Sammy ran around the patch of Astroturf on the roof of our highrise. I went in and out of doing my job of being the monster. Sometimes I really didn’t want to be the monster. We’d moved in a month ago, and the building still felt like a movie set to me. The roof, scattered with empty chaise longues, made me slightly dizzy, but it was the end of September, and the view featured not only a storage facility and gas station but also, in the distance, the Statue of Liberty, rising from the steely river. Sammy ran toward me and wrapped his arms around my legs. There was a sudden gust of wind, and I briefly closed my eyes, luxuriating not in the still-warm day, but in the fact that my son was mine. His searching almond eyes, his adorable overbite, his deep love of excavators and fire trucks and one pink stuffed unicorn named PinkWhite. I suppose I took him for granted sometimes, the way I took my arms or legs for granted, but that really wasn’t often. If we had only one child, he would be more than enough. I told myself this repeatedly.
My eyes were still closed when I heard a scream. I instinctively grasped Sammy, who covered his ears in a way that was more dutiful than afraid. The wind was still strong. There was a commotion at the other end of the roof. I heard, “Thank you, thank you. Oh my God.” Sammy and I ventured over. A woman was clutching a boy about Sammy’s age.
“What happened?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
“My son was trying—he was trying … to climb over the edge! Can you believe?” She spoke with a slight accent.
“I said I’m sorry,” cried the boy.
She knelt down and faced him, grabbing his shoulders. “You cannot do this,” she said, her voice husky. She continued in a language I couldn’t immediately identify.
“I just wanted to feel it,” he said.
“Feel what?” she demanded. “Feel what?”
He burst into tears.
She asked him another question in what I finally recognized was Hebrew.
“The wind,” he managed.
She wrapped her arms around him. He let himself be comforted before trying to bolt.
I felt, weirdly, like I was about to cry. “You poor thing,” I said. I reached out and touched her shoulder, which was steadying.
“Copy me,” Sammy said to the boy and walked off like a penguin. The woman let go of her son’s hand.
“You must stay where I can see you,” she cried.
We sat down on a bench and before long the boys had transformed from penguins to bears. Her son was a beautiful boy with pale skin, blond hair and dark eyes. He was taller than Sammy, but Sammy was sturdier. The boy cupped his hand to Sammy’s ear, his eyes closed. Sammy ran around him twice and stopped, before waving his hands around, like he was dancing or maybe casting a spell.
“It is not easy,” she said, as we both kept watch, “to love someone so much.”
“I know,” I nodded. “It’s a disaster.”
The light shone directly in my eyes, and I had to hold my hand to my forehead in order to see. I always forgot my sunglasses. Her eyes, too, were flooded with sunlight, and when she squinted, I felt my own eyes do so, reflexively. Her crow’s feet were engraved equally deeply as mine. Everything about her—from her blue-gray eyes to the dusky rose color of her jeans—seemed appealing and also, I realized, strangely familiar. Does this woman look like me? This question alighted across my consciousness, and I was embarrassed for myself. I couldn’t tell if I was paying her such close attention because of the scare she’d just had or because I was admiring her style or because I thought we somehow looked alike. Was this observation purely superficial? For a moment, I felt slightly disoriented, but the feeling passed as our kids played. Her son wore a dramatic and serious expression. He pointed to the ground. Sammy laughed, but then—to my surprise—he knelt and bowed.
“Stay where we can see you,” I called as they chased each other on the turf. “Did you just move in?”
She shook her head. “We were the first tenants,” she said. “This is maybe a—what is the word? Dubious?—a dubious distinction?”
“I’m surprised we haven’t run into you.”
“Well,” she said, “It has been a bit … chaotic. I left my husband thirty-five days ago. We lived in Riverdale. Do you know where this is?”
I shook my head. “We just moved to New York,” I explained, though that hardly seemed to matter.
“I took my son. I took my car. I drove down the West Side Highway as far as I could and then kept driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. I went into a real estate storefront and said I needed something with a doorman immediately.” She tilted her chin slightly upward, as if getting a whiff of a peculiar scent. “We need security.”
“When I moved in, this place—they were still painting. Still hiring staff. But I feel safe here,” she nodded. “I felt it from the start. Do you?”
