August 28, 5 pm
There’s a story my mother tells about the night my grandmother got lifted up by the wind. After the first time I heard it, when I was about four, I would demand it constantly, sometimes every night. And so my mother would crouch beside my bed and tell it over and over: How the sky darkened over the beach house where she was honeymooning with her new husband, my zeidy. How the winds blew so hard that their clothes flew off the line, the freshly laundered shirts swirling in the air like a flight of doves. How my grandmother, Deborah, ran down the wooden steps to the beach to collect them, and how, moments later, my zeidy saw her rise up, her skirt billowing under her like a parachute, and float ten feet before falling into a heap in the dunes. According to the story she ran back up to the house laughing and told him that she had finally learned how to fly.
Storms like this always make me think of her.
From my white-knuckled perch on this sticky gray hospital waiting room seat, I can see rain hitting the window in violent sheets, as if someone has turned on a fire hose and then left it to whip and twist on the sidewalk like an angry snake. It’s another hurricane, and a bad one—the kind that sends people to the supermarket in a frenzy to buy up all the batteries and bottled water, or out of the city completely, piling into cars to escape in bumper-to-bumper traffic to the musty futons of their luckier, inland relatives.
Just this morning my oldest brother, Isaac the Know-it-all (not his given name, but might as well be), informed us that the mayor had begun to issue evacuation orders in the zones closest to the rivers, that the bridges and tunnels are already shutting down, and that the subways will stop running tonight. In fact, there’s a television about ten feet from me, bolted into the wall above the sparse rack of coffee-stained magazines, that’s proving Isaac right. It’s tuned to a barely audible static, but I can still hear news anchors rattling off updates and lists of precautions in their calming, accentless voices. I desperately want to know what’s happening, to see it for myself from some other angle than this suffocating, antiseptic room I’m trapped in, but I can’t—I won’t—bring myself to look up at the screen. To break the rules now would surely bring bad luck, which I can’t afford on a day that has already brought so much.
About an hour ago they turned off the air conditioning in the waiting rooms, to preserve power for the patients, and without the drone of the fans I can hear every tiny sound as if it’s coming through a loudspeaker. Across from me, on an identical bank of scratched plastic chairs, two preteen girls in tank tops and jean shorts are tapping furiously on phones despite the sign hanging above their heads that expressly forbids it. Their bare legs squeak sweatily against the seats as they shift, pulling their brown knees up to their chests and revealing rows of bright toenails in flip-flops worn down so much they look as thin as film in some places. They have a short, muscular maybe-much-older-brother-maybe-very-young-father who has been intermittently wandering back to check on them, wiping sweat from his furrowed brow and assuring them that someone named Crystal is “killing it,” but otherwise their eyes stay trained on their tiny screens, and I wonder idly if they even notice I’m there. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, I think—Zeidy’s favorite admonishment when he catches one of us daydreaming, delivered with a wink and a tug on the earlobe—and feel an uncontrollable giggle rising in my throat. I curl my fingers more tightly around my chair and look past the girls, back to my window, which is now being reinforced with fat Xs of thick red duct tape by a janitor in a mud-colored jumpsuit. He finishes just as a tremendous gust of wind claps against the side of the building, sending the lights flickering and the nurses rushing every which way to check on the medical equipment, and for a minute I can’t breathe. Finally, my lungs release and the sharp, hot air comes rushing in and I squeeze my eyes shut and start reciting chapter 20 of Psalms, the prayer for times of trouble, as fast as I can. From the sudden break in button-pushing I can tell that the cell phone girls are looking at me, but for now I don’t care. Only one thing matters tonight, and that is to keep Rose and the baby safe.
My sister wasn’t due until October, but her water broke this morning—seven weeks early on the last Thursday of a record-breakingly hot August—as I was helping her inventory plastic utensils at our family’s paper goods store, which is my penance from June through September for not having anywhere better to be, like school or camp or a Birthright Israel tour. Maybe the baby was just trying to cure the mind-numbing boredom of counting variety packs of forks, but he-or-she gave us a terrible scare. Rose screamed and turned white, I fell and knocked over two cases of bar mitzvah– themed cake plates, and my hands were shaking so badly I had to get Daniel, who works at the bakery next door, to call first a taxi and then Rose’s husband, Jacob. And as if it wasn’t dramatic enough that Rose went into spontaneous labor two months too soon, this misfortune also happened to fall on the one day that both of our parents were upstate in Monsey visiting my aunt Varda, who recently had a bunionectomy but doesn’t have anyone to take care of her since her husband died last year (they don’t have any kids, but we don’t talk about that; my mother, who bore seven children by the age of thirty-two and would have happily had more if she hadn’t suffered a prolapse after my youngest sister, Miri, refers to infertility as her sister’s “curse”). My mother is understandably beside herself with worry, but there’s no getting into the city tonight since the bridges and tunnels are shutting down, and so, as the next eldest daughter, I am the one who has to hold court at the hospital, making sure my sister is well taken care of. Well, me and Jacob. But he’s not much help, unsurprisingly.
