In the Desert
By the time Ilana arrived in the Berns’ lobby for their Passover seder, she had at least three blisters and counting. The bouquet of daffodils she’d picked up looked as thirsty as she felt; she failed to plump the droopy leaves with her fingers. Another night of remembering the Jews’ escape from slavery, another Passover at her boyfriend’s apartment, her third in a row doing it the Berns’ way.
Each step towards the elevator bank caused a wince. Why had she chosen today to break in her flats? She sat down on the bench beside the elevator and slipped out of the shoes for a blissful moment, a period she used to cautiously press her fingers against the raised circles of fluid that had appeared so quickly. But then she hastily got up, lest she seem too idle, a New York faux pas. Mike and his friends always told stories about “stooping it,” whiling away hours on the steps of brownstones with sodas and cigarettes in their halcyon youth. But all Ilana saw now was the way they jogged up the subway steps and stepped out of elevators with phones open, scheduling each other in for lunches and dinners — and for spiritual matters, too, like seders, as if holy days were just holidays, diverting items to tick off on the social calendar.
Even her non-Jewish colleagues had bordered on aggression today as they anticipated seders. They were planning on drinking all four glasses of wine, eating matzah piled with pungent horseradish, they warned. Manischewitz hangovers, am I right?
Ilana felt her phone buzz through her purse. She guessed the message came from Mike, tardiness its contents, encouraging her to bond once more with his family.
Routine, but with stakes: last night they’d had, at his initiation, the DTR talk. Define the relationship. She needed to make up her mind soon, in his words, about “what path she was on.” Was she going to stay in town, buckle down on the music thing? She should consider, he said, whether her plans would make room for her to stand with him under the chuppah. Was his family aware of this ultimatum? She hadn’t dared ask.
At last year’s seder, such choices didn’t loom. But that had been before Mike lost a classmate to an unspeakable tragedy, before he decided that living life to the fullest meant “getting serious,” programming a trajectory into his metaphorical iPhone instead.
So now Ilana was like the Jews in the desert. Free, yes, but wandering, thirsty, blistered. Worse, she had no clue where the promised land lay, if it existed. Mike knew she could return to Iowa, take up where she’d left off. She had a spot waiting for her teaching music at her old Hebrew school; the university’s orchestra would surely find room for the daughter of her parents, the humble professors.
Doris Berns greeted her with a hearty kiss on the cheek and the usual once over, and whisked the daffodils off to get “perked up.” Pour some water on me, Doris.
“Mike’s late, poor baby,” Doris said. Of course he’d contacted mommy. No need to check her own phone.
Ilana hobbled into the living room. Mike’s uncle and a partner of Doris’s suspended their debate about health care to greet her.
“Great to see you. We were arguing about whether the individual mandate and Obama’s…” she stopped listening, kept nodding. The chopped liver on the coffee table looked like dog food, but it was the Jewish foie gras, Mike swore, usually before he shoveled down an overwhelming pile of it.
Politics and chopped liver were always on the menu at the Berns apartment. If something controversial hadn’t been brought up by the main course, Mike’s father Ed would say, “so what do we think of the Senate’s take on” a given foreign war, a verbal melee would ensue and they’d love it. At the end of the meal when they said “next year in Jerusalem” they didn’t mean it, because their Jerusalem was here, on West End Avenue. And they wanted Ilana’s to be, too.
At her own family seders, no appetizers were served.
“What do you think?” Ed asked Ilana, and she gulped. “Do you think Obama’s ruined things with his plan?”
“Oh,” said Ilana.. “Well there have been so many times Mike and me” — shit, shouldn’t it be Mike and I?–“kept thinking Obama had messed up, but then he’d end up being savvy, pulling out a victory.” She cleared her throat, hoping she’d acquitted herself. The truth was, with Mike, she could talk about healthcare: single payer, public option, individual mandate, but the Berns living room felt like a tribunal, as she’d told a colleague at happy hour last night, the happy hour she had to go to because it was rude not to.
New York was a series of oral examinations.
At her parents’ house they read the Haggadah, intoned the prayers, quoted the diary of Anne Frank. Ilana’s heart twisted. She saw her mother’s wrinkled face and the housedresses she still wore when she cooked, her mother the prestigious professor making brisket in a schmatte. She imagined the Berns’ seders piling up behind her, and her mother growing further away, closer to the dark end of the tunnel of years.
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” said Doris, arriving in the doorway with a tray of water glasses.
“Oh — I should have been helping!” Ilana jumped up; pain surged through her heel.
Mike always declared that the key to Doris’s heart was kitchen duty.
