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Unveiling

“My dear beloved,” Iris began the letter to her husband, who would tomorrow be a year deceased. “Today in shul I sat between my parents. I lay the blame at your feet. The feet I would entangle with my smaller, colder ones, when you were considerate enough to be yet living. I sat between them, the widow, pitiful and angry for all to see. My parents, Jerome and Rose, sat taller in their seats, relieved to think that perhaps I would be noticed, and with that their hearts unburdened.

Imagine their disappointment, that their daughter, not so pretty but pretty enough, pretty enough to have distracted you, made you flat out stupid on what became our first date, a trip to the 24 hour store in Cambridge for henna, no, cigarettes, the henna was an afterthought. But that’s what we had told the children, the angels, don’t get me started, so that they would not find it romantic to smoke. Imagine the disappointment of my parents that their daughter was theirs to carry once again and not just her, but also her children, who daily show their love in the form of anger. The boy, not yet ten, telling the grandfather to leave him the fuck alone and kicking him hard in the shins.”

Iris Tellerman pulled her car into a space just feet from the five dollar valet, not because she was miserly like the rumor of the Jew, but because in the year since her husband died she could barely organize getting her kids to school in the morning, let alone a job. And though her husband had been smart about money and had had insurance from the union, Iris knew now, that you just don’t know, and she had to be careful. The house was paid for, but there was college and now it was all on her. “I am getting my hair colored today. I know you think it is beautiful and smoldering with a touch of grey, very Anne Bancroft, but it’s not about you anymore. It’s about taking my photos for JDate, because Melora says that I have to. ‘It’s been nearly a year,’ she tells me, and tomorrow is the unveiling and I could meet someone, kidding. Or not — Melora might bring a guy from work.”

Stepping in the salon where Melora had made the appointment, Iris immediately felt steeped in a pleasant cynicism. She was none of the things that she needed to be to come here: not tall, not blonde, not vapid, not an actress. The man behind the desk had had his eyebrows waxed in a high arch that made him appear preternaturally interested. Iris gave him her name and continued her letter to her deceased husband.

“The receptionist informed me while I waited, that for my first visit, I was being gifted with a 20 percent discount on a Brazilian wax. This is a gift. To have the most personal hedge of all shaped into topiary. Can you imagine it? Do you? The soft triangle that was easily covered by your hand, shaped to a valentine or a landing strip or removed completely to have the nectarine smooth surface of a porn star. Is this how I should make myself over for the lawyer who was cornered by my parents in a zone defense in the lobby of the sanctuary? Would he, in our breathless removal of each other’s clothing, expect to slip his hand into the front of my jeans and find, nothing? Would the down you once petted offend? So be it. If that is what is called for, I will pour hot wax on myself and wrest it away at the root. Or better, not leave my house, nay my room, but to drive the children to school or to buy their food at Trader Joe’s.”

In the changing room, Iris removed her t-shirt. Her breasts, she knew, were small but lovely, her body not so different than when she had gone to Camp Ramah as a teenager and been felt up by the very delicious Abram Scheinfeld, whom she thought she heard was a rabbi now in Boulder. She unconsciously cupped her breasts beneath a bra she suspected it was time to replace and was posed that way when the perpetually surprised receptionist poked his head in and told her that Namaste was ready for her, the curtain drawn around his face like he was preparing to wash that man right out of his hair.

“Namaste, formerly Susan, suggested that I do a two-step process to add lowlights for warmth and to help brighten up my face, which she informed me was washed out by the unfortunate brown I was born with. This long-overdue transformation will cost, with blow-dry and tip, two hundred and sixty dollars, paid for by Melora who staged the intervention, because ‘I can’t spend the rest of my life in the house with the kids.’ That’s what she thinks.”

In the chair, Iris endured the smell of the peroxide and paged through the vacation album of Namaste and her dog Johnny Depp. He was one of the dogs now popular that were childrenlight and could be smuggled onto airplanes and into movie theatres like guns and popcorn, respectively. The album featured Namaste and Johnny Depp at various dog-friendly destinations: in the snow in matching down jackets, at the beach under a color wheel umbrella. They were well traveled and had plans for a visit to Nepal in the spring. Namaste and her assistant, Yzenia, guided Iris to the dryer as if she were both blind and clueless, each taking a hand. A third person, who was dressed in thigh-high striped stockings and platform Mary Janes like a saucer-eyed girl from a comic book, brought Iris a cup of Rooibus tea.

