthritis in my hips starting up and if I really have to sleep on that yoga mat, I won’t be able to move by tomorrow morning. I want Barker. I want a lawyer. Nobody comes to get me, nobody interacts with me. As the hours wear on, I feel like I may go crazy in this cell, all by myself, with no one to talk to. It must be late evening by now. I thought they’d have had a detective ready to talk to me as soon as I got here, but perhaps they’re trying to psych me out by making me wait. They want me to confess to something I didn’t do. I’ve read about upright citizens who committed crimes with the Black Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army in their youth, who finally get caught when they’re middle-aged, but I’m not one of them. (And yes, I get that Ms. Bustier and Black Boots might not categorize me as middle-aged, but when she gets to be my age, I guarantee she will no longer think of fifty-nine as old.)
I wonder what Barker’s doing now. Did she walk the dogs? Of course she did. I’m the one who sometimes forgets, until I see them standing in front of me, their mournful eyes begging me to give their bladders some release. Did she heat up the curried vegetables I cooked earlier today for our dinner? Probably not. If she had any appetite she probably took a hot dog from the freezer, microwaved it, and slapped it on a bun with some ketchup. Hopefully, she’s frantically calling anyone she can think of to get me out of this mess. She knows enough people in her line of work. One of them has to be able to help me.
I keep going back to that idea of false imprisonment. Who could I have imprisoned? The only people I know of who are kept somewhere against their will are either spouses—and clearly Barker’s at home, so that’s not it—or girls who go missing and are forced into sex work. Barker has two clients who are missing right now, fifteen-year-old foster kids who disappeared when they were being transferred from a foster home over a week ago. She’s voiced her fear several times that they were abducted and are being kept somewhere. Could it be them? Do the police think I had something to do with their disappearance? That makes absolutely no sense.
Which brings me back to the thought that went round and round in my head while I was shivering in the police cruiser.
Someone has set me up.
Wynn Larimer would be the first to admit she has a bad memory and that lately it’s been getting worse. But that doesn’t explain how she has ended up in jail, accused of kidnapping two teenage foster kids. Now she’s in the fight of her life to clear her name. Her burning question: who has framed her and why?
Wynn’s partner, Barker, is hanging by an emotional thread. Not only are the missing girls her social work clients, but to make matters worse, her beloved Wynn seems to be losing her mind. How can she ensure the girls are brought to safety while dealing with a partner who is increasingly scattered?
Wynn and Barker must race to uncover the truth before Wynn is charged with a serious crime that could imprison her for years. But what will happen to their relationship when both discover things about each other that will change their lives forever?
Available on Amazon
The call comes in the early morning. I jump, and the tea I’m drinking spills into the saucer. It’s my sister’s wife, JP.
“Lizzie’s in the E.R.”
My heart plummets. “Again? I can get on a plane this morning. Should I come?”
“No. It’ll probably be like last time. I’ll call you as soon as I have any news. I have to get off the phone. They’re not allowed in here.”
“JP, I—” But the line’s dead. When I pick up my tea, my hand is trembling.
Twelve months ago, I received a different phone call that set me shaking. Lizzie told me she’d been diagnosed with FSGS: Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis.
“What the heck is that?”
“It’s a form of kidney disease.”
I was stupefied. Lizzie was the picture of health constantly eating the healthiest foods and working out regularly. But she hadn’t always been. Before she left California, she was a drunk: plowing her car into the neighbor’s front yard, getting fired for constant tardiness, slurring on the phone. She sobered up when she moved to Philadelphia, but was it too late?
“I thought alcohol affected the liver, not the kidneys.”
“It’s not connected to the drinking. They don’t know why I have it.” “How serious is it?” I asked.
“It’s a chronic disease. It could ultimately lead to kidney failure, but—”
“Oh my God! What can I do?” I was ready to jump on the next plane and donate an organ, if that was what she needed. “Calm down, Ash.” Lizzie’s voice was soft and reassuring. “It could lead to kidney failure way into the future, but Doctor Marshall thinks he caught it early enough. With treatment I should be asymptomatic for years.”
“If you don’t have any symptoms, why were you even seeing the doctor?” “Routine blood tests. They spotted a pattern they’d never noticed before.”
“You mean you’ve had it for years?” I had so many questions, I didn’t even know where to start. “Should I come visit? I could get off work…”
“No. I have JP. She’s going to take very good care of me. Not that there’s anything to do now, anyway.”
