2012 Lilith fiction contest: 3rd place winner
Becca slips out of the library with her blue bag hidden under her arm. She’s not having an affair or embezzling the overdue fines. She’s on her scheduled lunch hour. And it was Sister Marie Claire herself who showed her the secret room off the stairwell, and gave her the key. And yet, Becca’s heart races as she descends the stairs. She hesitates outside the door. When she’s sure no one’s watching, she turns the lock and enters.
It’s like a room from a dream, cavernous and shadowed, the only furniture a wooden chair and a little desk. Subtle grooves in the linoleum and curtain tracks on the ceiling show where the cots stood, back in the day when this was a dormitory. Back when so many girls wanted to be nuns, the residence house beside the school couldn’t hold them. When Saint Cecilia didn’t need to fill out its staff with lay people. Let alone non-Catholics. Let alone a Jew. Not that anyone here has ever made Becca feel unwelcome.
She pulls the chair to the desk and unpacks the blue bag. Sealable storage containers, breast pump, a dozen glossy three-by-fives: Leila rosy from her bath, snuggled in her stroller, peeking over Jules’ shoulder. Becca’s favorite is from the delivery room. It shows mother and newborn skin to skin, gazing into each other’s eyes like lovers. Propping the picture against the bag, Becca reaches under her shirt, unclips her bra, and nestles her breast into the plastic pump. Leila Leila Leila Leila, she silently recites. But it’s no good.
It’s those voices. Students. There must be three or four of them out there, their giggly whispers erupting into sudden screeches of laughter. And then the unmistakable scold of Sister Ignatius, and the party abruptly disperses.
Sister Ignatius wants to be Becca’s friend. The other nuns might apologize to Becca for the ham on the buffet at the faculty retreat, or bore her with the details of their visits to the Holy Land. And Sister Marie Claire once introduced Becca to a visiting priest as our wonderful Jewish librarian, as if she were the answer to a trick question. But Sister Ignatius has actively courted Becca. Her first day on the job, the nun stopped by the library and announced that her favorite author is Chaim Potok. Since then, she has pursued Becca relentlessly, besieging her with questions. Did Becca have a fulfilling Day of Atonement? Has Becca noticed how the liturgy of the mass is rooted in Jewish ritual? Doesn’t Becca love those canned macaroons they sell for Passover? Sister Ignatius sure does.
Becca has always fended her off with vague smiles and evasive answers. But today the nun upped the ante. She asked Becca to address her Religion 9 class. When Becca asked, About what? Sister Ignatius seemed genuinely surprised. Being Jewish! she said. What did you think?
What Becca had thought was: primary versus secondary sources. Research strategies. How to paraphrase without plagiarizing. Those are the topics she’s qualified to teach. What does she know about being Jewish? She’s a mediocre Jew, at best. But the nuns expect her to be as good at her religion as they are at theirs, so Becca avoids the ham even though it looks delicious, feigns regret that she still hasn’t made it to Israel, stays home on Yom Kippur, even though she and Jules never do anything that even vaguely resembles atonement.
I’m hardly an expert, she told Sister Ignatius. Now, now. Don’t be modest, Sister Ignatius replied, patting Becca’s hand. Becca smiled back miserably. She and Jules always joke about how she’s putting one over on the nuns. It’s only fair, she supposes, that the joke should now be on her.
But she can’t think about that now. She has a baby to feed, and the milk isn’t coming. She sorts through the photos until she finds the opposite of the delivery-room picture: Leila at two months, alone and howling with rage. Jules took it soon after Becca went back to work. Why should we only record the Hallmark moments? he said when Becca objected.
Neither of them realized how valuable this shot would turn out to be, how reliably the knot of her daughter’s desperate face would trigger letdown. Where are you? I need you! she imagines Leila screaming. I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry! And sure enough, there’s the heat. The tingling. And as Becca gently draws out the tube, here comes the milk, four pin-prick streams spraying wildly against the sides of the cylinder and forming a pool of bluish-white liquid. I need you, I need you, Becca silently intones, no longer sure who’s I and who’s you. As her milk flows and flows, an oxytocin peace rises from within her, doubt and guilt washed away for as long as it takes the cylinder to fill.
