Jill Wolfson

Yiddish was what they spoke when they didn't want me to understand, my family's version of spelling out words. If one grown-up whispered to another, "Es is a shandeh far di kinder" - it's a shame for the children - that was my clue to fade into the woodwork and really listen.

By the time I was fourteen I knew all the linguistic high points. "Kush en toches" meant "kiss my ass." A knish was both a vagina and a baked dumpling stuffed with liver. My quiet, plodding father - May he rest in peace! - was a nishtikeit, a nobody! When my Aunt Molly's last boyfriend dumped her, she was, in everyone's opinion, much better off. After all, she had been a minor star of the Yiddish theater, a real looker, and he was just a grosser potz, a big prick.

"Miss Jewish America," my mother said to me one afternoon. First I saw her head poking into my bedroom, a tight cap of auburn curls that drew compliments from the neighborhood mah jongg crew, then her eyes magnified behind her glasses, blue plastic frames that winged up at the corners. She was way too chipper even for her, always a sign of bad news. This was the last thing I needed. I was in a mood. I was always in a mood those days, jumping between the haze of boredom and unblunted anxiety like there was no emotion in between. I could find fault with the sky just by looking up.

Farbissen, my mother called me. Sharp and sulky. She walked in and announced, "A roommate is just what the doctor ordered."

I didn't miss a beat. "I'm not sharing my room with Aunt Molly."

"Not Aunt Molly. Aunt Micki," my mother said. "Not like the mouse. With an I. No E-Y at the end."

This threw me for a second. I didn't have an Aunt Micki.

"Molly was then," my mother explained. "Micki is now. Five letters in a name brings good fortune."

Everything in my experience told me it was wasting my time to try logic, but I heard my voice trying anyway. "But Molly already has five letters. What is she thinking?"

My mother shrugged. "She's thinking a new name will change her luck. Man thinks and God laughs."

"I'm doomed," I said.

"You're blessed!" my mother said. "To have a mother who makes things right for everyone. A real miracle worker. It runs in the family."

I groaned. The way my mother was always going on, you'd think our ancestors were great silent hermits from Tibet instead of egg candlers with motor mouths from Vineland, New Jersey. Still, I had to admit she had some kind of power going for her. My mother could pull missing items from drawers and finish my sentences for me. I swear she could see right into my future like it was all there in her compact mirror. She called it "a mother's magic." I called it suffocation.

And now there were going to be two of them. The sprawling Sisters of Always Right and Never Wrong, stretched across the landscape of my life. Our apartment was already too close, over-heated, smelling of stuffed cabbage, thick with my mother's knick-knacks: the china dogs, Chinese fans, lace doilies. She couldn't stand for anything to be alone, not even a table top. Against this, I had only my room as sanctuary. It wasn't much, a box of flocked wallpaper and orange shag carpet, but it had a lock on the door. I knew what I was going to say next was a risk, a big, big risk, but I was counting on family history. My mother couldn't possibly want her sister moving in any more than I did.

I set my jaw. "She's a bad influence. You said so yourself. A real kouvre!" It was a word I wouldn't have dared to use in English. A whore! A cunt!

My mother's face bunched and she grabbed the hairbrush from my nightstand. I cowered. I was sure she was going to hit me with it. But quick and rough, she gathered my long, heavy hair into a ponytail and began brushing. She brushed so she wouldn't hit. I could tell. She was mumbling to herself in Yiddish.

When I winced, my mother ordered, "Sit still. I'm only getting out the knots in your hair, not the ones in your mind."

When I was about seven, I asked my Aunt Molly what the Yiddish plays had been about. "Stories," she said. "Just stories. All the same."

"What kind of stories?" I nudjed.

"Story stories. The usual story. A young woman, plain and very pious of course, comes to America. The husband is a real Casper Milktoast. The baby gets sick. There's no money for medicine. There's crying, commotion, moaning to God to offer a solution, if you know what I mean. Still, this eizel, this pious little fool keeps dreaming."

"And you? Did you play the little fool?" I asked.

My mother snorted through her nose. "Imagine Molly, plain and pious! Ha!"

My aunt paid her no mind. She widened her eyes and I was sucked into them. "Never," she said. "I was always the tsatskeh." I knew enough Yiddish to translate: the sexy dame, a plaything.

"A real gezunteh moid," she added. At this point, my aunt was well into her forties, still plenty gezunteh - hearty - but now you could rest a drinking glass on the shelf of her chest. She wore pumps a size too small, her ankles spilling over the edges. Her man-sized knuckles sprouted hair.

She leaned in towards me. I could feel her breath, a gust of peppermint wind from the gum she was always chewing. "The tsatskeh!" my aunt went on. "Now, she knows how to take a big bite out of landlord cake."

My aunt traced her tongue over the curve of her upper lip. Red lipstick smeared her front teeth, as if she had really sunk them deep into the landlord's flesh. She gave a loud, juicy smack and my mother smacked her on the arm.