She looked at me expectantly, and I nodded. Her chest was layered with fine necklaces. One thin gold chain lay flat, grazing her clavicle, so delicate that it barely registered as adornment. One was a small charm that I recognized. It was tarnished gold with a small pearl.
“I like your Hamsa,” I said. I knew it was a symbol of significance in not only Jewish culture but also Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist.
“Let no sadness come to this heart,” she said, and gave a drained smile. “Let no trouble come to these arms. Let no conflict come to these eyes. Let my soul be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.”
“Amen,” I said, with some reflexive sarcasm. I wasn’t accustomed to strangers offering prayers although I thought it was beautiful. “Are you religious?” I asked.
“This is a complicated question right now,” she said. “Are you Jewish?”
I blushed, embarrassingly. “Technically yes,” I answered. “Though,” I smiled, “my in-laws would disagree.”
She ran her hand through her windswept hair, but her fingers stopped short on a knot. “Religion is…,” she trailed off, or maybe I just didn’t let her finish.
“I’m sorry,” I rushed to say. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
She shrugged. “Here I am.” Her eyelids were heavy, and she peered at me from under them. “I left my husband. I do not know what I am.”
“Eima,” called her son insistently, “tell him that I was a tree.” He stretched his arms wide and stood on his toes.
“He was a tree,” she told Sammy.
“See?” the boy told Sammy. Then he froze his face in what was—even to me—a convincing expression of power. “First I was a tree. Then a queen.” He got too close to the edge of the roof again.
She screamed, “Tal!” and declared she’d had enough of this. They were leaving.
The next morning, there was a note under our door.
Come for tea today with your adorable boy?
Her apartment had the same layout as ours, but where our closet was, there was a small extra bedroom off of the kitchen—Tal’s—where the boys were playing. It had the same generic “breakfast bar” and matte chrome appliances, but I tried to keep all of our clutter in one woven bowl, while her counter was crowded with a pair of Shabbat candlesticks, vitamins, essential oils, and unopened mail. A dark-green velvet sofa strewn with brightly colored pillows dominated the small living room. Above the couch was a large framed photo of an old man with a long gray beard, large seventies-style eyeglasses, a kippah atop his mostly bald head, and my new friend—with a fuller face and bigger hair—gazing at him adoringly, draped around him in a hug. It was such a sentimental photo, and she was so posed in it, that I went from feeling slightly mortified for her to ashamed. When had I become so cynical?
“Is that your father?” I asked.
She nodded, filling an electric kettle with water. She turned off the tap. “We are not speaking.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. It’s a sweet photograph.”
She set kettle to boil. “My father is an American Hasidic theologian,” she explained, scooping tea leaves from a glass jar into a burnished silver teapot. “He moved to Israel, and this is where I was born and mostly raised. He ultimately went his own way, straying from the official movement, moving us back to America, but this is another story. My husband is not like my father. My husband is Orthodox.” She took a deliberate breath. She yelled a command in Hebrew at Tal, as if she had a sixth sense he was about to do something dangerous. She tented her fingers as if she might make an important point. “My father is a brilliant man. I miss him terribly. But when I called him to confess that I needed help, he did not come.” The electric kettle beeped and switched off. She slowly poured the water into the teapot, careful not to splash. She took two Moroccan glasses from the cabinet above. She pressed her fingers to her eyes and did not look up. “My husband was beating our child.”
“No,” I said. “He was beating Tal?” I kept my voice to a whisper, despite the fact that she hadn’t been particularly quiet.
“When you say beating, do you mean—”
“There were bruises. There were marks.”
“My god,” I found myself saying. “I’m sorry.”
“Look,” she said, leaning on the counter, “know I’m blunt. I’ve spent enough time saying nothing, keeping everything together. It’s enough. This divorce is going to bankrupt me. My community has turned on me. But do you know what?” She looked right in my eyes. “I feel good.”
She opened a box of cookies, spilling some onto a plate. She waved me off when I tried to come collect the glasses from the counter. This small ritual seemed important to her, so I folded my legs beneath me and settled into the couch as she presented the tea and cookies on a wooden tray. As the tea steeped, she explained how she’d introduced herself at the hippie Jewish day school that was walking distance from our building with her married name. They’d told her that school had already started and that there were unfortunately no kindergarten spots available. Then she told the administrators who her father was. “They found Tal a spot, of course they did.” While obviously pleased by this, she also seemed blatantly dismissive.