Four hours later, Becca arrives home to find Jules waiting at the apartment door with Leila in his arms. The baby is wearing a new dress, bubblegum pink, with ruffles like whipped cream. Becca turns from Jules’ kiss to pluck at the frothy hem.
“Where did this thing come from?”
“Nice to see you, too. Dee sent it. You don’t like it?”
“It makes her look like a cupcake.”
“Exactly! Who’s my wittle cupcake?” Jules burrows his nose in the baby’s belly, eliciting shrieks of delight.
Becca steps around them. She needs to get today’s milk out of the blue bag and into the freezer. She needs to change her clothes and drink some water. And she needs to nurse. Now. But when she and the baby curl into their chair, Becca’s too engorged for Leila to latch on.
“Maybe if you expressed first?” Jules suggests, as Leila wails with frustration.
“I know how to nurse my baby!” Becca shouts, making Leila wail louder. “And stop hovering.” She needs calm to nurse. And she needs to nurse to be calm. Ever since Leila was born, Becca has been like a junky, depending on the regular deliveries of chemical quiet that come with lactation. But when Leila finally settles, Becca still can’t relax.
“You could have at least waited for me before opening the package.”
“Your mom wanted to know if it fit.”
“What else did you two talk about?”
“Secrets,” Jules deadpans. But Becca doesn’t laugh. “Come on,” he says. “Would you rather your mom and I didn’t get along?”
Becca doesn’t answer. She and Jules used to make fun of her mother. It was their party shtick, a sure hit after the third drink. When Dee fussed over Becca’s returning to work, Becca imitated her But are you sure it’s safe? in her patented Mom Voice. When the issue shifted to Jules’ fitness as a stay-at-home dad, he vamped in falsetto, to their friends’ guffaws, But how will you know what to do? Don’t you have a … penis? Becca and Jules were a team, and Dee the perfect foil. Then Becca returned to Saint Cecilia, and it became obvious to everyone that Jules isn’t just a competent caregiver. He’s a natural nurturer, way better at it than Becca will ever be. And what he can’t figure out for himself, he asks his mother-in-law. Now he and Dee are on the phone every day, discussing sleep schedules and colic cures and who knows what else.
“Are you going to call and thank her for the dress?” he asks, still hovering.
“Didn’t you already do that?”
“I’m sure she’d like to hear it from you.”
“I hate the dress. And we have nothing to say to each other. She never wants to hear about work. All she ever asks is, How are your nuns treating you? as if the only thing that mattered about the place is that it’s Catholic. You’d think I worked for the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Why don’t you just call her?”
“Why don’t you stop being such a pain in the ass?” Becca says. But she picks up the phone.
“Thanks for the dress, Ma.”
“Isn’t it something?”
“It certainly is…pink.” Across the room, Jules is patting the air with his palms, making a be nice gesture. But the sarcasm goes over Dee’s head.
“I got such a chuckle out of it.”
“Yup,” Becca says. And then she runs out of things to say. It’s one thing to not tell the truth. It’s another to actually lie. Past the silence that hangs between them, Becca can hear her mother lighting her cigarette. Canned laughter drifts from her TV. Ever since Becca’s dad died, she’s kept it on all the time. I know it’s an idiot box, she says. But even an idiot can be company.
“How are your nuns treating you?”
“You don’t really want to know.”
“Of course I do. Why would you say such a thing?”
“You always ask that exact same thing, in those exact same words, and as soon as I start telling you, you change the subject. You hate that I work there.” Jules pats the air more emphatically. Becca waves him off.
“Don’t be silly. You’re the one who never wants to talk about it,” her mother is saying. “I keep wondering what you’re hiding.”
