Miriam Cohen’s fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Black Warrior Review, StoryQuarterly, West Branch Wired, Cream City Review, The Florida Review, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, and Cimarron Review. She was the 2012-13 recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Fiction fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.
Yael’s parents ask if she has any questions, and she does, but she suspects they aren’t the right ones. She wants to know if she will have two toothbrushes now or if she will bring the same one back and forth, its bristles wrapped in shredding tissue to keep from getting germy. Also, she is curious about when a divorce starts: if it happens all at once, or in stages, the way people are engaged for a while before they are married. She wants to ask if later on that night they will all have dinner together or if the divorce has made that, today, impossible.
“Sweet pea,” Yael’s mother says.
It is a name she has never used before, and it comes out with the stiff precision of a too-literal translation. It occurs to Yael that she may not know her mother well enough. Yael slides her hands under her thighs, even though she is wearing her uniform skirt. She has been told this is impolite and inappropriate, though she is not sure why: They are her hands; they are her thighs.
“Hands,” her mother says in her warning voice, and for an instant, everything is back as it should be.
Yael takes her hands out from her thighs and sticks them under her armpits.
“It’s okay, you know, whatever you feel. It’s perfectly valid,” her mother says.
“Like she even knows what ‘valid’ means,” says Yael’s father. He has not said anything up until now, and his voice is low and hoarse. He has enough stubble at this point to make Yael itchy with even the idea of kissing him.
Yael’s mother turns to Yael. “Do you know what that word means?”
Yael does not, but she lies and says she does.
“See?” Yael’s mother says. She smiles at Yael like, together, they have done something that belongs just to them.
“What does it mean, then?” Yael’s father is smiling too, but his smile is different. It is his competitive smile, the way his mouth stretches when he plays tennis with her uncle and he is winning.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this.” Yael’s mother narrows her eyes and presses her lips together so it looks as if she’s missing lips.
Yael’s father is grinning. His knees move quickly back and forth like scissors. Yael says nothing. Sometimes, when she doesn’t say anything, the question goes away.
“We both love you very much.” Yael’s mother sounds like someone else.
Yael’s father nods, as if he is remembering something or just waking up or both. He sits at the edge of the sofa and looks sometimes at the floor and sometimes at Yael.
“It won’t be the way you think,” he says. He clears his throat. “We’re still a family.” He shifts in his seat. “Your mother and I — of course it can become complicated. Custody, for one.” He presses his thumbs together. Yael waits for him to tick off the next item on his pointer, but he has stopped listing. He is looking at his thumbs like he is not sure how they got there.
Yael folds her legs beneath her on the couch with her sneakers still on. The sneakers are pink and they have lights that used to flash when she walked but, after weeks of flickering and fading, no longer work. There is dirt encrusted into the heart and star patterns on the bottoms of her sneakers, and the couch is white. Yael waits for her father to look up from his thumbs and say, like he is supposed to, “Feet.” She readjusts her legs and holds them to her chest.
Instead, it is her mother who says, “Feet.”
Yael waits for her father to agree. It is his favorite couch because it used to belong to his grandparents, and even though it doesn’t look old, it is. When they died, he inherited it, and the first thing he did when the movers brought it home was take off the plastic that made sitting in it squeaky. It is white and soft, and his couch. Now, the cushions are ruined with faint brown outlines of stars and hearts. With her knuckles, Yael smears the dirt around so the pictures blur, seeping into the tiny squares.
Yael’s father does not look up, but her mother crouches beneath her and reaches out. Yael gives her mother her feet, something she has not done for years, not since kindergarten, when she first learned to tie her own shoelaces, one bunny loop at a time. Her mother unties one sneaker and then the other. She lines them up neatly on the floor, then, changing her mind, brings them to the front hall closet, a shoe in each hand like puppets.
When she returns to the living room, Yael’s father is looking at the couch but not at Yael. Yael realizes she has done something she cannot take back. He says nothing. Yael wonders if he has somehow forgotten what they are in the middle of doing. This happens to her sometimes; she will go upstairs to her room to get something, but once there, she will not know what. She will look around her room and feel an emptiness that she does not know how to fill. Sometimes, she will suddenly remember: oh, that hairbrush, those rubber bracelets. She wonders when her father will remember.
