McDonald’s Coffee

coffeeGila’s chest constricted. While she is busy thinking what to order coffee online, the feeling is still there. She used to think the first wave of déjà vu might be a false alarm, but now she knew better. Once it crested, there was a minimal amount of time before it came crashing down. She tried to ground herself using the smell of the sewage plant, located at the intersection of Howard and McCormick where she was sitting at the stoplight. The overpowering smell seeped through her closed car windows the longer her car idled. It made her marvel at the fact that she was clinging to a sewage scent as the last hope for her sanity.

There was a fifteen-seater van ahead of her. On it was a bumper sticker from one of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools, the one where Gila’s husband Dovid taught. The one that Gila would have sent her kids to, had she had any kids. People were starting to whisper. People were starting to pity her. Twenty-four, married for five years, without a pregnancy.

Gila’s phone started to ring and she knew without looking that it was Dovid. There was no one else, in Chicago or in her Brooklyn hometown, who would be calling her before work. At one point, she might have thought that talking to Dovid, explaining the situation to him, might stave off the worst of what was to come. Now she knew better. Now she recognized the way his forehead went smooth when his face went still, which happened when he was confused. It was like an indication that he had lost all ability to relate to the person with whom he was speaking. Gila had seen it happen many times when he spoke to her mother. It wasn’t until she tried speaking to him about her dark feelings that the dreaded expression was turned on her.

She answered the phone after only a second of hesitation.

“Hi Gila!” Dovid said brightly.

When they first got married he would call her metuka and chamuda, Hebrew diminutives for sweetie and cutie that he had picked up during yeshiva in Israel. But the significance of that kind of male attention had unsettled her almost as much as the more direct — more physical — male attentions she’d been receiving and he slowly learned to stop calling her anything other than her name.

“Hi, Dovid.”

“I’m just about to leave and…I can’t seem to find my lunch.”

The van ahead of Gila started moving and she was briefly blinded by the sunlight reflecting off its window. Hearing the slight whine in Dovid’s voice made the dark feeling get worse. She could picture him, in his almost-white button down shirt and almost-clean black pants, looking blankly into the fridge, one hand holding the phone to his ear while the other fiddled with everything — his frameless glasses, his black velvet yarmulke that hid his bald spot, his unruly but thankfully short red beard. It was the sameness of every second, the predictability of it, that was slowly doing her in.

“I put it in the right hand drawer,” she told him. “It’s a cold cut sandwich. I also put in a salad, because I made one for myself.”

“Oh, I see it now. Thanks.” He cleared his throat and the sound seared into Gila’s mind. “Listen, uh, good news…they want — they’re looking for an office assistant. In the school. I told them to give you a call.”

McCormick began to curve as it stretched away up to Oakton Street. In a subconscious, barely-acknowledged thought, Gila considered how simple it would be to keep driving straight instead of turning with the road. Drive straight over the double yellow line, over the two lanes heading south, across to the trees on the other side. Her hands seemed to know how to steer without her telling them to; how hard would it be for them to let go altogether?

“Dovid, you know how long it took me to settle into this job, now you want me to move?” she said.

“I just think it would be good for you. Considering the environment. We could have lunch together!” This last was added on after a brief pause, a cheerful afterthought meant to change minds and move mountains.

Gila hung up and put in her new Shwekey CD, expecting the music to distract her. Instead, the track she had never heard before started playing and it sounded like every other modern slow Ashkenazi song that had been released in the past decade. She had been here before and she would be here again. No matter what happened in her life — or in the targeted entertainment industry provided for the Orthodox Jewish community — this is the sound she would hear until the end of time. These were the streets she would be seeing. She would go to her office of nice people and return to her home and her husband who tried so hard to understand what would make her happy but could never understand it himself or help her articulate it to him. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to never experience any of it ever again.

The key now was to keep driving, to attempt normalcy. To unfocus thoughts and focus instead on objects in front of her: Building. Gas Station. Restaurant sign. Gila reminded herself to brake when she got to the next light, but her foot had already moved to the pedal. Then she couldn’t deprogram her mind anymore because the clutter from her inner darkness was stuck at the forefront like mud. So she started to pray.

More than her usual morning prayers, which she wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without saying. These were psalms. Verses of poetry written in the writer’s time of need, when he had his own demons chasing him. One psalm after another, Gila’s lips operated with the same automatic motions as the rest of her body. The music kept playing as she mouthed them silently, alternately praising and beseeching the One Above. My help comes from Hashem, Maker of the sky and the earth.

