On the day after Labor Day, sun slanting through Annie’s bedroom blinds already looks like autumn, the white glare of summer faded to muted orange. It is the start of a new year — a new school year — and Annie has signed up the twins to start Chinese school next week, so they’ll remember their heritage.
“But they’re Korean,” Ryan says.
Chinese school meets on Saturday mornings in the basement of the Chinese church over on Center Street. Annie didn’t know it was a Chinese church until she started asking around. From the outside it’s the usual modern Christian house of worship — low slung with clear glass and a minimalist cross — one of several churches, including an older white clapboard version, surrounding the green. How do Christians, new in town, know which church to enter, which edifice houses their own particular version of God?
“So find me a Korean school,” Annie says, assuming he won’t. Ryan isn’t their father, so he doesn’t get a say. Of course, nobody thinks Annie’s their mother, either. When she’s with them in the supermarket or pulling up their tutus at ballet, people look at her freckles and soft brown curls and register a double-take at Hannah’s and Esther’s angular cheeks, shiny black eyes.
“Isn’t it enough for them to be Jewish?” Ryan asks. Annie’s been raising the girls Jewish as she and her husband Bryan had planned when he was alive. “Matzo balls, that’s their heritage now,” Ryan says. This from a guy whose religion is Christmas trees in December and a priest at your funeral and praying there’s no traffic on the way to Yankee Stadium. “But I bet they’ll be the smartest kids in Chinese school,” he says, embracing her to change the subject.
They’re in bed waiting for the girls to pile in or the alarm to sound. Ryan’s arms are around Annie, the one between her and the mattress hard against her ribs, but she won’t shrug him off. Bryan knew how to enfold her in one arm, the other tucked safely out of the way. The hand she held while Bryan talked her to sleep or awake had long fingers that could fly across a computer keyboard as deftly as a concert pianist’s. In the dark Annie knew the bones of Bryan’s knuckles as if by Braille, the hard remnant of a schoolboy’s writer’s callous on his middle finger, the ring finger broken playing Little League when he was ten, proof that his fearful mother was right to make him quit.
Ordinarily Ryan would be Annie’s transitional man, according to her sister Emily, who’s young and single and hip about such things — the man before her next husband. But seven years is a long time to wait for transition, and towers turning into dust have wiped “ordinary” off Annie’s slate. There isn’t going to be a next husband. Alone with the girls is her new ordinary, despite this Ryan. She’s accepted that. “Ha!” says her sister. “Adjusted, maybe; accepted, no.” Her sister knows Ryan has moved in, and she says Annie is delusional if she thinks their mother hasn’t figured it out.
Esther and Hannah arrive before the alarm, and Ryan slides over to make room. After Bryan, Annie brought the girls into her bed as comfort, but it didn’t work. They’d started life with six months of neglect in a Korean orphanage, then that first month in their own plush cribs at Annie and Bryan’s, so they were used to sleeping alone and thought Annie’s bed was for playtime, kicking and poking. Which is how they are today, too excited to lie still, shaking everyone wide awake.
Today’s excitement is for the first day of school, their first day of first grade, even though they are already seven. They got a slow start in that orphanage, came to Annie and Bryan malnourished, especially Estee, whose digestive problems lingered long after Annie found the right formula. “Malabsorption,” the doctor called it, and Bryan looked it up online, but when he started to narrate all the terrible possibilities, Annie put the girls in his lap so he had to stop reading.
When the phone rings, it’s Annie’s mother to wish the girls good luck on their first day of first grade. She has questioned Annie at length about holding the girls back in school, even Googled school readiness and printed out studies, but Annie thought the issue was resolved back when she decided to give them an extra year of nursery school. Then just last week her mother said, “It’s not good to be the oldest in the class.” When Annie pointed out that some of the boys had also taken an extra year of nursery, her mother said, “Boys mature slower than girls; everyone knows that.” And then she shrugged and said she was sure Annie knew what she was doing, which is what she says to make Annie feel confident about making decisions alone, without a husband to take half the responsibility or, if necessary, half the blame.