"Molly, hush! You don't talk to a child this way!" My mother fixed me in her gaze. "Don't listen to her."

"Listen to me. Your mother, now there was a fool."

"Big talk," my mother came back at her. "For someone without a pot to piss in."

I prepared myself for their insults and sarcasm, a performance I always enjoyed. But my aunt just set her palm on her hips, rumba style, and rocked her shoulders. She could still move like a girl, the tsatske, and in this girl, I saw everything a girl could be. Gutsy and sexy, demanding, crude, especially a little cruel. It was everything that my mother was raising me not to be.

My aunt winked at me, her eyebrow arching, her tongue clicking twice on the roof of her mouth. "That landlord. When luck comes in, give him a chair."

Over the years, my aunt's unpredictability had become as predictable as the holidays. Each time she hit the bottom of the romance barrel, everything went: hair, clothes, job, apartment. Then, in this void, she'd construct someone new. There had been Aunt Mimi, the saleslady at Lerner's Fashion Mart, who had long pitch-black hair that gleamed as unnaturally as velvet. Before that, Aunt Mitzi wore a spikey, blondish bob - her "Mitzi Gaynor" look I called it - and did the books for a dentist who never did leave his wife. Red-headed Aunt Maria (pronounced with a slight Italian flavor over the Yiddish) paraded around in a battered second-hand stole with the heads of minks, their eyes crossed, their tiny teeth exposed, draped over her shoulders.

And now her latest metamorphosis would take place in my room! What if this new Aunt Micki reeked of Jungle Gardenia? None of my other aunts had been drinkers. Alcohol was low-class, for the goyim. But what if Aunt Micki stashed whiskey bottles in my underwear drawer? Micki sounded suspiciously like an Irish name to me.

For weeks, my aunt slept fourteen hours a day, more if it was sunny. Anything bright or cheerful made her flinch as if it were hurting her physically. Then she graduated from being a zombie to being a cocoon. She sat expressionless in the living room chair, wrapped in a loose white robe. Her big, motionless body reminded me of furniture covered up for shiva, the mourning period. She placed pills on the tip of her tongue and swigged them down with lukewarm tea. It was creepy, Southern Gothic in a Philadelphia, duplex sort of way.

Bedtime was the worst. Just thinking about bedtime made me want to jump out the window right then and there. My aunt didn't toss and turn like your normal insomniac. She was in the Dracula mode, arms locked at her sides, muscles taut, eyes counting the cracks in the ceiling. I became an expert on her breathing. Shallow and rapid meant she was awake and her alertness intruded into my every pore. Night wasn't night anymore, but a series of seconds to be dreaded, suffered through, survived.

"Privacy, shmivacy! My piles bleed for you." To my mother, privacy was one of those modern necessities, like an electric can opener, one that she had done very well without. Then a shadow passed over her features and I could see her grappling with a decision. To tell or to keep her mouth shut? Finally she said, "Here is something true about your aunt. It's about the husband."

"She had a husband?" I asked. This WAS news.

"It was a genuine love story. Your aunt was only eighteen and wild about him. Such a handsome head of hair, an actor from the theater. On the honeymoon, this husband climbed on top of her. They had a good time, a nice schtup. You know this word, right? But when it was all over, there was no little kiss of appreciation. He started jerking and twitching. Your aunt had all his weight on her. She couldn't even scream."

"He croaked?" I blurted out. "Just like that?" What was the husband's name? Did he have epilepsy? How did she finally get him off her? What did this handsome head of hair play in the theater? Was he the Landlord? The Caspar Milktoast? So many questions, but I knew I better not ask them. My mother was never shy when it came to pulling out family horror stories about death or money or bladder problems. But with sex, she was never cavalier. With sex, there had to be some moral or life lesson attached. The problem was, she wasn't going to spell it out for me. This was a test, a benchmark of who I was and I had to figure it out myself.

Maybe "The Saga of the Death Schtup" was meant to scare me in that Old World way, a warning not to mess with someone who had enough power between her legs to knock off a full-grown man. Or maybe she wanted me to know that my aunt had been different once, a tsatskeh only on the stage. Or maybe she was telling me not to be so high and mighty because life plays cruel tricks on the high and mighty.

I could feel my mother measuring me, waiting for me to say the right thing. I didn't know what to say. What could I say? Finally, I came up with, "That's weird. I mean, it was a honeymoon and everything."

Her silence was so heavy, it embarrassed me. My reaction was to do what I always did when I felt stupid and lacking. I lashed out. "So, she has a license to ruin my life? Is that the point?"

My mother showed me the palms of her hands. "The point is to hear with your heart."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Pray for a miracle for her."

"I don't believe in miracles," I said.

She fluttered her hands at the wrists. "Those who don't believe in miracles are unrealistic."