If she told him how she was feeling, Gila knew Dovid would talk about Zoloft or Prozac again. Ironic, considering the stigma associated with such medicines. A stigma with which Gila was very familiar. One that she had worried would ruin her chances of finding a good husband. She thought she was done with those names. They sounded like curse words to her now. But ever since Dovid had started learning Torah with newcomers to the religion — ba’alei t’shuva — he had grown to be more understanding about certain things, things that at the start of their marriage he had accepted but didn’t fully comprehend. Mental illness was too unreal to Gila, too unfair in that she couldn’t fathom a disease that wouldn’t even manifest itself on her physical body.

Gila pulled into the parking lot where she worked and shut off the car. It took her forty minutes to drive every day to Dr. Todd’s office. At first the time had seemed like such a sacrifice — an hour and twenty minutes roundtrip! Now her day felt incomplete if she didn’t have the time to herself, to gather her thoughts and sit quietly. Except for today. And the other day this happened, about five weeks prior. Days like these felt like endless stretches of nothingness.

Gila checked in her rearview mirror to see that her wig was on straight. It was the same one she’d bought for her wedding; they didn’t come cheap. At least it was a pretty color: the same color as her own brown hair, but a few shades lighter so that it almost crossed over into blonde.

She got out of the car and smoothed down her oxford shirt — freshly ironed — to make sure it was still tucked into her skirt.

It had never been a question that Gila would need to work. She had known that going into a marriage with a talmid chacham, a student of Torah learning. Dovid would never make much of a salary. But when the time came for her to look for a job, the recession had been in full swing. None of the local schools were hiring. When she finally got a lead to work for a hotshot doctor in Gurnee from her cousin’s coworker’s husband, Gila took it without question.

Dovid hadn’t been as eager. He would have preferred for her to work in a Jewish environment, a category under which Dr. Todd’s office didn’t fall. Gila herself had read extensive thought articles about the dangerous influences of secular surroundings.

But at the time there hadn’t been much choice. And now, almost three years later, Gila actually enjoyed coming to work. She was settled. She looked forward to it. If it weren’t for her job there would be days filled with dark thoughts — like today — but she would be sitting alone in her apartment. And there was no way that she would wear a wig every day if she weren’t trying to impress her non-Jewish coworkers with a pristine appearance. For work, she would never settle for her other hair coverings, like the scarves and snoods she wore after hours. She liked to think none of her coworkers even recognized that she was wearing a shaitel.

Entering the carpeted office now, at least she appeared well balanced. She nodded to the receptionist. One of the technicians, dressed in scrubs and a lab coat, stopped to tell her a joke.

“I’ve got one for you!” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s not dirty — promise. The past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.”

Gila smiled and kept walking. She wished she could tell a joke back, but she tended to fumble the punch line. Maybe if she were the type of person who could tell jokes she wouldn’t be feeling this way now. She made her way to her little corner of filing cabinets down the hall from the waiting room. Then she picked up the latest stack of papers and settled into the rhythm of alphabetizing, singing the letters to herself over and over again until she was no longer thinking. She sat and organized lab results and applications. Nothing existed outside of these pages, she felt. Keep examining each page, one by one, patient by patient. The whole world was reduced to the pulse in her fingertips as she ordered each file.

Around 11:45 AM there was a small kerfuffle, as there was every day. It was the time when the other employees — nurses, technicians, interns — stopped by the front desk to say what they wanted to order for lunch. Once the receptionist — an easygoing single mom, with a ready smile and a bright voice — had an idea of what people were interested in for the day, she would call into Dr. Todd’s office and make a suggestion.

“Did you want to order pizza today?”

“The nurses are super interested in some mac and cheese.”

“Can I get you onboard for Five Guys?”

Once Dr. Todd approved her choice, the receptionist would send an intern around to collect orders from the employees, twelve in all. Orders had to be kept under $10. When the doctor saw the bill with the delivery, he would feign frustration and warn them that he’d have to stop comping lunch soon; he’d started the practice with a much more manageable five employees. But he hadn’t stopped yet and lunch was still the highlight of the day.

When the intern would come around to ask Gila what she’d like, she generally smiled and said that she’d brought her own lunch. The lunch order would arrive, accompanied by the smell of greasy food. Gila would keep going about her business, filing or sorting or typing. When the staff headed for the conference room and started poking around the piles of food, each looking for their personal haul, someone would tell Gila to come eat with them. She would smile again and say she wanted to keep working while she ate.

Sometimes she wondered if it was against the Torah to enjoy the scent of non-kosher food. Wasn’t smell eighty percent of taste? So maybe it constituted eighty percent of a sin. She would find herself taking a few liberal breaths before pulling out her Tupperware of salad. It’s healthy, she would tell herself, as the scent of French fries floated down the hall to her corner.

That day there was the usual rush when 11:45 AM hit. Gila hummed to herself, trying out the chorus to one of the new songs even though she kept getting confused with an older song and wound up singing that instead. Noon arrived and the intern came around to ask for her order. She opened her mouth to respond but he stopped her before she could.