“What would I be hiding? You want to know how the nuns treated me today? Sister Ignatius wants me to talk to her religion class. About being Jewish.” As she says it, Becca can feel her heart pounding. That guilt again. But what has she done?
“Why would she do that?” Dee asks.
“I don’t know, Ma. It’s a roots thing, I guess. We’re their roots.”
“Hmm.” Another pause. Then, “So, what will you tell them?”
“I don’t know!” She’s whining like a twelve year old. What’s wrong with her? “What do you think I should say?”
“Me! I don’t know,” Dee admits, and they both go quiet again. Only this time the silence doesn’t hang between them. It encloses them. Her mother discreetly coughs. Leila has fallen asleep. Her hair is damp and her head lolls back, her lips dreamily sucking as her body sinks and swells beneath the horrible dress. Isn’t it something? Becca repeats to herself, practicing her mother’s inflection. I got such a chuckle out of it. Where would she be without Dee for material?
“Okay, Ma,” she says. “When you think about being Jewish, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”
“Kosher,” Dee answers, without hesitation. “Not that we ever were. We’ve never been good Jews.”
“No. But we’ve always been Jews. We never considered being anything else.”
“How could we? It’s not like deciding what to wear in the morning. And I’m proud to be a Jew. Aren’t you? We gave the world the Ten Commandments! Albert Einstein!”
“Sammy Davis Junior,” Becca adds. “Ralph Lauren.”
“Ralph Lauren! Since when is he Jewish?”
“Since forever, Ma. His real name is Ralph Lifshitz.”
“I had no idea. Ralph Lifshitz!” Her laughter erupts as a bark, but quickly splinters into ragged coughs that cascade on and on. They hurt Becca’s chest to hear. But when Dee recovers, she goes on as if nothing happened. “I’ll tell you what’s to be proud of,” she says. “Arguments. Two Jews, three opinions.”
“That’s what you’re proud of?”
“That’s right. We think for ourselves.”
“And that’s what I should tell the class? Two Jews, three opinions?”
“You figure out what to tell them,” her mother says. “Look it up, if you don’t know. You work in a library, for God’s sake.”
The following Friday morning, Becca stands before Sister Ignatius’s Religion 9 class. Her notes, neatly printed on numbered index cards, are lifted from a book she found in the Saint Cecilia library: What the Jews Believe. She had hoped her research would tap some deep memory, unlock the secret door to her own ancestral room. But the words on the page could have been about anyone. Still, Becca has what she needs: the major holidays and the Sabbath, dietary laws and blessings, Torah and Talmud, the emphasis on discussion her mother alluded to. That’s where Becca begins.
“There’s an old saying,” she tells the girls, in their matching yellow blouses and checked skirts. “Two Jews, three opinions.” She pauses for the laugh, but no one does. At the back of the room in her grey dress and veil, Sister Ignatius looks puzzled. “It’s a silly line,” Becca forges on, “but it gets at something serious. Judaism encourages learning and discussion. We don’t have a pope, and rabbis don’t have special powers. They’re teachers, not priests.”
A girl in the third row raises her hand. “If you don’t have priests, who hears your confession?”
Becca shuffles her cards. She was going to cover that under Yom Kippur. But she might as well do it now. “If you sin against God, you confess directly to God. If you sin against another person, you ask their forgiveness. But the main thing is changing your behavior.”
Another hand. “What about Hell?”
“We don’t really have Hell,” Becca guesses, winging it.
“Then why be good?” someone calls out.
“Hands, ladies,” Sister Ignatius warns.
“Because it’s good to be good?” Becca improvises. “In Judaism, we believe that when everyone is good, the messiah will come. That will be the messiah, in a sense.” She’s not sure if this is true. But Sister Ignatius is nodding.
“Does the Jewish religion have sins, though?”
“Of course we have sins. We gave the world the Ten Commandments!”
“What about Jesus?”