As if on cue, my brother-in-law comes stomping around the corner, returning from the cafeteria clutching a paper cup of coffee. I give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s too flustered to remember that I asked him to get me a ginger ale. His pale skin is flushed and damp, sweat is literally dripping from the borderline where his fedora meets his forehead, and his reddish-brown beard, which perfectly matches his dark, thickly lashed doe eyes, is curling from the heat. Jacob is sort of cute—when they were first introduced, Rose breathlessly announced to me and our sisters that he looked just like someone named Josh Groban—but right now he looks small and tired, shriveled inside his heavy suit. I want to tell him to take off his hat and jacket, to go splash some water on his face, but I know better. Jacob was raised in an extremely strict Hasidic family and prides himself on his piety. Compared to him, even I can’t measure up. And I get straight As, always dress properly, never break curfew, and am so unfailingly obedient that my best friend, Shoshana, likes to joke that I should change my initials from DFB—Devorah Frayda Blum—to FFB, short for “frum from birth,” which is basically the Yiddish equivalent of “hopeless goody two-shoes.” My parents, of course, are thrilled with the virtuous daughter they’ve raised, but as their expectations rise, mine lower. Because the life of a good girl, of a doting wife and mother, is a cloudless blue sky stretching across a flat horizon. And as it rages outside I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the eye of the storm.
“Devorah!” Jacob groans, in the sour tone he always uses when he says my name. “What are you still doing out here? Why aren’t you in the room with her?” Then he flops into a chair two seats away from mine. “Stay inside,” the news crackles. “Watch for signs of disturbance.”
I’ve been disturbed by Jacob ever since I met him. And I don’t mean that he’s evil or sick or anything, because he’s not—he’s not interesting enough to be either of those things. It’s just that he’s so . . . morally superior. He’s a member of the Shomrim, which is only a volunteer neighborhood-watch group that’ll pretty much take anyone, but to hear Jacob talk about it you would think he was a police lieutenant. He talks down to everyone except my father, and even though they’re married he treats Rose with only marginally less disgust than he reserves for me. Ever since they were matched up by the shadchan last year, my sister has been a different person. Growing up, she had a wild side. She was the one who stored fashion magazines in her school notebooks and used Scotch Tape to imperceptibly raise her hemline when our neighbors’ cute son came over for Shabbos dinner. She’s always been the family peace-maker—and in a family of ten, counting Zeidy, voices are raised, oh, about every five seconds—but she was never meek until she met Jacob. Now sometimes I sit and watch them, him with his stern looks, her with her head bowed reverently, and wish I could speak up for her. Tonight I guess I am her voice, in a way, but the awful circumstances rob the role of any satisfaction.
“She’s sleeping,” I say finally, trying to keep my voice even. “She needs to rest. When she wakes up they’re going to give her Pitocin if she hasn’t dilated.” Jacob bristles; I know he is against the use of any drugs, but since Rose’s delivery is premature it’s out of his hands. So far he has been nothing but cold to the doctor, a tall redheaded woman with kind, crinkly brown eyes behind bright turquoise-framed glasses (which Jacob says brands her “a hippie idiot” but which I think are pretty) and the incredibly goyim last name of MacManus. In keeping with the luck of the day, Rose’s midwife, not expecting any complications like this, is on vacation in Seattle until next week. “The baby is stable so far,” I assure him. “But the doctor says they need to get him out by midnight.” Part of me can’t help but feel angry at Jacob for not knowing this already—if it were my husband, I would want him by my side the whole time, holding my hand. Of course I know it’s not allowed; since Rose started bleeding after her water broke, she’s now subject to the laws of yoledet, which means that Jacob can’t be with her for the birth. But still, he could act like he cares at least a little.
“Him? It’s a boy?” Jacob breaks into a wide grin, looking for a split second like the nineteen-year-old rabbinical student he is, and not the cranky old man he seems hell-bent on becoming.
“Oh, no . . .” I stare down at my shoes, studying the flares of fluorescent light reflected in the shiny black leather. “I’m sorry. I just chose a pronoun at random. We don’t know yet.”
Jacob’s smile disappears, and he takes a gulp of coffee. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he snaps.
I hope for the baby’s sake that he is a boy. I can’t imagine having to grow up with Jacob for a father. He’d probably make me wear skirts down to my ankles, or maybe a bag over my head. This time I can’t suppress the giggle, and he glares at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say again once I’ve recovered. “But I’m scared, too.” For a second Jacob’s eyes soften, and I allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, this could turn into some kind of bonding moment for us (something that, despite my dislike of him, I’ve prayed for many times). I know that the laws of yichud mean that we wouldn’t even be allowed to sit together talking if the cell phone girls and the janitor and the doctors and nurses weren’t around to keep watch. But being the only witnesses to Rose’s premature labor, on the night of a crazy storm, might just be the kind of seismic event that could bring two very different people together . . . right? I look up at my brother-in-law hopefully, practicing my very best compassionate smile, when his face darkens and he makes a short, sharp clucking sound with his tongue.
“I’m not scared, I’m tired,” he mutters, and pulls his hat down over his eyes. So much for that.
Jacob is snoring softly by the time the night nurse comes over to tell me that Rose is awake and asking for me. I get up and feel the sweat pooling under my tights, running down the backs of my knees. Just a few minutes ago the cell phone girls left, their bare thighs unsticking from the plastic seats with a series of satisfying thwacking noises. What I wouldn’t give to feel the air against my bare skin right now. What I wouldn’t give to make those thwacks. But for me, that’s as silly a fantasy as planning a vacation to the moon, so I banish the thought from my head as I peek into Rose’s room, stomping my feet a little to get the blood moving in my legs again. My skirt—a lightweight summer wool that actually seemed pretty stylish when we bought it at Macy’s in May, before my mother made the tailor on Troy Avenue let it out by three inches until it billowed around me like a Hefty bag—feels like it weighs ten pounds, and even though I know it’s horrible, I feel a little bit jealous when I see Rose reclining in her paper hospital gown, the long, thick hair of her dark brunette wig arranged prettily on the pillow, chewing on an ice cube. I wonder if she would let me have one to stick in my blouse.