I sighed. I sometimes felt as if JP and I were in competition when it came to Lizzie. I
could picture JP standing in the background shaking her head at my offer to visit.
“I’ll be praying for you, sis. I’m going to put you on the prayer list at church too, so everyone can pray for you.”
“That’s sweet, Ash, but don’t get overdramatic. It’s not cancer or anything.”
“I can’t help it. You’re my baby sister. I don’t want anything to happen to you, ever.” She laughed. “I know. You’re the best big sister anyone could have. But don’t worry.
I lead a great life and have a wonderful partner. Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
But something has happened, and it’s not the first time. Last month Lizzie was hospitalized overnight because of dizziness and nausea. They discharged her the next day with a clean bill of health, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Now she’s back in the E.R. again.
Should I ignore JP’s advice and head out to Philly? I’m her big sister. I should be there to protect her. But JP’s her wife, and I know she’ll move heaven and earth to make sure Lizzie’s well taken care of.
I have to get ready for work, but figuring out what to wear is the last thing on my mind. I pull a grey, wool dress off the hanger and slip into black pumps. When I check my hair in the mirror, the figure staring back at me looks like she’s dressed for a funeral. I tear the dress off and shrug on a bright red one instead. She’ll be fine. Just like last time.
The drive to my job at Grace Covenant School is a short one. This time of year I usually keep an eye out for late-lying snow or early almond blossoms, but today I see nothing. Once at work, I stay in my office as much as possible and try to catch up on emails, avoiding kids who might want to interact with me. But I can’t concentrate. I feel so powerless. By lunchtime, I make an excuse and skip out early.
At home, I sit on the sofa, clasp my hands together, and offer up silent prayers. “Superstitious hogwash, Ash.” I can hear Lizzie’s voice as clearly as if she were sitting by my side. “Religious mumbo-jumbo.”
It’s amazing how she went from one extreme to the other with her faith. She was the one who recruited high school students to take a virginity pledge. The one who said her goal in life was to marry a good man and have lots of kids. Once she met JP, all that went out the window. She didn’t just abandon her church, she actively despised it.
For me, it’s more complicated. Sometimes I do feel confined by my religion, but I worry that without it, I’d have nothing. After our parents died, I felt so alone. Activities like singing in the church choir and serving meals at the shelter keep me grounded and give me a sense of family, especially now that Lizzie lives so far away.
The phone rings and I almost drop it in my anxiety to grab onto it.
“JP?” I ask, even though I can see the caller ID. “Is Lizzie doing better?” “No.” I wait for more information, but none is forthcoming.
“How bad is it?”
“She’s going downhill fast.”
“ Downhill? Dear God, what’s going on?” I push the words out with all the force I can muster, thinking they will come out as an almighty roar, but all that comes out is a high- pitched squeak.
“Her kidneys have shut down.” Her voice sounds muffled as if she may be trying not to cry. “If you want to see her, you better get on a plane tonight.”
I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut. “Tonight? But surely…” I trail off, waiting for JP to soften the blow. She says nothing.
That’s when I know for sure what she’s telling me: my beloved baby sister Lizzie, who celebrated her thirty-third birthday barely six months ago, is dying.
The red-eye flight is grueling, especially since it involves a layover. I try to read The Shack, which I grabbed from the shelf on my way out the door, but I can’t concentrate. Older sisters are meant to protect their siblings, and I’d do anything to save Lizzie. I don’t understand how the doctors could have said she was fine, and a month later, her kidneys have shut down.
I should have jumped on a plane this morning. Why did I listen to JP? Ever since our parents died, I’ve been second-guessing myself: What’s best for Lizzie? How can I keep her safe? The guilt that’s never far away, settles on my shoulders like a hundred pound barbell.
I need to sleep, but when I close my eyes, my mind conjures up endless images of Lizzie and me together: playing hopscotch in front of Gran’s house, driving her to the prom when she wore that ridiculous lime taffeta, shoving piles of her clothes into the trunk of my car when she finally left Kurt.
Those pictures get superimposed on that dreadful day we lost our parents, and I have to pull my thoughts away because I can’t bear to remember the funeral and the aftermath. When I steer my memory in a different direction, it takes me to that first meeting with JP, the mistake I made, and how I feel as if I’ve been apologizing ever since.
I still can’t believe Lizzie could be dying. Maybe I’ll arrive and learn that it was all a mistake, her kidneys have recovered, or she’s received a transplant. Surely they’ll tell me that she’s on the mend and will be out of the hospital in a week or so.
