Photograph by guest arts editor, Colin Grubel.
Read about the art selection process for this piece here.
Watch an excerpt of this piece performed live by performer Mary Cool.
In her twenty-seventh year of life, and against all her own expectations, Yonah had become a morning person. She had to be. She was a solo act now, the star of the show, and everything depended on her. If she didn’t start the day, no one ever would.
Today she woke to the screams of the boys and the rumble of their deafening productivity. Etan’s action figures were pulled out, already in the midst of action—their ranks stretched across the carpet like a caravan of tiny warriors off on some holy plastic pilgrimage—and somehow Zeke had escaped from his crib. Etan never did anything with his toys, just stood them in rows and left them there and watched them. It was eerie, those lines of zombie troops, and Etan just staring at them. And her staring at him—which, upon reflection, was even creepier—she was captivated by his tiny frozen head, eyes unblinking, nostrils pulsing with life, which had not so long ago been inside her skin. And now he was capable of independent thought! and movement! and rebellion!
But they were already up and about, which meant she’d already lost the opening salvo. Now she could not kick them out of bed and force them straight into their clothes. Instead she had to curtail their velocity, grind them to a stop, then convince them to move in a completely different direction.
Their room was still dark. Etan knew how to pull the curtains back but he never did. She felt an omen of something vaguely horrid living in the shadows, preparing an ambush. She found them foxholed together behind one bed, Etan with his plastic platoons and Zeke in a rare instance of obeying his brother. He kneeled at Etan’s side, making two broken animals dance—the fractured ones, missing a limb or cracked down the middle, which she knew that Etan had banished from his main ranks.
First she attacked the younger one. “C’mere, you little zeek,” she said, scooping him up by the underarms.
“No, Mama!” Zeke squealed, playing hard to get, all innocence and seduction, smiling his toothy awkward smile. His name had been Abe’s choice. She’d campaigned against it—the full mouthful of his name, Yechezkel, she actually liked; it was weird and mysterious, full of meaning and strange letters, but the inevitable truncation, Zeke, sounded like an onomatopoeia for something drunken and indigestive. It was Abe’s grandfather’s name, so freshly dead that when somebody spoke it, they were usually referring to the dead one, not the living one. Yonah tried to make it otherwise, to remind them of her son’s existence, but she was powerless to fight against the current of her husband’s family. Just as she was powerless against the natural force of her children.
Zeke twisted against her fingers, fighting every attempt to wrest his pajama shirt from his torso. He was a wriggly little thing, like a worm swimming through dirt, and he thrust against her like her fingers were attempting to pluck him into a jar. He yanked himself away and threw his body at her and scratched at her forearms. He refused to surrender his nighttime pull-ups and, when she tore them off at the loose part, at the hips, he grabbed the pull-up and ran around Etan’s bedroom and then the hallway and then Yonah’s own bedroom, swinging it over his head like a lasso, like a Molotov cocktail, whooping Neanderthalistically. Only a few years before, Yonah would have summoned visions of microscopic pee-drops erupting through the air with explosive intent, splashing her walls and furnishings with toxicity, and dedicating the next entire week of her life to scrubbing every possibly-contaminated surface in the house.
Today it felt like nothing, another minor defeat, one more smear on a canvas already blurred beyond recognition. “Fine,” she shrugged, surrendering guilelessly to the tantrum and abandoning her own bedroom to him. “I’ll get Etan dressed first.”
“I,” Etan, the haughty primogenitor, announced, sounding both dignified and greedy, “get to go first,” and at once Zeke howled bloody murder at this backstabbing, tiny fists assailed each other—there were accusations of biting—and Yonah literally didn’t know how she got to the point of them strapped into the rear of her Odyssey, strait-jacketed in their respective car seats, miraculously dressed in more-or-less matching clothes, their struggle having progressed from a Genesis-ian conflict between two brothers into the much more gothic and Numbers-ish struggle between a people united in committing sin, rising up against their oppressive authoritarian ruler. In united, offended tones, they brayed about not having eaten breakfast, a breakfast she knew she had set before them and witnessed firsthand their refusal to eat. She checked the dashboard clock. It was the exact time she was supposed to be ushering them through the preschool doors. Only ten minutes late. This was almost respectable.