“How are you?” I ask, squeezing her free hand. It’s cool and bloodless, although the monitor assures me that her pulse is seventy-one beats per minute. Rose smiles weakly and rubs her belly, which rises like a boulder under the thin white sheet. It’s not at all uncommon for Lubavitch girls to be married and have babies at eighteen, but now that it’s my own sister it feels much too soon. That will be me in two years, and I know there’s no way I’ll be ready for any of that, no matter how many times my mother likes to tell me that I’d be surprised how quickly the heart can change. Rose and Jacob met just twice before they got engaged. Their wedding was eleven months ago. First comes marriage, then comes love goes the schoolyard nursery rhyme in my neighborhood.
“I’m okay,” Rose says. “But hungry.” She leans forward conspiratorially. “Want to sneak me some M&M’s from the vending machine?” I know she’s kidding; she’s not allowed to eat, and even if she were, our father doesn’t consider M&M’s acceptably kosher. I’m glad that my sister is letting a bit of her old self shine through— I’m sure she never lets her husband see her eyebrows raised like this, or the flash of delighted mischief winking in her cheeks like dimples—but she knows that when it comes to contraband, I am the wrong person to ask for help. My allergy to rule-breaking is a running joke, so much so that my younger brother Amos likes to pester me with hypothetical questions every Saturday: “Devorah, what if you won a billion dollars and you had to claim it today, but you could only get it if you used the blender?”
“Shhh,” I say. “Don’t let Jacob hear you!” I wanted to make her laugh, but instead Rose’s face tenses, and her chin quivers.
“He already thinks it’s my fault,” she says.
“What?!” I shut the door, just in case, and crouch beside her. “Why? That’s crazy.”
“Last week I was shopping for elastic to sew to the waists of my skirts,” she explains, her clear gray eyes narrowing with worry. “And I saw the most beautiful pale pink cashmere yarn. I thought maybe, if the baby was a girl, I could make her a sweater, so I bought a skein. It was expensive, but I just had to have it. I don’t know what came over me, Dev, it was like a spell.”
“Or hormones,” I say gently, trying to lighten the mood. Rose just looks away.
“I couldn’t wait to show Jacob,” she continues, “even though I knew he would call it extravagant. But as soon as he saw it he told me I was tempting the evil eye buying anything for the baby.” Her hands flutter to her face, and she bursts into tears. On the monitor, her pulse ticks up to eighty-five beats per minute.
“No,” I say softly, trying to quiet the pious, nagging voice inside my head that shares Jacob’s superstition. I take my sister’s face in my hands and force her to meet my eyes, trying to mimic our mother’s go-to gesture when she wants to both soothe us and snap us out of whatever we’re complaining about. “You didn’t actually knit the sweater, did you?”
Rose shakes her head, biting her lip like a child.
“See?” I wipe her tears away with my thumbs. “That yarn could be for anything. A scarf, a bath towel. A new prayer shawl for Jacob.” Now she is smiling through the tears. “Besides, the Talmud says the evil eye can affect you only if you worry about it. It’s like an animal. It can smell fear.” I say this breezily, as if I never worry about the evil eye, when both of us know better. There’s an awkward silence, punctuated by the blips and beeps of the fetal monitor.
“What’s it like outside?” Rose finally asks, rubbing the gooseflesh on her arms. I can tell she feels embarrassed having so much skin exposed, but at the hospital, regardless of their beliefs, people are just bodies—bodies that the doctors need quick and easy access to. I want to ask her what it feels like to be seen like that, but I know now’s not the time. After all, asking about the weather is pretty much the universal code for “Let’s please change the subject.”
“It’s kind of . . . biblical,” I say with a laugh. Rose smirks, her lips straddling the line between amusement and admonition.
“Don’t be silly, it’s not Sodom and Gomorrah,” she chides, adopting her big-sister voice again. “It’s just science. Two air masses converging over water.” Did I say Isaac was the know-it-all? Rose is, too. In fact, no Blum can resist correcting someone when they’re wrong. It’s like our family sport.
“Well, I wish you could see it,” I say. “It looks like the world is about to end.”
Just then, the lights flicker again, and Rose gasps, clutching her belly in pain and looking at me with wide eyes. “I can’t do this. I’m not ready!” she cries, breathing quickly through clenched teeth. I wish I could say something to convince her otherwise, but the truth is, I’m not ready for any of this either. I want my mom. I don’t want to be in this hospital in the middle of this hurricane; I just want to be home in my bed reading a book and eating crackers spread thickly with salted butter. I want Rose to still be glowing and pregnant and waiting for her due date, not sweaty and scared and about to deliver a baby destined for the incubator. I will the right words to come, but they don’t, so I just let my sister crush my hand as I watch the yellow lines of the monitor spike higher and higher, finally ebbing after thirty seconds. A minute later, they leap again, and Rose lets loose a guttural wail. I frantically slam the call button with my free palm.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. MacManus says with a sigh as she pushes through the door just as Rose relaxes, spent and shaking, onto the pillow. “The ER is understaffed, and it’s a madhouse. This weather makes people do crazy things. I just relocated the shoulder of a kid who tried to jump his skateboard across a fallen tree.” She pulls on a pair of plastic gloves and slides a chair to the foot of the bed. “Now,
how are we doing? I see contractions have started.”