“I’m so sorry, I forgot!” he said. “You’re the one who eats kosher, right? Is there somewhere we should order from that you can eat too?”

“Oh, no!” she said, wary of the source of his information. “It would be too expensive. But thank you anyway.”

He left. Half an hour later, the smell started to infiltrate the office. Gila had heard many of her friends describe the smell of non-kosher food as disgusting and oily, but that day, it was just the way she’d want her own cooking to smell. Like one bite of that food was all she would need to be satisfied. Like her whole terrible feeling could be cured with just a taste.

Today she could practically hear them chewing over in the conference room. It didn’t help that the air in the office was carrying the heat from outside, heavy with moisture. As soon as she thought about it she felt smothered.

Taking a deep breath, barely registering the resolve straightening her back, she told the receptionist that she was going out for lunch. Passing the conference room on the way out, she made sure not to look inside.

Out in the sun, it was so bright that the world rendered surreal and slow. Gila shuffled along the sidewalk, purse hanging from her hand as the dark thoughts clouded the edges of her consciousness. This is it, she thought. This is everything. It doesn’t matter how pure you are, how pious you are. In her adolescence, the psychiatrists to which Gila’s parents had sent her had the solution to her problem. They gave her pills and for a while she didn’t have to think about anything. Instead of worrying that she wouldn’t make it to finals week because her bed would have finally claimed her, all she had to worry about was remembering to take her pills. Her little dark secret changed from unwelcome thoughts to prescription bottles buried at the bottom of her backpack.

Of course she told Dovid before they got married. They had been dating for three months when she knew he was going to propose and against her parents’ judgment, she had told him about the antidepressants. He wasn’t comfortable with the facts, but he himself came from a broken home and didn’t have much by way of money. His shortcomings were Gila’s fortune, as her parents were sure to point out when she told them that Dovid knew and still wanted to marry her.

Gila had continued taking the pills after the wedding. For three years she continued. Three years of trying to conceive, trying to create a family, to no avail. Until one of the fertility clinics suggested that the psychiatrists’ miracle pills might have taken away the miracle that was her right as a woman. Gila had stopped taking them the day she found out it might have been a cause.

She spotted the McDonald’s across the street. The desire blossomed in her chest. Not to do anything; only to go in. She pulled the door open and stood just inside, looking at the red and white checked tiles that she had never seen before. There seemed to be less of a food smell in the restaurant itself, dispersed as it was with cleaning agents and ceiling fans slowly stirring the air. Gila was about to approach the counter when a man sitting in a booth by the window stood up and smiled at her nervously.

She stared at him for a few seconds, not recognizing his face out of context. The man was tall, wearing a suit and a short haircut that wasn’t crowned with a yarmulke.

“It’s me!” he said, smiling with his arms outstretched. “Kalman. I learn with your husband!”

Gila smiled automatically, understanding only arriving a moment later. This was one of Dovid’s learning partners, his Tuesday night chavrusa. Kalman was a young professional who was in the process of reconciling his newfound spirituality with the rest of his life. He came every week to their small apartment, wearing a black knitted yarmulke and asking for “Rabbi Dave.” Gila didn’t particularly like that Dovid told people to call him that, it seemed somewhat demeaning, but he said it made him more accessible.

“So what are you doing in this neck of the woods?” Kalman asked.

He followed Gila’s eyes to the cheeseburger laid out on the table next to him.

No busha, was Gila’s first thought. The lack of shame that he exhibited was astounding. But then she realized how ironic her criticism was. The ceiling fans seemed to be spinning faster, casting a distracting shadow on the walls. In all those scenarios that she had learned in school about judging someone favorably, there was always one about seeing a respected man of the community enter a McDonald’s. It was a textbook scene and Gila could not believe that it was in the process of happening to her now. What were all the excuses that in the end shamed passersby for jumping to conclusions? That you were supposed to assume they had gone into the non-kosher restaurant to use the restroom instead of getting food? Could she say that if Kalman found out that she worked a block away?

“Are you here to get coffee?” he said, blushing when she didn’t say anything. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone! I like it better here too. How did you hear about it?”

Ironic, too, then, that the conclusions being jumped to were in her favor.

Gila said, “My coworkers bring it in.”

A lie. Now she was lying.

“Well, I’m just about done with this,” said Kalman. “Can I wait with you? I’d like to pick your brain for a second, if you don’t mind.”

On unsteady feet, Gila joined the queue at the register while Kalman threw out the rest of his sandwich. Good. At least he really was ashamed, Gila thought. He came and stood next to her, fiddling with an expensive-looking watch that peeked out of the sleeve of his jacket.

“Listen, uh….What’s the deal with the hair covering?” he said.

Gila fought off the urge to laugh at him. “You mean for women? Like me?”

