By Shoshana Razel Gordon Guedalia
It’s 5:00 pm on a Saturday when the drowning incident transpires. Taking into account the setting and the terminology befitting the parties, the drowning incident occurs during seudah shlishit, the third ritual meal of Shabbat. The month is December. The location is a hotel pool in Miami. The stage, upon which this scene unfolds, is an expansive patio extending out from the rear of a hotel overlooking a beach. Upon closer scrutiny, venturing right up to the aqua blue metal railing which lines the patio’s perimeter, and peering below, the very pool where the incident takes place becomes visible, shimmering with the light of the late afternoon sun.
On the patio are six small round glass tables—four wicker chairs each—shaded by aqua blue umbrellas, evenly distributed along said perimeter of the patio. Set apart from the rest of the tables in the right-most corner of the patio, as viewed when facing the hotel itself, back to the pool, are three lower tables, glass as well, square in shape, having been pushed together in order to accommodate a small crowd. This extended table stands out in length, in height, and in the abundance of food of nearly every imaginable kind, all pouring out of, or sitting atop of, multi-colored packages of varied composition brought in from outside the hotel premises.
Seated at a small round table are two elderly couples, each of the men wearing blue blazers, the women wearing pastel-colored cotton sweaters, conversing in German while partaking of tea and croissants. Two tables to their left, a waiter in black-and-white uniform, French in accent, leans forward in a gesture of attentiveness as he notes the desires of a particularly attractive young woman with long auburn hair flowing down her bare bronzed back. The freckled sunburned man seated beside her extends his right arm to cover her left, as his eyes turn to monitor the waiter.
At precisely this moment, one cannot miss, with a measure of surprise, a football sailing overhead, narrowly missing the waiter as he ducks. Turning towards its origin, the inhabitants at the adjoining tables are revealed, seated on low two-seater sofas, positioned around a long table, chatting. An elderly couple sits side-by-side on a love seat, the man—bare-headed—clutching his cane, conversing animatedly with two young women in their teens, each adorned with a ponytail, with a tall man, perhaps forty, wearing a multi-colored skullcap, and with a woman, perhaps thirty, seated across from the girls, her upper body twisted towards the railing.
“Zevy! Stop throwing pretzels in the pool!” she yells at a boy, blond, perhaps two years old, wearing a white three-button polo shirt atop a pair of khaki shorts—more casual than the festive attire of the other children who are running around both the patio as well as the length of the hotel’s perimeter on the righthand side, where a casual game of football should not disturb the diners on the adjacent patio.
Between the joined and the smaller tables, a woman, flushed, waves her arms as she converses quickly and loudly in a blend of languages with three men, two with full beards, all with skullcaps, all flushed, pausing for air only as a small boy of perhaps six or seven, with a rather large black skullcap trimmed with swords intertwined with olive branches, barrels into her for a hug.
“Are you having fun, Mushmush?” Dvora asks, still pumped with adrenalin as she squats down to rub noses with Max, squeezing him in a warm embrace.
“The best ever! Mommy,” he gushes. “It’s like I have brothers!”
Dvora watches him as he heads back to join Lily, Jack, Mordy and Zalmy. Where’s Zevy? she wonders suddenly, looking around until her eyes zero in on him, stomping his feet and shouting by the blue railing, as his mother, Eve, takes a bag of pretzels out of his hands. She turns back towards Max, her youngest, her only son, her heart swelling with pride, noting his swagger as he heads back into the Brody brothers’ impromptu football game on the side of the hotel building. It’s like I have brothers, Max’s words echo, making her swallow a lump in her throat as she straightens to standing again. This vacation with the Brody boys is just what Max needed, she thinks, and Lily, too, she smiles, observing her nine-year-old daughter, green eyes ablaze, catching the football against her chest as Jack Brody, eleven, gazes at her with a lopsided grin. She turns again, observing her teenaged daughters. So like grown women already, she thinks, their hands flying around as they speak, seated with her husband Judah, their father, with Eve Brody, and with that couple in their nineties that they all just met.