I nod. “A minute apart, thirty seconds each so far.”
“And they’re getting longer,” Rose moans.
“That’s good!” Dr. MacManus says brightly. “That means your body’s doing what it’s meant to do, and you won’t need to be induced.” She ducks under Rose’s gown for a few uncomfortable seconds and emerges with a beaming smile. “You’re eight centimeters dilated, my dear. The good news is, this baby is coming fast. The bad news is, you may have to name it Hurricane.”
This joke is lost on Rose. What color there was left drains from her face as I press my lips together, my eyes tearing equally from joy, terror, and the hysterical possibility of being the aunt of someone named Hurricane Kleinman.
“Can you call Mom and Dad?” Rose asks. I look to Dr. MacManus for permission, halfway hoping she won’t let me. When I called them from the nurses’ station a few hours ago, the woman manning the desk, who had highlighter-color hair and eye-brows plucked so thin they were almost invisible, seemed to take an instant dislike to me. “What are you, Amish?” she asked when it took me a minute to figure out how to dial without accidentally paging the whole Labor and Delivery floor. Then she crossed her arms and stood there listening to the entire conversation, signaling me to wrap it up after only ten seconds.
Unfortunately, the doctor nods and sends me packing, although not without a prescription for my problem. “If Anne-Marie gives you any trouble, just bring her an Entenmann’s donut from the vending machine,” she calls over her shoulder as I reach the door.
I walk carefully back to the waiting room, where I am relieved to find that the cell phone girls are back and are amusing themselves by taking surreptitious photos of Jacob, who’s splayed out like a starfish across two chairs with his jaw hanging open. I consider flashing them a thumbs-up but think better of it. I was raised to believe that G-d is always watching. . . . I just hope he can’t hear my thoughts, too.
I round the corner to the vending machines, fishing in my pocket for the two crumpled dollar bills I know I have left over from the cab fare. I get the Entenmann’s donut, and then, on a whim, shove in another bill and push D7 for a package of M&M’s. My pulse races, and I glance both ways to make sure no one is looking as I scoop my forbidden treif from the shallow dispenser and hide them in my pocket, concealing the telltale bulge with one hand. I’ll try to sneak them to Rose later, after the baby comes. And if she balks, I can always say it was just an inside joke.
The phone call with my parents goes surprisingly well, and not just because Anne-Marie did, indeed, accept my donut bribe in exchange for five uninterrupted minutes. I call my mother’s cell phone, and as we talk she repeats everything I say back to my father and, I guess, to my aunt Varda, who is a captive audience without the use of that one foot. This is the first Blum grandchild, and a preemie at that, so there are heightened anxieties and literally dozens of questions: Is Rose warm enough? Too warm? Why did they turn off the air conditioning in such a heat wave? What are the chances that the power will go out, and if I don’t know, why don’t I ask someone? Does the doctor know what she’s doing? What’s the baby’s heart rate? Is she saying the right psalms? Did we remember to bring the mezuzah?
I answer as quickly and calmly as possible. “She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully dilated, so there’s no time for drugs,” I report.
“She’s having regular contractions, and she’s almost fully dilated, so no drugs,” my mother parrots. “That’s good.” I hear my father mutter something. “Tell Rose that mindfulness during birth is a gift from Hashem,” she tells me.
“What else should I tell her? To . . . you know, get her through it?”
There’s silence on the other end of the phone, and then the clinking of ice cubes. My mother, a teetotaler except for the odd sip of wine at religious ceremonies, must be on her fifth or sixth iced coffee (on a normal day, when the sky is not falling, she averages three). “Tell her she can do it,” she finally says, kindly but commandingly. Maybe because she’s raised seven kids, Mom is unflappable, the very antithesis of the nervous Jewish mother. “Tell her to pray. If she can’t pray, whisper them into her ear.” There are sounds of shifting and footsteps, and my mother lowers her voice to the dulcet whisper she used to use for lullabies. “Tell her I know that it hurts, but that she’s going to get her girl, and that every second of labor will be worth it.” Only after she hangs up do I realize that my mother had to leave the room to deliver this message. My father would never agree. In our culture, boys are the exalted ones, who become scholars and get to learn the secrets of the Torah. Boys are the unspoken preference.
On my way back from the nurses’ station, I decide to wake Jacob so that he can daven—recite the liturgical prayers—during delivery. I like him better unconscious, but Rose and the baby need him awake.
Two hours later, my sister is still pushing, amazingly with her wig still in place, although I’ve been surreptitiously lifting it at the seams to let some air in. Now there is a small, quiet army of other doctors and nurses waiting at the foot of the bed to examine the baby once it’s born. Dr. MacManus has assured us that Rose will be able to see and hopefully touch the baby, but then he or she will have to be taken to the neonatal intensive care unit right away. I can’t decide which of the new doctors I like less: the ones peering between Rose’s legs or the ones looking off into the middle distance like they would rather be doing Sudoku.
“I can see your baby’s head, Rose,” Dr. MacManus says. Rose looks up at me, groggy from the pain and exertion.
“It has a head,” she whispers, and I try not to laugh.
“I think we can get this baby out in the next three pushes,” the doctor continues, “but I need your help. I need you to give me everything you’ve got. I need you to commit to this with everything that you are, okay?” Rose nods weakly.
