EVIE PICKED UP A SMALL, silver-framed photo and wiped away invisible dust. The groom towered over the groomsmen, his hair windblown without any wind, his smile slightly askew, big blue eyes staring and pensive. She knew it all too well, but the tug of familiarity was not déjà vu. Evie had been there before, decades earlier, with the same groom. But in this picture she was not the bride.
No one noticed Evie put back the photo or swish her hand on her pant leg, pretending now to wipe off the nonexistent dust. She walked through the crowd toward the floor-to-ceiling window. No one noticed her do that, either. Burgundy velour curtains tied back with thick, black tassels framed a six-foot, imitation pine tree. Hallmark ornaments masquerading as heirlooms dangled from its branches. Gold tinsel fringe and shiny red balls sparkled. It all seemed out of place, yet Evie knew it belonged. Probably more than she did.
Evie shook her head to clear an internal fog. It didn’t work, but certain thoughts were clear no matter how few hours she’d slept, and no matter how her head throbbed a low, steady beat. Her ex-husband had died. Her children had no father. And if she were still married, she would be a widow.
Evie had accepted that she and Richard no longer shared the same happily-ever-after, but she’d assumed that they would move forward with grace and goodwill. So what if the grace was all her doing. She and Richard would share their children’s bar and bat mitzvah, proms, graduations, weddings, and grandchildren. They’d have different partners, of course—different homes. They’d be positioned at opposite ends of the same long holiday tables, but they would continue to share Sam’s and Sophie’s milestones. After their divorce three years ago, it took Evie a full year to find her footing, twelve long months, to believe deep down she had a strong enough foundation to create a new, full life. And then, she created it.
Now the building blocks were scattered again.
She looked across the room at Nicole, who, within four years, had been Richard’s mistress, his wife, and now his widow. It wasn’t hard to imagine how she felt. The blood would have left her extremities. Her stomach would be in her throat. Her heart would ache for touch as her head searched for answers. No doubt she’d be nursing a cocktail of anger, sadness, and shock. Evie knew all this because she had mourned the same loss, but she had done it when Richard was alive.
Nicole sat barefoot on a low, wooden bench customary for sitting shiva. She slumped, arms at her sides, hair in disarray. Her daze extended beyond her personal space and touched everyone else in the room. Nicole was thirty, fifteen years younger than Evie, but the circles under Nicole’s eyes stretched to midcheek. She wore no makeup and her skin was sallow without the benefit of foundation or blush. Every mirror in the house was covered with a white sheet. Shiva was for mourning, and prayer, and, yes, food, but vanity was forbidden. And while Nicole wasn’t Jewish, she was respecting Jewish customs in the home she’d shared with Richard. Evie hated to admit it, but she admired the effort, despite the plastic cranberry-and-popcorn garland hanging above a stack of yarmulkes.
Evie sat on the couch, a black leather casualty of divorce, and stroked the worn cushion with her thumb until it burned. During the young married years, the couch was the only furniture in Evie and Richard’s living room. During the young parenting years, she and Richard sat on the couch, legs intertwined, each holding one of their twins. During the recent turbulent years, Richard sat at one end of the couch, Evie at the other, each leaning toward the farthest wall, two arms’ lengths and vacant miles between them. Why had she let Richard take the couch? The couch was a timeline, a testament, a tribute.
Or maybe it was just a couch.
Evie’s stomach growled. The shiva food remained untouched. Soon the pickles would lose their sheen, slices of lox would curl at the edges, and the tuna salad would sour. So people hovered, waiting for some official signal that it was Time To Eat. Only then would they soothe their psyches with the time-honored Jewish death fare.
“Everyone, please have something to eat,” Nicole said through a sniffle, and the crowd began grazing. She lifted six-month-old Luca from his bouncy seat and drew him to her chest. Nicole’s words and motions were fluid, as if rehearsed.