“Mike,” her mother says. “Michael.”
He looks up and breathes through his nose. He reminds Yael of a stallion when he does this. “My parents got divorced, actually,” he says, stretching out his legs. He makes his hands into a cup and blows into it.
But Yael already knows this; they are her grandparents. Their divorce is a secret all of them have. The bad thing about her parents is they used to not be Orthodox, so there are things from the past they have to pretend never happened. Also, it’s why her parents’ real names, the ones her grandparents call them, the ones they call each other but only when they’re in the house, are names in English, instead of Hebrew. Her father, for example, is Michael in the world, but Moshe at home. Her mother is Leora and Leslie.
Also, another bad thing is Yael’s the only kid in the family. Good families have five, six kids, sometimes ten or eleven (though ten or eleven is a little weird because then your hair might not always be washed — but really, Yael shouldn’t speak, because she’s not always that clean herself). The problem is there’s something wrong with her mother’s uterus, which is a word that’s not nice to say in front of other people.
He doesn’t say anything else, so Yael’s mother says, “You expect me to do everything,” and then turns to Yael with a soft smile that looks scarier than a frown.
She explains that, for the time being, they will all still live together, but the only difference will be that she will bunk with Yael, on the foldaway bed beneath Yael’s regular one that is supposed to be for sleepovers. She is still smiling. The cords in her neck are a fan. Yael wants to ask how long “the time being” is, but it is another question, she knows, that is wrong.
. . .
At bedtime, her mother brings her nightgown, deodorant, Styrofoam wig head, and the book she is reading into Yael’s room. Yael guesses the divorce has started now. Her mother removes her wig and places it on its Styrofoam head. Her real hair always looks so disappointing when she takes off the wig. Everything about her is stranger, smaller without it. The wig head has a disproportionately long neck. Also, her mother has stuck wig pins into the center of one of its eyes and Yael half-expects it to bleed. She closes her eyes and feels the softness of her lid, the delicate, gel-like ball beneath.
Her father comes in to say good night to Yael while her mother is changing. She is in her underwear. “Not right now!” she calls, as the door begins to open: Sometimes Yael’s father knocks, and sometimes he doesn’t.
“Oh, come on,” he says when he is in the room. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“I told you not right now.”
He sits down on Yael’s bed. “I have a right to say good night to my daughter.”
For a second, Yael thinks he is talking to her.
“Fine,” says her mother. She takes off her underwear. She takes off her bra.
“I’m going to tell my daughter a story,” Yael’s father says.
Yael’s mother walks across the room, naked. The nakedness is not startling to Yael; sometimes, when they are alone in the house, her mother will do things she ordinarily does, but without clothes — though this is nothing for anyone to know. It’s not nice. It’s not modest. The best mothers, the ones who are pious and whose daughters’ clothing always matches, don’t even take off their head coverings in the house. Their hair is too private even for the walls. Their hair is for their husbands only.
The bare skin of her mother’s belly brushes the top of Yael’s head as her mother reaches for her nightgown. The nightgown is folded neatly on the nightstand next to Yael’s bed; there is no nightstand next to the foldaway bed. The nightgown is red and made of silk. Yael has never seen it before. She didn’t realize adults wore nightgowns: She has only ever seen her mother wear sweatpants and oversized T-shirts emblazoned with the names of vacation resorts. Yael is struck again with the crawling sensation that her mother is someone she doesn’t actually know.
“Once upon a time,” her father says, and a part of Yael wants to interrupt, to tell him no, she is too old for this, but another part of her wants to do what she does do, which is lean her head into the hollow of her father’s neck. The itchiness of his stubble is a fair sacrifice to make for the vibrations of his voice humming pleasantly in her own throat.
“There was a fairy princess.”
Yael smiles. The princess, she knows, cannot be anyone but her.
“And a dashing, chivalrous prince.”
Yael does not know what “chivalrous” means, but she is flattered that her father thinks she does. She stores these new words next to each other: valid, chivalrous. Her mind is a shelf.
