Jews Are Welcome Here

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April 13, 2010

I imagined Bill’s house on the morning of the wedding: the clack of wooden folding chairs in the yard; tables draped in white, set with flowers; Mom leaning towards the mirror, putting on her make-up; Bill’s parents arriving from some exotic place in the Midwest; Nana showing up like a mystic, surrounded by a cloud of perfume, toting AA’s “Big Book.”

I would disappear. Everyone would forget about me.

I asked Ruti to spend the night. “I need help getting ready,” I told her. Ruti didn’t point out that it wasn’t so complicated for me to shower, put on a dress, and go outside. She just said that she would stay over, whether her mother liked it or not.

Since Mom and I had moved to Bill’s house, in a better neighborhood than our old duplex, Mrs. Schuster had allowed Ruti to visit. But she wasn’t happy about it. And the wedding? That my mother was having it on a Saturday, the holy day? That she would violate the Sabbath to marry a goy? This was all too much, according to Mrs. Schuster.

“My mother makes me sick,” Ruti said as she let herself in, the afternoon before the wedding. She slammed the door—a shout at her mom, whose car was still in the driveway.

Ruti kicked off her shoes, leaving them in the living room, and went straight to the kitchen. She opened the fridge, rummaged through the drawers, and pulled out the makings for a sandwich. It was weird to me how comfortable Ruti was in Bill’s home. I’d lived there for a few months and I still felt like I was staying in some fancy hotel I didn’t belong in.

Every night I did my homework in my new room, Bill’s old guest room, listening to the whir of central air. I missed open windows and the sound of the cicadas. As I moved through the house, the thick carpeting muffled my footsteps. I missed the creak of our old wood floors. And I wanted to hear the Jacksons, the family that lived in the other apartment in our duplex. The rise and fall of their conversations, their toddler wailing, the gospel music Mrs. Jackson listened to on Sunday mornings.

I didn’t want Mom to think I was complaining—and with the wedding coming, I didn’t want to bother her—so I tried to explain everything to Nana. On the phone, I heard Brooklyn in the background: car horns, sirens, buses. “What if all the noise just stopped?” I asked her.

“I’m waiting for the day,” she said.

“Nana, seriously,” I said. I wanted more, something that would make me like the central air as much as I liked the cicadas.

“Let’s turn to the Big Book,” Nana said. I heard her flipping through the pages. “OK. I’ve got one for you.” I imagined her finger resting on the page, moving beneath the line as she read the words: “Let go and let God.”

“What does God have to do with this?” I asked.

“Who knows?” she said.

Ruti sat on the kitchen counter, plate in lap, as she ate her sandwich. When she finished she set the dish aside, rolled up her jeans, and kicked her feet back and forth. “Notice anything different?” she asked, straightening one knee, holding her leg out.

“They’re longer?”

Ruti laughed. “I shaved.”

This was another thing our moms disagreed on. Mom thought I was still too young. With Ruti’s bat mitzvah a couple of months behind her, Mrs. Schuster said she was old enough.

“We should do yours, too,” Ruti said.

“My mom will kill me,” I said.

“She’ll be so busy she won’t even notice.”

I looked down at the dark fringe of hair around my ankles. All the girls at school shaved. They walked around in shorts and skirts, flirting with boys at lunch, poised on the edge of the benches in the cafeteria, crossing and uncrossing their smooth legs.

I’d sweated out the spring in jeans. I only wore shorts at home and in gym class—and in gym I did my best to make sure no one would notice my legs. When I was sitting, I tucked my feet under me. When I was standing, I tried to stay behind someone.

I thought of how Ruti walked through Bill’s house, strode into the kitchen, and made a sandwich like it was nothing. She moved with purpose. She moved like a woman. Maybe I would, too.

After Bill and Mom went to sleep, I snuck into their bathroom. The shower curtain was open. I grabbed Mom’s pink plastic razor and shaving cream. As I tiptoed down the hallway, I was thankful for the carpet and the air conditioning.

What I wasn’t counting on was the whooshing noise the shaving cream made as it came out of the can.

“Shhhhh,” I said.

Ruti giggled and I hushed her. “Too much noise,” I whispered.

“So what do you want to do? You want to wait?”