Still, it was amazing to her that the world kept turning the way it did. Parental traffic clogged two solid blocks before school. Cars pushed forward in a grinding procession, making no progress other than filling in the space between bumpers.
“Why aren’t we there yet?” Etan moaned. Zeke imitated him, repeating his brother’s exact words half an octave higher. At least they had reverted from their state of arch-nemeses.
They both started saying it in unison, in a kind of chant. She forced herself not to yell—she had used up her quota of yelling, and she would need more soon—and instead cranked the radio, the Jewish music station from New York City that the car radio barely picked up, but she felt less crappy about letting her kids listen to it than the dance music of secular mornings. She listened to the kids’ chant and felt herself lulled by it, alluring and hypnotic, a sort of power in surrendering to her frustration, in just giving up.
Finally it was their turn. Yonah dropped the car into neutral, unclasped them, grabbed the kids—one tucked under each arm, like a fireman—and basically hurled their miniature bodies through the door.
Upon releasing them into the custody of the school building, Yonah felt her lungs lift, like the outside world had suddenly acquired a new grade of air. She was gripped by a fresh, brisk immediacy, the immediacy of a timer running down, and the infinite panic and rush of racing against it, the impossibility and the thrill that she might possibly win. And as she depowered her hazard lights and gunned her motor, a giddiness crept into her as well. That feeling that she felt as a teenager, upon the setting of the weekend sun, that anything-can-happen feeling of a night about to begin.
On normal days she would return home right now, fixing up paperwork for her business, that neglected third child, or spend the rest of the morning cleaning the kitchen to negate the mess of the first hours.
Today, though, she granted herself a momentary reprieve from motherhood. She needed these moments of freedom, an untethered respite from the bindings of daily life: her stereo turned up completely to 10 for the duration of a single Fugazi song (as a result, her car speakers fuzzed any time a song at normal volume hit its climax); half an hour of perfect and unbroken aloneness; the upending velocity of a state highway free of stoplights.
She was going ten miles above the speed limit, not enough to count, but enough to matter. The world was in a state of perfect pre-human emptiness. By the time she hit the freeway, the rush-hour traffic was gone and the interstate was looking like a deserted playground.
Yonah wanted to grow bigger than the bubble of her car. The sun in her eyes, the air in her hair. The car screamed across the towns and valleys, those mysterious and empty fields en route to the city—were they farms? meadows? something wild and overgrown, something no one truly set foot in since the advent of highways? Ahead were the approaching skyscrapers, gleaming and monstrous and growing. The rarity of today gripped her, the break from routine that made her shiver, like entering an airplane or the first school-free day of summer when she was a child, a buzzing, a newness. She was going to the city.
She remembered the reverse migration, as a child, with her parents, leaving for the country for a long weekend, taking the subway to Grand Central Station, the regional rail lines, seeing the progression of office buildings yield to factories yield to fields and farms, unpacking her weekend bag and finally settling down to family dinner at her cousins’ house, the place her father always dryly called the Country Mouse Mansion. Even when she was too young to understand sarcasm, she understood what that meant.
It had not stopped the visits from feeling enchanted, every house on the block a palace, the lawns like parks, with children flowing fecund, six or seven to a family. And the neighborhood was all Jews; her cousins could play in the streets on Shabbos afternoon and run into each other’s kitchens whenever a snack or a juice box was desired; so different from her own sparse Manhattan existence, so bleak, so compressed. Her cousins’ place had a turret on the third-story. They basically lived in a castle. Yonah would speak always of New York, hoping the name of her city would make her cousins feel wonder-swept or even jealous, but as a child, it seemed futile to cast that spell, their two-bedroom apartment, her sibling-less existence. One day, she thought, one day in this world I will belong.
* * *
She didn’t have to have a job that made money. More than anything, it was she who did this to herself, she who overbooked her time and overestimated her devotion, she who sold herself short. She did it when she said yes to everything—or when she didn’t say no—and then she had to deal with the fallout.
But now she had to focus. She was entering a war zone; and, of all her battles today, this one was her own.
