Despite her best effort to open them soundlessly, the carved wooden doors to the sanctuary announced Lila’s late arrival with a squeal that would have done the ram’s horn proud. Rosh Hashanah services were well under way. People looked up, glad for the distraction or annoyed by it. Lila made her way between the crowded rows, past knees and ankles and purses, mouthing “Excuse me” on her way to the empty seat next to her husband Gary. Saving seats was frowned upon, and now her husband frowned upon her.
Lila was late to the evening service because she’d been to rehearsal first and hadn’t left as early as she’d promised she would. She’d been offered a small but juicy role as a daffy nanny in a creaky British mystery. The theatre company was semiprofessional, a notch above her previous associations, and she wanted to prove herself. Gary had started bugging her about getting a grown-up job in the real world, and this company was going to pay her — in actual money, rather than comp tickets. Lila wanted to appear professional. Intimidated by the director, she hadn’t wanted to leave in mid-scene, so she’d waited until a break in the rehearsal. No sense getting to services on time, anyway. That would mean even more chair time, more boredom, more attention-deficit comments from Gary. Now she had to gear down from her rush from the theatre to the synagogue — had that last traffic light been yellow? Perhaps yellowish-red. She’d been rehearsing a poor-me spiel in case a cop stopped her. (Your objective for this scene is to get the cop not to write the ticket. She’d done it in acting class. She was just the tiniest bit disappointed that she hadn’t gotten the opportunity to try it out live.) She should have taken her time. Gary was just as annoyed as he would have been five minutes later.
Lila was late to everything but performances. She’d been late to most of her tutoring appointments with Gary, back when he was a serious engineering major who waited patiently, explained the math, told her what to study and how to study, and then called her the morning of the exam to make sure she hadn’t overslept. She had. Heard in bed, Gary’s voice had an intimacy over the phone that it rarely had in person. She liked being the only one privy to that voice, so she married it. She’d been just a half a minute late to her own wedding, having lost a shoe just before she set off down the aisle. Under her wedding gown, one nervous foot had slipped its peau de soie pump off and on and off again. It was the only cue she’d ever missed. Gary’s eyes had held fear, relief, and annoyance in equal measure, the emotion coloring them a deeper green. Halfway down the aisle, she’d blown him a barely perceptible kiss. He’d smiled a barely perceptible smile.
Lila opened her prayerbook and assumed the glazed expression of a congregant who’d been there all hour. This, too, was an acting exercise she’d done before — a little concentration and she was in character. She avoided meeting Gary’s eyes. She ignored his predictable tapping on his watch — three times with a teacherly forefinger. She even managed to resent his intrusion into her character’s psychic space, where prayer might otherwise be happening. Her character, the congregant, might well resent his bristling indignation. She continued the exercise by giving the congregant a name — Shirley Glasstone — and a history — newly arrived from out of town — maybe St. Louis. Fortyish. About a decade and some older than Lila. Divorced. A lawyer. An urbane woman suspicious of this southern synagogue with its small congregation and its disheveled rabbi. Lila sat up straighter — Shirley’s power suit was structured, after all — and crossed her legs as if they ended in pumps instead of in Lila’s inappropriate sandals. Shirley’s movements were purposeful and clean. When the congregation read responsively, Lila gave Shirley the director’s voice. Every statement sounded like a command. “May my prayer find favor with You” was not a supplication in Shirley’s confident reading of it. “Blessed are You” sounded as if she was conferring the blessing rather than describing it. Ah. The text said You, not Him. Shirley approved of the gender-neutral language in the new prayerbook. Not such a backwater after all. Shirley glanced at the serious man sitting next to her, took in his dark hair, carefully arranged to minimize the prematurely receding hairline, his erect posture, the intensity of his focus on the service. Not bad looking — broad shoulders. strong jawline, nice green eyes. But that frown. Shirley assumed with a mental tsk that he resisted the modernization of the prayers. Actually, that was cheating; Lila knew that Gary hated the gender-neutral language, but would Shirley guess that? What would Shirley see? Shirley saw a young man who had never really been young. Not someone who’d welcome her into this new town, this new synagogue. As if to confirm Shirley’s assumption, Gary glared at Lila.