I didn’t. I wanted to shave. I wanted smooth legs to carry me through the wedding. I’d strut through it all, the whole day, just like the girls at school.

“What about soap and water?” I whispered.

“You’ll get razor burn.” Ruti took the cap off the can. She squirted a little foam into her palm.

“Shhhhhh! Ruti!”

“It’s not so noisy,” she said.

I put my heel on the counter and straightened my knee. Ruti slathered my shin. I grabbed the razor.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to do it?” she said. “My mom did mine the first time.”

I told her I was fine. I pulled the razor up my leg. When I was through with the shaving cream, Ruti reached for the can.

“No,” I whispered. I turned the faucet, just a little, so water dribbled out. I reached for the hand soap.

When I finished, my legs were a constellation of tiny red stars. Ruti and I dabbed at them, together, with tissues. The blood went away for a moment and bloomed again.

“Here, we’ll do what my dad does,” Ruti said. She shredded some toilet paper and put a little piece on each nick.

I tiptoed to Bill and Mom’s bathroom. I put everything back in the shower. When I got to my room, Ruti and I got into bed. My legs were raw with razor burn. As the sheets settled on them, they stung.

Nana was the first to arrive. She was straight from the airport, a duffel bag on her shoulder. She was drenched in perfume, as I’d guessed she’d be. But she was not carrying the Big Book.

Disappointed, I asked her why.

“It’s too heavy,” she said. “Besides, if I need to, I can go to a meeting here. Bill W. has friends everywhere in the world.”

“Mother, you are not an alcoholic,” Mom said.

“Am too,” she said.

“I don’t remember you drinking,” Mom said. She put her hands on her hips and tilted her head. When she stood like that, she reminded me of an angry little girl.

“That’s because you’re in denial.”

“What is there to deny? You were never a drunk.”

I interrupted Nana and Mom to point out that Bill was also a Bill W. “Isn’t that funny?” I asked them.

Mom saw an out. “Keep an eye on your grandmother,” she said. She held her robe closed as she hurried from the room.

“You see? Your mother is still trying to fix me,” Nana said. She handed me her bag. “Where are we putting my stuff?”

Bill’s mother and father arrived, driving a rented van packed full of towheaded aunts, uncles, and cousins. My soon-to-be-step-grandparents were grey. But from their blue eyes, pink skin, and thin hair, I guessed they’d once been blonde, too.

“They’re Aryans,” Ruti whispered as they filed in.

“Well, hello there,” Bill’s father said, holding his palm to me. “You must be Alma.”

I gave him my hand. His skin was rough and calloused. I remembered Bill telling me his father was a farmer. He’d been disappointed that Bill, the oldest, wasn’t following in his footsteps. Bill had joked that he was—being a chef was taking the next step.

“George Wilson,” he said. “It sure is nice to meet you.”

Like her husband and all the Wilsons, my step-grandmother was a good bit taller than me. She leaned in and said, “I’m Rose. And we are just so excited to welcome Jews into our family.”

Ruti whispered, “Really, really nice Aryans.”

Nana came into the living room.

“You must be Alma’s grandmother,” Mrs. Wilson said. “That means you’re Jewish, too, right?”

“No. I’m an alcoholic,” she said.


“Nana,” I hissed. Better to be Jews than drunks.

“I was raised Jewish,” Nana said. “But I haven’t been to synagogue in a long time and I’m in recovery now.”

“So you’re still Jewish?” Mrs. Wilson said, looking relieved.

“Sure. Why not?”

The wedding was small, just what a backyard could hold. Ruti and I sat in the front row. Mom wore a vintage dress. Beige lace, short sleeves, a low back. Bill wore a white dress shirt and grey slacks. He held her hands through the whole ceremony. She looked happy.

But, with Nana sitting on the other side of me, I wondered if Mom was doing this because she wanted to. Or was she still trying to fix something? And what about the first time around? Why had she married my father? Was she trying to fix him? What was wrong?

There was a catch in my throat. But I wouldn’t cry. Mom wouldn’t have to take care of me.

I couldn’t look at them anymore, so I hung my head and ran my finger along the hem of my dress, again and again, to calm myself down. I noticed my knees. Knobby and nicked. The cuts weren’t bleeding anymore. They were little brown scabs. I wondered if I would end up with scars.

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