Everything that you are. I wonder if my sister knows everything that she is. I don’t think I do. About me, I mean. That seems like a huge secret to unlock, the type of thing that’s only revealed when you’re passing through to the afterlife. Or maybe when life is passing through you, like it is for Rose, right now. I wish Mom was here. She’s been through this. She would know exactly what to do.
“ONE,” Dr. MacManus says as a powerful contraction climbs on the monitor and Rose screams, gritting her teeth and shutting her eyes and squeezing my fingers so hard I have to stifle my own yell. And I know that this is not the best moment for me to have a philosophical crisis, but I can’t get the doctor’s words out of my head. Everything that this child is starts right now. The country, the city, the neighborhood, the block, the house—every detail of where babies are born begins to set their path in life, begins to shape them into who they’ll be. A newborn doesn’t choose its family, its race, its religion, its gender, or even its name. So much is already decided. So much is already written.
“TWO!” the doctor chants. The NICU team is putting their gloves on, ready to transfer my niece-or-nephew into what looks like a glass lasagna pan, where he-or-she will have suctioning and eyedrops and a breathing tube inserted and heart monitors applied to his-or-her perfect, brand-new tissue-paper skin. I know that these things are medically necessary given the circumstances, but I can’t help but feel sad that this is how our baby will enter the world: prodded by strangers, poked with instruments. Stay inside, baby, I think. Watch for signs of disturbance. Wait for this storm to pass.
Of course, it’s too late for that. “THREE!” Dr. MacManus says, and before I know it there’s a rush of carnation pink and Rose lets out a noise like she’s been sucker punched, and a thin, reedy baby wail cuts through the robotic thrum of the machines. My eyes fill with tears; I am suddenly overcome—verklempt, Zeidy would say, although that’s an ugly word for what this is, this beautiful, open, grateful, terrified feeling, like every nerve ending has come to the surface of my skin and been lit like Fourth of July sparklers. I want to stand up and burst into applause—people do it for all kinds of lesser miracles: when a pilot lands a plane, when a preschooler bangs tunelessly on a piano; when sweaty men manage to throw a ball into a metal hoop, so why not now? Why not for this miracle? There is life in this room. A new life. And I saw it happen.
“It’s a girl.” Dr. MacManus smiles, holding up the tiny, squalling thing, and just before she’s taken away I see that her miniature fists are balled at the sides of her face like a boxer.
She’s a fighter, my niece. At least, I hope so.
She’ll have to be.
August 28, 6:50 pm
I’ve never been in an ER before, unless I count the ones on TV. It’s kind of crazy, me growing up sixteen years in Crown Heights and never seeing the inside of a hospital. And not because of guns or gangs or anything, either—the neighborhood has become so gentrified that I’m more likely to get hit by an artisanal gluten-free scone than a bullet, let’s be real—but because the drivers speed down Bedford like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, and the bikers are even worse. People have to jump out of the way if they want to live. There’s this one delivery dude from Good Taste Chinese (don’t believe the hype; the name’s a ploy) who I swear needs to be in one
of those countless Fast & Furious movies, he’s that badass.
But I haven’t been run over by the Good Taste driver—not yet, anyway. Tonight I’m strictly on Good Samaritan duty. My best friend, Ryan, almost broke his neck hopping a tree on his skateboard. It was to impress a girl, as most stupid stunts are.
Her name is Polly. She and Ryan and me met in homeroom freshman year, in the H-I-Js (I’m Hunte, he’s Hendrick, she’s Jadhav). But then Polly—I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a perv, but she, um, grew. Sophomore year she got curvy and popular and started doing things like joining the step team and chairing dance committees, and we just kind of stopped seeing her. But it was over for me; I was smitten. I mean, a girl who can recite the periodic table of elements in order from memory and bhangra dance like her hips are spring-loaded? It’s the hot nerd jackpot. I just couldn’t manage to talk to her or do anything remotely cool in her presence. It doesn’t help that my only real hobby is kickboxing, which I do alone in my basement with a red punching bag and can’t show off unless I want to start a fistfight.
Ryan, to his credit, is my boy and has tried to help me get Polly’s attention. But he’s the kind of guy who has a natural confidence even though he’s about the same height as my thirteen-year-old twin sisters. And I just . . . don’t. When it comes to girls, I choke. And when it comes to Polly? I completely crash and burn. Like today.
School doesn’t start until next week, but today the rising juniors were supposed to go in to get their schedules and new ID photos taken. A lot of kids didn’t go because of the hurricane, but my mom’s hard line with anything school-related is that unless the building is literally locked or she’s in a coma, I’m going (and if the threatened coma ever happened, you can bet my dad would send me anyway). The Asian kids at Brooklyn Tech are under a lot of pressure from their families to do well, and it’s taken as a given, like “Oh yeah, Korean parents are crazy.” Well, West Indian parents don’t get stereotyped as much, but they’re just as intense. Maybe back on the island everyone’s dancing to Bobby McFerrin and smoking jays and getting shells braided into their hair like in some cruise brochure, but a first-generation kid in the U.S. cannot catch a break. Especially the oldest and only son. So I took an empty, dripping subway car to Nevins Street only to find that the photographer had canceled. I was one of about a hundred students who showed up. Ryan was there, too—his parents are hippies and probably wouldn’t care except he lives two blocks from school, which takes him thirty seconds on his skateboard—and lo and behold so was Polly, whose dad drove her all the way from Jackson Heights. (Mr. Jadhav seems scary like my mom when it comes to academics, but my grades are even better than Polly’s. I wonder how Indian parents feel about Caribbean boys asking their daughters out. . . .)