For a moment, Iris thought she might leave her body and view the scene from above like her husband would if you ascribe to the floating above things version of death. She was relieved when they left her and, under the weight of the heavy Instyle magazines they had piled on her lap, Iris closed her eyes and resumed contact with her beloved.

“The children are well,” she began. “We are like a small specialized unit — skilled at moving the groceries from the car to the house. Evan carries the heaviest things, like the man that he isn’t, and Vered, with skill and precision, orders the couscous and macaroni boxes by height in the cabinet she makes tidy as a library. When she is done, Vered and I fold the bags and place them in a neat pile under the sink. I never have to tell them anything twice. They know it is just me, just us. We work together. I buy one special thing each for them when I shop. For Evan, it is Thai peanuts, and for Vered, fresh papaya with lime. After shopping, we snack on our treats and do homework.

“They both do their work at the dining room table and tuck the completed papers into their backpacks. They are uncomplaining and never whine. They do not dawdle or tarry like normal children. It is heartbreaking. Evan has a teacher this year who is a bastard. It is too much to tell you. He is punitive and mean and I would like to kill him with my hands. When I pleaded with him that Evan had recently lost his father, he countered that it had already been a year. I thanked him for pointing that out. I had lost track of it completely. I am teaching Evan how to deal with difficult people. The bad teacher is keeping Evan from the class trip to Space Camp because we have been late more than three times. Because there are some mornings when I open my eyes that it is too much and I have to shut them again and pull the blankets around me for a few more seconds to find my strength. Most mornings, all mornings, both children are in bed with me. It feels like we are riding a flimsy raft, but at least we are together.” Namaste put her hand on Iris’s shoulder and pushed the dryer back. Iris startled; it is that rare that someone touches her. “Do you want me to do those eyebrows?” Iris raised her hand protectively. No, she thought, I’ll muddle through. “No thank you,” she said. Yzenia guided her to the sink and rinsed the color from her hair.

“Do you remember before you were dead?” Iris continued, “Before you were sick even, when the children were small and we drove up to the redwoods? We were in the van and both kids were asleep in their car seats and the rain was coming down so hard that they kept closing the roads behind us. And we had that Van Morrison CD on that we would play when Evan was colicky? That’s all. Just that day. I go back to it all the time. When we got back to L.A., you got a pain in your shoulder you thought from playing basketball, and then it all happened like in a playbook. The diagnosis — the chemo. You know. You must have been sick already, but we didn’t know. It was just our family then. It was all we ever wanted and the noise of the rain so loud outside and we couldn’t see ten feet in front of us. And when we finally got there, after driving all that way, Evan and Vered refused to get out of the car to see the redwoods. They thought we were crazy and I guess we were. That is my perfect day. When I close my eyes on the mornings that are impossible, that is what I see. I can’t believe you left me. I have to go. They are wrapping my head in a towel and wondering why I have tears running down my cheeks. Time for the big blow-dry.”

