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Mitzvah Day by Sarah Marian Seltzer | music: Gardening in a Jaunty Hat by Sarah Hersh

Mitzvah Day

Maya fidgeted on the sidewalk in front of Har Zion temple, engulfed by eager congregants. Blue stickers that read Mitzvah! affixed to their lapels signaled their intent to perform acts of charity throughout the city. A decade—no, more—had elapsed since her own bat mitzvah year, the last time she had participated in this much-ballyhooed day of service. She recognized no one.

A hand clasped her own from behind; she glanced sideways and saw Kat, tall slim and calm. Rina’s sister’s eyesight would surely, undoubtedly bore right through Maya’s swept-on makeup, right to the skin rubbed raw by stress and streaked with tears.

“Maya my dear! Earth to you!” said Kat.

“Hey there! Happy Mitzvah Day!” Maya ventured.

“Backatchya.” Kat smiled. She wore her hair in a generous ‘fro and had picked up square-framed hipster glasses.

Kat’s parents had renounced synagogue after Rina’s death but Kat had kept attending. The talk had reached Maya’s ears: the spectacle of the straight-backed black girl, adopted into the faith, showing up to each Yizkor service alone, reciting that poem about remembering the lost ones at “the rising of the sun and its going down” alone, murmuring the Kaddish alone.

At the blowing of the wind and the chill of the winter,
We remember them.
At the opening of the Buds and in the rebirth of spring,
We remember them.

Together they sat on the steps of the synagogue watching the assembling mitzvah-doers. In the midst of idle chatter about politics and who was married, who’d been in rehab, Maya experienced an urgent upsurge of affection for Kat. Why shouldn’t she? History, heartache linked them in ineffable ways. Kat, a tomboy whose hairclips always fell out, had followed Rina around like her big sister was the pied piper.

As long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now part of us as we remember them. 

But what if “they” weren’t a part of us in a way we liked? Rina—once Maya’s earnest, “late-blooming” pal—had now been frozen for posterity as a beauty cut down in her prime. “I’ll never forget her grace, her poise,” Maya’s mother Laine, who had seen Rina on her last day on Earth now said. “She had grown into a real woman.” This presumably left Maya as the clumsy one, struggling solo through her twenties like a lost cow unable to find the pasture.

From the very moment Maya’s own father had defected, her mother began partitioning the world: Those Who Were There for Us vs. Those Who Weren’t There for Us.  Surely if Kat had a similar dossier regarding her (much worse) trauma, Maya would fall on the wrong side of the partition. Four years, and barely a word. She supposed that’s why she had schlepped here, to Mitzvah Day.

The day after Rina’s funeral, Maya boarded a plane and returned to her fellowship in England. At the unveiling of Rina’s headstone, Maya had been sprawled in a squalid hostel in Budapest taking absinthe shots with companions whose surnames she never learned. At the two-year anniversary, she sat at the divorce lawyer’s office with her mom, their lips pursed in tandem as they strategized against her father. Maya spent the summer three years after Rina’s death glued to the couch in her New York studio apartment, filthy and sad, breaking up with a boyfriend via a campaign of attrition. “You’re not well,” he told her through a hole in her fort of blankets. “Fuck off,” she said, through a filter of passive aggression.

Now the four-year date approached, and she spent two afternoons per week in a leather chair across from the venerable Dr. Abraham Beam on West End Avenue.

“Everyone grieves in his own way; for you, regret over your final interactions with Rina and her family—at the same time as your parents’ marriage crumbled—is the tough thing. It’s compounding a very real depression,” Dr. Beam explained, in his wisdom, as she broke down in sobs. “Maya: you can’t change what happened.”

Utterly millennial of her, she knew, to wish she had some special problem: yet her depression’s vanilla recipe—dead friend guilt, absent father longing,—enervated her further.

Okay, Maya mused as she arrived home from a session with “Dr. B,” she couldn’t change the past. But she could alter her future course. Her internal temperature soared; rendering her almost giddy as she surrendered, after years of avoidance, to tracking down Rina’s sister Kat on Facebook. Next thing she knew, Maya found herself engineering a chance to bump into Kat. Mitzvah Day.

Kat had been so strong, people said. Perhaps they were being racist, assuming strength because Kat was the only black member of her family. But no. Kat, a scientist, lived a kind of logical existence that Maya had never even attempted.

“What are you doing here? Besides mitzvahs?” asked Kat. “Do you even come to shul ever?”

Was that a reproach?

Maya, weary of dissembling, went for pseudo-honesty: “Well no, but my shrink says I should be aiding my fellow human beings more.”