In the Philadelphia airport I text JP and hurry to the bathroom to brush my teeth and apply some makeup. There are dark shadows under my eyes, and my skin is even whiter than usual. My mousy hair looks dank, as if it hasn’t been washed in a week. I pull back stray strands of hair that have come loose and shove them into my ponytail.
“You have such lovely hair, why do you restrain it?” Lizzie used to ask, until she gave up trying to get me to change. “I have to keep it under control.” I believe my hair mirrors my state of being. Sometimes I wish I could let go of things more—my hair, my eating habits, the religious strictures I impose on myself—but I’m scared that if I do, everything will fall apart. So I keep my hair tightly pulled back, and I wear clothes that fit my angular body without emphasizing any part of it. Nothing too tight and nothing loose or free flowing. I’ve never cared about fashion trends, as long as I look neat and tidy. I was one of those kids who was sorry to stop wearing a uniform when I got to high school, and if I could still wear a white short-sleeved blouse with blue shorts every day, I’d be happy.
People say Lizzie and I look alike. We’re both average height, long waisted, and our legs are muscled from running. We have Mom’s blue eyes and a cleft in our chin from Dad. The similarities end there though. Lizzie’s silky, chestnut hair falls in waves around her face, her cheekbones are soft, and she has a little snub nose. My cheekbones are high, my noise too pointy, and my thin lips make me look severe, even when I smile. Does my appearance reflect my personality or is it vice versa? If I looked more like Lizzie, would I have softened up like her? If only I could find a way to loosen up, but still hold everything together.
This morning my gaunt face appears more austere than ever. I methodically apply eye shadow to my eyelids. I know it’s crazy, but it’s a habit. I’ve always presented myself to Lizzie and the world as well put together, and I’m not going to change now. What if she doesn’t know how dire her situation is? My not wearing makeup would say it all.
JP is leaning against her pickup truck in the arrivals zone, looking impatient. Her hair is so short she seems almost bald. A shapeless plaid shirt hangs from her shoulders, and her baggy cargo shorts have settled loosely below her hips. She’s lost weight since I saw her a couple of years ago. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was the one with the medical disorder.
“You texted five minutes ago. The security guys were trying to move me on.”
“I’m sorry.” I throw my overnight bag onto the jump seat of the pickup. As usual, I’m starting out by apologizing to JP. I settle into the passenger seat, and she pulls away from the curb.
She doesn’t ask how the flight was, so I break the silence. “Tell me again what the doctors are saying.”
“There’s not much to tell. They don’t know why she deteriorated so suddenly.” She stares directly ahead of her and steers the pickup onto the freeway. JP has never been chatty, but her silence is frustrating. I try again. “Last year she told me this form of kidney disease would be totally manageable. So what happened?” I swivel in my seat and pull my safety belt to the side so I can look right at her.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Did the doctors mess up? After all, they missed her condition for years. All those times she went to the doctor because of blood in her urine, they insisted it coincided with her period. The fact that her protein levels were high? They brushed it off.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have put such faith in their optimism and researched it ourselves.”
JP keeps her gaze on the road. “We could’ve gone crazy researching on the Internet, but when all the doctors tell you not to worry, you don’t. Especially if you’re Lizzie.” I nod. Lizzie was never one to make a fuss. Over the past year I’ve tried to ask her whether she thought her doctor was negligent in not picking up on the FSGS sooner, but she wouldn’t go there with me.
“Okay, I’ll level with you. She brought it on herself,” JP says.
“What?” I swivel back around to face JP. Her gaze doesn’t stray from the road. “The docs think it was the alcohol that caused the kidney failure.”
“But why now? Lizzie is ten years sober.”
“I’m sorry to break this to you, Ash, but she wasn’t. In the last year, she kept having slips, some worse than others.”
“Slips?” Surely Lizzie would have told me if she’d fallen off the wagon. She’d been so upfront with me, once she recognized her addiction. “She never said anything.”
JP shrugs. “She looked up to you. She didn’t want to disappoint you. There were all kinds of things she didn’t share with you.”
JP doesn’t answer. She maneuvers the pickup off the freeway.
We’re in an area I’m not familiar with, nowhere near center city. Somehow I’d assumed she’d be at one of the prestigious city hospitals.
I’m still struggling with the idea that my sister had slips. “I don’t believe Lizzie would have compromised her sobriety.”
“It wasn’t the first time. She had a slip a year ago, when she was first diagnosed. The other night when I brought her into the E.R., she had come home completely smashed.”