Content, she turns back to the conversation at hand, to Ben Brody and the two other men they just met in the lobby, to topics she never tires of, to the passionate debate over world events as they unfold, how they will unfold, how they should unfold, over political agendas, conspiracy theories, the reliability of the latest information on various websites, ex-intelligence and others, possible terrorist websites she’s accessed, the latest protests she’s gone to, what Israel must and mustn’t do, the impossible position that the world puts Israel in, Israel in the media, the truth about Israel, what the answer to the Middle East problem is, what it isn’t, the rise of antisemitism, the global jihad, the threat from Iran, what they do or do not have in their arsenal, should it be taken out, and if so, how and when and by whom, the war in Iraq, should it have been both Iran and Iraq or neither, the Sunni-Shiite balance, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, another Holocaust must be prevented at all costs, Jewish children’s blood must never again be shed freely. . .
Every word fans the fire in her belly till it rages, consuming all her fears, all her doubts, all her feelings of impotence before a world where God had expected more of her as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, of partisans no less, of fighters who had lost their entire families and rebuilt a world in which she finds herself living far from Israel, far from the daily sense of history: urgent, imminent, and critical, far from the sense of mission inherent in every action, in every moment of every day, however mundane. . .
Max feels really great as he heads back to the Brody boys. Even Mordy and Zalmy say he plays well. “Max is tough as nails,” Mordy tells Zalmy. Max feels himself standing taller, thrilled by these words. He looks around at his friends, pumped with the buzz of camaraderie. Sadness grips him suddenly as he remembers that they’re all leaving Florida the next day, that they’ll all be together because they’re brothers, and he’ll be alone again, the only boy, just with sisters and a mom all week till he has another boy, his dad, at home for Shabbat. All my friends have brothers. He swallows, blinking back threatening tears. Not now, he thinks, remembering times he did cry. Lily plays with me like boys do, he soothes himself, watching her catch the ball against her chest. But a brother’s just different, he thinks, bending to check his orange crocs for sand so no one will see him sad.
Clapping his crocs together to shake out sand, he remembers the week before, back in first grade in New York. Lizzy and Shifra were clapping hands like in patty-cakes and singing.
“What are you singing?” Max asked. They started whispering.
“Girls are smarter than boys,” they teased.
“Na-ah, they’re not,” said Max.
“Are too,” they taunted.
“Na-ah, they’re not,” he bristled.
“Are too!” they said.
Max got frustrated and said, “Are not, you idiots.”
The girls started crying and went to their teacher.
Akiva and Leibe met him in the playground after. “Boys can say, ‘you idiot,’ to boys, but not to girls,” the twins told Max.
“But I call Lily, idiot,” Max said, “and she calls me idiot, too.”
“Sisters don’t count,” they said.
That’s when Max cried.
Max stands up, leaving his crocs on the floor near the table and looks at his mom. She smiles at him and turns back to the Brody dad and to the men with beards. An image pops up in his mind, an image of a particular morning he remembers. Max had crawled into her bed, waking her with a big wet kiss on her cheek. She opened one eye to discover a glazed pink surface. Confused, she lifted her head, opening both eyes, heavy with sleep, and sitting up.
“Your piggy bank, Max?” she had asked. “Why do you want your piggy bank?”
“I want a brother, Mommy.” He’d gazed into her eyes.
“I know, Mushmush,” she soothed. “We talked about this. I’m sorry, Max—”
“I’ll give you everything in my piggy bank,” he’d pleaded. “All of my money if you give me a brother.”
She’d looked like she were about to cry as she enveloped Max in a hug.
“I know, Pushky Mushky,” she crooned, “but I’m just too old and tired to have any more babies.”
“I don’t think you’re old, Mama,” he said.
“I’m sorry, Max. . .” She hugged him tighter. “I really am sorry. . .”
Now, Max takes a deep breath. “Oh Yeah!” he yells as he snatches the football clean out of the air.
Judah turns and smiles, hearing his son scream. He’s such a little man, he thinks, his own chest swelling with pride, watching him clutch the football, surrounded by the Brody boys.
“Go, Mansky!” he yells over to him. “Go Max!” He smiles, breathing in through his nose, letting the air out slowly as his gaze shifts to his own hands, upturned in his lap. I hope I encourage him enough, he thinks, his own father’s ongoing undermining invading his consciousness. I wish I was around for him more—he blinks against misting eyes—but I have to travel, he assures himself. I have to travel for him! For the girls! For the family! He can feel his face flush, indignant, as he assumes an internal defensive posture, as though he were answering his wife as she cried, as though he were defending the very concept of aiming to succeed in the face of his father’s upper-class disdain for a man’s efforts to rise above mediocrity by the sweat of his own brow.