Something rippled out of Kat. She laughed, grabbed Maya’s arm and said, “Okay then, lady. Hang with me today. Let’s go visit some old people.” Thus her own scheming stymied Maya’s other hope for the day: to paint a room at a rec center as far away from the indigent, the young and the impoverished as possible.

After a bus ride—during which they sat in the all-the-way back, feet barely touching the floor, during which they bumped along like they were youngsters off to school, during which Maya viscerally recalled such rides with Rina and Kat (and Kat’s irritating best friend what was her name, had they stayed friends and who were Kat’s friends now? Cameron mentioned seeing her in Brooklyn), during which Kat asked Maya about Carl and she asked Kat about Ezra, during which Maya, to her own surprise, screamed at Rina in her head: how could you leave us?—and an orientation in the lobby, they were set free to roam the halls of the Jewish Home for the Elderly, which smelled of baby powder, yeast and decay.

Maya’s anxiety intervened, told her not to transfer her feelings for Rina to Kat. But the way Kat had seized her arm, as though Maya provided an answer.

“You okay with this whole old age home thing?” asked Kat in the elevator.

She nodded brightly. “Sure.”

“You look good,” said Kat. When her face broke into a grin, it instantly brought Rina to mind. Families mirrored each other, genes or not. Did friends?

“You’re too sweet,” Maya said. “I’ve grown gaunt from stress.”

“I wish stress did that for me—I just have epic indigestion.”

They snorted.

“Welcome to adulthood…I have a job at this website, but I’ve been in kind of a shambles—maybe you’ve heard,” Maya said.

“I don’t talk to your crowd, much,” said Kat. “I hate gossip, anyway, ever since…”

Maya hated gossip too, particularly ever since. Besides, she knew its contents: Maya the skank, the fuckup, Maya the child of late-stage divorce, Maya dumped by Carl, Maya with no best friend anymore, wasn’t it sad?

An orderly on the fourth floor pointed them into a room labeled “Potok.” At a card table, a small woman in a wheelchair sat playing solitaire. She wore a faded blue robe with clouds on it, clouds that must have been fluffy and white once—twenty dollars at Loehmann’s, she told them proudly when they complimented it.

“How are you girls?” she asked in a distinctly Eastern European accent. They sat down across the table from her, and she told them about her own synagogue up in Washington Heights. She’d been a member for forty-two years, she noted three times.

She asked them about the Rabbi’s sermons at Har Zion. Were they any good, or were they wishy-washy? Her almost-faded eyebrows arched when Kat answered instead of Maya, but she just hmmphed.

“I always keep up with the new times, that’s why I live to a hundred,” she said. Maya thought she could almost see the woman’s frail chest puff up. “Let me tell you: I love that Obama. Not like some of the others here.” She glowed with pride. Kat pressed her lips in; Maya guessed her companion had forced a laugh back in her throat. Marvelous that Kat would want to laugh, not rant.

Kat took one of Mrs. Potok’s bony, spotted hands in her own smooth one and patted it, back and forth, up and down, rhythmic and steady, her face mild, her eyes dancing.  She must be accustomed to it, a black girl in this lily-white, or lily-Jewish world, now without her older sister to safeguard her from the raised eyebrows, muffled asides and the where-are-you-from-no-where-are-you-really-froms, the can-I-touch-your-hairs the but how can you be Jewish thoughs?

Kat likely took the full measure of her situation, n­­ot like Maya or Rina. They had rented movies they knew would make them cry; they’d pop microwave popcorn and salt it with sobs. They’d go to concerts, link arms and sway, and squeeze hard until a tear or two dropped out, a smeary badge of honor. That love of feelings kept them together: Rina, with her veganism and theatricality, her reputation for being “out there.” Maya with her sharp tongue, daddy issues and sexual precocity.

Maya cringed as she extracted a thread of a memory: herself woozy on pills and scotch after the funeral announcing to Kat, “You know, I made out with your sister in college, once when we were both in a dry spell.”

Kat had stared at her unblinking, eyes dilated with substances or perhaps just shock: “Congratulations Maya. Do you want a prize?”

And oh, worse, even worse, Maya’s last words to Rina, a hastily-composed email, sent from thousands of miles away as Maya’s parents’ long breakup commenced. Rina had showed up to comfort Laine and Maya had just left home, and she’d hated it, just hated it.

“Rina darling, please stay (the fuck) out of this shit between my parents… my mom is going on about what a comfort you were today and it’s WEIRDING ME OUT. Good luck with rehearsals, K?”

She hadn’t even signed off with a heart, an “xoxoxoxo.”