“A year ago? Two nights ago…are you sure?”
“Jesus, Ashley, ask Paula about last year if you don’t believe me.” Paula is Lizzie’s best friend. “As for this time around, ask the doctors or nurses. They’ll confirm what I said.”
I sit back in silence, gazing out the window, seeing nothing.
It’s hard to imagine Lizzie not telling me that she had a slip, even harder to believe she was drunk when she was admitted to the hospital. But JP has no reason to lie. Maybe Lizzie didn’t confide in me; maybe she thought I’d find fault. After she gave up her faith, she kept trying to show me how my beliefs made me judge others. She said I was a good person, but that I had to start thinking for myself.
JP pulls into the driveway of a large, old-fashioned, brick building, nothing like the modern glass-and-steel structures hospitals tend to be nowadays.
“Why don’t I drop you here and go park? She’s on the second floor. I told them you’d be coming.”
I run through the double doors and follow the signs to the elevators. A desultory group of people is waiting, and now that I’m so close, I’m too desperate to see Lizzie to wait. I push open the small door next to the elevators and take the stairs two at a time, vaguely registering the plain white concrete steps, the paint peeling off the walls. I pull open the heavy door onto the second floor and head toward the nurses’ station.
A plump, middle-aged woman, whose Afro frames her face like a halo, asks how she can help me. When I tell her who I am, she looks relieved and hurries me down the hall.
Inside Lizzie’s room, it’s hard to believe the woman propped up in the hospital bed is my sister. Her skin is yellow and she’s so bloated she reminds me of one of those blimps that hover in the sky, encouraging me to buy their brand of beer or insurance. An oxygen mask covers her nose and mouth and an IV snakes itself around her arm. Her eyes are closed.
I tiptoe over and stand at the bedside.
“Lizzie?” I whisper and stroke her swollen fingers. “Lizzie?”
I don’t know if she can hear me, so I take a chance and say loudly, “It’s me, Ash, your sister.”
Her lids flutter and for a moment she opens her eyes. Her gaze is blank, and she closes her eyes again. Through the plastic of the oxygen mask, the corner of her mouth turns upward as if she’s trying to smile. I squeeze her hand and she grimaces.
“I love you,” I say, “darling, darling sister. I love you so much.” I clench my throat tight to hold back a sob trying to make its way out.
My hand is in hers and she tries to lift it. I’m not sure if she wants to kiss my fingers. The effort is too much and her hand falls back. I lean forward and kiss her forehead. Maybe she wants to say something. I move the oxygen mask away from her face. She opens her mouth, but no sound comes out. She swallows and tries again, gasping for air. I lean forward to replace the oxygen mask, but she shakes her head.
“JP,” she whispers, and I feel my heart constrict. I thought she’d be happy to see me. Apparently, the only person she wants next to her is her wife.
“She’s coming. She’s parking the truck.”
She shakes her head with surprising vehemence and opens her eyes. They’re no longer glazed or blank, only full of agitation. She’s trying to get a sentence out, but it’s barely a mumble and there are only a couple of words I can catch. “JP…affair…Jim…”
“JP had an affair with a guy called Jim?” It’s about the most unlikely thing she could tell me, and I wonder what drugs they have her on. I stroke her hand, her forehead, any part of her I can touch. “Whatever happened, we don’t need to talk about that now, honey, it doesn’t matter.”
“No… me.” She gasps, then continues. “JP…mad.”
Is this a deathbed confession? While I can’t believe JP would have an affair with a guy, it’s hard to imagine loyal, dependable Lizzie having an affair with anyone, female or male.
“Sweetheart, none of it matters. We’re both here for you. We love you. She’s parking the truck, she’s not mad at you.”
“Not now, then…she…” She sucks in all the air she can then forces out a string of words, mumbling and incoherent. “I told her…Hell and…in the water…no energy…drink…Jim…but I wasn’t…”
“Lizzie, honey, I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me. I’m sure it doesn’t matter now.” She’s clearly exhausted, fighting for breath. I put the oxygen mask back over her nose and mouth.
Did I hear her say the word Hell? Is she saying she’s going to Hell? I know she gave up her faith, but now that she’s dying, is she clinging to it?
I wonder if there’s a chaplain or pastor here. Even though Lizzie says she’s no longer a Christian, she might want someone to pray with her and help her go home to God. I want to ask her, and yet she’s already so upset and agitated, I don’t want to make things worse. Does she understand how serious her condition is?