Some days she visited the couture shops before the fabric wholesalers, and some days it was the other way around. It made more sense to do fabric last. That way she knew what she was getting, and what she needed to supplement it, but she could guess, and she was usually right; she had a sense for these things. Sometimes she wanted to delay the reward of shopping, build up to it like a climax, savoring the anticipation in her mouth. Today she needed the reward as soon as she could get it.
She parked, acquired coffee, weaved her way on the sidewalks through the late commute crowd (tech, artists; single people) and the early shoppers (the trust funded, the uncommonly beautiful; single people, or pretending to be). The city throbbed and she welcomed the long-forgotten feeling. She constantly tested herself. Would they notice the nonchalant long sleeves of her bodysuit shell, her collarbone covered, her skirt cut smart but long? She’d been Orthodox her whole life, and she constantly obsessed over the image that she projected, but each day was a new unsureness. A gaggle of young girls, from television, maybe, or college students, pointing at her and whispering, Is she one of those people?, was enough to destroy her for the entire day.
Inside a small, clean and metallic SoHo store, a young tall man served her. He, too, lingered on Yonah’s outline, watched her form shrink as she browsed from the near side of the aisle to the far. Her practiced hands stroked each item on each rack, so adept that they worked without her brain’s interruption. Automatically, she scrutinized its softness, its sturdiness, its breathe-and-feel-and-weave matrix. She tore past outfit after outfit, watched the progression passively; she waited for colors and patterns to sell themselves to her. She used to do this ravenously, filling her arms with maybes and making her final cuts at the register. She had learned to be conservative with her requests. The salespeople became less frustrated; they were more forgiving; they helped you when you required it rather than exhausting your tab before you’d even thought about cashing out.
She found her prizes. Summer blazers, part sheer, vaguely Indian, half a dozen; a shiny leather-esque jacket; a pinstripe pencil miniskirt that flared out at the last minute. The last was the one that struck her. It was perfect for one client in particular, Evaluna Mizrahi, a stick of a woman who favored both tightness and stripes. She was absolutely sticklike, and she liked to drive it home. The design, the flow of the piece; the skirt was exactly what Yonah needed, chaos and order in a rare conjugation… She just had no idea what she would do with it. The miniskirt was designed for brevity, to be a nothing thing taking a backseat to the straddling of legs and some formative top. Most clothes were easy, and when it came time for Yonah to decide what surgery she would perform on them, they revealed themselves immediately to her: elongating hems, filling in holes, sewing up slits. She was careful to be subtle; always an extension of the original design, never an affront to it.
This pencil mini, though, it might elude her. There just wasn’t a there there; not enough to work with. But something about the mini wouldn’t let her let it go. It was an aesthetic seduction, an immediate crush that wouldn’t let her out of its power, drawing upon her sense of visual umami. She lay out the skirts atop the flimsy items on the clearance table, the whole stack of them, and she watched those skirts. She lay them out side by side, and she waited for the skirts to share their secrets.
“Um, excuse me, madam.”
The madam stung her immediately. Not the formality of it, nor the fake French; rather, the intimation that she was old enough to require a title.
“I’m sorry?” She was careful not to look up too fast. It was the proprietor, of course. Or, no, he was a salesboy, young, elegant, sure of himself, never a doubt about any word that he spoke or gesture that he made. He was approaching her. He was regarding her arrangement of skirts.
“If you’d like to see something up close, we have rooms in the back.”
He’d mistaken her for a customer. She was not; she was a buyer. He’d seen her in here, what, half a dozen times before, eight, nine? She thought she was memorable. She didn’t think of it as haughtiness, just a matter of fact: her look, her personality, the quantity of her purchases, the fact that no other remotely Orthodox-looking woman, whether or not she was trying to look it, ever stepped foot in here. She didn’t yet qualify for quantity discounts (this she knew from discussions with the proprietor, the real proprietor, a portly and well-muscled gay Israeli man in his fifties with the unlikely name of Tal, Hebrew for dew, who always addressed her harshly but fairly), but she hoped to become recognized. At the very least, contended with.
She focused. She tried to focus.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m getting these.”
