Objective: to be determined
(skills in order of acquisition)
1961: age five
• Can tell time with my stomach.
• Can wake before Mama, Daddy, Amy, or Debbie, pad into the kitchen, and take a jar of Hellman’s and package of bologna out of the icebox, then lift them above my head and set them on the counter next to a bag of Wonder Bread.
• Can push an orange dinette chair up to the formica counter, climb up, and lay out exactly enough cottony white squares for two sandwiches. Can take a real knife, spread the mayonnaise, and cut each sandwich on a diagonal.
• Can climb down to go coach toddler sister Amy on exactly how to climb out of her crib, patting her sturdy legs for encouragement.
• Can grunt and lift her over that last leap and not drop her or fall. Can lead her out of her room and direct her where to step so that neither of us cut our feet on glistening shards from the bottles she throws out of her crib, which she throws for the sheer joy of the crashing sound and the power of knowing she can make something escape her cage.
• Can lead her down the hall between Mama’s tall canvasses three deep against both walls, two small profiles making our way through a tilted world of blues and golds and slashing reds.
• Can glance without pausing, through an open door at Mama putting on her panties, her lean nude form bent double, a bouquet of shining black curls hanging in place of her face.
• Can eat our bologna sandwich breakfast and laugh together as morning light streams through yellowed crooked blinds over waist-high stacks of magazines, newspapers, and unopened mail, even when Mama appears in the doorway zipping a muumuu over her belly and soft round breasts.
• Can finish and trot right past Daddy sitting on the sofa reading his newspaper in yesterday’s clothes, his hands gripping the paper as if it is his anchor against the tide, his silver hair on end, his mouth moving to words only he can hear.
• Can dress quickly in elastic waist shorts and sleeveless top, no shoes, and pull open the front door to Dallas’ shimmering heat to join much bigger neighbor kids in daylong skateboarding, street ball, and secret clubs in cool dark garages. Can drink long draughts from the garden hose instead of lunch.
• Can return to Mama whining from her bed, climb back up on a kitchen chair before a forest of amber sleeves with the tops off, and sound out “Valium” and “Darvon,” two of my first spelling words.
•Can shake out exactly enough pills onto my open palm and bring them to Mama with a glass of water without spilling.
• Can leave her drifting, her TV flashing blue down the hall over her paintings and over me. Can let myself back in the house after dark for bologna sandwich dinner.
• Can fall asleep even though Daddy, stretched out on my bed, is singing in his tuneless voice: Don’t know why, there’s no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather.
Age six through sixteen:
• Can wrestle the boy next door inside a circle of cheering jeering kids and roll punching him in the grass.
• Can ride a bicycle without hands, even turning corners.
• Can pack my own lunch and get myself to school. Can absolutely never speak certain words at school: Daddy, mental hospital, Mama’s pills.
• Can follow Mama to the galleries and museums she frequents and when she asks, “What do you see?” can respond with just the right prattle to keep her smiling brown eyes on me.
• Can read, in bed with a flashlight, books sister Debbie brings me from the public library. Can get a neighbor to teach me piano. Can teach myself to play a dull old cello from school and imagine myself a concert artist.
• Can ignore Debbie walking out the door to school, friends, clubs, dancing, anywhere but home, until one day she does not come back.
• Can examine my growing body in the mirror with a pained frown and fail to figure out what is so different.
• Can find twelve year-old sister Amy hunched on her rumpled bed holding a razor over her wrist and talk her down. Can fail to talk her out of accepting pills from the people who live next door where cars come and go, or from staying out all night with her nineteen year-old boyfriend she says she is going to marry.
• Can walk each day like an alien into the flirting teasing boy girl world of high school and still make ‘A’s.
• Can spend entire days mooning over a girl I crave to hold. Can wake in my childhood bed still flickering dreams of her to find my hand between my legs.
Age sixteen to seventeen:
• Can decide I have a hungry soul and that there is a God, but what does that mean?
• Can find a synagogue hosting visiting ultra-orthodox Hasidim and drag girlfriend Ana to their whirling dance and heartfelt songs in tugging minor melodies.
• Can fail to note that Hasidim do not allow women to join in dance and song.
• Can watch the men dance arm-in-arm and kiss one another and sense their hands on damp white shirts, the smell of their sweat. Can find two Hasidic women on the sidelines in wigs and long clothes whispering each into the ear of the other, a soft hand on a soft shoulder, a hand casually around a waist. Unaware of the homoerotic buzz, can go home and put on stockings and a long dress with a high neckline and teach myself to sit with legs held together, ankles to the side, like a Woman.
• Can seek out local Hasidim and allow myself to be led into ancient, heady, humbling, silencing study of ancient Jewish texts in archaic Hebrew, conversations in deep male voices echoing across millennia.
• Can memorize lists of Hebrew verbs, navigate their convoluted declensions, and master the poetry in the Hebrew prayer book, which I memorize.
• Can accept that a rabbi can say black is white even when he does.
• Can let Jewish Law take over my days, this is how you dress, eat, speak, pray, think. Can turn up the volume until it drowns out my mother’s wails.
• Can settle my impossible desires on an ever-elusive God and feel it like pain, like a bruise.