“Shall we pray together?” I stroke her hand. With a strength I would never have expected, she rips the mask off her face. “Ash!” Her eyes, so empty a few moments ago, are burning fiercely. “Yes, my sweet sister, I’m—” She cuts me off.
I turn, thinking JP is by the door or has come in. She hasn’t. Lizzie’s eyes grow wide and frantic. “Jim…” Again, something I can’t make out, and then a word that sounds like prison.
“Jim is in prison?”
She shakes her head and pushes out the word one more time. It still sounds like she’s saying prison, yet I know it’s not quite that. Her mouth moves but nothing happens. All of a sudden she slumps. Her eyes roll backwards, and all the machines she’s attached to start beeping frantically.
A nurse yells, “Code blue!” and there’s a flurry of activity. I know it’s too late. I’ve watched enough TV to know what it means when the machines show flat lines. Lizzie’s chest is no longer rising and falling, and I can feel death in the air.
“Lizzie!” I spin around. JP stands in the doorway, stunned. She rushes into the room but Lizzie is now surrounded by medical professionals pumping on her chest, blowing some sort of balloon into her mouth, and JP can’t get near her.
There is silence while the medical team works on Lizzie, and I hear the words, “Time of death…”
JP looks around in bewilderment, chokes up, and bursts into tears. She slides down onto the floor and I slide next to her. All I can think is that my sister is gone forever. I’m completely alone in the world. How can this have happened? How can my beloved sister, so healthy until last month, be dead?
Lizzie’s last words echo over and over in my brain: Jim. Prison. All of a sudden, in the midst of my grief, the word comes unbidden into the forefront of my brain.
She wasn’t saying that Jim was in prison. With her dying breath, my sister was trying to tell me that someone named Jim had poisoned her.
This novel follows three women who all believe their search for happiness is deeply connected to their lifelong weight issues. Each chooses a different solution to the problem of being overweight and unhappy, but when none of their solutions work, they come up with an idea that will solve everything, once and for all.
THE WINNERS CLUB
There was no way Gina would have agreed to go to this god-awful-sounding Ab-Attack-Cardio-combo weight loss class if she hadn’t promised herself a grand reward afterward—a hot fudge sundae. As she locked the front door to her one-bedroom apartment and made her way across the street to her parked car, she pictured vanilla ice-cream piled high into a tall glass, smothered with chocolate and caramel toppings, nuts, whipped cream and a cherry. That’s what she would deserve she told herself, for squeezing into a sports bra that made her breasts feel they were being smashed in a mammogram machine, and for pulling on shorts that made her thighs appear to be a giant version of the Pillsbury dough-boy. If she got through the class she would go to her favorite ice-cream parlor where she could watch the vanilla ice cream swirling out of the machine like a whirling dervish dancing for her delight, before being wrapped in a turban of sweet and sticky toppings.
Gina heaved herself into her oversized Toyota Sequoia (which she hated—it was too big and she disapproved of SUVs—but she needed a car she could step up into since pulling herself out of small cars was nigh-on impossible) and wished again that she’d never made this commitment. It had been years since she’d been to any kind of fitness class. She already knew she’d never be able to keep up with the group or follow the instructions. She’d be fatter than everyone else there and she was quite sure she’d run out of energy long before the end. If she couldn’t finish the class, she didn’t get her reward, which was the only reason she was going in the first place, or at least the secondary reason, the primary one being to lose 100 lbs. by next summer.
It had been a long time since she’d even thought about going to any kind of exercise class. Years ago she used to make it one of her New Year’s resolutions, but since moving downtown, she’d convinced herself that there was no local gym and even if there were, it wasn’t worth the money. After all, living in a city she could walk everywhere and get her exercise that way. Not that she did, because walking made her feet ache and her thighs rub together painfully. Now, following Annabel’s directions, she realized that the lack of a local gym was a myth she’d invented, because turning down 15th Street—less than ten minutes from her apartment—the fitness center came into sight. Just seeing the sign made her stomach seize up into a big knot.
Maybe she wouldn’t go in. Maybe she’d just drive right past, swing a left instead of a right and go to the mall. Not an option.
“If you don’t go, I pay you for our next session,” Annabel had commanded. “If you do make it, then as usual, you pay me.”
Well, she couldn’t very well have her therapist pay her now, could she? What had her sister Sam said to her on the phone yesterday evening as she gave a heavy sigh of weariness?
“Break it down into manageable pieces, Gina, you always make such a big deal out of everything.”