Getting my schedule took about two seconds, and then Ryan and I went to claim new lockers on the third floor, the junior hallway. I chose 915, the farthest locker on the left in the annex by the computer lab, since I’m left-handed and I don’t need another incident like the time I accidentally gave Jenny Ye a black eye with my elbow, and Ryan took 913. He was so excited that his skateboard fit perfectly in his locker that he almost didn’t take it home, but then stupidly I reminded him that we wouldn’t be back until Tuesday, so he stuck it under his arm and we went downstairs, taking the north staircase to the DeKalb Avenue exit, which is where we ran into Polly, which is why we stopped, which is how we saw the tree. It’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change the course of your whole day.
Like right now, instead of setting the table and making sure that Edna and Ameerah aren’t copying off each other’s homework and Tricia’s not in some neighbor’s yard getting into trouble, and Joy hasn’t gotten into Dad’s cutlass collection to play pirates again, I’m sitting between a biker-looking dude with a bloody bandage that makes his entire right hand look like a red Q-tip, and a little boy with neon-green snot crusting his nose so bad that he has to breathe through his mouth. On second thought, maybe this is an improvement.
“Okay,” yells a flustered-looking doctor with bright blue glasses, ducking out from under a curtained-off room and checking her clipboard. “Who’s here with Tony Hawkins?” I still can’t believe Ryan was stupid enough to give them his fake ID so there’d be no way the hospital could call his parents. It’s a good idea in theory (if you’re into risk-taking, which I’m not), but I know for a fact that Ryan has never once used that ID successfully, probably because in the photo he looks like he’s ten. Luckily the ER was so crowded when we got here that the nurses barely glanced at us.
I stand up, not sure what to say. I finally settle on “Uh, me?” Yeah, I’m about as smooth as chunky peanut butter.
“We relocated your friend’s shoulder,” the doctor tells me hurriedly after I wade through the crowd, trying not to step on anyone’s open wounds. “Good news is the joint was subluxed, so we were able to pop it back into place fairly easily. There isn’t any cartilage or nerve damage as far as I can tell, so he won’t need surgery.” She leads me over to the curtain and pulls it back to reveal Ryan with one arm in a sling, texting with his left hand. “What did I say, Evil Knievel?” she says, sighing. “No cell phones!” Ryan smiles sheepishly and drops it in his lap. “The bad news,” the doctor continues, “is that he cannot use his arm for at least seventy-two hours, and then he needs to see an orthopedist to get a rehabilitation assessment.” She looks at me pointedly. “I’m holding you responsible for that, because I don’t trust him as far as he can jump over a tree stump.”
I wait until she leaves and then burst out laughing. “She burned you, man!”
Ryan shrugs. “I could’ve made it if it wasn’t raining.”
“Bullshit,” I say. “You’re lucky it was only this bad. And how are you planning to explain that sling to your parents, Tony?”
“Easy,” he says with a smile. “I’m staying at your house tonight, which is what I already told them anyway.” I feel my jaw tense. I told my parents I was staying for dinner at Ryan’s house. I hate lying to them anyway, and now I’m going to have to do it again, make some excuse as to why we decided to travel two and a half miles through a dangerous hurricane to get home when they think I’m safe and sound in Fort Greene, eating Mrs. Hendrick’s quinoa salad and playing video games. The fluorescent lights above Ryan’s bed flicker, sending chills down my spine.
“You’ll still have the sling on tomorrow,” I point out, hoping I can get him to change his mind. But Ryan shakes his head, beaming. He’s already got everything figured out, like always.
“I’ll ditch the sling, say I fell off my board coming home on Eastern Parkway and felt something pop, and then I’ll go to the orthopedist next week per Dr. Ginger’s orders.” He grins and raises his good hand for a high five, while I fight the powerful urge to slap him in the face.
“Whatever, man,” I grumble, turning away. In the next room, I can hear someone getting stitches, making little ah sounds every time the needle goes in.
“What, you’re mad at me?” Ryan asks incredulously. “This was your idea.”
“You’re kidding, right? I was joking, idiot. Why do you take everything literally?” If we were on Judge Judy or something, Ryan could probably get me on a technicality. I did say, “Why don’t you go jump that tree?” but only because he kept egging me to do it. In front of Polly. I try to mimic the way my dad stares me down when he’s disappointed in me, eyes half-lidded, nostrils flared. It scares me straight each and every time. “Don’t you remember me running after you, trying to stop you?” I ask.
Ryan shrugs again. “I thought you were showing off.”
“Yeah, running into traffic is my signature move when there’s a cute girl nearby,” I joke.
“Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t mean to ruin your game.”
“No game to ruin, my friend.”
“But on the plus side, Mr. Jadhav hates you now, so you’ve got bad-boy cred.”
I have to laugh; this is true. Polly’s dad happened to arrive at the curb to pick her up just as Ryan was making his swanlike descent onto the sidewalk, which was convenient as far as rides to the hospital go, but not so convenient in terms of my chances with his daughter. “Do you know these boys?” he kept asking Polly angrily on the drive over, as if we were two homeless crackheads she found on the street. I don’t think she looked up from her lap the whole time. It was brutal.
“You’re right,” I say to Ryan. “I should be thanking you.” I reach out and bat his stupid cowlick off his forehead, the closest I can bring myself to a show of affection right now. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go call my mom and lie for you—again. Meet me outside in five minutes.”