• Can watch Ana walk away.
• Can sit in a psychiatrist’s office with a serene impassive gaze as my mother shouts about soul-stealing Hasidim. Can retort that my profound new life is far superior to hers, and watch her crumple.
• Can graduate early, stomp away, and leave home for university. Can get full financial aid, find an apartment, roommate, kosher food, pens and notebooks. Can shop and cook and maintain a four-point average, even if my mother never calls.
• Can find a clutch of Jewish students celebrating a Hasidic Sabbath around folding tables covered with piles of hand-torn challah bread. Can sit, women are not to sing in public, as the boys in their new soft beards belt out Hasidic tunes. A tzadik saint will bloom, his enemies will lick the dust!
• Can ignore dreams of a female lover with black curls and long delicate hands.
• Can say yes to an arranged marriage to a man I don’t know.
• Can say yes when I don’t know what love is.
• Can stand in the mikveh pool the night before the wedding, droplets flung from newly cropped hair, echoes, bubbles, heart lost in a hollow, and utter a body prayer that goes something like Here. Take this.
• Can pose at my wedding to Levi like a white queen on a wicker throne, even when my father, in his summer suit and white carnation, the music paused, fails to bless me. Instead, he leans in and kisses my forehead. Can then allow myself to be led blind to the wedding canopy bearing his damp kiss, my face and his kiss covered with a thick linen cloth.
• Over the roar of his kiss, can count seven blind circles I pace around Levi for the seven heavens that are now supposed to have my husband at their center.
• Can dance past sister Amy with her shining eyes and track marks down her arm.
• Can, late that night, present myself to my husband as a gift to the Cause, even if his body is not a soft echo of mine.
• Can do so even though birth control is forbidden.
• Can get up the next morning and pull on the nylon wig of a Hasidic Wife over my pert teen haircut without saying good-bye.
• Can coach husband Levi for a job interview, in his yarmulka, untrimmed beard and hopeful face, and watch him go off to face rejection. Can coordinate a move to Houston where he finds a job far below his qualifications.
• Can offer our obedience to the local Hasidic rabbi. Can hold myself up as a role model for his budding community.
Age twenty-one to twenty-nine:
• Can hear Levi’s sigh in the dark and understand he’s wondering why sex is always over so soon. Can still take pleasure in the growing mound of my belly, the shifting profile and mysterious flutters that aren’t mine.
• Can sleepwalk into a room at two AM where a baby is squalling and ease my swollen nipple into his mouth before waking up. Can change a diaper in the dark.
• Can diaper three at once, each a different size, as two older ones spar on the floor over a game of Candyland, me pregnant with the sixth, without burning the mac-and-cheese dinner, and remember to wash my hands.
• Can turn broccoli into trees, carrots into copper pennies, and bananas into flowers, while holding three illogical conversations at the same time.
• Can coach a child in lisping blessings for washing, dressing, prayers, and food.
• Can teach any child how to tie shoes.
• Can get exhausted Levi not to shout about the cost of ritual objects, kosher food, and tuition in the Hasidic school.
• Can prepare Sabbath feasts of salads, fish, soup, chicken, challahs, kugels, and cakes, manage a staff of children peeling, cleaning, and setting the table, and also maintain a fleet of bicycles.
• Can choose elegant clothes that hide my stretched and shapeless body, then nod my smiling assent at the Sabbath table as Levi holds up a still-warm challah and blesses it as if it’s his own creation.
• Can get a job teaching boys with sidelocks and yarmulkas painted with Hebrew aphorisms (we want the Messiah NOW) and girls in long sleeves in muted colors and skirts too big for their child bodies.
• Can teach five year-olds to sound out Hebrew words and six year-olds to translate in singsong: bereishis in the beginning bara elokim God created eis hashmayaim the-e-e heavens…
• Can turn a classroom into a magic space where a serpent can open his mouth and speak, where a Rebbe is a saint who can look into you with piercing eyes and make cancer disappear or tell you the truth of your future.
• Can do all of the above through chronic insomnia peppered with erotic lesbian dreams.
• Can understand — blind panic, sitting up in bed, glowing clock numbers hanging in the dark — that this eighth pregnancy will kill me.
• Can admit I’m afraid it won’t kill me.
• Can pace through the next day, thinking, muttering, then stop and say the “A” word. Out loud. Can convince Levi, the doctor, and a rabbi that I could die and talk them all into sanctioning an abortion to save a life.
• Can hold my anger at their power over me; can hold it like a precious newborn.
• Can refuse to grieve. It was not a child. It was not Leibl with his comic books or Liba with her deft hands, not Mendel or Avrami racing on dirt bikes and then throwing themselves to the floor to battle over a board game. It wasn’t sturdy Sarah who says, “I do it MYSELF” or solitary Itzik who wanders at will or baby Shalom still clamoring for my breast.
• Can hear the rabbi say, “Do not speak of this to anyone!” Can spend two days in bed in a stupor, then get up and begin to write what I must not speak aloud. Can write all night, through many nights.
• Can fail to stop with my story. Can fill my pages with secret sins of my community: an abusive father, two yeshiva boys in love with one another, a mother of seven who aborts her child.