“I mean…yeah. Like if I like a girl but she’s wearing a hat or something. I didn’t think it meant anything but now I don’t know…”

They reached the front of the line and she ordered a small coffee. Black. No flavoring. Despite the fact that she was standing in a McDonald’s and discussing halacha, Gila felt her shoulders lose some of their tension as the two of them moved to the side of the counter and she treaded onto familiar ground.

“It means she’s married,” she explained. Religious explanations were natural to her, she’d been giving and receiving them since she could talk. “We cover our hair out of modesty. Only our husbands can see the real thing. I’m wearing a wig, which is what I usually do, but lots of women will wear hats instead.” Unconsciously, she reached up and brushed a strand of her shaitel out of her eyes.

Kalman paled. “They’re…they’re all married?”

“Well, they could be divorced. Many think that if you’ve been married before you should keep covering your hair.”

He put a hand to his head but didn’t say anything. The server handed him Gila’s coffee and he carried it across the restaurant before remembering to hand it to her.

Gila held the coffee like it was a grenade about to detonate, but quickly lowered the paper cup so as not to bring attention to it. Her husband’s pupil was standing by the window, looking out at the street with eyes unfocused. There was something going on in his head, but Gila was too busy trying to leave the damning restaurant. They didn’t know each other very well, and in that moment she could have cared less which epiphany had just occurred to him.

She sighed. Despite her misgivings, she and her husband were supposed to be a unit and it was her duty to support the people he supported. “Kalman?” she said. “Is everything alright?”

He nodded and tried to grin at her.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “So how…how can you tell? When it’s a wig?”

“You learn.”

“Oh.” He sighed, his posture hunching in defeat. “I…should really get back to work. It was nice bumping into you.”

The coffee cup almost fell from Gila’s hand as she weakened with relief. She could get out; she could get away. “You as well,” she said.

Kalman held the door open for her. Outside it was noisy and hot, making Gila wish she could get back to Dr. Todd’s office even quicker. That wasn’t surprising, though; she loved her work.

Nodding a final good bye, Kalman turned and walked briskly away. Gila stood and felt the sun warming her shoulders under her wig. She lifted the cup to her lips. It was black. She hated black coffee.

Why couldn’t her issues be simple, like Kalman’s? He was just arriving at the full realization of an almighty existence now. His existential problems all had simple answers; men’s sexual urges and how to control inappropriate attractions — such as those toward a married woman — could be told to him by any rabbi. Most men had to deal with that issue in one way or another. There was solidarity in his struggles.

Gila didn’t even know the question she wanted to ask. She couldn’t even think of her depression in terms of her religion, couldn’t begin to formulate the words to include both concepts in a sentence. She was crossing the street, eyeing the garbage can outside the office, when it occurred to her that Kalman might talk about their meeting to Dovid. He would expect Dovid to understand whatever arbitrary qualities of coffee that Kalman associated with McDonald’s to be a part of his own opinions. He would expect Dovid to know about his wife’s illicit visits to a non-kosher establishment.

But here was something that had an answer. Here was something Gila could explain, words that could describe a rational thought process instead of amorphous emotions. This was something she could share with Dovid.

She checked the time. Yes, he would be on lunch break now. He had even said he’d be thinking of her, when she’d mentioned the salad. Hands steady, she pulled out her cell phone and dialed his number. This she could tell him. This he would understand.  


Alisa Ungar-Sargon received her MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Currently based in Chicago, she enjoys examining different techniques of storytelling and how they translate across various mediums.

2 comments on “McDonald’s Coffee

  1. ceeshell beach on

    I am 70 and I have struggled with chronic depression forever. I have taken medicine, talk therapy, food modification. I also have several auto-immune diseases. None of these have visible signs, like a broken leg. But because I appear “normal” People don’t give me the same sympathy, consideration, or the help that I need. I am in a Reform/Reconstructionist community. It is not just the Orthodox community that is insensitive to our problems and needs. We don’t get the ADA accommodations that I have gotten the last few months when it was apparent that I had Cancer. And when I fell and hurt my spine and have had to use a walker on good days and a wheel chair when I can’t stand. Sometimes I think that I should wear a flashy necklace or pin that identifies me as a chronic depressive then people wouldn’t say “just cheer up” or a special room where I could go when the world is too much and I need a few minutes to decompress.

  2. northernsails on

    What I like about this article is the imagery and choice of words that tempt the reader to continue reading. Besides being able to relate to what the article expressed, it provides an internal conflict that many orthodox women have or are experiencing. Being that Gila’s husband is a Ba’al Teshuva, the article ends with ease knowing that Gila has someone in her life to whom she can confide in and turn to. Although the article does not tell us what happened afterwards, the hope is that Dovid was able support Gila during her time of need.

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