Sam and Sophie stood shoulder to shoulder, or shoulder to arm. At ten, Sophie was still taller than her twin brother, although Evie suspected that that wouldn’t last the year, since every week Sam’s pants and sleeves were getting shorter. She scooted to the middle of the cushion and the kids sat on either side, their thighs touching hers. The kids hated getting dressed up, yet here they were, in starched and pressed clothes usually reserved for Yom Kippur. Tomorrow Evie would let them wear sweats. After all, when the rabbi explained the ancient custom of kriah, tearing of clothing—or a black satin ribbon—and wearing it as a symbol of grief for an immediate family member, he never said they couldn’t wear it on a hoodie. Evie had clenched her jaw and swallowed baseball-size sobs when she’d first heard the satin ribbon rip. Then she held her breath as the pins poked through her babies-who-were-no-longer-babies’ shirts, making holes that would never truly be mended. Richard had once been Evie’s immediate family as well, but the space over her heart remained empty.
As people passed on their way to the buffet, some glanced at Evie. Most never looked at or spoke to Sam or Sophie, but some closed their eyes and nodded as if it made her fatherless children invisible.
Was that the point?
A brave few extended their hands and said or mouthed, “I’m sorry.” Others patted one twin’s head or the other’s. Richard’s Uncle Abe pulled a quarter out from behind Sam’s ear, and then Sophie’s. They were too old to be dazzled, but they smiled and so did Evie.
Sidestepping the hungry mob, Nicole inched her way to Evie. With Luca in one arm, Nicole rustled Sam’s already-messy blond hair, touched Sophie’s chin with her fingers, held the baby’s back, and bounced. Nicole stood six inches from Evie’s knees, abrasive electricity between them.
“Can we go watch TV?” Sam asked. He cocked his head to the side and smiled, wrevealing his overbite, inherited from Richard.
“Please?” Sophie said, wringing her hands as if she wanted to download more songs onto her iPod or have extra minutes on the computer.
“Are you sure?” Evie said. Her instinct was to tighten her grip on their arms.
“Yes,” the twins said, nodding.
“Oh, okay, go!” Evie said. She squeaked in an effort to match their enthusiasm but her voice quavered.
Sam and Sophie stomped down the stairs to the rec room Richard had built for his second family, unlike Evie’s unfinished laundry-room closet and the half-built shed in her backyard. She felt light without them touching her. It was a welcome reprieve, but laced with yearning.
Evie looked up at Nicole and patted the warm, indented cushion. “Do you want to sit?”
Nicole shook her head. “I just wanted to say … I’m glad you and the kids are here. I wish it were different, but we should be together at a time like this.”
Just two more days of shiva and Evie’s time like this was over. She ached to escape the sights, sounds, and smells of death by rinsing them away with lavender bath soap in her oversize tub, holding her breath, dipping below the surface, bubbles dissipating around her, each pop-pop-pop taking away a little of the day, the weekend, the sadness. The scene wouldn’t play out that way if she were home, but the daydream seemed harmless. Sam and Sophie had sobbed when Evie mentioned going home early. Richard’s house may have been their every-other-weekend house, but the beige-brick Georgian held the most recent dad-memories under its vaulted ceilings. They needed to be inside this house and inside this life for a little bit longer—two days longer. Evie needed those days to figure out what was next for all three of them.
“I wanted to thank you for coming,” Nicole said. “And for organizing everything. There’s so much food, and I heard more is coming tomorrow. I hope you’ll take leftovers.”
Evie wouldn’t take anything, but nodded to be polite. Nicole twisted at the waist over and over again, as if stretching to exercise. It made Evie dizzy.
“You don’t have to worry about the food, everyone chipped in,” she said, in case that was causing the twisting. She diverted her eyes to the half-empty lox tray on her limited horizon. A lot of food was left, but Jews fed people. That’s what we do. It’s written somewhere in an ancient scroll: “Thou shalt not let anyone leave thy house hungry.” “Everyone chipped in.” Evie knew it was a mitzvah—a commandment—to console the bereaved. And nothing was more consoling than nova.
“That’s so generous.” Nicole stopped swiveling but now shifted from one foot to the other as if she needed to use the bathroom. The fidgeting made Evie want to find Nicole’s off-switch. “This is sort of like a wake in reverse,” Nicole said. “Wakes come before funerals and there’s usually an open casket, you know?” Nicole’s cheeks appeared sucked in and hollow; her eyes drifted to a spot on the wall.
Evie squinted and searched for a smudge, a spot, a spider. Nothing. She had nothing else to say.