It was so hard to concentrate, to think of only one thing. She needed to push the world out of her mind. She played with the skirts, the idea of the skirts, iterating through a dozen different alterations, extending the pattern vertically, a blackout strip that reached beneath the knee, tacking it onto a shirt. None of her ideas gained traction. The skirt was microscopic. It was wider than it was long, dammit. It was that flare at the bottom that was giving her so much trouble, so cute and so problematic. How to capture the last-second shock, but without simply stretching out the rest of it, shaping it into a giant bell jar-shaped lump… The six skirts were spread in front of her, two by three, the sizes increasing imperceptibly, a slow creep from topmost to bottom: 2, 4, 6.
“I’m really going to have to ask you to move.” The clerk was itinerant, his voice shooting up in pitch, growing nasal with presumed authority. “Now I have to do the whole table over again. Just pick out the one that you want and get it over with.”
And maybe it was the pressure that did it, that made all the cacophonous parts of her brain suddenly harmonize. A connection: a pyramid, join three skirts one above the next, sewn at the flare, each of them increasing gradually in width to allow for leg movement. It would be ridiculously expensive—each of these skirts, even before her markup, was ridiculously expensive, way more than any single styled piece of fabric had any right to be—but there were women who would pay for it. One of those women was Evaluna Mizrahi. There were others. More would find her, if her business were given a chance to grow. Her clients had confidence in her, more confidence than she could ever muster about herself.
“That’s fine,” she said, sweeping them up, “I’m finished here. And cleaning up is your job,” she said, eyeing the table one last time to make sure the clothes were relatively unmussed, “just like shopping here is mine. I’ll take them all. And tell Tal I’ll be in touch about the rest of my order, and I’ll make sure to mention all the help you’ve been.”
Out on the street again, and back in her head, Yonah’s parting comeback turned into a victory. Even if the salesboy hadn’t crumbled into a pile of ash with her parting repartee, even if the snideness of his smile flinched somewhere between well-masked and not at all, she’d still gotten in the parting shot, hadn’t she? And even if she had no larger order with Tal to speak of, well, some day she might. Or if he called, she could always come up with something. Order more of the same, another six miniskirts to blend into two long skirts. A deflation of ego always came after these shopping expenditures, knowing the money she spent there was not her own. The profits from her previous sales paid for some of it, but compared to Abe’s earnings, her own budget was a meager nothing. She was always trying to grow bigger, and because of this, her business enterprise was always running in the red.
This neighborhood is what saved her. This was where she grew up, and it was a world away. Even twenty years ago the neighborhood was dying—the Jews running away, the silver shops and kosher restaurants shutting down or moving west across the rivers, grandchildren forfeiting their grandparents. The streets felt like a secret language all her own, the indentations in buildings she’d hid in as a child, the corner groceries and secret gardens stuck between lots. When she was young, most of the people she’d known had been old, people who’d grown up there and never moved and were already getting ready to die there. There was no way any of them were left. The area was trendy now. Buildings had been scrubbed to their original faces: carved stone and exposed brick. Residence hotels were remade into luxury apartments, tenements into penthouses. Old diners became new bars. She could imagine what her childhood apartment rented for these days or what kind of people might be living inside.
She passed the corner on which she’d had her first and last cigarette, at the age of twelve, proffered by Gavin Elody, an older boy. She could have cared less about him, but she was entranced by the experience, made eager by the prospect of sucking fire into her lungs. And when she did, all she could taste was ash—later that afternoon, Gavin tried to kiss her, but she was still disgusted by the taste, disgusted by her very lungs themselves, and she’d shoved him away, right off the curb and into traffic. With a shock, Yonah realized she was closer at the time to her sons’ age than to her own current age. She looked back. The corner had dropped out of sight. She forced a shiver, trying to shirk the past, feeling it swelling around her, unable to let it go.
Today she found salvation. A teenage boy, a skater, coming the opposite way down Stanton, dead stopped in his tracks, gave a long, indulgent, thirsty check of her body. It was unabashed. It kind of scared her. It grossed her out, to think what he might be thinking, if she permitted herself to. She had never wanted to traffick in the affairs of boys. That was, of course, before she found herself surrounded by them. But today she drank in it; she reveled in it; she allowed herself, as a matter of professional pride, to take it as a compliment.
Her phone went off. The jarringly silent vibration, that call that each day shattered her and sent her limping back into life, the alarm that meant her sons’ departure from daycare was imminent. She had to pick them up—across the bridge, a full state away. She was late.