“You’re a very good father,” says Sid, patting Judah’s knee with a gnarled hand and the wooden handle of his cane. “And a very lucky man,” he adds, leaning in, peering into Judah’s eyes.
Taken aback, Judah’s eyes shift to meet the eyes of the friendly ninety-four-year-old man from Manhattan, whom they had just met that afternoon. “Thank you,” he croaks.
“You have a beautiful family,” Sid says, turning to smile appreciatively at the girls across the table. They giggle. Edith, seated beside Sid, smirks and rolls her eyes. “A man has to work very hard to have such a big family today.”
“It’s also luck.” Judah sighs, his eyes searching Sid’s, his hunger for approval growing with the taste of it. “One also prays for providence.”
“You believe in God, too,” Sid says. “That’s beautiful. Do your children believe in God?”
Zevy glares at his mother from beneath crossed brows, his nose scrunched, mouth pursed,his angriest possible face. Eve studies him with as stern a look as she can muster. He’s just so cute when he’s angry, she thinks.
“I’m sorry Zevy,” she says. “No more pretzels! You threw them in the pool, so no more pretzels.”
“No!” he shouts. “No! No! No!” He stomps, alternating his feet.
“Go play with your brothers, Zevy,” she says. “No is no.” She turns to join the adult conversation, clutching the pretzels to her chest.
Zevy stomps in place some more until he grows tired, until he hears his brothers yell, “Uh-oh!” as their football sails across the patio. He runs over to join the commotion and that’s where he finds the crocs—Max’s crocs—bright, orange, tempting. He loses track of the other excitement and picks them up. First he places one croc in each hand and then smacks them together, laughing. Then his eyes catch sight of the railing again, blue, blue like the water in the pool. Do crocs float like boats? he wonders. Like pretzels? He runs over to the railing, lifts one croc-wielding arm high above his head and whoosh, the croc sails through the air, landing in the water below with a splash. He smiles, pleased, leaning over to study his handiwork. He looks around to gauge reactions. His mother is talking to Mordy, Zalmy and the waiter. She looks embarrassed, like she did something bad, Zevy thinks. He throws the other croc.
Sid is explaining to Judah and the girls that he wishes he were religious. He wishes his children had remained in the Jewish fold. “I believe in God, of course,” he says, “but I doubt that he believes in me.”
Edith giggles. She’s heard this before.
“I’m too naughty to wear tefillin,” he says, winding one hand around the other as though he were donning phylacteries. “I was sleeping around for years before I met my girlfriend here ten years ago.” He turns to Edith, who shakes her head and rolls her eyes.
“What?” Leah and Rachel ask in unison. “What do you mean—girlfriend? You’re not married?” they ask, shocked.
“Uh-oh,” Edith intones, “corrupting the youth. . .” She shakes her head and sighs.
“He’s too scared,” she tells them.
“He’s too scared,” she tells them.
Rachel and Leah stare at the two of them. “Why?”
“Marry her already, will you?” Dvora interjects, turning away from her own conversation, mid-flow. “You’re ninety four! What are you waiting for?”
“I didn’t even know you were in this conversation,” Judah laughs, watching her as she turns back to the global jihad with a smile on her face.
“So tell me,” Sid deflects, “do you girls really believe in God?”
“Of course we do.” Rachel and Leah giggle at each other.
“Now, don’t be afraid of your parents,” Sid says. “I’m here. You can be honest. Should God believe in you?”
Edith smacks him on the knee, shooting him a warning glance.
“Like for example,” he asks, “do you ever go to naked movies?”
“Hey!” Judah shouts. “That’s enough!”
“Mommy!” Max yells, standing next to a very proud Zevy who’s laughing and pointing to the pool. “Zevy threw my crocs over the fence!” He can see them floating in the water below.