Iris used the corner of the towel to dry her eyes and Namaste removed it like unwrapping a gift. Iris could see already that the color was beautiful and didn’t know what to make of it. She looked like she had just come out of the lake at camp, her hair falling in long ringlets. Over the sound of the dryer Namaste stage whispered, “Is this a special occasion?” Iris resisted telling her the truth: that she was preparing to go to the cemetery and reveal the headstone of her year-dead husband. That after this she had to go to Neiman’s and pick up the tasteful and appropriate dress that Melora had selected for the occasion, and panty hose and shoes that wouldn’t sink into the damp earth at Forest Lawn. That she would pick up her sister-in-law and her husband and kids at the airport and that the housekeeper was due to vacuum the house and put the kids’ toys out of sight for the thirty or so people that would come back to her house tomorrow after the unveiling. She could see her mother already fluttering from kitchen to table, table to kitchen, interrupting her flight plan only to tuck Evan’s shirt or adjust the hem of Vered’s dress. If her husband were alive they would lie in bed afterward with the lights off and dish about Rose and Jerome, and his gentle laughter would make her like them better, relieved to be together in their quiet bedroom. He would bring her hand to his mouth and kiss it, and with the ease of a yawn pull her toward him, his arm hooked around her waist like a lifeguard. Iris let the warm air and the hum of the hairdryer lull her. She closed her eyes and remembered him in such detail that she caught her breath; her face flushed when she opened her eyes and saw herself in the mirror. Namaste stood back, pleased, and gave Iris a moment to take herself in. Her heart was still pounding from the dream of her husband, but it didn’t alter or slow when she saw herself. A smile dawned on Namaste’s face. “You see,” drawing in her breath, “… beautiful.” Iris brought her hand to the now cooling skin at her neck. In the mirror she saw the ring on her hand that belied that she was married to no one. Her hands moved to the sable smooth hair that cascaded down her shoulders. The room and the sounds around her receded and she felt a still quiet, like floating underwater, her heart beating hard. “How dare you,” she heard herself say under the rush of sound that broke over her. Iris reached down to the floor for her purse and quickly arranged a tip for Namaste, tucking the folded twenty into a tiny white envelope and dropping it into a box that Namaste had brought back from her trip to India where it was used for donations for orphans.

Iris walked back to her car and fumbled with the keys as if she were being followed. When she finally managed the key in the lock, the alarm blared. From a high window of the Yeshiva near where she had parked, a group of students with payes gazed down at her from above like a human menorah. She pressed the button again, again, again until the alarm at last silenced and the minyan receded. Iris dropped into the driver’s seat and locked the door behind her. She caught her breath as if she’d made a narrow escape and laid her head back on her seat, the air escaping her lungs in a stutter. She felt her hand clench in a fist and instructed herself to release it. Her husband was dead. She had known this before. She had, after all, attended his funeral. Had sat in the room at Cedars, had pressed her dry lips to his forehead, had released him. But for him to be dead still was too much. For a moment, Iris rocked herself to the sound of her own keening. Her head dropped against the wheel and two fat tears dropped onto her lap, and with that she righted herself. She sniffed and brought the back of her hand to the corner of her eyes. She knew well that her grief was useless. Her husband, day after day, remained dead. His children were proof of this. They were already taller, the shape of their very faces had changed. They ran and on days when they might be distracted, they laughed. He was not in this world. He had left her, left them, and Iris, as widow, was a reluctant expert. What she needed most to endure this loss was to rest briefly on the wide plane of her husband’s chest. She was without him and her mastery had left her only weary, only empty, only angry.

Iris felt an impatient congregation urging her on. The celebrity of her husband’s death now waning, novel only to her, when, before she opened her eyes each day, it jolted her limbs. They were eager for her to shed her grief like a viscose robe trailing off her fingertips. She was meant to step into a future she did not choose and did not plan for, a future that she could barely contrive. Iris steadied herself, her hands holding the steering wheel of the parked car. “I miss you,” she said, the sound of her voice soft and small. “What if tomorrow I don’t unclutch the stone and lay it on your grave?” she asked, expecting no answer, “What if I refuse?” But Iris knew that tomorrow she would go and march as directed to mark the year anniversary of her husband’s passing. Then, with the sun catching the warm highlights in her hair, she would take the hands of her children, first one, and then the other, walk back across the soft lawn to the waiting cars, and after washing the dust of death from her hands, head back to the house for a nosh.

Iris gathered her hair in a ponytail holder that she found in the glove box and, pulling on Evan’s baseball cap, she tucked her hair away. She started the car and put it in reverse. Then, pulling forward and easing her car out of the space, she drove north on Alta Vista, half-way down shearing off completely the rear-view mirror of a parked Prius. She pulled over, gathered the broken pieces from the street and placed them in the well of the passenger seat of her car. On the back of a lunch menu from Vered’s school, she wrote in handwriting that was neat and easy to read, “Iris Tellerman,” with her phone number and her promise to replace the broken mirror, which she knew from the last time would be about five hundred dollars.

“Unveiling” is the winner of the 2011 Lilith Fiction Prize.

Racelle Rosett is completing a collection of short stories exploring in a Reform Jewish community in Los Angeles. As a television writer, she won the WGA award for “thirtysomething,” and her fiction appears in many periodicals. www.racellerosett.com