“What about Jesus?”
“Why don’t you believe in him?”
“Ladies! Why don’t we let Ms. Rosen give her prepared talk?”
“Great,” Becca says. But her cards are a mess. And her notes about dreidels and cheese burgers seem beside the point.
She’s still fumbling for what to say next when someone close by murmurs, “Do you have Heaven, at least?” A kid in the front row smiles hopefully around a mouthful of braces.
“Not really. At least, I don’t think so.”
The girl stares at her, stricken. “Then what happens when you die?”
Becca has no idea. But she can’t say that. Can she? “Excellent question,” she stalls, and starts sorting through her cards, though she knows the answer isn’t there. When her grandfather died she was nine, too big for her mother’s lap. But she climbed on, anyway.
What happens when you die? she asked. And her mother said, I don’t know. Becca stayed mad at her for months, as if she’d invented death herself, just to make Becca miserable. What if one day she lets Leila down like that? She flips past the miracle of the oil and no time for their bread to rise. The silence weighs heavier and heavier on the room.
Is it between them, or enclosing them? Why couldn’t Dee have acted like a mom, and pretended to know, for just that moment? Maybe because she has never pretended. She has always just been who she is.
Becca sets the cards aside. The girls are all watching her. At the back of the room, Sister Ignatius is frowning.
“To be perfectly honest?” Becca says, so quietly they have to lean forward. “I don’t know. Actually,” she goes on, feeling a little sick, “I don’t know most of this stuff.” A flicker of exchanged glances. Sister Ignatius cocks her head. Becca swallows.
“I pretend to be a good Jew,” she continues, already hearing her words whispered down the corridors, student to student and nun to nun, until they reach Sister Marie Claire, “because that’s what everyone here seems to expect.” It has come to my attention, her about-to-be-former boss will say. I am very disappointed. And then there’s Jules. How can Becca tell him she’s lost her job? And yet, there’s something thrilling about how her heart keeps knocking and knocking. Something good about knowing why it’s been pounding so hard.
“I shouldn’t have pretended to be something I wasn’t. I’ve been lying, and that’s wrong. It’s in the Ten Commandments, right? Bearing false witness?”
They’re studying their desks, fidgeting with their notebooks, looking everywhere but at her. Only Sister Ignatius, when Becca’s glance sweeps over her, catches her gaze and holds it. What is she thinking? Becca can’t tell. She doesn’t know the first thing about the woman. Not even how old she is. For all the times the nun has tried to talk to her, Becca has not once asked her a single question about herself. She never thought to look past the grey veil.
“That thing I was saying before? About confessions?” she says, speaking directly to Sister Ignatius. “I guess that’s what I’m doing now. I let you down, and I’m sorry.”
When the lunch bell rings, the girls file out solemnly, as if they were leaving mass. Becca concentrates on straightening her cards. Sister Ignatius waits until the room is empty before approaching.
“I’m really sorry,” Becca says, yet again.
Sister Ignatius takes her hand. “I also need to ask your forgiveness.”
Later, when Becca dines out on the tale of her awkward atonement, creating a caricature of herself, she will make Sister Ignatius’ apology the punch line. She won’t tell her friends how weightless her unexpected confession leaves her. How she strolls out of the library with her blue bag swinging at her side. How she unlocks the door to the old dormitory without worrying about who’s watching. How before she even unpacks her pictures, the perfect one forms in her mind: Leila sleeping peacefully in Dee’s awful dress. How before she even positions the pump, she can feel her milk letting down. How in that moment she is struck — no, awed — by the miracle of tubes and ducts. The glory of needing and feeding. How she thinks, There ought to be a blessing for this.
Ruth Horowitz is a writer living in Rhode Island. She was a contributing editor at Seven Days newspaper in Burlington, Vermont, and has published five children’s books. Her essay “Bound for Glory” appeared in Lilith in 2002. She is now at work on a novel about a haunting klezmer ballad.