• Can print, delete, and hide it all under my bed, because who would marry my children?
• Can read what I wrote and hear polemics and aphorisms and outdated mythical language in my writing, long implanted in me, and struggle against this for weeks, mystified.
• Can dare to go to the public library, God forbid, to see how real writers do it.
• Can look both ways, lift my chin, and walk through double glass doors that open like an invitation. Can sink to the floor before a dusty shelf of poetry, long skirt billowing around me, and pull out neglected slim volumes, stack them around me on the skirt, and find honest cutting voices that astonish me.
• Can take home a whole stack of books and read through child clamor, meals, read in the bathtub, and in bed. Can hear my daughter calling and look up unfocused from my book, then sigh like a sigh of parting.
• Can take my children to the public library, usher them through those glass doors and steer them to books in which children have adventures and girls can have dreams.
• Can fantasize making love to Adrienne Rich.
• Can apply to a university writing program when one entire page of its application reads List Here All of Your Awards and Publications.
• Can rip up the rejection letter and go back to the kitchen, only to hear Levi saying, “Wait — you’re on the waiting list!”
• Can sit in class in scarf and skirt and scribble notes in the margins of other notes: “Look up hegemony, sui generes, epistemology.” Can read 50 books the first semester and keep a log. Can read feminist criticism when I don’t know what feminism is. Can instruct children over the phone how to make hot dogs.
• Can curl up on the Sabbath with a beloved Hebrew volume only to find, with my new eyes, ignorance, misinformation and misogyny dully glowing between the wise old lines.
• Can park in a university lot one fall day of my second year, as if facing eternity. Can wiggle into new jeans, open my collar, push up my sleeves, and pull off the skirt and scarf. Can get out of the car to a cool breeze on my scalp like first rain.
• Can, after class, climb back into soft familiar Hasidic garb, go home and cook and clean. Can still sit as Levi drones on at the Sabbath table and our lanky growing younger children spar and roll their eyes and two walk away.
• Can invite myself over to meet gray-eyed Jane, we’ll just be friends. Can, on the second visit, let her throw my scarf to the floor and peel my long clothes away like tearing a caul.
• Can inch open the back door to the kitchen, skirt rubbing heightened skin, nostrils flared, and slip into midnight air. Can let the car glide down the drive in neutral, white-knuckled. Can wait and start the motor out on the street so that it could be anyone, a passing car that stalled, a Hasidic woman escaping to her lesbian lover.
• Can welcome gossip’s inevitability. Can hold up my head in the grocery and walk past two old friends who quickly gather their children to their skirts.
• Can tell Levi and watch him fall to his knees. Can understand that I’m outside the bubble now, but inside it nothing must change, watch him beg like a penitent, his hands open in front of his chest as he cries, “Let me stay. Let me keep the house.”
• Can find a lawyer to usher me into a world I still don’t know, full of movies and violent news and sports and fast brash language, a world without blinding modesty or soothing aphorisms to fill my days, God ever at my sleeve. When she says, “This is Texas — there’s no way you’ll get custody,” can tell her about my two youngest, 12 and 13, and know that they will carry this like a stone. Can still say, “I have to do this.”
• Can call my mother. Can laugh out loud when she says, “Oh my god you’re coming home!”
• Can leave at a run, a 46-year-old refugee clutching an old Hebrew prayer book and box of photographs.
• Can refuse to say good-bye.
Age forty-five to fifty-seven:
• Can find work, an apartment, a roommate (teenaged son), new clothes, pens, pencils and notebooks.
• Can learn how to figure tax and tip in a restaurant, navigate cable television, and find my way around the internet.
• Can spend months trying to catch up on politics, movies, books even though I will never catch up, I’m a new immigrant into my own country.
• Can travel to each of my children, grown and nearly grown, and keep giving, talking, listening.
• Can sit on the floor playing with a babbling bouncing grandchild.
• Can decide to walk away from a calm woman from Mississippi because she is not like me, her background, training, vocabulary are all so very different, how will she ever understand. Can realize my mistake even as I take her into my arms and start to say, I’m leaving you.
• Can wake next to her startled at my joy every morning thereafter, now nine years and four months, ever grateful to have survived my stupidity.
• Can kayak with her over rapids and around roots and reefs, through narrow waterways, beneath great Karst humps in China, navigating Florida mangroves over shadowy manatees or Texas’ shimmering heat as we watch for alligators. Can hear the dip of our tandem oars as we catch the flick of a Great Blue.
• Can remember childhood delight on Texas horses and balance on a wiry pony, the uncertain girlfriend on another next to me as we pick our way across the Mongolian steppes on a rocky incline. Around our forms on tilting horseback are overlapping curves of land like pregnant bellies to the horizon, air clear and cold, just vastness and blue sky, hills dotted with thick-haired camels, sheep, horses, and cattle, all of them seemingly oblivious to the stark beauty as if waking free every morning in this amazing world could possibly be a reason for complacence.
Leah Lax’s memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hassidic Life and Finally Came Home, will be published in August, 2015 by She Writes Press. She lives in Houston with her partner, Susan, and their Airedale, Gracie.