Easy for Sam to say—she loved working out. For as long as Gina could remember she and her sister had looked like a female version of Laurel and Hardy.
“Be gentle on yourself, don’t set yourself up for failure.” Annabel’s oft-repeated phrase played like a tape-recording in her head. Okay then, manageable pieces and no set-ups. She didn’t have to get through the whole class to get her reward. A small vanilla ice cream just for getting herself through the gym door, a sundae if she made it through the first 10 minutes, extra-large if she made it through at least 30 minutes, and both toppings if she completed the entire class. She swung a right towards the gym.
What would the other women be like? All Skinny Minis she was sure. Whenever she saw the commercials for fitness centers and jazzercise classes the women were all emaciated skin-and-bones and she wondered why on earth they needed to attend classes in the first place. If she were ever that size you wouldn’t catch her near a gym. She’d be like her friend Harriet who ate everything in sight, never exercised and was as thin as a rake. There was no good reason to exercise if you already had a perfect body.
Not that she’d know what having a perfect body was like. She’d never been close to having one. She hated hearing women who were so tiny they’d fit through a keyhole complaining about how fat they were. Like that young Asian woman at the video library the other day, looking through the exercise DVDs and complaining to her boyfriend she was “having a fat day.” The girl looked like she probably bought her clothes from the pre-teen boys department she was so tiny. The only time Gina had been even moderately slim was when she met Alan—four months of practically fasting—but the moment they got engaged two months later, she’d started eating again and hadn’t stopped since. Getting pregnant with the twins had definitely been the icing on the cake, of which she’d eaten plenty, having developed a craving in her fifth month for black forest gateau.
Thinking of Alan and the twins she felt a tightness in her throat and tears pricking her eyelids. She gripped the steering wheel and told herself to think about something else. The cardio-class maybe. Ugh, no, don’t think about the class, think about the reward. Perhaps instead of getting a soft ice-cream she would go to Marble Slab Creamery, where she could watch them add Reese’s pieces and raspberries to her French vanilla ice-cream (she supposed she’d have to order the low-fat one) before they smothered it in sauce. Or would she go to Burr’s where she had fewer topping choices, but they served it in a tall traditional glass instead of synthetic Styrofoam bowls? The tightness in her throat eased as she pictured that lovely tall sundae glass, the soft pale ice cream, the smooth and crunchy combination of chopped up pieces of peanut butter and chocolate and the rich sweetness of the raspberries, with that beautiful white whipped cream swirled on top. It was worth an hour of sweating, of embarrassing herself in front of Lord knows how many females, to get to that.
Climbing down from the Sequoia, she wondered just how embarrassing this gym class would be. She remembered herself as a pudgy nine year old and how much she’d enjoyed racing around the school playground and even came in third in the local athletic tryouts. She’d had good stamina and pictured herself eventually becoming a champion runner. She’d enjoyed gym classes, picturing herself as an elf springing from mat to mat. Until that day she sprang off the exercise-horse and landed with such a thud that Jeremy Walls yelled, “Hey everyone, it’s Dumbo, the flying elephant!” All the kids laughed, even her friends. Gina was swallowed up by a tsunami of shame and avoided anything athletic after that.
Thirty years later she felt that same wave flood her all over again. She gripped her car-keys. She must be crazy. How could she even think of stepping foot in a gym? Her sister and her therapist could go to hell, nothing was worth being humiliated like that. Slowly she sank back into the safety of her vehicle, her heart sinking at the thought of facing Annabel and admitting that yet again her plans had gone awry. In addition, she hadn’t even stepped foot in the gym, so no ice cream either. The day was ruined.
If only she could put her life in reverse as easily as she now shifted gears and backed out of her parking place. There had to be a way. There had to be some way that she could lose 100 lbs without exposing her body to others, without experiencing the irritation of her sister or the well-meaning manipulation of her therapist. Absently she unwrapped a Dove chocolate, popping it in her mouth, smoothing out the silvery blue wrapper so she could read the message before leaving the parking lot.
It wasn’t the first time she’d read this particular inscription – she knew all the sayings by heart and usually she considered them trite and overly universal. This time it felt as if she were being addressed personally. Surely it was no coincidence that this was the message she’d received today, after yet another failure? There was a way in which she could use this motto to lose her weight effortlessly!
As she eased into the traffic, suddenly she knew exactly how she was going to have the body she yearned for and the life she dreamed of.
Alison R. Solomon grew up an orthodox straight girl in England who dreamed of becoming a Rabbi’s wife. Her dreams took her to Israel where she discovered secular Judaism and women. But how do we let go of things formerly so precious in order to embrace a new way of life? It may be harder than we ever imagined.