I push through the curtain, reaching into the pocket of my jeans for my cell, and am almost at the exit when I feel my stomach slosh and realize I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a bank of elevators and decide to hop down to the cafeteria for a muffin or something before facing my mother’s third degree.
Like I said, it’s crazy how one tiny decision can spin out and change everything.
August 28, 7:30 pm
My niece’s name is Liya. Liya Sara Kleinman, after our late paternal grandmother and Jacob’s late maternal grandmother, because in our tradition it’s bad luck to name a baby after anyone living. (It’s also bad luck to announce the name of a baby girl before her simchas bas, or naming ceremony, but Rose was too excited and out of it to keep the secret from me, and I’m glad.) Liya weighs four pounds, one ounce, and is eighteen inches long, born at 7:19 pm and out of our sight by 7:20, whisked off to the incubator to keep warm and have her breathing monitored for at least a few days, until she gains another pound or so, but otherwise healthy.
“Healthy as a horse!” I report to my mother illicitly from the stairwell, lowering my voice into the receiver of Jacob’s cell, trying to imitate her trademark optimism with an idiom I don’t really understand.
“No horse in New York City looks healthy,” my mother replies wryly, but I can hear the smile in her voice.
I’m afraid that Jacob will react badly to the gender news, but instead he actually hugs me and starts jumping up and down. I take him in to see Rose, but it’s really awkward since now that Rose is yoledet, all physical contact with her husband is forbidden. (Like niddah, when a woman has her period, the idea is to keep men from being intimate with a woman when she’s “unclean,” although when the sages wrote these laws I kind of doubt they took into consideration the decidedly unromantic atmosphere of a shared hospital recovery room, especially with some stranger getting a catheter put in, one curtain down.) So I stand there fidgeting as Jacob beams at Rose and clutches his fists over his chest, and Rose raises a weak hand to her lips.
“I love you,” Jacob says, his voice surprisingly deep with emotion.
“Mmmmmm.” Rose sighs dreamily. (She needed some stitches, so they gave her painkillers.) Then a lactation consultant shows up to teach Rose how to use a frightening breast pump the size of an air conditioner, and both Jacob and I make ourselves scarce.
An hour later, Rose is asleep, Liya’s in the NICU, and Jacob has wandered off, so I’m just loitering in the hallway waiting to be useful again. Adrenaline ricochets through my exhausted shell of a body, and I’m filled with a weird energy that I’ve never felt before. It feels kind of like the time I ate a pint and a half of ice cream all by myself at Chaya Miller’s fourteenth-birthday sleepover and then watched Chaya and her best friends Rachel and Tavi do the “Single Ladies” dance, which they’d downloaded on Rachel’s older sister’s iPad: My heart was racing and blood was rushing in my hears and tingling in my toes and I felt a little bit sick but mostly exhilarated. I wish I could call Shoshana right now and tell her about Liya, about the miracle I just saw with my own eyes. I wish I could call anyone. Almost all my friends have cell phones, but my father jokes that I don’t need one because he always knows that I’m right where I should be. “You can have a phone when you start worrying me,” he says drily every time I pester him. Even Amos has a refurbished Nokia from like 2003, the kind that you can use only to talk, no Internet. But that’s because he never comes home on time, and my parents have to be able to call and yell at him even if he’s far away.
I wander through the now-empty Labor and Delivery waiting room and over to the big window that overlooks the parking lot. The sky is dark and thick, and eerily quiet—no sign of the bone-rattling winds that were blowing through when we first arrived. I wonder if we’re in the eye of the storm—the evil eye that everyone fears but no one sees. I run my fingers along a strip of duct tape and peer up through the low gray clouds, but there’s no moon, not even a hint of one. I listen to the rain drum against the glass, while on TV I hear the news anchors regret to inform me that a young man has been killed by a falling tree in Borough Park.
The rest of the floor may be deserted, but the NICU is buzzing. Through the thick glass of the window made for new parents and gawkers like me, I can literally hear the thrum of electricity. It almost looks like a regular nursery, painted a bright buttercup yellow, with a rocking chair and a few stuffed animals perched on a beanbag, but the rest of the room is filled with giant machines, mostly eight incubators lines up in two neat rows. Dr. MacManus and two of the nurses who were in Rose’s room during delivery are going from baby to baby, making notes on a clipboard chart. I crane my neck and try to find Liya, but from where I stand I can see only slivers of skin poking out of diapers and blankets, and I haven’t known her long enough to pick her out of a crowd—especially one this tiny.
One of the nurses reaches her hand into an incubator that’s glowing blue like the deep-sea life exhibit I saw last year at the Museum of Natural History. The baby inside has a bandage over its eyes; I wonder if it has any idea where it is, or if it thinks it’s still safe in the womb. The nurse smiles and begins to massage the baby’s tiny foot with her thumb, and I’m so transfixed that I hardly notice the other nurse and doctor push through the door just inches to my left.
“So you think we’re definitely going to lose it?” the nurse asks, her voice rising in panic.
“Not necessarily,” says the doctor, wiping sweat from under his scrubs cap. “But Lower Manhattan just went dark, and NYU Medical is on its backup generator.”
“Oh my God,” she whispers, and I turn my face so that they can’t see the flush in my cheeks. I’ve heard plenty of cursing, but no one in my family—no one—ever says His name in vain. At school, we’re not even allowed to write it out. We have to write G-d. (Shoshana says that if she ever becomes a famous Hasidic rapper like Matisyahu, she’s going to call herself G Dash.)