I ran through the living room, pulling my new friend by the hand. Andrea was the ruthless ruler of our school solar system, and for months I had been trying to get into her orbit. Finally, I had her in my room, behind the closed door, where I could pull out all the stops. I showed her my formidable array of shoplifted lipsticks, presented an unblemished Playboy that I had stolen from an uncle.

But Andrea was the mistress of hard-to-please and everything bored her. Until she spotted my aunt's bras, which hung over the closet door like freshly plucked chickens at the butcher shop. She grabbed one, held it up to her chest. "48 triple G, at least!" she exclaimed.

We helped each other jerry-rig the elastic straps so they would fit. We stuffed the cups full of wadded up toilet paper and cotton balls, then sashayed around my room, hips swaying, whooping and braying.

"Hey landlord," I said with a thick accent. "Vant a nibble of a tasty tsatskeh?"

Andrea was laughing so hard she got the hiccups. I had to close my eyes against tears. When I opened them my aunt was framed by the doorway. She was making an odd snarling sound in the back of her throat. I don't know what my aunt saw in my eyes, but there was fire in hers, yellow flecks that made my breath catch. I knew I had locked the door. What power had allowed her to walk right through it?

"Now these..." My aunt reached for the opening of her robe and, in one swift movement, pulled it apart. Her breasts, with veins like a roadmap, hung almost to her waist. The nipples glared at me. "Now these are tsitskalehs," she said.

Andrea promised not to tell. But at school, every boy I passed pretended to masturbate with a cocktail-mixer motion. They hissed at me, "These are tsitskalehs."

I stopped complaining to my mother. I let them both think everything was fine and dandy. But all the time I was gathering power for revenge.

And then the night presented itself.

The only light in our room was the hall light coming through the crack under the door. I knew my aunt could see me because I could see her, a formless lump peeking out from under a blanket. I got out of bed, waited for her to call my name.

Nothing, not even the rustle of bed sheets.

Her bras were hanging over a chair. I took one, held it by the straps and made it dance in front of me like a marionette. I took the scissors from my desk and, in one swift movement, cut the bra in half, two yarmulkes with chinstraps, like the joke. Then I cut another and another. I put one of the cups on my head.

That's the last thing I did because she was on me. She pushed me onto the bed, yanked my head backwards, tugged ferociously at the strap around my neck.

"You should choke on it!"

I had assumed age would have weakened her muscles, so her strength came as a surprise. I tried to push myself onto my elbows, then twisted myself like a rope to get her off. It was useless. I snapped my teeth at her face.

"Tsatskeh!" she yelled.

I tried to scream but she was heavy on my chest. It was hard to breathe. Then an even more perfect revenge presented itself. Death by triple E bra strap. Let her strangle me.

I was swept away by the pleasure of martyrdom and turned my mind over to the vision of my lifeless body in a coffin. My aunt rotting away in a jail cell and begging for forgiveness. My mother, stooped and pale, soaping the mirrors for the shiva. She breaks down, pounds her chest, rips at her clothes. My mother can really mourn her head off.

Then, someone ruined everything by switching on the overhead fixture. Light exploded on my closed eyelids.

My mother refused to listen to sides. She refused to say anything other than, "Enough is enough!" I retreated to the living room couch and slept the deep, dreamless sleep of the vindicated.

When I woke the next morning, I wanted the day to be special somehow, so that it would announce the day of my victory. But it was just another Philadelphia morning, gray and dim.

They were in my room. Their voices were loud, yet I had to struggle to make out individual words. The air swallowed up the harsh Yiddish consonants.

"Da kind," my mother said. The child. That was me.

Then my aunt's voice with hard, dangerous S's.

Then silence. I didn't like the sound of that.

I tiptoed to the doorway. They were sitting on my bed, close, their backs to me, my aunt hunched with her head resting in the throne of her folded arms. "Well," my mother said sharply.

"Mom," I said. "It was attempted murder." I was trying to sound righteous, but my voice came out cold and lame, even to my own ears. "Mom!" I repeated.


She said it in an abrupt way that cut me off, that told me I should be feeling guilt and shame that I didn't feel. I watched my mother stroke the back of her sister's head. "Mom, what do you want me to do?"

Her eyes were chunks of steel. "You've already done enough. Gai!" It was a word I'd heard all my life. Go!

I turned to leave but my feet wouldn't move. I had worked hard to be cut loose from them, but now I was being sentenced to an exile so complete, so distant, that I wondered if I'd ever be allowed back. I wanted to yank my mother towards me with my two skinny arms. "Gai? Go? Go where?"

"Take your precious privacy and gai," she said. "Gai shlog dein kup en vant." Kup, head. Vant, wall. Go bang your head against a wall.

So I did.

There were shrieks. God was summoned. Got in himmel! Gottenyu!

My mother's arms were all over me, but I pushed her aside. I kept banging and banging until I was sure that we were all speaking the same language.

Jill Wolfson is a free-lance writer who has been published widely. This story previously appeared on Editor's Picks.


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