KISSING THE RABBI’S WIFE:
Until the age of twenty-two, I didn’t know a single Jew who ate pork. It was a crime of such proportions that better you should bad-mouth the Queen or steal from your best friend than let anyone see you eat a ham sandwich. Eating pork ranked in the same category as committing murder – it was something only goyim did.
I was brought up an orthodox Jew. Not only didn’t I eat pork, bacon, ham, shrimp, seafood, and all the other forbidden foods, I also didn’t eat chicken, beef or lamb unless it had been slaughtered ritually and certified kosher. This meant I generally didn’t eat in the homes of my non-Jewish school-friends and we ordered fish when we ate out. In my twenties I was a vegetarian, so I didn’t have to grapple with the whole kosher issue, but once I started eating chicken again, it was hard to believe that it made a difference whether its neck had been wrung (non-kosher) or its throat slit (almost kosher) in front of a rabbinical observer (fully kosher). Perhaps throat slitting used to be cleaner or healthier than neck wringing, but I decided to stop worrying how my chickens were slaughtered, and focus instead on how they were served. However, I’m jumping ahead. At age eighteen I still believed there wasn’t a Jew in the world who ate pork.
Then I moved to Israel and my beliefs were shattered.
The discovery came four years after making Aliyah—the term for moving to Israel, literally “going up.” When you immigrate to Israel you go up the spiritual ladder, and when (God-forbid) you leave, you slink back down.
My husband, Yaakov, and I were being taken to a steakhouse by friends of ours. Steakhouse being a loose translation for an open barbecue in the middle of a field with some wooden tables set up around it. We’d been invited out to dinner by Shmuli, Yaakov’s commanding officer in the reserves. Reserve duty, required for all Israeli men, meant that once a year they would hunker down in the Sinai or Golan for a month leaving their wives free to – well, that’s another story. Before we left the house, Yaakov impressed on me what an honor this invitation was and encouraged me to dress appropriately—not an easy feat in a country where blue jeans were the attire-of-choice worn to both weddings and funerals. I put on a yellow sundress, blew-dry my hair as straight as it would go, and smothered my eyelids in blue eye shadow.
We met Shmuli and his wife Tali at a gas station on the outskirts of Ramle and followed them to the field/steakhouse.
Shmuli promised us a meal to remember. “You’re going to love it!” he said. “You’ll want to come back here every day.” Rich aromas of grilled meat on an open fire wafted towards us. Not the woodsy smell of the beefsteaks we usually grilled at family picnics, nor the smoky spices of chicken grilled in the open-air, this was something far more exotic and heady.
“What’s so special about this steak?” asked Yaakov. “Meat is meat.”
Shmuli’s wife, Tali, jumped in. “Ah, but this isn’t just meat, it’s—” Shmuli threw her a meaningful glance which cut her off mid-sentence.
“First you’ll eat it, then, once you’ve fallen in love with the flavor, we’ll tell you what it is.”
He sat back, took a gulp of his beer and smiled. The smell of sizzling meat was almost overpowering. Whatever it was, just bring it out already. But Yaakov was frowning.
“Is it white meat?” he asked. Shmuli and Tali exchanged looks. “It is, isn’t it? It’s white meat.”
White, red, I thought, what’s the difference? Though I had to admit, I’d never heard of white meat before.
“Don’t prejudge,” said Shmuli, starting to look a little belligerent, “just eat. You’ll love it.”
Shmuli was a sabra – a prickly-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle Israeli cactus, born and bred in Tel Aviv, as was his wife Tali. Both were intensely proud of their country and neither felt a connection with the religion of their forefathers. Shmuli and Tali were privileged, middle-class Ashkenazi (read: White) folks, while Yaakov, born in India and raised in Israel was a working-class Sephardi (read: person of color) who, though not observant on a daily basis, was still adamant about keeping basic commandments.
“We don’t eat white meat,” Yaakov pronounced.
I looked at him. “We don’t?”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s pork, Alison. White meat is pork.”
I don’t know what I was more surprised about. The fact that pork could have such an innocuous sounding name in Hebrew, or the fact that there was a restaurant serving it in central Israel. Neither Yaakov nor I had ever eaten pork. On the one hand, Yaakov was anxious to appease his superior and not appear the primitive “nigger” that Ashkenazis always considered Indian Jews. On the other, was our combined background of European persecution and Indian principles. Yaakov repeated that we wouldn’t eat white meat. An argument ensued, with Shmuli and Tali insisting that we were being stubborn and unreasonable; that we were living in Israel but had a holocaust mentality; and most importantly, that we were missing the most delicious meal of our lives.