“Even in a worst-case scenario, we should be okay,” the doctor says. “But until we’re in the clear, we have to be prepared. MacManus is done with her deliveries, so she’s gonna hang out for a few hours in case we need extra hands.”
I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding. I don’t trust many strangers, but I trust our doctor. The thought that she will be with Liya fills me with relief.
“Can I help you?” The doctor has noticed me and sounds . . . not annoyed exactly, but tired. He tries to make eye contact as I search for words.
“Oh, no, thanks, I’m just looking.” This is the same line I use at the newsstand two blocks from my house, where I sometimes pretend to comparison shop for bottled water while discreetly gazing at the covers of the secular magazines, transfixed by the women with glossy hair and swollen lips and bare shoulders the color of dark honey. But now that the other nurse has gone back inside the NICU, I’m flirting with a violation of yichud by standing with a man in an otherwise empty hallway, so I take one last peek at the babies, saying a special prayer for Little Blue, and make a hasty exit.
Rose is asleep when I get back to her room, a bottle of thin yellow milk sitting on a table beside the bed alongside the red enamel mezuzah Jacob brought from home. She seems to be sleeping so deeply that her chest is barely moving, but when I lean in to kiss her forehead I can see her eyes darting back and forth under their lids, the rapid eye movement of deep dream sleep. It would be cruel to wake her, and boring to wait, so I double back through the waiting room to look for Jacob, even checking the hallway by the vending machines and poking around outside the men’s room for a few minutes just in case. (“When you don’t know what to do, walk fast and look worried,” my mother always says, and it’s the perfect advice for a hospital.) While I’m loitering by the bathrooms it occurs to me that I haven’t peed since Rose and I were doing inventory at the store nine hours ago, so I duck into the empty ladies’ room, shut myself in a stall, and savor every vanishing inch of my tights as they peel away from my legs. Even though I don’t need to, I roll them all the way to my ankles. Like Dr. MacManus said, the heat makes people do crazy things.
After I reluctantly pull up my stockings and zip up my skirt, I take a good look at myself in the mirror. I’m almost surprised to see the same face I woke up with this morning; with all the rain, sweat, and tears it’s been drenched with today, I half expected it to look older and wiser, or at least pale and gaunt from anxiety. But no— there are my cheeks, as round and pink as they were when I was three and my zeidy would pretend to take bites of them during Shabbos dinner. There are my father’s thick eyebrows and my mother’s (and Rose’s) round gray eyes and the dainty nose that Shoshana says she would pay me her allowances for ten years to trade for hers, which is larger and sports a (practically invisible, but she won’t listen to me) bump on the bridge. There are my lips, which have been touched only by people in my immediate family and might as well come in a factory-sealed cellophane wrapper. I wet my hands again and clap the cool water on my face, smoothing the rest over my unruly black curls. I may not have grown any cheekbones today, but thanks to the humidity, my hair has at least doubled in size.
I leave the bathroom and find myself facing the elevator bank, so I decide to go down to the cafeteria below the lobby floor and see if Jacob is there. At the very least maybe I can get him to buy me that ginger ale he owes me. Suddenly starving, I step into the brushed-chrome car and reach for the door-close button. As soon as my skin touches it, I swear I feel the lights flicker.
• • •
Labor and Delivery is on the fourth floor, and on the third floor (Neurology), an elderly couple gets on, smiling oddly at me the way people do when they see me, out of the context, in the summertime. Black shoes, opaque black tights, black skirt to mid-calf, white long-sleeved T-shirt with a purple cardigan . . . I wonder, as I often do, what they assume I am. I’ve gotten Amish (thanks, Anne- Marie!), goth (that one was my favorite), or “in an orchestra?” (from a five-year-old, so I took it as a compliment). On the second floor, Electrophysiology, a young nurse with close-cropped hair and yellow running shoes gets on, wearing a backpack over her pastel blue scrubs.
“My shift just ended, and I’m gonna get myself home before I’m stuck here all night,” she says brightly to no one in particular.
Between the second and ground floors, the lights dim again, and the elderly woman gasps and grabs her husband’s arm.
“I jinxed us,” the nurse says, putting a hand to her temple.
But half a minute later, the doors spring apart on the main floor, and the old couple and nurse rush off. The elevator opens directly out into the ER waiting room, and the wind is whipping against the sliding glass door so forcefully that it’s actually banging. I vaguely remember futilely pulling on that same door for Rose when we arrived, not realizing it was automatic, and how heavy it felt—like a slab of granite. For the first time I wonder how I’m possibly going to get home tonight. Both Jacob and I took cabs to the hospital, and who knows if anyone is still willing to take a fare in this weather. At least I know that Isaac and Zeidy are with my younger siblings; that my second oldest brother Niv is with his wife, Rivka, in their apartment on President Street; that Mom and Dad are safe upstate; and that Rose and Liya have doctors watching over them. I’m the only one lost at the moment, and I can’t panic yet.
It’s not until the elevator doors close again that I realize someone else has boarded. A boy, my age or a little older, who stands with his broad back to me, sinewy muscles spreading his red T-shirt tight across his shoulders, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jeans. Skin the shade of the smoky, dark chocolate hidden behind the gold foil of my Hannukah gelt. My pulse quickens. This is definitely a violation of yichud, although you can’t avoid ever being alone in an elevator with a stranger unless you’re a total freak, right? Besides, I tell myself, it’ll be ten more seconds, at most. What could happen in ten seconds?
And then the elevator stops.
And the lights go out.