“Are you limping?” asked Doris, as Ilana stoically distributed water.
“Blisters,” said Ilana.
“Oy,” said Doris. “But you wear such sensible shoes, never clomping around in stilettos. That’s why we love you, dear. Me, I wear old lady orthotics. They’re expensive, they scream ‘middle age’ but do they last. Oh, I remember our heels — back in the 70s, sturdy platforms, not so wobbly.” She reminisced with obvious longing.
Doris’ stout but compact figure was impeccably clad in one of her trademark silk blouses tucked into sharp trousers. “That’s why we love you;” how easily Doris applied the phrase. Was it possible? Ilana could barely squeak out “I love you” to Mike, whom she’d followed out here, who used the “l-word” routinely. Maybe Doris, Mike and their family were programmed to love with ease. Maybe it was fake.
Ilana’s earlier image of her mother came back to her, scolded her: “They’re so nice to you. How can we repay them?” She must be gracious and cease the internal kvetch session.
“In New York, everyone looks at your shoes before they look at your face,” she confided in Doris.
Doris clucked. “When they do look, they’ll see a gorgeous punim without makeup smeared all over it.”
The Yiddish intoxicated her, Ilana had to admit, as did Doris’s premature motherly pride, but she wondered if Doris would say this to any nice Jewish girl her son brought home, or sent to his home without him. Sometimes when she hadn’t seen her in a while, Ilana couldn’t even picture Doris in her mind — she just imagined what-was-her-name, that beautifully plump actress perennially cast as the New York Jewish mother. If Doris said “punim” one more time, she’d be too much of a cliché to be true.
Mike had arrived unheard; he slipped into the chair beside Ilana’s as they sat down at the table, muttering an apology. “Ilana, I’m sorry,” he kissed her just above her ear and whispered. “They’re working overtime to woo you I see.”
They blessed the candles and the wine. Doris grew misty-eyed and spoke about absent family members, the grandparents and Mike’s sister Erica studying in Florence.
“And one person in particular, Mike’s beloved classmate Rina, we lost in such a tragic accident this year.”
Silence descended on the table — a rarity.
Ilana glanced at her partner’s suddenly-still face. Mike felt he had to sprint to the Promised Land; he was scared of being mowed down before he got there. She squeezed his hand. Poor baby, Doris had said.
Doris’s voice took on a lilt; she added “and of course, dear Ilana’s family. May we celebrate Pesach together someday.”
Mindful of Mike and her mom’s imaginary exhortation, Ilana said, “That sounds lovely!” She pictured her straight-backed parents beaming as Ilana and her sister sounded out the Haggadah’s Hebrew. Back home, the kids hid the last piece of matzah and made it into a contest for the adults instead of vice versa as they did here. Her parents set out an empty chair for those they had lost, a wordless tribute.
Ilana closed her eyes and thought about the seder’s four questions, really one: why was this night different from all others? She leaned on Mike. They were in the desert.
They listed ritual foods: Matzah, the bread of affliction. “It afflicts my digestive system,” shared Doris. Ilana rolled her eyes. Mike elbowed her.
Ilana yawned. Early that morning, she had woken to a bird’s noisy reveille outside their bedroom, the remnants of happy hour — or the remnants of her talk with Mike — pushing at her skull. She’d thought, I should go for a run, but instead curled up into a giant fist, clenched for some unknown fight.
In his sleep this year, Mike had whimpered and yelped, he had fretted “where are you?” In the mornings, he never remembered his dreams.
Now Mike gesticulated and Good Lord, spittle was forming in the corner of his mouth. “That’s why I’m thinking that the Zionist project is misguided,” Mike said.
“You’re thinking that?” asked Ilana, wide-eyed, prompting laughter. Mike turned the color of the beet-dyed horseradish on the table.
She slid her blistered feet back into her shoes, again, and recalled an evening when she was a small girl. She had said, “Oh, so and so from my class is stupid.” And her mother, in that floral-print house dress she put on after a day training medical students, had sat her down: Sweetie. We respect people, even when we don’t like their actions. Ilana saw the peas on her fork, the touch of her mother’s hand, her own shame. Mike would have said, your mom’s wrong. Some people are stupid. She would have laughed.
“What if Exodus reinforces Zionism, though?” asked Ed, professorially. “A parable about how the Jews aren’t safe on strange land, maybe?”
“It’s an allegory, not an imperialist directive,” said Mike.
“Okay, back to the Haggadah!” said Doris, casting a wary look at Ilana. She was worried her son would push Ilana away. Well, she should be. But could it be that Doris had once suffered misgivings before she became a Berns? Perhaps she was just remembering.