“Have you ever called the cops on him?” I asked, still whispering. I feared sounding titillated, but she only offered what seemed like a practiced smile.
“Of course I have. The man beat my child. Social Services wants to wait and wait and—I’m sorry—fucking wait until the child is terribly hurt before they do anything.”
I wanted to ask how common this was in her community and if any of her friends had maybe gone through anything similar. Then I realized that this might sound as if I thought Orthodox Jews commonly beat their kids, as if I thought beating one’s child might be part of parenting in a traditional culture, which—okay—maybe I did kind of think. There was also a part of me that questioned how she seemed almost removed from her own story, as if she was performing more than spontaneously sharing, but who was I to judge her delivery?
The boys played happily in Tal’s bedroom; we could hear their sweet voices, getting along. We sipped mint tea from lovely glasses. We stayed as dinnertime loomed, as the sun began its descent. At some point I explained that we’d been living on the coast of Massachusetts. That David was an artist and a sometime teacher, and I had a long-standing copy-editing job. I’d loved working remotely; I’d loved the dramatic shoreline. We had a great life until we started trying to have a baby, which was a long and exhausting affair that spanned several years and two states. Worth it, of course, but … “Anyway,” I continued, “somewhere in there, David decided that he wanted a major change. He wanted to become a doctor.”
She laughed with an open mouth, a flash of silver fillings. “What a man! Mid-life crisis?”
“Well, maybe, but—he meant it. He went to medical school, and now we’re here, for his residency. He’s really doing it. If you’d known him before—you never would have imagined he’d make such a radical change.”
She nodded. “Most people do not.”
“I guess not,” I agreed.
“You seem a little sad about it.”
“Yes,” she insisted. “As if you were happier with someone less ambitious, perhaps?”
I tried to consider what she was suggesting, even though I thought she was being sort of rude. “No,” I said, after a moment or two. “No, I don’t think so.”
“You think, maybe that he is fulfilling his potential?”
“I do,” I nodded. “It’s actually really inspiring. I wonder sometimes if I’ve wasted mine.”
“I did not mean to say—”
“When I was fourteen years old I auditioned for a community theater production of Fiddler on the Roof and I met an eighteen-year-old boy. No one knew where he came from but he was the most attractive guy I’d ever seen.”
“Who were you?”
“It doesn’t matter. Totally not the point of the story.”
“It matters to me. Who were you?”
“I was Tzeitel,” I replied, not really hiding my slight irritation.
“Ah, yes. The bride. I am going to bet this mysterious boy was not your bridegroom.”
“Of course not. He was the student radical.”
“Who will dance with me?” We both said at once, my heart cracking wide open.
“He was so talented,” I told her. “He could sing and dance and cry at the drop of a hat.” I could hear my voice, imploring, as if I really needed her to believe it. “He was wild, too. I remember one time he climbed up this ladder and.… Anyway, I’ve always wondered what happened to him.”
“Have you Googled him?”
“Of course I have. I thought that maybe he changed his name. It would have fit with his character. I envisioned him doing—I don’t know what …” I trailed off because what did it matter and why was I telling her this? But then I saw that she was patiently waiting for me to continue, and her patience and expectation were unanticipated and flattering, so I took a breath and pressed on. “So, the other day, I was in the park here with Sammy, and there was a man doing hula hoop dancing for change, and I swear it was the same guy.”
I nodded. “There he was after all these years. There was that star I’d known and worshipped. He was wearing sweatpants and nothing else and he was dancing with a hula hoop. He was the hula hoop guy. Not many people even stopped to watch.”
“Did you say hello?”
I shook my head.
“And so, you think he squandered his potential while your husband has risen to meet his?”
I sensed a similar derision as when she’d reported the obsequiousness of the hippie Jewish day school administrators, who so clearly worshipped her father.
“I guess I do, yes.”
She nodded as she poured us more tea.
“It was really sad,” I insisted, “seeing him with that hula hoop.”
“But … how did he look?”
I met Nurit’s eyes and found myself flushing. I began shaking my head. “He looked pretty good,” I admitted, beginning to laugh.
Tal came out of the room crying and climbed into his mother’s lap. He buried his face in her shoulder.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I asked.
He didn’t respond. He seemed inconsolable, but Nurit only ran her fingers through his silky hair and murmured something to him in Hebrew.