Mrs. Potok declared she had to do the crossword puzzle and Maya, collecting herself, fetched it from the bedside table along with a pair of spectacles attached to a long, beaded chain.

“A seven-letter word for ‘press for change or annoy.’ Too easy—‘agitate.’” Mrs. Potok, rabbit-like, flexed her nose beneath the bridge of her glasses, and demanded: what were they waiting for, why didn’t they help her? Who else would supply her with names of “rock stars and football players and such?”

Kat sat next to Mrs. Potok and began to look over the side of the magazine, offering aid. Maya sat across from them and piped in to prevent her mind from inappropriate wanderings. She failed of course, now musing about whether Kat had ever looked into her birth story overseas. She felt sure that Rina had confided at some point, with pride, the answer, but Maya had probably been preoccupied, dreaming about boys.

“My little sis is tough,” Rina often said. “People are so racist,” she said. By virtue of Kat, she had a secret knowledge of their community’s failings that Maya didn’t. Perhaps she had said this kind of thing in the aftermath one of Maya’s “edgy” jokes, like the time she told the street preacher in Harlem, “Jesus is the white man’s God; embrace Judaism.”

Kat helped Mrs. Potok with a clue: “conclave.”

Mrs. Potok spoke to them about a friend of hers down the hall whose room they’d stopped in at en route to this.

“Her health, it’s failing. She’s one of the oldest people here,” she said. “But she’s not a hundred, like she says. She’s only ninety-eight. She may not make it to ninety-nine. Very sad.” An edge of triumph crept into her voice.

“She seemed okay to me,” said Kat brightly, and she received a skeptical, over-the-glasses look.

“Everyone here seems okay, young lady,” said Mrs. Potok. “And then they drop dead, one by one.”

Maya and Kat laughed with their eyes.

“I hope she makes it though; her family brings the good cake from Greenberg’s,” Mrs. Potok said, and launched into the next clue.

Maya leaned forward to help.  She pushed aside a curl that hung over her face, her hands tumbling like acrobats from where they’d been neatly folded in her lap. Together, they conquered the lower left-hand corner of the crossword puzzle, the three of them.

Then halfway through Kat’s reading of the clue for 36-down, Mrs. Potok froze, and wheezed a long, low wheeze, a sound unlike anything Maya had heard.

Mrs. Potok began to breathe heavily, then cough. First one loud cough, then two, then a hacking series of small coughs, then—nothing. Mrs. Potok’s eyes widened and her mouth opened, rasping.

She pointed back towards the bed, her finger jerking back and forth.

“There, there,” she gasped.

Kat’s hand sat on Mrs. Potok’s arm, still as stone.

Maya’s head swam through rivulets of panic. Where were the nurses? In a long excruciating second, Maya waited for Kat to make a move, to lead her. But Kat, with ferocity, pulled Maya’s elbow and shouted “Maya, do something!” jolting Maya into action.

The woman was still red-faced and pointing. Maya saw that her gestures indicated an oxygen tank by the bed. Kat’s eyes remained opaque. So Maya sprinted across the room, wheeled the tank over with haste, and quickly helped adjust the mask over Mrs. Potok’s face while Kat squeezed her hand and then darted into the hall.

Hold the fuck on, Maya told herself, clutching the tank. Hold on for dear life.

She and Kat ought to have fast youthful reflexes, but look at them, a pair of damaged dummies.

The mask filled with air, then settled. By the time Maya felt confident that Mrs. Potok began breathing more regularly, an orderly had arrived, and then another summoned by Kat, and within minutes Mrs. Potok seemed marginally tranquil. Maya lifted her head. Red-eyed and downcast, Kat stood inches away, both her hands resting on the older woman’s walker.

She’d been crying. In five minutes of chaos, Kat had totally lost her shit. Sympathetic salt began fighting its way up and out of Maya’s own tear ducts. She turned away, dimly thinking that narcissistic empathy was still narcissism.

The brusque orderly helped Mrs. Potok into bed and asked her a series of questions, including why she hadn’t kept the oxygen tank next to her (“I don’t like it! It’s not comfortable!”), and why she hadn’t pressed the call button around her neck (“I couldn’t breathe! I forgot I was supposed to!”).

“Quick thinking, Miss,” the orderly said to Maya. “She usually takes her tank with her but recently she’s been forgetting. We may have to take her downstairs for tests.”