“Oh, and but this prince loved the princess. He loved her more than anyone loved her. But the princess, you see” — here, her father stops and wags his finger in the air — “she was born without a soul. It was a defect she hid well, of course.”
Yael’s mother has changed into the red nightgown. It goes only to her thighs, and it’s see-through enough for her nipples to not be a secret. Her mother opens the door and leaves the room.
“Then what happened?” Yael says.
“What? Oh, why don’t we wait for Mommy to come back? She wouldn’t want to miss the end of the story. It’s her favorite, you know.”
They don’t say anything after that. They just wait. When her mother comes back, it’s with a bottle of lotion. She raises one leg onto the foldaway bed and squeezes a small circle of pink lotion onto the center of her palm. Then she rubs both her hands together and moves them slowly up her leg, beginning with her ankle, ending at the top of her thigh. When she is done, she switches legs.
“So the soulless princess,” Yael’s father continues, a little too loudly, “she seduced the handsome prince—”
“Chivalrous,” Yael corrects him, savoring the sounds of this newly acquired word as she pushes it between her teeth and tongue like a candy bar’s nougat center.
“Chivalrous,” her father agrees. “The chivalrous prince fell head over heels for the soulless princess. Invited her right into his chariot. Married her with the finest rabbi of the land officiating. But it was all a clever ruse, wasn’t it?”
Yael is not sure if he is asking her a question. She lifts her head from her father’s neck.
“Nah, she was just taking him for a ride. She wanted his soul for herself, is all.”
Yael’s mother says, over her shoulder, “Will you give it a rest?”
“His soul, his checkbook.”
Her mother closes the cap on the lotion. She laughs, but it sounds more like she is coughing. “His checkbook?”
Her father’s back goes straight. Even though he has not finished the story, he stands and kisses Yael on the forehead, the spot he uses to check for a fever. Her cheek is where she is supposed to be kissed good night. The door closes behind him.
The foldaway bed is still empty and neatly made, but Yael guesses her mother has forgotten about it because she crawls into Yael’s bed with her, her legs slippery smooth. Yael looks at her digital watch and sees that it is midnight, and the world is not magical the way she has always imagined midnight to be. It’s just the same. Yael turns over in bed so her spine matches her mother’s, and together, they are the two sides of a butterfly.
. . .
Yael knows she should be sad about the divorce, but she cannot help but feel excited: For show-and-tell today, she will have something to tell. She is grateful that her parents are divorcing now, while she is still in third grade, because strictly speaking, show-and-tell should have ended in second grade; it’s only by the grace of Mrs. Friedman that they have show-and-tell this year at all. Definitely by fourth grade, it will be something babyish and outgrown and altogether boring. For now, though, show-and-tell retains its appeal, though the prize from a cereal box no longer means anything to anyone. Show-and-tell, in third grade, is serious.
Last month, for example, Aliza broke her finger during recess, and instead of telling the teacher, she waited, and the finger, which was by then blown up and a different color and bent back too far, was her show-and-tell. She had to go to the nurse after that. The next day, her finger was in a splint, a disappointment because a splint is not a cast and cannot easily be signed. Yael thinks her show-and-tell will be better than Aliza’s because it’s not gross and, unlike Aliza, she will not have to leave the room before she is done. She will tell the class everything, and they will listen, and she will be special and popular and tragic.
On the school bus, she tries hard to act like this is a regular day. She peels the green tape off the seat in front of her, revealing yellowish foam that reminds her of cheese curls. She sticks her finger into the foam. It’s soft and disgusting. She picks off some foam and holds it in the little web between her forefinger and thumb, looks to make sure no one is watching, then stuffs the foam into her mouth. Now she knows what bus tastes like.
Elisheva, who lives down the street, gets on the bus and sits down next to her. Elisheva does not eat cereal and milk in a bowl. Instead, every morning she comes on the bus with a plastic baggie of dry cereal. For lunch, she eats two slices of white bread that is a sandwich of nothing. She is picky, like a queen. Yael eats cereal and milk in a bowl and a sandwich with peanut butter or cream cheese or tuna at lunch.
Yael holds her news inside her lungs like air before diving. And she knows, better than she has ever known anything before, that even though Elisheva has long hair, and the lights on her sneakers still work, and her sticker book is almost entirely full, Elisheva is not, after all, that great.