Baby Luca popped his head from Nicole’s shoulder. He blinked and turned his face toward Evie with one creased, pink cheek and watery eyes. With the palm of her hand, Nicole traced a zigzag on his back. She kissed his sweaty head. “Can we talk more another time?”
“Okay.” Evie said. If we must.
In the kitchen, the Shiva Brigade rallied. Evie watched with awe as they took the reins. Her next-door neighbor and best friend, Laney, played traffic cop—arms flying, fingers pointing. Laney turned away from the food and gathered her long, auburn curls into a ponytail. She preferred her hair down around her shoulders because it balanced her hips. Laney with a ponytail meant serious business.
Beth shimmied through the crowd. She lived on the other side of Evie and boasted a short, brown bob and petite frame. Her penchant for Lilly Pulitzer and Miss Manners anchored the best-friend trio in suburban sensibilities, which was annoying and endearing. Beth hung winter coats in the closet but arranged the furs by color and length over the oak banister. She primed the non-Jewish guests on shiva, officially the seven-day mourning period, although they’d condensed it to three. A martinet for protocol, Beth put her hands on her knees and whispered in the ears of anyone who sat on the wooden benches, and they moved to softer ground. She had positioned Laney’s teenage daughters inside the front door to ensure that guests, upon approaching the house, washed their hands outside, rinsing away death. The pitcher of warm water had already been refilled twice. While on the move, Beth whisked her smartphone out of her quilted purse and used the voice recorder to note the names of everyone who entered with food, whether homemade or store-bought, and the few names of those who brought nothing, unless their names were included on the list for the lox tray. She did all this while combining cream-cheese containers and arranging a plate of kugel.
Evie read Laney’s lips from across the room.
“You never go to a shiva house empty-handed,” Laney said to Beth as she stacked bakery boxes on Nicole’s kitchen counter.
Laney saw the world in black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Evie’s life was shades of gray. Like her hair.
Evie’s almost-black, wavy hair with its questionable roots hung past her shoulders in an attempt-to-be-trendy array of scattered layers. Her sweeping bangs weren’t doing any sweeping, they were just hanging.
The kids were smart to hightail it out of there. Evie didn’t want to talk to anyone either, but she was content to people-watch. Richard’s cousins from Cleveland huddled in the corner; the older aunts and uncles who migrated to Florida sat in a semicircle talking louder than they should. Neighbors Evie last saw on Halloween and their mutual grad-school friends who were strangers outside e-mail mingled with Pinehurst College faculty and Richard’s Ohio State fraternity brothers he had not seen since graduation. Why did they come? For themselves? Richard? The kids? Nicole? For memories? It didn’t matter. They were equal when gathered for sadness. But their presence was also akin to a gapers’ delay on the tollway, where everyone slowed to see the pileup and then floored it to get away.
* * *
“Not exactly the scenario she planned when she snagged herself a married man and had a baby,” Laney said behind a sesame bagel. She eyed her husband. Herb furrowed his brow and sucked in his lips, trapping his words. Laney winked at him and a smile broke through Herb’s full lips and mustache. He put his arm around Laney’s waist. Evie squelched a gasp. This was normally where Laney would feign an itch on her ankle and step away, but she didn’t move, except closer to Herb. Evie watched her friends and counted. One, two, three. She gave it more time. Four, five, six. Flabbergasted, Evie continued. Seven, eight, nine. And with a deep breath—the finale … ten. Laney did not move away. Richard’s death had initiated a truce.
Evie watched Laney as Laney watched Herb. He kissed Laney’s head and walked away. Laney then moved to the couch close to Evie, even though Laney could have claimed a whole cushion for herself. She was protective; almost possessive. Beth sat on the other side of Laney, bagel-less, a more suitable space between them. Beth put her arm around Laney and extended it, patting Evie’s back.
“This is so sad,” Beth said.
Laney sat taller, even though she was already the tallest. She flared her nostrils in disapproval. “Don’t you dare feel bad for her. What goes around comes around,” Laney said with a bagel bite in her mouth. Laney’s shoulders relaxed and she glanced from Beth to Evie. “At least you don’t have to deal with her anymore. Or the baby.”