“It’s fine,” said Maya. “But I mean really—is there something you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”

“Listen lady, we have this under control,” the orderly said. “I’m making a note of this, see? That’s what I do. Don’t trouble yourself—”

“Don’t just stand there, Sylvie!” Mrs. Potok shouted from the bed at Kat. Her hair had been mussed by the commotion; her eyes were wild. “Come over here. I want you to try on my silk scarf! And what about my beads? Did I give them to my niece, or do you want them?! I can’t remember,” she said, with a small moan of frustration.

Kat stood as still as a lamppost.

“I wish I could remember,” said Mrs. Potok. “What’s going on here anyway? I feel so sick.”

Kat nodded at her and said, “Okay, I’ll be right back,” and then for the second exited into the hallway alone.

“Where did she go?” Mrs. Potok asked. Frantic, she looked back and forth until her eyes seized on Maya. “Where’s that woman who says she’s a Jew?”

“She is a Jew. She davens more than I do,” Maya insisted, adding “for Rina” under her breath.

Mrs. Potok didn’t appear to hear her. She pulled the covers around her own shoulders, forlorn and tiny, almost infant-like. Maya took Mrs. Potok’s frail white hand as Kat had before and held it firm between her own. She stretched an arm around the bony shoulder as she’d been longing to do to someone all day, and leaned her head against the older woman’s bed frame. But Mrs. Potok had no interest in a snuggle.

“Hello, young lady!” said Mrs. Potok. “Can you fetch my book of puzzles? I’m going to do another one right here.”

Maya obeyed and procured the book, but just as she opened it the nurse strode in.

“I’m going to give you a quick examination Mrs. P,” the nurse said, her eyes on her notepad. “Hopefully we won’t have to move you if you’re okay. The visitors can come back when I’m done.”

“No!” said Mrs. Potok. “These nice girls. I’m not ready for that. I’m not ready. Can’t she stay?”

The nurse, all business, said the visitors could step outside and come back later. Maya took refuge in the hallway where Kat paced, her hands thrust into her pockets.

“Listen,” said the nurse, peeking her head out. “I’d like you girls to stay for a minute so you can calm her down, since you got her riled up.”

“Excuse me?” asked Kat.

The nurse rolled her eyes and walked back in the room.

“Jesus fuck,” said Kat.  “What a bitch.”

Maya nodded.

“Hey Maya, why did you even show up today?” Kat asked, still pacing. “I mean you don’t even come to synagogue anymore. But no one does. I know I was rude to you guys at the funeral, or at Shiva. I said some stuff. But then you never called or anything—my mom wondered.” She put her face in her hands.

“You weren’t rude,” Maya blew air out from her lips, as if expelling her humiliation. “Are you kidding? I was an idiot. I still am, haven’t you noticed?”

Kat began trembling. Of course it wasn’t rational of Kat to stay in an ambivalent community, to stand alone at Har Zion, nor was it reasonable of her to be cheerful when  robbed of her sister. It wasn’t stoic to break down in sobs at a nursing home.

Maya sat on the floor like a stunned and overexhausted child and felt her head jerk forward with a sudden attack of sleepiness endemic to her condition these days. She yawned and shook her head to keep herself awake.

“Hey,” Kat mouthed, squatting beside her. “Say something.”

Maya shook her head and mouthed back, “I got nothing.”

“That’s rare,” said Kat, almost snide.

Maya shrugged. “Even the rarest shit happens sometimes.”

“Hah,” said Kat. Not a real laugh; an approximation of one.

Maya’s mind glided over the days in the last year she’d lain alone on the couch with a bottle of wine or food straight from the container or the nights locked herself in the bedroom masturbating with the old but still functional Rabbit vibrator she’d gotten on a trip downtown with Rina, reading satirical novels and watching movies and sleeping late and wishing the walls of her house would fall in and bury her in the rubble.

Rina had showed up at school in September of junior year talking about her wilderness trip and how mind-blowing it was, how she’d almost died of hypothermia but been rescued by her rad counselors. Maya, whose summer had consisted of interning for her own dad in the city and losing her virginity to her apathetic seventh grade boyfriend Cam (who it turned out, had been gay all along) had been aflame with envy. But once, lying side by side at two in the morning after Maya had fought with Cam and her whole face was glob of mascara and misery and they’d watched Moulin Rouge and cried at the end, Rina had confessed: “No one liked me on my backpacking trip you know. I was an actual loser at first, a complete pariah—it was so humiliating that it was novel even for me…”

Right away, this tale had rung true to Maya, accounting for the hollow ring in Rina’s unblemished trill of praise.

“So why,” Maya had asked, “do you talk about it like it was so great?”