“Gross,” Elisheva says, pointing to the seat. She untwists her baggie and begins to eat her cereal. Today it’s Cheerios. She eats each Cheerio individually, sometimes sticking one on the tip of her tongue.
Yael sucks on the sides of her cheeks. “I have something cool for show-and-tell,” she says.
Elisheva touches her Cheerio’ed tongue to her nose. This is a trick Yael has tried, but cannot do. “What?”
“It’s a surprise,” Yael says.
Elisheva shrugs. Her hair is down to her tush, and when she sits, she arranges herself so that she is sitting on it. She tells people she has to sit on it. Yael watches her and knows that she doesn’t. She can, but she doesn’t have to.
Aliza gets on the bus. Her finger is healed, and she doesn’t wear the splint anymore. It’s just a regular finger. Yael feels sorry for Aliza. She’s glad a divorce is not something that goes away.
The school bus pulls up in front of the elementary school. The doors open like, Yael imagines, the chariot in her father’s story. She feels like giving out her autograph.
After morning prayers and math and current events, it’s at last her turn for show-and-tell. Yael walks to the front of the room wearing what she hopes is a modest smile.
“She doesn’t have anything, Mrs. Friedman. She doesn’t have anything,” says Shira, who has a custard-colored birthmark that takes up half her face. She bounces up and down in her chair like she has to pee.
“I can’t hear you when your hand isn’t raised,” says Mrs. Friedman.
Though it is maybe the millionth time she has said this, Yael is always astounded by the willingness, on the part of her teacher, to lie, and so blatantly: There is no one in the third grade who could possibly be under the impression that, in the event of a teacher’s inability to hear her student, she would say anything less than, What?
Shira raises her hand. Mrs. Friedman calls on her.
“She doesn’t have anything.”
Yael opens and closes her fists. “I do,” she says. “It’s just a ‘tell’, not a ‘show.’”
“But it’s show-and-tell, not show-or-tell,” says Shira.
Yesterday, during recess, Yael told Shira that her birthmark was a slice of Muenster cheese. She is dismayed at the thought that Shira would hold this against her. She had not even meant to be mean. Failing to share this revelation with Shira, the owner of the birthmark, would have been like finding a shape in the clouds and keeping it to herself, allowing everyone around her to see ordinariness when really, in the sky, was a dragon.
Yael thinks it is likely that she will cry, and after that, she will punch Shira right in the stomach.
“Did you forget your show-and-tell today?” Mrs. Friedman says.
“It’s a tell,” Yael says.
“It’s important to be responsible and to remember when it is your day for show-and-tell. What if everyone forgot? What would happen then?”
Yael feels like her head is filled with bus-foam.
“I didn’t forget,” she says, and Mrs. Friedman begins to speak again, and her voice is firm and flat and getting just a little bit louder, but Yael does not hear it. She does not hear it and she will not sit down.
“My parents are getting divorced,” she says, and Mrs. Friedman stops speaking.
“Where did you hear that word?” she says.
“From my parents.” Yael thinks her teacher is possibly the stupidest person she has ever met.
“Yael,” Mrs. Friedman says, “it is very wrong to lie.”
Yael is in trouble again. Only this time, it’s actually not fair. Other times, when she has spoken out of turn or pulled Elisheva’s hair or gone to the bathroom without asking, the note to the principal has felt inevitable. But the note Mrs. Friedman is writing now does not make sense. Yael wants to run across the room and rip it into confetti.
. . .
Two doors down, in the principal’s office, Rabbi Klein smells of cloves. When Yael’s father wears a suit, which is on Shabbos, he smells this way too. Rabbi Klein has a beard, which her father does not have. Some fathers do, and some fathers don’t. It’s better when they do. The reason he is calling her parents, Rabbi Klein explains, is because this is not the first note. It is not the second or the third or the fourth, but the fifth. He raises one hand in the air, almost like he is waiting for her to high-five him.
Yael may not go back to class while she waits for her parents; instead, she will sit on the bench in the secretary’s office. She will not talk to anyone. If someone tries to talk to her, she is to tell them, politely, that she is in trouble and cannot speak right now. She will think about what she has done. What she has done is been disrespectful.