“The people of Israel cannot be expected to stand idly by while they’re being attacked!” Dvora proclaims loudly. Max looks at her. He can tell she isn’t talking to him. She’s still talking to the Brody dad and the men with beards. She’s shouting and waving her arms and her face is very red. Max knows it’s not the angry kind of shouting, that it’s her happy kind of shouting; that she always shouts like that when she talks to daddies about wars and Israel; that she likes to; that they also like to; that whenever she shouts and her face is all red , the daddies also shout and are all red, that sometimes they also laugh and speak Hebrew, and she doesn’t always hear him when she’s shouting and waving her arms and her face is all red.
Max looks around for Lily. Lily is smart and she always helps him.
Once he asked her if you could floss your teeth on Shabbat and she said, “It depends if you have sensitive gums that might bleed.”
He’d thought about it and asked her, “How can I know if I do?”
“Try flossing on Friday,” she said. “If you taste salty iron, then don’t floss on Shabbat.”
“Lily,” Max grabs her arm. “Zevy threw my crocs in the pool!” Jack and Lily follow him to the railing to see.
“Mom—” Jack starts—holding back when he sees her talking to the angry waiter with Zalmy and Mordy.
“Yeah,” Lily follows his gaze, all-knowing. “Busy. And look at my mom.” She giggles, waving her arms in the air as she parrots, “Global jihad, blah, blah, blah. . . This rabbi says you can swim on Shabbat, and no, he didn’t, and no serious religious people swim on Shabbat—”
“Hey,” Jack interjects, “that’s what your mom and dad were talking about with my mom and dad this morning, I remember. You know, we actually do swim on Shabbat when we’re on vacation, without other people we know. . .”
“Huh. . .” Lily plays with her bottom lip while studying Jack’s face. “That’s interesting. I never knew that. . .”
Her voice trails off as the three of them turn towards one of the small tables where two old men and two old women, dressed in suit jackets and sweaters are speaking German, the same language that Lily recognizes from when her mother talks to her very old professor friend, Herman, at home in New York, in shul. They look pretty annoyed.
“Juden,” Lily hears.
“They said Jews,” she tells Jack. “I know that Juden means Jews, because my mom told me once, when I asked her, when one of her friends said that Nazi aerobics are called yudenshtompen. My mom told him it wasn’t funny, even though she made that face that means she’s trying not to laugh. Like when my dad makes jokes that are funny, but not about things that you should joke about, and my mom knows she thinks it’s funny, but she won’t laugh, so he’ll know it’s wrong, but she really wants to. Like even before, when we were playing football, I heard Sid ask my dad how long they were married, and he said, “Twenty years, and it feels like twenty minutes,” and he smiled, and then he said, “Under water.” And everyone laughed, but my mom threw a sweater at him. . .”
Lily’s voice trails off as they notice Dvora turn away from the men. Her eyebrows look high on her forehead and her eyes look wide open, like she’s surprised. “How the Jews breed?!” they hear her say, looking at the couples who were saying, “Juden.” She steps over to their table, points her middle finger in the air at them, and shouts, “Platzen sie!”
“That means—please, explode!” Lily confides. “My mom’s friend, Herman, once told me a joke about how it means, ‘please explode,’ instead of ‘Please sit.’”
The two couples look shocked as they quietly return to their tea.
“How ladylike!” Judah says with a smirk, reaching out to pull Dvora in for a little hug before she returns to her conversation.
“I was in Berlin on Kristallnacht. . .” Sid begins soberly.
“What about my crocs?” Max tugs on Lily’s dress.
“Daddy!” Lily yells. Still engrossed in his conversation with Sid, Judah waves to her behind his back. Eve is still busy with Mordy and Zalmy, saying they are too wild. “Let’s just go get the crocs ourselves and come back up,” Lily says to Jack and Max.
Max turns towards his mother.
“The world has to understand that it is no longer tolerable for Jewish children’s lives to be in peril!” Dvora’s face is very red. Her finger stabs the air while she speaks, as though this gesture could make her voice stronger.
Max turns to look at his father. Judah is leaning forward, listening to Sid.
“I sold suits to Trump’s father,” Sid is telling him.
“No one will notice if we go down quickly,” Lily says.
“Yeah,” Max agrees.
“Let’s go,” says Jack.