“It’s Grandma,” Annie says, not needing to check caller ID. “For you,” and the girls fight over who gets the phone, Hannah grabbing first. Ryan gets out of bed and heads for the shower, leaving Annie to lay her head back on the pillow, feeling the tension leave her body like an electric current flowing from her neck, down her spine, out her fingers and toes. It’s hard to have her mother on the phone while they’re all in bed with Ryan, as if she could see through the phone line.
Her mother, for all her book smarts, can’t get used to Annie with a Ryan, not Jewish. She still slips up sometimes and calls him Bryan, then apologizes at the sound of Bryan’s name. Then, instead of mentioning the Jewish thing, which she knows will annoy Annie, she says, “You like him because of his name. He makes you think of Bryan,” which makes Annie notice the deep empty inner pit that she keeps thinking has finally filled up, much worse than feeling annoyed. Mostly her mother doesn’t call Ryan anything and avoids mentioning his name altogether, as if he doesn’t exist, like Bryan after all.
Maybe the similarity of their names really is what attracted her to Ryan at first. In other ways Ryan is not like Bryan, who was very tall, six-four, and dark — dark hair and a dark mole on one cheek, smooth and mossy under Annie’s fingertips, commuting to work in the city every day in his dark suit and sedate tie with his laptop in a black nylon zip bag.
Annie met Ryan when he came to fix a leak under her bathroom sink — too much water in a house with enough tears. He’s short and strong, with sandy hair and burly arms from wrestling pipes. His fingers are capable and precise, but in a different way from Bryan’s. In his spare time Ryan makes fine furniture — cherry wood console tables, American oak rockers. His band-saw and table sander are in Annie’s basement now, next to her quilting frame and the wall of shelves he built to organize her fabric scraps. His pickup truck is in her driveway.
In the garage where Bryan once parked his shiny car, there’s a stack of birds-eye maple for the new bunk beds Ryan has promised the girls, having time on his hands with the recent construction and remodeling slow-down. So different from Bryan, who once decided to put up a wall of plastic over the windows in the girls’ room to protect them from a draft that might cause a cold, and ended up with the plastic sheeting over his head like a ghost, double-sided tape stuck to his fingers and bare feet, doubled-over laughing. Bryan had a sense of humor despite his caution, which came from his mother. His mother full of fears.
Ryan is first out of the house. He makes his own coffee and packs his own lunch, doesn’t count on Annie to do things for him like a wife, except for the milk carton he leaves on the counter and his coffee cup in the sink. He kisses Annie goodbye, then both girls, Hannah on the cheek and Esther on top of her head, where light reflects off her black hair as she leans forward to spoon up oatmeal with bananas and granola. Annie still believes the girls need extra nourishment — hot breakfast, cereal or eggs, and vitamin pills to start the day.
The girls wear first-day-of-school dresses bought by Annie’s mother, although Annie would normally dress them in slacks and polo shirts. They look somehow sturdier in pants, more vulnerable in dresses with their slender limbs exposed. Their arms and legs are dark from summer at the town pool — Annie learned the hard way that brown-skinned Korean girls can get sunburnt. “Take pictures,” her mother reminded on the phone, but Annie can’t find the camera and won’t tell her mother she must have left it at school the last time she photographed her students’ work.
Annie teaches fabric arts, quilting and silk painting, at the neighborhood art school. There was money after Bryan died, even more than when he was alive and working so hard to earn it. “Far be it from me to count anyone else’s money . . .” her mother says, which used to mean Annie should stay home with Hannah and Esther, but now, with the market downturn, implies that Annie ought to get a real job. But with her students, art fills every nook and crevice of Annie’s brain, the way it used to when she was home alone in front of her quilting frame.
Annie throws on jeans and yesterday’s t-shirt to walk the girls out to the bus. She will shower eventually. When Annie was a girl, her mother was always fully dressed, nylons and makeup, before the school bus arrived, a reaction to her own mother’s careless ways. Annie’s heard stories about her grandmother driving carpool without bothering to get dressed, getting a flat tire and having to flag down a passing motorist while still in her nightie, with Annie’s mother slunk down in her seat praying for invisibility. In each generation, the daughter somehow finds a way to defy the mother.