Yael likes the secretary. She gives Yael a butterscotch candy. Yael sucks on the butterscotch until it is a thin, translucent disc with tiny holes around the edges. The secretary answers the phone and types on the computer. Because there is no school nurse, when a teacher’s aid brings in a kindergartener with a lopsided yarmulke and a scraped knee, the secretary is the one who helps him. First, she cuts a Band-Aid in half lengthwise. Then she crosses the two thin Band-Aid halves over each other. Holding the edges carefully, she gets up and places the sticky X on the little boy’s knee, patting it firmly. “Good as new,” she says, and then the boy gets a butterscotch. He takes the teacher’s aid’s hand and Yael watches them leave. She thinks he must have been pretending a little, for attention, because the kindergartner’s knees bend easily as he skips.
Yael wishes she could ask for another butterscotch. If she could have just one more candy, she would be happy, completely. But even without the candy, she thinks this bench is somewhere she could live.
When her mother arrives, Yael is disappointed. Her bench days are over. She says, “Mommy,” even though she is not allowed to speak, because when her mother is there, Rabbi Klein is less in charge. Her mother bends down to give her a quick kiss, and when she does, Yael realizes there is something off about her mother. It takes her a moment to see it exactly, and when she does, it seems impossible that it has taken her so long: Her mother isn’t wearing her wig. Yael checks her mother’s left hand, but her wedding band is still there. She cannot figure out what these two pieces of information mean together: Only unmarried women don’t cover their hair; only married women wear wedding bands.
Rabbi Klein calls them into his office. “This kind of repeated chutzpa,” he says, shaking his head. “Behavior we just can’t have.”
Yael’s mother crosses her legs and then folds her hands onto her lap. “My husband is sorry he couldn’t be here.”
Rabbi Klein nods and swats at the air, as if her apology is a bug he means to kill.
Yael folds her hands into her lap the way her mother has. She considers the phrase “my husband.” Suddenly, she feels she has made a mistake, that she has somehow misunderstood, and her parents are not divorcing. It is like getting the chain call on a snow day, only to be called back, a moment later, with the news: There will be school.
“He couldn’t get away from work,” her mother continues, and Yael almost corrects her. She is absolutely sure that her father is not at work because he has not been to work in two months. First, he called his time at home, “being laid off.” Now he calls it, “exploring other options.” She knows it has been two months because her mother has put a star next to every day on the calendar her father has not been to work, and October and November are full of stars. She almost corrects her mother, but doesn’t. Maybe her father just got a new job, and today is his first day or else maybe he just got tired of being at home and went back to his old job.
Good fathers — the kinds with six or seven or eleven kids — don’t work. They have to study Torah all day because that’s how the world gets to stay up. They’re called learners. Fathers who are less good, like Yael’s father, are called earners because they do work, but it’s not actually the worst thing because they give money to the learners, and also they can give the school all the money it asks for, which is called full tuition. And that’s also why, despite all the behavior notes Yael gets, her parents sometimes get a plaque that says “Parents of the Year.”
This year, Yael guesses, there won’t be a plaque.
“Of course,” her mother says now, laughs. “Of course I have to work too.”
Rabbi Klein wrinkles his forehead. Even when he stops wrinkling, some wrinkles stay.
“Yael introduced a word to the class that may upset some parents,” he says. His fingers make a house. “Divorce,” he says, glancing around the office. “I don’t know if that word could have come from a relative or if there’s a TV somewhere…”
He looks meaningfully at both of them, as if either might confess. They do not have a TV. Yael is almost absolutely sure of this. If they have one, she has never seen it. But she has watched TV, at her grandparents’. They are not Orthodox, but — and her parents have to remind her of this every time they visit — they are Jewish.
Yael’s mother smiles. Yael is not sure what there is to be happy about just now, but she smiles also. Yael’s mother doesn’t say anything after that: not that she is getting a divorce, not that they don’t have a TV.
“We don’t have any option at this point but suspension.” Rabbi Klein drops his head like he is sorry. The tip of his beard makes a rustling sound against his tie.