The three of them cross the patio in single file, none of them aware that they are in fact four. Holding the aqua blue railing, they descend the stairs on tippy-toes. The way we walk to the pool and the beach when it’s not Shabbat, Max thinks to himself. They find themselves by the pool. One of Max’s crocs floats gently in the middle of the pool: the other dances in the tumultuous artificial waterfall on the other side. There are still pretzels in the water. They’re quite swollen and contorted given how long they’ve been in there.
“I can’t go in because it’s Shabbat,” Lily reminds Jack. Max walks the length of the pool, transfixed, studying his wildly dancing orange croc.
“Yeah,” Jack replies, studying her face. “But if you fell in by accident, it wouldn’t be your fault, right?”
“True,” she answers, a smile spreading across her face as she stands ever so close to the pool and closes her eyes. She feels Jack’s warm hand on her back as he pushes her in. It feels really weird to be this wet in a Shabbat dress, she thinks. It actually makes it harder for my legs to swim. Being a very good swimmer, Lily swims to the middle of the pool and grabs one croc, turning to locate Jack. He has the other one in his hand and is getting out of the pool. Lily swims to the side and climbs out. Once out, she notices Zevy standing right behind Max at the deep end. I didn’t even know that he came down to the pool with us, she thinks. He’s only two, and that’s scary near a pool.
Lily stands and looks in their direction again. Right before her eyes, Zevy pushes Max into the deep end. Lily knows Max can’t swim. She spent many summers in camp, leaving her group to help the swimming teacher of the younger group coax Max into the water.
The image seems to unfold in slow motion before her eyes. Max has a very surprised look on his face, surprised and scared. Her eyes take in his eyebrows, high on his forehead, the corners of his mouth, lowered on each side. She notices that he pivots while falling, that he sees Zevy just before he hits the water. She drops the croc and runs the length of the pool.
Max watches as Jack plucks his croc from the rushing water. The Brody boys are so cool, he thinks. When I grow up I want to swim like Jack. He turns to watch Lily as she grabs the other croc—her pink dress half floating, half sticking to her as she swims. When I grow up I want to be like Lily too, he thinks. She’s not scared of anything. He watches Jack climb out of the water, laughing and wet in his Shabbat pants and white button shirt. He watches Lily climb out too, all tangled in her wet dress. It sticks to her like she’s all wrapped up. He laughs, feeling excitement and longing for their grit. Just then, he feels two small hands on his back. He startles. Even as he turns, he loses his balance. The last thing he sees before plunging, terrified, into a world of blue, is Zevy’s giddy face and clapping hands.
Weird, is how he feels. Somehow he knows he’s drowning. The water is really heavy around him. It pushes him down, replacing his shock and terror with a sense of being in a cartoon, where everything is white all around you, or maybe blue. Then he closes his eyes, out of fear, and because the blue in the water stings. He feels like he’s bobbing in and out of the water like a yo-yo, but not actually out. He tries to get to the top in a crawling way, like his mom kept trying to teach him, like all the teachers kept trying to teach him, like Lily kept trying to teach him too, but he couldn’t get it, and he just can’t get it now. He opens his eyes and tries to swim in a crawling way on the floor to get to the wall and out, but he can’t. He tries to stand, to flap his hands like birds, but whenever he goes up, the water pushes him back down again. The water is very heavy, so he closes his eyes again.
Lily can see Max moving around underwater. It looks like he’s coming up, but his face never makes it out and he sinks back down.
“What did you do, Zevy?!” She hears Jack’s voice as he comes up behind her, as she jumps in.
She dives down like diving for the colorful rings she and her friends toss in for practice. Max’s eyes are closed. He’s at the bottom. It looks like he’s trying to crawl. She gets under his tushy and tries to push him up, but it doesn’t work. He’s too heavy, and she can’t explain to him underwater how to move his arms and legs to help her. She swims backwards to get a better look. Her eyes hurt from the chlorine, but she keeps them wide open, so she can see him. Then she has an idea. She sticks her right hand into the back of his pants and grabs them tight, using her left hand to swim to the top because her left hand is stronger. When their faces come out of the water, she drags Max by his pants to the side and pushes him out. He climbs onto the side, coughing till he vomits.