The big yellow bus lumbers down the road, roars to a stop. Even with their long-for-first-grader legs, the girls must be careful negotiating the steps, awkward with backpacks and lunch boxes. Annie has packed peanut butter and jelly for Hannah, only jelly for Esther, who chokes on gooey peanut butter but is willing to take a yogurt for protein — also apple slices, which the girls won’t eat because they will have turned brown by lunchtime, but Annie wants them to have all the food groups on their first day eating lunch away from home. Theirs is one of the few towns to still have old-fashioned half-day kindergarten. Last year Annie fed the girls soup for lunch at the kitchen table, and grilled cheese sandwiches, thinking that, as with breakfast, hot food would somehow keep them healthy.
Estee waves out the window, and Annie can see Hannah next to her, already chattering, hands flying with expression, not thinking to wave at her mother. As the bus pulls away, Annie wonders, not for the first time, why everyone calls them yellow school buses. Her painter’s eye has always seen school buses as more orange than yellow, blending in with the first autumn leaves just starting to change. When she was in first grade, Annie’s homework was to collect fallen leaves for an art project. The children were to spread their long oak leaves and broad maples on easel paper and then to paint over with big primary brushes and thick gobs of paint. When the teacher carefully removed the leaves, the art was in the white space left behind, emptiness shaped like autumn.
Annie waves at the sooty exhaust of the departing bus, black and acrid, which makes her close her eyes and think a swift prayer for her daughters’ safety. She doesn’t believe in God, but she believes in something. When she opens her eyes, the bus is gone, leaving in its place the empty street. Just when Annie wonders how she will get through the day alone and with whom she’ll eat lunch, she stoops to pick up the first autumn leaves at her feet, starts thinking about a piece of silk she has big enough for a new quilt. She will lay leaves on the silk, and twigs, and maybe some acorns — Hannah and Esther will help — and then she will paint. She will call the quilt Absence.
The synagogue parking lot is crowded for the first Sunday morning of Hebrew school. Annie parks and walks the girls in.
“Look! Chinese girls!” a loud boy says as they enter the classroom. Hannah gets it, but Estee looks around, “Where?” When they start Chinese school next week, they will see other children who look like them.
Hannah marches Estee off to two empty desks. Annie has no way of knowing which girl was born first, but it is always clear in her mind that Hannah is the older sister, like Annie herself, the one to take charge and set things straight — even though in recent years her younger sister Emily seems to have passed her by, now a member of a career-driven hard-partying intellectual urban club that Annie will never be invited to join.
There is coffee for first-grade parents in the library, where some hang out while their kids acclimate. Annie blows on a paper cup of brown liquid that doesn’t have much going for it except that it’s hot. The conversation is about Broadway musicals, where to eat in Paris or West Palm, some of the men discussing the market, stock portfolios and the price of oil on the commodities exchange — no point of entry for Annie into this club either.
Ryan plays basketball at the Y on Sunday mornings, then joins the guys and some of their wives after the game at The Pancake House. He has invited Annie to meet up with them today, while the girls are at Hebrew school. He’s been hinting about marriage, and this is one of his ways, including her with the wives. Annie cannot imagine going. She will never marry again. She no longer pictures herself as a wife.
Annie met Bryan at freshman orientation and always knew he was the one. They made plans together and supported each other — her art, his degrees, the house, the babies. He blamed himself for the failed pregnancies, for waiting so long to try, until he was set with his education and his career — although in the end it was Annie, not Bryan, whose body failed. Yet even then they had a plan: they found the girls, and the trajectory of their lives was set to proceed.
Annie cannot picture a new trajectory: a husband who is a plumber, who wears steel-toed boots to work and spends Sundays playing games at the Y instead of reading the Times. This is snobbish and hateful, she knows. Shameful, but true. Yet it’s not just Ryan. She can no more see herself standing under the chuppah next to one of these Hebrew school fathers drinking coffee over golf scores and gas mileage. Her life is as set as one of her quilts: once it’s been stitched, it cannot be changed.