Lila tired of Shirley and let her go. Lila fidgeted and marked time, doing the arithmetic necessary to ascertain when they were a third of the way through the service and which page was the halfway point, taking into account that the sermon was a variable. She ran her thumb along the page edges, creating a quiet rustle. Her foot bobbled at the end of her crossed leg, missing the cuff of Gary’s pants by an inch or so. Like a child, she weighed her chances of slipping away to the bathroom against Gary’s disdain or his anger.
She was here as a concession to her husband, whose observance of his religion was a formal occasion rather than a come-as-you-were. He hadn’t been particularly religious when she married him four years ago, but the death of his father last year had created a vacuum which Gary filled by trying to become his father. He started going to services regularly. He stopped eating mu shoo pork and BLT’s. He wangled a nomination to the synagogue board and carefully planned his route to its presidency, a post his father had filled more than once. Lila was not an asset in this campaign. She came to services late. She didn’t pay attention. She didn’t schmooze with the right people. She was cast against type. Lila considered Gary’s newfound reverence a regrettable instance of bait and switch. Lila hadn’t liked Gary’s father.
Before his father died, Gary had been fun. Well, more fun. He indulged her appetites for bad science fiction flicks, White Castle, picnics in bed, morning sex. He ran her lines with her. He gave her unusual flowers on opening nights — a spiky Asian mum, a single bird-of-paradise. He went with her to ballroom dance lessons. He was amused by her stories of backstage disasters. He called her “Lollygag” or “La-la.” Now, he started every conversation with “Grow up, Lila” and worked the Sunday crossword by himself.
Gary nudged Lila back into the service. The congregation had begun a page of responsive reading in English. Responsive readings annoyed Lila. She didn’t like joining in the plodding cadence of the congregation. She felt herded, forced into choices not her own. Sometimes she tried to imagine herself as part of a Greek chorus, but even then, she found the congregation’s phrasing uninspired. So Lila read at her own pace, pausing to accent a word, speeding up to energize a phrase, varying her volume to create drama.
“Behave yourself,” Gary whispered. “People will hear you. It’s not a performance.”
Lila tapped her prayerbook three times, mimicking Gary’s impatience. She kept reading aloud in her own rhythm but she reduced her volume. It was probably extra-sacrilegious to piss off your husband intentionally during the High Holy Days.
The congregation’s previous rabbi had barked and yapped, sounding like a border collie rounding up the congregants’ attention and guiding it to the front. The new rabbi didn’t bully them into paying attention. Lila regarded her — her unruly gray hair, the screen of tan over a kind but unpampered face, her motherly patience. Her robes and tallis hung awkwardly on her tall, gaunt frame. She reminded Lila of a windblown scarecrow. The rabbi seemed to be an old woman with a young woman’s voice. It was lively, with an accent of some sort. Maybe Canadian. Maybe British or Australian, but if so, she’d been in this country for a while. Her vowels were flat and she hit her consonants crisply and quickly, but she slurred her s’s a bit. A good voice, a voice like sparkling water. For the next congregational response, Lila read with flatter vowels, crisper consonants, slurred s’s. She listened carefully to the rabbi’s forceful delivery and matched her own pace to the rabbi’s. Each succeeding response bore a closer resemblance to the rabbi’s voice.
Gary hissed at her between his teeth. “Stop that! People will hear you making fun of the rabbi.”
Lila wasn’t making fun of the rabbi. She was studying her. She liked the energetic pace of her voice, the sigh of her s’s seeming to linger after she had moved on to other sounds. Once she had matched her voice to the rabbi’s, she could ride it, carried along as if she had mounted a swift, smooth-gaited horse. It was a little dizzying, but exhilarating, too, this ride on the rabbi’s voice. When it was over, Lila felt windblown and clean and calm. The hour had swept by.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, Gary started in. “Just what do you think you were doing in there? People were staring. Immature. Inappropriate. Typical.” Without waiting for her answer, Gary took off across the parking lot to buttonhole Ron Spielman, the current synagogue president. Lila pitied the older man, who would get an earful about some trivial synagogue matter, which Gary would present with the detail of a mechanical proof. Lila got into her car and just to spite Gary, peeled out with a squeal of her tires. One more thing to atone for.