Max feels someone pushing his tushy up from under him. He feels like someone is giving him a wedgie and won’t stop. Suddenly he finds himself at the wall, in the air. Then he realizes that it’s Lily holding his pants, Lily pulling him, Lily pushing him out. He climbs out. Lily climbs out. He finds himself coughing a lot, and he even throws up next to the pool. He sees Jack crouching over the pool, looking very scared and worried. Jack stands up. He sees Zevy jumping up and down, excited. Lily and Jack start screaming for help, but Max can’t. He feels too tired, and it feels like he needs to get used to air again. Thinking about that makes him feel dizzy and he notices that he’s shivering worse than ever before. Lily runs to him with a pile of towels just when the grownups come running down the stairs like a stampede, like in the movies. Where did Lily get all the towels from? he wonders. How does she always know where to get towels from?
Dvora scoops Max up, wrapping him up in the towels from Lily, before she collapses with him into an aqua blue lounge chair. She’s crying, swaying back and forth as she cradles him in her arms. She keeps looking into his eyes, feeling his face, feeling his whole body. Max feels like she’s looking inside his eyes to see his mind, to feel his heart.
“Are you okay, Mushmush?” she asks. “Are you okay? Thank you, God,” she says. “Oh, thank you, God. Forgive me, God. Oh, please forgive me, God. Are you okay, Max? Are you okay?”
Max feels tired, too tired to talk, but he says, “Yeah, Mommy, I’m okay.”
Max notices his Dad talking on a cell phone, even though it’s Shabbat. He also notices it’s not a cell phone he ever saw. Then he thinks it belongs to the old man talking to his dad, not Sid, but one of the men with a blue jacket who said Juden upstairs, and who is helping Max’s dad with the cell phone now. They both come close to him, bending down and staring at him, especially at his eyes, even while Max’s dad is still on the phone.
“Yes, Lyn. He is. . .” Max’s dad says.
The only Lyn Max knows is a mom who is also a doctor and lives next door to them in New York.
“I’m fine,” Max says, “just tired, just tired. . .” He closes his eyes.
“Thank God,” says a cacophony of voices. “Baruch Hashem, Thank God. . .”
Eyes closed, snuggled like a ball in his mom’s lap, smelling her neck and her mushy parts, using her as a pillow, feeling better and warmer, he hears voices asking Lily and Jack, “Exactly what happened? How long was he under?” And he drifts off . . .
When Max opens his eyes, Lily and Jack have finished telling their story. Max’s dad scoops Lily up and hugs her like a baby, even though she’s already nine. He notices his dad crying, even though he thought dads didn’t cry. He feels relieved seeing him cry, like maybe it’s okay that he sometimes cries, too, like maybe even the Brody boys sometimes cry. His mom is still hugging him tight, rocking him back and forth.
“God forgive me,” she says. “Max, please forgive me,” she begs.
Max looks into her eyes. They have teeny red squiggly lines where white should be, her skin is swollen all around them. Even her nose is red and swollen. “But you didn’t do it, Mama,” he says. “It was Zevy.” He reaches a hand out of his aqua blue terry cloth chrysalis to touch a teardrop trickling down her jawline. He touches his finger to his tongue, tasting salt.
“No, Max,” she says. “Zevy’s two. I’m forty. I’m sorry, Max. I’m sorry.”
“Lily!” Dvora calls out to her. Judah is still hugging her tight. “Lily.” Dvora reaches out to her as she approaches. “Do you understand that you saved your brother’s life?” She pulls Lily in for a hug with Max.
“I know he can’t swim, Mommy,” she says. “And besides, he’s my brother, you’re supposed to look out for your brothers.”
Max closes his eyes again. Even as he dozes off, he senses his mother’s tears. He pictures them trickling down her cheeks and into his hair. He’s already dry enough from the pool to notice.
Max closes his eyes again. Even as he dozes off, he senses his mother’s tears. He pictures them trickling down her cheeks and into his hair. He’s already dry enough from the pool to notice.
Observing this particular location at this moment, we find a swimming pool, its water reflecting the splendorous hues of sunset, a group of people of disparate size, shape, color, and mode of dress, standing in a haphazard semi-circle, heads hanging, shrouded in a veil of solemnity, with the exception of a small child—blond—perhaps two years of age—who could possibly miss him running around the crowd, shrieking excitedly and throwing pretzels into the water?