“Did Sammy do something to make you upset?” I asked. “Sammy?” I called out.
My son emerged from Tal’s room, holding out a stuffed lion, presumably as an offering, if not an apology.
Nurit looked out the window. It was dark now, too late; we were all reflected in the night, the glass. “Listen to me,” she said. “You too, Sammy.” Sammy looked up at Nurit, giving her his full attention; my skin prickled with what I realized was nothing but jealousy. She said—toward Tal’s hair and Sammy’s suddenly devoted face: “It is hard to be a person.”
Since there weren’t many kids in the building, the doormen showered attention on Sammy; he liked to hang around the front desk. Sometimes they’d give him a sticker or candy. One afternoon, he was peering over Antoine’s—the nicest doorman’s—shoulder and sounding out a word. “Neh,” he said, “Neehh,” furrowing his brow. “Ver,” he added, and then, excitedly, “Never!”
As I asked Sammy what he was talking about, I also noticed where he was looking.
Hanging behind the doorman’s desk on two large neon-yellow Post-it notes printed carefully in black Sharpie:
—Nurit’s husband Yosef Borowitz is NEVER to be allowed up to their apartment without Nurit’s explicit permission.
—Nurit’s husband Yosef Borowitz is NEVER to take Tal anywhere (INCLUDING INSIDE THE BUILDING) without Nurit or their legally-agreed-upon chaperone Rachel Margolit.
As I prepared his dinner, back in our apartment, I managed to find out what he’d understood from the Post-its, which was thankfully little, but still, he’d read quite a few words. I texted David, Sammy can read! as I ran our boy a bath.
Rachel Margolit—I knew—happened to be Nurit’s ex-friend, whom Nurit hated but whom she also trusted to keep Tal safe. (“How can you agree to have her be the chaperone if you despise her?” Without faltering, Nurit shrugged and said, “Rachel hates me but she loves Tal.” I did not ask, “Why does Rachel hate you?”)
Here’s what I knew about Yosef: he was tall and powerfully built. He was a restaurant manager (some kind of outer-borough Kosher steakhouse; I’d Googled). He did not wear a black hat. There were many kinds of Orthodox, and he was not that kind.
Once, Nurit asked if I wanted to come for lunch or tea while the children were at school. After I finished the morning’s work I bought her a couple of oatmeal blueberry muffins I knew she liked from a local café; as I approached her apartment, I heard the distinct sound of wailing. I stopped in the hallway, not yet at her door. I listened to that truly terrible sound, and I wasn’t sure which was worse—that I didn’t knock on her door immediately or that I didn’t instantly go back to my apartment, affording her the privacy she deserved. I stood there, frozen, until the wailing stopped. Then I crept toward the door and stood outside it, gripping the bag of muffins. She was yelling now, screaming. The words weren’t entirely clear—I couldn’t even tell if she was speaking English—but I had the sense she was past words, past curses. What I was hearing was pure pain. I stood there, looking at Nurit’s door, which was covered with Tal’s drawings and collages, the carpet below it dusted with glitter.
I walked away without knocking. I never mentioned this moment to her, never asked if she was okay. I didn’t describe to anyone the way that paper bag got moist in my hand and I’d unknowingly crushed the muffins into crumbs while listening to Nurit weep. Why didn’t I talk about Nurit and Tal with David? Why hadn’t I told him, Sammy and I made some friends in the building? Maybe I was afraid that he might smile and say something to diminish her, something like, She sounds a little crazy.
The weather turned cold. David was at the hospital so often, for longer and longer hours, it seemed, that we sometimes forgot that he was coming home, and when he walked through the door in the morning, in the night, we were all dramatic—showering him with kisses—and he was shy and happy, but he also just wanted to go to sleep. After dropping Sammy at kindergarten, I ran the loop in the park. I loved the light glistening on the pond and the strangeness of the people in various forms of motion. Even though I, too, was in motion, sometimes it felt as if I was stock still and everything was moving around or even without me. I kept getting copy-editing jobs, which I completed at our one table, pushed up against the windows, looking out on Fourth Avenue with its car wash, gas station, and storage facility. When I looked up from my work, I could see beyond the street to the horizon, where the above-ground subway tracks carved a jagged S into the edge of the hazy sky.