“But why is it so important to you that we eat it?” I asked. “So what, if we’re missing the most delectable treat? Isn’t it our right to choose to do so?”
Ah, the right to choose. Such a hard-fought battle in so many political arenas, but no less hard in my personal decades-long pork/no-pork dilemma. In England my non-Jewish friends had always urged me to “just try it” on the grounds that I didn’t know what I was missing. I felt like I was a non-drug-smoking hippie in Haight-Asbury in 1969, being told – hey man, you’re missing the greatest trip of your life so I moved to Israel where everyone would understand my meshugas only to find that you can run from pork but you can’t hide.
Fast-forward twenty-five years since that confrontation in Israel, and I was now living in Mexico (without a husband or a commanding officer in sight.) I had moved here from California and was happily employed as a lay-Rabbi for the local synagogue. We were at dinner with a group of friends in a popular restaurant on September 16th, which is Mexico’s Independence Day. We’d arrived somewhat late in the evening so unfortunately the restaurant had only one dish left on the menu. It was Chiles en nogada, the national dish eaten in Mexico on Independence Day, the green pepper, white sauce and red pomegranate seeds portraying the three colors of the Mexican flag.
It sounded delicious. Poblano chili peppers filled with a mixture of ground meat, aromatics, fruits, and spices topped with a walnut-based cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. I’d had the vegetarian version many times and was already salivating at the thought of those heady spices, mixed with seasonal tropical fruit and that rich sauce.
I shouldn’t have asked. I knew it was begging trouble. But I had to. I motioned the waiter.
“Is the meat pork?”
“Si,” he replied “como no?” Of course it was pork. Pork is the best meat to mix with picadillo, the fruity, spicy, mixture mentioned above. What else would the chef use? Plain old chicken? Heavy red meat? No, it’s apparently pork that makes the dish perfect.
And so began the inner argument. “Just order it!” the voice inside my head commanded, “who cares if you eat pork or not?” Who indeed? Did I think the Big Who in the Sky who would be concerned if I ate what everyone else at the table was eating? It was ridiculous. For over 40 years I’d made the choice of my own accord to eschew eating the forbidden foods. Sitting in that restaurant, enjoying a pleasant evening with friends, and feeling hungry, it was time to question this choice.
As luck would have it, sitting directly across the table from me, in this restaurant in small-town Mexico, was Lois, also Jewish. Not an observant Jew, but a cultural one, someone who occasionally showed up to temple, not to pray, but for a sense of kinship. Her presence only increased my dilemma. How could I order pork in front of her? What would she think? Would she wonder how I had the audacity to lead religious services and represent our community if at the same time she saw me eating such a forbidden food? Actually, I knew perfectly well she would think nothing of the kind. She is like many American Jews I’ve met over the years. Somehow the Jews-don’t-eat-pork gene didn’t get translated across the Atlantic. While Jews in England who adamantly profess that they feel much more English than Jewish swear off pork, American Jews will proclaim their Jewish pride while tucking into a BLT. So Lois sat there, surveying the menu (even though there was nothing to survey since everything had run out) with no qualms at all. While the word “pork” danced and sizzled in front of me, loaded with a lifetime of emotional intensity, to her it was as innocuous as zucchini.
“Are you going to order the Chiles?” my partner whispered to me, as I sipped unhappily on my margarita.
Why couldn’t it be simple? If I were still orthodox I would have no choices, and no dilemmas. If I were truly secular I could chow down on pork with impunity. But as usual, I was stuck in the middle. Surely there had to be a way where once and for all, I could take my rightful place amongst the Normal People? Or was I doomed to be neither here nor there, always feeling like I couldn’t fit in?
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Did you ever want to tell an author what to write? Now's your chance. This is a book of first chapters for a variety of novels: Mystery, Romance, Young Adult and Memoir. You get to tell Alison R. Solomon which one you want to see in print! It's also an opportunity to get to know the breadth of this author's works. Alison R. Solomon's writing has been described as: "Brilliant," "Intense," and "Refreshing." Many reviewers call both Along Came the Rain and Devoted as page-turners. "It grabbed my attention quickly and kept me hooked throughout. Wonderful, believable characters, complex plot with lots of twists, very well written, and mentally engaging."