Annie goes to morning minyan at synagogue to say kaddish for Bryan once a year, on the American anniversary of his death. By Jewish rules she should say kaddish on the Hebrew date, the 23rd of Elul, which moves around from year to year according to the lunar calendar. But she doesn’t care about the 23rd of Elul and likes flouting the rules of religion, which has failed to protect her. So why does she go to synagogue at all on this day? To get away from the house, to avoid the television, to think about Bryan in public where she won’t cry.
The minyan regulars are old men, probably relishing this hour away from their wives, plus a few younger men in business suits stopping off to do a mitzvah before heading out into the fray, where all that matters is the bottom line. They nod at Annie, then turn back to their talk, once again the market, the price of gas, and money, the topic of every conversation lately. There is something ominous happening or about to happen or about to be prevented from happening. Annie ought to pay attention. There is a man, a friend of Emily’s in the city, who keeps track of Bryan’s money. That’s how she thinks of it: Bryan’s money.
Someone asks Annie if she wants an aliyah, a chance to bless the Torah during the service, traditional when saying kaddish, but she declines, and the men seem happy not to pay her further mind. They know who she is and why she is here. There must be other mourners in the group; that, she thinks, is the purpose of minyan, an opportunity for mourners to say kaddish with the requisite group of ten. Two old women sitting together probably lost their husbands after long marriages. Even in grief Annie is apart, different.
After speedy chanting and mumbling in various keys, sitting and standing on cue, she sees the Torah removed from the ark and laid atop a velvet-covered desk, unrolled to this week’s portion. 9/11 is a Thursday this year, the day for Torah reading, putting off the moment when Annie can say kaddish and leave. She doesn’t understand Hebrew and follows the reading on the English side of the heavy book on her lap, Moses’s second farewell address. Lucky Moses, a second chance to say good-bye.
It’s mostly boring stuff, a list of laws: which son gets the inheritance, which man is required to marry his brother’s widow, the mitzvah to return lost property even if it’s worth as little as a penny. Newspapers have been filled with 9/11 stories this week: a husband who received his dead wife’s pocketbook in the mail years after the attack, bones suddenly discovered on the roof of a nearby building sent off for DNA testing. Somebody will finally have a funeral. There is another ruling in the Torah portion: a criminal must be buried on the day of his hanging. Even a criminal. It disgraces God to leave a corpse overnight.
The reading has stopped, and a man has come forward to lift the Torah. The congregation rises, singing God’s praise. The man is broad-shouldered and hefty, his meaty arm wrapped tight by tefillin, the leather straps traditional for morning prayer. Never mind being polite. This is a fat man, a man who pays no mind to his health, who can’t be bothered. Sweat breaks out on his forehead with the strain of lifting the heavy Torah. At the girls’ naming ceremony, Bryan lifted the Torah with ease.
Rolls of flesh bulge through the straps on the Torah-lifter’s arm, pink and glistening like a bloody raw red roast. Maybe something of Bryan will yet turn up: his wedding ring, the fragile bone of the finger that wore it. Annie would recognize the crook of that finger with its imperfectly healed Little League break; DNA would not be necessary. She flees while the congregation is still standing, morning coffee rising in her throat, before kaddish has even been said. She will pray in the car. She will pray at home. She doesn’t need ten men to mourn Bryan.
When Annie’s mother calls later to check on her, just as she did that day, Annie says she’s too busy to talk. “Watching CNBC,” she says. “The financial news,” as if minding your money is an acceptable reason to avoid talking to your mother.
“You might as well make a quilt out of dollar bills,” her mother says. Then, “I’ll drop off your book later,” before letting her off the phone. There’s always a new book from her mother at this time of year — once, something called The Jewish Mourner’s Book of Why, which said a widowed man has to wait almost a year to remarry while a woman may take a new husband after only three months. Another year it was The Tenth Good Thing about Barney for the girls; an odd choice about a funeral for a cat. Annie thinks the grandfather that Bryan was named after might’ve been a Barney.