Evie hadn’t been thinking about Nicole. She’d been thinking about her kids without a father. Herself without an ex-husband. How dare Richard leave her to raise the twins alone—not just sometimes alone—and to juggle a half brother and a stepmother and a Christmas tree! But was Laney right? Was that the silver lining? Would Sam and Sophie even have a stepmother? It would make things easier if they did not. But only easier for Evie. Damn conscience.
“Your kids will be okay no matter,” Beth said, as if reading Evie’s mind. That possibility was comforting as well as disconcerting because Evie craved more than okay. Evie craved normal.
Laney turned ninety degrees, faced her friends, and pointed at Evie, which startled her out of her daze. “Ms. Evie Glass,” she said as if taking attendance, “you are now a divorced mom with a dead ex-husband. JDate will never be the same.”
Beth hung her head and, without looking up, smacked Laney’s finger. Evie didn’t need JDate and Laney knew it. Evie had been dating Scott Miller every other weekend for the past six months, and when the kids were with Evie and she couldn’t see Scott, they e-mailed, texted, and talked on the phone late at night. They’d just come back from a weekend in Michigan. That meant something. Evie just wasn’t sure what.
* * *
After the rabbi led the evening minyan and finished the service with the traditional Kaddish prayer, Beth and Laney wrapped their arms around Evie in the tightest group hug three people could give. The rocking motion enveloped her in safety, staving off death and Christmas folderol. Then, a shadow blocked the overhead light. The jumbled group separated. There stood Scott with a plate of rugelach.
From that angle, he looked tall to Evie, but he was Jewish five-nine, which meant five-seven—something Evie learned quickly when she started online dating. He held a Christmas paper plate filled with Evie’s favorite—the two-bite, flaky, rolled cookies filled with chocolate bits or raspberry jam or nuts or apricot preserves. They had been her grandmother’s, Bubbe’s, specialty.
Though sweets seemed counterintuitive for mourning, everyone reached into the plate. Evie reached instead for Scott’s other hand and noticed his nails, clean, trimmed and buffed as always. He was her man of the moment and foreseeable future. The boyfriend label seemed childish, and the significant other moniker seemed, well, too significant.
“This is Beth and Laney,” Evie said, pointing with her chin so she didn’t have to let go of the rugelach, or of Scott. For three years—The Divorced Years—Evie had kept her random dating escapades distant from her kids, her friends, and her pristine Chicago suburb of Lakewood. But the best-friend trio had agreed—it was time for Beth and Laney to meet Scott. He was a gentleman, a banker’s banker with a receding hairline, an ex-wife in California, but no kids. He made Evie laugh and think and he was great in bed. Evie pointed to the last rugelach, but he shook his head. Such a mensch. Any man who gave up the last rugelach must be a keeper.
Evie smiled up at him and squeezed his hand. He smiled, but he didn’t squeeze back.
“This is Scott,” Evie said, releasing the plate onto her lap. She didn’t know what else to say.
“We met at the funeral,” Beth said. “Nice to see you again. Well, you know what I mean.”
Laney nodded in agreement.
“Sure, same here,” said Scott, taking his place on a separate cushion, keeping his physical distance, but watching Evie, never averting his eyes. He looked as if he were in a trance, so that meant he was either riveted or bored. To Evie, everything and everyone was tired-blurry. She blinked hard in lieu of rubbing her eyes, even though she had on no makeup. Evie pointed out her parents and sister. Laney named each Lakewood friend and foe. For Laney there were always foes.
“Where are your in-laws?” Scott said. “I mean, your ex-in-laws?”
“Richard’s parents died young,” Beth whispered. She mouthed the word cancer. “He was an only child.”
“That’s his great-aunt and -uncle over there,” Evie said. “I don’t think I’ve seen them since the wedding.” That wasn’t very nice. They were old. She and Richard should have visited them. Or invited them to Lakewood. Paid for the plane ticket. Yes, they—Richard—should have done all those things and much more.
“Which ones belong to the widow?” Laney said.
That was a good question. Where was Nicole’s family? Evie knew almost everyone. Where were the strangers? The other side of Richard’s new family? The new friends that went with the new life? Evie shrugged. “No clue.”