And Rina had explained in the precocious voice she’d used back then, “I know it sounds silly Maya, but there’s this natural phenomenon called alpenglow—the sunset hits the snow on the mountains and it, well, it glows. I’d have spent the whole day in a tizzy thinking, shit everyone loathes me. I’m excluded, Get me the hell out of here! And then we’d sit around the stove or whatever and gaze at these pink snowy mountains and I’d think, it’s worth it. This is what poetry is about. And I think,” she’d said, with this absurd solemnity, “that I understand suffering now, Maya. In a way I didn’t. And beauty, too. It’s going to make me a better artist someday.”

Maya said, “Oh Rina, you eejit,” but then of course she’d closed her eyes and seen pink mountains and thought about suffering for art.

Kat’s head tilted towards the ceiling. “Crap. I’m sorry I suggested coming to this place. What was I thinking?” she said. “Having you around—it brought things up again for me, I guess.”

Maya opened her mouth but Kat continued, “Do you know what? At the beginning I was sitting there all proud of myself for keeping it together… I was even imagining what if I went to night school and got a nursing degree! Maybe the lab would let me. What kind of lunatic am I?” she asked.

Maya chose simple words: “You’re not a lunatic, Kat.”

“Well, you’re pretty good at crossword puzzles,” said Kat after a minute.

“You too. Mrs. Potok conned us into doing that one for her, didn’t she? Funny that Rina hated them.” It was the first time her name had surfaced between them.

“Yes, she used to hop around and whine ‘this is taking too long, this is boring’!” Kat crossed her legs on the floor and arched her torso forward.

“I—Rina had slept with that director, in Connecticut,” said Kat. “She felt bad when she called me that day, about your parents. Because he was older, married with kids, and typical of her, she brought it all back to herself.”

Maya watched Kat’s chest lift and lower with breath, fending off disappointment in her own heart.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” said Kat.

“Well, I wish I hadn’t disappeared off the face of the earth,” Maya said. “Okay?”

 “Whatever,” said Kat. “You had your own shit.” She sat down on the floor next to Maya.

“My last conversation with her was partly about you. Jesus that pissed me off.”

“I’m the one told her to bang that director, anyway,” said Maya with a small smile. Had she just been forgiven, or forgiven Kat? If so, it didn’t feel like closure. It felt like being rent into two pieces, slowly.

“I figured.”

A small band of mitzvah-doers walked by them, chattering about which restaurant they’d choose on the way home. The smell of urine came from somewhere nearby—mostly faint, mostly unobtrusive.

If only she and Kat could just curl up like two kittens in an internet video, and let humanity pass them by forever. They could be mammals going to ground, their bodies sinking further, their legs sliding out onto the floor, their shoulders lower against the wall.

“Let’s bounce,” said Kat. “I can’t stand it here for another second. That lady was sweet but the nurse was kind of racist, Maya. Oh, do you still smoke weed?”

Maya nodded, pulling her purse towards her body. She wished she could forgive her father for his exodus. Rina for hers. The universe for both. Herself for her foolishness and cruelty, for this boneheaded method of approaching Kat. If only she could forgive God or the Spaghetti monster or whomever with a beneficent, Rina-like curtsey, a sweep of her hand and a grand statement: “Ah, it’s alright. You see, I understand suffering now.” But grace eluded her; she must shuffle forward, cow-like, a few feet each day until the effort of each shuffling step eased, and then eased more. And Kat was no different.

The nurse came out before they could move, linens and a trash bag in her hands. “She’s resting fine, for now. I imagine—well, you girls should really go back in,” she said to them. “Just for a little while. To say goodbye and give her some consistency, Okay?”

They sat on the floor for a timespan that felt, to Maya, like falling without end.

For all the months and years that followed, Maya failed to recall which of them grunted first, which of them, thigh muscles groaning, arms taut, pulled the other up. Yet she remembered this: because they were together, because it had been asked of them, and because of Rina, they stood up and walked back through the door.


sarah

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist, and contest-winning fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications. 

Find her at: www.sarahmseltzer.com and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer.


other sarah

Sarah Hersh is an Atlanta-based composer and new music advocate who is particularly interested in promoting the work of women composers. She holds a BA in music from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and her Master of Music degree in composition from the University of Florida. Her work has been performed in the United States, Italy, and Scotland by a variety of performers and ensembles including Clarinets for Conservation, Diagenesis, Duo46, the Florida Chamber Saxophonists, and Out of Bounds Ensemble. Ms. Hersh is a co-founder of the music blog Alphabet Soup and an Artistic Director of Terminus Ensemble. Her composition teachers include Paul Richards, Phillip Rhodes, and Roger Ames. For more information, please visit sarahhersh.com.

The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.