“Well, then,” her mother says. Her smile makes Yael’s cheeks hurt.
. . .
Yael’s parents take her out for dinner that night, and it feels like a celebration. Yael is told she can order whatever she wants, so she orders chocolate chip waffles. The waitress smiles at Yael’s parents and tells Yael in a sing-song voice that it is dinnertime.
Yael’s father fumbles for his wallet and clumsily pulls out a five-dollar bill. He reaches out as though to shake the waitress’s hand, even though Yael knows he wouldn’t ever really touch her: She is a woman who is not his wife.
The waitress laughs, a little. Of course she doesn’t shake his hand. Yael’s father is a man who’s not the waitress’ husband. “We really do stop serving breakfast at eleven.”
Yael’s father’s hand hangs limply between them. He puts down his hand on the table, palm flat. He slaps the table and there is the five-dollar bill, wrinkled and small.
“Great. That’s perfect,” her mother says.
The waitress taps her pencil against her little notepad, eraser side down.
“Can I get you something else? Or…”
Yael waits for the waitress to finish. Or what? she wants to know. Or the chef will make the waffles special for her? Or the waitress will offer to make the waffles herself?
“Do you want to order drinks first?” the waitress says.
“I’ll have a Diet Coke,” Yael’s mother says. “No, wait, Diet Sprite.” She nods her head. “That one’s caffeine-free, right?”
“It’s a soda,” Yael’s father says.
The waitress asks if they need more time. She looks over her shoulder at the other tables, which are not filled with customers because it’s a Wednesday and it’s nine-thirty at night, and it’s a kosher restaurant in the suburbs with overpriced food that everyone knows isn’t very good.
“I’ll take the Diet Sprite,” Yael’s mother says, and the waitress has no choice but to stay and take the rest of their drink orders.
Yael’s father gets just water, for him. Yael orders a milkshake, which is supposed to be only for dessert.
The drinks come. The paper around her mother’s straw is a little swirl, like a ribbon. Her father’s just water has a snowflake of dust floating in it. Then the rolls come, and the rolls are the best thing about this restaurant. Everyone knows that.
Yael’s mother says, “I shouldn’t.”
“So don’t,” Yael’s father says. He winks at Yael and makes it so his eyebrows go all the way up. She is supposed to laugh.
Her father dips his fingers into the water and extracts the dust. If Yael did this, it would be called rude. He asks Yael if she wants a roll.
She shakes her head and sucks her milkshake through her straw until enough has gathered that her cheeks are full. She has learned, from her classroom’s gerbils, that rodents store food for later in the pockets of their cheeks. She tries this from time to time, but it never works. The snacks always fall toward the center of her mouth for right now.
The waitress comes back. She taps her notebook with her pen. “Ready to order?”
Yael’s chest is a fist. Chocolate chip waffles are the only thing she wants.
Suddenly, she feels mean. “A cheeseburger,” she says.
A cheeseburger is the most nonkosher food in the world. Eating a cheeseburger is the same thing as killing someone. She leans back in her chair and just waits. The sky will fall in.
The waitress squints at Yael. “I don’t think…” she says, breaking off to smile at Yael’s parents.
“What kind of cheese do you want?” her mother says. Her voice sounds like someone else’s voice. “American, mozzarella, cheddar?”
“You’re forgetting Swiss, feta, Brie,” her father says. He sways back and forth in his seat. Yael checks under the table, and yes, his legs are scissors.
The waitress says she’ll give them a little more time.
But Yael would understand if she doesn’t come back. The waitress is running out a little more time to give them. Soon, the restaurant will close, the waitress will go home, and Yael and her parents will have to leave too, having eaten nothing, but Yael now allowed, somehow, to eat cheeseburgers.
Tomorrow, there will be no school for Yael because she has been suspended. But when the school bus does come for her, because one day the suspension will be over, Yael is not sure if the bus will be able to find her. She isn’t sure she’ll still be in the place she’s supposed to be.
Now her father gets up and leaves the table. It’s just Yael and her mother. They don’t have a ride home anymore. Yael’s mother doesn’t seem to mind. She drinks her Diet Sprite. Yael waits for her mother to remember that they are in public, that on her head, it’s just her hair.