“They must be here somewhere.” Scott looked around the room without moving his head, his eyes appearing to follow a bouncing ball.
“I don’t think so.” Evie scanned the crowd in more of a tennis-match movement, quick and side to side. Frantic to find the missing members of Nicole’s family, Evie looked around the room. Had they been there all along, lost in the crowd, unseen because they weren’t being sought? No. There were sitters and standers and leaners. The real helpers, the pretend helpers, and the ones who had no intention of helping. The grazers, the pilers, the pickers. The Christmas sweaters. The Christmas sweaters might be Nicole’s family, but then why weren’t they cuddling Luca or bringing Nicole cups of grief tea? A subtle awareness tugged at Evie as if a memory, or facts, were just out of reach. She pushed aside the thought. She could ask Nicole about her family later, if Evie remembered.
* * *
As the shiva crowd thinned, Evie’s parents and sister carried wooden kitchen chairs and placed them near the couch, joining the elite group of leftover mourners. Shirley, Evie’s mother, looked at her watch and then raised her eyebrows. Laney then looked at her watch.
“When are you going home?” Laney said to Evie.
“You’ve done enough, Evelyn,” Shirley said, shaking her head. “You don’t need to be here any longer.”
“I’ll stay till the kids are tired. They want to be here.”
“It’s time for you to go home,” Evie’s dad, Bob, said. “This doesn’t make sense, staying here, helping out. Enough is enough.” He remained standing and crossed his arms.
“We’ll come back with you tomorrow, promise,” Lisa, Evie’s sister, said. She was only eighteen months younger, but Lisa was a divorced, no-kids D.C. attorney with a town house in Georgetown who wore yoga pants only to do yoga and washed her hair even if she wasn’t leaving the house. She scoffed at the well-married, luxury-minivan-driving, stay-at-home soccer moms of Lakewood, but never lumped Evie into the same category.
“The kids just want to stay longer.” Evie dumped her empty plate into a passing trash bag carried by one of her neighbors. Maybe she should have used a doggie bag, but instead she checked her fingers and lap for rugelach crumbs and popped a few sweet escapees into her mouth. “Please don’t make this harder for me.”
Evie’s parents and Lisa left for Evie’s house. They’d take care of the dog and stay up late discussing her fate, which they’d undoubtedly share with her in the morning. She couldn’t wait.
As if lights had blinked indicating it was time for everyone to go, neighbors hugged Evie good-bye. Acquaintances touched her shoulder. Strangers nodded in her direction. She was glad to have them all graveside and then back at Nicole’s; the hum of their voices and their buzz of activity kept her thoughts in the present. She knew that for most, a death gathering mirrored a one-night stand—gratifying, brief, and tinged with regret. Evie envied their right to keep moving when her own feet were stuck to the floor. Tomorrow other families might be ice-skating in Millennium Park and then searching the Cloud Gate sculpture—The Bean—for their frozen, bundled reflections. Her family would not.
Her family. For three years, Evie had defined family as her and Sam and Sophie. And for Evie, that still held true. But the shape and breadth of her children’s family had changed forever. Nothing for them would ever be the same, which meant nothing would be the same for Evie. Again. She inhaled deeply, the air snagging in her lungs, then exhaled to make sure she could.
The twins walked to the couch and in silence took their designated places on either side of Evie. They leaned their heads on their mother’s shoulders and wrapped their arms around her torso, and each other. When the twins were babies and toddlers, they both climbed into her lap at the same time. Evie knew if they did that now, her lap would still have been the right size, because a mother’s lap is always the right size. She kissed each of them on the head, and simultaneously each child took one of her hands, squeezed tight, and held on, as if they might fall.
Evie needed to find her footing again and find it fast. Because if she stumbled, they all would come tumbling down.
A cold wind whipped into the living room. A chill sped down Evie’s spine as if a snowball had struck the back of her neck. She shivered, turned her head, and noticed Scott leaning by the open front door. His camel cashmere overcoat buttoned to his neck, hands in his pockets, his head tilted and resting on the doorjamb in a classic GQ pose. Scott winked at her. Evie smiled and closed her eyes in silent gratitude.
When she opened them, he was gone.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Nathan Gropper