When the yellow/orange school bus rumbles back up the road, Annie rouses herself to turn on the TV for the girls. Then she starts supper, mac and cheese, bland and comforting. She is chopping vegetables for salad — can’t sacrifice those food groups even today — when Ryan arrives home with a present. Not flowers, too funereal, even though Jews don’t do flowers on coffins. Not chocolates, which he knows she will feel too sick to her stomach to eat. He brings a gift for the girls, a small brown puppy, one more thing for Annie to take care of.
“Here,” he says, “you try,” handing the puppy to Annie as the girls grab and clamor to be first. The puppy is warm and nearly weightless in Annie’s hands, soft and malleable, as if its bones have not yet formed.
“It’s hungry,” Estee says, watching the puppy’s pink tongue lick at Annie’s fingers. “Let’s give it some milk.”
“It’s not a cat,” Hannah says. Sometimes Annie detects a note of older-sister scorn in Hannah’s voice, probably punishment for how she once spoke to Emily.
“She’s a girl,” Ryan says, “not an it. And she eats kibble, not milk, now that she’s weaned.” He scoops a handful out of a bag he’s brought and sets it in a saucer on the floor.
“What’s weaned?” Estee asks. And Ryan gathers the girls into his lap, right there on the kitchen floor, to explain about babies and nursing and the healthy protection of mother’s milk, protection Annie never could give to her girls. “That’s sad,” Estee says, when he gets to the part about weaning and leaving its mother. The puppy slip-slides across the floor in search of an errant bit of kibble.
“But we’re here,” Ryan says, “to give her a good home.”
At last, the first day of Chinese school. Annie wonders why it didn’t start last weekend, like Hebrew school. Maybe some Chinese custom dictates starting school on the 13th — good luck in a different culture?
They’re running late; the girls are tired, and Annie too, not used to the alarm going off every morning. And it’s Annie’s own fault; the schedule was arranged by her. Plus the puppy needs to be walked and fed and put in her cage. The store called it a crate, but it’s a cage as far as Annie is concerned. Ryan is out early. Construction may be down, but toilets break and sinks clog seven days a week.
Breakfast in the car is toasted English muffins with melted cheese. Estee starts to cry when she thinks they’ve forgotten their tutus. “Go back,” she wails, “go back.” Until Annie pulls to the side of the road, explains one more time, in her calmest voice, about Chinese school.
“We were so lucky to get you,” she says, “all the way from Asia,” careful not to say Korea, which would draw attention to the fact that Korea is not China. “We’ll meet lots of kids just like you. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”
“Why?” Estee asks.
“Because,” Annie says, sounding like her mother, then checks her watch and pulls back into traffic.
So of course class has started when they arrive at the church. Annie pushes and pulls the girls down the hall, not so different from the Hebrew school wing at synagogue until she sees the picture of Christ in the classroom. A dozen first-graders sit in neat rows, only one other Asian-American. The rest are Caucasian, a room full of freckles and blond curls. Hannah spots Leah Goldberg, a friend from ballet, and drags Estee off to sit with her. This is a familiar crowd, not so strange and discomfiting after all.
Once again, there is coffee for first-time parents, this time with a presentation by the school principal. She’s a Chinese woman who also teaches at the university, and she explains about the growing Chinese influence in the global economy, the importance of Asian languages in politics and business today, blondes and red-heads nodding in agreement.
The girls bring home worksheets, strange Chinese characters to be traced on dotted lines. They had similar homework from first grade, an entire dotted alphabet, plus the aleph and the bet from Hebrew school last Sunday.
“Is this a B or a bet?” Estee asks, pointing to an intricately curved Chinese character.
“No,” is all Annie can answer.
Rosh Hashana. The Jewish New Year. Also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.