Lila was deep into a script, armored with industriousness, when Gary got home. The crunch of his wheels on the driveway had been her cue: Back door slams. Enter husband. “We’ve been on a bit of a foray — I took the children belly dancing,” she offered Gary in her best British nanny accent. Gary, however, intended to finish the parking lot scene, a scene for which she had not rehearsed.
“Put down that ridiculous script and listen. This is serious. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, making fun of the rabbi! During Rosh Hashanah, no less.” No less was a phrase Gary’s father had favored, proof that two negatives didn’t always cancel each other out.
“Don’t tell me how to worship.” Lila summoned Shirley to borrow her confidence, her resolve.
“You’re not worshipping. You’re playing. It’s embarrassing and rude. You’re disturbing people. You’re disturbing me.”
“It was a kind of worship.” Lila was startled; this assertion seemed to be a gleaming truth, something to treasure. “That was the first time I ever felt anything in synagogue, anything besides restlessness. I felt connected. I felt part of it. I wasn’t making fun of the rabbi. I was being her.”
“I cannot deal with you when you’re like this,” Gary said slowly, each word ringing like a distant gong.
“Like what?” Lila yelled. “Like myself?” The angrier Gary got, the quieter he got. His calm thickened the air until she couldn’t breathe. Why couldn’t he just yell like other people? Instead, he walked out of the room, a dramatic exit worthy of an actor. He had stolen the scene.
Lila returned to her script — isn’t that what Shirley would have done? She raised her volume at his footsteps on the stairs, throwing her voice against the closed door of their bedroom, but she got no response. It was surprisingly taxing to be daffy and British just now. She found herself in the rabbi’s voice rather than her nanny character’s, and just because it felt good, she finished her scene in flat vowels and Canadian consonants. A rabbi was sort of a nanny for the congregation, wasn’t she? She could use that notion to build her nanny character. Eventually, she fell asleep curled in the chair with the script on her lap. She crept upstairs to bed in the half-light of early dawn.
Lila awoke the next morning to a silent house, and leapt up, heart pounding. She called, “Gary?” once in her own voice, once in the nanny’s voice, once in the rabbi’s voice, and finally in her own voice again. No answer. It was just past ten; the morning service for the New Year had already started. Lila sped through the task of getting ready — a quick change backstage between scenes. The only thing that slowed her down was her search for her pumps. Her sandals languished under the couch.
At the sanctuary entrance, she waited until another latecomer creaked the heavy door open. Lila slipped in just behind him. Gary was an upright presence in the second row, sitting next to Ron Spielman. He did not turn at the sound of the creaking door. There was no empty seat beside him. Lila was free to leave — Exit, synagogue left. Instead she took a seat in the back, with the other strays. She opened her prayerbook, dismissed Shirley and the nanny, and waited for the rabbi to begin.
Today the rabbi’s voice soothed Lila, like a mother’s hand across her brow. Calm and still, Lila was carried through the service and on into the sermon. She didn’t cross and uncross and recross her legs. She didn’t dangle her shoe from her foot. She didn’t riffle the pages of the prayerbook. She just sat and listened, and eventually Lila heard the rabbi’s words as well as her voice. “Make it right” was woven through the sermon. She had the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to make things right. “Use your gifts” was another of the sermon’s admonitions. And suddenly Lila knew what to do.
She moved silently up the aisle and slipped into a lone unoccupied seat two rows behind Gary. As the congregation moved into prayer, Lila concentrated and found Gary’s voice. She matched her pitch to his, her cadence to his, her phrasing to his. It was not a smooth entry, not at all like riding the rabbi’s voice, but she managed, despite feeling like a trespasser. Gary’s voice was heavy and slow. He forced it forward through the words, but Lila could feel it moving back, back to kaddish, back to his father’s funeral, back to the moment when he swallowed his unshed tears. The weight of Gary’s grief was crushing and Lila dropped out of his voice.
Back in her seat in the sanctuary, Lila took a deep breath. The intimacy of the experience stunned her, and in its aftermath, she felt her resentment loosen its knot. If Gary were a character she was playing, she would have studied him, known his backstory, built into her characterization the undertow of grief. She would have understood his irritability and impatience as a coat he wore which was never warm enough. Just as the rabbi had done for her, Lila could wrap her voice around Gary and warm him. She thought it might still be possible.
Michele Ruby is a writer, college instructor, and actor in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poems and short stories have appeared in literary magazines around the country.