Later in the kitchen with the matzah balls, Doris asked how Mike “seemed.” Ilana said “better” as if the two women had previously agreed he was ailing. Ilana mentioned neither his dreams nor his ultimatum.
They bore soup bowls into the dining room. Doris asked “And you, Ilana?” over Mike’s head, wondered how Ilana’s cello auditions were coming — which smarted because they weren’t at all.
“She’s so talented,” said Mike, as they slid back into their chairs. “I wanted her to bring the cello to the seder, but she wouldn’t.”
Ilana pinched him.
Then it came, from one of the cousins clustered around the parsley: “So when are you going to pop the question already?”
A few long milliseconds of collective held breath ended when Mike, ever ready, snorted, “When you get a girlfriend — oh, that would be never.”
Ilana forced a chuckle and gulped more wine. She had been here for three years and the Berns clan possessed zero ability to keep their mouths shut. It must be genetic.
“Hush,” said Doris. “Poor Ilana!” They moved on to singing “Dayenu,” Ilana’s favorite part, the only part when her own family loosened. She sang with gusto, even a grin.
She surprised herself by giggling and declaring, “Doris, you’ve outdone yourself with the brisket,” as they reached the main course. Mike lit up at her words. His desires were so uncomplicated on the surface — act happy to eat Doris’ food. Join in.
“I spent too much time sampling it during the cooking,” said Doris. “My diet starts tomorrow, I always say.”
Ilana laughed freely. Doris’ plumpness in the midst of reedy female lawyers: that, at least, reminded her of home.
She had downed two full glasses of Manischewitz, and felt soggy, not unpleasantly so. The pain from her feet, and her irritation were both buried beneath brisket and bitter herbs. Maybe it would be fine to come to seder here every year, walking click-clack down West End Avenue, blisters be damned. To schedule things in: happy hours, lunches, ritual observances, the future.
Maybe she could let the words “love you” trip past her lips the way Mike and Doris did (but not her family, who saved those words), and rant about the election and like Doris, produce a passel of children who argued for sport.
She reached around Mike’s shoulder, glass in hand, and gave him a kiss. “Let’s help your mom clear up,” she said. He looked at her as if she’d parted the Red Sea all by herself.
After dessert thick with matzah meal flour, Ilana shook herself awake to finish the Haggadah. She declined the third cup of wine and said to Doris, her voice loose, “I think we’d better consider mine symbolically refilled.”
“I think Ilana’s getting into the Berns seder swing,” said Doris.
“We’ve converted her. From Judaism to Bernsianism,” said Ed. “No pressure.”
The truth of it — their own religion — struck Ilana. The one time Mike visited her he’d been bewildered: “Do your parents ever, you know, talk about politics or their feelings? You sure they’re Jewish?” and she’d retorted “Christ, Mike, Upper West Siders aren’t the only Jews.” They’d flown back in silence.
Ilana rifled through her bag to check her phone. The message she assumed came from Mike had been from her mom, like a parody of a parent trying to text: “Happy holiday dear Ilana. Be good. We miss you. From, Mom.” The word “love” was absent, the sentiment present in abundance.
The final songs had layers of repetition. Even at home, Ilana found this warbling wearying. The cousins banged their spoons. Someone yodeled. Ilana tapped her foot until she felt a sharp squeeze as her biggest blister popped. It was raw where the skin had been, where the fluid had gushed out. Suddenly she wanted to cry. She was going to cry.
She felt this was her last Berns seder. Her last seder in New York.
So as everyone shouted “Next year in Jerusalem,” she dashed from the table, telling Mike her foot was bleeding, and ran through his childhood room to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid, peeled off her shoe and saw the mess — torn skin, a smear of blood. She dabbed at it with a paper towel and sobbed.
A gentle tap came on the door. Ilana swallowed, wiped her eyes and said, “Come in.”
Doris stood in the entrance to the bathroom with a box of cotton and a familiar-looking bottle of hydrogen peroxide and she said, “Your feet are all cut up. You should have said.”
Ilana sniffed. If Doris had been played by that actress, Ilana would have said, “I am lost,” and Doris would have said, “you’re a long way from home, bubbeleh” and made a remark about the seder, or the Exodus, or her own life, that told Ilana where the path lay to the Promised Land.
But Doris seemed tired, exhausted even, and she said nothing of the sort. She simply propped Ilana’s foot over the bathtub and curtly — but not unkindly — said, “this will sting.”
Sarah Seltzer is a fiction writer and journalist in New York City. She tweets at @sarahmseltzer.