Annie sits in synagogue next to her mother on one side, the girls on the other. Her mother has bought the girls another pair of new dresses, which they wear with white tights and black patent Mary Janes like all the other little girls. If Annie leans forward and looks down the row, she’ll see the occasional pair of white legs and black feet, her girls indistinguishable from all the others.
Estee has demanded the seat at Annie’s side, resting her head on Annie’s arm. Next to Estee, Hannah turns the pages of a picture book she found in the synagogue library, mouthing the story to herself, something about a spider celebrating Rosh Hashana.
On the other side of Hannah, Ryan sits in his funeral suit and stiff white shirt. He has come for Annie, even though he doesn’t believe in religion, and if he did, the religion he’d believe in wouldn’t be Judaism. He would’ve been Catholic, if not for the fact that his grandfather gave up religion back in the ’50s, when the God-fearing church-goers in town put his hardware store out of business with their Sunday blue laws. “Fuck ’em all,” his grandfather was wont to say in front of anyone who would listen, eventually including young Ryan, “them and their fuckin’ ghost.”
There’s enough English in the service so Ryan is somewhat able to follow, but every time he turns the page right-to-left instead of left-to-right, Hannah corrects him. Sometimes she even leans across to instruct Annie on the correct page. “Ninety-eight,” she stage-whispers. Annie knows Hannah knows her numbers, but maybe she really has learned to read while Annie wasn’t paying attention, like she isn’t paying attention now. Annie will concentrate on anything rather than this service with its Rosh Hashana theme of being inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
Who will live and who will die. Who by sword. Who by fire. The central prayer of the day; words Annie has not spoken in seven years. But repentance, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree. As if Bryan could have done something to save himself.
“I called the rabbi about that prayer,” Annie’s mother leans close to whisper, as if reading Annie’s mind.
“Huh?” Annie tries to focus.
“Last week,” her mother says, flipping to the page, pointing to the words Annie has been trying to avoid, “to ask him about that prayer. Did you know they changed the words? Back in the Middle Ages? It used to say good deeds could cancel the decree. Now it just says annul the severity.”
“Annul the severity? So you get an easy death? Quick? Dust to dust?” Annie is having trouble maintaining a whisper. Estee looks up, puts a finger to her lips, reminding Annie to use her synagogue voice.
“The rabbi says it’s for us, honey, the survivors, so it shouldn’t be so hard on us.”
“So now we’re supposed to do the good deeds?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I got it wrong. It’s just supposed to be easier, to know it couldn’t have been canceled, no one could’ve done anything to change it; it wasn’t his fault.” Annie’s mother turns back to her book, shrugging, trying to rejoin the service.
Annie sits in her hard folding chair — once again too late for the plush pews up front — thinking about the cycles of religion in her family. First her great-grandparents who came from Eastern Europe — Orthodox Jews, of course; what other choice did they have? Her great-grandfather was a plumber, in fact — strong enough to carry a cast iron tub up a flight of stairs, to cross the ocean and start a new life in a strange land. Then her grandparents — born in America, a little ashamed of their parents with their foreign ways and foreign accents, so they joined the Reform temple, a purely American invention. Then her parents — a little ashamed of the Reform temple, with its church-like organ and officiants in high hats and white choir robes, so they joined the Conservative synagogue — not too Jewish, just Jewish enough — where Annie sits now next to her mother and her children. And what choices will Annie make? Chuck it all and join the Chinese church? Let Ryan have his Christmas tree in her living room?
Now Ryan has Estee on his lap. Hannah, too; one on each knee. They’re looking at the spider book as he turns the pages, pointing and pantomiming without making a sound.
“They tried,” Annie’s mother says.
“Huh?” Annie says again.
“The rabbis,” her mother says. “They tried to make it right, for us left behind. So we could move on.”
Annie watches sunlight streaming through the stained glass, jewel tones reflecting off her girls’ white-tighted legs. She doesn’t know if she will say this prayer next year, but she guesses she’ll let the girls drop out of Chinese school. Hebrew school is enough for this year. And maybe next Sunday she’ll join Ryan at The Pancake House.